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Notes On Literary Criticism by Dr A V Koshy

March 5, 2016 | By

The whole concept of literary criticism arises, maybe, out of a question: On what basis do we judge a book/text as being better than another book/text? Is it subjective, based on one’s personal opinion, or objective; based on a set of parameters? Or both?

Compiled and Edited by Dr Suja Menon

1

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) Raphael showing Plato (left), pointing up to the ideals, and Aristotle (right), reaching out towards the physical world. (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left), pointing up to the ideals, and Aristotle (right), reaching out towards the physical world. (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

Whenever we look at a text, we also look at the context. The world or cosmos is what the text or signifier refers to. In other words, the world is a referent. Meaning or the signified is not fixed. The reader brings his/her own background and ideology into the text. Even the author becomes a reader after the writing process and discovers that the meanings that he/she had in mind while writing is different from the meanings he/she gets while reading, even from his own texts!

Literary theory arises as a result of the difference between the author’s intended meanings and the implied meanings of the texts. Readings are multifarious; they supplant the “original meaning” or what one may call the author’s meaning. The author’s meaning becomes just one more layer of meaning. The complexity of the reading process is that there are various readings that are formed layer upon layer to form a super-text. This forming of reading upon reading is a kind of sedimentation. But, seen from another perspective, the whole process is parallel or simultaneous like the growth of a tree, not like the architecture of a building, where its trunk is the commonly agreed upon meaning of the text among its readers but then it becomes like the several branches of a tree and its leaves. There are gaps in readings just as there are gaps between branches and leaves, leaves and leaves and branches and branches. The roots are the text itself and its versions.

The whole concept of literary criticism arises, maybe, out of a question: On what basis do we judge a book/text as being better than another book/text? Is it subjective, based on one’s personal opinion, or objective; based on a set of parameters? Or both?

Classical Criticism:

Classical criticism in the West is based on Greek and Latin Literature that was a mixture of the aesthetic and the didactic. This is unlike Hebrew Literature that was theocentric (religious) and Indian Literature that was a mixture of the aesthetic and the theocentric.

Greek Criticism:

The name that first comes to our mind in this regard is Plato. Two of Plato’s works may be termed seminal critiques of life and society – The Dialogues (conversations between Plato and his teacher Socrates), and The Republic. Phaedrus came to matter only later, after Derrida, for us. According to Plato, writing should be didactic (it should instruct the reader-citizen of the aristocracy on what to do and what not to). Through writings, the writer-cum-philosopher should also offer tips to the king on how to contribute as a ruler for the welfare of society. This consequently leads to the development of a good society or republic.

The School of Athens (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

The School of Athens by Raphael (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

Art, according to Plato, feeds and waters the passions. It is “divine madness” – this is with reference to poetry that deals with myths and stories. Like the prophet or prophetess who rants and raves his or her prophecies in a poetic form, the poet writes or sings about Gods and events that are nowhere close to reality. Art, on the whole, is twice removed from reality. For instance, the original, ‘ideal’ tree is the first of its kind. All other trees are imitations of this tree. The artist’s painting or the poet’s description of a tree is therefore an imitation of an imitation.

Greek criticism, in a way, paved the foundations of Western Rationalist thought. The Greek philosophers wanted to shift the focus of society from mythocentricism to logocentrism. In other words, logos (the spoken or written word or the word of truth or the fact per se) was more important than mythos (myth, legend, or fable).

In fact, Greek criticism wanted society to learn truth in an empirical way without shunning the aesthetic aspect. It suggests what T.S. Eliot calls the unified sensibility (the unity of thought/reason and feeling/aesthetics) as opposed to disassociation of sensibility (isolation or compartmentalization of thought and feeling).

Classical criticism was the first to introduce objective parameters that are now regarded the earliest tenets of literary criticism. In fact, classical criticism may also be considered a forerunner of reader-response criticism. For instance, the very idea of catharsis or purgation of the twin emotions pity and fear in the audience watching a tragic play suggests that the text was expected to incite a certain response from the ‘audience’ or viewer/reader.

Although the actors who perform the play also add meaning to the text through their actions and expressions, the reaction to these actions that comes from the audience is what lends the play or text a sense of completion.

Drama, particularly, the tragic genre, became more popular than the epic because while the epic was seen mainly as a reflection of the author’s literary prowess, the success or significance of drama rests on the participatory reaction that it elicits from the audience, and hence the audience becomes as important as the writer, text or performance/performers and the process is not complete without them. This shows a move towards democratization.

More to read in Literary Criticism

Writing, Theory and the Making of Verse

Curating Micro-narratives: The New Creativity

How To Enjoy a Poem: Taking the example of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred .”

Canons

Creative Writing

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Dr Koshy A. V. is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English at the College for Arts and Humanities for Girls, Jazan University, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has written, co-written or co-edited eight books of criticism and poetry to his credit with authors like A.V. Varghese, Gorakhnath Gangane, Angel Meredith, Madhumita Ghosh, Zeenath Ibrahim, Rukhaya MK and Bina Biswas and one of them 'A Treatise on Poetry for Beginners' was reprinted once as 'Art of Poetry.' He is a Pushcart Poetry Prize nominee (2012) and twice Highly Commended Poet in Destiny Poets UK ICOP (2013, 2014) and he was thrice featured in Camel Saloon’s The Hump for best poem/editor’s pick and once for best poem in Destiny Poets UK Website. Even as a child he won the Shankar's international award for writing. He is a reputed critic and expert on Samuel Beckett besides being a fiction writer and theoretician. His last books were Wake Up, India: Essays for Our Times, co-authored with Dr Bina Biswas and Mahesh Dattani's Plays: Staging the Invisibles co-edited with Bina Biswas. Three more are on the way, namely The Significant Anthology he is editing with Reena Prasad, a collection of stories to be published by Lifi and a collection of poetry with Bina Biswas and Pramila Khadun. He has edited or co-edited many books including A Man Outside History by Naseer Ahmed Nasir and Inklinks: An Anthology by Poets Corner and a novel for Lifi. He instituted the Reuel International Literary Prize in 2014 and runs an autism NPO with his wife Anna Gabriel. The first prize was given to Dr Santosh Bakaya. He administers with the help of others the literary group Rejected Stuff on Facebook. His poems have been studied in a research paper by Dr Zeenath Ibrahim and Kiriti Sengupta in Dazzling Bards and also translated into Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati,German and Malayalam. He won World Bank’s Urgent Evoke and participated in European Union’s Edgeryders. He has been interviewed extensively. He has other degrees, diplomas and certificates to his credit besides his doctorate on Beckett. He attributes everything to God’s grace and the prayers and good wishes of his loved ones.
All Posts of Dr Ampat Varghese Koshy

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