Critical Approaches

Critical Study of Texts   #

Early criticism came from Plato and Aristotle.  The Romans also gave us ideas through Horace, Sineca, Cicero, Juvenal and others.  With the Renaissance and Enlightenment, many other thinkers analysed the past.

Platonic #

Platonic approaches distance or alienate (estrange) us from the action to critically evaluate it.  Instead of getting emotionally involved we are detached and objective.  We are made to feel emotionally disconnected to the action and detached from the characters. Instead of playing with our emotions,  Epic Literature. affects the mind and moves us to action leading to social remedies. As the characters are singular, atypical or super heroic, we are not encouraged to identify with them.

Rather than focussing on individuals it looks at the broader scale and appeals to the masses, the collective psyche because it involves mass suffering.  As Stalin put it:  “one death is a tragedy;  a million deaths is a statistic”.  However, by satirising mankind’s heartlessness, art can change a mindset.

Suffering is degrading and dehumanising, leading to desensitisation or brutalisation, promoting the instinct of self-preservation.  Epic Literature can often move from cynicism and appear to be Nihilistic

  • “Someone who does not bow to any authority or accept any principle or trust”.

 We assume a universe governed by chance, randomness, or caprice.  Chaos rides supreme in a discordant world where evil often triumphs over good. The literature of the Absurd often uses this approach with limited plots,  disconnected scenes,  a montage,  lack of sequence or structure and minimalism in props

The plots are often well known so we are interested in the course of the action not the result because of a lack of suspense. We dwell in the present, not the past or the future.

Epic Literature is realism rather than illusion so lacks subtlety and nuance.  It tends to be direct, explicit, overt, didactic. Epic Theatre alienates its audience by destroying the illusion of reality.

Plato considered reason; cerebral faculties higher than emotions or the visceral.  

Aristotelian #

Action Drama is based on the theatre of illusion where the characters imitate real life and the audience experiences the predicaments of the characters vicariously. By identifying emotionally and psychologically, we are seduced by the actors to identify, empathise with the characters and aroused by their terror to pity and fear (Pathos) to a state of Catharsis, releasing our tension, soothing, cleansing or purging our souls.   This can be ephemeral with no lasting consequences.

Tragedy is an imitation of characters above the level of the world; high action, sad and catastrophic. 

Comedy, the action of lower characters, light and flippant.  Tragedy makes you feel; Comedy makes you think.

Tragedy is *“an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude involving the affliction of a good character who makes a bad mistake.  The good character suffers from harmatia - a tragic flaw.  *

* *

*The bare facts of alone should make us shudder so the dramatist must elevate the audience’s fear, terror and pity into a higher level creating Katharsis, transforming and cleansing us so that we feel emotionally purged. The hero’s suffering leads to Disclosure, (Anagnorisis) or self-recognition as they become aware of their true predicament, puncturing all their illusions of themselves. * Self knowledge leads to understanding - an apotheosis.

* *

Pain is inherent in the human condition, leading man to a noble form of dignity. Suffering is depicted as ennobling. To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in your suffering.*  ***Nietzsche

At the end, order is restored, god is on his throne and all is right with the world. Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution – poetic justice.

Aristotelian plots are linear, progressing from a beginning, a middle and an end with various techniques of wholeness, unity and purpose.  It reaffirms a rational, ordered universe. They are known as *Conventional Theatre, Theatre of illusion or  Theatre of Action *where the audience is deluded into thinking they are watching real time events through an invisible fourth wall. Our Interest in the outcome of the action provides the suspense. Aristotle puts high emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion…. 

Purpose of a great play is to tell the story so that one tense moment leads to another.  That your curiosity is sated but then a new suspense is created simultaneously. You are on the edge of your seat anticipating by longing or by dread.  The intent is to produce fear and pathos. Main characters drive the action, the chorus and secondary characters merely prepare the audience for future events.  This is aided and abetted by Peripety - Irony; dramatic, situational and tonal.  Paradox and inconsistencies are tolerated.

The characters are appropriate, realistic and plausible; the hero from a good family, going through a crisis with a reversal of fortune.  Novelists too tend to obey Aristotle’s guidelines of *“revelation” *;  that most of the ideas and issues should be revealed not by the author telling us, rather by the actions, reactions, words and thoughts of the characters.  Don’t tell us – show us. We the responders feel more dignified when we figure it out rather than when we are told directly.

We need to create characters that seem both realistic and able to captivate an audience. First, make them good enough that we can root for them. Second, make them ‘appropriate,’ meaning give them characteristics that make sense for the type of person they are. Third, make them human – give them flaws or quirks that make us believe that they exist. Finally, whatever characteristics you do give them, make sure you keep them there throughout the length of the screenplay. As Aristotle says, make sure they are *‘consistently inconsistent.’  *

Plot and character come first and ideas –what we call issues, themes, concerns or values can only be gleaned through experiences of empathy.  By planting seeds of suffering into our hearts and thoughts, we can be led to compassion.  

Aristotle maintained the role of art is to imitate nature, not indulge the imagination.  Fanciful art gave way to depravity.  Art should consist of reliable images of definite things and only then could it have a positive moral effect on people viewing it.  What was good for the eyes was good for the soul; fantasy and the unbridled imagination were good for neither.

Plots and characters had to be plausible.

Great Literature is seldom explicit rather it is suggestive,  implicit, ambiguous creating intrigue.  As Oscar Wilde said, “a work of art dies as soon as you understand it”.

**Hegel ** #

Hegel postulated the theory of the dialectical of change; it is largely cyclical. Hegel saw the nature of change like the swinging of a pendulum, the dominant ideology is challenged by something diametrically opposite; the thesis, by its antithesis.  A compromise called a synthesis is reached; this becomes the dominant thesis and in time it too is challenged by another polarized opposite.  A compromise is reached and the synthesis becomes the new thesis and so on.  


From the Enlightenment, monolithic thinking was replaced by pluralistic ideologies as Europe became enlightened, seeing the rise of The Age of Reason inculcating ideas of liberty equality, emancipation, independent thinking, universal justice – abolition of slavery…..

Romantic Movement in Literature #

This was a reaction against the Age of Reason and the Metaphysical period.  It affected many areas of human thought, influenced by the Philosophers and spreading to other genres in the arts such as painting, music, novels, drama and poetry as well as politics especially the rise of Nationalism.  Romantic Art flourished following the French Revolution, when all things seemed possible and life was on a trajectory of unlimited improvement heading towards perfectibility and the ultimate triumph of good.  It believed that Nature was good and therefore the ideal of goodness was a natural state achievable by man. 

Matthew Arnold was one of the first poet/critics in the mid Victorian era to question whether Romantic poetry dealt with the real complexity of ideas and life; “English poetry of the 1^(st)quarter of the century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, - did not know enough”.

Among many things, it was the Industrial Revolution and later the ferocity and wanton destruction of WWI that rocked the sensibilities of the Romantics forcing them to reevaluate their fanciful assumptions, creating doubt and disillusionment on a massive scale.


As pure logic could be subverted by specious reasoning, it was counteracted by Romanticism, then superseded by a whole slew of 19^(th) C competing ideologies - “isms”;  Individualism, Marxism, Liberalism, Nationalism, Socialism (at least 5 variations), Nihilism, Imperialism, Capitalism, Darwinism, Clericalism, Communism, Fascism….

Counter cultures resisted, such as Existentialism, the Da Da Movement, Absurdism. Good times set high standards of principle, bad times negate noble values, disavow principles and shred the sense of progress, decaying spiritualism, erosion of democratic processes.

Rather than subscribe to any ideological approach or adopting the arcane language of any perspective, the reader should develop their own response from an individual perspective.  Avoid literary jargon like:  *“Virginia Woolf depicts toxic masculinity and its dominating influence in a society founded on male supremacy”.  *

Alice in Wonderland - the origins of Absurdism?

Lewis Carroll, born on January 27, 1832 in, England, as Charles Dodgson wrote books including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Alice follows a white rabbit down a hole and finds herself in the topsy turvy under world at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  At first sceptical, she is tempted to accept the illusions of life but eventually sees through the subterfuge.   What is it about  Tea Parties? In this one, hosted by the Mad Hatter, Humpty Dumpty patronisingly explains to Alice that the meaning of a word is simply determined by* “who is to be master -, that is all” , following no*t Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but Darwin’s  “survival of the fittest. Where might is right”

Later Alice also learns from the White Queen, that with more effort and practice in these post-ironical, post - modern and post cynical times, “*we can all be expected to dutifully believe six impossible things before breakfast”.  *

According to Steph Harmon, of The Guardian, It’s pretty remarkable that Alice has stood the test of time, as a continually evolving hero,  She’s such a strong reflection of young women everywhere. She’s as smart as she is curious as she is courageous, as she’s totally cheeky. And there’s a kind of innocence in her as well that you see in your own kids.   It demonstrates the strength and stubbornness of Alice.

*“Hold your tongue!” *said the Queen, turning purple.

“I won’t!” said Alice. “The more curious you are, the more you’ll find.”

As things become c*uriouser and curiouser, *Alice yearns for “*something to make sense around here” *but finally concludes that “*This is just a house of cards”. *

Carl Jung’s theory of Archetypes concerns  Myths, ubiquitous and universal, in time as well as place: it is a dynamic factor everywhere in human society; transcending time, uniting the past (traditional modes of belief) with the present (current values) and reaching toward the future (spiritual and cultural aspirations). They are collective and communal belonging to the people. Myths reflect the unconscious desires, anxieties and fears of peoples; a palpable projection of a people’s hopes, values and aspirations, representing their deepest instinctual existence.  They attempt to express the tribe’s awareness of the meaning of life and its place in the universe.

In sum, to quote Professor Schorer,* “it is the essential substructure of all human activity”*

Although every people has its own distinctive mythology which may be reflected in legend, folklore, and ideology—although, in other words, myths take their specific shapes from the cultural environments in which they grow—myth is, in the general sense, universal. Furthermore, similar motifs or themes may be found among many different mythologies, and certain images that recur in the myths of peoples widely separated in time and place tend to have a common meaning or, more accurately, tend to elicit comparable psychological responses and to serve similar cultural functions. Such motifs and images are called “archetypes.”

Jung likened the collective unconscious to a reservoir which stored all the experiences and knowledge of the human species.  Jung believed that humans experienced the unconscious through numerous symbols encountered in various aspects of life such as dreams, art, and religion.

Jung’s ideas were eclipsed by Modernism.

Modernism #

New weapons of mass destruction beginning with the slaughter of thousands of young men in futile senseless charges over the top, followed by the mass slaughter of WWII, especially the horror of the holocaust and Hiroshima. Language is incapable expressing unspeakable crimes. Words have spent their credibility. They are old, worn thin by too much usage and misusage.  Language is no longer referential – not tied to reality.  What is happening to humanity?  Are we collapsing into a new form of barbarism?  *“The rest is silence”. * Beckett has silence pouring into his plays as a sign of impotence.

The decay of religious faith — moral values. Nietzsche proclaiming the death of the gods means omniscient points of view in novels and the breaking up of structure of time in novels, ushering in stream of consciousness. We return to myth, image and metaphor in say just what we mean.

Predominance of naturalistic view of life and man.  Mechanisation of both external existence and individual personality, The change from communal stability to the urban atomising of society. These features are the offspring of science.

Post Modernism #

There is no agreed definition of Post Modernism; it is an elusive term describing a loose movement. #

It emerged from about the 1920’s with James Joyce, built on Existentialism and Absurdism.  In Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad scepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.  1970, is generally accepted as the beginning of Post Modernism. #

Another tenet is that all interpretations are shaped by our inherited assumptions values and preoccupations.  Meanings of texts are subjective, multi-faceted and unstable.  Much of literary criticism has the quality of one of those inkblot tests in which everyone sees what they want to see.  The process aspires to be objective, however it more often becomes intuitive, imaginative and capricious.

Literature communicates through word associations, symbols, metaphor, images, allusions and sounds that resonate in different ways to different people.  Yet extracting meaning from text is aided by tools of intellectual application and formal awareness of these techniques.  Naïve readers search for validation of personal identity and impression, rather than new perspectives, knowledge or insights. 

Rather than limiting oneself to technical tools and close reading, we are better off embracing an immersive experience of engagement, to escape into an imaginative realm of other possibilities.  Affective responses can be just as illuminating as cognitive expertise. 

Nasrullah Mambrol declares postmodernism iconoclastic, irreverent and subversive.  Post Modernism became a radical experiment for an effete culture, no longer fit for purpose. 

It challenges traditional notions of plot, narrative, chronology, character portrayal and development and the need for plausibility. It reacts against realism.

The Role of the Critic #

**Coleridge:  “**Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc.  if they could; they have tried their talents and failed so they become critics”.

Criticism is a pejorative misnomer for someone who describes, analyses and evaluates literature, food, art, music or any other human endeavour.  Though they have been around since early times – even before Plato and Aristotle, their hey day began in the 1920’s to about the 1990’s when their influence was eroded by the proliferation of commentary on the internet.¹  Many scholars feel we suffer from an implosion of opinion that has smothered authoritative and informed criticism. 

^(1\ )Less than six weeks after Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom” was published, Amazon offered more than 300 frankly polarised customer reviews^(.\ )–Stephen Burn.

During the fifties and early sixties some literary critics enjoyed the exalted position of undisputed or infallible authorities on selected works of art. Students merely had to cite and conform to their views to receive top marks.  Since the seventies views have broadened and today students are expected to seek a more wide ranging view, look at contrasting or dialectical points of evaluations and then “think for themselves”.  The purpose of education is not to teach students what to  think, but how to think for themselves!

*‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’  * Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

Susan Sontag distinguishes between interpretation and sensuality; in Against Interpretation **Sontag **attacked critics for *“usurping and desecrating works of art “.  * Al Pacino considers many academics, often present lofty judgments in arcane inaccessible language, killing any enjoyment. 

Regardless, the authoritative critic still fulfils an important role in our understanding of a work of art.  Their training in acceptable standards, accumulated wisdom and insights can open new vistas to lead us to a greater appreciation of literature often triggering an original response.  Though the creative power is considered superior to the critical, well informed criticism can illuminate subtle nuances, allusions or symbolism.   Matthew Arnold claimed that “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.The literary critic is the only one to use the same medium that they are commenting on - words. Art critics don’t paint, food critics don’t cook, music critics don’t sing…..  KATIE ROIPHE, writing in The New York book reviews - With Clarity and Beauty, the Weight of Authority has this to say about good criticism:

*More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing. *

The danger to avoid as Oscar Wilde pointed out: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises”.  Also: The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.  

Writer Critics: #

Some writers have also given us their views on what they believe is good Art.  Coleridge, Eliot and D.H. Lawrence are notable ones.

D. H. Lawrence on Literary Criticism: #

Criticism can never be a science: it is in the first place too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores.  The touch stone is emotion, not reason.  We judge a work of art by its effect on our most sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else.  All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all the pseudo-scientific classification and analysing of books is mere impertinence and most dull jargon.

A man who is emotionally educated is rare as a phoenix.  The more scholastically educated a man is generally, the more he is an emotional boor.

A critic must be emotionally alive in every fibre, intellectually capable and skilful in essential logic, and then morally very honest.

And learn, learn, learn the one and only lesson worth learning at last. Learn to walk in the sweetness of the possession of your own soul.

By the nineteen-twenties, (at 35)  Lawrence wants his writing to indicate, and his readers to embrace, “the animal aloneness that human language only seems to overcome; bodies may come into contact, but not souls”.

Eliot – On Poetry #

* “The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better.  There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “ *

Poets often   deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy.  Poetry can resonate and hypnotise the responder.  “My words echo/ Thus, in your mind”.

Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock where he has his persona admit:

“That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all."

*And this, and so much more? —
 It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: *

Why criticism Matters #

“Good sparkling writing captures the dizzying swirl of events, from the quotidian to the earth-shattering, with meticulous, acoustically spellbinding language, and makes for riveting reading. Good writing  inscribes a restlessness and probing into word choice and the structures of the sentences themselves, which quiver with the anxiety to get things right, to see the world as it is – and it does so succinctly.”

We live in the age of opinion­ — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.  But where does it leave the serious critic in * the evolving role of influencing taste, careers, and canons.*

As well, the creative composer tends to experiment and test the boundaries of their craft; critics need to accept and tolerate innovation. Instead of assuming new ways of writing indicate a falling in standards or a return to a philistine dark age, critics need to recognise innovation as a means of keeping in touch or maintaining relevance in evolving cultures.   In many areas critics have the power to make or break new releases of books, movies, music, and restaurants.  In recent years creators have successfully sued critics for unfair reviews, while others such as Kenneth Tynan’s 1955 review is credited with rescuing from oblivion Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

Negative criticism can reflect badly on the critic. 

The Times Literary Supplement,  on June 21, 1917 review of T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock had this unsigned criticism:

“The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to* *poetry”.

The most insightful acumen of this reviewer was the absence of a name.

Or one panning a pilot of “Fawlty Towers” by John Cleese:

I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title –  It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being angthing but a disaster.

In May of 1974, after reading through a pilot script written by John Cleese and his then-wife, Connie Booth, a clearly unimpressed “comedy script editor” by the name of Ian Main sent the above memo to BBC Television’s Head of Comedy and Light Entertainment – a Letter of Note resurrected by BuzzFeed “to give solace, and hope, to creative people everywhere”.


Just remember, no one has a monopoly on what a work of art means – everyone finds something different in it and your opinion is just as valid as anyone else - including the composer.  Good criticism should provoke underlying questions, spurring readers to think for themselves. Kant called this the task of enlightenment; it is certainly the mark of good criticism. 

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved.  No one is an absolute authority on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next.   T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better.  There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

 As Howard Jacobson says, *“a book should be something you grapple with, otherwise there’s no point.”  * And Oscar Wilde’s famous bon mot: “*The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you”. *

Rather than subscribe to any ideological approach or adopting the arcane language of any perspective, the reader should develop their own response from an individual perspective.  Avoid literary jargon like:  *“Virginia Woolf depicts toxic masculinity and its dominating influence in a society founded on male supremacy”.  *

Rather than subscribe to any ideological approach or adopting the arcane language of any perspective, the reader should develop their own response from an individual perspective.  Avoid literary jargon like:  *“Virginia Woolf depicts toxic masculinity and its dominating influence in a society founded on male supremacy”.  *