Wilbur Sanders on Literary Criticism

My ideal for a critic and scholar is one who combines (1) comprehensive knowledge of many individual works across multiple periods and disciplines with (2) a synthetic ability to make non-reductive assessments within and across periods. The combination of these two talents seems to be extremely rare, which is why the field of comparative literature/religion/culture has produced so many wrong-headed books.

When I read something like George A. Kennedy’s Comparative Rhetoric covering Australian Aboriginal, Egyptian, Indian, and Native American cultures on top of Greece and Rome, where Kennedy has clearly done a massive job of immersing himself into the primary material, I get frustrated that such books are less well-known than Walter Ong’s reductive and anecdotal¬†Orality and Literacy (recently disputed rather heavily by Georges Dreyfus in The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, based on Dreyfus’s decades spent studying in a Tibetan monastery).

Wilbur Sanders, in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (1968), gives a similar account of two complementary skills and the difficulties in possessing both in sufficient measure. Taking cues from the historicist thinking of E.H. Carr, Johan Huizinga, Benedetto Croce, and R.G. Collingwood, he writes:

One tends to think of philosophy and philology as two mutually exclusive extremes, almost temperamental incompatibilities: one requiring the virtues of minute scholarship, the other demanding a rarer talent for large conceptions and bold leaps of imagination. But historical thought demands just these antithetical powers of mind–common enough in isolation, but rarely found co-existing in one mind in their fully developed form. It is the same twofold qualification that literature demands of its reader.

On the one hand he must bring all his normal modes of thought ¬†and feeling, his deepest concerns and his most profound convictions, and try to interpret what the past offers him in the light of those concerns and convictions, incorporating the past into an inclusive personal view of life. He must try to assimilate the past to his present self, and do so at the deepest level. He cannot rest content with the kind of effete indifference that shrugs it all off with a murmured ‘De gustibus…‘. On the other hand, he must possess the scholar’s scrupulousness about seeing things ‘as they really are’; he must respect the ‘document’; he must recognise, indeed welcome, the unassimilable, the unpalatable, the indigestible.

He must realise that the past, insofar as it diverges from the present, constitutes a challenge to the present–’Justify yourself! Can you afford to dispense with modes of thought which were fruitful and illuminating to us? Are you mental categories appropriate here? How can you be sure you have progressed? Answer for yourself!’ He must be prepared to discover that his interpretive tools must be abandoned, because they do too much violence to the data they are trying to encompass.

Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea

A very high standard.

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