Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Unity of Being and Literary Criticism

Unity of being is emerging as a key, if somewhat mysterious, concept in my thinking. Whatever it is that literature is about, it is about unity of being. That is, the purpose of literature is to engender a sense of unity of being. A work is judged successful to the extent that it allows/leads readers to achieve unity of being.

Unity of being is subjective in the sense that it exists (only) in the experience of subjects. It is a function of the overall ‘flow’ (in Csikszentmihalyi’s sense?) of one’s experience of the work. And one’s experience of the work, presumably, is a matter for the entire mind. It is thus at the center of the ethical critic’s concern: Does this work engender unity of being? Why or why not?

But it is also central to the naturalist critic, who wants to know how works under investigation allowed their readers to achieve unity of being. Literary form is a set of devices for achieving unity of being. Ultimately, we want to see unity of being as a function of the whole nervous system. Unity of being is thus related to pleasure as I discussed it in Chapter 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil (“Musical Consciousness and Pleasure”).

It is reasonable for the naturalist critic to seek objective knowledge about how existing texts achieve unity of being. This requires, of course, the judgment of human readers. If the text is, or has in the past been, judged to be excellent, then we can seek to understand what properties it has that other texts do not. However, I would not expect the naturalist critic to have any particular insight into new texts.

For those texts, the naturalist critic is just another reader and his judgment is just that of one reader among others. But then, that is the case with the ethical critic as well. My point is simply that objective knowledge about unity of being in past texts cannot be generalized to new texts of a (significantly) different kind.

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