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”... [continues]
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