Practical and New Criticism, Revisited

June 26, 2010

As I prepare to discuss the first three chapters of Literary Theory: The Basics with my beloved friend, I thought to include a new idea that I gleaned from my third reading of the first chapter of this brilliantly terse and distilled text:

Both T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold felt as though society’s loss of values–due to their undermining by Darwinian theory, industrialization, the rise of a self-concerned, philistine middle class, and other such cultural horrors–could be palliated by the intense study and appreciation of literature. They assumed that spiritual values and the proper and healthy ways of being were somehow inherent in good writing, and that literature held a universal appeal for all humanity.

The undergirding assumption for all of this is that the human condition is relatively stable and fixed across all times and spaces. Thus, the anonymous author of Beowulf, though writing in Old English and living in a culture bereft of microwaves, television, and Lady Gaga, still shares with me and my contemporaries a human condition, making him (or, perhaps, her) just as likely to produce quality literature of sound morals as someone who understands my postmodern existence in a more intimate way. 

The idea is a compelling one that fascinates me but which, at least at this point of my intellectual and philosophical life, I reject. Even two human beings living in the same year and functioning as denizens of the same country seem to me as though they could share nothing in common, making the idea of the “human condition” completely bunk. Does an ascetic Buddhist monk, even if he lives in the USA in 2010, share any of the same experiences or values as a hedonistic rock star? Does a child with Down’s Syndrome share a common condition with, say, a psychopath awaiting death in a prison? I am inclined to say that each individual is so bound to her own situation–her own unique combination of genetics and environment–that we collectively, as a human species, have no one value or condition in common. Even biological processes seem mutable. Sex drives can be eliminated by castration. Hunger can be curtailed by ideological hypnosis or a destroyed hypothalamus. We all live lives too discrete one from another for me to claim, at this point, any unifying human experience.


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