- The Constitution of Literature: Literacy, Democracy, and Early English Literary Criticism
It is axiomatic that literary criticism emerges as a response to the English Civil Wars and the Interregnum with the emergence of a popular press, the consequent [End Page 48] explosion in numbers of texts and readers, and the attendant radical theories of reading. Thus, as Lee Morrissey points out, it is also axiomatic that—in a heroic, liberationist narrative—criticism coincides with and participates in what Jurgen Habermas calls the creation of the “public sphere,” and hence of modern democracy. But Morrissey offers a counter-narrative: that criticism in the Restoration and eighteenth century is more properly a movement to quell the possibility of dissent and the violence it was said to have bred in the 1640s. His is a convincing and meticulously developed history, which, however, necessarily juggles a number of apparent oppositions—intensive versus extensive reading, the tropological and the grammatical, the inductive/empirical with the deductive/rational, and so on—and a dizzying display of technique: cultural materialist (“the history of the book”), historicist, and deconstructionist, to name a few. But Morrissey seems comfortable with paradox dissolving into paradox. He claims that “rereading theories of reading historically is the unfinished project of deconstruction” (10) and for his purposes, all utterances (Dryden’s major poems of the 1680s, for instance) are hermeneutical utterances.
Morrissey begins with a survey of Protestant reading, including Luther’s “The Pagan Servitude of the Church” (1520) and Calvin’s “Three Forms of Exposition” (1540). Luther is committed to “the plain literal sense,” such that each reader will come to similar conclusions about what a text means, a “logocentric” approach, whereas for Calvin, the meaning is in the reader, a “subjective” approach, with some readers “predestined” to find the text “rightly” meaningful (36–40). Morrissey illustrates the differences by discussing the debate over the bread used in religious observance, which for Catholics becomes Christ’s body at the moment of consecration, but for Luther is the body of Christ as “divinity…is…[already] in everything,” and for Calvin, represents the body for the believer. Milton’s Areopagitica and Eikonoklastes (1649), by contrast, imply a middle way: There is something in the text itself, which Milton links to the presence of the author, but the text may mean different things to different people, the encounter of text and reader producing something entirely new (40–45). Hobbes’ Leviathan responds to such suppositions by linking political instability to hermeneutical instability and democratized reading, and proposes preempting anarchy by granting the determination of what texts may be read and what these texts “mean” to the monarch. In the Restoration and beyond, literary criticism assumes some of the regulatory function of Hobbes’ “lexarch,” as Sharon Achinstein terms him (50–60).
Morrissey rehearses the Royal Society’s distrust of words (“Nullius in Verba”), particularly of slippery tropes, and in one of his most interesting chapters describes how Dryden defends poetry when the tropological dimension of writing is associated with political violence. In Absalom and Achitophel (1681), as well as The Medall, Mac Flecknoe, and Religio Laici (all 1682), Dryden pursues two projects: In the first pair of texts, he links a monarchy’s perpetuation and legitimacy to its continuing relevance, a principle to likewise inform literary criticism (in the formation of the “canon”); and in the second pair, he defends books but would diminish the participation of the individual reader, suggesting that what is “obscure” is not worth knowing or “not necessary to be known” (RL 102). Happily, Morrissey also glances at Dryden’s [End Page 49] paradoxical admiration for the “violent, [and] impetuous,” in his preference for Homer over Virgil, for instance (an admiration, I would add, which certainly informs his plays and his dramatic criticism).
With Addison and Steel, not only does criticism move toward freestanding prose essays, it “brings speculating to criticism,” both in the sense of empirical observation and of buying and selling for profit, treating words as currency in a balanced and self-regulating market. With Pope...