“There is no such thing as natural meaning. The critic creates the meaning.”
Prof. J. paces the front of the class, an open book held at the spine being used as an aid to his frantic and excited gesturing. His glasses are coke bottle thick and he is young, having all of the freshness of a just-picked peach. The students say nothing, only scribble feverishly into their books, pens moving in unison, twirling upwards in counterclockwise whorls. J. continues.
“Once a work of art is created, such as a novel, it takes on a life of its own. It’s no longer in the hands of the creator, and, if it is worthwhile, it becomes our clay. It’s our job, as academics, to mine the classics for metaphors and to continuously find new ways for them to be relevant to the social issues of today.”
Surprised, I find that there is no shock of fear running through the class. Though the subject of their study has just been completely invalidated, the students seem oddly reassured, smiles even ghosting the lips of those who, from the professor’s words, can sense hints of their own future importance. It only takes me a moment to realise the reason behind the relative calm: these are English literature students, and for them contradiction is a way of life, metaphorical butter to their metaphysical bread. After all, if the students within the program hold any sort of belief that they are attending University for their future, for their careers, then it is easy to see how a contradiction-coping mechanism might become ingrained, bred into them over time.
Later, I talk with Professor J. about the problems with his description of the program. “Well, what did you expect? There has to be some sort of value attached to the discussion of other people’s works. And since we’re the ones who control it we get to assign it.”
But isn’t that a conflict of interest? Shouldn’t the importance of the critics be decided by the critics of the critics?
“We are the critics of the critics. There’s no one else. We’re self policing. It’s not a conflict of interest. If I say that my work is more relevant there is always someone else around to say that his work is more relevant. ‘Correctness’ is determined by consensus.”
So what’s the point?
“If you were listening, the point is a marriage of literature and contemporary social issues, regardless of when any particular book was written. Criticism is an art too, it just operates in a different way.”
Such as leaching triumphs of their meaning in order to feed one’s puffed up egos? But Professor J. doesn’t have an answer for me, anything more than a simple reiteration of the above points. Criticism is an art? Sure. Careful criticism, maybe. But not criticism so bold as to treat its subjects as building blocks, base things that can be put together in any way, so long as they serve someone’s arguments. The material within must be respected, the art praised for its relevance to its own time, to humanity, and to nothing else. Criticism can be an art, but only if it recognises that the creation of something worth criticising is infinitely harder than critiquing it, and that the reassessment of a text is an act that approaches meaninglessness the further you stray from the road.