Criticism, Scholarship and their Connexity - by Seun Sobola - THE BUSINESS PACKAGE


Sunday, May 7, 2023

Criticism, Scholarship and their Connexity - by Seun Sobola

Aristotle’s Poetics has abundantly revealed that criticism is an indispensable tool which literature uses to realise its goal of sensitivity and educating the audience. And that the difficulty encountered in a literary work can be resolved by subjecting it to a particular theoretical analysis.

From time beyond the memory, literature with its subtle instrument has sustained a wider readership of literary works, gave fresher insights, calmed affrayed nerves and mitigated many aberrant decodings as the social psychologists would say. Besides it connects past theories with the present with a view to providing a literary text better inherent meanings. 

To put it more accurately, criticism is an argumentative mirror that lies and tells the truth at the same time which in its principled honesty shows literature the way forward by denying it a real objective reality.

Such are the exciting portents that practical criticism can offer, that in formalist criticism, a literary work is viewed as a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms. A structuralist criticism attempts to critically assess a literary work by concentrating on signs.

A psychoanalytic critic would run a lively commentary on the nature of literary genius and how it relates to normal mental function. To a new critic, a literary text is a self-contained phenomenon made up of “physical” qualities, that is, language and literary conventions such as rhyme, meter, alliteration, plot, point of view and so on.

African approach to criticism, according to Izevbaye (1975), either the Marxist or the Negritude reevaluation, literary work would be assessed on its own terms and be used only, the internal characteristics of the literary work for critical appraisal.

Practical criticism is the assessment, evaluation and explication of a literary work by applying certain clinical techniques, which are called theories. It is therefore the direct engagement that a literary critic has with a literary work whose owner of the work he might not have known, but that beyond this, after the interpretations and demystifications of the work by the critic even a reader who had, at a time, felt that such work worth not to be read could graciously take his considerable time to read the book.

It is not just a passion of the mind but the mind of passion itself. This is so because in engaging in critical analysis of a literary work, the critic offers himself to a careful study of the work’s underlined issues, ideologies, narratives, styles, structures and thematic issues which may not be clear to the reader.

From its preemptive nature to interpret a literary work, the critic from his objective aim is solely not meant to murder or condemn a work of art by professing only the writer’s weaknesses regarding his work, but would go ahead to inform the reader about the strengths. These, of course, are products of aesthetics and theories he deploys in the critical evaluation of the work since we know a text can either rise or fall based on the internal dynamic of its own components. And we know writers write under many numberless of emotions which Wordsworth appealed to in Lyrical Ballads.

It is known that engaging in practical criticism is not to set up a frame prescription which writers must by force conform to. The critic itself must follow established codes, doctrines and theoretical principles. Therefore, following from my own little thinking, T. S. Eliot’s the historical sense” that entails an awareness “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”.

The critic is a mediator between the work and the general public and must, at the same time, present an alternative view which is his own.

One cannot detach the main purpose of practical criticism because it aims at evaluating both the quality of the author’s literary composition and his vision of, or insight into the human experience. The latter being the ‘content’ was what Aristotle in Poetics called the universal.

Literature is believed to have sprung from our inborn love of telling stories, of arranging words in pleasing patterns, of expressing in words some special aspects of our human experience. Through it we are able to make the right choices rather than wrong ones.

The readiness for literature to fail in this regard what made Plato in Republic to reject the artists since their poetry stirred up the passion for lust, desire, pain, anger rather than the nurturing of the intellect.

Apprehending this challenge, a critic who is engaging in practical criticism from his deep spirit of honesty, objectivity and independent judgement would evaluate the possibilities of human experience that has been expressed in the literary work. How important is the vision or insight in the text? Is the vision impacting the society positively or negatively? Is it not making any impact? Is it the case that the writer never considered his environment and the audience? So, wheresoever a writer seemed to have default, the critic would highlight them in order to form his opinions.

The primary necessity of practical criticism in scholarship lies in the fact that new strategies of interpretation of literature are constantly being developed to cope with the complexities of change in literary traditions. No wonder I. A. Richards asserted that the critical analysis or reading of poetry, prose and drama is an arduous discipline. Yes, and that is the reason why theories and theories keep emerging to remove the hurdles plaguing the former ones.
It is vital to say that practical criticism is valuable in scholarship because it offers different ways of interpreting creative pieces. And this brings about the availability of many plausible meanings through which assumptions being stated, would eventually proffer solutions to many diverse issues that will leave the readers to perpetually wonder. On this ground, “It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various point of view, “ espoused George Eliot in Middlemarch.

Unlike language which is hardly dynamic, literature has always been not for an age, but for all ages because of the multiplicities of interpretations it gives. I must admit, however, that literature itself is nothing but a linguistic expression.

The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, his linguistic ideas in Course in General Linguistics says that “language is a system of signs which occur in relation, rather than in isolation and created by convention; the role of language being mainly in comprehending and interpreting the world.” This means that language is primary and human experience is the product of language. Therefore, since literature does not develop in a vacuum; having impetus, shape, direction; and there is language to express human experience, then there are also human experience, that is, what had happened and manifestly possible according to Aristotle, which can be delineated through literature. And this is where practical criticism comes in hand as “it harmonises all the various and profound aspects of both language and literature, the focus of scholarship,” with the ends in view to analyzing, expounding, evaluating and classifying a creative piece.

First, is practical criticism useful in the field of semantics? Yes of course!

Holistically, semantics is the scientific study of meaning because language itself is empirical by nature. But then, do we then conclude that semantics is the search for an elusive entity called ‘meaning’? No! Semantics is rather an attempt to understand how it is that words and sentences can ‘mean’ or better still, how they can be meaningful. Thus, Wittgenstein said, ‘Do not look for the meaning of a word, look for its use.’ So, through practical criticism a critic investigates the use as something that words ‘have’ in any literal sense, and not to discover what precisely the word is. For instance, a critic would never consider plainly that the word ‘beautyful’ as used by Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones Are not yet Born as a mere mistake. Why is it not ‘beautiful’? Rather, a practical critic would see the word as either a ‘paronomasia’ or as a joke a ‘malapropism’ , but essentially some other metaphorical implications that can be attributed to the word. Certainly the ‘beautiful ones’ were some ancient Egyptian figures known for their symbol of equally human capacity for unity, cooperative action, and creative regeneration. But, that he then used ‘beautyful ones’ was simply to sum up the pervasive negativity and corruptness of the human condition in Africa. 

Again, is practical criticism necessary in the field of formalism? Yes of course!

Formalism regards literature as a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms. To a formalist a creative piece is not primarily a social, historical or biographical document rather it is a piece that can be understood only by reference to its intrinsic literary features, that is, those elements found in the creative piece itself. And as such, attention is being shifted away from ‘content’ to ‘form’.

George Lukacs argues that “the truly socio-element in literature is the form.” Because human experience all over the world is the same, it is therefore the form that puts a social stamp on literature. That is, every society has a particular manner or style of its presentation of literature and it is this manner a society presents its own creative piece that distinguishes it from other societies’ owns. Therefore, for a reader who found very hard to comprehend an absurdist play like: Waiting for Godot , such difficulty may be dealt with in practical criticism. The critic can analyse the play by stating that it lacks a clearly constructed story because the tragedy of man cannot be constructed and that the story of life itself is meaningless and senseless.

Syntax, as contained in the master’s dissertation of Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in (1965), would say that the immediate constituent analysis of a sentence must be: NP(noun phrase) + Aux(auxiliary verbs) + VP(verb phrase) to be meaningful. However, how do we then account for this composition from Coleridge:

     In Xanadu did Kublan Khan
     A stately pleasure-dome decree…

Literally we now have: VP(verb phrase) + VP(verb phrase) + NP(noun phrase). But, it is through practical criticism that his interfusion of poetic license, of inversion of word order, the creative use of “did” for the simple past tense form “decreed” and some other coined expressions would be thoroughly explained since we know that the poem would have been more accessible if it had been: “Kublan Khan decreed that a stately palace was to be built in Xanadu”.

Practical criticism throws light into semiotics, the science of signs. And here comes in too, structuralist criticism as there is only a thin line of demarcation between the two. The importance of criticism here is that readers are informed on how a text means what it means. 

Only a few, glaringly, have been mentioned. The politics of practical criticism in the realm of psychoanalytic criticism, post-structuralism, feminism, marxism, new criticism, post-colonialism, historicism and many others cannot be greater. Practical criticism plays a crucial role in scholarship in particular and literature by extension because it requires more and more researches in order to advance the boundaries of many areas of inquiry, be it language or literature. And that is why a critic is expected to be a good researcher and a good reader so as to have reference points to the criticism of the literary work before him.

It again tests the level of thinking of we students. Through it, readers who take up our criticisms to read would discover the level of our rationales, varying from the grammaticalities, the graphical presentations, and the totality of plausible meanings we have listed.

In conclusion, though it is possible for semantics to function in pragmatics, or perhaps for educational function which is a part and parcel of sociolinguistics to feature in applied linguistics, it is only in practical criticism that all these aspects of both language and literature can be put in real practices. By practices I mean analysing all those aspects in literary works.

Seun Sobola is a first class graduate of English.

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