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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New Criticism and "Meaning"

By Abdeslam Badre


"What is new criticism and the various assumptions formulated by the new critics, and the limitations together with the drawbacks as well as the strengths of this  mode of criticism?"



New criticism is a literary approach or a mode of reflection in literary works which has emanated from and chiefly dominated the American literary criticism, with the publication of New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom. Before its emergence, critics were concerned in their analysis of texts with the historical context and the author’s biographies in an attempt to uncover the meaning of the text. Accordingly, they depended on an extrinsic analysis, focussing mainly on the elements outside the text for interpretation.


However, this common mode of analysis was rejected by the new critics. For the latter , the poem, which is synonymous to any literary work be it writing or painting, is a self-enclosed and a concrete entity. It has an objective existence, and can therefore only be objectively evaluated: with no feeling as was the case with the romantics, or moral values as believed the new humanists, or impression in the work’s beauty as did the impressionists. Thus the new critics apply an intrinsic analysis of the text, focussing on the “words on the page”, not on any thing outside it. Thy overlooked the author’s historical background along with influence of his life on his work of art.


American new criticism has derived some of its principles from some British critics and writers  who helped lay the foundation of this form of criticism. The idea that criticism should be directed to the poem and not the poet was borrowed from T. S. Eliot. In many of his critical essays, he insisted that a poet does infuse the poem with his or her personality &emotions, but uses language to incorporate within the text his/her experiences that are similar to human beings’. That is, the poet does not reflect his/her personal feelings & experiences, but simply mirrors experiences which are basically shared by everybody. I. A. Richard has also contributed to this movement through his books, such as Literary Criticism & Science and Poetry.


Clean Brooks, Robert Warren , and W. K. Wimsatt are among the prominent  figures who adopted new criticism as a mode of textual analysis. Despite some individual differences concerning the various elements that constitute a poem, they shared a number of similarities. First, they asserted that a poem has ontological status: possessing its own being. For them a poem should be regarded as independent and self-sufficient body. Second, they considered the poem as an artifact and autonomous unit, with its own structure. Third, they believed that the meaning of a given text must not be equated with the authors intentions. Indeed, they warn against critical modes which localize the text meaning in the private experience  or intention of its author. The new critic referred to this tendency as the “intentional fallacy”, pointing out that  if reliance on the author’s intentions misleads the critic towards this fallacy. Likewise,  they warned against the “affective fallacy” which stations the reader or the author’s emotional response to the center for the  interpretation of the text. The new critics held that the poem is neither the author’s nor the reader’s own: once it is published, it becomes public and cut off the emotions of its creator. Forth, they adopted the strategy of closure, that is a text is a self-enclosed entity, sealed of the outside world; accordingly, a critic should interact  with it through a close reading: stick to the text and outlook what is outside it to produce meaning. Fifth, one important point for the N. Critics is that literature is verbal: form/structure and content/meaning go together and constitute a verbal organization of devices. They believed that a poem cannot be understood through paraphrasing. This error, they called, “ heresy of paraphrase” . that is no simple paraphrasing of the poem can lead to its actual meaning, though they did not deny that the paraphrasing of a poem may help for only an initial understanding. Finally, the new critics disregard the distinction between literary genres, for what is essential for them in the text is not characters or plot, but the paradoxes, ironies, and images.


Cleanth Brooks and Robert Warren re-commanded a method of analysis to approach a text from new criticism perspective. A critic should begin with a full and innocent immersion in the poem then raise inductive questions that would lead the critic to examine the materials within the text. Brooks focussed on the point of innocence  approach of the text, meaning to disregard any outside element that may affect the reader’s judgement.


            However, new criticism, like any critical mode of reflection, has its areas of strengths as well as drawbacks. The fact that new criticism made a science of literary criticism by following  objective analysis and evaluation is one of the advantages of this mode, adding to that the professional discipline it provided. Also, it developed  closes reading which is an important principle for analyzing poetry. This strategy leads to a complete criticism of the text without leaving any unasked question or gaps within it. However, the rejection of the historical context together with notion of intertextuality, reception, and gender are the inefficiencies of the new critics. They also give importance to the text and literature, but relegate the role of the author and literary criticism, which creates a sort of passive reader.


            To put it in nutshell, new criticism is a theory broke with the previous theories that followed traditional ways of interpretation, depending mainly on an extrinsic strategy. It has also rejected the idea that great literature is the product of the great man, since ,for them , the author has no authority over the text. The attempt to find the author within the text or the work of art through the author can simply mislead toward either the intentional or the affective fallacies. Left to be said, that new criticism, unlike many of the critical approaches, did not set up any kind of theory under which their study might be carried out.

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