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Criticisms of criticisms

January 5, 2012

It is clear that the absence of systematic criticism has created a power vacuum, and all the neighboring disciplines have moved in. Hence the prominence of the Archimedes fallacy mentioned above: the notion that if we plant our feet solidly enough in Christian or democratic or Marxist values we shall be able to lift the whole of criticism at once with a dialectical crowbar. But if the varied interests of critics could be related to a central expanding pattern of systematic comprehension, this undertow would disappear, and they would be seen as converging on criticism instead of running away from it.
–Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

Almost everyone worth reading says literary criticism should begin with the literature, not with a system we’re going to apply to the literature. Also everyone worth reading says that everyone else fails to do this. Yet somehow Frye thinks an objective/systematic/scientific literary criticism might be possible.

One of my professors today called New Criticism “a Matthew Arnold-derived concept of criticism as education in urbanity.” I hadn’t heard that one before. It’s rather unfair to the New Critics at their best but does capture some of what went wrong with it. On the other hand I’ve always seen its main goal as describing in what sense the work depends on its context, in what sense it exists as an independent entity, and in what sense it points outside of itself.

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