R(onald) S(almon) Crane

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Bert O. States

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[The Idea of the Humanities] is perhaps the best argument in support of dogmatism (I would prefer another word) as a natural force in humanistic pursuits. Take, for instance, [Crane's] case against its most virulent form—"dialectical criticism," or any criticism which sets up a "more or less elaborate pattern of logically contrary terms unified by a single principle of classification," such things as poetic versus logical discourse, the symbolic versus the realistic, the ironical versus the simple, and so on. It needn't even be an antithesis; any a priori premise will do because literature is "ambiguous" and will support even the most absurd hypothesis…. What this kind of criticism ignores, says Crane, is that literature is "a product of human invention and art," not a natural phenomenon, and is therefore "molded in countless unpredictable ways…. You can know what its nature is, consequently, only by finding out a posteriori what the men and women who have created it, through the ages, have made that nature to be; and there is no presumption that this can ever be reduced to a single set of logically symmetrical and necessary principles, such as these critics have attempted to formulate."

Granting the perils of "the high priori road," this seems to me a sweeping misrepresentation of what many of these critics are trying to do. I haven't checked out their "dogma" lately, but I don't recall that the best of them are under any illusion that they are saying the last word on their subject. Yet here and everywhere, Crane assumes—and I think in a very a priori way—that any critic who departs from anything resembling a general principle, or dialectic, has arrived at it almost by whim, or at least by inadequate examination of his texts and that he wants everyone else to employ his dialectic as the definitive "tool" for poetic analysis. In Crane's view, all these critics wear blinders by virtue of having a "special order of causes or theory … which [they] will habitually invoke, to the exclusion of others" ("On Hypotheses in 'Historical Criticism'"); they simply don't see the whole picture and as a consequence they see no true picture. Thus the Freudian critic … who gets only dream structures out of novels is falsifying them, the archetypal critic who gets only mythic structures out of poems is falsifying them, and so on, in the very act of "formulating and justifying his conclusions." Not once, in my recollection, does Crane suggest that there can be value or methodological integrity in concentrating a great deal of intellectual force on one narrow point. I think he is far more liberal than he argues, but in order to argue persuasively he must subsume all attempts to locate general principles under his derogatory heading: otherwise he is simply combatting individual abuses in a practice which might not be so bad in itself. (pp. 269-70)

Crane has a certain admiration for many of these critics (especially Lovejoy), but he always puts their left foot forward and his tone is ironical, flat. When he comes to discuss his ideal "historian of forms," however, his total critic-historian, the argumentive procedure changes abruptly. It is like coming off a bumpy country road onto the turnpike. (p. 270)

The New Critic, especially, looms monstrously to Crane…. He is willing, in one place, to credit [Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's book] Understanding Poetry with an unexplained "great virtue," but immediately he leaps upon its "shortcoming"—that it "superimposes … a partial and one-sided theory of poetic form, with the result that the student is insensibly conditioned...

(This entire section contains 1328 words.)

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to see only those meanings and stylistic devices in poems which the theory selects as important." This is unfair—to assume that "the student" will read only this single book on poetic theory and no other, or that after sampling others he will, out of youthful impressionability, select this as his only model and imitate it to the letter…. Moreover, one might ask howUnderstanding Poetry could possibly have achieved its "great virtue"—which is surely connected with its special intensiveness—had it tried to satisfy all the other virtues of Crane's incredible program. Finally, there isn't the faintest suggestion that New Criticism, like any radical intellectual preoccupation since the sixteenth century recovered classical doctrine, may be running its "partial and one-sided" course out of sheer and undeniable curiosity with its own potentialities. Human revolutions are not well known for moderation and common sense.

What also qualifies much of Crane's admirable erudition for me (and I suppose I am carping about tone now, more than ideas) is … the author's conviction that the world more or less peaked with fifth-century Athens and has been going steadily downhill ever since. This is especially evident when Crane gets onto Aristotle. For instance, in "Varieties of Dramatic Criticism" his avowed purpose is to show how critics in all ages are "impelled to say the things they do" as a function of a set of historical conditions they themselves are in no position to assess…. One of his central ideas is that Aristotle's "inductive" method was reversed by the Renaissance critics, with the result that people began the practice of using the Aristotelian principles in a "quite un-Aristotelian way." Crane develops this idea very interestingly, but there is no denying that this event, in his eyes, stands as the Original Sin of modern criticism and he simply cannot keep his disappointment out of his supposedly historical "narrative."… This audible sigh of regret is symptomatic of Crane's general reluctance to extend to modern critical movements the same tolerance, the same involvement in historical necessity, that he automatically extends to criticism and literary movements he likes…. When he says "We are still largely under the influence of this characteristic nineteenth-century desire for maximum generality in the definition of literary forms," you know what his sympathies are. (pp. 271-72)

[There] is no doubt that Crane has put his finger on the right spot, and that we are once more abusing the texts with greater conviction than ever. The spirit of "synthesis" is upon us. We have this uncanny attraction to "raw form" today, as opposed to "content," and as Sir Kenneth Clark says in a recent essay, "content separates, form unites." Today when we say that something has form, or is structured, we are evidently conferring upon it the quality we admire most, as the Renaissance man … was conferring on a thing the quality he admired most by assigning it a place in the great chain. Perhaps the most dramatic difference between our brand of form-awareness and his is that ours is not so much hierarchical as integrative, not deterministic but coextensive—a fusion, as L. L. Whyte has said, of Platonism and process, of Eastern unity and Western diversity. Maybe this is the wrong explanation, or a simplistic one, but something like this appears to be forming our common intellectual denominator and, for better or worse, it is affecting everything we see in literature (I am tempted to say can see) and everything we say about it. To regret it seems, I think, hopelessly nostalgic; to do the job as sensibly as we can seems to be observing the goals of humanism in their most enduring aspect.

I think Crane will be most useful to us, however, if we put aside his impatience with us, considering it as the necessary bias out of which any critic writes, and take to heart the specific sense that he almost always generates. Our prejudice could use some shoring up and Crane has a way of finding its faults…. The range and seriousness of Crane's intelligence are staggering. I confess that reviewing him has been a matter of finding things I am able to talk about and pretending the rest belongs to somebody else's discipline. (pp. 273-74)

Bert O. States, "The Idea of the Humanities" (copyright, 1970, by Burt O. States), in The Southern Review, n.s. Vol. VI, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 267-74.


Lawrence Lipking