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Pragmatic Literary Criticism
Pragmatic criticism is concerned, first and foremost, with the ethical impact any literary text has upon an audience. Regardless of art’s other merits or failings, the primary responsibility or function of art is social in nature. Assessing, fulfilling, and shaping the needs, wants, and desires of an audience should be the first task of an artist. Art does not exist in isolation; it is a potent tool for individual as well as communal change. Though pragmatic critics believe that art houses the potential for massive societal transformation, art is conspicuously ambivalent in its ability to promote good or evil. The critical project of pragmatic criticism is to establish a moral standard of quality for art. By establishing artistic boundaries based upon moral/ethical guidelines, art which enriches and entertains, inspires and instructs a reader with knowledge of truth and goodness will be preserved and celebrated, and art which does not will be judged inferior, cautioned against, and (if necessary) destroyed. Moral outrage as well as logical argument have been the motivating forces behind pragmatic criticism throughout history. The tension created between this emotional and intellectual reaction to literature has created a wealth of criticism with varying degrees of success. Ironically, much like art’s capacity to inspire diligence or decadence in a reader, pragmatic criticism encompasses both redemptive and destructive qualities.
Plato provides a foundational and absolute argument for pragmatic criticism. Excluding poetry from his ideal Republic, Plato attempts to completely undermine the power and authority of art. He justifies his position by claiming that “the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed) is surely an awful thing” (28). Because artists claim their imitations can speak to the true nature of things, circumventing the need for serious, calmly considered intellectual inquiry, art should not be pursued as a valuable endeavor. Art widens the gap between truth and the world of appearances, ironically by claiming to breach it. The artist promotes false images of truth and goodness by appealing to basic human passions, indulging “the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small” (27). Art manufactures moral ambiguity, and to Plato this is unacceptable. Because it is deceptive and essentially superficial, all art must be controlled and delegitmized for all time.
Since Plato, pragmatic critics have sought to qualify his absolute statements about the value of art. Sir Philip Sydney, for example, is aware of the fact that literature can and is abused by some. He is able, therefore, to describe literature as a tool with the greatest potential for good, but not an inherently virtuous invention in and of itself. The destructive qualities evoked by literature are products of the fallible fragile human beings who created it, rather than an indictment of the evil nature of all literature in general. Do not, as Sidney states, “say that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry” (150). Samuel Johnson directs his advice toward the author rather than the audience of literature. He hopes to affect the process of writing rather than reading, in order to forestall moral abuse and to build upon Sydney’s assumption that literature can most effectively demonstrate and teach virtue. Johnson believes that artists should develop moral as well as aesthetic sensibilities. Because all works of literature “serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life”, “…care ought to be taken, that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited” (226). Great authors, thus develop a sense of responsibility to virtue in general as well as their audience. The immersive qualities of literature can have lasting and even permanent moral effects on a reader. Literature invites danger and delight.