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Aspects of Criticism

ISSUE:  Spring 1936

Paul Elmer More and American Criticism. By Robert Shafer. New Haven: Yale University Press. $4.00. The Double Agent. By R. P. Blackmur. New York: Arrow Editions. $3.00. Prom Rousseau to Proust. By Havelock Ellis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50. Literature and Society. By Albert Guerard. Boston: Lothrop, Lee and Shcpard Company. $3.00. This Modern Poetry. By Babette Deutsch. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $2.75.

In the introductory essay to “Paul Elmer More and American Criticism,” Mr. Robert Shafer examines the present state of American criticism, taking as a text the remark of T. S. Eliot, “criticism is as inevitable as breathing.” In “A Critic’s Job of Work,” the concluding essay of “The Double Agent,” Mr. R. P. Blackmur writes: “Like walking, criticism is a pretty nearly universal art . . . and few perform either very well.” These comparisons have a limited application. Breathing, as Mr. Shafer notes, is uniform, criticism is not; walking has, as an art, individual variations, but it has ultimately only one purpose or intent. This figure can be changed slightly, yet profitably: there are degrees of excellence in walking, which may be judged; and every conscious or instinctive act of judgment, regardless of the subject to which it is applied, represents, and is, a criticism. But even in so limited a field as walking, these judgments are not based on uniform or absolute standards, with the result that an army colonel, a debutante, and a savage might form three entirely different judgments about the same person’s walk.

As the matter to be judged becomes more complex and the bases of judgment more varied and open to infinite shadings of qualification, these judgments tend to grow confused and even contradictory. For over a century, this confusion has made the criticism of books seem a weak and flighty art, or an undependable pseudo-science. After the breakdown of traditional standards, literary criticism—that is, conscious and formulated, as opposed to half-conscious, half-instinctive, judgments of books—ceased to have any precise or even well comprehended points of reference.

The five volumes here reviewed make an excellent example. They have an obvious unity, in that they can be loosely classified as literary criticism. But their diversity is probably more important than this artificial unity, for each represents a trend or tendency in modern criticism, although no author obligingly confines himself to a single compartment. Yet, by an oversimplification which does no essential injustice, this basic lack of unity can be easily demonstrated: Mr. Ellis is primarily interested in the book as a revelation of the author; Mr. Guerard, in the book as a product of the society which it represents; Mr. Blackmur, in an elucidation of the text through a study of form and content; Miss Deutsch, in an appreciative analysis or explanation—a much simpler thing than elucidation; Mr. Shafer, in philosophical evaluation based on humanistic traditional standards. Lest these five facets of inquiry seem, at first glance, all-inclusive, it may be well to add that Messrs. Shafer and Blackmur, in their examinations of modern criticism, analyze several other types of critical approach.

Recognizing this diversity, Messrs. Shafer and Blackmur present highly formulated conceptions of the duty and method of criticism; Messrs. Ellis and Guerard state briefly their critical credos. Both Mr. Ellis and Mr. Guerard endorse, in principle, catholicity of taste; but Mr. Ellis considers Rousseau “the most revolutionary figure in the religious western world since Jesus” and a liberator of mankind, while Mr. Guerard writes of the same man, “happier he, and the rest of mankind, if the unconscious revolutionaries of placid Dijon had not stirred up his easily addled brain.” Until we can once more attain reasonably definite philosophical standards, until we have a larger framework in which the individual critic can function with recognized points of reference, we shall have this critical confusion.

“Criticism is a process of inquiry, never completed, but handed on from one man to another and from one generation to another, in a continuing effort to bring intelligence to bear on life and to keep attention fixed on the masters of human knowledge.” This excellent definition by Robert Shafer presents the traditional and to my mind the most valid purpose of criticism. Although Mr. Shafer would probably disagree, each of these books represents an attempt to bring intelligence to bear on life. But the result is not greater order; it is more confusion. Even when two radically different critics agree, they reach the same conclusion by startlingly different routes. Thus, Mr. Shafer, a humanist and a Christian, and Mr. Blackmur, who professes himself a Communist but states without qualification that “all banners are wrong-headed,” agree that Granville Hicks’s “The Great Tradition” is a thoroughly evil book: Mr. Shafer on the ground that any critic who believes “there are no eternal problems” must be, and in this case is, absurd in his fanaticism—a point which he illustrates forcefully; Mr. Blackmur (who on the strength of the phrase previously quoted would seem to be in agreement with Mr. Hicks as far as Mr. Shafer’s contention is concerned), on the ground that Mr. Hicks is “guilty of the worst human heresy, [that of] the man who is the victim of one idea. . . . he has subordinated literature to a single interpretation of a single one of the many interests that condition it today . . .”

In “The Double Agent,” Mr. Blackmur has limited himself, deliberately, in his critical approach. The subtitle of his volume, “Essays in Craft and Elucidation,” and many of his critical ideas are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s statement, in “The Perfect Critic,” that the critic “must not make judgements of worse and better. He must simply elucidate; the reader will form the correct judgement for himself.” Mr. Blackmur believes that the poem must be left intact, that the fine object of criticism is to put us “in direct possession of the principles whereby the works move without injuring or disintegrating the body of the works themselves.” Although he does not hesitate to make judgments, he forms these chiefly on a study of the text: in one place, for example, he distinguishes between the tropes of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, with this valuable conclusion: “Mr. Stevens’ tropes, in his best work and where he is most himself, are neither visual like Pound nor dramatic like Eliot. . . . His visual images never condense the matter of his poems; they either accent or elaborate it.”

Mr. Blackmur’s acute examinations result almost invariably in a richer understanding of the poems under consideration; at its best, his type of criticism does explain the principles whereby the poets move, giving an insight into method and craft which adumbrates the entire body of the poet’s work. But it leads Mr. Blackmur at times to make generalizations which are based on microscopic scrutiny; it enables him to comprehend the relative failure of E. E. Cummings and the relative successes of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens—but it does not enable him to set any poet against a true philosophical background and thus to comprehend the real failure of Miss Moore and Mr. Stevens.

This crippling limitation can most easily be seen in his treatment of D. H. Lawrence. The failure of Lawrence can be traced to his failure to master his craft: “On the one hand he rejected the advantage of objective form for the immediate freedom of expressive form, and on the other hand he preferred the inspiration of immediate experience to the discipline of a rationally constructed imagination.” This second observation strikes close to truth, but Mr. Blackmur qualifies it and removes its validity: “he had the genius of insight and unequivocal honesty.” If the critic examined his own statement or Lawrence’s work, the contradiction would be apparent. Lawrence lacked insight and honesty because he never ordered his thinking, because he was content to express his convictions rather than to examine them. The failure of Lawrence goes deeper than a failure to master form; he failed to master or to order what he had to say. This worked to his advantage, since by cloudy wording and vague formlessness he could obscure, and give an apparent importance to, his basically disordered philosophy.

The following passage may reveal why Mr. Blackmur’s direct scrutinies are so enlightening and his evaluations so doubtful: “all that can ever actually be brought into the discussion of a poem is its technical aspect. Which happens in all but the very best poetry to be very near the whole of it.” In other words, criticism can be reduced to a science; it can discover the whole by a microscopic study of the shell. But a poem is not without relation to life; it is not a self-contained exercise in form; it has, if it has any value at all, matter more valuable than its technical aspects reveal. Criticism which concerns itself chiefly with form is, in the hands of a sensitive critic, extremely valuable, but it is neither the whole nor the most important part of criticism.

Mr. Shafer, in his “Paul Elmer More and American Criticism,” has an obvious advantage; he has written a unified essay on our most important contemporary critic, while Mr. Blackmur has collected his fugitive essays and reviews. But the humanist has a second, more important, advantage, in that he works from consistent principles which recognize that literature is a part of life, and as such affects the entire structure of society. The part can not be judged finally except in its relation to the whole.

The patterns of life are made from continuity and change; the recurring though shifting patterns are in ordered times no less consistent than the changes. Human nature is dual: “It is, in truth, as much as we know, and sufficient, to say that somehow there is at once both division and unity in man’s nature, as there is both division and union between the individual and the race.” Literature may aid in a comprehension of one’s self; it may help, as well, in a comprehension of man’s relation to the race and to life. Not only does it illustrate our past, but it may, if properly applied, “make the past a living part of the present.” The function of philosophical criticism as practiced by Mr. More and Mr. Shafer is to relate the thought in literature to the actualities of present-day life, and to examine contemporary literature in the light of traditional knowledge. Inevitably, they have succeeded only in part;.

Mr. Shafer’s volume deals with three closely related subjects: the development of Mr. More’s philosophy from romanticism to Christian humanism; the philosophy of humanism; and the present state of philosophical and critical thought. In considering this third topic, Mr. Shafer clears the field ruthlessly of what he calls “anti-critics”—a useful service because it reveals the confused state of modern critics and criticism, but in itself sometimes confusing because Mr. Shafer fails to recognize the existence of partial validity, and because it tends to distract attention from his more important work. He presents humanism as a living body of thought, directly as it influenced and was influenced by Paul Elmer More, and less directly as a basis for life as well as for literary criticism. In the course of this presentation, Mr. Shafer examines many ideas which control our thought: the unconscious, steady use which all of us make, necessarily, of the much-abused and distorted “inner check,” the necessity for recognizing the; limitations of science in helping us to understand ourselves and our world, and, above all, the necessity for a constant re-examination of ourselves, our present and our past, and our relations to an infinite, as well as to a finite, world.

“We need not agree with all of Mr. More’s particular judgements,” writes Mr. Shafer. Neither do we need to agree with Mr. Shafer’s, but we cannot avoid the problems which he, and Mr. More, have considered, and we perhaps need to give honest attention to their thought.

Mr. Albert Guerard also treats the problem of literature’s relation to society, kit from the sociological rather than the philosophical and ethical approach. Writing with a Gallic lightness of style and spirit which is at times amusing, at times irritating, Mr. Guerard poses and attempts to answer this problem: “to what extent is Literature conditioned by Society?” He re-examines Taine’s theory as to the influence of Race, Environment, and Time; he discusses the physiology, sociology, and psychology of the “author type,” and the influence of the public—through such organizations as salons, academies, universities, and publishing houses—on the books which are written. Only in the last section, where he draws a satirical plan for a standardized Utopia, do his conclusions reach beyond the tentative, and even this satire on mechanized standardization is too gentle and diffused to cut very deep.

Mr. Havelock Ellis is, mentally and stylistically, urbane. In many respects he seems a late yet impressive flowering of that nineteenth-century liberalism which desired to know and to weigh every point of view, which felt that no attitude common to man could be completely alien. His critical credo is adapted from Croce. There can be no objective standards of judgment: “we must comprehend the artist’s own values, and only then are we competent to judge his works”; in an essay on Victor Hugo, Mr. Ellis adds, “if we are to reach a reliable estimate of Hugo’s achievement in literature, we must likewise cast aside the empty and conflicting discussions of critics, and even for a time close his books, to come to the man himself.”

These doubtful principles can make of Casanova a moralist; and in one way they can set literature apart, as separate from life, as Mr. Spingarn attempted to do when he wrote that poetry was as moral and as unmoral as a triangle. But Mr. Ellis, who can write convincingly of Casanova as moralist, has no desire to set literature apart; his underlying thesis is that one must understand the man before one can understand his book, that the chief value of the book is to reveal new phases of man’s life and thought. Since he has a humane background, since he balances profound study and thought with wise humility, he does much to illuminate the work of Rousseau, of Restif de la Bretonne, of Remy de Gourmont—of all those writers who have written mainly out of themselves, subjectively; he is baffled by such writers ad Hugo and Proust. In these “unconventional and widely ex-tended” essays on. modern French writers, he handles most successfully the writers of memoirs, and in these studies he occasionally reveals through the man under consideration certain unplumbed and previously unconsidered aspects of men.

Miss Babette Deutsch gives no statement of critical prim, ciples; “This Modern Poetry” does not attempt “to evalu-ate the men of our own day. . . . It is rather an effort to clarify their intentions, their methods, and their meaning.” She makes her prose a sounding-board for the phrases of modern poets; she writes, in general, with sympathy and insight. Sometimes Miss Deutsch’s determined modernism leads her to imply that, to be alive for our generation, mod-ern poets must deal with contemporary rather than with age-less problems, but this may be a defect of emphasis rather than of intention. The book has a real, if limited, value: it will serve as a pleasant and readable guide through the ob-scure labyrinths of modern poetry.


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