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Critical Discussions The Attack on Literature and Other Essays, by René Wellek; vii & 199 pp. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982, $18.00 cloth, $8.95 paper. Discussed by A. R. Louch When i was younger dian I am now, I spent some glorious hours in Cambridge pubs, in the company of a group of Scots brought out of the gasworks to accept university scholeurships. One of them read English literature, but ploughed his first year exams, and went down, back to the gasworks I suppose , but in any case never to resume his literary studies. Nevertheless he did more to make me aware ofMilton as a poet than any amount oflit crit could do, reciting it by the yard after his second or diird pint of bitter. Maybe malt does more for Milton than Milton does for man. Anyway, I think of diese wonderful recitations as I read these polite, often engaging, generally conciliatory, and profoundly learned essays of René Wellek. For diat matter I recall that malty, smoky atmosphere when I read any critic or literary historian. For it occurs to me that this somewhat inebriated Scot's recitation was interpretation, it was evaluation, in die direct way diat immediately and palpably affects the senses. Is it useful to note a coincidence? While Paradise Lost was revealed to my ear in the Baron of Beef die litereiry establishment in town was shaken by a battle of die books. The splendid fury and contempt of F. R. Leavis had once again been unleashed against his critics, in this instance David Daiches. There was Leavis condemning Daiches to some oblivion only locatable in his febrile imagination — perhaps, though, the coed pits of Nottingham — euid all the while lecturing and belaboring readers who had.the temerity to read, not to say enjoy, the wrong books. No imagined hell, I suppose, would hold the perverse reader who admitted to not liking D. H. Lawrence. Well, his was a proud way. It carried on a certain tradition, the object of which was less to deepen appreciation them to 99 100Philosophy and Literature safeguard discrimination. For Leavis diis appears to have been a moral duty. Wimout the right tastes one would not appear to be one ofdie elect. But one can see how his method might serve more seculeur ends. Critics without dieodicy cetn still be used to distinguish connoisseur emd commoner. One turns to them to discover what one can admit to enjoying, and what one would not be caught dead reading. They teach us literary manners, they don't tell us how to have more fun. If you don't know what clodies to weeir to a cocktail peirty or how to address a baron, you're in trouble socially. And so you are too if, once at such an occasion, you talk with enthusietsm about die wrong books. This is socially useful widiout doubt, but to enjoy your reading more, you had better listen to the Scot. There are a few critics like the Scot lad, and many who will happily teach good literary manners. But when Wellek speaks of critics he has a different tribe in view altogether. Literature, you might think, is to be enjoyed, and criticism concerned with die quedity emd criteria of that enjoyment. Wellek's critics will have none of that. Their perspective is totally different. For them books, pictures , compositions, like the phenomena of biological speciation or the refraction of light, are objects to subsume under theory. It is not surprising that a critic with such a motive will sooner or later attack literature. After all, die exciting business is dieorizing, mere imaginative writing is only die matter on which critics build. Does one remember a peirticular light beeim, or does one celebrate Plemck, Einstein, Rudierford? So, who should remember poets and novelists? But aleis, critics discover diat people do remember writers without having heeurd of die critics at all. So there is a motive of revenge in the attack on literature, pique that the hoipolloi recognize the names of Dante, Shakespeare, or Tolstoy, while Northrop Frye draws a blank. Somehow the reduction of the world to the reputation of the scientist has not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 99-105
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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