Why literary criticism is like my goldfish

“Scholars, together with the whole apparatus of the library, formed an immensely complex and constantly evolving creature which had to be fed with myriad of words, in order to bring forth myriad of words in its own turn.”

– W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, 364

goldfishAfter three years of self-imposed exile, I’m finally back on home turf.

It’s the strangest feeling, like having my umbilical cord glued back onto the navel from which it fell off 20 years ago. It’s been a week since I’ve started taking the metro to work, and I still can’t get over how densely populated Hong Kong has become. I miss the HK of my childhood – for one, it was a heck of a lot more spacious.

So, sandwiched between white-collared crowds, every morning I imagine myself as an outsized goldfish, gasping for air as I wade through my peak-hour comrades.

You know what else I miss that’s like a goldfish?

Literary criticism.

When I was little, dad used to spend hours on end tending to a tub of goldfishes in our garden. They’re delightful things, not exactly Nemo-cute, but I do think there’s a kingly charm to their plump cheeks and velvety coating. In one of my favourite 18th-century odes, Thomas Gray describes ‘The Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes’ with a schadenfreude that’s more ‘Team Jerry’ than ‘Go Tom’:

 ODEThe hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! With looks intent
Again she stretched, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
She tumbled headlong in.

Sometimes, I feel like the past relationship between me and literary theory is kind of like that between Gray’s cat and the fishes she so covets. “With wonder I (once) saw” the intellectual glamour that Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derridean deconstruction supposedly stood for, but as I “stretched in vain to reach the prize”, I was more often than not led down the garden path of pseudo-intellectual acrobatics.

old shelf

My pre-uni bookshelf circa 2011 – seems like lit crit and I go back a long way

Literary criticism, however, is an altogether different ball game. There’s  Theory’ with a capitalised T that’s usually way OTT and bonkers, but there’s also criticism that’s well-written, insightful and proof of real scholarship.

In his book On Criticism (2008), the philosophy professor Noel Carroll offers a helpful distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘criticism’, whether it be applied to the understanding of literature, art or music:

The objective of ‘theory’ is “interpretation”, whereas that of ‘criticism’ is (or should be) “evaluation”.

In other words, the end of theory is to take apart a text, to ‘decode’ or ‘decipher’ something that one should ideally just read and experience. It is an apparatus that thrives even without primary works, and may sometimes even over-assert its purchase in its readings of those primary works.


Sunflowers outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

There’s a reason Freudianism is considered a Mickey Mouse ‘pseudo-science’. Take William Blake’s poem ‘Ah, Sunflower’ for example: if you’re telling me that the ‘sunflower’ (and its sturdy stalk) works as some kind of phallic symbol, then I’d say that’s a classic case of shoehorning theory into literature:

Ah Sunflower! Weary of time,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime…
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

– Blake, ‘Ah, Sunflower’, 1794

blake_sunflowerThe plant stalk as phallic organ, youthful desire versus aged impotence, the pursuit of virginal purity as the means to virile rebirth… You get the idea. The Romantics were all for stretching the human imagination to its limits, but I’d argue that even this is going a bit too far.

Or perhaps this is what Fernando Pessoa calls the folly of Romanticism in his Book of Disquiet, which is –

“Merely the turning inside out of the empire we normally carry around inside us. [Because] nearly all men dream, deep down, of their own mighty imperialism: the subjection of all men, the surrender of all women, the adoration of all peoples and – for the noblest dreamers – of all eras.” (54)


Taken on my plane ride from London to HK

So, nothing more than a highfalutin dream, after all. Besides, dreaming is hardly in the business of critical judgment.

On the other hand, good ‘criticism’ focuses on ‘evaluation’, which means the appraisal of creative effort, the judgment of its worth and above all, the appreciation of human achievement. It exists as a result of primary literature, but is also endowed with a pulse and authority of its own. Apparently, if you leave goldfishes in the dark for a certain amount of time, their colour will gradually fade into a greyish hue. This is because they produce pigment in response to light, similar to how the human skin tans in exposure to sunlight.

This applies to the relationship between literature and criticism as well: their primary and secondary roles are linked by a figurative umbilical cord, similar to the pre-established bond between a mother and her infant, the former nourishing the latter until the child comes into his/her own as an independent, but also filial and therefore connected, being.

Criticism that is severed from its ‘life source’, then, is like a goldfish deprived of natural light, as each becomes dull and deaden in polish or style.

The reference to ‘light’ brings to mind Matthew Arnold’s 1888 Culture and Anarchy, in which he makes a bold (and often misunderstood) statement about human perfectibility:

“The perfection of human nature is the pursuit of sweetness and light… He who works for sweetness works in the end for light also; he who works for light works in the end for sweetness also. But he who works for sweetness and light united, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. […] Culture has but one great passion, the passion for making sweetness and light prevail among humanity…”


The Hongkonger’s natural habitat: MaTcHbOxEs made out of Lego.

If this comes across as tautological mumbo jumbo, then maybe that’s because it is. But Arnold still makes an important point about the bond between cultural achievement and human progress. Just as culture is tied to humanity, so are we all products of rootedness – whether it be that to our family and friends, or to the city and country in which we were born and bred.

And so, like a goldfish, literary criticism absorbs what’s out there only to create more, as each metro-hopping, briefcase-carrying, cubicle-sitting employee also strives to do on a daily basis.

Well, sans week-ends maybe. Even someone like me needs a break from too much lit chat with my students. Or vice versa, to be honest.

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