Literary a work of literature and it

Literary survey is
actually a survey of the literary criticism of a particular literary work or
literary works of a writer. Etymologically the word criticism is derived from
the Greek word meaning ‘Judgement’ and hence criticism is the exercise of
judgement and literary criticism is the exercise of judgement on works of
literature. From this it would appear that the nature and function of literary
criticism is quite simple and easy to understand. Criticism is the play of the
mind on a work of literature, and its function is to examine its excellencies
and defects, and finally to evaluate its artistic worth. However, things are
not quite so simple as that. As soon as we proceed to examine the nature and
function of criticism in some detail, we are confronted with a host of
conflicting views. Atkins opines that criticism is the play of the mind on the
artistic qualities of literature and its object is to interpret literary values.
Readers and critics wholly mistake the nature of criticism to think its
business is principally to find fault. Criticism, first instituted by
Aristotle, was meant to be a standard of judging wealth. When Addison defined
that the role of the true critic was to dwell on excellencies rather than
imperfections he was in a way echoing the views of Aristotle. Matthew Arnold
regarded criticism as a disinterested endeavor not only to learn but also to
propagate the best ideas that are known and thought in the world. Arnold
anticipated critic T.S. Eliot who believed that the end of criticism is the detailed
explanation of works of art which help in the correction of taste of the
reading public.

Leading aside the
wrangling of critics regarding critical theories and the confusion and chaos
which confronts such an inquiry, let us consider in detail the function of
criticism. Literary criticism is the play of the mind on a work of literature
and it consists in asking and answering rational questions about literature.
Such an inquiry may be directed either first towards literature in general
leading to a better understanding of the nature and value of literature, and a
better appreciation of the pleasure proper to literature. Such an inquiry by
helping us to think rightly about literature enables us to gain the fullest
enjoyment from it. In this way is built up a theory of literature, and the
process of literary creation is examined and made intelligible.

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Secondly, the inquiry may be directed towards particular works of
literature, and its individual and distinctive qualities may be examined. The
matter, the manner, the technique and language of a piece of literature may be
put to searching examination and in this way its literary worth may be
assessed. In this way, certain rules may be formulated which, when duly tested
and examined with reference to similar works of literature, may help the reader
to form a better idea of literary merit also facilitate the task of a common
writer. Thus, the function of criticism is not fault-finding as it is supposed
to be by the layman. Its function is not to pick holes in a given work of
literature nor is its function to eulogize or laud some favourite author.
Indiscriminate praise is as bad as indiscriminate fault finding. Rather,
criticism is a science of forming and expressing correct judgement upon the
value and merit of works of literature. It is only through criticism that
intelligent appreciation and clear understanding becomes possible. According to
S.M. Schreiber, “The business of the literary critic is in the first instance,
to distinguish between a good book and to get full value out of literary
quality when we meet with it, thus opening up for us the whole world of
pleasure and imaginative experience and intellectual stimulus which is waiting
to be explored but which, without a qualified critic help, we would not
discover for ourselves. The ways in which the critic sets about his task are
innumerable, ranging from, on the one hand, the most general statement of
principle to, on the other, a detailed line by line and word by word analysis
of one short poem, but always the purpose is the same; to quicken and refine
our, the readers perceptiveness so that, as time goes on, we too may come to
share his understanding of, and pleasure in, what is best in literature.Views regarding the
functions of criticism and the role of critics have kept on changing through
the ages. Every age has tended to assign a different function or functions to
criticism. The earliest systematic critic Plato, for example was concerned with
the problem of defining the utility of poetry in the educational system in his
ideal state, found poetry wanting and so banished poets from his ideal
commonwealth.  His approach was
fundamentally utilitarian and he condemned poetry as immoral and untruthful.

Following Plato’s condemnation,
criticism for long centuries to come was pre-occupied with justifying
imaginative literature, more specially poetry. Aristotle took up the challenge
of Plato and asserted the superiority of poetry over philosophy, and Sir Philip
Sidney wrote his famous treatise in defence of poetry. All through the
renaissance, the chief purpose of critical writing was to set up a defence of
poetry and to emphasize its moral value. All through the neo-classical age,
criticism was concerned with demonstrating that poetry both instructs and
delights.

Critics from the
earliest times have also thought that the chief business of criticism was to
teach the writer how to write effectively. The general statements of Aristotle
and Horace were narrowed down to dogmatic ‘rules’ and writers were advised to
follow them strictly. The Augustans, mainly Dryden and Pope were of the view
that the chief end of criticism was to devise rules and regulations for the
guidance of writers and then to judge a work on the basis of these rules. Pope
admirably sums up the classical view of criticism when he advices the writers
to make the study of the ancients their chief delight, and learn from them the
rules of good writing. Writers must adhere to these rules when they create and
critics must judge strictly on the basis of these ‘rules’.

However, such a
view of the function of criticism soon became outmoded. With the rise of
romantic individualism the conception of the function of criticism underwent a
radical change. It was now realized that the chief function of criticism is
artistic i.e. to promote appreciation and enjoyment of literature. The critic
is a man of taste, he himself enjoys what he reads and he tries to convey his
own aesthetic pleasure to his readers. Highest criticism is the expression of
the personal impression of an exceptionally gifted and sensitive individual; it
is record of his own aesthetic pleasure and response to a work of art and it
stimulates and encourages the reader, and helps them to understand literature.

It
was also during the romantic era that a number of critics wrote to promote a
better understanding of the process of creation. The best of such critics have
been the poets themselves, and they have written in order to convey their
literary theories                  their views of poetic creations             to their readers.  Thus the purpose of Wordsworth’s criticism is
to explain to his readers his own poetic theory and in this way to create the
taste by which his poems could be enjoyed. Coleridge, another poet critic made
minute and subtle studies of the process of poetic creation and tried to
formulate principles of poetic composition. In the twentieth century, T.S.
Eliot had given considerable thought to poetic theory and through his criticism
had done much to stimulate re-thinking. Criticism of such poet-critics is of
much value and significance. It has been a great irritant to thought.

Impressionistic criticism
often tends to be wayward and unbalanced. Therefore, the need was soon felt to
discipline the personal like and dislikes, prejudices and predilections, of the
critic and bring literary criticism in touch with the main currents of literary
and social thought. Thus during the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold opined that
criticism is to propagate the best ideas that are known and thought in the world.
In this way, the scope of critical inquiry was much widened and criticism
became a handmaid to culture and education by propagating the best that is
known and thought. Such criticism establishes a current of noble ideas, and
thus creates a proper atmosphere in which great literature becomes possible. In
this way, criticism promotes creation; critical activity of a high order is
considered necessary for successful creation. Indeed, critics like T.S. Eliot
are of the view that much critical labour must precede and accompany the labour
of creation.

In the modern age,
there has been a considerable widening of the scope of criticism. There is a
bewildering multiplicity of views and theories regarding the scope and function
of literary criticism. Broadly speaking, moral criticism is of two kinds: (a)
extrinsic criticism and (b) ontological criticism. Extrinsic criticism is
criticism which takes into consideration the current psychological,
sociological and cultural concept and relates a work closely to the life and
age of its writer. It studies the impact of social conditions on literature, as
also how far literature tends to mould the age in which it is written. It
enables us to judge a particular work in its social and biographical context.

Ontological
criticism, on the other hand, focuses its attention entirely and exclusively on
the work under study. For an ontological critic or ‘new critic’ the poem or
novel or drama is the thing in itself and the text is minutely examined and
studied word by word and line by line, without any reference to any other
extrinsic considerations. Obscure allusions, references, quotations etc. are
thus explained away and a better and clearer understanding of the meaning of
the text is promoted. Such Textual or Formalistic criticism is criticism in the
service of the reader; it serves to bring the reader closer to the mind of the
author. It is explanatory and interpretative and so conducive to a healthier
and more intelligent appreciation.

Evaluation, interpretation and explanation or elucidation are now
considered as the chief functions of literary criticism. When we make a literary
survey of the novels of Armah we must do well to remember that critics of Armah
are divided into two    camps                the colonialist and the
reductionist. In other words we can say that there is critical polarization in
so far as Armah’s brilliance as a novelist is concerned. Such criticism of
Armah’s novels is not free from its own pitfalls. Such critics are so carried
away by their passionate zeal that they fail to see reason beyond superficialities.
Charles E. Nnolim is one such critic whose cynical approach towards Armah’s
novels is evident in his acerbic comments. In his article entitled, “Dialectic
as Form: Pejorism in the novels of Armah, published in African Literature Today we smell the seamy odour of his critical
expressions. The reductionist critic, Nnolim, labels Armah as a “cosmic
pessimist”. He is of the opinion that pessimism colours all the novels of Armah
and the universe that he paints in his work does not have an iota of optimism
about it. He is downright in calling Armah “a retrogressive pejorist”. The
metaphor that he uses to describe Armah’s portrayal of Ghana evinces his debilitating
outlook: “To Armah, Ghana is one giant stinking lavatory.” (African Literature Today 207) In the
opinion of Nnolim, Armah’s mind revolves round images of disintegration and
decay whenever he imagines of Ghana in the post – colonial context. Nnolim
states how Armah It is difficult to agree with
his comment that underscores the philosophic pessimism in Armah’s work. For
Nnolim Armah is a writer whose “philosophic pessimism is undisguised in each
work.” In the first case though pessimism is a recurring pattern in Armah’s
philosophy, it is not pronounced in novels Nnolim chooses the
principal “linguistic clues” that structure each work dialectically. For him, those
linguistic clues in Armah’s novels lend form in such a manner that the centre in
each of them is both pejoristic and pessimistic.

Another reductionist critic is Ben Obumselu who criticizes Armah for his
alienated and colonial stance. In his article entitled, “Marx, Politics and the
African Novel” published in the journal, Colonialist
criticism.  Apart from these two types of
criticism, there is another variety of criticism. This variety is positive
criticism and it tries to evaluate Armah’s fiction in a proper perspective.
Robert Fraser was the first to make a full–length study of Armah’s novels in
1980. His book was entitled, The Novels
of Ayi Kwei Armah, London: Heinemann 1980. Fraser is of the opinion that many
of the novels of Armah are misread by the critics and the reason for such a
misreading could be attributed to the desperation of the critics to protect
themselves against the unpleasant truths which Armah has disclosed without any
bias. Fraser is critical of those critics who approached Armah’s art defensively
to blunt the thrust of his vision. Fraser looks upon Armah’s art as essentially
‘communalistic’. Therefore he is   unsparing of these critics who are guilty of
grafting their ‘individualistic humanist’ aesthetic upon Armah’s ‘communalistic’
art. The critics have derived these individualistic humanistic aesthetic from
their own cultures. Fraser certainly looks at Armah’s vision from a positive standpoint
but the way he interprets the individual novels of Armah is flawed to some
extent. Fraser finds a positive thrust in the first novel of Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
whose protagonist is the man but Armah undermines the unsubmitting struggle of the
man. Similarly, Juana carries the promise of regeneration through her consciousness
but Armah is rather insensitive to her promise of regeneration. Fraser argues
that in the case of the man in the first novel and in the case of Juana in the
second novel we do not see them as symbols of affirmation and liberation. On
the contrary, Armah has relegated them to the status of incidental characters.
But all said and done, Fraser has presented a picture which helps to appreciate
Armah as an extraordinary writer whose vision is both penetrating and wide
ranging.

Many critics of Armah can be arraigned for their glaring failure. Armah
is a visionary novelist. As a visionary novelist there is a basic theoretical dynamics
of his vision. His vision is at once moral and humanistic. Many of his
perceptive critics fail to read the humanistic and moral stance which he adopts
in his novels. This has led to a lot of misreading of his works. But the
dramatist and novelist, Wole Soyinka is a critic with a difference. He has a
clear cut notion about Armah’s theoretical dynamics of vision which the other
critics do not have. So, Soyinka’s observations help to clear the cloud of
misunderstanding which has been created by other eminent critics regarding the
vision of the novels of Armah. Soyinka examines a writer’s response to his
cultural situation and in doing so, he makes a classification of the African
novelists.Oulouguem
demolishes “all claims by all cultures and religions to any value pre-eminence
or indeed, historic probity.” Oulouguem brings all cultures to the absurd level
and then he presents them in violent collision. In other words Oulouguem
reduces all cultures to the plane of the absurd. These cultures and
civilizations are Arab-Islamic, European-Imperialist, black-dynastic, medieval
and Christian. To borrow an epithet from Soyinka’s critical work, the civilizations
and cultures are ‘paraded in a violent course of collision.’ In striking
contrast to Oulouguem’s thoughts, Armah’s thoughts are based on foundations
that are strongly ideological. Soyinka is of the opinion that the mythical past
which Armah constructs carefully is “a potential model for the future.

The secular vision
in African writing is not mild but aggressive and Armah is the finest exponent of
that secular vision. Any sensitive reader of Armah is able to see how his
vision is guided by a moral and humanistic ethic. Soyinka does not mince
matters when he underscores the secular vision in Armah’s novels and its deep
ramifications:reductionist
criticism launched against the novels of Armah but it also acts as a healthy
corrective to his moral and humanistic ethic. When we consider the ‘armoury’ of
a novel we include in it the visionary projection of the author as well as the
capacity of the reader for projection. This enables us to understand why
Armah’s novels were not accepted by sympathetic readers. As a result of
unsympathetic readership of Armah’s novels the novels were lacking in ‘the
shared knowledge’, and ‘the prior assumption of a readership subjectively
attuned.’  

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