Criticism vs. Ideology

By Folks, Jeffrey | Modern Age, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Criticism vs. Ideology


Folks, Jeffrey, Modern Age


James Seaton's Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: The Humanistic Alternative is a much-needed reassessment of the two major traditions of Western literary criticism. In the Platonic tradition, Seaton detects a pervasive impulse to arrive at controlling and authoritative ideas. Whether in Plato's condemnation of the poets in The Republic or in the Neoplatonic elevation of literature to an unassailable role in cultural debate, the Platonic tradition has tended to separate literature from the ordinary experience of human beings and thereby, all too often, to enlist it in the support of extremism and intolerance. By contrast, those in the Aristotelian tradition have been less willing to view literature in ideological terms. As Seaton writes, they "assume that poetry and literature in general are sources of insight into human life but have no special access to metaphysical or theological knowledge" (28). In his survey of criticism from the ancients to the postmoderns, Seaton explores the lasting significance of this distinction.

What Seaton undertakes is not, as his title might suggest, a study of the entire span of Western critical thought from Plato to the present. Rather, it is a brief review of the two traditions followed by a more detailed assessment of contemporary criticism. In what it attempts, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism is an incisive and original work, and while few will agree with all that Seaton has to say, the author's overriding argument is nonetheless compelling. The absolutism that he traces to Plato, and that is associated with the names of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ezra Pound, Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci, and the throngs of contemporaries practicing cultural studies, postmodernist theory, and various categories of identity studies, has lent its support to many of the worst facets of Western culture. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, many of these theorists evince an "atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage, [which] is the main source of the collectivist tradition" (quoted in Seaton, 49). In the modern era, the association of Neoplatonic theories with political extremism, whether on the Left or the Right, is indisputable. Cultural theorists from H. G. Wells to Terry Eagleton have enrolled literature in the cause of a radical transformation of capitalism. In postwar America, the influence of the Frankfurt School, and of Theodor Adorno in particular, has been especially deleterious.

By contrast, those whose criticism derives from Aristotle, including Horace, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Cleanth Brooks, Ralph Ellison, and Marilyn Butler, share an ethos of tolerance, rationality, and realism. Seaton's focus on Wilson and Trilling, and to a lesser extent on Ralph Ellison as critic, is crucial to his argument because it is intended to prove the author's thesis that the humanistic tradition continues to serve as a viable alternative to postmodernist criticism. In Seaton's view, Trilling is one of the chief exemplars of humanistic criticism, and in this respect he is of course correct, although it is necessary to overlook a great deal about Trilling's leftist politics and Freudianism to arrive at this conclusion. The more important point, however, is that Trilling's failings, including much to regret in his late volume Beyond Culture, attest the "messiness" of all humanistic criticism, as opposed to the pretention to clarity and finality of critics within the Platonic tradition.

Trilling's career was indeed messy, yet Seaton is correct in insisting that "Trilling was concerned above all with what he called, following Edmund Burke, 'the moral imagination'" (113). In comparison with Trilling's refined and highly informed readings of great works of literature and his practice of what Arnold termed "disinterestedness," later theorists such as Terry Eagleton and Barbara Christian come across as at once pretentious and doctrinaire. …

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