Commonsense criticism does not provide an objective reading of the text. The assumption that a literary work is an honest representation of the author’s life experiences undermines the ability of the critic to find meaning of a work without investigating its author. Catherine Belsey argues that, not only is this approach discursively formed, but it is the equivalent of expressive-realism theory. Still, it is a common practice for teachers and students to rely on this commonsensical approach to read a text in quest for the meaning held by the author. Commonsense, therefore, fails to realize its own inadequacies in its attempt at reading the text.
Belsey defines the commonsense view of literature as “the ‘obvious’ mode of reading, the ‘natural’ way of approaching literary works”1. This approach deprives the reader from using any intellectual or system approach to analyzing a text. It supposes that all forms of literary criticism are non-(common)-sensical and should be avoided. Commonsense criticism, according to Belsey, dismisses any innovation in the study of literature as unnecessary.
Critical theory accordingly appears as … having no necessary connection with the practice of reading itself. To a few diehards, it seems misleading, interfering with the natural way of reading, perplexing the minds of readers with nice speculations of philosophy, and so leading to over-ingenuity, jargon and a loss of direct and spontaneous contact with the immediately perceptible reality of the text. (p.2)
It is clear that the commonsense approach to literature denies any need for further investigations that transcend or reject the author’s truthful re-presentation of reality. Critical theory is considered deceitful if it does not take into account the author. This rejection, Belsey argues, comes from commonsense’s view of truth as being simply clear and familiar to the reader. However, post-Saussurean work argues against opacity of languaging. Writers, such as Lacan, Derrida, and others, have all argued that ‘transparency of language is an illusion’2.
New critical theories involuntarily call for new and unfamiliar terms to fill the void in language and avoid the reproduction of familiar assumptions. This new theories cannot successfully challenge previously held beliefs using the same vocabulary that led to their production in the first place. Innovation, in this sense, is an inevitable necessity. The danger, explains Belsey3, is that the reader finds difficulty in understanding these new theories. This leads the reader to take a dismissive stance that denies the existence of a challenge. In doing so, commonsense approach implies that “that we already know all we need to know”4.
Post-Saussurean and commonsense approach to literature maintain opposite theories on the source of the meaning of a particular text. On the one hand, Roland Barthes has introduced the idea of “the death of the author” in which he argues that the author of a literary work has no authority over it. He goes to say that “to give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.”5 On the other hand, commonsense emphasis, according to Belsey,
assumes that valuable literary texts, those which are in a special way worth reading, tell truths —about the period that produced them, about the world in general, or about human nature—and that in doing so, they express the particular perceptions, the individual insights, of their authors. (p.2)
This insistence over the authority of the author over his work limits the ability of the text to hold any independent meaning. Accordingly, the reader is forced to return to the biography of the author and “ask” him the meaning of his text. Therefore, meaning of the text is one and final. Subsequent interpretations of a literary are dismissed as unnecessary since the truth is in the hands of the author.
Belsey equates this approach to the theory of expressive realism. This theory belongs to the 18-19th century and is a fusion of two independent concepts.
Expressive realism resulted from the fusion of the Aristotelean concept of art as mimesis, the imitation of reality with the new Romantic conviction that poetry, as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, expressed the perceptions and emotions of a person ‘possessed of more than usual organic sensibility’ (Wordsworth 1974, 1:126).6
This theory relies heavily on the perceptions of an author to understanding the meaning their works. Expressive realism suggests that it is impossible to read confidently a work of art independently from its author. It proposes that artworks are a re-presentation of the experiences lived by the artists who made them. Therefore, a literary text, as an artwork, can only be understood in relation to its author.
Expressive-idealist are quick to note that a great artists must have two determining goals. Paraphrasing Ruskin, Belsey says that “the artist must both represent (re-present) faithfully the objects portrayed, and express the thoughts and feelings they evoke in him or her.”7 Ruskin asserts that the second goal is far more important than the first, but the artist is unable to reach it if they do not reach the first. He also argues that
the world of natural objects, of bare, clear, downright facts, is unproblematically given, accessible to experience, and able to be re-presented in art. Equally, the mind of the spectator and the (nobler and more penetrating) mind of the artist are ready to perceive these natural objects.8
The expressive-idealist argument crumbles upon itself as it fails to recognize that artists have an intellectual (dis)advantage that allows them to see and represent natural objects differently. If artists must represent faithfully his reality, then their representation of the objects, considering that they see them differently, should not be considered inaccurate or false. Belsey points out that Ruskin’s argument would have stood its ground if he simply followed the same reasoning. It could be argued, she says, that since the artists’ see the material world in different ways than the normal spectator, then their work can also be interpreted differently. These different perceptions of nature and interpretation of the artwork are not false by default, but valid readings of natural objects and artworks.
Catherine Belsey further investigates these expressive realist assumptions. In 1964, Barbara Hardy takes a defensive stance while arguing for this theory. In her essay The Appropriate Form, she says:
The novelist, whoever he is and wherever he is writing, is giving form to a story, giving form to his moral and metaphysical views, and giving form to his particular experience of sensations, people, places, and society. 9
Belsey notes that ideology is not mentioned in this series of events that make the process of writing a novel. However, ideology is indeed mentioned elsewhere and considered merely a human error that leads to “deviation from truthfulness”.
Expressive-realists insist on “truthfulness” as the criterium that separates the good novel from the bad. Belsey quotes Iris Murdoch saying that “‘bad art is a lie about the world, and what is by contrast seen as good is in some important evident sense seen as ipso facto true and as expressive of reality”10. The idea of the novel, and any work of art, being a truthful representation of reality remains the cornerstone of expressive-realism theory. The reading of the text remains limited and reliant on the author’s ability to express his ‘truth’. Under these circumstances, the reader can only acquire meaning by investigating the biography of the novelist in hopes of finding answers to his questions.
It is important to note that expressive realism is not seen as a theory, especially by its practitioners. Belsey uses F.R. Leavis as an example of the contradictory assumption that reading a text does not require any defined theory.
The novels he most admires are praised for ‘the vivid concreteness of the rendering of this world of individual centres of consciousness we live in’ (231), and this in turn is derived from James’s own ‘most vital experience’ (228).11
Belsey shows that the grounds on which Leavis bases his admiration for the works of Henry James submit to a purely expressive-realist discourse. “Vivid concreteness” and “vital experience” are terms that represent both the concept that make expressive realism what it is. The fact that F.R. Leavis rejects theory does not deny its presence in the practice of literary criticism. Commonsense may renounce it, and in fact it does, by dismissing it as unnecessary jargon, “but there is no practice without theory, however much that theory is suppressed, unformulated or perceived as ‘obvious'”12. A reading of a text, no matter how “natural” it seems, follows in its core a systematic approach that is ideologically, socially, and culturally formed.
According to Belsey, the expressive-realist approach to literature is almost dominant in popular criticism13. It is not unusual to hear questions such as “what does the author mean here?” repeated in different conversations about literary works. Novels are considered a way to reach some kind of understanding of the author and not the work itself. For that reason, students are required to ask and answer questions about the life of the author, the spatiotemporal circumstance of writing, and compare the novel to previous works. The meaning of works of literature is diluted, leaving the text itself devoid of meaning. Although this commonsense framework is constantly challenged, its presence is undeniable. The reader is stuck in a hopeless emptiness where he tries to identify with the author in the text in every (im)possible way.
Failing to admit its inadequacy in reading the text, commonsense denies the reader’s ability to acquire meaning alternatively. The assumption that meaning is one and access to it is through the author proposes a contradiction in representation and interpretation that expressive realists and idealists simply are unable to see. Attaining meaning in a systematic and objective way is (and should be) the goal of criticism. The failures of commonsense criticism are the grounds on which Catherine Belsey builds her theory of New Criticism. Text must hold the ultimate authority over its meaning. The author’s intentions and the reader’s intellectual shortcomings are irrelevant to the meaning itself.
1 Critical Practice, 2
5 The Death of the Author
6 Critical Practice, p6
8 Critical Practice, p.8
9 Barbara Hardy, p.1
10 Iris Murdoch, as Quoted in Critical Practice
11 Catherine Belsey pp. 9-10