FEBRUARY 8, 2020
I AM 18 YEARS OLD. It’s the first week of college. I’m sitting in the third row. The classroom is overflowing — students are spilling out of benches, their voices bigger than their bodies — when the professor walks in. He is listed as “SC” on the handout that’s been given to us. He will become a name and a voice in our heads soon. But today, on our first meeting with him, we just see a man with a beard — we cannot not notice it, for his left hand strokes it from time to time, which is when I notice his long fingers. He begins to say something and the class falls into stillness. I want to say now, retrospectively, that it was because of the sound of his voice — educated and sensitive, respectful of every sound it made — that we all went quiet, but the truth is that it was because we couldn’t hear what he was saying. I surprise myself when I stand up and tell him, “Sir, I can’t hear you.”
He smiles and repeats what he said — or so I presume — but I still don’t catch the words. And so I repeat myself: “Sir, I can’t hear…”
He asks me my name, and, like a poet who knows the value of a proper noun, adds it when he tells me, “You are not meant to hear what I said.”
Already shy and awkward, I feel scolded. He, sensitive to a fault as I’d later discover, understands, and so adds quickly, “That’s what Shakespeare meant to do — for intimacy to be created through these words, by creating the sense of a whisper, through the sibilants.” And so saying, he recites the first two lines of the sonnet: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrances of things past.”
I walk back home from class thinking of the word “whisper” in the languages I knew then, Bangla and Hindi — “phish phish” and “phusphusaana” — and I am surprised to discover their phonetic similarities: the sibilants that recreate the sense of whispering.
SC — Samar Chakraborty — was the first New Critic I ever met. Except that I did not know it then — did not know what a New Critic was, or that I had just met one.
Soon after, I would find myself in the college library — library only in name, more a collection of bookshelves in two rooms. There I would come across a book with an unexpected title for what I presumed was a work of literary criticism: The Well Wrought Urn, by Cleanth Brooks. I was certain I’d encountered the phrase somewhere — and it turned out that my suspicion was correct: it was from a poem by John Donne. I had come to this book after a recommendation by a professor — it included an essay on Macbeth, with the striking title “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness.” I read the essays as one does a thriller, turning pages propelled by the energy of “and then?” — making discoveries about secret relationships between words, how punctuation marks had been put in to divert traffic. It was a moment of epiphany. I realized then that this would be my life — to become a literary detective, to understand and interpret the relationships between words, and how their precise positions were responsible for what the detective ultimately gave us: knowledge.
I read The Well Wrought Urn and another book that lay not far from it on the English literature book racks at Siliguri College — The Verbal Icon, by William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley. As an autodidact who hardly attended classes, I was often clueless about literary movements and their members. The problem with such groping is that one is often unaware that one has become a follower. I suppose the same thing happened to me, so that when I first encountered John Crowe Ransom’s essay on New Criticism on the syllabus at the University of North Bengal, it seemed like a moment when inchoate love had become a love letter — intuition finding expression, as it were.
Published in 1941, Ransom’s The New Criticism was a response to the dominant modes of literary criticism of the time — primarily the philological, the moral, and the biographical. It was a culmination of many responses that preceded it: T. S. Eliot’s concept of the “objective correlative” and his essay on the metaphysical poets; I. A. Richards’s “practical criticism”; “close reading” of the kind that had revolutionized French literary studies. Ransom was not alone — Brooks, Wimsatt and Beardsley, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, among others, practiced this kind of close reading, an attention to form that involved a conscious rejection of biographical criticism, of sources to which the text owed its origin, of the comparative approach. The text was all, self-contained and self-referential.
I was reading all of them in a small provincial town in Bengal in the late 1990s. The internet still hadn’t arrived, not in any real way. We spoke of reference books as “material.” I say this not to further an argument but with a sense of belated amusement. Our libraries were as poor as us. But they had dignity. The life of a scholar — and a student — was completely dependent on them. The books I found there had somehow managed to make their way from England and the United States. They were an archive of how English literature had traveled to the interior of a former colony like India and shaped its reading habits. Some of the books I found had torn pages — a 32-page essay on the invocation in “Book I” of Paradise Lost had been neatly ripped out of one volume, for instance. The reading life in a place like ours was marked by a poverty of reading material.
This deprivation, I can say only retrospectively, forced most of us to become close readers. Deconstruction still hadn’t reached our town — if it had, we might have concurred with Derrida: there truly was nothing outside the text. Admission tests to colleges and universities in Bengal institutionalized the basic assumptions of New Criticism. Students were asked to respond to a poem — the name of the poet was not given. The anonymous text forced students to become literary detectives — every clue, every answer, every argument was in the text itself. Our teachers practiced New Criticism in the classroom though none of us, including perhaps the teachers, was conscious of it.
All of this, though we did not realize it then, instilled in us a reading technique that the New Critics had practiced half a century ago. It made us indifferent to authorial intention, for instance. It made us resistant to summary, what Cleanth Brooks called “the heresy of paraphrase.” It also made us slightly anachronistic. A way of reading — and a consequent reception of random texts, books reaching us by accident — had been forced upon us without our active participation. Because of the changing character of the provincial university library in post-liberalization India, we did not know how New Criticism had come to be discredited in America, how the focus had shifted from form to identity and ideology, with a consequent return of biographical criticism. Literature departments in the United States had resumed their study of texts through a moral lens (the first professors of English literature had, after all, been scholars of law and theology, and the discipline began its life in the 19th century as an example of “moral science”) — the bogeyman changed depending on the course taught and the specific -ism that was being critiqued by its instructor.
The New Critics had — like Eliot — been mostly poet-critics. Primarily Southerners, they had come together at Kenyon College. I hasten to add that theirs was not an isolated situation. Similar things were happening at the time in India. Poets and writers were teaching English literature even as they wrote poems in their native languages: Buddhadeva Bose and Jibanananda Das wrote poems and stories and essays and literary criticism primarily in Bangla even as they taught English literature (or “Comparative Literature” in the case of Bose) in colleges and universities in Bengal. My own professor, Samar Chakraborty, was one of them — he wrote poems in Bangla and taught English literature in college.
These poet-scholars raised generations of students on a literary culture that did not distinguish between theory and practice, between “Literature” and “Creative Writing.” We were taught to rely on the text; everything else seemed superfluous. The New Critical mode of reading has many limitations, primary among them being its self-imposed blindness to the forces of history, but its replacement in America — the practice of reading literary texts as illustrations of an idea or ideology — turns texts mostly into paraphrase: instead of allowing ourselves to be exposed to an encounter with specific words and sentences, we search for the text’s implication in contexts extrinsic to it. What this has done, although it might seem far-fetched to say so, is lead to the rise of the so-called “WhatsApp university” — a culture that does not read closely will naturally be dependent on what comes to it in paraphrase.
The indifference of the New Criticism to the personality of the author made sense in a reading culture like ours, where books had no author photos. While I might be able to identify authors from their prose styles, it was unlikely that I could identify them from their photographs. I still do not know what Tolstoy looks like. This rejection of a life outside the text, in the name of a whole-hearted attention to and full-throated articulation of only what is in the text itself, must have somehow conditioned me to an indifference to the personality of its author. That might also explain, ironically, why the New Critics are known more as a collective than by their individual names.
As I watch the development of personality cults around writers, particularly in this season of literary festivals (“Meet Authors! Travel Beyond Books!”), with publishing decisions and awards now primarily made on the basis of the writer’s identity and the constituency he or she seems to represent, I think of Cleanth Brooks stressing “the writing rather than the writer.” The current fetishization of authors, of the “writer’s studio” series, of the writer’s process, of book lists (best books, best reads, important books, best-selling books, books by women — a genre that has become more inventive than the books themselves), seems so removed from the actual experience of reading that I am tempted to view them as symptoms of a literally “post-literary” era. The degeneration of the review sections in magazines and newspapers — with friends reviewing their writer-friends, books being reduced to a perfunctory synopsis, and personal hostility toward writers being transferred to their writings — often reminds me of Ransom’s words: “Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic.”
Something else happened with the disappearance of the temperament of New Criticism. In the writing of the New Critics and their followers was an expression of joy, of delight in the text, a curiosity about how a poem had come to be. This was not admiration or awe but a disciplined inquiry into the poetic. What has replaced it is a tendentious probing that often seems animated by hostility — the substitution of the sociological for the aesthetic has led to a neglect of and indifference to beauty, to the vibrant life of poetic forms. The result is a loss in the vocabulary of attention, and the consequent creation of a bizarre rating system by which texts are now evaluated — a simplistic matrix of appreciation (“amazing-wonderful-fantastic-marvellous-awesome”) or deprecation (“abhorrent-offensive-pernicious-deplorable-worthless”). The ethics of textual fault-finding, as necessary as that may be for the creation of a better socio-political order, is an impoverished method if not allied with an investigation into the workings of language and a robust assessment of the formal structure of literary texts. The marginalization of beauty and its complexity, its verbal specificity, has probably been the greatest casualty of the disappearance of New Criticism.