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INTRODUCTION:HOW LITERARY CRITICISM CAME INTO ITS OWN IN THIS COUNTRY AND HOW THE POETS GOT THERE FIRST
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Theology

The poetry-prose distinction is only one example of a mystification that operates in modern criticism. But virtually every school of criticism rests on a principle or set of principles that must be accepted simply on faith in order for the entire system to stand. The English Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has cleverly demonstrated this point in an introductory book on literary theory.[6] In many systems of criticism, Eagleton maintains, the critic speaks by authoritarian pronouncement instead of logically proving the truth of an argument.

The idea we get from Eagleton's account, even though he doesn't express it quite like this, is that the very style of thinking in most modern criticism is theological. For instance, it was part of the faith of American New Criticism in the generation before the 1960s and 1970s that a literary text was a sacred and hermetic object to be worshiped like an idol. Two of the most famous books in this school have titles that show what I mean: The Well Wrought Urn, by Cleanth Brooks, and The Verbal Icon, by W. K. Wimsatt. Even de Man, the chief skeptic of the post—New Critical era, speaks with the voice of a religious visionary. Eagleton doesn't spend much time on de Man, but Frank Lentricchia, in a book on American criticism between 1957 and 1977, devotes an entire chapter to showing that the principle of authority plays the central role in de Man's criticism. De Man "does not argue in any formal sense for the logic and truth of his position," Lentricchia says. Instead, he engages in clever rhetorical strategies designed to take the reader into his confidence, mystify the reader, and thus silence any opposing argument.[7] When we look closely at the early modern poets, we find that their


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thinking about literature was often driven by theological ideas, that in fact their theories are often a form of theology thinly disguised. This is particularly true of Russian thinkers, who never seem to escape the patterns of theological thought that have remained so tenacious in their culture over the centuries. They will elaborate a view of the artwork that is founded on principles borrowed from the Russian Orthodox theology of icons. And French poets like Mallarmé seem perpetually engaged in a delicate minuet with the Catholic theology they have been brought up on and seek to escape from. This theology impels them, like their Russian contemporaries, to adopt religious objects and practices as models for literary artworks. There is thus a fair amount of evidence to suggest that much of modern criticism is theological not only in its character but in its origin, too. This is the subject of Part II.


previous sub-section
INTRODUCTION:HOW LITERARY CRITICISM CAME INTO ITS OWN IN THIS COUNTRY AND HOW THE POETS GOT THERE FIRST
next sub-section