Today I received three books in the mail that all happened to be Norton Critical Editions of three of Jane Austen’s novels: Persuasion, Sense & Sensibility, and Mansfield Park. I already had, thanks to a couple of online courses at Hillsdale College, read the Norton Critical Editions of Northanger Abbey and Pride & Prejudice, so this makes for almost a complete set. In reading these books, I am intrigued by the question as to what value that the critical essays have over the considerable value of the novels themselves. What is the value of reading textual criticism?
Although it must be said that my own perspective is somewhat biased as someone who has written an extensive amount of textual criticism, it is possible as well that my experience may be useful to those who are less familiar with textual criticism. I would like to state at the outset that I tend to think that there is a limited value in reading textual criticism, and that is because in reading what a critic has written, we tend to find out much more about the critic than we do about the thing that is being criticized. If we want to know more about the critic, or want to find a like-minded person whose perspective is similar to our own, this can be of great value. If we care a great deal for a given text, though, and care little about what the critic thinks or feels, we will tend to be correspondingly less interested in what the critic has to say, since what the critic views as insight about the text or the author is almost always what the critic perceives to be in the author or the text and which is frequently only in themselves.
This is a fact about which sometimes critics remain in ignorance and self-deception. It is all well and good to see the opinions of people to be subjective, but in so doing we must also allow that we too are subjective and biased judges of reality and of other people and of the texts and contexts which we observe and discuss. Anyone who wrestles sincerely with the problems of epistemology will readily admit that there are serious difficulties that we have as human beings with a rich subjective and internal life and limited insight into ultimate realities or the interior lives of others, and one need not despair of the existence of an objective reality to understand that our ability to perceive that objective reality and respond appropriately to it is limited and problematic. Maintaining a firm knowledge of our own fallibility, far from discrediting ourselves as observers, gives us a great deal of humility and also a wise and accurate understanding of the problems inherent in our existence. Those who think everyone else to be biased and flawed while they are accurate observers and judges of the thinking, feeling, and behavior of others only demonstrate themselves to be massive hypocrites lacking in insight. And none of us want to be that.
Let us therefore return to the original question. If we know that textual criticism reveals mainly what is in the thinking and feeling of the critic rather than in the work that is being critiqued, of what value is it to read what other people think and feel instead of, or in addition, to the work itself? This value may come in several different ways. If we find, for example, through reading that there is significant overlap between the views and perspectives of a given critic and ourselves, we can gain a benefit from their criticism in that it gives us a good idea whether we will appreciate a given work ourselves among the various works that they encounter. Similarly, if a given critic has views or perspectives that are antithetical to our own, their hostility to a given work may demonstrate it as worthwhile, and their rapturous enjoyment of a work may fill us with caution.
In addition to this, we may find in familiarizing ourselves with criticism that a variety of people with very different perspectives and worldviews may all find worthwhile things in a given piece of writing, which is usually a demonstration of the skill of the author of the work that is being critiqued, for while bad works can be easily understood and dismissed, the best works are capable of infinite interpretations, since their skill in presenting truth and reality is such that all intelligent people who wish to be seen as presenting something truthful and authoritative to say will find some truth expressed in a given work. When one is dealing with the best books, the absence of worthwhile appreciation is itself demonstration of something that is lacking in the critic, and that is as important to know as what is present in the critic, or in ourselves.