CRITICAL THEORY SINCE PLATO

For a change, I’m just going to blog about one book, instead of my usual mass blogathon o’books.  This one book is, on its own, worthy of a blogathon.  It’s critical theory since freakin’ PLATO! Unfortunately, it’s too big and heavy to carry around in my purse. I’ve been out of college a long time, but this was the one book I made sure survived all my life milestones.  I bought it for a special topics class "Literary Theory and Criticism" taught by a wonderful professor named Nancy Grayson. I wasn’t too conscientious about getting my work done, but I loved reading the book and discussing it.

The TOC is like a timeline.  Check it:

Classics represented:

  1. Plato (duh!)  (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 2)
  2. Aristotle (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 2)
  3. Horace
  4. Longinus
  5. Flavius Philostratus
  6. Plotinus

Early Christian and Medieval:

  1. Boethius
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas

Renaissance:

  1. Dante Alighieri
  2. Giovanni Boccaccio
  3. Julius Caesar Scaliger
  4. Lodovico Castelvetro
  5. Sir Phillip Sidney
  6. Jacopo Mazzoni

1600s

  1. Sir Francis Bacon
  2. Henry Reynolds
  3. Thomas Hobbes
  4. Pierre Corneille

1700s

John Dryden; Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux; John Dennis; Alexander Pope (lovingly highlighted with pink highlighter); Joseph Addison; Giambattista Vico; Edmund Burke; David Hume (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 1); Samuel Johnson; Edward Young; Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; Sir Joshua Reynolds; Immanuel Kant (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 1);

1800s

William Blake; Friedrich von Schiller; William Wordsworth; Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; John Keats; Arthur Schopenhauer  (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 1); Thomas Love Peacock;Percy Bysshe Shelley; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 1); Thomas Carlyle; John Stuart Mill  (The Philosopher’s Song, verse 2) ; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve; Edgar Allan Poe (really? seriously?); Matthew Arnold; Hippolyte Taine; John Ruskin; Charles Baudelaire; Karl Marx; Friedrich Nietzsche; Walter Pater; Emile Zola; Henry James; Anatole France; Oscar Wilde; Stephane Mallarme.

Turn of the century and 1900s

George Santayana; Leo Tolstoy; William Butler Yeats; Benedetto Croce; A. C. Bradley; Sigmund Freud; Edward Bullough; T. E. Hulme; T. S. Eliot; Irving Babbitt; Carl Jung; Leon Trotsky; Boris Eichenbaum; I. A. Richards; Samuel Alexander; John Crowe Ransom; R. P. Blackmur; Edmund Wilson; Paul Valery; Allen Tate; Kenneth Burke; Lionel Trilling; Wallace Stevens; Robert Penn Warren; Ernst Cassirer; W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley; Cleanth Brooks; Jan Mukarofsky; Jean-Paul Sartre; Eliseo Vivas, Ronald S. Crane; Philip Wheelwright; Roman Jakobson; Northrop Frye; Gaston Bachelard; Walter J. Ong, S.J.; E. H. Gombrich; E. D. Hirsch, Jr.; Roland Barthes; Sigurd Burckhardt; Georges Poulet; Murray Krieger.

Whew!

Even though the classical Greek and Roman are not well represented individually, there are numerous references to other writers of that period, as well as the Bible. Lessing’s Laocoon (the second "o" should have an umlaut over it), for example, is an analysis of art that mines Chapman’s Homer quite deeply to illustrate his ideas.  Luckily, Greek bits are translated in the annotations at the bottom of the page.  Unfortunately, the parenthetical expressions are not.  Hmmm…

Contributions from writers of the 1800s and 1900s outweigh the rest by far, but it evens out because most of them mention critics of previous centuries.  So you get more than you pay for.

This is not a book to be read from cover to cover.  You need time to digest and "recollect in tranquility".  Not every contributor is a philosopher, as such.  Most writing genres are represented.  Pope, Yeats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Eliot — Poetry.  Frye, Barthes, Trilling, Richards, Krieger — professional critics.  Von Schiller, Schopenhauer, Lessing, Goethe — German literary royalty.  Painter Joshua Reynolds.  Essayist Emerson.  Psychologists Jung and Freud.  Political rhetoricists Marx, Trotsky, and Mill.  Journalist Joseph Addison.  Wits, novelists, social critics, even just plain ol’ storytellers.  Finally, full-on, f***-off, hardcore philosophers — Nietztsche, Sartre, and Kant.  It’s a banquet!

And the jargon! OMG! Depending on how you feel about terms like aestheticism, phenomenological, structuralist, post-structuralist, deconstructionalist, contextualist, the overused and under-understood "existential", psychoanalytical, and trancendental, you’ll end up with either a hard-on or an aneurysm.  One of the best things about the writers in this voluminous volume of ideas is that most of them are fluent in more than one language, and they use it.  They reference writings in German, Greek, Latin, Italian, and French.  Again — a bargain!

I love Sir Kingsley Amis’s gripe that being rich sucks because you’re forced to hang around rich people.  The same goes with writing.  Being a writer sometimes sucks because you’re forced to read a lot of writing, a lot of which you might not agree with.  Don’t kid yourself.  If you put even five of these guys together in a room, it would be seafood forks at 10 paces.  Unless they are all too drunk.  (The Philosopher’s Song).  It was a refreshing relief to see Thomas Carlyle use the expression "mumbo-jumbo" in his chapter "Symbols" from Sartor Resartus.  Sometimes they can surprise you and be down to earth.  You’d never see Alex Pope using an expression like that. 

It hasn’t all been nose-in-the-air, ivory-towered intellectualism reading this book over the years.  I can’t think of Jean-Paul Sartre without mentally quoting the Monty Python skit about him, his "wife" Betty-Muriel, and Beulah Premise.  I get an endorphin high every time I watch that sketch.  Then there’s the epic classic Philosopher’s Football (Soccer) Game where Confucius is the referee, and it’s the Greeks vs. the Germans.   I think it was Euclid’s idea to finally kick the ball.  Then the iconoclastic "World Forum" with Marx, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara answering questions about soccer.  It’s because of "back-door" perspectives like that that I can understand what I’m reading in a book like this.

Take a look at your book shelf.  This one tome can replace a lot of what you might already have.  It’s a book to pass down the generations.  As if this book didn’t have enough information, there’s a selected bibliography that spans genres.  There’s also a painstaking index.  Aristotle alone is referenced from page 1 through page 1248.  That’s some street cred!  The idea of beauty is discussed by 49 authors.  Even something as ordinary as pleasure is discussed by at least 29 authors.  There are so many reasons this book is a treasure.  Get one. Now. No, for reals. It’s all good.  (I’m not going to link the names because you can pretty much Google any of the names and get hundreds of hits.)

Buy Critical Theory Since PlatoMy Amazon.com review of this book

Buy Critical Theory Since 1965

Recommendations

Loeb Classical Library

I Tatti Renaissance Library

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (The 64-Ton Megaset at www.amazon.com )

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Teaching Core Writing Skills

Good Professional Books for English Teachers

WHY I WRITE — BONDING WITH ORWELL

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