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Criticism at the Poles

After 1930, what gave so much criticism its distinct character was the remarkable intensity and narrowness with which it gave itself over entirely to the subject of contemporary crisis. Criticism became not merely a more passionate debate of literary values in the light of social responsibility, a more intense preoccupation with the importance and function of literature in society; it became a search for fulfillment by the word, a messianic drive toward social action bent on liberation by conquest and extermination. A significantly predominant section of serious critical Opinion (this at a time when “seriousness” became the badge of critical honor) was divided between two groups of extremists, each of which became increasingly narrow as time went on, absorbed in its pet values, passionately contemptuous of any other, and insistent that only its particular loyalties were a valid guide to the understanding of literature. Whether written on the extreme left or the extreme right—how significant it is that even two political extremisms often seemed to preempt the field!—whether propounded as a series of Marxist judgments on the bourgeois past or used with great technical skill and subtlety and elaborate hauteur by the new Formalists in the analysis of poetry, criticism became a totalitarianism in an age of totalitarianisms, rather characteristic of the times in its rigidity and pride, and not the easiest to live with.

Where the first “modern” critics in America had been crusaders against Puritanism and materialism, latter-day Victorians, as it were, seeking to find a place for literature in America, the more aggressive critical minds in America now became religious crusaders, as of a world to be saved or lost. It would be easy to say for it was often true, that they subordinated the consideration of literature as a distinct element in human experience to the service of their creed. Yet what was most remarkable about them was the extent to which they vented so much passion upon literature while betraying their essential remoteness from it.

The Marxists, who never ceased to proclaim their devotion to literature and never proved it, steadily drove criticism into a corner of sociology, where it became either a purely political weapon or a sub-literary calculus concentrated on classes and social functions. The Formalists, many of them quasi-religious traditionalists and passionate devotees of a limited modern poetry—began, from a variety of motives, at the opposite extreme. To them literature became not merely a great moral and intellectual activity; it became the only activity. They reduced all human discourse to literature, all literature to poetry, all poetry to the kind of poetry they cared to write and study, and like Talmudists reduced all critical discourse to the brilliant technical exegesis of a particular text. Between so doctrinaire a sociological criticism and so rarefied an esthetic there would seem to be nothing in common; but the search for an absolute that each represented brought them together in spirit.

It was an involuntary fanaticism that characterized Marxist criticism to the end, and it was an involuntary fanaticism fully equal to it, if immeasurably more gifted and more directly concerned with literature that characterized the fashionable new esthetic school of criticism. Taken together, both schools lend a new perspective on the moral and intellectual retreat that made them possible; and it is perhaps as a commentary on the Ice Age of the thirties and after that they are to be understood. Each of these polar extremes in criticism was the symbol of some tragic dissociation, the mark of an obsession with pet values that became a cult; and in each case the fixation upon these values signified a sacrifice of everything that seemed to interfere with a particular conception of necessity. Among the Marxists literature became an interest of politics, and as such no more significant than any other. Among the Formalists—which was less a cohesive group than loose association of poets, university teachers, traditionalists aching for lost symbols of authority, professional reactionaries brought together by a common contempt for a democratic society—the study of literature became the property of a few brilliant but narrow minds who prided themselves on their isolation and were increasingly ravaged by it. At the Marxist extreme all consideration of literature as something to be appreciated for itself was ignored or corrupted; at the other there emerged a forbidding neo-neo-classicism that combined strangely with estheticism and fulfilled itself in traditional reaction. Between the zealots and the précieux, fanaticism had a holiday; but criticism almost starved to death.

“The kind of poetry which interests us,” John Crowe Ransom wrote in “The World’s Body,” “is not the act of a child or of that eternal youth which is in some women, but the act of an adult mind; and I will add, the act of a fallen mind, since ours too are fallen.” This, with all its pride in a private greatness and private spiritual tragedy, became the tone of what Ransom was to celebrate as “the new criticism”—a criticism absorbed in studying “the structual properties” of poems, finely contemptuous of the romanticism and cruditywith which inferior minds fulfilled themselves  in the grosser disciplines and often tampered with the inviolable purity of poetry. The self-satisfaction, the fine grace and cozy self-satisfaction of the esthetic cult at all times, were in this criticism, but with it went an extraordinary resignation, the knowledge of their defeat before the forces of vulgar commercialism and naturalism and liberalism, that gave these critics a new character among the précieux of history. Their preciosity was not an “escape” from anything; it was a social pressure, subtle and enraged and militant in its despair, working against the positivism of the age and sustained by a high contempt for it; a despair in the face of contemporary dissolution and materialism and irreligion that found its locus in the difficulty of modern poetry and prized that difficulty as the mark of its alienation and distinction. What gave meaning to their obsession with technique, their religious veneration of “form,” their attempt to read out of literature everything but the “poetic strategy” of a Donne or Dante or Eliot, was a humiliating sense of exile, a loneliness of the spirit and even of the political intelligence. The Marxists thought of literature as a military weapon in a planetary war, but ultimately treated it as a game. The Formalists gave their textual analyses the character of a game, but they were always playing for higher stakes than most people knew.

It is not difficult to see why the new traditionalism found a home in the South, much as the new traditionalism in England found its way into the Established Church, or the new traditionalism in France became associated with royalism and a kind of superior intellectual fascism. The South of which Ransom and Tate spoke was certainly not the South of Gastonia and Birmingham, or the South for which thousands of Confederate boys had once fought under the leadership of the plantation aristocracy, or the South which Ellen Glasgow satirized. Yet whatever its unrepresentative character, that South became the convenient symbol of an aristocratic tradition based upon moral order, a tradition in which the sense of race and community and the soil had supported a culture and proved the distinction of its aspiration and integrity to the end. Allen Tate’s South was remarkably like Michael Gold’s Russia—an ideal embodied in a culture, a community to be used as a standard of order and fellowship against the philistines. Each was a great literary myth, to be appreciated in its own terms only by the literary intelligence. But with one difference, the vital difference between a culture believed by its adherents to be alive and militant, the very center of moral energy in a changing world, and a culture whose grandchildren mourn it in the country of their enemies— “a buried city,” as Tate once wrote—yet one they must defend and whose example they are ready to apply in the face of all those forces that once destroyed it.

It is the difference between these two myths that explains why Marxist criticism was so often only a summons to political action, and why the example of these Southern critics fostered a criticism of great subtlety and moral self-consciousness, yet one remarkably parochial, tense and forbidding. For while the transformation of Marxist politics into Marxist criticism was always as obvious as that criticism itself, the process by which the traditionalist yearning for orthodoxy fostered a curiously Alexandrian criticism was tortuous, and in itself most revealing testimony on the use of literature in the thirties and after. The Southern traditionalist began with a powerful moral critique of the superficiality and debasement of letters under capitalism, and ended, like John Crowe Ransom, by declaring art to be “post-ethical.” He began by excoriating naturalism and positivism, yet ended by affirming that the analysis of the “structural properties” of poems was the main business of criticism. “I suppose our modern critics have learned to talk more closely about poems than their predecessors ever did,” Ransom wrote contentedly in “The World’s Body.” “The closeness of Mr. Eliot in discussing a text may well be greater than anybody’s before him, and he in turn may now be even exceeded in closeness by Mr. Blackmur, and perhaps others. These are dose critics, and define our age as one of critical genius.” Where, then, did the barbarism of the world end and this “age of critical genius” begin? Or had they no relation to each other? The answer is that this new criticism, based on a vicarious orthodoxy and textual analysis of advanced poetry, seemed to these men the only answer to the barbarism of the times. Like George Gissing, they were ready to say: “Keep apart, keep apart and preserve one’s soul alive—that is the teaching for the day. It is ill to have been born in these times, but one can make a world within a world.”

On the obvious level this criticism resulted in a literature of decadence, a literature specializing in isolated ecstasies, a literature cut off from the main source of life and floundering in the sick self-justifications of estheticism. But its estheticism was bound up with a primary disgust; it was a defense against modern life rather than a conventionally decadent evasion of it. Underneath all the trappings of neo-classic snobbery and the obsession with form as an ideal end in itself, it was a profound and impotent disaffection that moved in this criticism. There was in it always a defeated responsibility, a sense of loss, of an enforced narrowness and inversion, that needed some exterior authority upon which to fall and replenish itself. If the critics of this school, as Ransom admitted indirectly, were of a kind “who are incapable of remarkable catharses, who make the little and precious effects their virtue, who are without dimensions,” it was because in their own minds they represented the last stand of the intelligence in a world that had forced the intelligence back on itself. Even more, they represented the last stand of sensibility in an age that had, by their own testimony, no belief in itself, no literature worthy of themselves and no satisfying belief in the importance of literature as a guide to life. Hence their obsession with form and their curious and desperate hypothesis that poetry, as the quintessence of literature and the repository of value, was the product of “poetic strategy.” For the strategy by which a poem was composed, the strategy by which its every element was then tirelessly analyzed and weighed, had become the last exercise of the intelligence in defeat. Strategy is for those who attack because they mean to win; strategy can become an end in itself, a grammarian’s paradise; for those who mean to go on fighting though they never hope to win.

What one saw in the work of critics like Ransom and Tate, Blackmur and Yvor Winters, was the use of form as a mysterious ultimate value, form as a touchstone, a kind of apotheosis in a void. On the basis of it they could analyze and mock, always with great brilliance, the confusions and limitations of one writer after another; but form always meant to them something more than structure and proportion and inner logic, the palpable execution of a writer’s particular sense of necessity. At bottom their form was always an indeterminate vision of some secret ideal, an ideal fundamentally vague and incommunicable, and therefore in the service of every personal association of snobbery eccentricity, rigidity, malice or plain ignorance the critic might reveal. Like the Marxist dialectic, which is also a religion of form (form in history), this conception of form was always an image of some perfect discipline and harmony, some perfect assemblage of movements, which gave the critic the advantage of a personal sense of order, a primary conception by which to read the world’s folly and error. But like the dialectic, it was more an image than an idea; and one the critic could use with the willfulness and irresponsibility that attach themselves to all monisms.

Here was a neo-classicism of attitudes, a neo-classicism resting on an incommunicable distaste for the world and a desperate satisfaction with itself. The new critics, as Van Wyck Brooks said, doubted the progress of everything save criticism; their criticism. And the tone in which Ransom could proclaim that ‘‘in depth and precision at once it is beyond all earlier criticism in our language’’ was rather like the tone in which Edgar Allan Poe had written of his day that “this is emphatically the thinking age; indeed, it may very well be questioned whether man ever substantially thought before.” It is in this self-satisfaction, the pride these critics took in their own distinction and the significance they gave to their isolation, that one may see the formation of their curious literary psychology. A critic like John Crowe Ransom, for example, would seem to have been interested only in the professional problems of poetry. Yet it was an interest which enclosed him so tightly in a world all his own that he could say, in an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets, that they were inferior, since there is no evidence anywhere that Shakespeare’s imagination is equal to the peculiar and systematic exercises which Donne imposed habitually on his. None, and it should not really surprise us, if we remember that Donne’s skill is of the highest technical expertness in English poetry, and that Shakespeare had no university discipline, and developed poetically along lines of least resistance.

What Ransom meant by this became clear enough in his patronage of poor Shakespeare, who “was not an aristocrat, did not go to the university and develop his technical skill at once, got into the rather low profession of acting, grew up with the drama, and never had to undergo the torment of that terrible problem: the problem of poetic strategy; or what to do with an intensive literary training.”

As a critical pronouncement such a statement betrayed the critic’s own snobbery far more pointedly than it said anything about Shakespeare; yet it was entirely in keeping with Ransom’s proposal that “the critic should regard the poem as nothing short of a desperate ontological or metaphysical maneuver.” In Ransom’s forbidding but perfectly coherent interpretation of literature and experience, a poet was never, as the Romantic prejudice in Wordsworth had it, “a man speaking to men—a man who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him.” That was the prejudice of a democratic simplicity, the mark of a sentimental ingenuousness, and one that might conceivably today, mirabile dictu, rank Tolstoy over Rimbaud and Wordsworth with Wallace Stevens.

With his air of gentle cynicism, of a special and ironic disillusionment, Ransom proposed an esthetics rooted in a philosophy of civilized resignation and a poetry so perfect in texture and structure that it alone would be worthy of the “adult fallen mind.” The modern poet, as he wrote proudly, was above the sentimental glorification of poetry as a guide to life, though the modern reader had “as yet no general recognition of the possibility that an esthetic effect may exist by itself independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas.” The modern poet “has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure esthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land. He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.”

For all its fin-de-siècle swagger, this was something more than the exaggerated preciosity with which the American esthete has usually fallen into one heresy in an attempt to destroy another. In Ransom’s view art itself existed as a technique of restraint; the pleasure it gave was bound up with its regulation of the vulgar passions. The great European communities of the past wished to humanize man, not to confirm him “in his natural objects.” And this meant, “so far as his natural economy permitted, to complicate his natural functions with sensibility, and make them esthetic.” In the ideal community, therefore, art and manners and religion operated toward the same end, since religion was more important for its rites than for its doctrines, and “the object of a proper society is to instruct its members how to transform instinctive experience into esthetic experience.” The modern poet and critic lacked the foundation of religion and manners, the necessary background of a traditionalist society; but no matter. In so far as he was estranged from them, he was a fallen mind; and by exercising the sense of discipline in devotion to form and craft, he was secure from the ravage of disorder. This was the modernism Ransom recognized and approved, the modernism appropriate to a period, as he wrote shrewdly, when “the modern mind achieved its own disintegration and perfected its faculties serially.”

Was there something wanting in this view? Ransom knew it perfectly well, and accepted its limitations as proudly as he accepted distastefully the world which enforced such a position. “Style is the thing which the Russians have not wanted but which Western writers have developed so lovingly; the symbol of personality which is precious to our battered civilization and worth all its fury and expense.” He was not content to say, as the most commonplace student of esthetics knows, that “poetry has to be a technical art of extreme difficulty, when it wants only to know the untechnical homely fullness of the world.” The difficulty had become a prize in itself, and it simulated so many associations of honor and pride and style that it became a world of supreme felicity and grace in itself. The poet lived only for the perfection of his poem, as criticism lived only for the elucidation of that perfection. Hence Ransom’s unforgettable remark on Wallace Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”: “The poem has a calculated complexity, and its technical competence is so high that to study it, if you do that sort of thing, is to be happy.” Hence his notation on the Macbeth soliloquy: “I do not know why dusty death; it is an odd but winning detail.” Criticism had become expert at last; it had finally turned its full attention upon the poem in itself; it missed nothing; it was stainless in motive happy only to study the calculated complexity of those few poems whose technical competence was “high.” It had become “a sort of thing,” a game of devotions by knightly grammarians, and it made one happy.