- An Anagogical Education
It sometimes seems that the perennial task of laborers in the vineyard of the liberal arts is to defend that labor, that vineyard, and those arts. That liberal education is under attack on various fronts is as indubitable as it is now tiresome, and in the media covering the state of higher education we see almost daily apologias, jeremiads, and polemics aimed at sounding the increasingly apocalyptic alarm. English majors hear it a lot, of course, as they frequently deal with jokes or jibes, or sometimes earnest warnings, about the uselessness or impracticality of their field of study. Even within universities, we sometimes find ourselves on the defensive from those that the British literary critic Terry Eagleton recently referred to as "hard-faced philistines and crass purveyors of utility." Under such circumstances, the idea of the critical genius seems utterly foreign or laughably nostalgic, and yet, the need for this sort of genius—here understood as a guide or spirit of inspiration—has perhaps never been greater.
As a scholar in the literary humanities, I do not think we need to adopt a defensive posture against such threats; nor do we need to argue for the usefulness of literature, at least not in any instrumental form. That all too easily plays into the enemies' hands, inviting us to use "metrics" and "data" to characterize our "outcomes" and demonstrate our "productivity." This is, in more ways than one, quite literally beneath us as critics. I want to speak of the vocation of the critic, which is the fundamental role of literary scholars, at least for the last hundred years or so. I am aware that we do much more in our English departments today: rhetoric and composition, technical communication, creative writing, film and media studies, to name a few, and—even within literary studies—the activities include literary history, biography, and theory, along with analysis and evaluation. And yet criticism remains the cornerstone, and all students of literature are, in one way or another, guided by a spirit of critical genius.
In speaking of the "vocation" of criticism, I'm well aware of the religious connotations of a "calling," even if I must emphatically emphasize criticism's worldly value. In many of its most powerful forms, literary criticism draws upon foundations in what we tend to think of as religious studies, whether understood as textual exegesis, hermeneutics, ethics, or more speculative, theoretical visions. That is, the analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of literary and other texts, even in a purely secular context, may partake of aspects of religious scholarship. Indeed, the vocation of criticism (in the good old Weberian sense) involves a similar project of demystification, while also respecting the wealth of spiritual substance proper to literature, as may be seen in critics as different as Northrop Frye, Fredric Jameson, and Paul de Man. Drawing on the medieval conception of anagoge, I want to argue that the vocation of criticism today involves the patient, meticulous engagement with a given text that we know as "close reading," yes, but with the view toward a certain ascent that is the aim and effect of literary studies, or, more generally, a liberal arts education. This ascent is not that of the pilgrim's progress into the celestial spheres or the bold careerist's climb up some corporate ladder. Rather, it is elevation of a mind now equipped to apprehend, interpret, and perhaps even transform the worldly world today.
In a well-known formulation, Dante distinguishes between the four levels of meaning in his letter to Can Grande della Scalla, which Dante wrote partly in order to explain what is going on in his Commedia (1472). As Dante explains:
For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be...