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  • Criticism and Judgment
  • Robert S. Lehman

In his seminal 1937 essay "Criticism, Inc.," the founder of the American New Criticism John Crowe Ransom describes literary criticism in the following terms: "Criticism," he writes, "is the attempt to define and enjoy the aesthetic or characteristic values of literature."1 This brief account of what we do, or ought or do, as critics appears in Ransom's essay very much in passing, in the context of an attack on New Humanist moralism.2 There is no reason to believe that Ransom means for it to be anything like a definitive statement on the aims of the discipline. And as the essay progresses, Ransom makes clear that the approach to literature that he is prescribing "shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object rather than its effects upon the subject."3 Enjoyment, then, as well as those evaluative terms that convey enjoyment—"moving, exciting, entertaining, pitiful; great, if I am not mistaken, and admirable, on a slightly different ground; and, in strictness, beautiful itself"—these have no place in an objective criticism.4 Nonetheless Ransom's initial formulation deserves attention, not so much because in its brevity and offhandedness it undercuts loftier appraisals of our work, but because—like a perfect New Critical poem—it manages to pack into a relatively small linguistic container a remarkably complex ideational content. Again, criticism is the attempt to define and enjoy the aesthetic or characteristic values of literature. What Ransom has done here is bring together two conceptions of literary criticism (and, at least implicitly, two conceptions of the literary object) whose complementarity is easy to assume only so long as they are kept safely apart. First, there is the notion that to criticize is to define the characteristic values of literature; and, second, there is the notion that to criticize is to enjoy the aesthetic values of literature. The first task finds the critic doing to literature something very much like what Ransom is doing to criticism: dissecting it, figuring out how it works. The second task—which is probably better described as an invitation—locates the critic in the same position as the perhaps uncritical reader, who finds pleasure in the words on the page. In most metacritical writings, these two tasks—let's say the task of formal analysis, on the one hand, and the task of (or invitation to) aesthetic judgment, on the [End Page 1105] other—are distributed between distinct individuals or across discrete moments. So, we can tell a story in which judgment begets analysis, with the critic (or critic-to-be) struck by a poem, a painting, or a piece of music that he or she then labors to understand. Or we can tell a story in which analysis begets judgment, a story in which the fruits of critical analysis help the amateur finally to grasp, and so to enjoy, a particular work of art. At least in the aforecited epigram, Ransom steers clear of these stories; instead, he brings analysis and judgment together through that least narrative of all figures, chiasmus—define and enjoy / aesthetic or characteristic—the effect of which is further secured through the ambiguity of the culminating reference to literature's values. This gesture having been made, enjoyment is pushed out of "Criticism, Inc."—and out of New Criticism proper—as an instance of what will, a decade later, be termed "the affective fallacy."5

In what follows, I am going to focus on the relationship between formal analysis and aesthetic judgment, on why this relationship is problematic in a way that most contemporary critics fail to recognize (blinded, perhaps, by just-so stories or rhetorical slights-of-hand), and on what it would mean to bring analysis and judgment together in a way that might be productive for the discipline of literary studies.6 If I begin with Ransom, the reason is not that I take his work or the work of any of the New Critics to be a model of how to accomplish this task. The reason, rather, is that this work tends to be characterized—by its supporters, by its detractors, and occasionally by the New Critics themselves—as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 1105-1132
Launched on MUSE
2020-12-03
Open Access
No
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