Literary Criticism and Literary Critics (part 2)

An Interview with Soran Fadhil Ali:

Soran Fadhil Ali

Soran Fadhil Ali

Interviewed by Aras Ahmed Mhamd

AAM: Plato banished poets from “The Republic”, claiming that poets are “liars” and “imitators”. Do you agree with Plato’s criticism?

SFA: Although, at the beginning Plato banished all poets from The Republic, later he changed his idea and thought that we should imitate the works of the great writers. Really, I don’t agree with his claims. Instead of imitating others, I think people should invent by themselves.

Plato, as the long discussion of poetry in Books II and III has made clear, depends crucially on poetry, which he considers mimesis or imitation, that is, acting like someone else, to educate the future leaders of his city. The long account of the expurgation of stories that attribute immorality to gods and heroes depends on the necessity of poetic imitation to their upbringing.

Plato not only allows, but he requires his young Guardians to imitate – to play the part of, to act like – various good characters. He even allows them to imitate bad characters provided they do so not seriously – only in play, in order to ridicule them.

Still, the expurgation of Homer and Aeschylus – monuments of western culture – may leave those who admire that culture uneasy. It may also leave uneasy those who don’t admire it, since what Socrates expunges is not obviously bad from every point of view: why, for example, should only women and not men be allowed to grieve and lament when something awful happens to them?

Plato’s discussion has then already raised two questions: first, do we have the right to mutilate great works of art, and, second, if we do arrogate that right to ourselves, by what standards are we to mutilate them?

In regard to the first question, I want to say two things. First, in Books II and III, Plato is mainly concerned with the material available to young children. And everyone agrees that we must exercise control over that. Second, to think of the Homeric epics as “great works of art” in this context is a red herring, for we fail to place them within their own complex cultural context, within a world (“Homer’s world, not ours,” in the words of W.H. Auden) which is now, partly because of the Republic itself, long dead.

Unlike the Greeks of Plato’s time, we do not use the Homeric poems as a primer for reading, speaking, thinking, and valuing. The relevant comparison is not between our “enlightened” attitude and Plato’s moralistic reaction to Homer (and in any case how many children even know who Homer is today? And do those who read him in various watered-down “mutilated” versions hear about Odysseus and Calypso, or Ares and Aphrodite?).

The proper comparison involves mass education and entertainment. Instead of Homer, children today learn from books which we constantly monitor for sexist, racist, violent or other unacceptable attitudes. We find nothing wrong with protesting against them; we rewrite history every few years. They are entertained, and learn about friendship or hope, from TV shows which produce indignation and agitation when their values seem wrong.

We do not disagree with Plato over whether children should be exposed to the right values or not, but only over who – the government or the family – should decide what children should learn.

Book X of the Republic, however, under the rubric of “mimetic poetry,” does banish all of epic, tragic and comic poetry. Since we know that selected passages from epic and tragedy are used in education, Plato’s proscription must amount to the elimination of all the great dramatic festivals of ancient Athens, around which much of the city’s life revolved, as well as the public recitations of Homer which sometimes attracted as many as 20,000 people. Although that is not to banish the whole of art, it is still a serious enough issue.

AAM: When evaluating a classical text, a modern critic is under the influence of or bound to the personal, social, political, and economical events of today. Does that mean critics are in some way biased?

SFA: Literary criticism has probably existed for as long as literature. In the 4th century BC Aristotlewrote the Poetics, a typology and description of literary forms with many specific criticisms of contemporary works of art. Poetics developed for the first time the concepts of mimesis and catharsis, which are still crucial in literary study.

Plato‘s attacks on poetry as imitative, secondary, and false were formative as well. Around the same time,Bharata Muni, in his Natya Shastra, wrote literary criticism on ancient Indian literature and Sanskrit drama.

Later classical and medieval criticism often focused on religious texts, and the several long religious traditions of hermeneutics and textual exegesis have had a profound influence on the study of secular texts. This was particularly the case for the literary traditions of the three Abrahamic religionsJewish literature,Christian literature and Islamic literature.

Literary criticism was also employed in other forms of medieval Arabic literature and Arabic poetry from the 9th century, notably by Al-Jahiz in his al-Bayan wa-‘l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and by Abdullah ibn al-Mu’tazz in his Kitab al-Badi.

The literary criticism of the Renaissance developed classical ideas of unity of form and content into literaryneoclassicism, proclaiming literature as central toculture, entrusting the poet and the author with preservation of a long literary tradition. The birth of Renaissance criticism was in 1498, with the recovery of classic texts, most notably, Giorgio Valla‘s Latintranslation of Aristotle‘s Poetics.

The work of Aristotle, especially Poetics, was the most important influence upon literary criticism until the late eighteenth century. Lodovico Castelvetro was one of the most influential Renaissance critics who wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics in 1570.

The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century introduced new aesthetic ideas to literary study, including the idea that the object of literature need not always be beautiful, noble, or perfect, but that literature itself could elevate a common subject to the level of the sublime.

German Romanticism, which followed closely after the late development of German classicism, emphasized an aesthetic of fragmentation that can appear startlingly modern to the reader of English literature, and valued Witz – that is, “wit” or “humor” of a certain sort – more highly than the serious Anglophone Romanticism. The late nineteenth century brought renown to authors known more for critical writing than for their own literary work, such asMatthew Arnold.

However, important all of these aesthetic movements were as antecedents, current ideas about literary criticism derive almost entirely from the new direction taken in the early twentieth century. Early in the century the school of criticism known as Russian Formalism, and slightly later the New Criticism in Britain and in the United States, came to dominate the study and discussion of literature, in the English-speaking world.

Both schools emphasized the close reading of texts, elevating it far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author’s psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response. This emphasis on form and precise attention to “the words themselves” has persisted, after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves.

Today interest in literary theory and Continental philosophy coexists in university literature departments with a more conservative literary criticism of which the New Critics would probably have approved. Disagreements over the goals and methods of literary criticism, which characterized both sides taken by critics during the “rise” of theory, have declined. Many critics feel that they now have a great plurality of methods and approaches from which to choose.

Some critics work largely with theoretical texts, while others read traditional literature; interest in the literarycanon is still great, but many critics are also interested in minority and women’s literatures, while some critics influenced by cultural studies read popular texts like comic books or pulp/genre fiction.

Critics have drawn connections between literature and the natural sciences. Darwinian literary studies studies literature in the context of evolutionary influences on human nature. Many literary critics also work in film criticism or media studies. Some write intellectual history; others bring the results and methods of social history to bear on reading literature.

AAM: What are the most important features of an immoral literary book?

SFA: The word “immoral” is normally used to describe persons or actions. In a broader sense it can be applied to groups or corporate bodies, beliefs, religions, and works of art. To say that some act is immoral is to say that violates some moral lawsnorms or standards.

Aristotle saw many vices as excesses or deficits in relation to some virtue, as cowardice and rashness relate to courage. Some attitudes and actions – such asenvy, murder, and theft – he saw as wrong in themselves, with no question of a deficit/excess in relation to the mean.

Immorality is closely linked with both religion and sexuality, not least in the western tradition. Max Weber saw rational articulated religions as engaged in a long-term struggle with more physical forms of religious experience linked to dance, intoxication and sexual activity. Durkheim pointed out how many primitive rites culminated in an abandonment of the distinction between licit and immoral behavior. Freud‘s dour conclusion was that “In every age immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has”.

Coding of sexual behavior has historically been a feature of all human societies, as too has the policing of breaches of its mores – sexual immorality – by means of formal and informal social control.

Interdictions and taboos among primitive societies were arguably no less severe than in traditional agrarian societies. In the latter, the degree of control might vary from time to time and region to region, being least in urban settlements; however, only the last three centuries of intense urbanisation, commercialisation and modernisation have broken with the restrictions of the pre-modern world, in favor of a successor society of fractured and competing sexual codes and subcultures, where sexual expression is integrated into the workings of the commercial world.

Nevertheless, while the meaning of sexual immorality has been drastically redefined in recent times, arguably the boundaries of what is acceptable remain publicly policed and as highly charged as ever, as the decades-long debates over reproductive rights after Roe v. Wade, or 21st century controversy over child images on Wikipedia and Amazon would tend to suggest.

AAM: Literary critics should criticize constructively. How would you comment on that?

SFA: Constructive criticism aims to show that the intent or purpose of something is better served by an alternative approach. In this case, making the criticism is not necessarily deemed wrong, and its purpose is respected; rather, it is claimed that the same goal could be better achieved via a different route.

Constructive criticisms are often suggestions for improvement – how things could be done better or more acceptably. They draw attention to how an identified problem could be solved, or how it could be solved better.

Both negative and constructive criticism have their appropriate uses, but often it is considered a requirement of criticism that they are combined . Thus, it is often considered that those who find fault with something should also offer an option for putting it right. More generally, any rule for behavior of any kind usually implies both “do’s” and “don’t s”. Doing something usually also implies not doing something else, and, not doing something, often implies doing something else. There is therefore a conscious choice “to do this, or do that”, but not both at the same time.

So, to orient behavior, people need to know both what is “ruled in” and what is “ruled out”. If the criticism concerns only one aspect, but not the other, it may supply only incomplete information, which is not really adequate to orient behavior or guide action. One of the most elementary reasons why a rule is ignored, flouted or subverted is, because either the positive orthe negative aspect of what it means is unspecified.

Soran Fadhil Ali was born in Kalar, 1980. Graduated from University of Sulemani in 2004 with a BSc in English and was a top student. In 2012 gained M.A. degree in English Literature. He has a great experience in translating documents, films, songs. He worked with the international organizations such as CSI. He has been teaching English for about 9 years in different places such as Garmyan and IDEL Institutes, Universities of Garmyan , Sulemani and Human development . Now he is an assistant instructor in University of Human Development.

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelancer. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012. He is a columnist for the Kurdistan Tribune and a contributing writer for the and He is the Cultural Analyst at the Kurdish Review Newspaper, the only Kurdish-American newspaper in print. He is also the Editor in Chief of the Sorani section at the


There are no comments yet. Be the first and leave a response!

Leave a Reply

Wanting to leave an <em>phasis on your comment?

Trackback URL