As far as it goes, it seems obvious to me that the basic assumption of critical analysis is to think that things are deliberate. “Deliberate” implies that they were done with the intended outcomes, and by extension, are a product of craft, rather than chance in whatever form. Moreover, it implies that with rigour and energy, you can improve. And improving is something humans are pretty drawn to.
So, critical thinking is therefore naturally very concerned with imperfections. This thing is not perfect because of the following problems: blah, blah, blah. The basic difficulty is in making an assessment of what “perfection” you’re aiming for. Something may be quite perfect in one way, but fail utterly in another. Your common, or garden, claw hammer is pretty much the most optimal tool for putting in nails, but performs sub-optimally for putting in screws. Generally in the arts we adopt empirical measures: our instinctive and emotional reactions. These are then post-rationalized, and flaws are highlighted.
As presented then, the idea is that you find flaws and work at eliminating them. And often in criticism, because of your subjective standard, this can mean in fact applying the reverse process of justifying neglecting the error from your analysis, rather than being able to remove it. To cite one of my favourite examples of this, let’s have a quick recap of the duel between Inigo and Westley: the two meet, and exchange pleasantries. Each displays tremendous skill, and the main reversals in the fight are caused by the “I’m not left handed” revelation.
It is, without a doubt in my mind, the finest duel I have seen in a movie. I have ascribed to it the “rank” of “perfection.” And any close study I undertake is now required to vindicate the many numerous flaws you could potentially find in it if your emotional reaction was less intense. Does Inigo’s terrible Spanish accent impact you? Do you find the actual fencing a bit lacklustre? And if so, in order to persuade you to my assessment (of perfection), I need to address these points.
By far the easiest way of doing this is to essentially refute the error as having an impact. You argue that the setup of the fight creates the necessary imaginative flavour, such that the actual physical mechanics are not terribly noticeable. You smooth things over. I think people are most fond of this approach where there are natural grey areas. I have half an entire book dedicated to demonstrating the unity and comprehensibility of Hamlet, for example. Which is clearly not the case.
The opposing strategy is to instead seek out these points of difficulty and identify these as having an almost meta-textual significant: that they actually further imbue meaning into the work beyond the scope of something that was merely perfect. Here you say that the duel is deliberately poor, because it further highlights the burlesque nature of the movie, underlining the irony of it’s historic-fantasy appearance.
The beauty of The Princess Bride to me is that I think both of these opposing analysis techniques are rewarding. It is both an example and a parody of the fantasy.
I have often thought though, that often we are called upon to make an analysis with an assumed model of perfection that is itself not held up to scrutiny. Our whole intellectual approach to the work is therefore automatically predicated along certain lines. And especially so if we are essentially assuming that whichever work we’re analysing is perfect. I don’t wish to devote a large amount of time to demonstrating why I think this is inherent in the way literature is approached in universities… but as I have already alluded to, it is because if near-perfection is assumed, we appear to be closer to having reached perfection after our endeavours.
It is that kind of pre-figuring that can mean you end up missing that a claw hammer is perfect for nails, because you have in your mind a screw. For me, in my studies, the greatest missed opportunity was Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift. The entire critical-thinking power of the course was devoted to understanding its satiric power, while its more straightforward appeal as an adventure story was left completely untouched. I think it works well in both modes, and I think both the critical modes I outline above deliver rich veins of thought about it.