This is the most recent, and now the last, volume of René Wellek’s gigantic work on the history of modern criticism. The distinguished Yale Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature died on 10 November 1995, at the age of [End Page 260] 92. Volume 8 appeared just a few months short of the author’s ninetieth birthday and nearly four decades after the first in 1955.
Professor Wellek devoted his final work to the three major Romance languages, French, Italian, and Spanish, which did not belong to his most familiar territory. The result is a patchwork of formerly published pièces d’occasion, and a selection of authors and often minor works that have been largely forgotten. As always, Wellek tries to be fair, but he often borrows the views of his trusted, predominantly German critics to judge these Romance writers whose works he may not have read.
Wellek’s literary tastes and criteria are as clear as ever. He has great sympathy for the classics and utter disdain for any form of “irrationalism,” or use of other than purely aesthetic categories. “Twentieth-century France, he feels, is totally dominated by Bergsonian irrationalism” (p. 128). The surrealists were “nihilistic and barren” (p. 93). Georges Poulet’s work with the emphasis on time, “is not literary criticism” (p. 117). “Camus was no critic” (p. 130), and Sartre’s theories are “doctrinaire and ultimately indefensible” (p. 151). Marcel Proust, “unquestionably the greatest French novelist of this century” (p. 60) and a “superb critic” (p. 61), “is . . . of little value for a history of criticism” (p. 71).
There are few surprises in Wellek’s final work except some unfortunate ones: harsh treatment of André Gide, praise for Rémy de Gourmont, and anecdotes that have little to do with literary criticism. Close, personal relationships, in particular with Mario Praz, incline the critic to indulge in overappreciation. Wellek delights in Praz’s “pessimism” about “the fashion of deconstruction, which has spread in the United States like an infection” and led to a “wholesale destruction of all literary studies” (p. 267). All references to women writers are negative. Among the Catholics, Maritain is lauded for his classicism, and Rivière for his dismissal of Dadaism as “unreadable” (p. 32). Wellek is highly sarcastic about Paul Claudel, who considered Goethe one of the “three evil geniuses of Germany,” along with Luther and Kant (p. 90).
The best essays are on Thibaudet and Croce. Wellek savors that Thibaudet “hardly alludes to Marxism” (p. 56), and he uses Croce, whom he admires greatly, to ridicule Valéry’s “poor, and often twisted and distorted, pseudo-philosophical sentences” (p. 212). What particularly endears Croce to Wellek is his rejection of “the usual historicist argument that we must judge a writer by the criteria of his time” (p. 203), and his “sharp comments on existentialism and on the new Marxists” (p. 214). But in the end, Wellek censors even Croce for his “unsystematic applications of an intuitive psychology” (p. 223).
Croce’s influence dominates Wellek’s discussion of Italian criticism. Franceso Flora arrives at “sensible conclusions” (p. 239), particularly since he is also critical of Freud (p. 239). Mario Fubini “teaches others to read correctly” (p. 242). Eugenio Montale is not quite convincingly praised as “the most eminent Italian poet of the twentieth century” (p. 299). Wellek seems supportive of the Jewish critic Attilio Momigliano but as sarcastic as ever toward Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci (p. 277). [End Page 261]
The brief chapter on Spanish criticism is altogether unfortunate and below Wellek’s dignity as a critic. Wellek appears to agree with Arizona who says, “We Spaniards have many scholars but not a critic” (p. 305), and with José Ortéga y Gasset, for whom “Spain owes its greatness to the Germanic inheritance” (p. 330).
Wellek’s History stops in 1950, deliberately. After that, criticism became a “new story” (p. 184), no longer his. Yet Wellek’s magnum opus, unique even in its limitations...