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  • On Being Criticized
  • Grace Lavery (bio)

Several of the Essays which are here collected and reprinted had the good or the bad fortune to be much criticised at the time of their first appearance. I am not now going to inflict upon the reader a reply to those criticisms; for one or two explanations which are desirable, I shall elsewhere, perhaps, be able some day to find an opportunity; but, indeed, it is not in my nature,—some of my critics would rather say, not in my power,—to dispute on behalf of any opinion, even my own, very obstinately.

—Matthew Arnold1

But all his homeless reverence, revolted, cried: "I am my father's forum and he shall be heard, Nothing shall contradict his holy final word, Nothing." And thrust his gift in prison till it died,

And left him nothing but a jailor's voice and face, And all rang hollow but the clear denunciation Of a gregarious optimistic generation That saw itself already in a father's place.

—W. H. Auden2

In Criticism

A history of literary criticism derived from the "Acknowledgements" pages of the genre's major texts might tell us a number of things we already know. Chiefly, it might confirm that while the particularities of marital devotion with which such encomia traditionally conclude have changed since F. R. Leavis reported [End Page 499] writing out of a "sense of my immeasurable indebtedness" to his wife and colleague Queenie, and our more familiar paeans to my most assiduous reader, the couple form itself has proven more durable than readers who skip over the paratext may have felt inclined to predict.3 Yet the language of debt—which Leavis, conventionally enough, treats as a prior condition of writing literary criticism—conceals as much as it reveals. Since the body of The Great Tradition concludes with a celebration of the "really great" Joseph Conrad, for instance, a reader might be interested to learn that the phrase "sense of immeasurable indebtedness" is taken (presumably unwittingly—but, seriously, who knows?) from Conrad's 1919 essay "The Crime of Partition," an encomiastic acknowledgement of what the Collier's editor calls "the 'irrepressible vitality' of the Polish nation."4 In that case, however, Conrad insists that "a sense of immeasurable indebtedness" will not serve as a basis for self-determination, since any such gratitude "is always at the mercy of weariness and is fatally condemned by the instability of human sentiment to end in negation" ("The Crime of Partition," 40). Leavis, no doubt, can hardly be faulted for having failed consciously to register any wariness around the language of debt in Conrad's argument. Leavis's flagging, paratactical syntax seems to know as his lexis does not that criticism has not been born, sinless, from a sentimental attachment: "my sense of my immeasurable indebtedness, in every page of this book, to my wife cannot be adequately expressed, and I cannot express it at all without an accompanying consciousness of short-comings—no one but myself has any part in them—that makes me insist at the same time on my claim to all the responsibility" (The Great Tradition, 7).

Any attempt to embed the work of criticism in the social and psychic network glimpsed, disavowed, exhibited, or peacocked in such textual acknowledgements would inevitably have to confront a countervailing account that might call itself "Arnoldian"—an account according to which any critical project worth the name must begin by divesting itself of such "interest" in the pursuit of "the object as in itself it really is."5 The source for such an argument would likely be Matthew Arnold's essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," which is generally taken to argue (to two readerships: poorly-read but sentimental romantic poets and philistine British liberals) that the critical enterprise must absent itself from practical concerns. "[L]et criticism leave church-rates and the franchise alone," as Arnold puts it ("The Function of Criticism," 273). The purpose of this article, however, is to render such a rebuttal more difficult by demonstrating that Matthew Arnold himself, relentlessly and at substantial psychic expense, understood criticism as a socially embedded act of...


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