Monday, September 14, 2009

Literary Criticism: Where Life Meets Art

There was a time, not so very long ago, when Literary Criticism seemed about to become a literary genre or type in itself, like poetry or fiction. Critics became important literary figures in their own right, and their books began to take up almost as much space in our college curriculums and libraries as the fictive or poetic things they were writing about.  Maybe that’s still the case; I hope not, but I don’t know. This is not a question that can easily be settled, since (in the first place) we can never be quite sure what counts as lit crit: the question ‘what is lit crit?’ is in itself a literary question, just as the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is a philosophical one.

Don’t worry, I wouldn’t even think of trying to answer such questions; what I should like to do instead is draw your attention to a particular piece of  literary criticism which, as it happens, I posted a short time ago (8-8-09): “On The Art of The Novel: Lessons From Balzac And Henry James”

You don’t need to have read either of the novels in question (Cousin Bette or Vanity Fair) in order to understand the lessons that James wants us to learn; you don’t even need to have read the analysis by the French literary historian, Hippolyte Taine, that James refers to as “so much the finest thing ever written” on Balzac or Thackeray; and so far as I can see, the best piece of criticism by far that Taine himself had ever written, and he wrote a lot: a four volume History of English Literature (1864) for example, in which he mostly doesn’t get it.

What I find most striking about the lessons that James wants us to learn is how unliterary they are, how thoroughly moral. He says of Balzac’s attitude toward his characters, for instance, “It was by loving them that he knew them; it was not by knowing them that he loved.” And the love James is talking about is itself a moral enterprise: “How,” he asks, “do we know given persons, for any purpose of demonstration, unless we know their situation for themselves, unless we see it from their point of vision, that is from their point of pressing consciousness or sensation?” What it all comes down to, he goes on, is “that respect for the liberty of the subject” which he calls “the great sign of  [a novelist] of the first order.” Thackeray’s treatment of Becky Sharp is held up for us as an object lesson in how neither a novelist nor a person ought to behave: Balzac’s impulse was to give his Valerie [Madame Marneff in Cousin Bette] “all her value, just as Thackeray’s attitude was the opposite, a desire positively to expose and desecrate poor Becky—to follow her up, catch her in the act and bring her to shame.”

Balzac had to write maybe dozen novels before he learned these lessons. So there is a further lesson from all this: “There is no convincing art that is not ruinously expensive.” Most novelists, says James with a sort of shrug, “affect us as doing it on the cheap.”

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