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In three days at the end of April, 1982, Cleanth Brooks, Gray Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric at Yale University, delivered the University of Missouri's Paul Anthony Brick Lectures. "The Primacy of the Author" is thefirst ofProfessor Brooks' three lectures, and the others—"The Primacy of the Reader" and "The Primacy of the Linguistic Medium"—will appear successively in the next two issues of The Missouri Review. THE PRIMACY OF THE AUTHOR / Cleanth Brooks ACOLLEAGUE OF mine has recently published a book which he calls Criticism in the Wilderness. I am not surprised at his title. He might well have decided to call it Criticism on the Battlefield, for ours is a day in which the critics, notoriously a splenetic lot at best, have at each other with hammer and tongs. Competition is supposed to be good for business, and I dare say that sharp debate may be good for the perfecting of critical theory. But confusion is not very helpful for any of us. What impresses me most, however, is what appears to be the disintegration of the very concept of literature. The concept is constantly having to be wrested from its enemies—and sometimes even from its alleged friends. When I was much younger, the attack on literature came particularly from the historian and the biographer, who seemed bent on making literature simply the expression of the author or, more drastically, an expression through the author of a particular culture or of a special climate of ideas. Today the main attack comes from the linguist and the psychologist. The consequence is that the notion of a specifically literary art has been called into question. Literature, an entity having a special ontological status and a special function, is under steady attack. The very definition of literature has become cloudy and indeterminate. In the beginning of civilization, literature served all kinds of purposes. It preserved and transmitted the myths, legends, and authentic histories of a people, their religious beliefs, and even their customs and laws. We know that the Greeks regarded the Homeric poems as something resembling our Holy Scriptures. Literature was thought to be a rich manifold. The notion of a specific aesthetic function had not appeared. Thus, as one would suppose, in primitive cultures, the scientist, the priest, the physician, and the poet were often merged in one person. Even when the great classical theorists and our first literary critics come on the scene—Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus—they do not agree on what literature is and does. Moreover, they are all largely preoccupied with the practical effects of poetry on the human being. Plato warned against possibly dangerous effects. Horace was concerned with what use, along with its pleasure, literature Cleanth Brooks The Missouri Review · 262 might provide. Longinus stressed the power of literature to transport us into a more exalted realm of feeling. Even Aristotle, in spite of his admirable stress on the structure—the make-up—of a literary work, also speaks of a catharsis, a purging of the emotions of pity and terror, which tragedy accomplishes. Let me hasten to say that I am not condemning the great classical authorities for their concern with what literature might accomplish for the human being who participates in it. I agree that literature does serve to discipline our emotions, that it can enlarge our sympathies, and that it may provide us with a special and indispensable kind of knowledge. Literature has always been a powerful force in any humanistic education. Yet history and philosophy seem to touch more directly upon the springs of human actions. Literature, by contrast, is much more indirect. In saying this, I am not forgetting that the declared purpose of some poems is didactic. But even in these poems, an indirect presentation plays a more important role than ethical and philosophical admonition. For example, Milton tells us in the opening lines of Paradise Lost that his purpose is to "justify the ways of God to men," and there is no reason to doubt that this was what he hoped to do. But what we actually have in the poem is a wonderful interconnected story of events in heaven and hell and upon...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 161-172
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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