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.

‘Transparent’ criticism, in any age, is ‘internal, realist, operating within the “world” presented in the work’. It is not ashamed to ask about Lady Macbeth’s children, or to speculate on the behaviour and motivation of characters in terms similar to those we employ when trying to comprehend the actions of our associates and friends. Although Nuttall admits that certain of the ideas put forward by Maurice Morgann in 1775, in his famous essay on the character of Falstaff, are ‘extravagant’, he evinces great sympathy with Morgann’s belief in areas of ‘latent meaning in Shakespeare, not explicitly presented by him but accessible to inference’. ‘Transparent’ criticism is not the same as free invention. It must always be ready, Nuttall says, to point to the actual motifs in a text which have prompted a particular set of inferences and speculations, providing ‘a loose criterion of relevance’. But there is nothing wrong with conjecture and guesswork, with drawing upon one’s own experience of life, and knowledge of other people, to fill in what a writer has left shadowy and incomplete.

Only an extreme formalist would deny that we elucidate books with the help of our own lived experience. Anna Karenina, or indeed The Faerie Queene, are different and almost invariably richer works when encountered at the age of 30 than at 16, and not just because by then we are likely to have read more books. All the same, as a critical approach, Nuttall’s ‘Transparent’ method seems both risky and limited. In the first place, it relies to a disproportionate extent upon character analysis. Second, it is constantly in danger of assuming that realism is the richest possible – or even the only – fictional mode. Nuttall denies on the last page that his book constitutes a plea for the superiority of realistic fiction, but in effect it works out as just that. Earlier, he had asserted that ‘all literature which purports to be probable can be called “realistic” and that which is probable can be called “successfully realistic”.’ This seems an exceptionally generous definition, and yet it cannot catch A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timon of Athens or Cymbeline in its net. It is hard to see what ‘Transparent’ criticism could do with any of these plays – except rewrite them. (Significantly, in discussing The Merchant of Venice, supposedly one of the ‘accepted monuments of realism’, Nuttall has much to say about Shylock, the nature of Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio and about Venice itself, but he leaves the riddle game at Belmont strictly alone.) Finally, and perhaps most worryingly of all, the book fails to distinguish between areas of genuinely ‘latent meaning’ and those deliberate authorial exclusions which help to give a work of art its particular tone and perspective, creative omissions which the fantasising critic (with the help of ‘a loose criterion of relevance’) can fill in only at the expense of the shape and integrity of the text.

One thing seems clear about the ‘Transparent’ method: if it is not to degenerate into mere self-indulgence, it must be based upon the most careful close reading. It will not do to ‘infer’ at arm’s length from the text, nor to ignore passages which qualify or contradict a particular interpretation. It is also unwise, in the case of Shakespeare, not to take the theatrical dimension into account. For all its freshness and vitality – and Nuttall’s book possesses both qualities in abundance – A New Mimesis is ultimately unconvincing in its discussion of the five Shakespeare plays at its centre because it pays far too little heed to what is actually there, on the printed page and in performance, as opposed to what the critic would like to find. Arguably, even the best ‘soft’ formalist criticism is sometimes guilty of fudging the evidence. But the ‘Transparent’ critic, because of the very nature of his approach, needs to be especially scrupulous, especially wary of the ways in which his own imagination, stimulated by the text but floating free of it, may begin not to infer but to interfere.

In the course of his discussion of Vermeer’s picture Lady Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Nuttall expresses a powerful suspicion ‘that somewhere in that house a clock is ticking.’ Such an observation, he confesses at once, ‘is Transparent criticism in its most extreme form.’ And indeed, even if an impulse to break the silence of Vermeer’s room is accepted, one might well inquire: why a clock as opposed to church bells, the cries of children playing outside, or the purring of a large, fat black and white cat? One sound is as likely and evocative as another, if you must import sound at all into a work which – unlike Picasso’s Guernica, or Edvard Munch’s The Scream – offers no tangible encouragement to the viewer to supply it. But at least the Vermeer cannot be seriously affected, let alone distorted, by such speculations. Shakespeare, on the other hand, can. And the situation is made more disquieting by the fact that Nuttall, in passage after passage of his book, seems quite unaware that the inferences he presents cannot be squared with the text.

So, in talking about the Gloucestershire scenes of 2 Henry IV, he begins by placing Falstaff, Shallow and Silence ‘in the orchard of Shallow’s decaying farm’, in an ‘almost Chekhovian’ atmosphere ‘compounded of last year’s apples, the grey heads of old men, of sweetness and barrenness, and of futility’. This is seductive prose. But on what evidence is Shallow’s estate ‘decaying’ – this ‘goodly dwelling and rich’, as Falstaff (who means to grab a share of Shallow’s ‘land and beefs’) puts it? What Shakespeare actually builds up, detail after detail, is the sense of a vigorous, well-administered country property whose master may be old, but has young relatives, and where red wheat is being sown, under the capable surveillance of Shallow’s steward Davy, bullocks taken to market, horses shod, plough irons bought, buckets repaired, and ‘William cook’ can effortlessly produce for unexpected dinner guests, not just ‘last year’s apples’ (which after all are an out-of-season luxury in spring and summer), but some pigeons, a couple of short-legged hens and a joint of mutton, not to mention various ‘pretty little kickshaws’. Shallow’s orchard is scarcely Madame Ranevsky’s, nor, apart from Shallow himself and Falstaff, are the men who disport themselves in it ‘old’. Shallow’s disclaimer when he brushes aside Falstaff’s compliments on his establishment – ‘barren, barren, barren, beggars all, beggars all’ – is patent false modesty. Professor Nuttall, however, ignoring the context, and all the other evidence, takes it literally because he is longing to infer that Gloucestershire epitomises ‘the non-kingdom which Hal is to inherit from his father’, a ‘world which has lost its freshness’.

There are all too many mis-inferences of this kind in A New Mimesis. Othello, for instance, is reduced to ‘the story of a hero who went into a house’ and so ‘became a kind of nothing’. His tragedy (rather oddly) is said to stem from the fact ‘that he left the arena proper to tragedy’, that realm of ‘military action and freedom in which alone Othello’s true personality could move’, for what Nuttall describes as ‘the dreadful circumscription’ of the domestic. He makes the expedition to Cyprus look like a peculiarly stifling family holiday. It is true that Othello tells Iago in Act One:

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth.

But to infer from this that Othello’s forfeiture of bachelor liberty in conjugal bonds is the real source of his agony, not his overwhelming and initially perilous commitment of himself to a woman he barely knows, is surely to make a terrible mess of the play. With the assistance of E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational, Nuttall decides that Othello is the product of a ‘shame-culture’, an ‘underevolved man’ who ought never to have deserted the flinty and steel couch of war. His ‘primitive’ nature, apparently, admits no ‘hesitation or infirmity of purpose. Between the thing which is to be done and the doing of it no mental shadow falls.’ Never mind, apparently, about ‘But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it,’ Othello’s fear of expostulating with Desdemona, ‘lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind’, his frenzied interrogation of Emilia in IV 2, and immediately after of Desdemona herself in the ‘brothel’ scene, or the excruciating uncertainties revealed in the speech beginning ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul ...’ Bradley, as Nuttall reminds his readers approvingly, remarked on how quickly Hamlet would end if the Prince of Denmark possessed the character of Othello. But Bradley did not make the mistake of talking about the Moor as though he were psychologically as crude as Aaron in Titus Andronicus.

It is perhaps with Coriolanus that the capriciousness of Nuttall’s approach becomes most obvious. The Rome of this play, he asserts, is a city which ‘lives by military conquest; conquest produces tribute and the citizens are sustained by a gratuitous dole. In warfare it appears that they have been of little use (though one itches to step outside the data of the play and dispute this). Coriolanus, because he is a great killer, is in this society a great provider.’ There is no need to ‘step outside the data of the play’ to see that almost none of this is true. Whatever may be the case in Volscian society (and the Volscians are consistently the military aggressors in Coriolanus, never the Romans), the economy of this Rome is not based on war, let alone ‘tribute’, something never mentioned in the tragedy. Her citizens are, by and large, traders and shopkeepers, dealers in oranges, makers of taps for broaching wine barrels. At the beginning of the play, they are shown clamouring for a distribution of corn from the patricians, not because they normally depend upon ‘a gratuitous dole’, but because in this particular year the harvest has failed. Everyone, including the patricians, admits that ‘the dearth is great,’ but the rich men – who can afford to store up grain from one season to the next – are not starving. The plebians incontrovertibly are. That is why they ask for a modicum of the patricians’ ‘superfluity’, and they are sufficiently desperate to be prepared to die trying to get it, rather ‘than to famish’.

As for their being ‘of little use in warfare’, it is clear that, unlike Coriolanus himself, or the servingmen in the house of Aufidius, the Roman people do not especially like fighting. They would rather be

      singing in their shops, and going
About their functions friendly.

But Rome has never been able to, and cannot now, defend herself without the help of common soldiers. Even Coriolanus, although he bravely enters the gates of Corioli alone, could not have taken the city without their support – and they do in the end support him. To assert, as Nuttall does, that ‘the people are in fact much as [the protagonist] describes them’ is to forget this, just as he forgets about the citizen in the opening scene who insists upon recognising the merits of Caius Martius, whatever his attitude towards the people, or the one in II 3 who tells him that the price of the consulship is ‘to ask it kindly’. These are not mere scabs, curs, souls of geese, any more than Coriolanus, whatever his worth as a strong defender of Rome, is a great economic ‘provider’.

Part of the trouble would seem to be that, whereas drama is powerfully sequential, Nuttall’s approach, based as it is upon sporadic, unconnected forays into different parts of the text, is unnaturally static. Inference, moreover, starts to behave like Marlowe’s Mephostophilis, leading his eyes, covering up those areas of a play, or even the lines which come next in a given passage, which might have compelled him to abandon or at least qualify his position. So, to substantiate his claim that Volumnia’s power over Coriolanus is the strongest force in his life, Nuttall can write: ‘In III 2 Volumnia tries in vain to get Coriolanus to sue for office and only succeeds when she gives up rational persuasion and instead remarks – quite lightly – that she will be very pleased with him if he does it. (III 2 109). At once he does what she wants.’ As it happens, Coriolanus is not suing for office by this stage in the action, but standing trial for his life in a city poised on the brink of civil war. It is true that when his mother says (but is it ‘lightly’?), ‘To have my praise for this, perform a part / Thou has not done before,’ Coriolanus at line 110 replies: ‘Well I must do’t.’ But far from proceeding ‘at once’, as Nuttall puts it, to the marketplace, Coriolanus by line 120 is still in the same room, and has reneged: ‘I will not do’t, / Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth.’ Only when his mother, in disgust, washes her hands of the whole business, tells him to ‘Do as thou list,’ and stalks out, does Coriolanus reluctantly follow Cominius and Menenius and agree to defend himself against the charges that confront him.

Mother is certainly the catalyst here. But it matters greatly that Coriolanus should force himself to do what she wants only after she has fiercely rejected him – not, as Nuttall pretends, because she ‘lightly’ indicates that his compliance would please. What happens in III 2 foreshadows what will occur outside the gates of Rome in the last act, when again it is Volumnia’s repudiation of her son – ‘Come, let us go. / This fellow had a Volscian to his mother’ – which breaks his will. Why then does Nuttall, as it seems, stop reading at line 110? Perhaps because he is determined to prove that Coriolanus, although less ‘primitive’ than Othello, nevertheless ‘has no inside’, apart from what ‘was given him by his mother and confirmed in him in the physical stress of battle’. Such a Coriolanus is not easily reconciled with the one who persists in honouring a personal ‘truth’ which conflicts with his mother’s view of how he ought to behave.

Nuttall is bent on demonstrating that ‘what existentialists say of man in general is certainly true of Coriolanus in particular – namely that in himself he is a kind of nothing ...’ On the next page, by way of an extraordinary misconstruction of one of the central passages in Pico della Mirandola’s oration ‘On the Dignity of Man’ (paired with Donne’s ‘Nocturnall Upon St Lucies Day’), he is quoting Cominius’s fifth act description of Coriolanus as ‘a kind of nothing, title-less’ in order to illustrate how ‘from being a kind of nothing he became – never a person, but rather a thing, insentient, an instrument, a machine.’ But Coriolanus is called ‘a kind of nothing’ only late in the tragedy, and then with specific reference to the fact that this banished man can no longer use the resounding name with which Rome rewarded his valour at Corioli among his Volscian allies. He chooses now to remain ‘titleless’ until he has forged a new name for himself in the ‘fire of burning Rome’. In battle, Caius Martius does seem to others like a great engine of war. That scarcely means that he is ‘insentient’ under all circumstances, or that he can be said to have graduated from the condition of being ‘nothing’ to the status of machine.

Of course, adherence, no matter how close, to the text of Coriolanus will never produce one, exhaustive ‘right’ reading – any more than there could be a single, prescriptive performance, even one which included Burbage and was directed by Shakespeare himself. Texts shift their qualities according to the historical perspective from which they are viewed, and the individual nature and bias of the critic. All critics, necessarily, ‘infer’ – and actors too. Yet it remains true that a play by Shakespeare functions within given parameters, provides a certain amount of definite information about itself, and that it asks fundamentally not to be remade but understood: remaking, surely, ought to remain the prerogative of other creative artists. Nuttall declares that the ‘presiding genius’ of his third chapter is W.H. Auden – by implication, the Auden of The Dyer’s Hand. But Auden is an extremely dangerous guardian angel. Although The Sea and the Mirror, the series of poems in which he allowed his imagination to play over and extend The Tempest, is wonderful, the ‘orthodox’ Shakespeare criticism contained in The Dyer’s Hand is on the whole far less happy. (Significantly, three out of the five plays upon which Nuttall concentrates are also central to Auden’s section, ‘The Shakespearian City’.) When Auden declares that ‘Leontes is a classical case of paranoid sexual jealousy due to repressed homosexual feelings,’ or that Cassio is ‘ill at ease in the company of his own sex because he is unsure of his masculinity’, while Desdemona lies about her loss of the handkerchief because she does not really consider Othello to be ‘her equal’, it is Auden to whom we pay attention, not Shakespeare. The statements are interesting only because it is Auden who makes them, not because such inferences genuinely illuminate Othello or The Winter’s Tale. The fanciful readings of critics who do not happen to be great poets as well need to pass a sterner test – certainly one more rigorous than Nuttall’s ‘loose criterion of relevance’. It is a pity that A New Mimesis, a book which says so much that is persuasive and to the point about the limitations of currently fashionable criticism, should prove so disappointing when it comes to the point of putting its own theories into practice.