Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

HARRY LEVIN: Literature as an Institution*

1
THE CONTRIBUTION OF TAINE

LITERATURE is the expression of society, as speech is the expression of man." In this aphorism the Vicomte de Bonald summed up one of the bitter lessons that the French Revolution had taught the world. With the opening year of the nineteenth century, and the return of the Emigration, coincided a two-volume study by Madame de Staël: De la Littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales. This was not the first time, of course, that some relationship had been glimpsed. Renaissance humanism, fighting out the invidious quarrel between ancient and modern literatures, had concluded that each was the unique creation of its period, and had adumbrated a historical point of view. Romantic nationalism, seeking to undermine the prestige of the neo-classic school and to revive the native traditions of various countries, was now elaborating a series of geographical comparisons. It was left for Hippolyte Taine--in the vanguard of a third intellectual movement, scientific positivism--to formulate a sociological approach. To the historical and geographical factors, the occasional efforts of earlier critics to discuss literature in terms of "moment" and "race," he added a third conception, which completed and finally eclipsed them. "Milieu," as he conceived it, is the link between literary criticism and the social sciences.

Thus Taine raised a host of new problems by settling an old one.

When Taine's history of English literature appeared, it smelled--to a contemporary reader, Amiel--like the exhalations from a laboratory. To that sensitive Swiss idealist, it conveyed a whiff of "the literature of the future in the Amer. ican style," of "the death of poetry flayed and anatomized by science." This "intrusion of technology into literature," as Amiel was shrewd enough to observe, is a responsibility which Taine shares with Balzac and Stendhal. As Taine self-consciously remarked, "From the novel to criticism and from criticism to the novel, the distance at present is not very great." Taine's critical theory is grounded upon the practice of the realists, while their novels are nothing if not critical. His recognition of the social forces be. hind literature coincides with their resolution to embody those forces in their works. The first to acknowledge Stendhal as a master, he welcomed Flaubert as a colleague and lived to find Zola among his disciples. "When M. Taine studies Balzac," Zola acknowledged, "he does exactly what Balzac himself does when he studies Père Grandet." There is no better way to bridge the distance between criticism and the novel, or to scrutinize the presuppositions of modern literature, than by a brief reconsideration of Taine's critical method.

A tougher-minded reader than Amiel, Flaubert, noted in 1864 that--whatever the Histoire de la littérature anglaise left unsettled--it got rid of the uncritical notion that books dropped like meteorites from the sky. The social basis of art might thereafter be overlooked, but it could hardly be disputed. Any lingering belief in poetic inspiration could hardly withstand the higher criticism that had disposed of spontaneous generation and was disposing of divine revelation. When Renan, proclaiming his disbelief in

____________________
*
"Literature as an Institution" first appeared in Accent, Spring 1946, and is an abridged version of the Introduction to Mr. Levin study of the novel, The Gates of Horn, to be published by the Oxford University Press. It is reprinted here by permission of Mr. Levin, Mr. Kerker Quinn, and the editors of the Oxford University Press. Mr. Levin (b. 1912) is the author of The Broken Column: A Study of Romantic Hellenism ( 1931) and James Joyce: A Critical Introduction ( 1941), and editor of The Selected Works of Ben Jonson ( 1938) and The Portable James Joyce ( 1947).

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