René Wellek Eliseo Vivas - Essay

Eliseo Vivas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Theory of Literature contains a discussion of the quarrel between scholarship and criticism which] leaves nothing to be desired; it makes clear the way in which each is relatively autonomous and yet dependent on the other. On the conflict between the "extrinsic" and the "intrinsic" interests in literature it throws a good deal of light. The upshot cannot be an irrefragable solution of these problems, for each of them would require a book to explore with adequacy; but it is a well balanced statement of the points at issue. If the book had no other virtues its authors could justly claim to have made an important contribution. But it does more: the book is equipped with a very extensive bibliography which represents the catholic erudition of the writers. And above all, the learning displayed is controlled by a discriminating taste.

Given these virtues, why does the book fail to sustain upon study the excellent impression that it makes on first reading? The reason is, I suggest, that the authors do not really have a fully worked out and consistent aesthetic of their own. Just as the critic needs a consistent "theory of literature" if his work is to stand up under scrutiny, so do the proponents of a "theory of literature" need a controlling aesthetic. It does not seem unfair to ask that theorists be theoretical. I do not mean that they ought to have made their aesthetic explicit any more than the critic or scholar needs to make his theory of literature explicit every time that he practices his art. It could have functioned as a set of deeply implicit, perhaps even instinctive presuppositions, controlling their speculation unconsciously. All I mean is that somehow they ought to have avoided mutually incompatible assumptions and ought to have based their speculations on defensible and coherent foundations. Unfortunately limitations of space do not allow me to do more than present a rough sketch of a few of the important points at which the absence of a coherent aesthetic betrays them.

The authors' conceptions of the nature and function of literature seem to me intrinsically bewildering although I am in sympathy with the purpose that controls them and with the conclusions that they reach. The nature of literature—or "poetry" in its widest sense—is defined in terms of the poetic use of language, as distinguished from the scientific and the every-day use. And the function or use of poetry is defined in terms of its nature. This would cause no genuine difficulty if the authors had shown that poetic language involves the employment of certain devices or elements which are not found either in ordinary or in scientific language. In Chapter II, entitled "The Nature of Literature," expression, exploitation of medium, lack of practical purpose and fictionality are said to mark the distinction between poetry and non-poetry. Part IV, entitled "The Intrinsic Study of Literature" studies euphony, rhythm and meter in one chapter, image, metaphor, symbol and myth in another, and the genres of literature in a third. Now I do not doubt that these analyses constitute valuable efforts to approach the nature of poetry. But it is not sufficient to point out that we find these elements or devices in poetry. Since they are to some extent also found in practical language, in rhetoric and in the inexact sciences, it is necessary to show also that they function in poetry in a unique way, or the distinction breaks down…. What is needed in addition to what we are given is a study of the way in which the elements discriminated interpenetrate to endow the object with the organic integration and the artistic intensity that, according to the authors, give the poem its intrinsic poetic value.

Lack of fundamental coherence also vitiates the important distinction which the authors correctly...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)