The "Why" of New Criticism--Theory Explains Method

        Many students report having been taught New Critical methods of interpretation even before they take English 200 at Goucher.  Almost all of them report being unaware that there was a reason why these methods were derived, and they certainly had no idea that the "why" of the method was as important as the "what" to do or the "how" to do it.  Tyson's chapter gives us precious little of that background, hence Ohmann's chapter is needed, but even then he takes some very basic theoretical beliefs for granted.  New Critics are culture-warriors fighting time, bad taste, and carelessness to save what they believe they can identify as the best of our literary tradition from loss and neglect.

        Why do they care so much about the danger they perceive in the claims of the "intentionalists" who want free license to appeal to all sorts of extra-textual evidence when saying "what the poet intended" rather than "what the poem means"?  They recognize themselves as part of an intellectual elite which is making choices, year by year, about what poems will be taught in schools, what students will be taught to do with those poems, and, therefore, what poems will survive as active parts of this culture.  To them, this is extremely important, and if you doubt this importance for yourself, ask whether the world would be richer or poorer if more of Shakespeare's plays had survived, Chaucer's "book of the Lion" (mentioned in the Retractions but never found), the lost plays of the Greek tragedians and all the Greek comedies written by anyone other than Aristophanes (whose comedies are the only ones which survived), or Homer's lost comic epic, the Margites, which Aristotle said was better than the Iliad or the Odyssey.  At some point in our culture's history, somebody made some bad aesthetic decisions about what to save and what to preserve, and these works were lost forever.  That's what's at stake.  What, of all the works currently being written, should we preserve by teaching them, and how should we teach people to understand them?  The term of art for this process is "canon formation" and it has created the very notion of what you think of as "great literature."  If you do not understand your participation in the English major as part of this struggle about what works to preserve for study and why anyone else should care, you should read the hyperlink above and this link to the discussion about English 211 and 212 as the arena in which the canon is described and debated.

        When you read Wimsatt and Beardsley's attempt to invalidate the claims made by "affective" critics who say the poem's emotional effects on readers are what should be judged when "judging poems," you encounter another largely unstated theoretical assumption.  Ponder this sentence as one key to their argument: "The report of some readers . . . that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account."  [353]  Why does the "refutability" of a claim matter so much to "objective criticism?  Compare science's emphasis on testing only claims that are "falsifiable," i.e., that a test exists that could prove them false if they were false.  For that reason, most scientists do not waste their time trying to prove the existence of God, which has been recognized by scientists, if not by theologians, as a non-falsifiable proposition since Antony Flew (1955).  Once again, think about my description of the NC project's genesis in the heart of the Cold War and the nation's overwhelming turn toward science and technology as ways to solve our cultural problems.  Is that way of living entirely comfortable for you, or do you seek something in the English major that you cannot find in a Biology or Chemistry class, even though a Bio or  Chem degree might be worth more money on the job market?  Critic, know thyself!