The Plusses and Minuses of New Criticism

The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham).

new criticismNew Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

However there is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’ , we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

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