Literary a work of literature and it

Literary survey isactually a survey of the literary criticism of a particular literary work orliterary works of a writer. Etymologically the word criticism is derived fromthe Greek word meaning ‘Judgement’ and hence criticism is the exercise ofjudgement and literary criticism is the exercise of judgement on works ofliterature.

From this it would appear that the nature and function of literarycriticism is quite simple and easy to understand. Criticism is the play of themind on a work of literature, and its function is to examine its excellenciesand defects, and finally to evaluate its artistic worth. However, things arenot quite so simple as that. As soon as we proceed to examine the nature andfunction of criticism in some detail, we are confronted with a host ofconflicting views. Atkins opines that criticism is the play of the mind on theartistic qualities of literature and its object is to interpret literary values.Readers and critics wholly mistake the nature of criticism to think itsbusiness is principally to find fault.

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Criticism, first instituted byAristotle, was meant to be a standard of judging wealth. When Addison definedthat the role of the true critic was to dwell on excellencies rather thanimperfections he was in a way echoing the views of Aristotle. Matthew Arnoldregarded criticism as a disinterested endeavor not only to learn but also topropagate the best ideas that are known and thought in the world.

Arnoldanticipated critic T.S. Eliot who believed that the end of criticism is the detailedexplanation of works of art which help in the correction of taste of thereading public.Leading aside thewrangling of critics regarding critical theories and the confusion and chaoswhich confronts such an inquiry, let us consider in detail the function ofcriticism. Literary criticism is the play of the mind on a work of literatureand it consists in asking and answering rational questions about literature.

Such an inquiry may be directed either first towards literature in generalleading to a better understanding of the nature and value of literature, and abetter appreciation of the pleasure proper to literature. Such an inquiry byhelping us to think rightly about literature enables us to gain the fullestenjoyment from it. In this way is built up a theory of literature, and theprocess of literary creation is examined and made intelligible. Secondly, the inquiry may be directed towards particular works ofliterature, and its individual and distinctive qualities may be examined.

Thematter, the manner, the technique and language of a piece of literature may beput to searching examination and in this way its literary worth may beassessed. In this way, certain rules may be formulated which, when duly testedand examined with reference to similar works of literature, may help the readerto form a better idea of literary merit also facilitate the task of a commonwriter. Thus, the function of criticism is not fault-finding as it is supposedto be by the layman. Its function is not to pick holes in a given work ofliterature nor is its function to eulogize or laud some favourite author.Indiscriminate praise is as bad as indiscriminate fault finding. Rather,criticism is a science of forming and expressing correct judgement upon thevalue and merit of works of literature. It is only through criticism thatintelligent appreciation and clear understanding becomes possible.

According toS.M. Schreiber, “The business of the literary critic is in the first instance,to distinguish between a good book and to get full value out of literaryquality when we meet with it, thus opening up for us the whole world ofpleasure and imaginative experience and intellectual stimulus which is waitingto be explored but which, without a qualified critic help, we would notdiscover for ourselves. The ways in which the critic sets about his task areinnumerable, ranging from, on the one hand, the most general statement ofprinciple to, on the other, a detailed line by line and word by word analysisof one short poem, but always the purpose is the same; to quicken and refineour, the readers perceptiveness so that, as time goes on, we too may come toshare his understanding of, and pleasure in, what is best in literature.Views regarding thefunctions of criticism and the role of critics have kept on changing throughthe ages. Every age has tended to assign a different function or functions tocriticism. The earliest systematic critic Plato, for example was concerned withthe problem of defining the utility of poetry in the educational system in hisideal state, found poetry wanting and so banished poets from his idealcommonwealth.  His approach wasfundamentally utilitarian and he condemned poetry as immoral and untruthful.

Following Plato’s condemnation,criticism for long centuries to come was pre-occupied with justifyingimaginative literature, more specially poetry. Aristotle took up the challengeof Plato and asserted the superiority of poetry over philosophy, and Sir PhilipSidney wrote his famous treatise in defence of poetry. All through therenaissance, the chief purpose of critical writing was to set up a defence ofpoetry and to emphasize its moral value. All through the neo-classical age,criticism was concerned with demonstrating that poetry both instructs anddelights.Critics from theearliest times have also thought that the chief business of criticism was toteach the writer how to write effectively.

The general statements of Aristotleand Horace were narrowed down to dogmatic ‘rules’ and writers were advised tofollow them strictly. The Augustans, mainly Dryden and Pope were of the viewthat the chief end of criticism was to devise rules and regulations for theguidance of writers and then to judge a work on the basis of these rules. Popeadmirably sums up the classical view of criticism when he advices the writersto make the study of the ancients their chief delight, and learn from them therules of good writing. Writers must adhere to these rules when they create andcritics must judge strictly on the basis of these ‘rules’.However, such aview of the function of criticism soon became outmoded. With the rise ofromantic individualism the conception of the function of criticism underwent aradical change. It was now realized that the chief function of criticism isartistic i.e.

to promote appreciation and enjoyment of literature. The criticis a man of taste, he himself enjoys what he reads and he tries to convey hisown aesthetic pleasure to his readers. Highest criticism is the expression ofthe personal impression of an exceptionally gifted and sensitive individual; itis record of his own aesthetic pleasure and response to a work of art and itstimulates and encourages the reader, and helps them to understand literature.

Itwas also during the romantic era that a number of critics wrote to promote abetter understanding of the process of creation. The best of such critics havebeen the poets themselves, and they have written in order to convey theirliterary theories                  their views of poetic creations             to their readers.  Thus the purpose of Wordsworth’s criticism isto explain to his readers his own poetic theory and in this way to create thetaste by which his poems could be enjoyed. Coleridge, another poet critic mademinute and subtle studies of the process of poetic creation and tried toformulate principles of poetic composition. In the twentieth century, T.S.

Eliot had given considerable thought to poetic theory and through his criticismhad done much to stimulate re-thinking. Criticism of such poet-critics is ofmuch value and significance. It has been a great irritant to thought.

Impressionistic criticismoften tends to be wayward and unbalanced. Therefore, the need was soon felt todiscipline the personal like and dislikes, prejudices and predilections, of thecritic and bring literary criticism in touch with the main currents of literaryand social thought. Thus during the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold opined thatcriticism is to propagate the best ideas that are known and thought in the world.In this way, the scope of critical inquiry was much widened and criticismbecame a handmaid to culture and education by propagating the best that isknown and thought. Such criticism establishes a current of noble ideas, andthus creates a proper atmosphere in which great literature becomes possible. Inthis way, criticism promotes creation; critical activity of a high order isconsidered necessary for successful creation. Indeed, critics like T.S.

Eliotare of the view that much critical labour must precede and accompany the labourof creation.In the modern age,there has been a considerable widening of the scope of criticism. There is abewildering multiplicity of views and theories regarding the scope and functionof literary criticism. Broadly speaking, moral criticism is of two kinds: (a)extrinsic criticism and (b) ontological criticism. Extrinsic criticism iscriticism which takes into consideration the current psychological,sociological and cultural concept and relates a work closely to the life andage of its writer. It studies the impact of social conditions on literature, asalso how far literature tends to mould the age in which it is written. Itenables us to judge a particular work in its social and biographical context. Ontologicalcriticism, on the other hand, focuses its attention entirely and exclusively onthe work under study.

For an ontological critic or ‘new critic’ the poem ornovel or drama is the thing in itself and the text is minutely examined andstudied word by word and line by line, without any reference to any otherextrinsic considerations. Obscure allusions, references, quotations etc. arethus explained away and a better and clearer understanding of the meaning ofthe text is promoted. Such Textual or Formalistic criticism is criticism in theservice of the reader; it serves to bring the reader closer to the mind of theauthor.

It is explanatory and interpretative and so conducive to a healthierand more intelligent appreciation.Evaluation, interpretation and explanation or elucidation are nowconsidered as the chief functions of literary criticism. When we make a literarysurvey of the novels of Armah we must do well to remember that critics of Armahare divided into two    camps                the colonialist and thereductionist. In other words we can say that there is critical polarization inso far as Armah’s brilliance as a novelist is concerned. Such criticism ofArmah’s novels is not free from its own pitfalls. Such critics are so carriedaway by their passionate zeal that they fail to see reason beyond superficialities.Charles E.

Nnolim is one such critic whose cynical approach towards Armah’snovels is evident in his acerbic comments. In his article entitled, “Dialecticas Form: Pejorism in the novels of Armah, published in African Literature Today we smell the seamy odour of his criticalexpressions. The reductionist critic, Nnolim, labels Armah as a “cosmicpessimist”. He is of the opinion that pessimism colours all the novels of Armahand the universe that he paints in his work does not have an iota of optimismabout it. He is downright in calling Armah “a retrogressive pejorist”.

Themetaphor that he uses to describe Armah’s portrayal of Ghana evinces his debilitatingoutlook: “To Armah, Ghana is one giant stinking lavatory.” (African Literature Today 207) In theopinion of Nnolim, Armah’s mind revolves round images of disintegration anddecay whenever he imagines of Ghana in the post – colonial context. Nnolimstates how Armah It is difficult to agree withhis comment that underscores the philosophic pessimism in Armah’s work.

ForNnolim Armah is a writer whose “philosophic pessimism is undisguised in eachwork.” In the first case though pessimism is a recurring pattern in Armah’sphilosophy, it is not pronounced in novels Nnolim chooses theprincipal “linguistic clues” that structure each work dialectically. For him, thoselinguistic clues in Armah’s novels lend form in such a manner that the centre ineach of them is both pejoristic and pessimistic.Another reductionist critic is Ben Obumselu who criticizes Armah for hisalienated and colonial stance. In his article entitled, “Marx, Politics and theAfrican Novel” published in the journal, Colonialistcriticism.  Apart from these two types ofcriticism, there is another variety of criticism. This variety is positivecriticism and it tries to evaluate Armah’s fiction in a proper perspective.Robert Fraser was the first to make a full–length study of Armah’s novels in1980.

His book was entitled, The Novelsof Ayi Kwei Armah, London: Heinemann 1980. Fraser is of the opinion that manyof the novels of Armah are misread by the critics and the reason for such amisreading could be attributed to the desperation of the critics to protectthemselves against the unpleasant truths which Armah has disclosed without anybias. Fraser is critical of those critics who approached Armah’s art defensivelyto blunt the thrust of his vision. Fraser looks upon Armah’s art as essentially’communalistic’. Therefore he is   unsparing of these critics who are guilty ofgrafting their ‘individualistic humanist’ aesthetic upon Armah’s ‘communalistic’art. The critics have derived these individualistic humanistic aesthetic fromtheir own cultures. Fraser certainly looks at Armah’s vision from a positive standpointbut the way he interprets the individual novels of Armah is flawed to someextent.

Fraser finds a positive thrust in the first novel of Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Bornwhose protagonist is the man but Armah undermines the unsubmitting struggle of theman. Similarly, Juana carries the promise of regeneration through her consciousnessbut Armah is rather insensitive to her promise of regeneration. Fraser arguesthat in the case of the man in the first novel and in the case of Juana in thesecond novel we do not see them as symbols of affirmation and liberation. Onthe contrary, Armah has relegated them to the status of incidental characters.But all said and done, Fraser has presented a picture which helps to appreciateArmah as an extraordinary writer whose vision is both penetrating and wideranging.Many critics of Armah can be arraigned for their glaring failure.

Armahis a visionary novelist. As a visionary novelist there is a basic theoretical dynamicsof his vision. His vision is at once moral and humanistic. Many of hisperceptive critics fail to read the humanistic and moral stance which he adoptsin his novels. This has led to a lot of misreading of his works.

But thedramatist and novelist, Wole Soyinka is a critic with a difference. He has aclear cut notion about Armah’s theoretical dynamics of vision which the othercritics do not have. So, Soyinka’s observations help to clear the cloud ofmisunderstanding which has been created by other eminent critics regarding thevision of the novels of Armah. Soyinka examines a writer’s response to hiscultural situation and in doing so, he makes a classification of the Africannovelists.

Oulouguemdemolishes “all claims by all cultures and religions to any value pre-eminenceor indeed, historic probity.” Oulouguem brings all cultures to the absurd leveland then he presents them in violent collision. In other words Oulouguemreduces all cultures to the plane of the absurd. These cultures andcivilizations are Arab-Islamic, European-Imperialist, black-dynastic, medievaland Christian. To borrow an epithet from Soyinka’s critical work, the civilizationsand cultures are ‘paraded in a violent course of collision.

‘ In strikingcontrast to Oulouguem’s thoughts, Armah’s thoughts are based on foundationsthat are strongly ideological. Soyinka is of the opinion that the mythical pastwhich Armah constructs carefully is “a potential model for the future.The secular visionin African writing is not mild but aggressive and Armah is the finest exponent ofthat secular vision. Any sensitive reader of Armah is able to see how hisvision is guided by a moral and humanistic ethic. Soyinka does not mincematters when he underscores the secular vision in Armah’s novels and its deepramifications:reductionistcriticism launched against the novels of Armah but it also acts as a healthycorrective to his moral and humanistic ethic.

When we consider the ‘armoury’ ofa novel we include in it the visionary projection of the author as well as thecapacity of the reader for projection. This enables us to understand whyArmah’s novels were not accepted by sympathetic readers. As a result ofunsympathetic readership of Armah’s novels the novels were lacking in ‘theshared knowledge’, and ‘the prior assumption of a readership subjectivelyattuned.’  


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