Ilana Blumberg on Matthew Arnold, "Function of Criticism"

While the assumptions and assertions of Matthew Arnold's essay, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," may seem fatally flawed to readers versed in contemporary theory and criticism, Arnold nonetheless occupies an important place in the history of theory. Though earlier literary critics from Plato to Sidney to Wordsworth had obsessively discussed and defended the artistic pursuit, (perhaps because many of them doubled as artists and critics), in 1865, when Arnold wrote his defense and definition of criticism, he was among the first critics to pay the critical endeavor any attention.1 Though it is no longer a universal given that "the critical faculty is lower than the inventive" (p.382), the need Arnold felt to defend the critical endeavor and to attempt to determine its relevance and worth continues to manifests itself in contemporary theory in essays like de Man's "The Resistance to Theory" and Radhakrishnan's "Toward an Effective Intellectual." Curiously, reading Arnold's essay in the light of contemporary contributions to the debate on the role of the intellectual/ critic/theorist reveals to what extent certain issues persist unresolved, though with what different assumptions we approach their resolution. I would like briefly to summarize Arnold's approach and then locate possible faultlines in his argument, that put him into unexpected dialogue with Radhakrishnan.

Acknowledging criticism's inferiority to creative artistic activity, Arnold nonetheless claims that England is in dire need of skilled critics, if for no other reason than to prepare the soil for future artists. According to Arnold, the creative power "works with elements, with materials," "with data" (p.383); these materials are the "best ideas, on every matter which literature touches, current at the time" (p.383). And it is the job of critics to "establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces" (p. 383).

For Arnold, the crucial quality for criticism, and the chief lack in English criticism, is "disinterestedness," an "aloofness from practice" (p.388). Political and practical allegiances distort intellectuals' abilities to look clearly at ideas, to evaluate them fairly, and simply to approach new ideas with "curiosity," and a "free play of the mind" (p.388).2 Intellectual honesty and integrity always suffer when the intellectual is tied to a cause or a party, and thus, the ideas produced by the intellectual are second-rate.

It is fragmentation among intellectuals, a lack of "confederation" and commonality, that seems to distress Arnold most:

...through all the various fractions, political and religious, of our society, every fraction has...its organ of criticism but the notion of combining all fractions in the common pleasure of a free disinterested play of the mind meets with no favor" (p.388).
It is worth noting that fragmentation, or what he might call "regionalism," is the problem Radhakrishnan discusses in his essay "Toward an Effective Intellectual." With my emphasis on Arnold, I would like briefly to examine how the two critics (quite differently) frame and analyze this problem, and how they suggest the intellectual can solve it. I want to suggest as well that even as Arnold seems to eschew the problem of the marginalized voice, he acknowledges it and addresses it more sympathetically than we might expect from the founder of the club of Dead White Men.

At first glance, Arnold and Radhakrishnan seem to be voices that can barely be brought into dialogue. Radakrishan's late twentieth-century basic assumption is that there exists a dominant discourse that has prevented minority voices from being heard and that it is time for those minorities to speak for themselves and be heard. There is no universal "one" who can speak for anyone else. Radakrishnan's problem, then, becomes finding a possibility for dialogue and influence among all the worlds that constitute our global world.

Arnold's 1865 essay is informed by no such assumptions. His ideal critic occupies a space that contemporary theory has declared non-existent, an unidentified subject position that is assumed to encompass all subject positions and none at the same time. Explicitly in his essay, Arnold requires the critic to "keep out of the region of immediate practice in the political, social, humanitarian sphere" (p. 391) in order to be an objective, skeptical arbiter. However, as I mentioned before, without making any grand claims for Arnold's relevance to contemporary theory, there is a way to narrow the gap between his concerns and Radhakrishnan's. Juxtaposed against the impartial, aloof critic who sets out carefully worded prescriptions for literary and critical greatness, ie the Arnold whom we associate with objective standards for the greatness of literature and his literary "touchstones," is a heated, deeply involved, prophetic (in the Old Testament sense of moral teacher) critic. Arnold is caught between these two widely different visions of the critic, and himself speaks in both guises. While the "official version" of his essay endorses "disinterestedness," the text implicitly negates and rejects that value. Let me try now to unearth the sublimated critic who, while still and always unaware of the subjectivity of minorities, is alive to social issues in a way that Arnold does not allow the "official" critic to be.

It is primarily in Arnold's attack upon English smugness and self-satisfaction that the voice of the prophetic, morally concerned critic can be heard. Much of Arnold's dislike for partisan critics stems from his fear of the blindness they must cultivate in order to promote flawed systems that safeguard their parties' interests. In his critique of this practice and of English smugness, Arnold, the champion of high literature and culture, turns to the newspaper, he turns to the divorce courts, he turns to the Constitution and he turns to public buildings. Arnold does not rely on general philosophical statements condemning the prevalent practices in England. All the examples that he marshalls are located very specifically in time and place.

Arnold's scathing attack on Sir Charles Adderley and Mr. Roebuck's assessments of a superior English society deserves careful attention as one example of this practice. Next to what he terms the "dithyrambs" of criticism, Arnold asks his readers to look at a paragraph from a current newspaper whose short, minimalist lines Arnold weaves in and out of the elegant cadences of the critics' writing. The paper decribes a very unlovely event reported from a dismal location: the murder of an illegitimate child by its mother in a workhouse neighborhood. This event and its reporting is sufficient evidence for Arnold that Roebuck's smugness must be punctured, that critics must not blind themselves to truth, but instead do the "spiritual work which is to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarising, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things." And yet, it is not by turning to high literature that Arnold has come to his own thoughts, but by randomly flipping through an ephemeral newspaper. As a critic himself, Arnold's "spiritual work" is done in his exposure to the suffering of an underclass, not in his "dwelling upon...absolute beauty."

Writing just six years after the publication of The Origin of Species, Arnold imagines a chain not just of intellectual progress, of faulty epistemes yielding to sounder ones, but also of "spiritual progression," a process toward perfection, an evolution. The critic's mission is to decide for the masses what will "nourish us in growth towards perfection", but Arnold's examples reveal a real concern for social/moral change as well as intellectual. He does not successfully extract the one from the other. Divorce courts are morally flawed, public edifices are aesthetically flawed, society suffers crimes of infanticide, and no good literature is being written. If criticism were non- partisan, and apolitical, separate concepts that Arnold conflates, England would not be in the sorry state it is. If critics/intellectuals would just stick to the "free play" of ideas, then presumably all of society's ills would improve.

And yet, who is it who points out society's ills, who lectures critics on those ills, and who speaks for the underclass that suffers instead of turning a blind eye? It is Arnold. Despite his claims of disinterestedness, I would argue that the ending of his essay reveals precisely the extent to which the moral and intellectual and aesthetic are conflated categories for Arnold, and the improvement and "perfection" of the one means the perfection of the others, even as he argues that theory and practice must be kept separate:

That promised land it will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness: but to have desired to enter it, to have saluted it from afar, is already, perhaps, the best distinction among contemporaries... (p. 396)
The critic's mission is an aesthetic and intellectual one, that very quickly crosses the boundary into a religious task, a spiritual and moral one. Radhakrishnan's reading of Gramsci's theory of the intellectual, a leader chosen, empowered and validated by the led, is certainly not the same thing as Arnold the intellectual denying the masses a voice and subjectivity but advancing their cause without even knowing it. Still, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," against its own will, does raise the possibility of the involved intellectual and the conjunction of moral and intellectual responsibility.

1 Pope's 1711 "An Essay on Criticism" is the only precedent I am familiar with.

2 Arnold's repeated use of the term "free play of the mind" evokes Sidney's claim for the artist to "freely rang(e)...within the zodiac of his own wit." ("An Apology for Poetry") Perhaps Arnold's desire for the critic to have "free play" comes from his sense of the overlapping endeavor of the poet and critic. The opening of his essay is in fact devoted to a discussion of poet-critics, a group of which he was himself a member!

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