Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Literary Criticism: Plato vs. Aristotle

From The Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim reviews James Seaton's Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism:

James Seaton, in his short but deeply perceptive book "Literary Criticism From Plato to Postmodernism," contends that the theorists who dominate literature departments can trace their intellectual heritage to a surprising source: Plato. This is surprising because literary theorists usually consider Plato the father of "logocentrism"—supposedly a "Western" tendency to see words as fixed to unchanging ideals rather than as arbitrary symbols. Yet Mr. Seaton argues that the academics who dominate literature departments today—disciples of a dizzying array of "postmodernist" philosophies, from New Historicism to feminist theory—are Platonists to the core. Plato sought to align human life and government strictly to the ideals of reason and justice; postmodern theorists, writes Mr. Seaton, "seek a society in which theoretical reason will rule, unconstrained by the customs or 'prejudices' of the past conveyed so seductively by novels, plays, and poems."

Plato actually expressed two contradictory views of imaginative writing, as Mr. Seaton explains. The Plato of "The Republic" distrusted poets because, of course, they lied. Homer said things happened that didn't happen. The Plato of the "Symposium," by contrast, allowed that poets can be and often are inspired by the gods. What else can explain their seemingly magical power to delight and inveigle? This idea was picked up by the Neoplatonists, particularly the third-century Greek philosopher Plotinus, and much later was employed by Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and other Renaissance writers to defend poetry on the grounds that it offered some form of metaphysical knowledge. In more indirect ways, the Romantic poets of the 19th century ( Wordsworth and Shelley especially) and the more strident proponents of literary modernism ( Pound, Joyce, Woolf ) embraced the notion that imaginative writing could get us closer to some higher or truer reality.

Aristotle to the rescue!--

The second half of Mr. Seaton's book deals with what he calls the "humanistic alternative" of Aristotle, who rejected Plato's thought on poetry. In the "Poetics," Aristotle formulated what proved to be immensely influential definitions of poetic devices, but "the significance of the 'Poetics' for the humanistic tradition," writes Mr. Seaton, "does not derive from the universal applicability of the 'rules' it supposedly establishes but rather in the approach to literature it exemplifies." That humanistic approach, he argues, "turns to works of literature for insight into human life, not for authoritative knowledge about ultimate reality."

The humanist critic, in other words, takes literature for what it is: neither divine revelation nor an intrinsically worthless "text" that merely expresses cultural biases or furthers oppressive social arrangements. The humanist critic begins with the literary work, not with political or philosophical views; he doesn't mistake art for life or aesthetic criteria for political ones; and he explains to literate, engaged people (not merely to specialists) how important works of literature illuminate moral and political questions. Mr. Seaton examines the criticism of (among others) Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Henry James, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks—in each case distinguishing what these great critics did with poems and books from what their academic successors do with them now.

More about the book, including a sample and the table of contents, from Cambridge University Press:

This book offers a history of literary criticism from Plato to the present, arguing that this history can best be seen as a dialogue among three traditions – the Platonic, Neoplatonic, and the humanistic, originated by Aristotle. There are many histories of literary criticism, but this is the first to clarify our understanding of the many seemingly incommensurable approaches employed over the centuries by reference to the three traditions. Making its case by careful analyses of individual critics, the book argues for the relevance of the humanistic tradition in the twenty-first century and beyond.
  • Provides a brief, readable overview of the history of literary criticism in the West, with substantial sections on Plato, Neoplatonism, Aristotle, Neoclassicism, the Romantics, the New Critics, and postmodernism 
  • Illustrates the continuing significance of critics often overlooked by the contemporary academy, including figures such as Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison 
  • Argues the case for humanistic literary criticism in contrast to the cultural studies dominant today
Table of contents:

1. Plato and Neoplatonism
2. Romanticism and modernism
3. Theory and cultural studies
4. Aristotle and the humanistic tradition
5. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling
6. Democracy, popular culture, and Ralph Ellison
7. Literary criticism, the humanities, and liberal education.

Looks fascinating; when I received my MA, fortunately for me, those gender, Marxist, imperialist etc, interpretative styles weren't "forced" upon us. We could read and interpret literature based upon language, structure, and authorial intent. Since the MA and the MFA students interacted so much, I think that had an effect on the way we read and responded to literature. I enjoyed explicating the meaning within the text, not imposing a meaning outside the text.

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