Tag Archives: literary criticism

Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic

Today we continue a mini-series on the philosophy of doing history. In the next few days we will take a look at all sorts of views regarding how to do history. These views range from critical realist accounts all the way to post-structuralist accounts and even some feminist accounts.


“Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde confession. In the same man there exists two persons. The first is a “historian and polemicist of literary theory, who could speak with passion, without noticeable impediment about literature as a political instrument.” (59) This man could murder a piece of literature and expose show how literary texts are devious acts of power. The second is a man who simply enjoyed the pleasures of reading good literature. One might imagine that the second man is Dr. Jekyll, a polite, composed, model citizen and that the first man is Mr. Hyde, a ruthless villain, robbing people of the pleasures of life. Although many non-academics might see things this way, the fact is that in the academy – specifically literature departments – the second man is the one who is paraded as a model to be emulated and the first is deemed to barbarous to roam the halls of the elite institutions of academia. Such a man is called “non-literary.”

In explaining his experience of living as a literary critic and a lover of literature Frank

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Frank Lentricchia

Lentricchia exposes some of the absurdities of the sort of literary criticism practiced by various approaches to the study of literature, including (but not explicitly named) the New Historicism. He explains that at one point he was convinced that as a literary critic he could “be an agent of social transformation, an activist who would show his students that, in its form and style, literature had a strategic role to play in the world’s various arrangements of power” and that all literature was “either in opposition to or in complicit with the power in place.” (60) However, Lentricchia eventually came to believe that this sort of approach to literature, which is standard in literature departments is misguided. He now believes that literary criticism is “a form of Xeroxing.” (64) Literary critics a live in an echo-chamber, when they speak of the imperialism, homophobia, sexism, etc. hidden in a literary text, they are simply voicing their own ideological concerns. Instead of being concerned with the “power plays” supposedly voiced in literary texts, Lentricchia now contents himself with simply trying to “describe what is on the page.” (67) And thus, it seems that for now Lentricchia’s Mr. Hyde, the lover of literature, has eclipsed Dr. Jekyll, the literary critic.

Analysis

This essay does a fine job of exposing the fact that literary criticism can serve as a form of political activism. The literary critic, by exposing the supposed ideologies present in great works of literature, believes she can shape and mold her audience towards pursuing a better world. There is something noble about this. However, Lentricchia, rightly in my mind, exposes the fact that in their desire to make the world a better place, some critics can read things into texts that are not actually there simply because the critic is driven by a particular agenda. This is what he calls “Xeroxing.”

The act of “Xeroxing” is a danger that is not just present for the literary critic but the historian as well. Its too easy to read sexism or racism, issues which a historian is right to be concerned with, into historical texts which are neither sexist or racist. “John Calvin did not allow women to take the pulpit in Geneva, therefore he is a sexist.” “Peter Martyr Vermigli never attempted to teach outside of Europe, therefore he is euro-centric.” These are potential examples of “Xeroxing” in the discipline church history. Lentricchia is right, we should attempt to allow our “texts” speak for themselves instead of imposing our own judgements upon “texts” for issues that “texts” are not even concerned with.


See, Frank Lentricchia, “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic,” Lingua Franca 6/6 (September/October 1996): 59-67.

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My Reading List for June Through July

For those of you who are curious, here is my reading list for the rest of June through the month of July:

Theology

  1. Karl Barth – Evangelical Theology
  2. Athanasius – De Incarnatione

Philosophy

  1. Marcus Pound – A (very) Critical Introduction to Zizek

Literature

  1. C.S. Lewis – On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature
  2. Paulo Cohello – The Alchemist

Ministry

  1. Alan Fadling – An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest
  2. Jimmy Siebert & Larry Kreider: The Three Loves
  3. Ajith Fernando – Jesus Driven Ministry
  4. Spiritual Parenting – Michelle Anthony

The Poetry of George Herbert: “The Sacrifice” (Pt. 1)

Last night I spent some time reading some of the poetry of George Herbert. It was sort of a devotional for me; sort of like spending some time listening to worship songs. As I was reading I came across one of his longer poems: “The Sacrifice.”

Situated right after “The Altar” (you know the poem, the one you read in your High School English class that is shaped like an actual altar), which shows that a broken and contrite heart is the only heart fit for offering sacrifice to God, this poem is about another broken and contrite heart that is offers sacrifice to God: Jesus.

“The Sacrifice” is written from the point of view of Jesus. It serves as a lament of sorts, with the refrain being “Was ever grief like mine?” As Jesus goes about his Passion he keeps saying those words “Was ever grief like mine?” As people are blind to see him as their savior he says “Was ever grief like mine?” As Judas, his friend, betrays him he says “Was ever grief like mine?” As his disciples fall asleep around him in Gethsemane and leave him alone he says “Was ever grief like mine?” As his own people accuse him of blasphemy he says “Was ever grief like mine?” A rhetorical move Herbert makes is that after each refrain the cadence increases slightly, that is each stanza gets read quicker and quicker. As the cadence of each stanza increases so does the gravity and pain of each betrayal. And as the gravity and pain increase so does the graphic nature of this poem. Consider the following; we almost expect Judas to betray Jesus, thus the cadence is slow and the imagery is a bit dull, but the poem moves on and climaxes (in cadence and graphic imagery) when the most unexpected betrayal occurs, the betrayal at the hands of the Father.

Over the next few days I will be taking an in depth look at a few of these stanzas, examining how they display the excellencies of Christ and the excellencies of the gospel, thus leading the reader into worship, and thus into offering a sacrifice of his own.  In my humble opinion (I am no literary critic by any means), this is exactly the response that Herbert wants to invoke. Consider this:

  1. “The Altar” tells us that only a broken and contrite heart can offer sacrifice to God.
  2. “The Sacrifice” shows us that Christ had a broken heart.
  3. “The Sacrifice” shows us that Christ’s heart is broken (grieved) because of our rejection of him.
  4. “The Sacrifice” shows us that Christ grieved for our sake.
  5. Thus Christ can offer a fitting sacrifice to God.
  6. The fact that we have grieved Christ, the one who died for our sake, should lead us to have a broken and contrite.
  7. When our heart is broken and contrite, we can and do offer sacrifice to God.

Herbert tells us what worship is, shows us the glory of Jesus’ passion, and moves us to respond by offering a pleasing sacrifice to God.

This pattern, of seeing Jesus’ grief, grieving because I put him there, and worshiping God because he sent his son is what I was doing as I was reading this poem. In that sense it was devotional. It opened up the cross in a new way for me. Seeing it from Christ’s point of view helped me to understand the love he had for me. A love that took him to the cross, for me!

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20