Transparent Criticism

Anne Barton

  • A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality by A.D. Nuttall
    Methuen, 209 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 416 31780 4

Erich Auerbach’s celebrated study of the representation of reality in Western literature, Mimesis, was published in German in 1946. Grounded on the analysis (mainly syntactic) of passages selected from texts in some nine different languages, ranging from Homer and the Old Testament to Virginia Woolf, it assumes throughout that reality has an objective existence, is open to perception, and needs no apologetic inverted commas. It can be and enduringly is represented by writers whose work bears the impress not only of their own individuality but of a particular historical context, a social and cultural milieu. Auerbach’s book remains, for many readers, one of the great critical achievements of the 20th century: a work marked out not only by its scholarship, breadth of sympathy and imaginative range, but by its author’s ability to validate his generalisations through scrupulous attentiveness to the smallest details of a text.

Even after 37 years, it takes courage for anyone to write a book called A New Mimesis. A.D. Nuttall declares in his Preface that he intends ‘no direct challenge’. ‘A New Mimesis,’ he declares, ‘is more theoretical, much more argumentative, much narrower in its range of reference than Auerbach’s great work.’ This is true. Where Auerbach had examined the work of many writers, most of them major, a few comparatively obscure, Nuttall relies almost entirely upon Shakespeare, and then upon only a handful of plays: Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Henry IV. This Shakespeare criticism, moreover, is concentrated in the third of the book’s four chapters: ‘Shakespeare’s Imitation of the World’. Even there, it seems to exist less for its own sake than as a working demonstration of the kind of criticism Nuttall wishes to recommend. A New Mimesis is indeed theoretical more than interpretative. Its association with its distinguished predecessor depends ultimately upon Nuttall’s reasoned rejection of ideas which Auerbach certainly would have found intolerable but, in 1946, did not need to confront:

1. The world consists not of things but of relationships.

2. Verum factum: truth is something made.

3. The ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute man but to dissolve him.

3. Language is prior to meaning.

4. Verisimilitude is the mask in which the laws of the text are dressed up.

These five propositions summarise for Nuttall the unacceptable side of structuralist and post-structuralist thought. (He suggests that there is also a positive side, but it is by no means easy to make out what he thinks it to be.) Formalism, whether practised by Jakobson, Todorov, Barthes, Derrida, Gombrich, or even the (once) New Critics, is the enemy, an ‘Opaque’ mode to be countered by what Nuttall calls ‘Transparent’ criticism, an approach which apparently can, if necessary, ‘do all the things done by the Opaque critic, but is willing to do other things as well’.

Nuttall is widely read, interested in ideas, and adroit in argument. His assault upon ‘hard’ (that is, extreme) formalism, although unlikely to make much impression upon its devotees, is nonetheless cogent and attractive. It appeals to common experience – the verification of the perspectival facts of perception that can be obtained through simple experiment, for instance – and to the kind of stubborn common sense which led Dr Johnson to kick the stone, or G.E. Moore to assert that this was one hand, and that the other. He is persuasive and intelligent in pointing out the internal inconsistencies and contradictions of an approach whose most brilliant practitioners still find themselves supplying reasons for their abolition of rationality, signing personal letters, and stamping their own individuality all over the books they write. Nuttall is probably right that there is a ‘sense in which no one can really be a consistent radical formalist and survive as a human being’. On the other hand, from his quarrel with moderate or ‘soft’ formalism, as exemplified in a book like Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, he emerges far less well. And his own ‘Transparent’ critical approach, founded on a so-called ‘new mimesis’ which turns out not to be new at all (poets and novelists have apparently gone on quietly practising it, undeterred by the theoretical upheavals of the 20th century) yields doubtful results.

Nuttall’s choice of Shakespeare as his prime example seems to derive from personal predilection, combined with a conviction that even ‘in the neoclassical period whatever strength formalism possessed broke on the example of Shakespeare.’ ‘Verisimilitude’, in the 18th century, never lost its root meaning of ‘what actually happens’. If Dr Johnson and other critics worth heeding expressed a preference for the species over the aberrant individual, they did so on the grounds of a more widespread, a common and therefore more powerful truth, not because they were upholding arbitrary ‘laws of the text’. And they saw no contradiction between praising Shakespeare for his just representations of general nature and a ‘Transparent’ approach to the plays. Neither does Professor Nuttall.

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