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Criticism and creation.

William Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold were human-centered in outlook, though this is less clear in Wordsworth's case for the reason that he has been popularly dubbed a pantheist, one who feels:

A presence that disturbs me

with a joy

of elevated thoughts; a sense

sublime....

A motion and a spirit, that

impels

All thinking things, all objects of

all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Nonetheless, nature and "nature's God" were to assume a secondary place in Wordsworth's life by his early twenties, when:

My thoughts by slow gradations

had been drawn

To humankind, and to the good

and ill

Of human life: Nature had led me

on.

Though the new humanist emphasis makes nature secondary, Words, worth credits the natural world for teaching him to acknowledge the primacy of humans. And Wordsworth is consistent with his humanism, which can explain his attraction to the French revolutionary cause as well as his later aversion to the Jacobin-inspired Reign of Terror. It likewise helps to explain a variety of his poems, which stress the importance of poor rural folk, children, and others--poems which aim to celebrate the qualities of people living in anonymity. Wordsworth's quiet affirmation of such lives is welcome and seems sufficient. For the effects he achieves, it is unnecessary for him to impugn Christian theism. By way of example, while he accepts the pagan idea of the preexistence of the soul in some poems, he is unwilling to propound it as a formal doctrine for fear of offending orthodox Christianity.

However this may be, Wordsworth startlingly, if unwittingly, reveals the true state of his allegiances. In Preface to Lyrical Ballads, having said that poetry is "the image of man and nature," he informs us that the poet's sole commitment is to give pleasure and that the poet's art "is a homage paid ... to the grand elementary principle of pleasure by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves." This is nicely secular. In alluding to a pleasure principle, he is borrowing from the Enlightenment rationalism of Jeremy Bentham, but in the words knows and feels and lives and moves he is close to repeating exactly the Pauline words (Acts 17:28) that "we live, and move, and have our being" (in God). Thus, Wordsworth utilizes some New Testament rhetoric while attempting to anchor it in utilitarian humanism. The chasm between the two is unbridgeable.

Matthew Arnold, for his part, is certainly a poet of nature, though he did not have an experience like Words, worth's as described here. Arnold's poems were mostly written during his thirties, before he turned to criticism. While they feature mountains, rivers, and the seashore, there is no special pantheist claim. Nature seems not to have taught Arnold to center his attention on human life as in the case of Wordsworth. Perhaps the best blending of the natural with the human is to be found in the famous "Dover Beach," which signals Arnold's disillusionment with the seeming promise of the world, whose "Sea of Faith" was once adequate to the needs of people but had since lapsed. While human misery had existed since ancient times, there was now a special need for truthful, loving human relations where joy, light, certainty, care, and peace were in eclipse. Like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold saw the religious traditions as so much outworn clothing. He saw the Bible as a work of literature, like those of Homer, and the churches of his day as quite unsatisfactory. In his critical works, he becomes an investigator of social malaise. His concept of culture is offered as a cure, and some might accuse him of clayfootedness for having regarded churches as part of the solution (as a contribution to culture) rather than as part of the problem.

Posterity has cherished Arnold the critic more than Arnold the poet, and nowhere has his tradition been more influential than amongst those who view him as an ethical idealist concerned to remedy the sickness of society. Here, he anticipates Freud, though without Freud's reductive psychoanalytic disdain for idealism. What Arnold and Freud have in common is an interest in the diseases of their social cultures. What separates them is the contrast in their proposed solutions. I think it no accident that the late Lionel Trilling of Columbia, a Freudian, also wrote his dissertation on Matthew Arnold. And Trilling was the twentieth-century American Arnold.

In the summer of 1974, I attended an event in the auditorium of the Institute of Humanistic Studies in Aspen, Colorado, which featured visiting fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates. Seated right in front of me was Lionel Trilling. In the discussion period following her presentation, Oates declared that she saw no need for literary criticism. Trilling--widely considered America's greatest critic--did not rise to the occasion to dispute her remark, though I observed by his bodily reactions that he found it disturbing. I interpreted what I saw as a dramatic gap between attitudes to criticism of different generations. Was it that the wunderkind in creative writing like Joyce Carol Oates were turning their backs on the critical tradition, with an intellectual patrician like Lionel Trilling resolutely clinging to outdated "verities"? Was the whole tradition of criticism--embodying priceless analytical and scholarly functions as first described by ancients like Aristotle and Longinus--now to be scrapped?

Following this experience, I consulted Arnold in Aspen's Pitkin County Library. I discovered his statement that, while the critical faculty is lower than the creative, criticism itself can be a creative act. This seemed to rescue Trilling (also a fiction writer) from the high-flown claim of Oates. I left the library reacquainted with Arnold's view that criticism matters since it aims to understand, aloofly, the "best that has been thought and said" I fortified myself with his notion of culture, with "high seriousness," with poetry as "Criticism of life," and with "sweetness and light." I felt, then as now, that Wordsworth and Arnold were giants in a humanist critical tradition which must not perish.

Nineteen seventy-four was only a few years after Jacques Derrida published writings that launched "deconstructionism," and a new critical theory entered the lists with gusto. (This theory is phenomenological in spirit and overlaps earlier twentieth-century critical approaches like postmodernism and structuralism, which I will not take up here.) By 1974, Trilling (who died a year or so later) was likely acquainted with Derrida's upsetting activities, which could have seemed to him intriguing but unsettling. For one thing, however, the deconstructionist cause may have come to him as good news: it makes more of criticism than of literature, thus flying in the face of fiction writers like Oates. For another, it sees, as did Arnold, the creativity involved in critical activity.

But deconstructionism has been labeled nihilistic. Humanists tend to be in accord on the pitfalls of nihilism, and it should be noted that our tradition em, braces a disdain for the kinds of nihilism that may have been first generated by religions. While the nihilistic label has, in part, been due to a perception of Derrida as a critic encamped in the postmodern terrain of anti-social denial, it has been even more due to his bent for turning long-established understandings of reality on their heads. Whatever particular set of priorities we may have labeled and gotten to feel comfortable with as we assess and interact with the world, Derrida will aim to show that such priorities--the labels and the events in the world we think we know--dissolve into language structures. Our hands get slapped for our unfortunate penchant for placing things on conceptual ladders.

If there is something brashly creative and icon-smashingly demonic about deconstructionism, its possible latent value to humanism should not be neglected. In short, perhaps it might be put to work for instead of against our tradition. I have heard that, while some see it as a harmless game, others regard it as a form of terrorism, and I would say the latter attitude befits only the most rigid "hierarchicalists." Here, humanists are sure to differ. I personally value the upsetting Titan Prometheus just as much today as I did decades ago, and I consider that there is something Promethean about deconstructionism. Prometheanism is perhaps only nihilism to a hierarchy of gods on their mountains. In an open marketplace of ideas, and if mature and secure in our outlooks, we might have more to gain than to lose. Perceptions can always stand to be updated.

Deconstructive demolition work can be described concretely enough in the cases of Wordsworth and Arnold. William Wordsworth never parted company with pantheism; he came only to make nature secondary to humans. Derrida's deconstructive program aims to dismantle metaphysics, and it is clear than pantheistic yearnings would be called metaphysical--a specific faulty instance, Derrida might say, of what he calls "the metaphysics of presence" Insofar as Wordsworth was influenced by Enlightenment rationalism, this would be condemned by Derrida as a fatal example of logocentrism. Wordsworthian nature and man are clearly targetable as false hierarchical presuppositions, since culture and woman should be the privileged opposite binary terms (yet when Wordsworth writes that "the child is father of the Man," he is refreshingly deconstructive).

Matthew Arnold, for his part, stands to be targeted for his term "high seriousness" for involving something hierarchically defective, Above all, Arnold would suffer for his term (Jonathan Swift's, really) sweetness and light, since light--meaning intelligence--would be as suspect as reason and equally culpable as an instance of the metaphysics of presence.

I have argued that doughty humanists should not live in mortal fear of deconstructionist machinations, though I can also see that these examples of what could happen in its hands to Wordsworth and to Arnold may defeat my own purposes. Let readers decide, while I acknowledge I am only a novice at deconstruction. Literary criticism aside, poetry has its own way of surviving assaults in successive eras from whatever "isms" happen to be dominant or fashionable. Simply put, poetry can live in our hearts. This is as it should be.
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Title Annotation:literary criticism
Author:Lawson, David
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1666
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