The Modern Critical Spectrum

The Modern Critical Spectrum

The Modern Critical Spectrum

The Modern Critical Spectrum

Excerpt

Most students of literature, if asked to say how modern criticism differs from earlier criticism, would probably reply in some such fashion as this: "Oh, you mean the so-called 'New Criticism.' Well, practitioners of it are preoccupied with the formal characteristics of a play, poem, or novel. They are not as concerned as earlier critics were with the writer or with the audience. In fact, citing a writer's stated intention has been called the 'intentional fallacy' and a preoccupation with audience reactions has been called the 'affective fallacy.' Modern criticism concentrates on the work of art itself."

Meyer Abrams, in The Mirror and the Lamp, has said that there are four approaches to critical theory. One is the theory of mimesis. Plato and Aristotle assumed that a play was an imitation of an action. It was not his- tory. Literary criticism up to the eighteenth century accepted this theory without question. The second, the pragmatic theory, emphasizes the audi- ence. For example, Aristotle's doctrine of catharsis, the purging of pity and fear, concerned the audience. Literary criticism throughout the Christian era stressed the audience's response to the literary work. Horace stressed both the word beauty and the word utility. The third, the expressive theory, held the largest appeal for the Romantic period. It had to do with the poet's imagination, his moral nature, and it led to such a dictum as "Style is the man." The fourth, the objective theory, emphasizes the work itself. Cleanth Brooks's doctrine of "irony," about the nature of poetic language, is objective. And Mark Schorer's dictum, "Style is the subject," implies an acceptance of the objective theory.

Mr. Abrams says the four theories collectively endeavor to explain "the total situation of a work of art." It is true that currently a great many articles are written which examine the "structure" of a play, poem, or short story; which trace patterns of imagery, or reveal the meanings of key sym- bols. Classroom examinations of literary texts, modeled on the famous Brooks and Warren Understanding Poetry, tend to take this line. A reader is encouraged to be aware of aesthetic properties, formal elements, and arrangements of a work of art. It is an approach which invites a sophisticated reading of a text.

Yet it would be an error to say, as we sometimes do, that modern literary criticism is almost exclusively objective. There is too much evidence to the . . .

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