Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Fear of Theory

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Fear of Theory

Article excerpt

The fear that literary theory inspires needs to be explained. One cannot deny that this fear is very real, since most current discussions of literary theory echo doubts about its usefulness, or question whether a separate theory is needed for literature alone. (1)

The first position implies that the practice of the texts is quite enough. It seems to assume that conscious reading will blossom forth into evaluative criticism. For such to be enlightened criticism, taste and a sense of tradition should suffice, together, perhaps, with an open-minded readiness for the future (which more often than not means an ability to identify in that future echoes of the past, or a promise to return to it). Sensibly enough, this practice leans on the crutch of philology. Moreover, it expects literary history to provide the diachronic dimension and supply the means to detect influences, account for readers' awareness of genres, and even, perhaps less prudently, justify aesthetic tenets of imitatio, originality, revolution versus evolution, and so forth.

Halfway between this opposition to theory per se and the denial of a need for a theory ad hoc, a not inconsiderable school hopes to find in history itself a contextualization of literature, the need for which is assumed to be obvious enough to require no theoretical underpinnings. The reluctance of tradition-bound humanities scholars to welcome theory is easy to understand. Theorizing rests on principles clearly alien to the spirit and to the traditional approaches followed in the humanities.

Alien to the spirit: the role of the humanities is to preserve a tradition in order to better inform the present and to prepare the future. The liberal humanist teaches what is appropriately called a discipline, attempting to maintain a culture and a social consensus, by linking the concept of literacy to the concept of canon. It is only natural that the humanist should fear precisely that approach that questions the validity of a canon, or of oriented readings of that canon.

Alien to the approaches: theory entails a systematic interrogation of entrenched habits. This has led to its relentless attacks against the wrongs still practiced in the humanities: the importance attached to intention, the reduction of the work of art to its author's concept of it, the unquestioned assumption that literature mirrors reality without any mediation (for if it were otherwise, fiction and symbolism--we are asked to believe--could hot provide students with ethical lessons). Hence a counterattack meant to privilege the event, the actual instances rather than the laws that account for their formation. A still deeper rift results from the humanist's inability to translate the descriptive into the normative without the mediation of value judgments. This, of course, is the province of criticism, and while theory can pinpoint or foresee those elements of a text that will trigger evaluations, it cannot comment upon the content or validity of such evaluations. Theory can tell whether or not a text is literature, but not whether it is bad or good literature, for these evaluations correspond to the third stage of the hermeneutic process, the subtilitas applicandi, (2) and that stage is manifest only within the reader, thus historically localized and defined. It remains outside of the text because it is the nature of the text to transcend or survive such localizations.

Furthermore, theory's aim, to go beyond the individual and the particular, and to seek to discover general features, is basic to the study of human behavior, and that applies preeminently to literature. But even this elementary statement offers grounds of conflict or of disagreement with the humanities. Within the humanities, literature is the domain in which beauty is allied to truth. Teaching literature in the humanities, therefore, provides an alternative to experience, a faster, less painful way to learn about lire. …

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