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Literary criticism, as distinguished from scholarly research, is usually itself considered a form of literature. Some people find great critics as entertaining and stimulating as great poets, and theoretical treatises of literary aesthetics can be as exciting as novels. Aristotle, Longinus, and the Roman rhetorician and critic Quintilian are still read, although Renaissance critics like the once all-powerful Josephus Scaliger are forgotten by all but specialized scholars. Later critics, such as Poe, Sainte-Beuve, Taine, Vissarion Belinsky, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Walter Pater, and George Saintsbury, are probably read more for themselves than for their literary judgments and for their general theorizing rather than for their applications (in the case of the first three, for instance, time has confounded almost all the evaluations they made of their contemporaries). The English critics have survived because they largely confined themselves to acknowledged masterpieces and general ideas. Perhaps literary criticism can really be read as a form of autobiography. Aestheticians of literature like I.A. Richards, Sir C.M. Bowra, Paul Valéry, Suzanne Langer, and Ernst Cassirer have had an influence beyond the narrow confines of literary scholarship and have played in our time something approaching the role of general philosophers. This has been true on the popular level as well. The Dane Georg Brandes, the Americans James Gibbons Huneker, H.L. Mencken, and Edmund Wilson these men have been social forces in their day. Literary criticism can play its role in social change. In Japan, the overthrow of the shogunate, the restoration of the emperor, and the profound change in the Japanese social sensibility begins with the literary criticism of Moto-ori Norinaga (1730-1801). The nineteenth-century revolution in theology resulted from the convergence of Darwinian theories of evolution and the technical and historical criticism of the Bible that scholars had undertaken. For many modern intellectuals, the literary quarterlies and weeklies, with their tireless discussions of the spiritual significance and formal characteristics of everything from the greatest masterpiece to the most ephemeral current production, can be said to have filled the place of religion, both as rite and dogma.
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No work, and no current evaluationof it, can simply be extended to new groups of people without being changed,perhaps almost unrecognizably, in the process; and this is one reason whywhat counts as literature is a notably unstable affair .
In other words, language plays a major role
In preliterate societies oral literature was widely shared; it saturated the society and was as much a part of living as food, clothing, shelter, or religion. In barbaric societies, the minstrel might be a courtier of the king or chieftain, and the poet who composed liturgies might be a priest. But the oral performance itself was accessible to the whole community. As society evolved its various social layers, or classes, an elite literature began to be distinguishable from the folk literature of the people. With the invention of writing this separation was accelerated until finally literature was being experienced individually by the elite (reading a book), while folklore and folk song were experienced orally and more or less collectively by the illiterate common people.
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This, it will be said, is not reading it'as literature'; but am I reading Orwell's essays as literature only ifI generalize what he says about the Spanish civil war to some cosmic utteranceabout human life?
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Time passes and the pendulum of taste swings. In the mid-twentieth century, Paul Valéry, T.S. Eliot, and Yvor Winters would attack what the latter called the fallacy of expressive form, but this is itself a fallacy. All form in literature is expressive. All expression has its own form, even when the form is a deliberate quest of formlessness. (The automatic writing cultivated by the Surrealists, for instance, suffers from the excessive formalism of the unconscious mind and is far more stereotyped than the poetry of the Neoclassicist Alexander Pope.) Form simply refers to organization, and critics who attack form do not seem always to remember that a writer organizes more than words. He organizes experience. Thus, his organization stretches far back in his mental process. Form is the other face of content, the outward, visible sign of inner spiritual reality.