Function of Criticism

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Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A

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MATTHEW ARNOLD “THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM AT THE PRESENT TIME” (1864) Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971. 592-603. Pragmatic theorists from Plato onwards have emphasised the impact which literature has on the reader. Here, Arnold, arguably England’s most important cultural critic in the second half of the nineteenth century and someone who has exerted enormous influence on subsequent generations of critics even here in the Caribbean, focuses not on what literature does to the reader but what the reader or critic ought to do to the literary works which he reads. Influenced by Plato’s belief that the objective, absolute truth can be known, Arnold offers a ‘disinterested’ model of reading that aspires to be objective about both the meaning and value of the work in question (i.e. both what the work is about and its moral impact) and which, even though it appears very dated today in the light of recent theoretical developments, was profoundly influential upon literary criticism until at least the 1960's. Arnold begins by defending the role of the critic against the accusation that the role performed by the creative writer is far more important: they argue for the “inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical effort” (592). Arnold does not deny that a “free creative activity” (593) is the “highest function of man” (593) and that he finds in it his “true happiness” (593). However, he argues that this activity can be exercised “in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art” (593). Men may also express it, he contends, in “well-doing” (593), “learning” (593), and “criticising” (593). Moreover, he argues, the ability to write great works is not possible in all eras and “therefore labour may be vainly spent in preparing for it, in rendering it possible” (593). Arguing that creative writers work with “elements, with materials” (593) and that the elements in question are “ideas; the best ideas on every matter which literature touches, current at the time” (593), Arnold contends that “creative literary genius” (593) does not “principally show itself in discovering new ideas” (593) (which is the province of the philosopher) but in “synthesis and exposition, not of analysis and discovery” (593): its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, . . . of dealing divinely with these ideas, presenting them in the most effective and attractive combinations, – making beautiful work with them, in short. But it must have the atmosphere, it must find itself amidst the order of ideas, in order to work freely. (593) In short, the “creative power has . . . appointed elements, and those elements are not in its control” (593). The “creative power” (593) depends, Arnold claims, upon the “critical power” (593). The goal of criticism, Arnold argues, is “to see the object as in itself it really is” (593). Criticism consequently functions to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society, the touch of truth is the touch of life, and there is stir and growth everywhere; out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature. (593) Because a poet “ought to know life and the world before dealing with them in poetry” (593), the “creation of a modern poet . . . implies a great critical effort behind it” (593). The key quality on the part of the critic is, Arnold argues, “disinterestedness” (597) which the critic accomplishes by: keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things;’ by resolutely

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 05A

2

following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free...
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