What is Criticism: Definition & Explanation

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      Criticism is something that comes natural to us; it is as natural as breathing. It often takes the form of airing one’s opinion. We set ourselves up as critics at the merest call, and pass judgment in matters of fashion, food, laws, governance, indeed anything and everything—only there may be differences of degree in openness, in being ‘free and frank’, and in fairness, or unfairness, if you like. (And that is the reason why the word ‘criticism’ carries an undertone of unfairness.) But this is the general meaning of the word ‘criticism’, which has also a specific use in the discussion of letters and matters literary. It is the exercise of judgment in literatim. In other words, it may be defined as a humane study concerned with the principles of literary judgment in general or the analysis of individual works of literature with a view to tracking the mystery that was in the poet’s soul at the time of creation, to putting together the vision that inspired him, and laying bare the mechanics whereby he achieved (or failed to achieve) the triumph he did (or did not). In short, it is an attempt to come to grips with a work of art so as to bring out its precise beauty and power as also assess its worth, ft thus paving the way for a just understanding and appraisal of works of art Literature-writing and Literature-discussion are a joint enterprise whose end is literary enjoyment.

      Where there exists a long and continuous tradition of literary, enjoyment, criticism becomes as important an activity literature-writing. As long as we take communication to be the literature, the critic justifies his existence by serving as a middleman between writer and reader and thus helping towards fruitful and complete communication.

      Works of art that are seemingly simple and unfold their meaning and beauty even to an unpractised reader, without the benefit of commentary, are of very rare occurrence. Even they can be shown to yield a richer treasure at the hands of a critic. The response that great literature calls for is of a well-informed and sensitive kind. This is something which the ordinary reader is incapable of, incompetent to perform. It needs a specialist, an expert who brings not only a refined sensibility matching that of the original writer, but also a knowledge of both life and literature which qualifies him to pass judgment on the literary work. The critic may, therefore, be said to be the ideal reader who re­creates the poet’s vision, lives through the experience with the same intensity as the creative writer, and feels the power and beauty of his creation as fully as is possible. He is an ally of the creative writer in so far as they, together, help to diffuse literary culture and make literary enjoyment possible. The critic comes to the aid of the creative writer, translating his vision into a language which the ordinary man can understand, disengaging the power and beauty of the original work for the benefit of others. In the process, he also becomes the reader’s guide and companion. He is a literary voyager, a skilled navigator who lays out the guidelines for those adventuring among books—a tourist guide pointing out the beauty spots in the domain of literature.

      In a sense, every intelligent and keenly responsive reader, who discovers for himself the rich treasures of the world of aesthetic creation becomes a critic in so far as he can reconstruct the author’s dream. Even he who utters the comment, ‘How fine!’ is offering criticism, in a way. But he does not, to all intents and purposes, become a critic until he sets up publicly and officially to interpret a work of art for others, and to pronounce judgment. The critic is a man who not only says, I know what I like’ but also proceeds to avow his enthusiasm, his likes and dislikes more systematically. He is a literary evangelist who is out to convert others to his view, to his interpretation, to his faith. This means that he should give a reasoned expose or an analysis of the qualities of a work of art, holding up for our attention and admiration those parts wherein its excellence resides, and tracking his responses to their stimuli in the work of art. He thus instructs the ordinary reader in the art of appreciation, telling him what is good for him, and what he may look for in a particular work of art and what in it is good or the reverse. As a result, the reader who has neither the talent nor the training of the (professional) critic is guided into a just appreciation and appraisal of the work in hand.

      But just as it is the business of the critic to point out the virtues, and recommend to the reader what he himself has enjoyed and admired, it is equally his duty to condemn what he considers as flaws or deficiencies. He shall, therefore, deal out praise or blame where it is due, without fear or favor or mincing matters. He shall say wherein a work of art is deficient, or fails of its purpose or the test of truthfulness, or offends against the canons of aesthetics. He shall establish the relation between literature and life and, if a particular piece of literature is wanting in verisimilitude or truth to life, or if an author has failed in perception through deficient sensibility, or if there is a communication gap through deficient technique, he shall point these out.

      Hence, criticism must, at some stage, pass beyond mere appreciation and involve value judgment (or assessment). Appreciation is more on the side of praise than of blame, the appreciator only picking out the beauties for mention, just hinting at the quality of the pieces which he has chosen to hold up for admiration. It is enthusiastic, personal, and impressionistic, and hence not concerned with value-judgment. Value­judgement involves comparison, a knowledge of standards of excellence, an unerring sense of the canons of taste and literary value. The critic either builds up a system of values out of judgments on individual works of art, or derives his judgments from a set of pre-conceived rules governing art and artistic excellence. He may place the work of art among others of its kind and give a comparative estimate, or he may arrange the works of art in a hierarchy of grades.

      Exposition, analysis and interpretation have assumed increasing importance in recent trends in criticism. At the lowest level of exposition is the textual editor, who clears the wood of textual tangles, elucidates what is obscure or difficult, and thus acts as a path-finder leading the reader to the heart of the text. At a higher level stands the interpreter who analyses the work of art in terms of its images and organization and statement, and thus builds up an integrated picture. The critic as interpreter deliberately abjured the function of the judge; for, according to him, judgment is not his business. He must meet the author on his own terms. Value­ judgements are extraneous to his task. The frame of reference should be that provided by the artist himself or the particular poem or novel or play which one is considering.

      Yet, passing of judgment is implied in any analysis of a work of art, though there be no explicit statement of it or obvious comparison with other works of its kind.

      Of course, canons of taste are not absolute and final. Hence there may be differences of opinion as between one critic and another. The taste of one country or age might differ from that of another country or age. Yet art, all the world over, and in all ages, has been governed by certain general principles of more or less universal validity. Except for subjective variations and critical fetishes and aberrations, there is a consensus among critics about the great literary works of the world — the “classics”.

      Now, criticism may be defined from another angle. The critic is the counterpart of the artist. If the artist’s work is that of creation, the critic’s is re-creation. He traces the same path as is trodden by the artist, but in reverse. He starts where the poet has ended up (i.e. Form) and arrives at the poet’s starting point (i.e. Life). What is needed for this task is ‘empathy’, the power of seeing into the heart of the author or his work. The critic defines the whole in terms of its parts, while in the poet’s vision the wholeness comes first, the parts fall into place. The critic, therefore, in his turn, becomes a creator. The faculties involved in both creation and criticism are identical. They are two faces of the same coin. One is complementary to the other. If literature is ‘an interpretation of life’, criticism is an interpretation of that interpretation.

      One classic objection may now be answered. And it is that the critic is a parasite and his existence an impertinence; that, in other words, a critic is the symptom of a decadent literary culture.

      Our answer is that both creation and criticism are signs of a living culture; that literature which seems self-explanatory has deeper levels of meaning, form and texture, which men of sharpened sensibilities and trained intelligence alone can perceive, and which their informed judgment alone can properly evaluate. ‘The vision and the faculty divine’—translated by the poet into word-symbols, sounds and imagery (or into plot and character by the novelist or play-Wright)—needs to be interpreted in terms which the average reader can understand. Secondly, though criticism can never be a substitute for creation, and will always be secondary, its importance cannot be minimized. Thirdly, the critic has, in periods of literary confusion and loss of perspective among the rising generation of poets, sought to give the lead, instead of being just a follower. Such critics have been major poets themselves (like Dryden, Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot) and their criticism is in the nature of an attempt to understand and formulate their own literary heritage in times of changing ideals and shifting values.

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