A. Lavretsky (Iosif Moiseevich Frenkel) 1925

Brief History of Literary Criticism

Author: A. Lavretsky (Iosif Moiseevich Frenkel);
Written: 1925;
First published: 1925 in Dictionary of Literary Terms, Volume 1, pp. 382-386;
Source: http://niv.ru/doc/dictionary/literary-terms/fc/slovar-202.htm#zag-270
Translated by: Anton P.

Literary criticism is a type of literary creativity, the subject of which is literature itself. Just as the philosophy of science is the theory of knowledge, epistemology is the organ of self-consciousness of scientific creativity, so criticism is the organ of self-consciousness of artistic creativity. This is the definition of criticism according to its subject, a provisional definition.

Literary works became the object of consideration and evaluation in ancient Greece, therefore, criticism also arose there (Storozhenko). Even before Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers devoted entire treatises to questions about the essence of beauty, about the merits or demerits of certain poetic works, about the laws of art. In a number of Plato’s dialogues (Ion, Phaedrus, Hippias the Younger), a whole theory of beautiful and poetic creativity in general is already given. But the most fundamental work of the Greco-Roman world in this area is Aristotle’s Poetics (335 BC).

In contrast to Plato, Aristotle draws his conclusions not from ideas, but from facts. His work, in the part that has come down to us, is based on the study of Greek tragedy, and represents the first attempt at a scientific study of drama. Aristotle requires that all parts of the latter form one harmonious whole. The chorus, according to Aristotle, is one of the main characters, its songs are closely connected with the action. The hero must be true to his traditional character and his own nature. The basis of the construction of drama is the unity of place, time and action. During and after the Renaissance – almost until the end of the 18th century. in criticism, the ideas of Aristotle and his Latin follower Horace (De Arte Poetica) dominate. Criticism, as applied to literary works, is an applied aesthetics that evaluates literary works on the basis of general, obligatory everywhere and always, canons. This unshakable “canon” was, in reality, of course, far from the supertemporal aesthetics of a certain time and place – Aristotle and Horace.

In his famous treatise L’art Poetique, the 17th-century French critic Boileau insists on the unconditional observance of the ancient Greek three unities: time, place and action, on the arousal of fear and compassion by the tragedy, on the fact that its heroes are portrayed in accordance with the traditional character. Following Horace, Boileau expounds the theory of idyll, elegy, satire, ode, he recommends common sense as the guiding principle of poetry in general, and clarity as the norm of style.

He considers the shortcomings of the latter to be low tone, pomposity, etc. All these provisions, true in their time and place, very useful with a certain bias in artistic thought, extremely constrained poetic creativity, claiming to be universally binding, and narrowed the horizons of criticism. New perspectives unfolded before the latter, when the historical point of view began to dominate in it. Already at the end of the 17th century. a reaction began against Boileau’s “rules”. So, Perrault proves back in 1688 that the rules drawn from the works of antiquity – this “childhood” of mankind – are not applicable to the works of modern times – the era of its “maturity”. But the most powerful blows to pseudo-classical poetics were inflicted in the 18th century. Lessing, who demanded a national content in art, and Herder, who finally established the historical method in criticism. If Lessing, who cruelly denied the rationality and narrowness of the “pseudo-classics”, was still under the influence of Aristotle and Greek models, then Herder resolutely rebelled against this aesthetic dogmatism. In his epoch-making article on Shakespeare, he proves that Shakespeare’s plays are a new and original kind of drama, and that they, which arose in peculiar social conditions, cannot be subject to the requirements applicable to ancient Greek tragedians. This idea of ​​a more concrete approach to artistic creativity, opposing abstract schemes and “recipes” to the study of the moment of appearance and creation of a literary work and the psychology of the author, turned out to be extremely fruitful. It captures all subsequent criticism. Herder’s thought was accepted and developed by such people as Schlegel, Tieck, Stahl, Wilmen and others. In the 19th century. the historical method reached its highest point of development with two French critics: Sainte-Beuve and Taine, Sainte-Beuve skillfully used biographical material to explain the writer’s work. He reduced the historical view of literature to the history of a separate creative individuality. Taine formulated his method in the famous formula: race, environment, moment – the three factors that determine creativity. Taine’s influence has not yet been outlived, although it is by no means always fruitful. The mind is inductive-abstracting, an excellent mechanism of induction, distracting with mathematical correctness, sharply rational in French, he tried to turn psychology into logic. Claiming to be a natural scientist, Taine considered people, and people who create, as a naturalist his preparations, in order to discover uniform natural laws in this area. He denied the human sphere the right to autonomy and the special laws that are essential in it. “Race” and “environment” completely absorbed Taine’s “temperament”, reduced only to the transmission instance of both, to an external, relatively unimportant sign. His interpretations of artists and writers, as Faguet has already pointed out, are applicable to every Frenchman or Englishman of a given time and place, but they do not capture in the least what it is that makes La Fontaine, Shakespeare, Balzac, etc. out of a given Frenchman or Englishman.

Here, in Russia, our famous critics – Belinsky, Dobrolyubov, Pisarev, Mikhailovsky – independently examined literature from the point of view of the environment and the moment. But their peculiar feature was still a certain publicistic tendency. The critic was a preacher of socio-political ideas and public morality, expounding them “on the occasion” of a work of art.

From the second half of the 19th century great strides are made in the scientific study of literature. The history of literature, historical poetics, the theory of poetic forms and devices - for all this, objective grounds are being sought, objective methods of research and verification. In this movement, Russia, represented by Alexander Veselovsky and Potebnya, occupies one of the first places. But criticism has not yet made clear its object. An illegitimate bastard of art and science, without family or tribe, it is still a mixture of impressionistic assessments, aesthetic views, philosophical and social principles, historical and literary research, observations of the art form, but now the process of differentiation, common in the history of thought, must also take place here. (As regards the history of literature, it has already ended, and the confusion of the latter with criticism is completely unacceptable). A lot of material has accumulated, grouped into disciplines independent of each other, similar in their methods and tasks to other departments of positive science. This is evidenced by the very appearance of the so-called. “formalist school” (Opoyaz, Zhirmunsky and others). Isn’t this abolishing creativity as a special kind of not scientific, but literary creativity? Recently, Yu. I. Eichenwald, the most important impressionist in contemporary Russian painting, came forward quite consistently with such “self-abolition”. Criticism finds itself, as it were, in the position of philosophy, from which the positive sciences have gradually differentiated. However, it was not possible to abolish philosophy, and it will not succeed in relation to criticism, which is called upon to be a kind of philosophy of art and deduces its right to exist from the boundaries of positive knowledge. And in connection with modern philosophical ideas, the following justification of criticism is inevitable: scientific research, for all its value, is always only the knowledge of parts, and not the whole; the latter is always organic, that is, more than the sum of its parts; but if rational knowledge, in general, cannot satisfy our needs for concrete, integral cognition, then art especially needs such an organ of superscientific comprehension. Art criticism is called upon to be such an organ, art about art, creativity about creativity. And therefore criticism must be intuitive and therefore dynamic.

What should be the attitude of criticism towards science, historical and literary data, historical poetics, history, sociology, etc.? Should it disregard their instructions? In no case, if only because science, as it were, clears the way for intuition, indirectly tests it, points to that external and superficial in a creative personality, from which one must abstract for its knowledge as such. Its research can serve as a scaffolding to climb to get inside the creative soul.

Criticism is a holistic comprehension and evaluation of a work of art and its author as a creator.