Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Ignoble Origin of Criticism

One of the nice features of Bloglines, the aggregator I use to read blogs, is that it allows you to save posts to read in the future. I have a silly number of saved posts, but every once in awhile I try to cull by reading a few of them and then unsaving them. Unfortunately often in this process, I find posts that I truly want to save and feel bad about discarding.

One of those is this excerpt from Helen Vendler's essay "The Function of Criticism," posted on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass. In the excerpt, Vendler contrasts two origins of criticism: "the pleasure of refutation" and the pleasure of discovering "the laws of being of a work of literature." (If that's awkward, it may be a typo: Critical Mass is unevenly edited, and many of their transcriptions feature obvious errors.) Vendler calls the first origin ignoble:
criticism is the revenge of the student who once, perforce, sat silent while things that seemed untrue were said unrebuked, and poets who loomed large in the mind were ignored in the classroom. In this sense, every generation of young critics refurbishes lapsed reputations and corrects the misperceptions of the generation that taught them. The social function of the aggressive component in criticism is to restore the neglected and discover the new.
Certainly things can get out of hand, but is this really so ignoble? Isn't this merely a way of saying that criticism is a historical function, invested in the particular times and places in which it is composed? I get the sense that this is principally what Vendler would deny, although I must confess I haven't read her work.

At any rate, I like this excerpt for its description of the "ignoble" origin of criticism—it sounds like a goal to strive for.

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