Vol. 4 No. 13 · 15 July 1982
From Nicholas Spice
SIR: I am writing to lament the absence from the LRB of a judicious consideration of Against Criticism by Iain McGilchrist. The book raises issues which all concerned with the state of English studies at the present time must wish to see intelligently debated. But all we get from Tom Paulin is coarse invective (LRB, 17 June). That your readers have been deprived in this way is a pity, and especially so if (as it is unfortunately not safe to take for granted) Mr Paulin has accurately described the forces and attitudes represented by Re-Reading English, the other book he reviewed. Moreover, the fact that so intelligent and humane a reviewer as Mr Paulin should have lost his head when faced with McGilchrist’s book adds an interesting twist to the tale of woe he is himself concerned to tell.
In all but the last paragraph of his piece Mr Paulin is preoccupied with Re-Reading English, a volume of essays which fiercely espouses the debourgeoisification of literary studies, yet expresses the frustration, anger and narrow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality. Mr Paulin exposes the barrenness of these attitudes. More’s the pity, then, that he should be deaf to the voice of an ally in McGilchrist, and, in the final abrupt paragraph of his piece, should mar his polemic against the philistines with a philistine outburst of his own. The reason for this sudden loss of judgment is all too plain. His tone betrays him: ‘Mr McGilchrist is a fellow of All Souls and an upholder of that élitist culture which so angers Widdowson’s contributors. He appears to be highly cultured – he talks confidently of “the ornate, yet simple, splendour of Vierzehnheiligen”, notes the resemblances between Lu Chi and Alexander Pope, and sprinkles his text with impressive bits of Greek, Latin, Italian and German … His harmless Sitwellian waffle makes me wonder whether English studies will go the way of phrenology.’ It seems only fair to your readers to reassure them that this and the rest of what Mr Paulin has written is not an account of any book Iain McGilchrist wrote. But this is not, of course, properly speaking a book review at all, merely an expression of Mr Paulin’s prejudices, a tantrum quite unworthy of his intelligence, in which, interestingly, like the authors of the essays in Re-Reading English he himself deplores, he has allowed thinking to be overwhelmed by feeling. The result is depressing mainly for the manner in which it seeks to downgrade a knowledge of ancient and modern languages, a breadth of reference in argument, and a familiarity with the greatest works of European architecture, to a species of upper-class twittery. And it prompts one to wonder what level of ignorance in Iain McGilchrist would have left Mr Paulin at his ease.
Clearly, Mr Paulin suffers from a mild strain of the virus which rages in the writing of Peter Widdowson et al. But he diagnoses their disease so acutely that we may hope his own case is not too serious. In them it is far advanced, it has got to their heads, and must be assumed terminal. In him, as yet, it appears to have got no further than his shoulder. The sooner he has it seen to, the better.
From Jonathan Dollimore
SIR: Tom Paulin’s review of Re-Reading English mocks its contributors but also represents the new work in English Studies as insidious, a nihilistic symptom of ‘a self-conscious civilisation turning in disgust upon itself. Paulin’s review is a striking instance of one aspect of the reactionary temper of both culture and politics in this country at the present time. The fact that these two domains are united in reaction is of course no accident: as Re-Reading English and the article by Raymond Williams in the same issue of LRB make clear, politics and culture are inseparable.
Undoubtedly we’re living through one of those periods when what is misleadingly described as a ‘recession’ precipitates two opposed tendencies in the superstructure: on the one hand, an ideological retrenchment and reaction; on the other, a sharpened realisation that only a democratic transformation of the social order can provide a long-term answer. At such times something else becomes dramatically clear: it is not the emergent consciousness, the voice of change, which will be responsible for ‘the massive social crisis’ which Paulin alludes to; nor, intrinsically, is it the bankruptcy of the existing order; it is, rather, the reaction of that order, or rather elements within it, against the emergent. Never, it seems, is the status quo defended more ferociously than when impending crisis demonstrates conclusively the necessity for change.
One crucial aspect of these reaction formations is to offload the failure of the present – the ‘crisis’ – onto the new; the emergent is denigrated as a symptom of the very disease for which it may indeed be the cure. Such is the case with Paulin’s review: most of the contributors to Re-Reading English advocate more democracy in education and write in an appropriately accessible way, yet Paulin has to characterise them as showing ‘a Stalinist preference for the mechanistic metaphor’ which makes the reading of a sonnet by Sidney ‘sound like a spell in a forced-labour camp’. The charge of Stalinism is surely a tired, dishonest and irresponsible term of abuse. (Why is it that all socialism is represented as inevitably rooted in Stalinism whereas no one ever dreams of claiming, for example, that Christianity necessarily involves witch-hunting, inquisitions and the other more recent manifestations of its bloody history?)
In his Introduction to Re-Reading English Peter. Widdowson describes his contributors as all recognising that ‘education is a political activity.’ The pluralising, generous and democratic implications of allowing this have, of course, been ferociously resisted by the formative figures in English Studies, from Arnold to Leavis and beyond. Today, the literary hacks of some review columns systematically denigrate those who are trying to work with new and challenging ideas. Actually, I don’t identify Paulin with them and find it surprising and regrettable that he seems so willing to lend his voice to theirs. Maybe he’s getting tired. Certainly I don’t recognise ‘that futureless and pastless sense of blankness’ which, according to him, characterises ‘the present generation of students’. The most informed opposition to the Falklands ‘crisis’ came from my students, not my senior colleagues. Most students today possess ‘humane intelligence’, but they mean by it something very different from Leavis because they bring with it a democratic political commitment and a very real political intelligence. They find Re-Reading English helpful, not because they are vacant, but because they’ve become impatient with a tired discipline and its tired categories.
What Marxist, deconstructionist and post-structuralist theory has to offer is very varied – everything from a specious rejuvenation of the old categories to genuinely radical and positive alternatives. It’s to the credit of the ‘New Accents’ series (in which Widdowson’s book appears) that it not only represents that diversity but also engages with it critically. Though you wouldn’t know it from Paulin’s review, Re-Reading English is no exception.
Thanks for your own coverage of the Falklands war.
School of English and American Studies, University of Sussex
From David Lodge
SIR: Reviewing Re-Reading English, Tom Paulin describes its contributors as ‘frustrated sociologists who believe that sonnets and beer mats ought to be treated on an equal footing and examined as interesting “cultural artefacts” (this stupidly philistine term is favoured by David Lodge and other members of the new critical generation).’ ‘Cultural artefacts’ seems to me a descriptive term that is neither stupid nor philistine, and I may well have used it on occasion, though I cannot recall a specific instance offhand. The implication that it is a key item in my critical vocabulary, and that I practise a kind of criticism which could be described, even with philistine stupidity, as equating beer mats with sonnets, is a ludicrous misrepresention, which undermines Mr Paulin’s credibility as a commentator on the contemorary ‘crisis’ in English Studies. This, by the way, is the second occasion in recent weeks when one of your contributors has introduced a gratuitous sneer at my expense into a review of someone else’s book expressing views quite distinct from my own. (The first was Claude Rawson’s review of Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, LRB, 4 March.) Is this – to use a phrase which has appeared in your correspondence columns before – quite cricket?
From Editor, ‘London Review’
I hope David Lodge is not suggesting that we have put people up to making disobliging incidental references to his work; or that we should cut such references out if and when contributors choose to make them.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 4 No. 14 · 5 August 1982
From Stephen Logan
SIR: I don’t wish to provide any further warrant for the metaphor in its title, but Tom Paulin’s review, ‘Faculty at War’ (LRB, 17 June), calls for opposition.
The principal affront is offered in the final paragraph, where Iain McGilchrist’s book, Against Criticism, is curtly traduced: but the failure of judgment which is there so stark is the result of a more general failure of responsibility.
To attend earnestly to matters of principle wherever these are put polemically at stake is a responsibility which, duly honoured, yields obvious benefits. By urging us to examine arguments in relation to principles independent of them – to ask, ‘Is it true, and if so, why?’ – it helps us to distinguish between the specious and the cogent. By making the practice of such scrutiny habitual, it conduces, in our reading, writing and our thinking generally, to a salutary rigour. This should in turn conduce to an impartiality in presenting a case, such that, if our conclusions should be wrong, they will be accompanied by enough ungarbled evidence to allow the detection and correction of the error.
It is unlikely that these reflections will strike Mr Paulin as very novel, and yet the critical virtues of which they speak – discrimination, rigour and impartiality – are not exemplified in his review. It would perhaps be legitimate to vent one’s exasperation at the encroaching ‘wilderness of combative attitudes’, had everything possible been done to clear the ground and quell the combat. Paulin does not earn the right. The mere distribution of space in his review is enough to take, though not all that takes, it from him.
Against Criticism is a bold, subtle, lucid and penetrating book. It tactfully endeavours to determine and be governed by the principles on which literary criticism may most profitably be conducted. McGilchrist’s writing has the character of his convictions: continually self-aware, it eschews the fashionable proclivity to self-preoccupation; insisting that ‘there are proper bounds to rationality,’ it gives intuition proper licence, without giving feeling, any more than cerebration, an improper because undisciplined sway. And while McGilchrist has that maturity which, in Eliot’s words, ‘protects [him] from excessive possession by any one literary personality’, he acknowledges faults and inconsistencies in his favoured writers (Johnson, Sterne and Wordsworth), as a prelude, not to apology, but to a just and liberating recognition that a writer’s strengths are often intimately bound to his weaknesses. In short, McGilchrist’s book exemplifies those virtues of discrimination, rigour and impartiality which Paulin’s review does not, and imparts to each of them, dissolving their isolation, its own distinctive, integrative character.
The book is not, of course, entirely free from faults. Given McGilchrist’s principle of the intrinsicality of weakness and strength, it would be surprising if it were. Thus the incidental judgments on Coleridge and Eliot seem to me misjudgments, and the gratuitous flippancies on pages 24 and 176, rare lapses of an otherwise exemplary discretion. The most considerable fault, however, is McGilchrist’s apparent failure to recognise that many of his finer insights are corroborated by the practices of our best contemporary critics, and that his ‘approach’, therefore, is not ‘on an altogether different axis’ from theirs, but aligns him with the tradition that, descending from Eliot through Leavis and Empson, is now chiefly represented by Donald Davie and Christopher Ricks.
Clearly, these are shy faults; they barely deflect, let alone disrupt, one’s attention to the predominating strengths of McGilchrist’s argument. But from Paulin’s peremptory remarks, arraigning McGilchrist’s attitudes as ‘vacuous and unintelligent’, and McGilchrist himself as ‘fatally dull’, a purveyor of ‘harmless Sitwellian waffle’ and an upholder of a reprehensibly ‘élitist’ culture, one would hardly guess that Against Criticism deserved any, least of all admiring, attention. One would hardly guess – were it not that the tactics designed to discredit McGilchrist tend to discredit themselves.
Paulin cannot see the faults for the fatal, imputed flaws. There is no need to guess at the insinuation when Paulin says of McGilchrist that ‘he appears to be highly cultured’: the ‘culture’, we are invited to infer, is, like the appearance, bogus. And perhaps, having inferred this, we should go on to suspect that in saying that ‘Mr McGilchrist is a fellow of All Souls,’ Paulin’s intention is more than purely informative. Oblique manoeuvres apart, however, what should we make of the flouting of McGilchrist’s prose as ‘harmless Sitwellian waffle’? Nothing very precise, I imagine: the words, like ‘puritan’, ‘moralistic’ and ‘conspiracy’, used elsewhere, are supposed to induce, while themselves escaping, censure. The way the phrase secures its insiduous effect is worth pondering. The design to render impotent by calling ‘harmless’ is transparent and not very harmful. But the precise significance of the remainder of the phrase is harder to pin down. Since Paulin represents McGilchrist’s prose merely by a wrested sentence and a half, we are given scant opportunity to appraise the justice of describing it as ‘waffle’. And since the Sitwells are no longer widely current (can we even be certain which one of them is meant?) such immediate impact as ‘Sitwellian’ has will be after the fashion of an intensifying prefix: waffle is bad, the Sitwells wrote badly, so ‘Sitwellian waffle’ is egregiously bad. The use, however, of a somewhat vacant epithet to intimate a meaning unwarrantably vague does not inspire trust, and it tends to turn the condemnation of McGilchrist as ‘vacuous’ in upon the user. Another question clamours: why should we exempt Paulin, who thus disparages prose that I (and C. J. Rawson for another) think demonstrably good, from the class of critics who, misguidedly he says, dismiss ‘good critical prose … as “bellelettrism” ’?
The surest pledge of good faith in a critic – and by ‘good faith’ I mean the intention to be, and capacity for being, faithful to the finest detail of one’s perceptions – is scrupulosity in using and judging words. Such scrupulosity is the natural outcome of a proper attention to principle. For the critic who is intent on establishing the truth will naturally have a scrupulous regard for the means by which true conceptions can be truly represented. Inaccuracy, for such a person, is a kind of betrayal.
Mr Paulin’s account of Against Criticism is certainly inaccurate, and it is so because it does not scrupulously weigh its own and Iain McGilchrist’s words. Paulin, consequently, fails to perceive that McGilchrist’s words are almost always carefully weighed. When McGilchrist affirms that ‘the only genuine critical theory is that of no-theory,’ he is not, as Paulin seems to suppose, trumping up a pretext for ‘meandering’: he is repudiating ‘method’. Method, having here the sense of an inflexible routine of analysis, has to be repudiated by a conscientious critic. It imposes on the unpredictable fluency of the work of art a rigid frame by which the art and our perceptions of its workings are thwarted and belied. Eliot was quick to appreciate this, and in ‘The Perfect Critic’, an essay to be noted for its patient assessing of another critic’s words, he declares, famously, that ‘there is no method except to be very intelligent.’ Intelligence, in this connection, is largely a matter of perceiving the disabling restrictions of method. Accordingly it became a favourite term of Leavis’s, who, Donald Davie remarked, some fifteen years ago, ‘at all times guarded against the codifying of [his] approach into something that could properly be called a method’.
In repudiating method, McGilchrist is far from taking leave of his principles. What Paulin calls ‘meandering’ is a corollary of the principled reflection that ‘rationality is rectilinear’ – and to rationality there are proper bounds. Had Paulin himself been more attentive to principle (I say this without animosity) he might have profited from McGilchrist’s book and have given a just account of it. Only by seizing each opportunity for discussing them intelligently can we hope to deprive our internecine quarrels of their full, beguiling glamour.
St John’s College, Oxford
From Joseph Bristow
SIR: Tom Paulin’s truculent review of Peter Widdowson’s Re-Reading English, one of the latest additions to Methuen’s seemingly endless ‘New Accents’ series, was useful in showing Widdowson’s startling disservice to such a fine poetic mind as Paulin’s. Re-Reading English is an ill-considered collection of essays whose conclusion cannot do anything but reduce and make simplistic the genuinely tough theoretical arguments which lay over and beyond the ken of most of its contributors. Which is a pity, because concepts such as ‘différance’ emerge irreproachably as ‘gobbledygook’. Had Methuen thought more carefully about their trendy list, then readers of LRB would be spared Paulin’s misinformed eccentricities and descriptive mistakes, which are hardly worth going over.
The ‘New Accents’ series is bound to do serious damage to ‘a blank generation of students’ in these times of recession when economic pressures are weighing heavily on the academy, ensuring that one doesn’t read works by theorists but by their (all-too-often second-rate) essayists. Methuen are publishing what comprises a ‘Coles Notes’ to contemporary critical theory and contemporary ‘cultural studies’, flooding the market with attractively-priced primers suggesting that a bit of Derrida, a touch of Lacan and a pinch of Althusser will give a sufficiently politically-aware conceptual framework with which to attack the text. If only it were that simple. Students must be fairly warned against ‘New Accents’. Though most, I would imagine, would need no such caution against the deficiencies of Paulin’s rant.
From Antony Easthope
SIR: An essay on poetry I contributed to Re-Reading English was singled out for abuse by your reviewer. Since the comments on it consisted of name-calling (‘Stalinist’, ‘hapless’) instead of argument or reasoned criticism, no reply is possible.
One observation is in order. Paranoia is the effect of profound insecurity. The liberal values of the dominant classes must be far gone if they no longer make any claim to rationality and objectivity.
From Claude Rawson
SIR: David Lodge complains (Letters, 15 July) that in writing about Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets some months ago I ‘introduced a gratuitous sneer at [his] expense into a review of someone else’s book expressing views quite distinct from [his] own’. I was actually quoting from Lodge’s discussion of the same book by Donoghue, which might make my mention of him seem less gratuitous than he suggests. As to Donoghue’s book ‘expressing views quite distinct from’ Lodge’s own, what Lodge said about Donoghue’s main critical position was: ‘I am basically of the same opinion, and for basically the same reasons.’
Department of English, University of Warwick
Vol. 4 No. 15 · 19 August 1982
From Michael Egan
SIR: Apoplexy or dishonesty? Tom Paulin, in a disgraceful, so-called ‘review’ of Re-Reading English (LRB, 17 June), claims ridiculously that the contributors, of which I am one, ‘are collectively of the opinion that English is a dying subject.’ They ‘reject printed texts’, ‘share a deep hatred of art’, are ‘united’ in a ‘desire to abolish both texts and authors … wish to abolish value-judgments … are frustrated sociologists who believe sonnets and beer mats ought to be treated on an equal footing.’ The other contributors to Re-Reading English are well able to defend themselves, and probably will do so. I wish only to call your readers’ attention to the essay on ‘Historicist Criticism’ by David Craig and myself, in which we make a case for an approach to literature in no way characterised by Paulin’s travesty. To the contrary, we argue repeatedly that ‘the more historically accurate a piece of imaginative writing is, the better it is likely to be. And the better it is aesthetically, the more historically accurate it is likely to be.’
Dubious though these propositions may appear to Mr Paulin – and I am not concerned to defend them now – it should be evident, even to him, that they imply no rejection of the text, no hatred of art, no desire to abolish authors. (Obviously: a writer’s first-hand witness, artistically reworked – Paulin, please note – is considered indispensable historical knowledge.) What is more, if your reviewer had bothered even to skim through our contribution, admittedly situated towards the end of the book, he might have noticed that much of it is a detailed historicist comparison of two poems (texts) dealing with World War One, the rest a consideration of the way what we term ‘bread-and-butter media’ (newsletters, sermons, Civil Service prose, biography and autobiography, etc) fused with existing social conditions after the English Revolution to produce the modern novel. Not a beer mat in sight, I’m afraid.
Finally, as for his laughable suggestion that we wish to do away with value-judgments: ‘The nub of historicist criticism,’ we plainly say, and go on to exemplify, ‘is the conviction that some works of art are demonstrably superior to others.’ It’s hard to imagine how much more clearly that could have been stated or, given the limitations of space, how much more fully we might have illustrated it.
The hapless Paulin will complain that I’m trying to confuse him with facts. He’s right.
Department of English, University of Massachusetts
From Patrick Lyons
SIR: Once conspiracy-theory has been invoked, it has its ways of trapping whoever appeals to it. In his (extraordinary) attempt to brand the contributors to Re-Reading English as ‘belonging to an underground movement’, Tom Paulin was prepared to claim ‘there is in every generation a conspiracy of taste among a number of gifted reviewers,’ and then to assert that the institutions of higher education join in to disseminate these journalists’ judgments through the populace. From the same stock of horror-scripts, Nicholas Spice (LRB, 17 June) uses the infectious-disease-attacks-world mutant, to keep the theory blooming: ‘Clearly, Mr Paulin suffers from a mild strain of the virus which rages in the writing of Peter Widdowson et al.’ Meanwhile David Lodge is in the classic uncertainty where scare-stories begin, seeing collusion possible in common coincidence; and – in confounding editors and umpires – suggesting we are already in a closed system (‘cricket’). Simply by stating their (plural, and quite diverse) aims for English Studies, the contributors to Re-Reading English stay, cheeringly, outside such vicious circularities.
Department of English, University of Glasgow
From Peter Barry
SIR: Jonathan Dollimore’s somewhat pompous letter (Letters, 15 July) about Tom Paulin’s review of Re-Reading English offered a gratuitous analysis of Britain at the present time but said hardly anything specific about the book. I feel some sympathy with the contributors’ political views but I think the book is insidious. The editor proposes in his introduction that English studies become a site for ‘a materialist polities’ and most of the contributors declare that their priority is to create ‘a socialist pedagogy’. This violates the citizen’s basic right to receive an education which isn’t propaganda, and it is quite disingenuous of Dollimore to claim that the contributors advocate ‘more democracy in education’, for unless it is made clear in the prospectus of their institutions that the English department sees itself as the site for a materialist politics then what is advocated is the exact opposite of democracy. None of us would take seriously a book which demanded that English studies become the vehicle of Christian theology: why should we be expected to be any kinder to Re-Reading English, which demands something precisely analogous?
Jonathan Dollimore complains (predictably) that the contributors to books like this are mocked by reviewers. The fact is that most of the contributors to this one write very badly or very boringly or both. They obviously don’t care what their sentences sound like, and if Dollimore cannot see the problem, then he has yet to catch up with General Booth, whose partisanship did not blind him to the fact that the devil had all the best tunes. Materialist criticism cannot expect to be taken seriously until it has advocates who are better writers and better thinkers than these. In the meantime it suffers the dismal fate of communicating only with those already addicted to its message. The essay by David Craig and Michael Egan shows that embodying a political commitment in literary criticism doesn’t have to involve intellectual degradation.
La Sainte Union of Higher Education, Southampton
Tom Paulin writes: In their sometimes amiable remarks, in the last two issues and in this, on my review (Letters, 5 August) of Re-Reading English and Against Criticism, your correspondents unfortunately fail to consider what is at stake: the future of English as an academic subject. In my view, the subject can only be rescued by, for example, abolishing courses that draw on the kind of critical texts with which Methuen is currently flooding the market. English needs to become a rigorous and much drier discipline, like history: otherwise it will disintegrate into a flabby and monstrous non-subject. Perhaps it’s too late – I note that Birmingham University has awarded a PhD for a study of Crossroads and that this has recently been published by Methuen (the author is hostile to élitist television critics who insist on making value-judgments about Crossroads). English Studies appears to be able to absorb any and every ‘cultural artefact’ and few critics or academics seem concerned about this voracious and institutionalised nihilism. In fact, I recently attended a seminar given by Colin McCabe at which one teacher admiringly remarked that ‘we now live in a post literate society.’ McCabe approved of this statement but also managed to align himself with the authors of the Black Papers on education who, he said, ‘got things right’. The consensus in his seminar seemed to be that post literacy ought to be encouraged by slotting video-cassettes into an English syllabus. When I asked McCabe what weight he would give to the literary tradition on such a course he replied: ‘I would give it considerable weight.’ Perhaps the best idea might be to bury all this nonsense and stand English down for a generation or two?
Vol. 4 No. 16 · 2 September 1982
From Gabriel Josipovici
SIR: May I endorse Joseph Bristow’s remarks about the Methuen ‘New Accents’ series (Letters, 5 August)? The Government, as we all know, is doing its best to destroy the universities as centres of serious scholarship and learning: but for some time now publishers have also been lending a helping hand, with, I am afraid, the complicity of many academics as well. The proliferation of ‘series’, of ‘introductions to’ and ‘guides to’, is a disaster. University students who come out of school with less and less confidence in their own ability to nose out the good from the bad, the genuine from the meretricious, are easy victims. Here, they think, is the answer they need, this will tell them what such-and-such an ancient or modern master thought, what is going on in France, in linguistics etc. And students are not the only ones, unfortunately. I have ceased to count the number of times I have heard colleagues defend some ridiculous generalisation about ‘structuralism’ or Lévi-Strauss or Derrida with the remark: ‘Well, I don’t know about them, but that’s what Hawkes (or Fowler, or whoever) says they say.’
Books are as good as their authors, not as good as the title of the series in which they appear. Introductions to a subject need not in themselves be bad. J.A. Burrow’s recent introduction to Middle English literature, Medieval Writers and their Work, is superb. But it is much more difficult to write an introduction than to argue a particular thesis. You need to be so much on top of your material that you can find ways of asking genuinely fresh questions which are nevertheless absolutely central. Unfortunately, few of those who write about the French cultural scene today have the same combination of expertise and profound sympathy with their subject which characterises Burrow’s relation to the literature of Medieval England. The result is usually a trivialisation and banalisation which one might expect from a Sunday paper but which it is depressing to find in a book. Of course publishers want to make money, and if this is the best way to do it who can ask them to deny themselves in the name of culture or humanity or whatever. But academics are now well enough paid not to have to undertake this kind of hack-work, and we are still fortunate enough in England not to have been engulfed by the publish-or-perish syndrome. Academics, unlike hack-writers, should only write the books they really feel they want and need to write, and not take part in undermining their own profession by contributing to yet another series.
Vol. 4 No. 17 · 16 September 1982
From Brian Mcllroy
SIR: I was so shocked by the reply of Tom Paulin to his critics (Letters, 19 August) that I felt compelled to make a contribution to your ‘Faculty at War’ debate. Firstly, it is sad that a distinguished academic and poet at a Northern University is patently unaware that we have now been in a post-literate society for nigh on fifty years, with film and television acting as the main replacement subjects for the narrow confines of English Literature and History. The modern media are, of course, the most important natural disseminators of education for the mass of people today. Secondly, Paulin’s views regarding the recently awarded and published PhD on a ‘soap opera’ (his inference) appear to cast doubt that such drama is literature. Well, Mr Paulin, it is not only literature that we are talking about but modern literature: a subject that we in Further Education have realised as fundamentally more important – critically as well as socially – than any English syllabus become ‘rigorous and much drier’.
Lecturer in Communications, Drama and English, Lewes Technical College
Vol. 4 No. 18 · 7 October 1982
From Terence Hawkes
SIR: You really must try to curb the hysteria of some of your correspondents. ‘New Accents’ is not, as Tom Paulin claims (Letters, 19 August), ‘flooding the market’. When the series began five years ago, the market was already flooded by material of quite a different sort. That is why we started it. I’d suggest a different metaphor: the series seems to have touched a nerve. Tom Paulin’s silly tantrums are the result. His swaggering talk of ‘abolishing’ courses which use the books and of ‘burying’ the issues they raise is outrageous in a university teacher. Let him stick to the writing of verse.
The notion that the series is dedicated to the propagation of any single point of view is quite absurd and would quickly be dispelled by the slightest acquaintance with the range covered in its 14 volumes. Joseph Bristow’s suggestion of a conspiratorial formula, ‘a bit of Derrida, a touch of Lacan and a pinch of Althusser’ (Letters, 5 August), makes little sense. The work of those three luminaries is hardly compatible, and in any case half of the volumes in the series make no reference to any of them. If it will calm him, I can reveal that the author of the 15th volume is a Jesuit priest.
No one who reads a ‘New Accents’volume will be under the impression that that is the end of the matter. All of them bristle with bibliographies and their clear and declared intention is to promote further reading and extensive discussion. I am shocked to hear that this is actively discouraged at some British institutions. Most of your readers will surely agree that Mr Bristow’s shrill call for students to be ‘warned against’ the series strikes a chilling, alien note.
I take no pleasure in Gabriel Josipovici’s revelation (Vol. 4, No 16) that, despite his efforts, I am cited as an authority at the University of Sussex. That is indeed the modern mark of the Beast. I hang my head in shame. But I cannot and will not apologise for a series of books designed for students and for the general reader which is committed to the explication and discussion of complex and not readily available ideas that seem to have an important bearing upon our society and its way of life. We used to call that education. If Mr Josipovici no longer believes in it, let him slick to the writing of novels.
General Editor, ‘New Accents’, Department of English, University College, Cardiff
From Christopher Norris
SIR: As a ‘New Accents’author I should be glad to know which books exactly are supposed to be the targets of Gabriel Josipovici’s blanket fire. It is a strangely warped high-mindedness which denounces Methuen for trading on the ‘series’ image an then proceeds to attack the whole lot under cover c evasive generalities.
Of course it must be annoying to have his colleagues quoting ‘Hawkes (or Fowler or whoever)’ on topics which Josipovici feels himself so much better equipped to expound. And not just colleagues but students, sad to say, no doubt because Methuen manage to keep their prices down (another lamentable consequence of producing all those made-to-order series).
As for academic ‘hack-work’, the word is no more than a routine snub, since Josipovici never troubles to explain just what it is about ‘New Accents’ which offends his scholarly sensibility. I have no quarrel with his argument that such books could produce a harmful effect if they were written in a manner of facile or boiled-down summary which substituted handy names and ideas for any genuine effort of thought on the reader’s part. But this is not the case with ‘New Accents’, as Josipovici more or less admits by failing to offer a single argued example. It is a measure of Josipovici’s undifferentiating spleen that he has to fall back, for comparison, on a work as remote from the present context as John Burrow’s introduction to Medieval studies!
It is a pity these issues cannot be discussed without creating such an air of odium academicum. If ‘hack-work’ is a matter of writing a book with some specific purpose in view (rather than waiting, say, until your odd bits and pieces pile up into something like a plausible collection of essays), then certainly the label fits. Otherwise it seems nothing more than another ritual insult in the current professional slanging-match.
Department of English, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, Cardiff
From Terry Eagleton
SIR: Gabriel Josipovici’s high-minded objections to popular introductions such as Melhuen’s ‘New Accents’ series are not only self-contradictory (first he assaults them indiscriminately, then he warily acknowledges they can be of value) but thoroughly disingenuous too. Josipovici should not disguise as a disinterested defence of true culture what is in fact – see his Introduction to his recent selection of Maurice Blanchot’s essays – a personal animus against contemporary radical criticism every bit as ‘ideological’ as the positions he attacks.
I came across Josipovici’s waspish little letter as I arrived back from a meeting of the English Institute of the United States, at which, in discussions of what was currently most useful and adventurous in English publishing, several of my American colleagues, by no means all Marxists or structuralists, referred admiringly to Melhuen’s series. But then they were Americans.
Wadham College, Oxford
From Toril Moi
SIR: Gabriel Josipovici seems to have no idea whether he is opposed to popular introductions as such, or to the ‘New Accents’ series in particular. His letter feebly deflects attention from an indefensible elitism – all such introductions are trivialising – by singling out, with equal feebleness, one mercifully free of the kind of criticism which is his real, if concealed target. What he really ought to do is come clean and admit that he has conservative critical views, and the ‘New Accents’ series has radical ones. He is free, of course, to hold whatever views he likes; but speaking as a Norwegian living in England, I can assure him that there are many students of literary theory in Europe who have profited from Methuen’s excellent series without feeling in the least banalised or trivialised.
South Hinksey, Oxford
From John Hartley
SIR: My crimes are probably too horrible for you to take this letter seriously. Not only am I one of those ‘all-too-often second-rate’ essayists against whom ‘students must be fairly warned’ (since I co-wrote Reading Television in Methuen’s ‘New Accents’ and wrote Understanding News in their new ‘Studies in Communication’ series), but the rot goes deeper. I’m a traitor to English, having abandoned Shakespeare to teach Mass Communication and Cultural Studies, and I’m currently living in the nightmare wilderness of ‘subsidised nonsense … combative attitudes, deconstructed texts, abolished authors and demonic criticial technicians’ that so frightens Tom Paulin; this dreadful ‘underground’ is called a Polytechnic.
Your correspondents seized so eagerly on Paulin’s particular name-calling – ‘hapless East-hope’, ‘vulnerable Green’ and (the horror, the horror) ‘Doctor Widdowson’ – to mount a chorus of general yah-boos against ‘New Accents’ as a whole that I’m tempted to think that what they really want to talk about isn’t ‘New Accents’ at all. It is, of course, ‘somewhat pompous’ to discuss class division, so we must confine ourselves to the favoured euphemisms: Middlemarch v. Coronation Street; sonnets v. beer mats; Crossroads v. the ‘literary tradition’. And it wouldn’t do to endorse arbitrary privilege, so we must decide between ‘an audience which was in possession of its own cultural history and which had a developed sense of memory to draw on and add to’ (Cambridge) v. the ‘frustration, anger and narrow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality’ (the rest). Naturally, there’s no place for a ‘species of upper-class twittery’ in the hygienic virus-free senior common rooms of England. So we mustn’t talk about politics, but rhetoric: ‘tough theoretical arguments’ v. ‘gobbledygook’; the ‘embattled, anonymous prose style’ which ‘has a Stalinist preference for mechanistic metaphor’ – the sure mark of those who ‘write very badly or very boringly or both. They obviously don’t care what their sentences sound like’ – v. the ‘conscientious critic’ who, armed with Eliotic intelligence and ‘scrupulosity in using and judging words’, can get on with making English into History – ‘a rigorous and much drier discipline’.
Of course, when you’re busy reducing the world to pure rhetoric it is jolly inconvenient to have these ‘Coles Notes’ all around, with their loose talk about ideology, signification and so on, to give the game away to your few remaining students. It’s especially tiresome when your students are a bunch of ‘blank’ zomboid aliens with ‘that futureless and pastless sense of blankness’ which is a dead giveaway of beings from another world entirely. This other world, it seems, has lately been identified: it belongs to those who are oppressed by the hegemony of the canonical text, and efforts are now being made to clarify whether it is in fact a ‘parallel world of different texts, or a random world of any and every text, or a black hole of absent texts’.
As someone who has regular close encounters with these Extra-Textrials, I think I can help Tom Paranoia and his apaulin deputies before they form a posse to drive the Methuens out of town. Word comes from America that although they may be lurking in your garage, or living in suburbia, or being quoted by your android colleagues, they are in fact quite friendly. Quite like us in fact. Just because they have funny accents and watch Spielberg movies and even show how television and newspapers reduce the world to rhetoric doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. You don’t have to ‘bury all this nonsense and stand English down for a generation or two’, or abolish ‘courses that draw on the kind of critical texts with which Methuen is currently flooding the market’. ‘New Accents’will only ‘do serious damage to “a blank generation of students” ’ if the students in question are so alienated by the traditional literary values of class privilege posing as individual excellence that they’re unable to engage actively with any text whatever outside or inside the canon unless it is first sanitised by a burst of Bristow’s Air-Conditioner. Come to think of it, maybe your correspondents’ students have been invaded by the bodysnatchers: maybe the ‘damage’ they’re suffering from is a nasty attack of critical, political or theoretical awareness; or, worse, an interest in popular culture. Maybe they’re not even intimidated by the rhetoric of university snobbery any more, having discovered that even the most venerable, toffy-nosed colleges are still in the public sector, and the most venerable, toffee-nosed dons are just as ‘subsidised’ as the upstarts in polytechnics. Maybe some of the less ‘blank’ among them are heading for the parallel world of polytechnics and popular culture where they can try out their new accents away from the contempt and derision of the ‘teacher’ who wants to deny them access to the means whereby that teacher’s privilege, position and politics can be challenged. But that, of course, is another story.
Department of Communication and Behavioural Studies, Polytechnic of Wales, Pontypridd
From Margaret Atack
SIR: The present debate over Re-Reading English recalls a similar controversy in France over fifteen years ago, decrying the structuralist school and specifically Barthes’s Sur Racine. If the anger generated by that book signalled that there the classic authors themselves are the vehicle for more than purely literary values, then here that function obviously devolves onto the very subject of English. One of the central theses of Re-Reading English finds its confirmation in the kinds of criticisms addressed to it: not by what they say, but by what they silence.
It can hardly be a coincidence that the debate is being presented as yet another storm in the university teacup, starting with the title of Tom Paulin’s review ‘Faculty at War’. For Paulin, the defence of literary value is inseparable from the real issue at stake, ‘the future of English as an academic subject’. The book is also attacked, by Joseph Bristow, for an inadequate presentation of structuralist theory, a view which Gabriel Josipovici manages to extend to the whole ‘New Accents’ series, in spite of its diversity of topics and approaches. One would never glean from all this that Re-Reading English is concerned as much with pedagogical and institutional practices as with literary theory, but this is probably unavoidable: the very notions of literary value, of universities and universities alone being defined as centres of excellence, are expressions of a cultural position which must place any discussion of English as ideology and institution under wraps. So there is a dual displacement operating here. All this concentration on beer mats and differance is effectively silencing a much more wide-ranging debate. Similarly, the insistence on Faculty and dismissals of the whole ‘New Accents’ project (which do not seem to extend to other introductory series, or even introductions to structuralism) suggest a real hostility to any disturbance of the hierarchy of knowledge.
The feelings of frustration with the analysis of literature which bases itself on a celebration of sensitivity, moral worth and style are now shared by many, including students, who hardly constitute a ‘blank generation’ but on the contrary arrive fully armed with notions of ‘true-to-life psychological and moral credibility’ which they soon find inadequate, and schoolteachers, whose frustration with A-level questions which oblige them to reproduce that traditional training is matched by the difficulty they experience at entering a debate in mid-stream when it is conducted essentially by people in higher education with years of reading behind them. A series which aims to make the terms of this discussion more accessible to a wider audience is therefore surely to be welcomed. It is to be regretted that a book which seeks to further the debate by looking seriously at the ‘English’ in ‘English literature’ has been met with such howls of protest, but in exposing the limits some would wish to place around theoretical innovation they are not uninformative.
Department of French, University of Leeds
From John Drakakis
SIR: While I am reluctant to prolong the skirmishing in a war which it seems the columns of your journal are determined to sustain, I hope you will allow me to comment on Gabriel Josipovici’s extraordinarily intemperate letter, which must, surely, be unacceptable to anyone who thinks seriously about the future of English Studies in our education system as a whole. If one conflates his strictures against the ‘New Accents’ series with Tom Paulin’s stupidly romantic poem, ‘Oxford v. Cambridge v. Birmingham etc’, in the same issue, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that rational argument has given way to a peculiarly scurrilous form of senior-common-room gossip. Paulin’s airy fictions will, in spite of your patronage, probably touch ground when he finally encounters the maddening interventions of a 17th-century compositor, but Josipovici’s gossip is of an altogether more dangerous complexion since it pretends knowledge and discrimination, and affects a superior indifference to the facts of academic life. I have used volumes in the ‘New Accents’ series extensively in my own teaching, and I have no doubt whatsoever that, as a series, it has been the prime mover in stimulating a discussion of topics which, until recently, had no place on the official agenda of English Studies. If all Josipovici wishes to tell us is that some series are good and some are bad, or even that publishers (who are, after all, not academics but who nonetheless greatly influence the very structure of academic institutions themselves) publish too many books, then he has chosen an unusually oblique way of saying so, and one which should make any free-thinking intellectual community very suspicious indeed.
Department of English Studies, University of Sterling
From Editor, ‘London Review’
Mr Drakakis’s first sentence is exquisitely typical of one kind of polemical writer on this subject. He sneers at us for carrying a correspondence to which he proposes to contribute: this is like writing letters to a literary journal in order to brandish the notion that we are living in a post-literate society. It should be explained and this is an issue of the paper in which it seems more than usually appropriate to explain it – that the opinions expressed on the Letters page are not those of the editorial staff.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 4 No. 20 · 4 November 1982
From Philip Rice
SIR: Recent invective launched against ‘New Accents’ through your letters column does no justice to a useful series that has produced some lively engagements with, and appropriations of, contemporary theoretical work. The dismissal of the entire enterprise through its characterisation as mere vulgar popularisation – the ‘hack-work’ of academics who should know better – reveals a cabbalistic attitude to the new knowledges which would restrict their circulation to those most able (for whatever reason) to invest in the extensive project of reading the ‘original thinkers’ in ‘authorised’ versions. Underlying this authentication through origins and authorities is a process of mystification and exclusion, where knowledge circulates only among those who ‘know’ or who are specially initiated – thus we preserve the sanctity of contemporary critical theory and maintain a ‘gold standard’ for knowledge. The corpus of critical theory is now substantial and the ‘New Accents’ series should be applauded, despite its unevenness, for providing a relatively cheap, available and accessible means of discussing, disseminating and applying this work. For some of us the ‘New Accents’ series has made a world of différance.
Vol. 4 No. 24 · 30 December 1982
From Peter Widdowson
SIR: As the long and revealing correspondence, sparked off in your pages by Tom Paulin’s review (LRB, 17 June) of Re-Reading English, which I edited, seems on the point of exhausting itself (if not others), I wondered if I might make a retrospective reply. I am grateful to the LRB for reviewing the book at all. The THES, so far, has ignored it – which is odd given that the book is about the place and function of one of the largest and most popular subjects in higher education; and the TLS has, I gather, finally found it an unequivocally hostile reviewer so that it will be well and truly smashed there. (Perhaps they are already making ‘Faculty at War, II’?) I am also grateful for the space given to the letter-debate – which has lifted a few stones.
Tom Paulin’s original review was not, of course, a review at all: rather, it was an exhibition of his own deepest hopes and fears. Tom is a nice man, probably SDP (by which I only mean Severely Deficient in Politics), and a poet in a world where poetry doesn’t count for much. He’s got to protect his own patch, because if that failed he might have to ask himself the ‘overwhelming question’: what is he actually doing? His patch is, I think, identified by a significant phrase in the review where he writes of there being ‘in every generation … a number of gifted reviewers’. Tom wants to be one of those. (‘What do you want to be when you grow up, Tom?’ ‘Well, Dad, I’d quite like to be a gifted reviewer and poet.’) It is this ‘man-of-lettersism’ which lies behind his hostility, diversely, to Leavisian ‘English’, to David Lodge, and to my colleagues who are questioning the naturalised subject of ‘English’ and its canon. What he really objects to is anyone who takes the business seriously. Hence his shocked suggestion that we are attempting to destroy our own profession: it is his perception that if the profession were to be properly serious, then ‘men of letters’ would be marginal to it. Poor Tom’s a-cold! This accounts, too, for his quite unforgivable characterisation of contemporary students as a ‘blank generation’. My feeling is that they too are serious, and find an amateurist enthusiasm (it used to be called ‘Appreciation’) no longer strong enough meat. They, too, are asking questions about their society and culture, and they’re hard questions to answer. Why are there no jobs? Why cut higher education? Why read literature? A ritual wheeling-out of ‘Art’ (of which, by the by, I really don’t have a ‘deep hatred’ – I reserve that for those who use the term unproblematically to sustain an élite), and then enthusing about it, simply isn’t an answer, and the students are too sharp to be fooled by it.
If Tom Paulin feels that this is a parody of his version of ‘English’ I apologise, and merely note that I was forced to guess at what it might be because the truly determinate absence (sorry, that’s ‘gobbledeygook’) in Tom’s piece is any stated notion of what he thinks ‘English’ is, or of what he is himself about.
In fact, another hint of it – of what we might call the ‘insouciant’ school of English – is offered in Paulin’s poem Oxford v. Cambridge v. Birmingham’ in a later LRB (LRB, 2 September). (In passing, the poem admonishes ‘the puritan/or the man who fucks texts’. A whole new dimension opens up here for the sex-aid industry!)
Now that the academics are switching
into self-destruct and gibberwick
I’ve fallen in love again
with a rich old library
and those darkblue bindings;
I’m bending the knee now
to letter and copy-text,
the fine print of the spirit.
We can only hope that – unlike Leonard Bast in Forster’s Howards End – a shelf-ful of ‘Culture’ doesn’t fall on his head.
However, I should acknowledge one kind thing Tom’s review said about us (although it wasn’t meant that way). He called us a ‘dissident intelligentsia’. That seems to me a compliment. But who, in the present social and political situation, would want to be a member of an ‘established intelligentsia’? On second thoughts, however, perhaps that was a silly question: many of our colleagues must have voted for her in 1979, and no doubt will again.
The worms that came out from under the stones in the letters that followed this review share its basic assumptions, even when they appear hostile to aspects of it. What they confirm is the view of the contributors to Re-Reading English that traditional notions of English (and of higher education more generally) are at a crisis point. Scholasticism, snobbery and élitism result in a failure to relate to – indeed a deep disdain for – the material world which sustains such postures in seemingly independent luxury. Education cuts, politics, student experience and culture, television and communications technology, etc – these things are not to do with Books. At such a point, there has to be a critique, an opposition and an alternative. These, Re-Reading English – and ‘New Accents’ as a whole – offer. It’s no surprise to me that the book and the series are denigrated; if they weren’t – by the likes of Spice, Barry, Bristow and Josipovici – there would be something very seriously wrong with them. The positive gain is that the symptoms of crisis are exposed in their letters, are publicly stated, and therefore can no longer be discounted as the wishful thinking of a ‘dissident intelligentsia’. We can now directly experience the ingrained class-snobbery of an established ‘English’ in Nicholas Spice’s easy assumption of ‘the frustration, anger and narow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality’ (LRB, 15 July). How Spice has reached this ontological understanding is revealed a sentence later, in his unquestioning use of the Arnoldian term ‘philistine’: he knows it because Arnold told him so. We can also experience the élitism and self-protectiveness of the cult academic in Joseph Bristow’s fear that his students – by way of the ‘reductive’ and ‘simplistic’ ‘New Accents’ volumes – might know as much as he does and argue back (Vol. 4, No 14). His tyro’s fascination with ‘the genuinely tough theoretical arguments’ suggests how little he wants others to find them not so difficult after all, or to question their worth. Equally, his sonorous rhetoric – ‘in these times of recession when economic pressures are weighing heavily on the academy’ – implies exactly how he is able to propose the censorship of students’ reading (‘Students must be fairly warned against “New Accents” ’). (Sir Keith) Joseph Bristow should go far; he is clearly a ‘centre of excellence’ in himself already. We can experience, too, the political naivety (or disingenuousness?) of traditional ‘English’ in Peter Barry’s concern that proposals in Re-Reading English ‘violate the citizen’s basic right to receive an education which isn’t propaganda’ (Vol. 4, No 15). If he really thinks that education is, or has ever been, politically neutral, then he shouldn’t be teaching in higher education (or perhaps that is why he is?). Lastly, we can experience a more up-market version of the Bristovian paradigm in Gabriel Josipovici’s unhappy little letter (Vol. 4, No 16). Again we have the pseudo-political gesture: ‘the Government, as we all know is doing its best to destroy the universities as centres of serious scholarship and learning.’ (‘Sir Keith, what about cutting Gabriel J.?’ ‘Heavens, no, he’s that cosmopolitan Man of Letters who believes, as he said recently in the LRB, that “academics are now well enough paid” not to have to do anything but “write books they really feel they want and need to write”. He’s also terrified of cheap and accessible books for students because they might demystify the “mysteries” of his trade. He’s one of us, leave him alone to form a centre of excellence, write whatever comes into his head and teach a few rich kids. That’s higher education at its best.’) Josipovici’s concern is with his own patch, too: ‘New Accents’ threatens it, threatens it with exposure to rigorous questioning as to its place, function, point and validity.
What, of course, gets left out of all this ‘debate’ are the issues themselves. Margaret Atack has made the most important point: the discussion about literary theory – and ‘New Accents” supposed dilution of its academic essence – distracts us from the political and institutional perspectives on education and on ‘English’ (Vol. 4, No 18). A number of points arise here – directed more to those who have supported us in these columns than to the paranoid few. First of all, there should be a much fuller exploration of what we have in mind to replace a moribund ‘English’. Is it ‘Cultural Studies’ or ‘Media and Communication Studies’, as people keep darkly hinting? Is it an ‘alternative’ canon? Is it the existing canon, differently ‘read’ and taught? What is meant by a ‘socialist pedagogy’? What is a ‘materialist criticism’? These questions demand discussion. Second, we must recognise that in the present circumstances divergence and change are at best remote and at worst indicators to government of where the cuts should fall (so that the ‘centres of excellence’ can continue to mould next year’s élites). Third, in part because of this, we should acknowledge that education (and English) is politics: the activities of the UGC and NAB ironically assist here, by bringing into sharp relief just how determinate is the relation of this bit of superstructure to economic base. Who goes, and why, is politics. Student grants, and who gets them, is politics. Two-year courses in the public sector, three-year courses in the universities, is politics. ‘Teaching’ in the one, and ‘research’ in the other, is politics. Student places is politics. Mobilising against an ideologically-motivated reduction of higher education provision in Britain is politics. Forget Tom Paulin: we ought all to be a ‘dissident intelligentsia’ now.
Thames Polytechnic, London SE18
Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983
From Tom Paulin
SIR: In his gauche and hysterical attempt to sum up the controversy which my review of Re-Reading English provoked, Peter Widdowson accuses me of being ‘probably’ an SDP supporter (Letters, 30 December 1982). If Dr Widdowson bothered to read any of the more opinionated essays which I’ve published in the London Review of Books and other ‘Establishment’ journals, he might realise how improbable such an accusation is. Unfortunately, Widdowson and his colleagues occupy a closed ‘space’ of grievance and paranoia which prevents them from understanding the complexity of the culture they belong to. Widdowson complains, for example, that the Times Higher Educational Supplement ignored Re-Reading English and cites this as evidence of Establishment conspiracy. I happen to know that a socialist friend of Widdowson’s considered reviewing it for the THES but decided not to on the grounds that a. the book is no good and b. he knew Widdowson.
One of the major symptoms of the present crisis is the manner in which the word ‘reading’ has become a self-conscious term – critics like Widdowson now observe themselves reading in a curiously onanistic manner and they appear to derive a sexual excitement from the mysterious act of ‘decoding’ signs. For example, in his hilarious introduction to Image-Music-Text Stephen Heath agonises about how to communicate this pleasure:
The American translation of Le Plaisir du texte (The Pleasures of the Text, New York 1975) uses the word ‘bliss’ for jouissance; the success of this is dubious, however, since not only does ‘bliss’ lack an effective verbal form (to render the French jouir), it also brings with it connotations of religious and social contentment (‘heavenly bliss,’ ‘blissfully happy’) which damagingly weaken the force of the original French term. I have no real answer to the problem and have resorted to a series of words which in different contexts can contain at least some of that force: ‘thrill’ (easily verbalised with ‘to thrill’, more physical and potentially sexual, than ‘bliss’), ‘climatic pleasure’, ‘come’ and ‘coming’ (the exact sexual translation of jouir, jouissance), ‘dissipation’ (somewhat too moral in its judgment but able to render the loss, the fragmentation, emphasised by Barthes in jouissance).
This strikes me as belonging to a footnote in a new Dunciad, and Heath’s subsequent elucidation is no less absurd:
Contrary to signification, signifiance cannot be reduced, therefore, to communication, representation, expression: it places the subject (of writer, reader) in the text not as a projection … but as a ‘loss’, a ‘disappearance’. Hence its identification with the pleasure of jouissance: the text becomes erotic through signifiance (no need, that is, for the text to represent erotic ‘scenes’).
In this type of terminal analysis, textual criticism becomes a peculiarly masculine species of pornography in which the ‘professional’ critic is the lonely voyeur of his own sensations. Such critics – men who fuck texts – believe that literary works ought to be given an ‘egalitarian’ treatment and this means that any text is as ‘interesting’ as the next.
Recently, a colleague of mine who follows the Widdowson line suggested that the majority of students ‘now prefer Dallas to Daniel Deronda’ and he argued that in drawing up a new English syllabus this democratic preference ought to be catered for. All over the country students are now being victimised by this attitude to literary studies (at Lewes Technical College, for example, they are informed that Crossroads is part of ‘modern literature’). It seems to me that it is one thing to oppose social inequality (which I do) and quite another to believe that some works of art are better than others. However, I know that among teachers of English. Widdowson’s supporters are now in the majority – by force of numbers, if by nothing else, they must surely triumph.
University of Nottingham