Outside the text

Marilyn Butler

  • The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 352 pp, £19.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 19 811730 2
  • The Politics of Language: 1791-1819 by Olivia Smith
    Oxford, 269 pp, £19.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 19 812817 7

In the autumn of every year schoolchildren and university students buckle down to read imaginative books by dead authors. Undergraduates reading English at Cambridge may begin with an essay on Gawain and the Green Knight. At Oxford they tackle In Memoriam. O-Levellers could be confronting Romeo and Juliet and A-Levellers the poems of Herbert. The central question all of them ask of a work is what it means, and answering this question requires practice, effort, and the knowledge of more than the book alone.

The last point is oddly controversial. Facts about how the books originated are given in new editions, as though they matter. Meanwhile teachers of literature generally insist that reading well means ignoring such redundancies and learning to concentrate on the words on the page. Talent, imagination, observation, wit and insight are held to be enough for the good critic, and therefore also enough for the examinee. But on this point the teachers are plainly wrong, since they forget how much knowledge has come with the previous reading they have put in. Most works belong to specialised genres with fixed conventions, and to get much from a sonnet or a shocker you need to learn its rules. The mere fact of having been written in a particular place at a particular time also gives a book its own specialised language, a vocabulary, allusions and assumptions which the first readers understood, and which good later readers try, perhaps unconsciously and perhaps incompetently, to recover.

It’s curious to be so reluctant to help with this fact of professional life: that we are distanced by time from the books we most often want to discuss. Anthropologists worry about the impaired perspective that comes with alienation from the subject, critics generally don’t. Before literature was much studied academically, in the 18th century, critics were given to insisting that old books – the Bible, for example, and Homer – could be read with understanding only by those who considered the social conditions at the time of origin, and knew the individual early textual histories. Belated Enlightenment thinkers like Shelley and Marx soldiered on in this historical vein, which tends to become discussion of societies and of politics as well as discussion of books. Which is, of course, the main reason why the growing army of professional critics, creative writers and teachers forsook the historical method, in favour of approaches which were more specialised and less controversial. Romanticism was the first of a series of restrictive practices which declined to see history, society and politics as sources for literature. The first simple alternative was to instal centre-stage the poet, an autonomous genius who makes the poem as God made the world, directly from chaos.

Successive theories of literature have gone on illustrating the in-built tendency observable in all specialised disciplines, which is to address an ever more highly-qualified élite on increasingly technical problems. Each critical innovation in the 20th century has been a new method directed at the subtle decoding of texts, and the need for greater complexity at the centre has led to drastic pruning at the margins. The number and type of texts deemed worthy of professional attention has tended to get fewer, so that after the disappearance of society and history in the early 19th century, we have had the gradual vanishing from the syllabus of popular literature and minor literature in the 20th. Even the poet has gradually faded, like the Cheshire cat: his parents, homes, loves, frailties and diseases, favourite fields of Victorian inquisitiveness, still appear in semi-popular biographies but have become too vulgar to raise in the seminar-room. It’s a tenet common to the ‘New Critics’ of the 1940s and the New New Critics of the 1960s, to formalism, structuralism and post-structuralism, that we must purge professional discourse of what is ‘extrinsic’ – including what in vulgar language is nonprofessional or simply human. More than sixty years ago T.S. Eliot uttered his classic dictum barring amateurs: ‘we must consider poetry primarily as poetry and not another thing.’ When in the Sixties and Seventies Barthes, Derrida and others declared the poem to be an autonomous system of verbal signs, they were performing the same manoeuvre in more aggressively technological terms.

It’s an impressive consensus, but is it right? A desirable method of reading might include, among its characteristics, richness in describing the original book, and strength and independence of judgment by the modern critic. The method of close-reading the work-in-isolation encourages these qualities to develop and colleagues dedicated to it tend to accuse historical critics of being less rich and less independent. It’s supposed to be dry, antiquarian, and also somewhat innocent, to be preoccupied with reconstructing the book that belonged to a dead readership. ‘Translation’ or ‘paraphrase’ of this type submits the critic, a mere mediator, to the tyranny of the dead author.

But is it really impossible to imagine a historically rich reading that is also a modern rich reading? A proper account of a book within its own network of social relationships looks potentially richer in terms of ordinary life, and freer at least of academic authority, than all but the most ingenious chartings of signs. As for the rest, we are all, regardless of method, living writers addressing living readers, and sharing with them codes deriving from both professional experience and social experience in modern times. The good historical critic is also a modern critic, not an apologist for dead authors; he or she notices what the original work didn’t say, or where it lacked coherence, or where it might now seem wrong. A type of historical criticism is posited which is historical twice over, and thus as capable of being vigilant about modern critics, Us, as about old authors, Them.

There’s no doubt that we are now hearing a great deal about the need for a revived, revised historical criticism, which would not return to the recent status quo before ‘theory’, but would try to stop the longer-term momentum that has narrowed the subject’s range. Matters have been brought to a head by two decades of hectic political disagreement in academe. Ending an apparent mid-century consensus in arts subjects, that academics were above politics, the new prophets of the Sixties accused their seniors of political interestedness, and have steadily urged us all to identify bias in, for example, the bourgeoisie and men, two prolific groups. Suddenly the very exclusivity and narrowness of reading the text-in-isolation looks shifty. Why did the mandarins choose this text, and agree to drop so many others? Are there connections, networks, interests, conspiracies, about who and what is in, which can be uncovered only with access to the culture-in-history we haven’t been looking at? These days the profession’s sustained reluctance to probe behind a work or a piece of criticism is more and more often represented as downright fishy.

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