Mortal Scripts

Christopher Norris

  • Writing and the Body by Gabriel Josipovici
    Harvester, 142 pp, £15.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0495 4
  • The Definition of Literature and Other Essays by W.W. Robson
    Cambridge, 267 pp, £19.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 521 24495 1

In the present climate of polemical exchange one may doubt whether Gabriel Josipovici would take very kindly to being enlisted on the side of ‘literary theory’. Though his essays make reference to figures like Barthes and Derrida, they do so with an air of studied detachment, as if to forestall any charge of deeper complicity. If it comes to a straight choice between ‘interpretation’ and ‘theory’ – however unreal the terms of that choice – Josipovici is in the business of interpreting texts, and only has time for theoretical diversions when they happen to point up a reading or adorn a theme. Yet it is fair to remark that these essays (based on his Northcliffe Lectures for 1980-81, delivered at University College, London) could scarcely have taken their present form had it not been for Josipovici’s involvement with recent literary theory. Indeed, it is one of the merits of this book that it moves between ‘theory’ and ‘interpretation’ with an unforced naturalness which helps to discredit that false and misleading dichotomy.

As in his earlier collection The World and the Book (1971), Josipovici practises a kind of two-way mediating process. There, his main concern was with themes of a generally ‘structuralist’ provenance, his argument being that these had a range of application beyond their current, self-consciously technical uses The point was well made in chapters on Medieval and Renaissance literature. Structuralism might seem offensively newfangled to readers trained up on post-Renaissance notions of authorial presence and the unique, individual character of literary works of art. Yet one only had to look outside this chapter of cultural history to find some very different conventions at work. To read Chaucer or Dante in the light of structuralist narrative theory is to realise that such ideas are often uncannily mirrored by texts which predate our own most basic cultural assumptions. What the critics are nowadays so busily deconstructing – the complex of attitudes that made up 19th-century ‘expressive realism’ – was of course quite alien to the texts in question. Themes like ‘intertextuality’ and ‘the death of the Author’ take on a much wider, though perhaps less dramatic significance when viewed in this extended historical perspective. How else should one explain the formulaic habits of thought, the sheer conventionality and absence of ‘creative’ individualism in poetry composed to a wholly different set of cultural prescriptions? Structuralism here came into its own, not so much a ‘theory’ as a matter of straightforward interpretative tact. Critics like Barthes could be talked down, as it were, from the heights of speculative self-absorption, and their ideas put to work in the service of imaginative scholarship.

There is much to be said for Josipovici’s enterprise. Opponents of ‘theory’ tend to regard it as something monolithic and entirely given over to the business of tightening its own nuts and bolts. F.R. Leavis was subject to the same delusion when he fiercely denied (in response to René Wellek) that literary critics could or should attempt a ‘philosophical’ account of their arguments and judgments. Leavis took philosophy to be a business of abstract generalisation, wholly out of touch with the experience of actually discovering one’s responses through the process of writing and reading. Critical theory could only represent a species of needless distraction, an activity which got in the way of any genuine, immediate response. Leavis, in short, spoke for the expressive-realist tradition at its most dogmatic and – one might argue – its most theoretically bankrupt. The notorious exclusiveness of The Great Tradition is one aspect of his failure to conceive that there might be a literature which actually exploited conventions, which made the very most of its own problematical nature, and yet deserved serious attention. Leavis’s objections to ‘theory’ in criticism were fully in line with his dismissal of Finnegans Wake as a consciously worked-up abuse of language, a godsend for the faithful exegete. They are also worth recalling when one reads that tetchy footnote to The Great Tradition reviling Sterne as ‘a nasty trifler’.

Sterne must, of course, be a standing provocation to any critic who values literature for its wisdom, maturity or ‘reverent openness before life’. From the opposite point of view, it was more than a passing whimsy which led the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovski to hail Tristram Shandy as ‘the most typical novel in world literature’. The contrast is nicely representative. Leavis rejects the experimental strain in fiction – just as he rejects critical theory – on the grounds of its perverting the natural relation between experience (maturely grasped), language (concretely realised) and form (adequately disciplined). Sterne can only figure to this way of thinking as a writer who wilfully reverses every stage of that process and creates a monstrosity of self-indulgent nonsense. For a formalist like Shklovski – one who believes that conventions exist to be broken, and that the canons of realism are just one convention among others – for such a critic, Tristram Shandy must indeed enjoy privileged status.

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