Criticism -- By: O. W. Firkins
BSac 73:290 (April 1916) p. 261
Valuation is not the whole, nor even the best or finest part, of criticism; it is, however, that part of criticism which impresses man with peculiar energy. In letters and in art as in things of slighter value, the competitive instinct of mankind will always assure, to questions of precedence or priority, an unapproached and overpowering interest. Who is ahead, who takes the first place, are the poignant questions in the field of criticism as on the race track, the diamond, or the gridiron. Authorship is a stately dinner party in which the anxiety and the stimulus of the hour is to assign each guest to his proper station below or above the classifying salt. An interest in literature is often little more than a pleasing variation of the interest in success; and it would be curious to watch the shrinkage in the numbers of the applauding company that follows in the train of a popular writer like Masefield, if he were suddenly brought into competition with an author of half his worth and twice his reputation. Interpretation, therefore, the humbler but at the same time the nobler and more salutary task of criticism, is made subservient to the award of prizes. The reader, oddly enough, is often less concerned with his own gain than with the author’s triumph; for it is one of the apparent anomalies, though real consistencies, of human nature, that another’s good if it be, like wealth or fame, exciting to the unrefined imagination, is more interest-
BSac 73:290 (April 1916) p. 262
ing even to selfish men than personal benefits of a less stimulating order.
I propose to assume for the time being that the estimate of values, the weighing and the stamping of literary treasure, calculation for every work of its chance of permanence and universal currency, is the distinctive purpose of literary criticism; its other purposes, their nature and the laws of their fulfillment, will transpire, I hope, in the progress of the discussion.
It is obvious that every man who has read a book and seeks to gauge its merits is possessed of two distinct, though closely interwoven, kinds of data. He has the book itself, a complex aggregate of parts, of elements, of qualities and methods, which appeals distinctly to his powers of observation. He has again his own experience, his sensation in the reading of the book, he has the effects, from which the properties of the book may be deducible as causes. Now it would naturally seem that, since merit in literature is merely the capacity to produce effects, effects themselves would be its proper measure. It would seem that of literary greatness — hardly otherwise definable than as the power to diffuse pleasure of a given intensity over given breadths or sections of mankind —...
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