125. Literary Criticism and Nonsense

When my academic adviser in college signed me up for a literary criticism course, I assumed it would teach me to criticize literature. I’m a literary snob, so I figured passing judgment on written works would be easy. Just give me a textbook and any book in the Twilight series and I’d be ready to roll.

As I soon found out, literary criticism is actually an attempt to find meaning in literature. In my (admittedly biased) opinion, it’s also an attempt in some cases to invent meaning and superimpose it on literary works.

There are many kinds of criticism, each with a distinct focus. Mythic criticism finds symbols and allegories in literature. Biographical criticism studies the writer’s personal experiences, and deconstructionist criticism tries to prove that everything is meaningless.

In my studies of literary criticism, I discovered two varieties that were kind of hilarious.

The first was Marxist criticism, which views literature through the red-tinted lens of Communist theory. To heck with myth, morality and religion. The working class shall prevail! Down with the bourgeois!

The other funny perspective was Freudian criticism, which finds sexual innuendo in everything. Is something longer than it is wide? It’s a phallic symbol. Is a man unhappy? At some level, he’s sexually frustrated.

What’s that? You disagree? Ha! I laugh at you, person of lesser intellect! Do you think you’re smarter than Sigmund Freud?

I was quick to discover that half of literary criticism was analyzing literature carefully, and the other half was making up stuff that sounded plausible.

You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.

My final paper was a four-part analysis of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I examined it from four perspectives: mythic, biographical, moral and gender studies. Much to my surprise, each approach illuminated some fascinating facet of Tolkien’s masterpiece. My appreciation for The Lord of the Rings, and for literary criticism, was deepened.

Weeks before, I wrote an essay on The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Just for the fun of it, I decided to pit Sigmund Freud against my favorite author and see what happened.

The resulting analysis determined the Wood Between the Worlds to be a place of sexual balance, Queen Jadis to be a faux mother figure and the three elements of the psyche—id, ego and superego—to be represented by Uncle Andrew, Digory and Aslan, respectively.

The essay, which received a B, was ridiculous, but not much more so than some of the Freudian analyses in my textbook.

My studies, silly and serious, impacted me deeply. Literary criticism even became a recurring theme in the novel I was writing at the time, The Trials of Lance Eliot. Its protagonist was a literary critic because it fit his character perfectly, and it gave me an opportunity to poke fun at the nonsensical side of literary criticism.

I’ll finish up this post with a friendly warning.

Watch out for phallic symbols. They’re everywhere.

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