Scholarship and Literary Criticism

Albert Feuillerat

When our descendants—some three or four hundred years hence—consider the development of literature in the nineteenth century, they will probably realize that our age was marked, in the domain of criticism, by a revolution comparable to the revolution accomplished in man’s thought at the time of the Renaissance. In both cases, indeed, do we find a similar emancipation of the mind from old beliefs, an unprecedented broadening of outlook, an awakening to new methods.

For several centuries criticism had continued under the strict rule of authority. Having grown out of a deep respect for Latin and Greek thought, it was content with choosing models for every kind of literature, and giving them out as standards by which all other works—ancient and modern alike—could be measured and rated. Aristotle was the dictator who had set up certain rules which served to pass judgment upon the worth of any author, and these “canons”—not always clearly expressed or clearly understood—no one would have dared to question. The ancients had done so well that the best way to succeed, it was thought, was to imitate them. “Follow the ancients” was a very simple but comprehensive recommendation which cleared all doubts. And as a consequence of this submissive attitude the critics busied themselves especially—if not exclusively—with matters of form rather than of thought. To give definitions of the different kinds of poetry, to know whether an author had written in accordance with the rules of the kind, whether he had conformed to the type recognized as the only true model, such was the sole aim of criticism in those times when judicial criticism triumphed. And it is no wonder that towards the end of the eighteenth century this sort of criticism had for long exhausted its possibilities, and had degenerated into futile discussions as to what should be avoided instead of devoting itself to the discovery of the excellent points in the works discussed. In fact, criticism was dying of its own inaptitude to develop.

It was against this death-in-life state of things that the nineteenth century reacted, when it violently pulled down the old idols, acted in defiance of all rules, and vindicated the right freely to express one’s likes and dislikes. I am no admirer of the Romantic critics: their judgments, however brilliant and penetrating they sometimes may be, are too personal to my taste and look too much, as has been said, like a “mere wilderness of ill-founded and partial individualisms.” Impressionism, their foster-child is not, on the whole, more creative than the older criticism. But the lawlessness of the period had at least the salutary effect of clearing the ground of all the obstacles that stood on the way of progress. Thus was born that spirit of independence in judgment which is the very soul of any criticism worthy of the name. Unrepressed by strict narrow laws, the mind could dominate the works it wanted to appraise; it discovered many lands which had never been visited, and it eagerly gave itself up to the task of exploration. Broader ranges of thought were recognized and widely opened. Criticism was born again.

And indeed, in fifty years—roughly from 1840 on to 1890—more progress was made than in all the other centuries put together. New forms were brought to life in rapid succession and criticism became so universal that it actually borrowed from other branches of intellectual activity their aims and their methods. First it was recognized that literature, in order to be viewed in its proper perspective, should be studied in the light of history. It was found necessary to analyze the circumstances under which the author wrote and to re-create the environment or atmosphere. The age in which a work was produced was considered in its sociological, political, and psychological aspects; the lives of the literary artists were ransacked to show the relation between the author and his thought. The text was submitted to a searching examination so that its philological status might be defined. The effect produced by a book was followed through the ages and its influence carefully noted as a sign of its vitality.

The trouble began when the critics, not content with adopting the scientific method, assumed that criticism was a science.

Then, as the historical side of criticism developed more and more, it was seen that no national literature is independent of other literatures, and that a map must be made of all the lines of communication not only between age and age but also between people and people. With this discovery comparative literature, an absolutely new kind, came into existence.

But criticism achieved its highest accomplishment when it was given impetus from the development of science. In the latter end of the nineteenth century, in fact, it tended more and more to become a province of science, whose methods it largely appropriated. It came to study the productions of the mind with the same precision and spirit as savants study the phenomena of nature. It described and classified literary works as a zoölogist or a botanist describes and classifies families of animals or plants. It busied itself with questions of race and climate. The latest biological theories such as that of the evolutionary process were applied in order to trace and follow the development of the various literary forms, opening perspectives of which the older criticism never dreamed. Human physiology itself was pressed into the service of criticism and its revelations made use of in order to bring out the cause of certain characteristics of a book in the very organic functions of the author. These were indeed the grand days of criticism! From being an arbitrary tribunal before which authors were dragged like culprits, or a society of dilettanti airing their own ideas and tastes under pretense of appreciating the works they were supposed to write about, criticism had become a literary adjunct of science, accurate in method, far-reaching in outlook, and its field was so extensive that it looked illimited.

But this development—so brilliant and so rapid—carried in itself its withering principle. It is one of the incorrigible weaknesses of the human mind that it can never keep within reasonable limits. When, out of satiety, we revolt against the beliefs of past ages we must needs go to the other extreme, and we rarely know how to stop where a truth is stretched to the point of becoming an error. In this case, a great truth had been discovered: the necessity of bringing criticism into closer contact with scientific methods of research. It was a salutary reaction against the vague and unsupported constructions of those who, in an age of inductive analysis, still believed in the haphazard inspirations of mere subjectivism. It was maintained, and justly maintained, that nothing durable can be built unless it be upon a foundation of carefully tested facts; that the object of criticism, therefore, should be, first of all, to establish and gather the facts which could, afterwards, be used for the interpretation and appreciation of literary works. And with admirable zeal, with the abnegation of mediaeval monks, the modern critics set about that series of preparatory researches which collected the material of the ambitious synthesis to be made in the near future.

So far, so good. The trouble began when the critics, not content with adopting the scientific method, assumed that criticism was a science. Then developed a fallacy the consequences of which have done much harm. People reasoned thus: “It is not the habit of the man of science to take under consideration the aesthetical qualities of the objects he observes. The geologist who, with his little hammer, detaches a small piece from a rock does not waste his time describing the rays of sunlight which at that very moment irradiate the facets of the stone; the botanist does not rave about the shapes and the colors of the flowers which he places under his microscope. What exclusively interests them is the character of the strata or of the plant they are studying. In order to be thoroughly scientific should not, therefore, the new critic also adopt this detached attitude and limit himself to the task of analyzing, describing, and classifying literary works? Away with the subjective habit of judging and appreciating, for that is the door through which the biassed personality of the critic will force its way. A critic should be objective. (With what fervor we used to pronounce that horridly pedantic word!) He should understand everything but not express his opinion, present but not interpret, explain but not show his preferences.”

I remember quite well when this idea, in all the seduction of its apparent logicalness, was preached as a gospel and spread; how it became an indisputable truth that the genuinely scientific critic was to be concerned solely with the analysis of the characteristics and conditions of existence of literary works. And thus, little by little, the reason why this analysis had been undertaken paled, grew more and more indistinct, and finally was entirely lost sight of. The critics had begun their search actuated by the desire to collect the facts which would one day enable them to estimate in all certainty the productions of the human mind. Now it was thought sufficient to collect those facts without troubling any more about further issues. What was only the means became the end. To that collection of the facts we gave up all our energy. The discovery of a new fact, however small its importance might be, was sufficient to fill us with satisfaction. The word document became a fetish which safeguarded us from the necessity of having ideas and excused all renunciations (I may, perhaps, be permitted to inveigh a little against this superstition since I myself have been one of the idolaters). We became obsessed with the desire of knowing, and the thought that we had ascertained a more or less ascertainable point was sufficient to quench in us the thirst for thought.

Now the method is firmly established. There exists all over the world—I do not except any country—an army of workers, well trained and equipped, who devote all their time to that work of investigation with breathless energy. Nearly every day there appears an article or note on some interesting detail. Questions of chronology or of publication attract unceasing attention. The sources whence the authors derived their inspiration and borrowed their material are discovered and explored. Not one page but is scrutinized and compared with similar pages in preceding or contemporary writers. The works themselves are characterized and classified; sub-varieties are noted and new genres defined so that the classification may be more and more perfect. The relationship between different kinds is established and pedigrees are made. Textual criticism—a revival, by the way, of the older criticism—lends the help of its scrupulous and subtle methods; philological riddles are solved. Bibliographical problems are set and have recently opened a new field of exciting inquiries. And there is no end of dissecting the literary works, submitting them to the lens of our microscopes, making statistics, cataloguing, indexing, tabulating, drawing diagrams, curves, angles (all the figures used in geometry), adding facts, still more facts, weighing data, accumulating an enormous mass of materialien. And so exciting has been this sort of labor that we have practically forgotten that the reason why literary works are written is that they may be enjoyed by all those who read them, critics included. In fact, we no longer suppose that they can be enjoyed or, at least, we refrain from enjoying them.

I know a man who undertook to follow the development of a poetical motif at the time of the Renaissance. As he was the most conscientious of scholars he began inspecting in the British Museum all the poets which this institution contains for the period. The enormity of the task obliged him, naturally, to skip a good many pages where he was sure not to find any of the material for which he was looking. But it sometimes happened that he became so interested in some of the books he was handling that he would dip into them and forget all about his search. When in a confident mood, he would penitently confess those stolen hours of illicit pleasure and tell how, as soon as he caught himself in a fit of self-indulgence, he severely rebuked himself and, shutting the alluring book with a sigh, he turned again to the dreary task of compiling. We are all, more or less, like that admirable and pathetic figure. We write cards, we sort them, we argue, we demonstrate about, above, and around books. But the books have ceased for us to have interest in themselves. By degrees we have broken away from the literary attitude of mind; we are on the point of losing all contact with literary matter. The beauty, the artistic value of the works, no longer appeal to us; in fact, those things have disappeared from our purview. We wanted to be so scientifically impassible that we have become insensible. At best, the kind of criticism of which I am speaking is but a poor relation of history or of linguistics. At worst, it is a sort of new scholasticism: the most perfect works of imagination are simple topics of discussion, mere occasions of hair-splitting upon points which eight times out of ten have no real significance.

Now, for this perversion of the function of criticism the university critics are responsible in a large measure. It 1s necessary to acknowledge this candidly if we want to have a clear understanding of the situation. For the last twenty-five years it has been the habit of all the academic institutions in the world to pride themselves upon the exclusively scientific quality of their work. To estimate the value of a book, or its human significance, savored too much of the impressionistic method—a method which was to be forever turned out of the austere temples which universities are, by the grace of God. This was to be left to the men whose irrepressible literary instincts enticed them into the evil ways of enjoyment, the undisciplined tribe of men of letters, journalists, and poets. Ours it was to purge criticism of such weaknesses forever. And we have but too well succeeded. Criticism in the proper sense of the word has disappeared from our universities. With a few brilliant exceptions—some, indeed, too brilliant—we have no longer critics; we have only scholars. For the first time, perhaps, in the history of letters it has been assumed that knowledge and literary taste are incompatible things.

For professors to turn away from literary criticism is nothing less than turning away from their most essential duty.

Formerly no difference was made between critics belonging to the teaching profession and critics belonging to the other intellectual professions. Sainte-Beuve was a poet, a novelist, and a professor; and this did not prevent him from being considered one of the keenest critics. Brunetière was a professor, and men of letters would look up to him and admire his criticism founded upon a purely scientific theory. Lowell, Woodberry, were poets, professors, and critics. But now the divorce between academic criticism and literary criticism is nearly complete. So much so that for a literary critic to be called a scholar is an insult calculated to destroy his reputation as a man of brains; and for a scholar to be mistaken for a literary critic is a thing sufficient to fill one with confusion and shame.

That such a divorce should have been pronounced between academic scholarship and literary criticism is, when we think of it, one of the most surprising developments of modern times. For, for professors to turn away from literary criticism is nothing less than turning away from their most essential duty. We scholars are entrusted with the culture of young minds. Our students come to us full of freshness and of curiosity, expecting that we shall give them the golden keys to the wonderful palace of thought. And instead of guiding them through the sumptuous halls, in order to make them apprehend and admire, we take them to the kitchen, where we oblige them to serve the rude apprenticeship of the menial who has to scour the plates out of which more fortunate people will eat their luscious food. We destroy their enthusiasm with austere discussions upon questions of dates and sources, we blunt their appreciation of the written phrase with learned excursus upon textual difficulties, we divert their attention from the works themselves by erudite studies of the genres to which the works belong, and so on. And in this is probably to be found the cause of the numerous attacks which of late have been directed against our university teaching. Those who assert that the professors “have made light of taste” and “have made thought subservient to knowledge,” “that they fear personality and intellect,” are not without proofs ready at hand for their argumentation.

Considering the case from another point of view, for the professor to break away from literary criticism is to abandon all ambition of playing a part in the education of the nation at large. His it might be to speak, beyond the class-room, to all those who take an interest in the life of thought. He might be their adviser in the sacred hours of their intellectual recreation, and help in forming the catholicity of their tastes. But the divorce is not only with the critics; it is also with the public. The professor writes for a few specialists who generally know as much as he upon the subject and whose enjoyment is seriously hampered by their impatience at finding that he is simply trespassing upon their own ground. So that all his industry, most of the time, results in giving rise to a few more fruitless controversies upon unimportant minutiae.

There is very little hope of progress in all this. But I will go further: I believe that this divorce between scholarship and literary criticism is fatal both to scholarship and to criticism.

Mere appreciation, founded upon one’s tastes and reactions—or, shall we say, caprices?—is not sound criticism. The Romantic period proved this beyond all doubt. I do not object to impressionism if we consider it as a branch of literature proper. Indeed, the essays of a Charles Lamb, or of a Jules Lemaître, or of an Anatole France are things which I would not lose for tons of Quellen-studien. But the reactions of those critics have no value but in regard to their own personality whose vivid expression they are; they cannot pretend to any finality as regards truth. Criticism should always be based upon knowledge, for we cannot hope to draw safe conclusions as to any given work if we do not very accurately know the conditions in which that work was written and the matter of which it was made.

On the other hand, the acquisition of facts for their own sake, simply to know, is of very little consequence if those facts are not used in order to obtain a deeper insight into the personality of the writer and into the significance of his work. Scholarship should only be the means surely and definitely to attain an intimate perception of the human value of literature. For that is what is of vital importance. All literary books are landmarks in the history of man’s development. It has been said and well said: “Every great book is indeed a document concerning humanity . . . a document whose every word pulses with the very life blood of human hearts.” Written by a man of presumably exquisite sentiments and exceptional wisdom, about men and the utterances of their souls, it is intended to appeal to the understanding and to the emotions of all readers, that is, to the minds and to the hearts of other men. Threefold therefore is the human interest of any book which fulfils its mission. And if we fail to interpret that human value we strip the work of its essentials, nay of its very raison d’être; we do not fulfil our own mission. We are treating as a lifeless document that which is throbbing with the ardor of life. And then, indeed, we deserve the censure of the American critic Woodberry when, a little scared by the novelties of the criticism of his day, he spoke of that “immersion in the dead past of knowledge which is often the scholar’s lot,” and wished he might be rid of “this reign of death which is history.”

Nor is this all. When we have determined the human value of a book we must remember that, if that book exerted some influence, it surely had in it some artistic value. This artistic value we must analyze in its turn. I do not preach in favor of a return to aesthetic criticism. There never was any school founded upon aesthetics which built safely and permanently; for the definitions of the beautiful and the artistic are too elusive and changeable. But there are certain conclusions which must inevitably offer themselves as the direct outcome of our studies. When for instance I have shown the processes by which Shakespeare has made his creatures appear wonderfully true to life I may perhaps be permitted to venture the opinion that no other dramatist has realized his intentions with such power. This is undoubtedly a judgment, but a judgment founded upon facts, nay, it is a fact in itself. And thus, after reaching a certain number of such conclusions, surely it should be possible to form a pretty exact estimate of the general artistic value of the Shakespearean drama.

These are the ultimate ends which scholarship should set itself, and by so doing it would regain the confidence of the general public and thus justify its existence. For the object of knowledge is communication. It never was meant to be secreted by a few initiates for their selfish enjoyment. If it is to serve its purpose it must be freely disseminated. In this respect, modern scholarship, as it seems to me, has somewhat forgotten this its essential duty. When I read some learned dissertation, written in algebraic signs, seriously attempting to elucidate a most emphatically insignificant trifle, I come to wonder whether the critics of the Coleridgean type—for whom, I repeat, I entertain but very moderate admiration—were not nearer the mark than we scholars, with our wide erudition and accurate methods. At times, I have the impression that we are like men trying to fling ponderous stones at butterflies lightly and derisively dancing in the air.

We have come to a point where some effort must be made in order to instil new life into scholarly criticism and render it fruitful. And all I have said has been said to no purpose if it is not now apparent that the remedy will be found in a reconciliation of scholarship and literary criticism. I do not know what part might be played in this reconciliation by those who at present monopolize literary criticism—men of letters most of them. But I may perhaps be allowed to say what I believe scholars ought to do. Let us frankly acknowledge that we have made a mistake. When the twentieth century began, two ways were open to us. One of them prolonged in a straight line the beaten trail; the other diverged. By some error on our part we took the oblique way, and now it has proved to be a blind alley. We are face to a wall through which there is no issue. For we might for centuries accumulate facts, still more facts about the past and the present; if we do not use those facts for some purpose beyond them, we shall perhaps be more learned, but we shall be never the wiser. Let us therefore retrace our steps to the cross-roads where scholarship and criticism began to separate, and where in fact the progress of criticism was interrupted. There we shall find the eminence whence we shall once more be able to look far into the distance. For the men of the latter end of the nineteenth century were travelling in the right direction. They wanted to be scientific in their methods, but all the time they remembered that the primary end of their studies was human and artistic. Sainte-Beuve, at the same time that he was classifying families of minds, emphatically asserted that the “essential thing for active and practical criticism . . . is not so much profound knowledge of things as a lively feeling for them . . a power of inspiring taste for them.” Even a systematic critic like Taine, who aimed at making criticism a positive science, nevertheless, considered the study of man as a means to an end. The use of historical documents, in his eyes, was only a way to know the individuals that, in their turn, were to be the foundation of his general philosophy of the human mind.

We have but to resume the work of those pioneers, and we shall be in an even better condition than they were to carry it onward. For our very mistakes have not been committed in vain; no labor can be entirely wasted. After all, these years of austere journeyman’s drudgery may have been necessary in order to confirm our methods and ensure their triumph. At any rate, we are better trained than our predecessors. Their defect was, perhaps, that in their experiments they lacked certitude of purpose. They could not discern from the first the complexity of the criticism they were founding. They were like a city boy who, having escaped for the first time to a forest, is bewildered by the multiplicity of paths which open endless vistas before his marvelling eyes: in his rapturous excitement he tries them all one after the other before striking upon the good way. But we who have witnessed their efforts and tested the results, we see clearly what can be expected from their ventures. And we have, besides, acquired skill in the handling of the tools of our craft, and an enormous mass of material is ready at hand for our use. We can build.

To reach the end of the journey and to restore criticism once more to its “pride of place” scholarship has but to widen its outlook. It is by far too modest; I want it to be more ambitious, and to become really comprehensive and all-embracing. For such ought to be the criticism of the future. Erudition should naturally be the foundation of all its constructions, erudition leaning on the one hand on history, on philology on the other. And from this as a spring board it will be able boldly to rise to that intimate apprehension of the inner meaning of literary works in all their aspects, historical, psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic, which, as we have seen, is the goal of all criticism.

Thus shall we be able to escape from the mortal mechanicalness which would be the end of scholarship as, in ages past, it was the end of judicial criticism. Thus shall we attain to criticism of power as opposed to criticism of knowledge. I borrow these expressions from De Quincey’s Essay on Pope. The English writer used them to differentiate the two separate offices of literature; but they apply just as well to criticism and by changing a single word we may say: “There is first the criticism of knowledge, and secondly, the criticism of power. The function of the first is—to teach; the function of the second is—to move; the first is a rudder; the second, an oar, or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately to the higher understanding or reason, but always through affections of pleasure, of sympathy.” And that this sort of criticism is of a higher type is not it seems to me, questionable. For it is the only way to rise to those summits where we really feel on a level with, or at least in the same atmosphere as, the creative mind whose depth and originality we are trying to sound. To borrow again from De Quincey: “Power is exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, where every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards—a step ascending upon a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes on this earth. All the steps of knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on the same plane, but could never raise you one foot above your ancient level of earth: whereas, the first step in power is a flight—is an ascending movement into another element where earth is forgotten.” At any rate, such criticism as 1 advocate would certainly be most comprehensive, for it would combine knowledge, human wisdom, and literary taste.

The world will grope its way out of the present chaos, and the enormity of the task will precisely be the cause of its redemption.

But, it will be objected: “Are you not setting before the university critics too difficult a task, an impossible task?” To carry this out is, I recognize, difficult. But my complaint is precisely that we have taken the line of least resistance. It is certainly easier to spend one’s life settling questions of dates or comparing books written on the same subject than to make that synthetical effort which reveals the true signification, importance, and value of a book in its relations not only to literature but to man. But we must take criticism for what it is, that is, for the hardest and most complicated of intellectual occupations. We cannot hope to make it progress by simplifying its labors. And if we choose to devote ourselves to it, we must do all our duty by it, and give it all our energy.

And if we have to sacrifice our ease and toil hard, we shall be, after all, doing only what the times require. Each age has had the sort of criticism that accorded with the views of the moment. During the Middle Ages when conformity to a well-defined ideal was general, there practically was no criticism at all. At the time of the Renaissance and all through the so-called Augustan age, the admiration of the classics was so entire that criticism consisted, above all, in looking for the reflection of the ancients on the moderns. The Romantic period, with its defiance of the past and luxuriant outgrowth of individualism, gave birth to a lawlessly impressionistic criticism. The nineteenth century witnessed a magnificent development of science, and criticism immediately put on a scientific garb.

It is difficult to foresee exactly what the next age will be. That it will differ in many ways from the period which has just closed we cannot doubt. Science will certainly continue to be adored, but this worship will not suffice to fill the hearts of men. Something more will be demanded, probably something less cold, more emotional. Signs of the change already appear in that spirit of discontent which is visible everywhere. It is, at any rate, safe to predict that the coming decades will be years of great exertion and activity, of great ambitions and aspirations. Never was a more exhilarating period in the history of mankind.

I am not one of those who throw up their hands in despair and mumble vague fears about the collapse of civilization. The world has been in just as serious straits before, and every time, after some suffering, it has recovered. Fortunately there is a wonderful power of recuperation in life which enables us to adapt ourselves to new conditions, however hard they may be. The world will grope its way out of the present chaos, and the enormity of the task will precisely be the cause of its redemption. Great states have crumbled down, and, what is more serious, tried ideals, morality itself, are tottering on their foundations. The work of reconstruction is immense not only in the material domain but also in the moral and intellectual. But the effort demanded is so great that it will screw our courage to the sticking place and call upon all the resources of our mind. Our outlook will be broadened, our grasp of the truth made firmer. When problems are so many and when so much is at stake no one has a right to live in his own particular nook, busy with nothings. Petty interests and curtailed ambitions are out of place in a world which is having a new birth. In this expansion of our life, criticism must take its share and adjust its efforts to those of the times if it wants to be—what it should never have ceased to be: the guide and arbiter of good thinking.

Albert Feuillerat (1874–1953) was professor of English literature at the University of Rennes, France.
Originally published:
January 1, 1925


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