Eric Graham

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From Plato to Arnold, Then We Get Defensive

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Reviewed: 03-16-17

What aspect of Professor Louis Markos’s performance would you have changed?

The early lectures are decent, if scattered, and I enjoyed Professor Markos' spirited defense of New Criticism...but as the course goes on his disdain for modern and post-modern thought becomes too much to bear. The last third of the course is a mangled attack on modern critical thought, sprinkled with sometimes-embarrassing Christian apologia. Markos makes only a passing attempt to explain 20th century literary theory, and spends an inordinate amount of time leveling criticisms that are (at best) incomplete and (at worst) insulting. His arguments are worthy of scholarly consideration (as one would expect from a scholar of his stature) but they're ill-suited to a popular survey of the history of literary theory.

I suppose I was spoiled by Lawrence Cahoone's contributions to The Great Courses, in which he explicitly tries to make the best case for each philosophical tradition that he covers. Markos makes no such pretense to pedagogical fairness: he charts a clearly polemical course which sometimes drifts into ugly terrain. His brief treatment of contemporary feminist theory is fraught, to say the least, and he gives no perspective on the impact of modern and post-modern ideas on the aesthetics of their age. He clearly illustrates the influence of then-contemporary theory on Classical dramatists, Romantic poets, etc., but makes no mention of the ways in which modernist and post-modernist thought inform, say, the works of Virginia Woolf or Thomas Pynchon.

Hopefully, The Great Courses will one day give the English department its due. For those looking for a quick "literary theory boot camp" I recommend Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

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