This post is from a letter I wrote a friend as part of correspondence we had in 2011 that touched on the purposes of literary criticism.
One of the things I love about [literary critic George] Steiner is how the development and state of language, and even the act of reading, are ultimately moral issues for him. People who genuinely love Shakespeare can commit atrocities of twentieth century magnitude, he asserts. So we have to be affected by what we read. One of my favorite lines from one of the Language & Silence essays (“To Civilize our Gentlemen”):
In I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism we find the following:
The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well. If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet’s fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.
To which the answer should be: No, we have become men.
He sees a link between Calvinism and historicism (and positivism) in the field of literature that Harry Jaffa seems to intuit in the field of political science (and of course Steiner has lots to say about the relationship of literature and politics). Calvinists and historicists (strange bedfellows . . .) don’t recognize what one might call a divine spark in human nature, and so projects such as self-government and even humanity (humane, human-ness) become impossible. (This is the irony of Calvinism, to me.)
Steiner seems to have struggled long and hard with his calling. He is a critic who in some essays seems almost to apologize for his calling’s existence. But that struggle, I think, won him a clearer notion of what a true critic does than I have yet read anywhere else. (I celebrate his understanding of criticism, but I celebrate his own humanity even more, which gives me hope that my own struggle with the inconsistencies of writing and silence, while they may never make articulated sense, may transform something in me one day.) He thinks good criticism can “show us what to reread, and how.” (There are a lot of books out there; lots of first reads, even, to choose a second from among . . .) ”Secondly, criticism can connect. In an age in which rapidity of technical communication in fact conceals obstinate ideological and political barriers, the critic can act as intermediary and custodian.” And the third purpose makes a helpful distinction between a reviewer and a good critic:
There is a distinction between contemporary and immediate. The immediate hounds the reviewer. But, plainly, the critic has special responsibilities toward the art of his own age. He must ask of it not only whether is represents a technical advance or refinement, whether it adds a twist of style or plays adroitly on the nerve of the moment, but what it contributes to or detracts from the dwindled reserves of moral intelligence. What is the measure of man this work proposes?
And the final defense of lit crit in this same essay (“Humane Literacy” (1963)):
Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted. It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight. Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary. But it has never counted more. Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.
I just want to stand up and shout.
I love what you say about practicing lit crit before embarrassing ourselves in public, and I think Steiner is with us there, too:
. . . what the critic hopes for is a qualified assent, a “Yes, but . . ” which will compel him to reexamine or refine his own response and lead to fruitful dialogue. . . . No less than an artist — indeed, more so — the critic is in need of a public. Without it the act of ideal reading, the attempt to re-create the work of art in the critical sensibility is doomed to becoming arbitrary impression or mere dictate. There must exist or be trained within the community a body of readers seeking to achieve in vital concert a mature response to literature. Only then can the critic work with that measure of consent which makes disagreement creative. Language itself is the supreme act of community. The poem has its particular existence in a “third realm,” at a complex, unstable distance between the poet’s private use of words and the shape of these same words in current speech. To be realized critically the work of literature must find its complete reader; but that reader (the critic) can only quicken and verify his response if a comparable effort at insight is occurring somewhere around him.
(From his essay “F. R. Leavis.”) It reminds me of Calvino’s and Walter Ong’s thoughts on the reader’s essential role in creation.