Donne’s Will to Power
- John Donne: Life, Mind and Art by John Carey
Faber, 303 pp, £9.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 571 11636 1
Donne’s powers are, for John Carey, a matter of power, the poems being ‘the most enduring exhibition of the will to power the English Renaissance produced’. The praises of Donne in this critical work of amazing flair and obduracy are single-minded: Donne is here valued, supremely, for the power and tenacity of his ego, for his imaginative energy, for his desire to dominate or his rage for supremacy, and for the obsession with which he registered the contrarieties and contradictions of life ‘in all their urgent discord’. For Carey, these powers, these sheer strengths, sweep everything before them, razing moral questions to moralism, spiritual values to pietism, and critical reservations to prissiness. Carey’s book is itself alive with the kind of energy which it attributes to Donne, and since he can think of no higher compliments than those he pays Donne, he will presumably be very happy to have them returned to him.
Yet there is a distinction between the masterful and the masterly, and this masterful portrait of Donne, as man and preacher and poet, is less than masterly because it is hypnotically blind to any such distinction.
Oh, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength: but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Carey’s ears could not hear such a plea. His Donne is tyrannous, as is this Grand Vizier’s way of paying him homage. There is a confident continuity between the poet (when seen so) and his critic, and it is this which makes the book so compelling, though sometimes at the cost of cogency.
Just as Donne possesses some of the power of his angels, so Carey repossesses some of the power of Donne:
‘They are Creatures, that have not so much of Body as flesh is, as froth is, as a vapor is, as a sigh is, and yet with a touch they shall molder a rocke into lesse Atomes, then the sand that it stands upon; and a milstone into smaller flower, then it grinds.’ The utility of producing flour which is actually ground-up millstone is not, of course, something we are expected to inquire into. Donne’s angels are performing a pure feat of strength, as pointless, in its way, as tearing up telephone directories, only much more colossal. We are to admire them because they possess irresistible force.
Which is itself why we are to admire Donne, whose poems are as thrillingly pointless in their way as the tearing up of telephone directories. ‘He found scientific speculation, like theological speculation, compelling as well as pointless’ – which is how Carey delightedly finds Donne, and how I, less delightedly, find Carey. A hundred pages after the angels’ millstone, the mills have ground slowly to a grim cliché: ‘The fact is, he did not care whether the new theories were true or not, so long as they supplied material for his speculation. He wanted to feel free to entertain or dismiss them, and to play them off against his existing patterns of thought, as mood or occasion prompted. They were grist to his mill.’ All the quirks and feats of learning, the vaulting ambition of thought, the imperiousness of self-assertion, are grist to Carey’s mill. But the mill produces flour which is actually ground-up millstone. To ask for bread is then assuredly to be given a stone. The poetry is admired for being callous, brutal and pitiless.
For Carey hates the thought of being soppy. ‘What we require in a writer is not amiability, but the power to show us alternative ways of experiencing the world.’ Yet the antithesis is sturdily coercive, since it forbids the question of whether some alternative ways of experiencing the world are wiser and saner than others. The belief that great literature ministers to good things, and that good things cannot simply be a matter of maximising the alternative ways of experiencing the world, should not have been travestied as a liking for amiability. In his dislike of priggishness, Carey’s conscience often stings him into preferring a metallic consciencelessness to the exacerbated conscience of ‘readers of liberal views’. But this makes his praise of Donne belittling in its vehemence, as if what really mattered most was that at least he wasn’t today’s kind of blackguard. Donne, like Carey, ‘enjoyed outraging the narrow-minded’. But you could think better of Donne than that, could think that he appreciated that nothing narrowed the mind more than the constraints within which it had to operate to outrage the narrow-minded.
Vol. 3 No. 15 · 20 August 1981
SIR: With the shrewd particularity that distinguishes his work, Christopher Ricks has, in two recent contributions to the London Review of Books, touched on a matter of great general importance. I wonder if I might be given space in which to try taking hold of it explicitly?
In the first of the pieces I am referring to (LRB, 16 April), Professor Ricks tested the firmness of the grounds on which some contemporary literary theorists take their stand. The most telling point made in this review was about the implications of believing that literature has a mainly, or even a purely, notional existence. The belief gains its credit by being ushered in along a line of reasoning taut enough to look true: since a work of literature is susceptible to an infinite variety of interpretations, shouldn’t we concede that the work thus variably interpreted cannot itself be of a constant nature? We can give the answer this question begs for, however, only if we concede also that the variety of possible interpretations is indeed infinite, and if we ignore the distinction between the work’s material form (‘text’ old style) and its meaning (‘text’ new style). Ricks enforces his point by insisting on this distinction. Unless we establish and trust a certain arrangement of words as the object to which an interpretation corresponds, we have no means of judging whether one interpretation is any more plausible than another. When the author’s wording is malleable, so is the critic’s. And this being the case, one could no more say whether an interpretation should be believed than whether the misprints in Stanley Fish’s book weren’t really surreptitious meanings which had slipped the noose of conscious control. The alternatives are plain: either the wording of a literary work is determinate, and determines the range of plausible interpretations; or it is indeterminate, and the plausibility of a given interpretation is indeterminable.
Professor Ricks will have noticed that he was impelled to make a very similar point in reviewing John Carey’s book on Donne (LRB, 18 June). Professor Carey is not, of course, given to propounding theories of the sort propounded by Stanley Fish. He is not, indeed, much given to theorising at all; and his prose exhibits those qualities of wit and sturdy elegance which often bespeak a canny aloofness from abstract discussion. Nonetheless, as Ricks has deftly shown, Carey’s treatment of Donne’s ‘To his Mistris Going to Bed’ invites the same sort of questioning as Fish’s remarks about the malleable text. What are the consequences of saying about a poem, by Donne or anyone else, things which its wording will not bear out? If the principle is endorsed that the printed page sets limits to the range of plausible interpretations, the answer is simple enough: an interpretation which tries too strenuously to exceed the limits must be rejected. But if that principle is itself rejected, the consequences are less simple and more disquieting.
No doubt many people remember the article in the TLS (22 February 1980) in which Professor Carey maintained that literary values are subjective. The debate between himself and George Watson which followed was earnest, entertaining and instructive; one could readily feel grateful to Carey for having laid important issues freshly open. But amidst the gratitude, I remember being wrought to a less comfortable sensation. At one point in his article, Carey asks of ‘dependable literary values’:
But how can such values retain their credibility in the godless universe which most people now inhabit? Modern man is quite used to the idea that we are the temporary occupants of a cooling solar system … that good and evil and other such ephemera were created by the human mind in its attempt to impose some significance on the amoral flux which constitutes reality. From this perspective, literary evaluation of any kind might seem almost comically irrelevant.
The very poise of the contention is disarming. With such adroitly imprecise wording, we are at a loss to know how far, if at all, Carey thinks he is distorting the perspective he presents. Is it as true as it is striking to say that a ‘godless universe’ is what ‘most people now inhabit’? And is the idea of good and evil as ‘ephemera’ so widely current that ‘modern man’ can be supposed ‘quite used to’ it? The rush of objections is no sooner afoot than it is impeded by a slight uncertainty as to whether ‘this perspective’ is the one that Carey himself looks down. There is, however, no uncertainty about the evidence the passage affords that insisting on the subjectivity of literary values is the outcome of opinions deeper than those usually stated in literary criticism. This is as much as to say that subjectivism in literary criticism is just one manifestation, and often an elusive one, of subjectivism in general. For criticism, to adapt Arnold’s dictum, is the application of moral ideas to literature. Hence what a man says about books will somehow shine a light into the principles which govern what he says about anything.
Professor Carey would not, I think, dispute this. And the fact that he would not makes for the salutary differences between his work and work done by those critics who espouse a more radical subjectivism. Nonetheless, as Ricks pointed out in his masterly, yet hearteningly unmasterful review, the tendency of some of Carey’s most salient remarks is strongly subjectivist. Fortunately, the tendency is not consistent. Carey affirms a belief that religious, political and moral beliefs are based on ‘arbitrary preferences’. If this were entirely true, there would be no point in saying it, since the appeal to reason that it makes is only worth making on the assumption that reason is not arbitrary. And if that absolute is granted, why not others? The curious thing about value judgments is that they continue to be made, by those who think them subjective as well as by those who don’t. The conception of what value consists in may vary: but the conception of value itself, as a property to be sought out and assessed, is as inalienable from human thought as the categories of time and space. Thus it is that one can publish a work of criticism in the hope that some readers, at least, will judge it valuable. Because so much of Carey’s writing is informed by principles finer than his axioms, this hope is fulfilled oftener than it would be if the axioms were paramount. Intuitive reason is stronger than subjectivism.
Ultimately, this is always the case. It is easy to observe that anyone who denies that the worth of an opinion can be judged – and judged truly, not ‘subjectively’ – is invoking the very standards of worth he aims to discredit. For again, if this judgment itself has value only to the person making it and to those who share the same dream, then to make it is redundant. There is, however, no such thing as pure subjectivism this side of madness. The phenomenon to which we might give that name is simply an extreme form of the disposition to doubt that values can be absolute.
At the height of the ‘Cambridge dispute’, when proponents of the more progressive modes of criticism were sending manifestos to the press, it became apparent, I think, that only one issue was really being argued about. Beneath their many superficial differences of opinion, critics are united or divided according as they do, or do not, believe in absolute values. Because the values concerned have a bearing on so many important activities, of which literary criticism is just one, pacts among critics during a dispute will be ardently entered into, and oppositions militantly declared. The ideas that one has about, say, truth, beauty and goodness, as these are manifested in works of literature, do not pertain exclusively to works of literature. This is obvious; and yet we seem often not to recognise the corollary: that when literary values are at stake, much more than literary values is at stake.
Our zeal in defending one mode of criticism against another is warrant that we sense this. But we need to see it as well as sense it. For it is inevitable that arguments about the proper nature and function of criticism will continue; and they will do so with more virulence and less profit than need be if we fail to acknowledge the depth and seriousness of the issues they are rooted in. The most immediate benefit of making this acknowledgment is that the true causes of division among critics become clearer, and are unlikely to be obscured by the polemical gambits which are their effect. Essentially, I think, the matter stands thus: those who, wittingly or not, want to push literary criticism towards subjectivism will maintain that the attempt to preserve absolute values – not, incidentally, the same as arguing that only one interpretation of a work can be correct – is obtuse and disabling. Those who want to pull literary criticism away from subjectivism, on the other hand, will maintain that to try to discredit absolute values is pernicious and at heart illogical. Of course, the subjectivist and the defender of absolute values mark only the limits of a scale along which more equivocal positions can be taken up. Not all divisions will be and look as sharp as that which one might imagine between, say, C.S. Lewis and the recent book by Stanley Fish. And not all divisions, though sharp, can be predicted from blatant differences of critical approach. One would not expect a deconstructionist to be much in sympathy with Dr Johnson’s type of criticism (nor, probably, would he expect much sympathy in return). But it would be wrong to think, therefore, that such divisions are invariably manifest in sharp outward differences. And it would be equally wrong to think that the absence of such differences precludes the possibility of deep division. What one needs is an aptitude for discerning the tendency of a critic’s thought – whether towards or away from subjectivism – regardless of the critical tradition to which he has allied himself. It was this aptitude that Ricks was exercising in his review of Carey’s new book. Though their styles of argument and expression are instantly distinguishable, Ricks and Carey are allied to the same tradition. Both believe, for instance, that a writer’s life and works are intimately related, and thus that the connections between the two can, and should, be explored. But, knowing this, Ricks can see that, and see why, he and Carey are nonetheless deeply divided. And it is this ability to identify the root cause of diverse disagreements (the cause being termed pyrrhonism or ‘corrosive scepticism’) that made it possible for Ricks, in his review, to be at once severe and temperate.
The free play of the mind upon all subjects is no less desirable now than it was when Arnold, in the 1860s, expressed his desire for it. But there is a balance to be sought. Free play of the mind is one thing: holding nothing sacred (or even constant) is quite another. You don’t have to be a subjectivist to think that conventions are sometimes mistaken for truths. Johnson, for one, felt the need ‘to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established’. But when custom had been disregarded, or allowed for, nature and ‘essential principles’ remained. Similarly, Arnold’s desire for free play was tempered by his acknowledgment that ‘the prescriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal validity.’ To distinguish nature from custom, reason from speculative reasoning, or belief from prejudice, requires more than fine distinctions. It requires also that we take some things, such as the concept of value, on trust. This necessity may incur the scorn of hardened subjectivists. But there is no good reason why it should, when what subjectivism will not take on trust, it takes instead for granted. The play of the mind, to be truly free, must be bounded by freely acknowledged truths.
St John’s College, Oxford