Literary Criticism without Literature

My title has two meanings. The first is that, since the 1980s at least, what calls itself literary criticism has consisted largely of abstract theory, less concerned with literature than with itself.

The second meaning, the one that interests me in what follows, relates closely to the first.

English departments generally offer courses to familiarize students with basic terms and notions of literary criticism and with the varieties of criticism. Such courses typically entail a smorgasbord of “studies,” “critical this-or-that theory,” and the innumerable “isms.”

Increasingly in our post-literate society, however, few students at the undergraduate level (and surprisingly few even at the master’s-degree level) bring with them much in the way of exposure to literature.

Today’s students have read few books. What they have read is typically the topical, published-yesterday fiction that the hucksters of the scholastic book market sell to the middle schools and high schools as “edgy,” “with it,” or “out-of-the-headlines” portrayals of teenage anxiety.

How then might the instructor teach literary judgment to students who are practically without serious reading experience? Often they also lack rich vocabularies, suffer from stunted aesthetic sensibility, and think that the word novel is a synonym for the word book. Trying to teach them literary criticism is obviously challenging, if not altogether impossible.

Since I occasionally teach my department’s Introduction to Literary Criticism, I have had to think the problem through. When I recently received the assignment to teach the course again, I moved “proactively.”

A survey on the first day of class confirmed my expectations. Among them, the sixteen students could produce the titles of only eight novels that they had read (but that not all of them had read). Of the three most-mentioned (five students had read all three) were Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (2008), its sequel Catching Fire (2009), and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005).  Four students listed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925); one listed Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Four out of the ten coeds, but none of the men, had read Jay Asher’s adolescent female suicide-story Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). A few students had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but none had read Hamlet or The Tempest. No student could name a poem by William Wordsworth, John Keats, or Robert Frost.

It is worth observing how thoroughly contemporary the students’ reading experiences are. Except for The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet, the books listed in the previous paragraph all come from the 21st century and they belong exclusively to the commercial genres. The novels by Fitzgerald, Collins, and Meyer tie in with movies; and in the case of Fitzgerald and Collins with heavily promoted movies.

Literary criticism emerged from the study of poetry, going back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Lack of familiarity with the poetic canon, as attested in the survey, presents a real stumbling block to those who want to learn a few basic criteria for assessing literary texts.

Precisely to this end, I ordered the Dover anthology of English Romantic Poetry and Owen Barfield’s study of History in English Words (1928), part of which explains the influence of English Romantic poets in modern Anglophone diction. I chose the anthology to give students a reasonable encounter with the great early-nineteenth-century poets on a day-by-day, in-class basis, including the discipline of reading poems aloud.

History in English Words builds vocabulary. Barfield approaches his subject etymologically. He discusses, among many other things, the Greek and Latin influences on English, and the Germanic and Gallic contributions to the tongue. History has an excellent index. When students can’t understand, say, a word in a Wordsworth sonnet, they can consult, via the index, Barfield’s discussion of the relevant word. The dialogue of Barfield and the poets establishes the connection between language competency and understanding a text.

From the study of poetics we go to the study of narrative.

First, to remediate the students’ impoverished reading experience, I make use of the “smart classroom,” about which I have recently commented. For this class, I screened Benjamin Bagby performing Beowulf in concert, in Anglo-Saxon, to the accompaniment of his own, reconstructed Saxon harp. And I screened Julie Taymor’s Tokyo production (1992) of Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, after Sophocles. In addition, I brought in excerpts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We examined Ovid’s myths, one a day, as we had examined our selection of Romantic poems. Students soon shared knowledge of a dozen canonical stories about which they could begin to think comparatively.

I devoted the final four weeks of the semester to René Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning (2001). I See Satan Fall addresses the anthropological and moral aspects of literature and the relation of Greek myth and the Gospels not only to one another but to subsequent literature.

Girard, unlike so many recent critical writers, is broad in his purview, taking in everything from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to Cervantes and Proust. Girard has no prejudices. He is not hostile to religion or tradition although he is more than willing to subject both to a close critique. His sense of art is a moral sense. He believes that the text should guide criticism, not vice versa.

Girard takes interest in victims, but in a manner totally different from postmodern victim-studies; he writes about covetousness and jealousy as the drivers of human misery. For their final assignment, I asked students to select a story from a list and submit it to examination under Girard’s ideas of anthropology and morality. Girard takes with absolute seriousness Aristotle’s claim in The Poetics that man is the most mimetic of animals. People imitate one another, the phenomenon of language being the most obvious example. Yet the deepest form of mimesis, as Girard argues, is “imitative desire.” Why are jealousies and rivalries such ineradicable features of all societies? It is because people imitate one another even in their desires.

Girard’s theory of mimesis reveals features of The Great Gatsby that students who previously read it had missed the first time around. Nick Carraway’s fixation on the distant light in the novel’s opening scene signifies terrible lack of knowledge about what to want. When Carraway meets Gatsby, one student writes, “He wants to emulate Gatsby.” But mimicking a model means wanting what the model wants.  Mimickry becomes rivalry, and rivalry makes the objects of desire seem all the more desirable.

One student explains the misery of the Gatsby coterie by a well-chosen quotation from I See Satan Fall: “Imitation becomes intensified at the heart of hostility, but the rivals do all they can to conceal from each other and from themselves the cause of this intensification.”

A second student chose to write about Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers (1955) and its screen adaptation The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The student saw Girard’s discussion of mobs and majorities as relevant to the “Body-Snatcher” narrative. He who resists conformity with the crowd, becomes the crowd’s intolerable enemy. Finney’s protagonist Miles Bennell resembles the “scapegoat” of a society in crisis: “The pod people must destroy him in order to achieve total catharsis…  In order to have complete dominance… the one who threatens their perfect society… must be put to death.”

A third student took on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. The plot, as the student wrote, consists of “bouts of mimetic desire,” which Gray experiences as he seeks to fill the emptiness he senses in his existence.  The student quoted Wilde: “When [Gray] saw [his own portrait] he drew back, and his cheeks flushed…  A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time.”  Later, writing of the Gray-Vane romance, the student remarked how “Dorian’s actual desire was not for Sybil but for Sybil’s performance.” As in Gatsby, vain people chase shadows.

Students made these discoveries because they had a comprehensible theory that sheds light on the basic human actions that stories represent. I believe that students “take” to Girard for another reason: Unlike the critics of what Harold Bloom calls The School of Resentment, Girard holds no grudges. He is not a postmodernist, not a feminist, not a race-class-gender guy. My sense is that students are deeply grateful to step outside of those heavily politicized discourses and encounter literature on its own terms.

I return to a point that I have earlier made in writing about student encounters with Richard Wagner and H. G. Wells. Contemporary college students are not dumb, just more ignorant than they ought to be. Given patient, orderly instruction, and the opportunity to confront big ideas and rich objects of aesthetic contemplation, students can initiate independent thought and enrich their notions of art, literature, and the world.