The mirror and the lamp

Andy Warhol, Flowers, 1964.


Commentary on Meyer Howard's Book Abrams Books

The merits and limits of MH Abrams' book will be better seen if we place it in time. In the American tradition, The mirror and the lamp (1953) had behind him two currents. The first, the new criticism, got its name from the title of the book that John Crowe Ransom had published in 1941; the second, with a well-defined target, the “chicago critics”, also known as neo-Aristotelians.

Although they distinguished themselves because the “new critics” sought to deepen the specific verbal characterization of the literary text, while the “neo-Aristotelian ones” focused on the differentiation of genres and on the resumption of the issue of mimesis as imitation, the two currents had in common a lack of theoretical basis, due to their foundation in English empiricism. This reason, moreover, explains why the designation has extended to the contemporary English orientation of IA Richards, W. Empson and TS Eliot. (To be superseded, the above outline would require examination of the work of that most valuable of American critics, K. Burke, and on the English side, above all of Eliot and Empson.)

Although MH Abrams was a contemporary of the “new critics” – and had Richards as his advisor for a year in Cambridge – he gives little prominence to them and the only reference to the English is reserved for Eliot, whom he reads in a distorted way. Perhaps this explains why, although Eliot was politically conservative, criticism of him repudiated romantic poetics, while Abrams exalted romanticism, rooting it however in a thought that was quite tied to tradition, neoclassicism. Therefore, already from the point of view of what is temporally close to him, Abrams assumed a reserved position.

Imagine now how it will behave in the face of a current that expands, in the United States, within a lapse of time that is only a little longer. I am referring to what is usually called deconstructionism (or post-structuralism), which had its most important supporter in the Belgian emigrant Paul de Man (1919-1987). I will limit myself to remembering that deconstructionism excited the great American universities, starting with a symposium held in October 1966, at Johns Hopkins University, entitled “Critical Languages ​​and the Sciences of Man”.

The purpose of the symposium was to present to the North American educated public the directions taken by post-structuralism in France, with emphasis on the role of Lacan, in psychoanalysis, Derrida in philosophy and Roland Barthes, in literary criticism. If the symposium had a shocking effect on its audience, this one stood out someone, until then unknown, the Belgian Paul de Man, responsible for the almost immediate dissemination of Derrida in the United States. TRUE tsunami that reaches the academic elite, Paul de Man, when he is hired by Yale University, forms the group since then known as the “Yale critics”.

The true revolution that was introduced in the conduction of the literary text took place when Abrams had already established his name as the great American specialist in romanticism, a reputation conquered by the book that is now being translated and reinforced by natural supernaturalism (1971), whose subtitle, Tradition and revolution in romantic literature, proves to be the continuation of the work that enshrined it.

Placed between these directions, let's call the first one textualism, and the opposite, which emphasized that the literary text is only the particularization of structures of language, psyche and society, The Mirror and the Lamp it seemed to fluctuate and, as a lesser evil, it first sees itself closer to the first direction, always keeping away from the deconstructionists. (As a result, his prestige, maintained among the more traditional means, is in a way regained when, after the death of Paul de Man, it is discovered, to the scandal of his many disciples, that, during the war, still in Belgium, had been a collaborationist, whose newspaper articles even defended anti-Semitism).

The above introduction was necessary for the following condensation to make sense.

For Abrams, who believed that the so-called exact sciences are in fact exact, non-exact, analogical thinking with a role in history resorts to a small range of variants. The title of his work seeks to accentuate the basic analogical duality that crosses reflections on poetry and painting, since Plato. "Mirror" (mirror) is the favorite metaphor to say of poetry and painting as an imitation of nature, as a “lamp” (lamp) is the opposition according to which such arts highlight the interiority of the creator, illuminating it with words, lines and colors. Being “mirror and “lamp” the basic and antagonistic analogies, Plato for the first, Plotinus and Longinus for the second are its fundamental radiating sources.

The fact that Plotinus and Longinus also belonged to ancient thought would only demonstrate how small the range of analogies available to human thought is. And the fact that "mirror imitation" has a much longer history would underline how much our thinking would favor the traditional. However, to be fair, we must add that Abrams is not so schematic: the privilege of imitation does not prevent there being divergences in the affirmation of what art imitates. Not to mention the disagreement between Plato and Aristotle – a task that Abrams fulfills in the most trivial way possible –, the adoption of the Latin translation, imitation, enshrined by Horace, is accompanied by the famous couplet “teaching and delighting” (prodesse et deletere), which, in turn, would give rise to the alternative of either maintaining the double demand or emphasizing only the delight.

But not only that: in the 1747th century, Batteux and Lessing, in works published respectively in 1776 and XNUMX, emphasized that imitation is attainable deductively or inductively. If Abrams, however, is not interested in an art history taken as “imitation”, it is because his purpose would rather focus on the romantic theory, precisely on the one that would emphasize the lightbulb analogy. However, it is still curious that the source of the romantic lamp is found by him in neoclassical thought. Hence the similarities that the author discovers between statements by the neoclassical ingles par excellence, Dr. Johnson, and the “Preface” to lyrical ballads (1800), by Wordsworth – often taken as the manifesto of English Romanticism.

In any case, Abrams agrees that the metaphor of the mirror gradually gave way to that of the lamp, represented by the figure of the creative genius. Hence, he proposes that, in short, until the beginning of the XNUMXth century, critical reflection in the West was dominated (a) by Platonic mimetic theory, (b) by partial Aristotelian rectification, (c) by pragmatism, “which has lasted since the fusion of rhetoric with poetics in the Hellenistic and Roman eras almost until the end of the XNUMXth century” and (d) by the expressive theory of English (and a little earlier German) Romanticism. (By not saying a word about the autonomy of the work of art, he shows that he disregards his contemporaries.)

* Luiz Costa Lima Professor Emeritus at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC/RJ) and literary critic. Author, among other books, of The ground of the mind: the question for fiction (Unesp).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 11, March 2011.


MH Abrams. The mirror and the lamp: romantic theory and critical tradition. Translation: Alzira Vieira Allegro. São Paulo, Unesp, 480 pages.


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