Saturday, August 1, 2009

The purpose of literary criticism

I regularly read the Chronicle Review, but I must admit it is pretty much the only contact I have with the world I got my Masters degree in (Germanic languages and literature, with a bachelors in English). I felt even back then that quite a bit of what I was learning was fairly pointless.

Now, the Chronicle has published an article saying basically that literary criticism has added little to our understanding of literature over the past few decades although we have published increasing volumes. In particular, it seems that we now publish more literary criticism than we care to read:
In 2002 the Modern Language Association issued a report on scholarly publishing that cited editors estimating purchases of as low as 200 to 300 units. Remember, too, that standing library orders account for around 250 copies. (That's my guess—also, a few librarians have told me that the odds that such books will never be checked out are pretty good.)
I'm not surprised, but the author goes a bit further when he says: "Better to admit that books by M.H. Abrams, Hartman, and a few others covered Wordsworth's poems for most practical purposes several decades ago." Anyone who is familiar with John Berger's revision of the distinction between "naked" and "nude" in art, which a certain Mr. Clark had overlooked ("Civilisation" is fantastic, though), is a case in point: there is always something to add or revise.

We need literary criticism and professors of literature and languages, even dead ones. We need to have a cultural understanding of each other, and we need people who understand nearly forgotten cultures to keep our knowledge alive. Obviously, they will often disagree with each other about whether our understanding is correct, so we should have that kind of literary criticism.

I remember in my last semester in graduate school (here in Freiburg) a professor who was also in his last semester. This gray-haired man was an expert in medieval literature, and he told his seven listeners in his final class that "it really pays to learn the original old Norse." The man was a legend in his field, but his field was increasingly marginalized in this age of IT, marketing, and MBA degrees. He remained cheerful, however, and probably was amused at the irony of what he had said to such a small audience.

Here's hoping that the University of Freiburg still has at least one professor who is fluent in old Norse. If not, we run the risk of ending up like the Mayans. When tourists visit that part of what is now Mexico, they often ask, "What happened to the Mayans?" Of course, the Mayans are the ones living there today, but they have long forgotten their own ancient written language.

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