Aesthetics vs Morality
As such questions might suggest, the literary critic’s object of study is hardly a straightforward matter. For some, such apparently vulgar issues as imperialism and Empire ought not to be wheeled in when considering the specifics of literary value. On this view, questions of aesthetics and questions of morality are best kept separate.
THE SPHERE OF ART AND THE SPHERE OF ETHICS ARE ABSOLUTELY DISTINCT.
But can the “words on the page” of a given poem or novel really be held in splendid isolation from the text’s historical and cultural reception, or its history of publication and translation, or, say, its author’s penchant for producing propagandistic radio-broadcasts on behalf of Benito Mussolini, as did the 20th-century modernist poet Ezra Pound (1885—1972)?
For a literary critic, then, defining one’s object, or area, of study can be a contentious issue. Tracing the significance of references to Shakespeare in the novels of Thomas Hardy (1840—1928) might rank alongside a study of the metrical patterning of Alfred Tennyson’s (1809—92) verse in terms of scholarly rigour, but both of these topics might sit oddly next to a critical re-reading of Theodor Adorno’s (1903—69) Aesthetic Theory (1970) or an essay* on contemporary avant-garde poetry.
Times in which nature confronts man overpoweringly allow no room for natural beauty; as is well known, agricultural occupations, in which nature as it appears is an immediate object of action, allow little appreciation for landscape.
Such is the scope of the field in its contemporary incarnation as an academic discipline that is taught and studied in universities.
If you cherish aspirations of becoming a literary critic, you could do worse than to start by reading widely in the history of literary criticism. This book is, first and foremost, an introduction to some of the major historical practitioners of literary criticism. Literary criticism has a long history.
Even a brief overview, such as this one, will take us from Ancient Greece to Renaissance England and through into more recent departures in 20th-century literary theory.
There are certain limits to this book. It is a concise survey of a tradition of literary criticism formed in Anglo-Saxon universities in the 19th and 20th centuries, oriented around syllabuses that have tended largely to rely upon certain exclusions: because this book is a survey of that tradition, no space will be made for figures such as Abdallah ibn al-Mu’tazz (861—908) or Lu Xun (1881—1936), even though both of these writers were highly respected literary critics in their respective cultures.
Edward Said A postcolonial critic we’ll return to on here
The relatively recent rise of courses in Comparative Literature and Postcolonial Studies has gone some way towards challenging the 20th-century dominance of English Literature, but this topic is large enough to merit a separate introduction in itself.