The Function of Criticism Today
SOME years ago, in a course I was giving on European novels, a student handed in a paper in which he described Emile Zola’s Germinal-that powerful but old-fashioned novel of French miners struggling for their rights- as characterized by paradox, tension, and ambiguity. Since these terms were brought into modern criticism to characterize the tensely wrought and ambivalent verse of the 17th-century metaphysicals, and then the poetry of those (like T. S. Eliot) who absorbed a style, a manner, from these Hamlet-like literary intellectuals, I explained that Zola’s rather large and florid prose style-the style a French naturalist needs to get himself through a shelf of documentary novels describing the ravages of alcoholism and syphilis on all the descendants of a French family-could not possibly be compared to those highly artful poets. Zola’s style certainly has its share of grandiloquent poetry, and Zola liked, in the manner of the epic-writing romantics, to sign himself poete. But Germinal, in both its crudity and its passion, its violent sexual metaphors and its indignant description of the oppressed, is so far from the language and subject of an Eliot that, properly speaking, it makes no sense to find in 19th-century naturalistic fiction the attributes of what is, even for our time, only one kind of poetry.
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