In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Shorter Reviews137 be addressed, and the relationship between justice and such key notions in Greek moral thought as truth, envy, and arete, should be examined. University of IllinoisMatthew W. Dickie at Chicago Circle The Critical Act: Criticism and Community, by Evan Watkins ; xii & 251 pp. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978, $15.00 There are certain questions with which Marxist literary criticism is always confronted: "Doesn't dialectical thinking by its very nature preclude any real attention to literary form? Doesn't it require the critic to become involved in considerations extraneous to an understanding of literature? Doesn't it condemn him to making insidious valuejudgements based on these extraliterary concerns? And finally, doesn't it in fact reduce literature to nothing more than a disguised hieroglyph of an underlying social reality?" (p. 21). In The Critical Act: Criticism and Community, Evan Watkins makes an attempt to answer these and similar questions. But this does not mean that he confines himself to a specifically Marxist problematic. On the contrary, Watkins's approach is extraordinarily broad—indeed, the reader takes a risk of losing his way among the sheer number of authors discussed. For Watkins is actually attempting a summing up and evaluation of the major discussions within the literary theory of recent decades. Reasonably enough, he takes the New Criticism as his starting point—especially the problem of "poetic autonomy." Watkins tries to solve it in making use of the aesthetic ideas of Benedetto Croce and, even more, of Giovanni Gentile and hispensieropensante. It is a bit surprising, perhaps, to find a Marxist critic making allegiance to the fascist Gentile, who met his death ignominiously at the hands of Communist partisans. But what brings them together is, of course, their common Hegelian ancestry. Watkins understands the work of art "as a fully dialectical act of thinking, as being, nonbeing and becoming" (p. 17). The work of art is autonomous in its immediacy. At the same time, its autonomy is mediated—through the artist who created it, through the social world where the creation took place. What is introduced here is the Hegelian motif of unity in diversity. Diversity—art is one thing, society is another—should not be explained away, as vulgar Marxism would like it. Nor should unity, as the New Criticism was apt to do. There is more than this in Gentile's formula pensiero pensante, however. The dialectic between subject and object means that the literary work could not be an autonomous object even in its relation to the reader—or the critic. Rather, the reader's response is the creation of something new, a "fusion of horizons" as Hans-Georg Gadamer has it. A reciprocal community arises where the literary work shows an unexpected capacity of "talking back." 138Philosophy and Literature The idea of such a community is central to Watkins's conception of literature, which he demonstrates in a series of analyses of the works of Tomlinson, Faulkner, and Merwin. This means that the critic's reading of a poem involves both a moment of identification "and a moment of critical integrity which requires him to respect the difference between himself as critic and the author of the poem. As a consequence, criticism can be judgmental, even antagonistic, and still realize the fineness and inclusiveness of the work being studied" (p. 216). It is not surprising, given his adherence to dialectics, that Watkins rejects the structuralist criticism of Barthes or Derrida. To structuralism the literary work is precisely an object to be described. Nor is the structuralist able to understand his own activity as interaction. The critic's language is seen as a meta-language only to be understood through a new meta-language, and so forth. To Watkins, structuralist criticism stands as an example of bourgeois, reified consciousness. The Critical Act is not a beginner's book. The theories it discusses are intensely complicated and they lose nothing of their complexity in Watkins's exposition. The reader is rewarded for his labors, however, through the boldness of Watkins's project and the ingeniousness of many of the solutions he proposes to some of the most difficult problems of modern critical theory. University of...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 137-138
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.