Updated: February 15, 2011 12:48 IST

Reconstructing literary criticism down the centuries

M. S. Nagarajan
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Read not to contradict and confuse; but to weigh and consider — Francis Bacon

Literary criticism is nearly as old as literature. Though, according to the western tradition, its origins can be traced to the 4th century AD (Aristophanes is believed to be the founding father), the term ‘criticism' — as applied to the study and analysis of a body of writing — developed only in the 17th century. Since then, there have been ‘partial histories' or ‘period histories', but the immensely erudite Rene Wellek's A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 in eight volumes is by far the most compact and comprehensive treatment of the subject till date; it is not likely to be superseded in the near future. During the past half a century or so, criticism has become big business and one feels irretrievably lost in the labyrinth of revisionary histories of criticism and theory published by such high-powered journals as Representations, Yale French Studies, and Critical Inquiry.


Gary Day's Literary Criticism: A New History offers an overall survey of criticism from the ancient to the modern in its various phases of development. Themes and variations of the ancient past keep recurring in different guises. Most of the issues, which we believe we are facing now for the first time, were the subject of debate and discussion even in ancient Greece. The history of modern criticism, therefore, is not, in the words of Day, “one of ruptures and radical breaks, but returns and revisions.” The overriding focus in this overview is the alliance between “the discourse of criticism and that of the market.” There has been a markedly close contact of critical theories with money and business management theories.

Criticism is not just a form of social critique as Arnold would have it; it is also friendly and complicit with the prevailing social order, aiding and abetting it. With this central thought as the focus, the book condenses the 25-century-old tradition into seven convenient units, starting with the Greeks and the Romans and running up to the contemporary times when theory has got deeply entrenched and institutionalised.

When the songs of the ancient Greek poet Pindar extolling the virtues of kings were sung in public performances, it was done in order that the ever-flowing oral tradition would make the names of the dead sound again and again, which is not any different from our idea that literature transcends time and the period in which it was written.

The promotion of a canon and the transmission of texts that was practised in the classical era are recognisable today in the bringing out of definitive/new editions of the works of writers. What Plato, in the distant past, said of poetry has opened up newer and yet newer ways of talking about it. The fundamental critical issues that Aristotle raised in his Poetics are still discussed by present-day scholars.

Be that as it may, Gary Day's eagerness in looking for parallels to rhetorical criticism in management philosophies appears to have led him to find links that are tenuous and unsubstantiated. Take, for instance, his equating Marx's theory of money with Eliot's view in his justly famous “Tradition” essay. “It [criticism] stresses production, its values operate like those of money and its innovations refine and extend the order as a whole. And it is based, just as the economy is, on the extinction of personality.” Day guards himself by saying that there is a “great deal of circumstantial evidence” connecting the two — capitalism and criticism — that goes right back to ancient Athens. Hence his claim that theory is not a sure break from the past or more progressive than traditional criticism is not grounded on firm foundations.

On British criticism

The emphasis in the book is on British criticism. Day's enthusiasm for Leavis and antipathy to Catherine Belsey comes off in unguarded moments. Day has precious little to say about continental critics. Surprisingly, he lingers too long on medieval criticism, to which historical scholars usually turn a blind eye because of its theological orientation and failure to promote the essentially humanistic view of literary criticism.

He vigorously differs from continental ‘theory' that laid out promises which, alas!, could never be met. He scarcely hides his hostility to the menacing academism that has overtaken English studies since 1970, substituting “doctrine for genuine engagement with the literary work.” “Criticism,” for him, “is better off outside the academy.”

Literary Criticism: A New History meticulously reconstructs a lot of history. It is candid and insightful, nevertheless it attempts to do too much too quickly.

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