These Staggering Questions

Clive James finds fault with a good writer

  • Critical Understanding by Wayne Booth
    Chicago, 400 pp, £14.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 226 06554 5

Previous books by Wayne C. Booth, especially The Rhetoric of Fiction, have been well received in the academic world. Since it first made its appearance in the early Sixties, The Rhetoric of Fiction has gone on to establish itself as a standard work – a touchstone of sanity. Probably the same thing will happen to the book under review. Critical Understanding is such a civilised treatise that I felt guilty about being bored stiff by it.

I had better say at the outset that I didn’t find The Rhetoric of Fiction too thrilling either. A prodigious range of learning is expressed in hearteningly straightforward prose, but the effect is to leave you wondering what special use there is in presenting the student with yet another codified list of rhetorical devices. Separated from the works of fiction in which Professor Booth has so ably detected them, these devices are lifeless except as things to be memorised for the passing of examinations. There is also a strong chance that any student who spends much time studying rhetorical devices will not read the works of fiction, or will read them with his attention unnaturally focused on technical concerns.

Worrying about what students might do is the kind of activity which such books – even when they are as well done as Professor Booth’s – inevitably arouse. But any student who could get seriously interested in Critical Understanding would have to be potty or else old before his time. You can’t help wondering why it is thought to be good that the study of literature should so tax the patience. After all, literature doesn’t. Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do.

It could be said that abstract speculation about literature is an activity impossible to stop, so that we should give thanks to see a few pertinent books cropping up among the impertinent ones. It could be said, to the contrary, that the whole business should be allowed to sink under its own weight. By now the latter argument looks the more attractive, if for no other reason than that life is very short. But for the moment let us assume that good books like this are justified in their existence by the corrective they offer to bad books like this. Let us be grateful for Booth’s civilised manner and powers of assimilation. The question then arises about whether his argument makes any sense in its own terms.

Critical Understanding purports to help us think coherently about ‘the immensely confusing world of contemporary literary criticism’. There is nothing immensely, or even mildly, confusing about the world of contemporary literary criticism. The world of contemporary literary criticism does not exist. There is only criticism – an activity which goes on. It goes on in various ways; ways which it suits Professor Booth’s book to call ‘modes’; ‘modes’ which, he thinks, are hard to reconcile with one another, so that a world of confusion is generated, to which we need a guide. He is a very patient guide, but in the long run it is usually not wise to thank someone for offering to clarify an obfuscation which he is in fact helping to create.

Critical ‘modes’ have no independent existence worth bothering about. They are not like the various branches of science – an analogy Professor Booth seems always to be making in some form or other, even while strenuously claiming to eschew it. The various branches of science are impersonal in the sense that anybody qualified can pursue them. But a critical ‘mode’ is never anything except an emphasis, usually a false one. It is an expression of the critic’s personality. The critical personality is the irreducible entity in criticism, just as the artistic personality is the irreducible entity in art. Critical ‘modes’ can be reconciled with one another only by taking the personality out of them. Since there is no way of doing this without depriving them of content, they remain irreconcilable. You can call it confusion if you like, but to worry about it is a waste of time.

Professor Booth has all the time in the world. There is not room in this article or indeed in the whole paper to demonstrate by quotation his strolling expansiveness of argument. To summarise his line of thought is like trying to scoop air into a heap. But as far as I understand Critical Understanding, it offers pluralism as the solution to the alleged problem of reconciling the various critical ‘modes’. Three versions of pluralism are examined, belonging respectively to Ronald S. Crane, Kenneth Burke and M.H. Abrams. Professor Booth does his best, at terrific length, to reconcile these three different pluralisms with each other, but finally they don’t seem able to settle down together except within the even bigger and better pluralism which is Professor Booth’s own.

In Professor Booth’s amiably loquacious style of discourse very little goes without saying, but if anything were to, it would be that pluralism is better than monism. Professor Booth defines his terms with both rigour and subtlety. Trying to convey his definitions in a sentence or two, one is bound to play fast and loose. But as far as I can tell, a monist believes in his own ‘mode’ and can’t see the point of anybody else’s. The pluralist might favour a ‘mode’ of his own but he is able to admit that the other fellow’s ‘mode’ might have something in it. I keep putting inverted commas around ‘mode’, not just because of my uncertainty as to what a ‘mode’ is, but because of strong doubts about whether there is any such thing. I suspect a critical ‘mode’ is a critical method. If it is, then it is necessary to insist once again that there is really no such thing. There is just criticism, an activity to which various critics contribute. It is neither monism nor pluralism to say this: it is just realism. A critic’s method might help him to find things out but we don’t wait for his method to collapse before deciding that he is talking rubbish. Nor is it our method that detects faults in his method. We reason about his reasoning, and that’s it.

Professor Booth’s pluralism has a plural nature of its own, alas. When he means by pluralism that there is a multiplicity of valid critical modes or methods and that some of these might be irreconcilable, I am afraid he does not mean much. When he means by pluralism that the only real critical mode or method, criticism, is pursued in different ways and areas by various critics, he means something, even if not a lot. The latter interpretation of the word, however, would not yield up a long book, or even a long article. The first interpretation has the advantage of providing limitless opportunities to burble on. It offers all the dangerous excitement of the Uncertainty Principle.

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