On Reading, Part II: the New Criticism

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:02 AM
Continuing from part I on Old Historicism.

After the Great War, people started to realize that meaning was not cut and dry, and history was not a perfect record. Disillusionment reigned king, especially in Europe, and this had a big impact on not only politics and social mores, but also literature, literary theory and religion. If history and news was written by the will of the victors and the powerful, and often misled people into ill advised pursuits such as the “glories” of going into war for the fatherland, clearly using history to interpret texts was merely grabbing at the wind.

The New Criticism (Formalism) arose in literature, but I would contend a very similar movement arose within the core Fundamentalist tradition that was galvanized in the modernist debate that appeared in places such as Princeton Seminary. As Fundamentalism emerged, it claimed not only the priority of Scripture, but also generally isolated Scripture in a way I would suggest is fundamentally different from the intentions of the Reformers to whom they claimed to be the defenders (and, indeed, in some areas were).

An inside joke among students of literature is the famous freshman English Comp paper expression when the said freshman is writing about a text; when it comes time to paraphrase, the student will say, “what the author is trying to say is [such and such].” Nonsense. That suggests two things that no one, much less someone early in literary training, should suggest: first, that a worthwhile author was so poorly equipped at writing that he or she needs the freshman to clarify what the work is saying and, second, that anyone, much less a person who likely has very little knowledge of the author, can actually know what the author intended based solely on the text that was a result. We are not the author, and so the author's intentions can never be truly fathomed.

That is the essential starting point of the New Criticism. New Criticism and Fundamentalism both believe that a text can be read in and of itself; indeed, that is the only way to truly read it, since we cannot know the author's intentions. I respect the New Critics, which include two of my poetic heros — T.S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish — and it would be a mistake to see them as Fundamentalists. New Criticism is highly nuanced, and encourages a close reading of the text using solid insights into the objective nature of emotion in poetry (the objective correlative), the fundamental adherence to genre in writing (generic criticism) and a love of allusion. New Criticism places the text on a pedestal and says, we cannot understand the author's intent, and it really does not matter; what matters is the text, which we can read and we can know if we read it carefully and avoid eisegesis. Notice that I have switched referencing and am only talking about New Criticism; Fundamentalism, I would assert, wants to take the text as the text, but ignores such important parts of a close reading as generic criticism, and this can lead to errors such as Dispensationalism.

Nevertheless, despite my admiration for New Criticism (and, indeed, my habit of naming Formalism as one school in my eclectic style of criticism), both they and Fundamentalism have made a critical error insomuch as they reject the need to provide historical context to understand a work. “I am going to perform open heart surgery tomorrow” can only be understood to be a crime if you happen to know that I am not an MD. One important nuance among New Critics (but not Fundamentalism) was the emphasis on being over meaning. “A poem should not mean/But be.” This is a focus on the text. The New Critic does not see the text as a resource meant to be scavenged for specific nuggets of meaning, and so avoid part of this concern. When Archibald MacLeish wrote those words, he was putting to words the notion that our focus should be on the experience of reading the text and not on what we can extrapolate directly from it.

I would suggest the Fundamentalist reaction to Modernism parts company with New Criticism at this juncture and does generally see a text as only a means to propositional ends. Clearly, when it comes to theology, we do not want to say that Scripture is being and not meaning — unless we want to get all Tillichian! On the other hand, extracting meaning while loosing oneself from historical context is highly dangerous.

One cannot loose a text from context. If we ignore its original context, we merely allow ourselves to lazily place a text in the foreign context of our own socio-linguistic situation. Remember that language is merely a set of signs and symbols. When we fail to place those signs and symbols within their original interpretive context (or the nearest thing we can manage to posit), a problem arises. Instead of seeing the New Testament as primarily Hebraic writings with Hellenistic influence written to people who think in the way people would in first century Palestine and have a set of shared experiences, expressions and so on that we lack, we start to see Paul as writing to Americans and sharing our experiences and expressions. And while there is no doubt Scripture provides us with useful instruction today, that instruction is best derived by trying to find out Paul's real point (in context) is and then finding how that point can then be applied to our situation. It serves neither as a respectful attitude toward God's Word, nor our own purposes, to place Paul out of context in an ill advised attempt to find him directly speaking to specifically modern problems (this is what liberation theology, for example, seems to do).

To the point, Formalism is an important discipline, but it must be included in a larger, more eclectic system for it to work in a proper, honest fashion. Those who adopted some or all of its methods in the twentieth century were reminding us of important truths that we ought not ignore. However, what Formalists are not honest in — if they are pure formalists — is that language is always understood in a context, because language without a context is nothing but random gibberish.

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