Attacks on a Professional Literary Discipline
In the late 19th century, there was something of a reaction against the professionalization of literary culture. Commenting on the endowment of a Professorship of English Literature at the University of Oxford in 1886, the poet and revolutionary socialist William Morris (1834—96) asserted that:
The result would be merely vague talk about literature, which would teach nothing. Each succeeding professor would strive to outdo his predecessor in “originality” on subjects whereon nothing remains to be said. Hyper-refinement and paradox would be the order of the day.
What’s so bad about hyper-refinement anyway?
Morris’s remarks were motivated by an anxiety about the specialization of literary criticism as a narrow academic discipline, which would threaten the democratization of artistic and cultural knowledge.
Belles Lettres (literally “beautiful writing”) is apt to conjure images of gentlemen-scholars drinking port in oak-panelled rooms.
English Literature has (mostly) different connotations, not least because it suggests a national literary tradition, requiring commentary and elucidation.
While the utility of literary studies is less apparent compared to subjects such as medicine and engineering, we might think back to Aristotle’s account of pleasure as valuable in itself — an idea echoed by late-19th-century aesthetes — and to the educational importance of mimesis.
If English Literature belongs to the Humanities, then it could be defined (expansively) as the study of what it means to be human. Spending time in the company of Shakespeare, say, will lead you to think about this differently from those who learn about internal organs.
This, at least, is a classic liberal humanist justification for the Humanities.
In a society where the experience of work is, for many, one of alienation and disaffection, it might seem odd that a small group of literary professionals could derive pleasure from the study of literature as a means of paying the rent. This is the dilemma of the academic specialist in literature.
The professional literary critic is haunted by the spectre of the leisured man of letters.
Surely reading novels, poems and plays is what “gentlemen” do in their spare time? To do so for a living could seem vulgar, frivolous or, worse, an unjustifiable drain on “national resources”. Besides, what is the knowledge component in literary interpretation? What is being taught? These are some of the objections that literary criticism continues to face as an academic discipline.
THE MOST UNFAILING HERALD, COMPANION AND FOLLOWER OF THE AWAKENING OF A GREAT PEOPLE TO WORK A BENEFICIAL CHANGE IN OPINION OR INSTITUTION, IS POETRY ... IT PURGES FROM OUR INWARD SIGHT THE FILM OF FAMILIARITY WHICH OBSCURES US FROM THE WONDER OF OUR BEING.
Shelley’s assertion might seem less compelling as a justification for the study of poetry when delivered to an audience of those who hold fast to common-sense opinions and profess loyalty to state institutions (such as politicians). But it is a justification.
The anxiety about needing to justify literary study continues today, and affects the Humanities more broadly. This hasn’t been helped by the onset of a crisis of neoliberal capitalism after the Great Crash of 2008, which has intensified the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of public funding for higher education, particularly in the arts and humanities.
Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801—90) delivered a series of lectures, published as The Idea of a University (1852), defending knowledge as an end to be pursued for its own sake, in opposition to any more utilitarian aim of economic gain or enhanced competitiveness. He identified the “function” of the university with “intellectual culture”.
Knowledge is capable of being its own end.
The current pressure on many universities to serve governmental economic and business objectives threatens to undermine the intellectual integrity and independence of academic disciplines. The implicit vocational drift threatens to reduce a many-sided subject like literary criticism to a course in language skills.
Walter Benjamin suggested, in “The Life of Students” (1915), that academic study shouldn’t be seen (and therefore valued) only as a stepping stone to the world of work.
Newman’s and Benjamin’s understanding of knowledge for its own sake dovetails with Arnold’s anti-utilitarian concept of the “function” of criticism.
Criticism is largely functionless, except for its enhancement of our ability to understand great thought and acquire knowledge.
Arnold’s formulation was taken up by later writers, including the Irish playwright and radical Oscar Wilde, who was certainly no stranger to hyper-refinement, and the American poet T.S. Eliot (1888—1965). In 1890, Wilde published an essay in the form of a Socratic dialogue, entitled “The True Function and Value of Criticism, with Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing: A Dialogue”. Eliot borrowed Arnold’s title, “The Function of Criticism” (1923), for an essay that formed part of an ongoing disagreement with the Romantic critic John Middleton Murry.