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Literary Criticism: Its Proper Method

Literary Criticism: Its Proper Method

And now let me take up some of the principles I have discerned, or believe to have discerned [in Heilman’s then new book on Othello, entitled Magic in the Web,] and which I admire both for clarity of conception and force of execution.

First of all, the principle of exhaustion of the source. The interpretation of a literary work by a first-rate artist or philosopher must proceed on the assumption that the man “knew” what he was doing — leaving in suspense the question of the level of consciousness at which the “knowing” in the concrete instance occurs. Under that assumption the interpretation will be adequate only, if every “part” of the work makes sense in the comprehensive context.

Moreover, the sense must emerge from the texture of the linguistic corpus, and it must not be prejudged by “ideas” of the interpreter. No adequate interpretation of a major work is possible, unless the interpreter assumes the role of the disciple who has everything to learn from the master.

Under all of these aspects your book is a model of the art of interpretation. No premature generalization from the partial sense that can be secured by pulling out this or that strand of motifs; no preconceived “psychology” of characters, that easily could be bolstered from so rich a work by looking away from what does not fit; but the discipline of proceeding with the analysis, until every piece of text has revealed the part of “magic” which it contributes to the web.

That is an achievement of the first order in a time when corruption of method is the order of the day. I do not know how bad the situation is in your field; but in political science and philosophy, we are buried under the flood of literature which interprets, for instance, Plato as the Fascist or socialist, or constitutionalist, without so much as attempting a conscientious analysis of the structure of a dialogue.

From your notes I have the impression that the general level in the study of Shakespeare is somewhat higher — but the impression may be erroneous, because you may have followed the same method as I do on such occasions, of simply ignoring the worst kind of rabble.

The first principle (the exhaustion of the source, in order to make sure that the meaning ascertained is indeed the meaning intended by the source), has then to be accompanied by the second hermeneutic principle: that the terminology of the interpretation, if not identical with the language symbols of the source (a condition that can frequently be fulfilled in the case of first-rate philosophers, but rarely in the case, of a poem or a myth), must not be introduced from the “outside,” but be developed in closest contact with the source itself for the purpose of differentiating the meanings which are apparent in the work, but too compactly symbolized as that the symbols could be used in the discursive form of rational analysis.

If that contact is not preserved with the utmost care, the interpretation will rapidly derail into the sort of interpretation that is so easily “put upon” a work of art. In this respect again you have lived up to principles — and the discipline has paid off well in as much as it forced upon you a richness of vocabulary for expressing nuances of emotions and ethical attitudes that can only arouse admiration. For considerable areas of moral life you have delivered something like a “phenomenology,” especially for such “in-between” phenomena as “insecurity,” “romanticism,” “aspiration,” “intention,” etc., nothing to say of such really complicated phenomena as “toughness.”

In the case of a tragedy by Shakespeare, the discipline just mentioned will carry, however, only from a strand of compact motifs to the more immediate differentiations and distinctions in terms of a phenomenology of morals. Beyond this immediacy of analysis lie the meanings, which the poet develops in the action and language of his poem, and which the critic must translate into the rational order of his work. This conception of the whole of human nature, that in the poem is carried by the magic in the web, must now be carried by the magic of the system.

And here I am now full of admiration for your qualities as a philosopher. For you have arranged the problem of human nature in the technically perfect order of progress from the peripheral to the center of personality — if I may use [Max] Scheler’s terminology. You begin with modes of deception, the problem of appearance and reality; and you end with the categories of existence and spiritual order—with life and death, love and hate, eros and caritas, transfiguration and demonic silence.

The form of your book has convincing authority because it is determined by the substance presented . . . .


This excerpt is from Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin – A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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