Category Archives: Criticism

Christopher Batty: Bloom, Frye and Value Judgments Cont’d

Philip Larkin reads his poem, “The Trees”

Contra Bloom, Frye never claimed that “evaluation has nothing to do with literary criticism.” He claimed that criticism can’t comfortably rest on a foundation of mere evaluation. Bloom himself is a good judge of literary merit but far from an infallible one. I’d give Bloom an A- or B+ score if I were evaluating his ability to evaluate and rank.

When Bloom edited a collection he entitled The Best Poems of the English Language, he excluded dozens of conventionally recognized masterpieces and included several idiosyncratic choices of his own I found to be not so great, and sometimes downright mediocre. Bloom can’t see his own blind spots; none of us can. That’s why they’re called “blind spots.”

Frye’s real point is that there never has been, in the entire history of literary appreciation, a single individual with anything resembling infallible taste. Everyone has blind spots, everyone who claims to have identified a perfect canon invariably gets shown up as misguided in a few generations time. I don’t see how it’s possible to argue against Frye’s view of this matter. The history of taste, with all its fluctuations and reversals, clearly shows him to be correct about this.

As for how this applies to Bloom: it’s easy for me to assent to his admiration of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon among living American novelists, but when Bloom (in his younger years) dismissed T.S. Eliot as inferior to John Ashbery and not a “strong” poet, when Bloom tried to write Poe out of the canon altogether, and when Bloom writes a rave blurb for poet Philip Levine but declares poet Philip Larkin trivial and minor, all I can say is, “Harold, you’ve got some major blind spots. Your aesthetic compass is anything but perfect — which is precisely Frye’s point.” Does Bloom honestly foresee a future in which Larkin, Eliot, and Poe are forgotten, but “common readers” are avidly devouring the “strong” verse of Levine and Ashbery?


It’s Bloomsday.

Radio Bloomsday will be reading the text all day. You can listen to it here.

From Frye’s review of New Directions in Prose and Poetry in Canadian Forum (December 1942):

Pendulum theories of art don’t work. Poems and pictures are real things; “tradition” and “experiment” are abstract nouns. To judge a concrete thing in terms of one abstract quality is to study it in one of many possible aspects. Which may well be worth doing. But to look at all art as split down the middle into an antithesis of abstract qualities hamstrings all criticism and insults all masterpieces; for the better the work of art, the more rewarding it will be to study it from opposing points of view. Thus, one could write an interesting essay on Ulysses as an experimental novel, and an equally interesting one on Ulysses as a traditional novel. But Ulysses is not “essentially” either; it is not “essentially” anything but a novel. (CW 29, 21)

Nazi Book Burning


Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels oversees a book burning rally in front of the Berlin Opera House. A translation of Goebbles’ speech to the students assembled there after the jump.

On this date in 1933, the Nazis engaged in nationwide public book burnings. The Hitler regime had drawn up lists of scholars and writers unacceptable to the New Order as decadent, materialistic, and representative of “moral decline” and “cultural Bolshevism.”  These included: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Döblin, Erich Maria Remarque, Carl von Ossietzky, Kurt Tucholsky, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Erich Kästner, and Carl Zuckmayer.

Frye in Anatomy:

The only way to forestall the work of criticism is through censorship, which has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice. (CW 22, 6)

In “The Only Genuine Revolution”:

Historical imagination is a difficult thing to develop, and I’m not surprised that people shrink from trying to do it. But I’m always terrified when I hear the word “relevance” applied to education, because I can never forget that it was one of the jargon terms of the Nazis, and particularly the Nazi youth, around 1933 to 1934. That is, the professors around the universities that were being shouted down and hounded out of the place because they didn’t like Hitler were the people who didn’t understand the relevance of everything that was being studied to the Nazi movement. (CW 24, 167)

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Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant died on this date in 1804 (born 1724).

From The Double Vision:

The greatest of all philosophers who took criticism as his base of operations, Kant, examined three aspects of the critical faculty.  First was pure reason, which contemplates the objective world withing the framework of its own categories, and hence see the objective counterpart of itself, the world as it may really be eluding the categories.  Second was practical reason, where a conscious being is assumed to be a conscious will, and penetrates farther into the kind of reality we call existential, even into experience relating to God.  Third was the aesthetic faculty dealing with the environment within the categories of beauty, a critical operation involving, for Kant, questions of the kind we have just called teleological, relating to purpose and ultimate design.

For Kant, however, the formula of beauty in the natural world at least was “purposiveness without purpose.” The crystallizing of snowflakes is beautiful because it suggests design and intention and yet eludes these things.  To suggest that the design of a snowflake has been produced by a designer, whether Nature or God, suggests also that somebody or something has worked to produce it: such a suggestion limits it beauty by cutting of the sense of a spontaneous bursting into symmetry.  “Fire delights in form,” says Blake, and Wallace Stevens adds that we trust the world only when we have no sense of a concealed creator.  (CW 4, 191)

Norman Mailer


Norman Mailer on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in 1968.  Much of the dialogue sounds like it was written by a precocious grad student suffering from a hangover and the trots.

Today is Norman Mailer‘s birthday (1923-2007).

Frye in a 1968 interview.

Smyth: What about other critics who are less disciplined?  I’m thinking of Mailer.

Frye: But Mailer is not a critic.  He’s a novelist.  He has a creative mind. When he speaks in the role of the critic, he reflects the confusions that a person who is not really a critic gets into.  I think that we’ve found over and over again in the history of literature that some of the world’s greatest poets have also been the most confused people in their reaction to the current political scene.  The reason is that they are concerned with so fundamentally different a job that they really shouldn’t be asked to pronounce in these areas.  (CW 24, 67)

The rest of the Buckley/Mailer interview after the jump.

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Virginia Woolf


The only surviving recording of Woolf: a talk delivered on the BBC in April 1937 under the title “Craftsmanship.”  It was part of a series called “Words Fail Me.”

Today is Virginia Woolf‘s birthday (1882-1941).

Frye in his 1948 Canadian Forum review of Woolf’s posthumously published The Moment and Other Essays :

Like its predecessors, it makes very agreeable reading, but indicates that Virginia Woolf was as minor a figure in criticism as she was a major one in the novel.  She was a great novelist, with a consciousness about form and structure more Continental than English.  For the English novel, as she occasionally complains, has usually been rather like one of the county houses it so often describes: rambling in structure, provincial in setting, showing a good deal of improvising in the building, full of drafts caused by loose ends of plot and loopholes in motivation, and with the less mentionable aspects of existence difficult to access yet marked by a pervasive smell.  Virginia Woolf’s novels looked “experimental,” not because she was trying stunts but because she went all out for whatever novel she was writing, determined not to let it go until every detail had been hammered into the right shape and place.  So although words like “subtlety” and “delicacy” spring to mind first in connection with her, these qualities are, as they should be, the results of great imaginative energy and vigorous craftsmanship. (CW 26, 80)

Charles Lamb


Chapter 1 of Rosamund Grey

On this date in 1834 Charles Lamb died (born 1775).

From The Well-Tempered Critic:

A critic may have precise and candid taste and yet be largely innocent of theory.  Charles Lamb was such a critic, and one feels even that his lack of theory was an advantage to him.  Coleridge, on the contrary, was one of the greatest critical theorists, and yet had much less of Lamb’s ability to respond directly to poetry without being confused by moral, religious, and political anxieties. (CW 21, 381)