Here's the speech I gave my Comp II students at the top of this semester. I'm not sure if these ideas are totally viable or not--I worked them out on my own.
There are essentially five reasons that people call a particular work of art "great," the end result of which is that there are essentially five types of critics.
1) Aesthetic. "This is beautiful." In this category I class the 1890s Aesthetes (Wilde, Pater, et al), the New Critics (Wimsatt, Beardsley, Ransom), and what I term the Neo-Aesthetes (the Blooms, Frederick Crews, and Roger Kimball). In these latter, you tend to get a neo-Arnoldian streak of "preserving the best that Western civilization has to offer." I still call this Aesthetic.
2) Impressionist. "This moves me." I think this is the reason that most people start their love of literature. I am not aware of a major critic who primarily utilizes this method, however.
3) Moral. "This speaks the truth." I include in this category both the Christian critics and the Marxist critics, as well as the Black Arts folks from the 1970s. Moral critics tend to see art primarily as propaganda, as a political/social/religious vehicle for the Truth.
4) Social. Either "This changed things" or "This perfectly represents a given viewpoint."It is by means of social criticism that something like The Jungle--otherwise a poorly written book--ends up canonized or semi-canonized. Note that social criticism almost always has an element of moral criticism to it. There can be little argument that The Clansman perfectly represents a given viewpoint, but I do not think Paul Lauter is interested in putting it on one of his many canons.
5) Hermeneutic. "This is open for endless discussion." I used to call this the "deconstructive" school until Don Williams suggested that that particular term is too narrow and too polarizing. These critics value a work of art for its depth and the number of its possible interpretations.
If anyone would like to add a school of criticism to my schema, if anyone has found one that I've left off, please let me know.
Most people do not fit squarely into one of these categories, but I suspect close to all readers have one that lords over the other ones. I, for example, am primarily hermeneutic (and secondarily impressionist), and I have little to no interest in social criticism. My theory about these schools is that they're all more or less valid, but if you're in an argument over a particular work (like those tiresome canon arguments in the 1990s), there's no sense in arguing a different school than your opponent.
Let's say, for example, that Roger Kimball and Paul Lauter are arguing over whether we should take Othello out of the canon. (I have no idea if Lauter wants to or not.) Kimball will say, "This is a perfectly constructed play." Lauter will say, "This play is racist, and besides, we should take it out to open up the canon for other viewpoints." That argument is never going anywhere. Either Kimball needs to argue against the play's racism, or else Lauter needs to argue that the play is a piece of garbage on an aesthetic level.
I bring all this up because I am reading T.S. Eliot's selected prose right now, and he seems to subscribe to all of the schools. Eliot is pretty much forgotten as a critic, which I'm sure is a consequence of his being so closely associated with the New Critics. The New Critics loved Eliot because his poems were ideal for the New Criticism--they were tightly constructed and could (supposedly) be viewed on their own, without recourse to the author's intentions. I've taken three Literary Criticism and Theory classes, and I've never been taught Eliot's work, aside from a few offhand references to his "objective correlative."
That objective correlative is a particularly ugly aspect of the Aesthetic School; it's the idea that an author can toss together a given sequence of events or words and demand a particular emotional reaction from his readers. It sounds cynical to me, and a little too close to the sentimental fiction of the 19th century, in which the author would attempt via rhetorical tricks and bizarre plot points to make the reader cry on every page. It simultaneously utilizes and minimalizes the Impressionist School as a means to an Aesthetic end.
But something funny happened. When Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1928, both his poetry and his criticism changed dramatically. I'll post about the differences between his pre- and post-Anglican poetry some other time, but his criticism opened up to all sorts of other directions, ones that the New Critics who praise Eliot seem to disregard.
For example, he begins to value the Impressionist over the Aesthetic. Emotions become the big deal for Eliot--he says in "The Music of Poetry" that "If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something, perhaps something important, to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless." Emotion is not the sole judge of good poetry, but it's a major judge, and the post-1930 Eliot seems to think it is in many ways a better judge than pure Aesthetic criticism. In an essay on Henry James, he even criticizes dry intellectual approaches to criticism:
Englishmen, with their uncritical admiration (in the present age for France, like to refer to France as the Home of Ideas . . . In England ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought.It seems clear to me that it was Eliot's conversion that moved him from "corrupting his feelings" to "thinking with them"; Aesthetic intellectualism led him to the depths of despair in "The Waste-Land," despair that he was just beginning to escape in "The Hollow Men" and "Ash-Wednesday," but it's in his criticism that he really seems rescued, able to feel again.
Christianity also led to his establishment as a Moral critic supreme; at the top of "Religion and Literature," he claims that "Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint." He makes his own viewpoint clear, but his readers are not exactly instructed to follow it--the important thing in this essay is to have a standpoint. He no longer believes in objectivity, clearly. He also takes another delightful shot at the Aesthetes, one that reminds me of Walker Percy's The Second Coming, in which one of Will Barrett's aggravating friends reads Dante for the meter:
The people who enjoy these writings [The Bible, Jeremy Taylor, Clarendon, and Gibbon, among others] solely because of their literary merit are essentially parasites; and we know that parasites, when they are become too numerous, are pests.Eliot is, of course, taking aim at his past self in quotes like these; his post-1930 criticism comes off like it's the ascending spiral staircase in "Ash-Wednesday," a method of purging oneself for divine purity. If he can decimate his former views enough, he's saved.
Elsewhere, he sounds like a Social critic. His criteria for a text being a "classic" involve, among Aesthetic considerations, its representing a particular culture. Indeed, it is the culture moreso than the text that is classical. Groups of authors pool their resources and influences to produce the cultural aura of the classical, and it's out of this that an individual author creates a classic text: "What we find, in a period of classic prose, is not a mere common convention of writing, like the common style of newspaper leader writes, but a community of text." Culture is extremely important for the post-'30 Eliot; his last two books attempt to provide a definition of culture and then figure out how to create one based on Christianity.
Finally, the seeds of postmodern criticism are latent in Eliot. In addition to his privileging of the reader's emotions and interpretations over the author's ("The meaning of a poem may be something larger than its author's conscious purpose, and something remote from its origins"), he levels the playing field between High and Low Art based on the number and importance of interpretations:
I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for "amusement," or "purely for pleasure" that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely.Now, Eliot is of course horrified by popular fiction; even after his conversion, he's always a snob. But if not exactly a hermeneutic critic himself, he throws the doors wide open for it: All texts, he seems to say, need to be examined and parsed out, especially the ones we don't want to.
My conclusion from all this is that it's time for a re-evaluation of Eliot's nonfiction writing by critics of all stripes. I suspect that everyone is going to find something in his essays to love--and many other things to hate.