Readings: The touch of truth

In an essay first published in 1864 Matthew Arnold responds to those who’d objected to a ‘proposition’ he’d put forth about the importance of criticism at that time, and its function to enable us ‘to see the object as in itself it really is.’ His detractors asserted the ‘inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical effort.’ He concedes:

Everybody would admit that a false or malicious criticism had better never have been written. Everybody, too, would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be?

Perhaps ‘the critical power’ is ‘of lower rank’ than the creative, he goes on, but although it is ‘undeniable’ that ‘a free creative activity’ is ‘the highest function of man, the source of our ‘happiness’; but it is also undeniable

that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men. They may have it in well-doing, they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticising.

Besides, it is not always possible, he suggests, for creative activity to take place if the ‘elements’ and ‘materials’ necessary aren’t present. Those elements consist of ‘the best ideas…current at the time.’ The ‘creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control’:

Nay, they are more within the control of the critical power…Thus it tends, at last, to make an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself. It tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society, the touch of truth is the touch of life, and there is a stir and growth everywhere; out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature.

A stirring defence of criticism – that branch or area of literary endeavour which most of us who blog about books (mostly, in my case, at least) are humbly and earnestly – and honestly –  engaged in, searching to find ‘the touch of truth’.

The quotations are taken from my copy of Matthew Arnold: Culture and Anarchy and other writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, ed. Stefan Collini (CUP, 1995). My quotations from ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ are at pp. 26-29.