BMCR 2008.05.27

A History of Literary Theory and Criticism from Plato to the Present

, A history of literary criticism : from Plato to the present. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005. ix, 838 pages ; 27 cm. ISBN 9780631232001. $52.95.

In this work Professor Habib embarks on an ambitious and rewarding task. To understand the thorough and complex kind of literary history which Habib has written we should note the five goals which he explicitly says have motivated the shaping of his study. First comes the recognition that literary theory is not a discrete entity but is embedded in one or more philosophical traditions that require some exposition and clarification for students and general readers if they are to grasp the depth and significance of that theory; secondly while the text is impressively comprehensive it does not in its 838 pages attempt to cover every important figure. It does select influential theorists, movements, and critics for focused attention and close reading, and together with this close analysis of selected texts Habib provides an account of the historical background, political, social, intellectual in which these works were written. A third feature of the book is that while it recognizes and indicates the influence of prior philosophical and critical theories on later ones, it is organized so that the reader can access information about particular theories without first reviewing their antecedents. A fourth principal followed by Habib is to challenge a currently popular assumption that modern manifestations of literary theory have bypassed or even erased the importance of earlier important contributions to the subject. Habib emphasizes the continuity of influence of past great philosophical orientations as well as the continuing relevance of those positions. Finally there is an aspiration on Habib’s part to break through the barrier of unnecessarily obscure jargon in which some critical theories are framed so as to make those theories more readily accessible to students and general readers. In the program he has defined for himself, Habib has achieved considerable success although not perfection.

Habib divides his historical study of movements in literary theory and criticism into eight parts beginning with Classical Literary Criticism. In his introductory essay on this subject Habib provides a succinct assessment of the impressive achievement of the classical world in generating the foundations of a rich tradition of literary theory which in various transformations remains influential today. He writes:

During this span of almost a thousand years, poets, philosophers, rhetoricians, grammarians, and critics laid down many of the basic terms, concepts, and questions that were to shape the future of literary criticism as it evolved all the way through to our own century. These include the concept of “mimesis” or imitation; the concept of beauty and its connection with truth and goodness; the idea of the organic unity of a literary work; the social, political and moral functions of a work of literature; the connection between literature, philosophy, and rhetoric; the nature and status of language; the impact of literary performance on an audience; the definition of figures of speech such as metaphor, metonymy, and symbol; the notion of a “canon” of the most important literary works; and the development of various genres such as epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, and song. (p. 10)

During this prolific period two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, dominated the field of literary theory advocating strongly contradictory interpretative positions. Plato judged literature and all other forms of artistic mimesis from the vantage point of a moral philosopher who condemned a world view found in Homer, the greatest of all Greek poets, and in much of Greek tragedy, especially the work of Euripides. In these works the representation of amoral human and divine behavior abounds and leads Plato to assert the need to impose upon them the strictest censorship because of their dangerous capacity to corrupt the moral fiber of society.

In book X [of the Republic ] Plato will allege that poetry establishes “a vicious constitution” in the soul, setting up emotions as rulers in place of reason (X, 605b-c, 606d). Hence in the earlier book, Plato advocates an open and strict censorship of poetry, introducing certain charges hitherto unelaborated: (1) the falsity of its claims and representations regarding both gods and men; (2) its corruptive effect on character; and (3) its “disorderly” complexity and encouragement of individualism in the sphere of sensibility and feeling. (p. 28)

Habib demonstrates Plato’s role as a philosopher and literary critic through a close reading of his most influential work on this subject, the Republic, but he also notes a much less hostile treatment of poetry as a form of “divine inspiration” in the Ion. He recognizes the considerable influence of Plato throughout the history of philosophy and aesthetics and extending into our own day with special reference to the following areas: “the doctrine of imitation; the educational and didactic functions of poetry; the place of poetry in the political state and the question of censorship; the treatment of poetry as a species of rhetoric; the nature of poetic inspiration; and the opposition of poetry to various other disciplines and dispositions such as philosophy, science, reason, and mechanism.” About these significant interactions he declares “We are still grappling with the problems laid down by Plato.

To Aristotle’s great achievement as a literary theorist and critic, and to his treatise on the Poetics where his genius in this field is principally to be found, Habib pays the following high compliment: “The Poetics is usually recognized as the most influential treatise in the history of literary criticism.” Habib provides a comprehensive survey of the principal concepts in the Poetics which are mainly concerned with tragedy but are applicable in greater or lesser measure to other genres as well. This close reading of the Poetics will be very helpful to readers but it is not without points that need to be refined. Most important among these is Habib’s treatment of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy and its key and enigmatic concept of katharsis. Habib translates the relevant passage as follows: “Tragedy…represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief (italics mine) to these and similar emotions.” By choosing to translate katharsis as “relief,” one of its traditional interpretations and one that has a long and influential history behind it, he fails to communicate to his readers that this interpretation of the term has undergone serious challenge over time and remains controversial today. It would have been much more valuable for Habib to explain that differences in the interpretation of the term have been related by scholars to different Aristotelian texts. Support for the interpretation that Habib follows is found at Politics 1341b36-1342a16, where Aristotle describes a process of homeopathic medical purgation that takes place when individuals possessed by some form of psychological frenzy are cured of that frenzy when confronted by musical melodies that are expressive of such frenzy. The action described here of frenzied musical melodies homeopathically “purging” a frenzied psychological state can be transferred in the view of a number of scholars to the experience of tragedy, where pity and fear emerging from the page or stage homeopathically purge and thus relieve the oppressive pity and fear assumed always to reside unhealthily in the psyche of the audience.

A different theory, which we may call the “purification” theory of katharsis is based on Nicomachean Ethics 1106b16-23. In this passage Aristotle says that in feelings and actions, and he specifically mentions pity here, “there exists the possibility of excess, deficiency, and the proper mean.” He asserts that our goal should be to experience such emotions in accordance with the mean and in avoidance of excess and deficiency The great German dramatist and critic Lessing, in reference to this passage, argued that katharsis should represent a form of moral purification, but Habib also cites the contrary view of Oscar Wilde that this Aristotelian concept represents an aesthetic purification rather than a moral one. A problem with the “purification” interpretation is that while it can make use of the purgation theory to explain the removal of excess it does not offer a mechanism for correcting deficiency (unless it should make use of the cognitive theory of katharsis discussed next). Some scholars have argued that purgation and moral purification can take place simultaneously.

A third interpretation of katharsis that has entered into the discussion in recent decades asserts that the term should be understood as a cognitive act leading to an understanding of the cause, meaning, and effect of pity and fear. The central text in support of this view is Poetics 1448b4-17 where Aristotle asserts that human beings are the most imitative of all animals, learn their first lessons through imitation, and take cognitive pleasure in viewing even circumstances that would be extremely painful in real life. The reason for this he tells us is that all human beings take pleasure in learning and that is why we enjoy artistic representations because we “learn and make inferences from them.”

Since katharsis continues to be a concept which fascinates students of literature and is frequently used in various contexts there would be real value in outlining the grounds influencing the interpretative history of the term into our present era. Since it is an important critical term, our understanding of it would profit from the continuing introspection of all readers as to what actually transpires within them when they experience literature. One technical note may be added. Habib has chosen to use the transliteration, katharsis, of the Greek word in his discussion and index. Many readers who will come to this work for guidance will have encountered the word in its more common English spelling, “catharsis.” There is no cross referencing in the index of the two variant spellings and so it is likely that there will be readers who will not be successful in finding in the text what they are looking for.

Habib also discusses Plato’s antagonistic view toward rhetoric and Aristotle’s much more favorable treatment of the subject and then traces the history of rhetoric in the ancient world through the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He provides an informative survey of the influence of classical rhetoric on modern literary theory before devoting chapters to later Greek and Latin criticism (Horace and Longinus) and Neo-Platonism. This is followed by an impressively thorough review of literary criticism in the Middle Ages which leads us to the beginning of the Modern Period.

In the early modern period Habib gives special emphasis to Sir Philip Sydney, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope. When we come to that phase of the modern period which we call the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, a period lasting from about 1680 to the end of the 18th century, we encounter powerful intellectual forces that have influenced many aspects of modern thought including the broad field of aesthetics. Habib provides an excellent introduction to this period in his survey of the historical and intellectual background behind the revolutionary ideas that were promulgated during this time and especially in regard to the ideas and influence of Locke, Hume, and Vico. It was toward the end the Enlightenment period that Immanuel Kant, the first of the two truly great modern philosophers, comparable to Plato and Aristotle in the western intellectual tradition, appeared on the scene.

The Kantian philosophical system is highly complex and presents a challenge to the understanding of a reader who does not have a significant background in philosophy. Habib, however, does not shy away from his stated purpose of making the general issues of aesthetics and criticism embedded in a philosopher’s overall system as available as possible to anyone interested in the history of literary theory and criticism. Habib’s essay on “The Kantian System and Kant’s Aesthetics” is a disciplined effort to take the reader through the challenging complexities of the Kantian system by patiently clarifying arguments and explaining terminology. In apprehending Kant’s aesthetic theories the reader will be involved in abstract philosophical arguments and concepts that differ from much of the critical theory that has been encountered previously. Habib completes his discussion of Kant with a review of the widespread and powerful influence of this philosopher’s ideas in many different fields. In particular, Kant exerted a profound influence on Hegel whose own work was as multifaceted and complex as the older philosopher. Hegel’s impact on philosophers and aestheticians who came after him was immense and, as in the case of Kant, Habib gives a careful, detailed account of Hegel’s complex philosophical system and its influence.

After lengthy discussions of Kant and Hegel, Habib devotes chapters to the discussion of Romanticism on the European continent and in England and America, Realism and Naturalism, Symbolism and Aestheticism, a group he calls “The Heterological Thinkers” that includes Schopenhauer, Bergson, Nietzsche, and Arnold who generally elevated the claims of emotion over the force of reason. He completes his survey of influential nineteenth century thinkers with a discussion of the world view of Karl Marx, and the literary critics and aestheticians who made use of his theories.

Habib completes his historical survey with a succinct review of the major events of twentieth-century history that serve as a background to the intellectual developments of that century. This was a period of disasters such as World War I, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and other genocides, but also the era when a concerted, allied effort in World War II defeated tyranny in Europe and Asia, impressive scientific advances took place, and a rich cultural and literary life flourished in the decades after the war. Later in the post-war period political dissension arose over the Vietnam war and the struggle for civil rights became an important defining theme in the history of the period. Habib points out that it was against this background that recent schools of literary theory arose and developed. As with his discussions of Kant and Hegel he discusses all of these from psychoanalytical criticism through New Historicism carefully and in depth. Habib completes his historical survey with an Epilogue that records the limitations that have been uncovered in the most influential modern literary theories and which have led to the development of newer critical positions that are more localized in scope and theme. Finally he adds a Selected Bibliography for each of the chapters of the book.

As a history of literary theory and criticism this work covers the field exceptionally well and should be commended in addition for placing intellectual and cultural history within the context of political and social history. Habib is eloquent in urging the application of the techniques of literary theory and criticism to a variety of extraliterary texts but could have done much more about relating theory to literature itself, something that he does do extremely well in his discussion of Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Here are two examples of many possible themes that would have enriched our understanding of the necessarily symbiotic relationship between critical theory and the literary work. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey appeared on the scene in western civilization nearly 3000 years ago and they are still doing just fine at the box offices (book stores) of the world today. Why? Survivability and endurance of literary texts (just as in the case of philosophical systems) are factors of very great importance in our judgment of their quality and value. Tracing this phenomenon through the vicissitudes of history and social change, often cataclysmic, in which Habib carefully frames the history and evolution of critical theory, would be a fascinating and enlightening investigation. Here Habib would have had an inviting opportunity to provide a concrete example of the clashing viewpoints of the new historicist versus liberal humanist approaches to the interpretation of Shakespeare, a theme that he discusses with clarity on the theoretical level. The phenomenon of tragedy is another question that might be profitably considered. The genre emerged as a significant presence in the literary tradition of western civilization only a couple of centuries after Homer and has been with us ever since. What is the reason for its endurance as a genre? Of the numerous explanations and definitions of tragedy that have been offered, can one be cited as authoritative? Does tragedy represent some essential universal element of the human condition or does it undergo transformation and evolution in response to the changing currents of historical and social circumstances? Is there a way of resolving, is it possible to resolve, or is it worth resolving the differences in the conflicting theoretical views about tragedy (e.g. those of Aristotle, Hegel, Arthur Miller and others)?

All in all Habib’s survey of literary theory and criticism is serious, ambitious, informative and intellectually challenging. Readers who are serious, ambitious, eager to learn material that is not always easily accessible, and open to intellectual challenge will be those who will profit most from it.