Mythologies- Barthes on… literary criticism

His essay ‘bad and dumb criticism’ needs few words to explain perfectly. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation at one point in our lives when somebody has dismissed an aspect of culture because it was ‘too intellectual’ or ‘too abstract’. Barthes argues that the critic has no right to establish this position.

He cites a play about Kierkegaard by Lefebvre. This play caused great consternation in critics at the time of its performance. Marxism and existentialism do not belong in the theatre, they said. The reason that they don’t belong in the theatre is because the theatre is meant to be for bearing “witness to a transient moistening of the soul”. The head belongs in the theatre so long as the head tells us what the heart feels. In other words, something is allowed to be intellectual so long as it doesn’t actually strain one’s intelligence; the displays of ‘intelligence must correspond to one’s intuition. the critic therefore allows only a pseudo-intellectualism.

The idea that intelligence should have its expression only when it corresponds to the heart is Gnostic in origin. We see our ideas and intuitions within the play or film, and therefore ‘learn’ something about ourselves or the world. However, one transgresses this if one employs any serious dialectic with the audience. The play is philosophical in nature only in a most disingenuous sense- when it SEEMS, and only seems, philosophical.

A truly intellectual or philosophical pursuit would be to attack one’s grounds of knowledge, or to attempt to find a true meaning in one’s beliefs. Think of Descartes, who first off throws all his previous beliefs out of the proverbial window; Leibniz and Berkley, who make some rather peculiar claims about the metaphysics and ontology of our world; or Hegel, who criticises our notions of history as relative to our current position in time, and building to a critical point. The works of all of these people contravene basic levels of intuition, this is one thing which makes them great. They shake our worldviews and then revise them. Nobody could possibly, the lazy critic says, want that when they go to the theatre. A performance must flow and feel natural, not jagged.

Samuel Beckett’s works are a prime example of this problem. No matter how great they are intellectually, they struggle to find their place within the larger theatres. (to read a great review of Waiting for Godot, CLICK HERE). However, they should not be dismissed because they are intellectual. The intellectual works of art were, in part, a reaction to the seeming senselessness of the human condition, as confronted us, post-WW2. Existential theatre may not work to the traditionally assumed intellectual prerequisites of the common theatre, but it fulfills a certain need. As man’s search for meaning increased in urgency, modern theatre transformed in style to match that need.

The critic may well be right in saying that the philosopher should go back to writing textbooks, and that popular entertainment should be simple in nature, but that is increasingly disputable. As the intellectual divide between the higher class and lower class was broken down by the bohemian culture, the divide between casual entertainment and intellectualism broke down.

Intellectual authority is the position assumed by the film/theatre critic. By dismissing a piece of performance art as being too intellectual, the critic calls it self indulgent and incomprehensible. The critic says “I’m intelligent and I don’t understand it, therefore you certainly won’t. It isn’t worth your time. Stick to base entertainment and you will be happy”. The critic assumes a position of ignorance, and in doing so, places their reader within the confines of ignorance.

In dismissing an existential, Marxist play, the critic is merely displaying their lack of understanding of existential and Marxist issues. It is not their field of expertise, so you need not worry either. The fact of matter is that it can be significant to anyone who wishes to understand it. By setting a limit in degree of intellectualism, they set your limit as well as theirs. All they do is assume a position of folly. To the existentialist, a piece of existential theatre is not ‘too intellectual’, but timely, significant, and entertaining. The critic exists within a bubble, their limit is in their ability to adapt to the needs of culture.

The takeaway from this is simple. Public intellectuals, like art critics, set limits for others when they set limits for themselves. Barthes wants us to see that theatre shouldn’t exist purely in the state of pseudo-Gnostic and basely emotional, which we are used to. If a piece of art is seemingly recondite and intellectually challenging, we can call ignorance and dismiss it as bad because it exists beyond our horizons, or we can expand our horizons. Some dismiss writers like Barthes, Derrida, Foucault and Brecht as being purely intellectual and removed from life. One can defend them by admitting this, to a degree, but answering thusly- base emotional intuition gets us so far, abstract theory is needed to get us further. One cannot always use language to ‘bear witness’ to the world, simply because the approach of realism defies a true correlation between expressions of language and expressions of nature. Our minds and nature are at odds in their essential natures, we call on the philosophers to help us recognize this.

This post is in series, to read the others, CLICK HERE


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