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The Primacy of the Reader
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THE PRIMACY OF THE READER / Cleanth Brooks IN MY PREVIOUS lecture I distinguished four areas of emphasis in literary criticism, but I discussed only two of these: criticism that is focused upon the literary work as an organism or a structure—some sort of verbal entity, give it whatever more precise term you may choose—and criticism that is concerned primarily with the author himself, whether the critic stresses his personal history or the various cultural forces that formed him. I trust that I made it plain that I considered both kinds of criticism legitimate and profitable, although I did insist upon the limitations of a criticism that focuses on the genesis of the work. Indeed, I spend a good deal of time talking about what Monroe Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt term the "intentional fallacy"—a fallacy, I remind you, referring not to mistake made by the author but to one made by the reader or the critic. The critic must not take the intent for the deed. He may find useful clues as to what the work is about from sources outside the work, but if so, such intimations must always be tested against the work and validated there. In this case, special information, got directly from the horse's mouth, is insufficient. What counts is whether the horse (that is, the author) won, placed, or merely showed. In other words, how he fared in the race is what goes into the record book. Yet human nature being what it is and our habits about discourse being what they are, such a distinction will probably always be vulnerable to attack and difficult to defend. Most of us feel it more natural to talk about the author and what he sought to do rather than to talk about the makeup of the poem or novel constructed. Did not that truly great English critic, S. T. Coleridge, prefer it that way? In the Biographia Literaria, after leading us up to a proposed definition of poetry, he suddenly shifts the topic. It is really easier, he tells us, to describe the ideal poet, and this is just what he proceeds to do. Though the old-fashioned historicism is still well-entrenched and still powerful, there has come recently from a new quarter a fresh attempt to see the literary work as primarily an expression of its author. Harold Bloom's last several books, for example, present a renewed emphasis on the author in its most striking form. He is very much concerned with the poet, his characteristic energies and impulses, and what, according to him, is the poet's necessary resistance to the work of his poetic forebears: the "strong" poet (to use Bloom's adjective) succeeds in breaking free from a tradition that he finds suffocating and is able to make his own work fresh and new, whereas the "weak" poet can do no more than imitate work already done and better done. The relation of this concept to some of the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth The Missouri Review · 289 century and to Sigmund Freud in the twentieth is rather obvious. Rebellious energy, according to William Blake, is the way to the only truth that we can experience, and the Oedipal attack upon the father is inevitable in literature as well as in life. There is clearly an element of truth in such doctrines. A genuine poet is not only not content to imitate his literary masters: ifhe is a genuine poet, that fact will show itself in his forging a style that is definitely his own. But is the typical poet necessarily as self-conscious as Bloom would have him? And is he so anxious to replace the literary master from whom he principally derives? Such knowledge as I have of the history of English and American literature shows no such general pattern, nor have I found this impulse notable among the contemporary poets whom I have known personally. This is not to say that I am not acquainted with a few poets—I am thinking here in particular of one first-rate poet—whose ego drives are ferocious. The poet I have in mind, however, is...