The Sociological and The Biographical Method of Criticism

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      The Sociological method of criticism, which is a division of the historical method, was propounded by the French historian Taine. The essence of his approach to the study of literature is contained in the formula — ‘the race, the milieu and the moment’. The ‘race’ is the characteristic disposition or distinctive genius of a people. By ‘milieu’ is meant the social set-up, the physical environment or the surroundings. And ‘moment’ refers to the spirit or momentum prevailing at a particular phase in the development of the national ethos.

      These three aspects of a writer summed up, for Taine, the entire meaning and reference of his work. He held that the man of letters, howsoever individual and unique, is not an isolated phenomenon, but a product of his time. He is also a product of the society into which he is born, as he is of the physical circumstances and the spirit prevailing at a given time and place. His work is the combined result of these forces. It reflects at once the racial disposition, the immediate historical circumstances, and the moral climate of the society in his time. In short, every work of literature is indirectly a tract in social history, and a document in time.

      Taine, therefore, traced the history of English literature in terms of the typical works of typical Englishmen who emerged at successive periods of the national history of England.

      There is great truth in Taine’s assumptions, no doubt. They bear out Goethe’s dictum that every man is a citizen of his age as well as his country, and also what Renan (19th C. French historian and writer) meant when he said that one belongs to one’s century and race even when one reacts against that century and that race. The individual is at once a product and a representative of the national disposition as well as of the peculiar spirit of the age in which he writes.

      Schlegel (German literary historian) had, before Taine, studied literature in a similar spirit, but it was Taine who gave it biological exactness. The method is based, as we have already noted, on a substantial truth. For a work of art does not dwell in a vacuum. It is located in time and place and also rooted in the genius of the race. Homer is not Homer but all Greece of the 9th century B.C., fashioning for itself an instrument of expression through him. Shakespeare is not mere Shakespeare; he sums up in himself the culture, the ideals and the creative urges of the age in which he lived and wrote.

      But the method overlooks one significant factor, which is the individual variation. Two people may belong to the same race and to the same age; yet their works may be widely different in character. There is a world of difference between the contemporaries, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare.

      A second objection to the theory is that a great writer, in any age or country, can never be explained wholly as a product and result of his race and age. In so far as he is an exceptional and original genius, he transcends the limitations of time and geography, and belongs to all times and all countries at once. He becomes a part of the universal heritage. Shakespeare was not of an age but for all time. So, an original genius is as much a creator, a seminal force, as he is a creation and a product.

      Literature cannot be reduced to a branch of sociology Sainte — Beuve (19th C. French critic and poet) knew the limitations of the sociological explanation of literature. There are always fine spirits, he held, who will seek their proper ideal and obey the law of their own being, and who cannot be written down as mere products of the age or race. (Recoiling from the judicial approach of Classical and Neo-classical critics, Scherer had taken a flexible stand which includes the historical principle of Taine, but at the same time approaches the method of Sainte-Beuve. Out of the analysis of the writer’s character and the study of his age, said he, there issues a right understanding which provides the criterion for judging of the value and place o f his work.)

      Sainte-Beuve advocated what is known as the Biographical method in criticism. It was a corrective to Taine’s historical or sociological method. The theory of the race, the milieu and the moment failed to explain why no two men of the same race and age are alike. So the clue to an understanding of the differences in genius and temperament between two men of the same age and race must be sought in the facts of biography. Where Taine had seen only the deterministic forces of race and the time­spirit in the making of literature, Sainte-Beuve saw the individual spirit which, howsoever it may belong to the time and the race amidst which it is born and lives, yet transcends the barriers of age and geography.

      So, Sainte-Beuve held that to understand a work of literature, the understanding of the author is essential. Unless we know the character of the man, we cannot confidently judge his work. Ignorance of the man is a handicap to appreciation. The connection is so close between the man and the writing that you could say, “If you can but tell me what kind of man the writer is, I will tell you what kind of work his is”. So the first task of the critic is to define the man. Then only will he have defined his work.

      In the understanding of a literary work, then, biography was the principal means. But Sainte-Beuve advocated a strictly scientific use of it. Like a naturalist, the critic must go over the entire field. He must start with the race, the country and the age in which the author was born. (Sainte-Beuve’s method, then, included the sociological principle but went beyond it.) The critic must then inquire into the author’s parentage and upbringing. He must study the childhood, early youth and the adult phase of the author’s life. Of particular significance are the ‘group’ in which the author as a young man exchanged ideas, and the ‘critical moment’ which is the poetic moment or the true birth date of the writer. The unfolding of the author’s adult self through successive stages must also receive close attention. In short, the critic must use every relevant fact — the man’s religion, his friends, loves, attitude to nature etc. He must take every clue that the writer’s biography affords towards understanding the man. And in the light of understanding, he must define the man: that, according to Sainte-Beuve, is the critic’s job. Out of a scientific study of all the relevant data of history and sociology, the writer’s genealogy and biography, he must construct the image of the writer which explains the spirit and character of his writings. Herein comes the creative role of the critic. In tracking that elusive quality which makes the personal temperament of the artist, the critic must himself be an artist. The critic must not only know the science of his trade, but he must also possess the artist’s eye. Criticism, as Sainte-Beuve said, is “an art requiring a clever artist.”

      Sainte-Beuve, however, seems to reduce the whole business of the critic to a formula. He would have the critic define his author in the same way as he himself summed up Chateaubriand:’ an epicurean with a catholic imagination’. This is how he expected the critic to sum up the character of his subject “under a characteristic name”. That “characteristic name” should, at a glance, summon before our eyes the distinctive personal force behind the man’s work.

      The method suffers from one limitation. It is that, what is in the life may not be in the literature, and vice versa. The man who experiences and the man who creates are two different selves, as Eliot points out. At least, there would always be some part of the writer which eludes a biographical explanation.

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