Arnold: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

The most striking thing about works of fiction is that they can at once both compress and display complex and nuanced ideas in an efficient manner. You have most likely had the experience of reading a poem, book or story where, at the end, your mind is racing with ideas previously unthought. Not because they were laid bare through the methodical and systematic expounding labors of the author, but because the sheer momentum of one word leading on to another. The text began, middled and ended, and thus your reading left you with impressions enough to last for a long ponder indeed.

The ability to produce such feats of literary wonder is not evenly distributed, however. We all have some notion of becoming the next big author and moving the world to tears and remorseful introspection through our epic storytelling feats. However, lack of time, self-confidence or possibilities to spend countless hours, days, months on crafting and recrafting the same text over and over and over again until it becomes the best read it can possibly be – prohibits us. There always seems to be some practical matter to attend to before writing can commence, and thus the notion remains in the realm of possibility. But the reading continues.

The title of Arnold’s lecture turned essay is interesting in and of itself. The function of criticism at the present time has, as you can see, two promises regarding what is to follow. The first is to outline the function of criticism in some generality, and the second is to apply this to the present time and place. Arnold fulfills both promises by intertwining them – the function or criticism at this time is the same as the function of criticism at any time, which is to say the function of criticism in general. The difference being that it’s easier to get audiences to listen/read at this time if it is made relevant to the present, rather than just stated in general terms. It is a subtle title for a subtle move, yet it performs the duty of conveying the role of criticism admirably.

This role is precisely to not be in the present time. Or, rather, to view the present through the perspective of times that are long gone, are fading from living memory, have just passed, might be tomorrow and – to spark controversy – might happen upon us further ahead. It is to take note of present passions, to note that there have been similar sentiments before, and to remind those listening that there might be lessons to be learnt from these forgotten events. That the lessons of the past are not past us, as it were.

These passions often present themselves in the form of literary works, and the critic has a role in critiquing these. Especially those who arouse popular approval or is particularly effective in conveying the subtle aspects of the times. Not for lack of manifestos and academics extolling these very same ideas in clear prose with explicit lines of argument, but because (academics and writers of manifestos will have to forgive me) these literary works are far more efficient at garnering audiences of sufficient size to affect societal change. And, conversely, because these very same changes are expressed in these very same works.

The role of the critic is to step back, analyze and unpack the ideas these works contain. And, more importantly, to express it in such a way that contemporary readers can understand the hows, whats and whys – to lay bare what the work accomplishes in its efficient compression of ideas, and to connect these ideas to a broader context. And, hopefully, to give rise to ponderings of longer endurance than the works in and of themselves are probable to do. The critic is, in a sense, also a pedagogue.

Arnold warns that the act of critiquing will, inevitably, backfire. For two reasons. The first being that critiques often seem impractical on the face of them, and that there are more immediate things to attend to. Practical matters of commerce, industry and politics need to be addressed before the airy fairy luxury of books and poems can be properly perused. If Maslow had been around during Arnold’s time, the comparison would have been made: first things first, and then those things that depend on these. In that order. Practical people prioritizing practical pursuits.

The second reason is that an untimely critique will most likely be misconstrued as a disagreement. Even doing something as simple as taking a core tenet of a work and placing it within a historical or ideological (in both senses of the word) context can be read as an attack on this tenet, and those who hold it to be dear will respond as if attacked. Arnold describes how he suddenly found himself at odds with his peers after pointing out that a contemporary was less original than the hyperbole praised him to be. It was interpreted as a breach of unity of the group, and punished as such. The fact that Arnold was right didn’t change much, alas.

Taken together, these two reasons serve to further outline the virtues of the critic – to dare to be not immediately useful in order to get at what is deemed important in the longer term. If critique was indeed impractical, it wouldn’t be able to incite anger at those who perform it; and if it can incite anger, it serves a role in explaining and contextualizing other similar passions of the present. Being a clear, concise critic entails using the best ideas at hand in order to as succinctly as possible give word to these sentiments and convey them to a general audience. The risk of alienating readers in the short term is the price to pay for (re)formulating ideas that will last longer than the present outrage.

Arnold lived and worked in the 19th century, well before concepts such as “media representation” made their appearance. This does not change the fact that the second promise of the title is still kept to this day, in that criticism still has a function. Even more now, as the amount of literary works surrounding us has increased manifold, both in terms of volume and mediation. It is not hard to name movies, songs or computer games that have, each in their own way, moved us through the sheer momentum of their continuation. And there is ample room for critiques of these works to make their significance that much more eternal.

While not all of us will become great writers, it is not too utopian to hope that we will become greater readers. –

Arnold: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

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