Defining Subjectivity of Criticism

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      “Say what you will, all Criticism is, in the last analysis, subjective.” When the critic sets himself up as a guide in matters of taste and literary valuation, and delivers his opinions in that faith, we take his pronouncements without questioning because they happen to be informed and well-considered opinions. But when two critics (of nearly equal eminence) differ as to the value and significance of a new novel, play or poem, we are at a loss to know whom to trust. When the issue is further complicated by a few more critics contributing a confusing variety of judgments, we begin to wonder whether there are any objective standards of literary excellence (form or beauty) and criteria of value judgment (high seriousness, pleasure, instruction, or enlightenment) acceptable to many or more than a few. We are half-inclined to question the very seriousness of critical judgments, and their usefulness to the reader as guidelines (“Is not criticism a self-canceling business?”). The history of criticism, which is full of assertions and counter-assertions, of devaluations and re-valuations, of fulsome praise and downright dispraise about one and the same book or author, seems to confirm us in this skepticism. When the results are so variable, uncertain, and confusing, one is led to conclude that criticism is after all a matter of personal reaction, that no two persons ever read the same hook and that there are no such things as objective or universal value-criteria on which to base judgment.

      But in so concluding we are likely to forget that criticism is both an art and a science. It is a science in that it is a branch of scholarship — that, in the elucidation of a work of art, the critic is guided by objective facts of biography, or of the social milieu, or that he places the book beside others of its kind and thus arrives by comparison at an objective assessment of its excellence; or yet he may study the sources and originals and try to estimate the poet’s handiwork concerning these; or, again, he may view it in historical perspective. So far the critic is guided by concrete, objective facts. But apart from these, there is the fundamental question of the critic’s personal response to the aesthetic quality of the poem. Here is a wide area of possible disagreement owing to differences of temperament, taste and creed. Hence failure of perception or its inadequacy or total misunderstanding of intention will lead to faulty judgment. Taste varies from person to person and from age to age, which is the cause of diverse opinions as well as the revisions and revaluations that take place from time to time. While one has a distaste for romantic dreaminess, another has a hatred of too much “realism”. One age finds Milton to its taste, while the Metaphysicals suit the taste and temperament of another. Tennyson, who was rated very high in his own day, is lightly dismissed today as the exponent of a shallow creed of optimism and conventional virtue.

      Such fluctuations in taste and literary fashion apart, there are also individual likes and dislikes—as well as prejudices and preconceptions. Such were the aberrations of a Dr. Johnson in regard to ‘Lycidas’ and of a Thackeray in respect of Swift’s satire. It is surprising how even a great critic may sometimes fail to perceive what is plain to most readers. Thackeray misjudged Swift, because he thought Swift was a misanthrope. Johnson condemned ‘Lycidas’ on the ground of realism ('We know that they - the mourning shepherds - never drove afield and that they had no flocks to batten’), taking the pastoral convention too literally. Again, his own preference for neo-classical poetry, of the kind written by Pope, led him to ask, in a rhetorical vein, “If Pope be not a poet, where else is poetry to be found?” Of course, the doctor was always guilty of exaggerating when it came to defending something. But we should certainly quarrel with him for representing Pope as if he were the quintessential poet.

      When, however, criticism becomes entirely personal (leaving aside such occasional aberrations on the part of even worthy critics) as in the case of impressionistic Criticism, e. g. Lamb’s judgment of Restoration comedy, there is no predictability about the results. It becomes a kind of creation in its own turn, novel and startling in every case. Huxley is astonished that ‘so many critical brains should have been deceived by the quickness of his (Shakespeare’s) tongue.

      So, ultimately, it happens that there has been a dissenting voice in regard to every great writer, that many poets have had their share of both praise and blame, that no literary reputation, however great, is safe from ‘ debunking’.

      Well, there sometimes seems to be some sense in such dissenting voices; for, when there is a holy conspiracy among critics not only of one generation but of many generations it is well that a critic like Huxley, representing the voice of sanity and balance, does some plain-speaking. But, as is the habit of great critics, in pulling down one error they erect another. To counter the accumulated testimony of centuries, they have to use a language which shocks us by its own ineptness. But, at any rate, they do make us ‘pause and think’; it is well that we cut down Shakespeare to size. We have too long regarded him as too great to be overpraised. However, we need not be baffled by such contrariety of opinions. There is more often agreement than disagreement, though perfect accord between critic and critic is well-nigh impossible. In fact, uniformity in human endowments or ideas or reactions neither exists nor is desirable. But there is a consensus of opinion among critics at least about certain fundamentals (though these become fewer and fewer as new concepts and modes become accepted) as well as about the so called masterpieces. No significant change has taken place in critical opinion regarding Homer since Aristotle’s time. Critics, again, are nearly all agreed about Shakespeare being one of the greatest poets and dramatists of all time, though now and then a dissenting voice may have been raised.

      So, cutting across differences of taste and temperament and notwithstanding the fluctuations in literary fashion, the great masterpieces of the world have received praise from critics of differing faiths and in all ages and countries. There is, amidst the diversity of opinion, a basic core of agreement, as well as the recognition of certain objective criteria. As, for instance, when a book is recognized as a ‘classic’. So criticism can never be entirely ‘personal’ or arbitrarily subjective; nor can it ever frilly attain scientific objectivity. After all, variations in literary judgment do not hinder literary enjoyment. They but provide a balance and a correction to each other. And together they help to widen the scope of literary interpretation and understanding So criticism, by its variability, neither cancels literature, nor itself. Both survive, and survive the better for freedom of opinion and expression.

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