A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950 Summary

René Wellek


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

René Wellek’s latest volume in his monumental A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 is the next to last book in the project. It is also one of the most interesting volumes since it deals with such influential movements as Russian Formalism and with prominent figures such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin in addition to critics and schools of criticism with which most American readers will be unfamiliar. Wellek is not only an expert on this material but he has also been a participant in and critic of some of the figures and movements he writes about. So it is a book that has a special claim to authority.

The first section of the book is devoted to German Symbolism. What these critics mean by “Symbolism” tends to be very different both from the connotations of the term associated with the French Symbolists and from the conventional generic meaning of the term in literary criticism. Wellek cites the view of symbolism of Friedrich Gundolf: “In symbolic art the I and the world coincide.” These critics were preoccupied with the mystery behind the appearance that is revealed in the greatest art. The symbol was not, to them, a literary device—traditionally distinguished from allegory—but a mystical revelation. Wellek introduces this section by singling out Thomas Mann as a representative figure of this period. Mann did share the German Symbolists’ nationalism and interest in a national literature but was not an important critic in his own right.

“Three Thinkers,” a section on Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Martin Heidegger, would seem at first glance one of the most significant parts of the book. Wellek, however, limits his discussion of these figures to the literary criticism they wrote; he does not discuss how their ideas influenced others. Reduced to this level, there is not much of continuing interest. Wellek discusses Freud’s essay on Hamlet as an example of the Oedipus complex. Freud’s idea of art as a continuation of play is also cited; this concept later became an important element of psychoanalytical criticism. Wellek concentrates on Jung’s negative evaluation of Joyce’s Ulysses(1922) and only briefly mentions at the end of this section Jung’s concept of the archetype, which later became the theoretical basis of myth criticism. He also touches on Heidegger’s existentialist views and on his desire for a national revival that led him to embrace National Socialism. Wellek also criticizes Heidegger for imposing his philosophy on his literary criticism. For Heidegger, literature was not “a linguistic or formal structure, but a mysterious pronouncement of Being.”

Two sections on “Scholar Critics” follow; the first, dealing with Romance Philology, is fascinating. The first critic treated, Erich Auerbach, wrote an important book called Mimesis (1946; English translation, 1953). Wellek had reservations about the concept of “realism” underlying Auerbach’s book when he reviewed it in 1953, and he still has some reservations. He finds problems in Auerbach’s subjective and shifting concept of “realism.” Even though Wellek admires Auerbach’s learning, he is forced to question his methods in creating not literary history but instead one man’s view of the nature of existence.

Wellek’s discussion of Ernst Curtius and Karl Vossler is less sympathetic. The discussion of Leo Spitzer is much more interesting. Spitzer pioneered stylistics criticism. Wellek finds Spitzer’s early criticism to be faulty since it relies on a subjective recognition of the “soul” of the writer. Spitzer tried to provide a justification for his method, but he could get no further than defining the moment of recognition as a “click.” The later work of Spitzer was much more important. Wellek praises him for his ability to perceive and convey the sense of unity in a literary work; Spitzer’s many studies of individual works stand as models of stylistics criticism.

The largest section of the book is devoted to the Marxist critics in Germany and Russia. The most important German Marxist critics are Walter Benjamin and George Lukács. Benjamin was not interested in aesthetic criticism—Wellek’s major critical interest—but in the “truth content of a work of art.” His later criticism after the rise of Adolf Hitler became more consciously Marxist as it emphasized the social conditions of the time as determinants of a work of art. Wellek dismisses some of this criticism as merely “ideology,” but Benjamin’s essay on Goethe for the Soviet Encyclopedia was rejected because it was not Marxist enough. Wellek claims that “Politics in a wide sense dominates the later writings of Benjamin as it dominated his life.” Wellek, however, is not interested in discussing whether Benjamin’s criticism met the test of orthodox Marxism. His concern is literary criticism and not ideological purity.

George Lukács was a more...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)