Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New Criticism

I seem to remember studying the individual, social, historical background of writers and their writings to better understand their work. This approach at analysis offered a wide range of perspective on texts. But my students tell me that they are discouraged from doing so and are asked by their teachers to focus on the texts. This is the ‘New Criticism’ approach. ( It is called ‘new’ but it has been around for some 50 years now.)

This approach or technique of analysis is meant to deal with the poem in its own terms and as complete in itself. This requires a rigorous study of the text itself, a close reading and focussing on the structure of the work and aspects such as rhythm, meter, theme, imagery, metaphor, etc. Literary techniques are de rigueur. The meaning is to be found in the text itself. The text, the adherents to New Criticism claim, is autonomous.

It ignores the fact that the reading is subjective and the reader is not  rational in her approach to the reading but brings into the reading her own perceptions and experiences. Critics of New Criticism also attack the technique as isolating “the work of art from its past and its context” and “uninterested in the human meaning, the social function and effect of literature”.

In Singapore schools, focus on “New Criticism” poses difficult challenges to students whose first language is not English. I am often surprised to hear that students are expected to understand texts such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Alice Walker’s Colour Purple without the background knowledge of the history of slavery.
I wonder too what people will make of Pablo Picasso's Mural "Guernica" (1937) about the bombing of Basque city of Guernica by German air force during Spanish Civil War.

Surely an understanding of the historical, social and even psychological background of the writer and his/her times, the artist and his subject will serve to enrich the experience of learning and teaching literature.