When the word was all that mattered

A History of Literary Criticism
November 9, 2006

Gary Day is impressed by a novel survey of the changing views of the value of literature before commerce became king of culture

Literary criticism began in the 18th century. Before then the concept of literature, let alone criticism, hardly existed. It is true that from Plato to Milton we can find discussions about reading and writing, but no one thought of literature in the way that some of us still do today - as a work that contains within itself the reason why it is what it is and no other thing. The word "poetry" was used to describe what we now call literature, and the poet was a revered member of the polity. It was he who, by his eloquence, drew men from the state of nature into society, celebrated the warrior chief's victories, and whose rhetoric was a foundation for political debate. As if that were not enough, poetry also refined the language, imparted a knowledge of the past and inspired noble actions.

Plays, which were a species of poetry, could even bring criminals to justice. The Renaissance dramatist Thomas Heywood recounts the tale of a Norfolk woman who was startled into confessing that she had murdered her husband after watching a play on the same theme. The technique was used most famously in Hamlet when the prince declares: "The play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

But then there is this little thing called history. The growth of trade, the rise of science, the decline of rhetoric and the withdrawal of royal patronage all reduced poetry's role in making the world a better place. And when John Locke and Thomas Hobbes reversed centuries of thinking by saying that it was not poets who had led men out of the state of nature but their desire to protect themselves and their property, there was nothing left for the garlanded ones to do but squat on their rotting laurels.

Well, not quite. For we have now reached the Enlightenment. Poetry is absorbed into the wider category of literature, which means imaginative writing rather than a knowledge of letters, while criticism is burdened with the task of defining literary value now that poetry has reached the end of its socially useful life. There is a sense of adventure in the air, a feeling of exhilaration as 18th-century men and women breathe the future.

There is faith that education will free them from superstition, that it will help them to develop their capacities to appreciate the best that culture had to offer. Almost single-handedly Matthew Arnold carries that dream into the 19th century and F. R. Leavis is the last to utter it in the 20th. It now lies in ruins. We defer to superstition and dismiss as elitist any questioning of the quality of popular culture.

This is not the conclusion to M. A. R. Habib's magnificently comprehensive history of literary criticism. Authoritative, formidable, generous and compassionate, it is the first book since William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks's Literary Criticism: A Short History (1957) to give, in one volume, an overview of the subject. Like them, Habib tells his story by summarising the thought of key figures but, unlike them, he locates these figures in the wider context to underline his belief that the study of literature cannot be separated from other social and political developments. Like them, he situates his history in relation to the present but, unlike them, he extends the remit of criticism to "rock concerts and news presentations". And, where Wimsatt and Brooks are concerned with the nature of value, Habib is concerned with how we might apply the insights of a "host of thinkers to analyse the nature of democracy".

Habib's method is to give us the background to a period before moving on to consider its criticism. His account of the 20th century therefore starts with a roll call of the major events of the period - the Great War, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and so on - before turning his attention to psychoanalytical criticism, formalism, structuralism, deconstruction, feminist criticism, reader response and reception theory - it is exhausting just reading the contents.

Habib's achievements are many, but two stand out. The first is the putting of theory into historical perspective and the second is to make connections between criticism and philosophy. We do not just learn about the different parts of rhetoric, we learn about how it was affected by the end of the Roman republic and the establishment of imperial rule. We do not just learn about the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, we also learn of his connections to Freud, Plato and others. Thus, while Schopenhauer believed that sexuality was the driving force of the will to live, he also sought relief from the misery of existence in poetry and philosophy, which give us a glimpse of "the permanent unity underlying the ever-changing flux of phenomena, the One behind the Many". Anyone who dips into this book will add to their stock of knowledge, refine their understanding and have a more just appreciation of "our literary-critical heritage". Habib must have spent years on this project. And it is time well spent.

But inevitably there are reservations. First, there is too much material and not enough argument. This is a flaw if, as Habib is, you are making a case for the unique contribution of literary criticism to the shaping of politics, education and economics. What light, exactly, will a knowledge of the medieval commentary tradition throw on the modernisation of the health service? Second, there is no guiding concept of criticism that magnetises all the different ideas and insights with which the book abounds. This is partly to do with the term criticism itself, which embraces everything from the meaning of words to the nature of man, but it is precisely because of the diffuseness of the term that it needs some controlling definition.

Third, Habib has a rather idealistic view of what literary critics can accomplish. Their knowledge of the distinction between literal and figurative writing may very well "facilitate analyses of the Koran and the various texts of Islam", but I doubt that will make any difference to its fundamentalist adherents.

And for all Habib's desire to place criticism in context, he fails to grasp that the subordination of education to the so-called needs of the economy is what truly determines its character. He says that the "skills fostered by our diverse and rich critical heritage are not to be insulated within academia". Well, they are not. The language of academia is now the language of business. The continuity that Habib seeks between criticism and the public sphere already exists, but not in the way he would like. All literary critics seem to think that if you read, say, Jane Eyre in just this way you will cure cancer and bring about world peace. That is why so few people pay any attention to them.

The most we can hope for from students' encounters with literature is that they are jostled out of cliche and startled into a new awareness of language. But Habib can be forgiven for exaggerating the importance of literary criticism when he has given such a wonderful and well-written history of it. What a pity its price is such that few will be able to enjoy it.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

A History of Literary Criticism

Author - M. A. R. Habib
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 838
Price - £95.00
ISBN - 0 631 23200 1

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