- The Name of Action: Critical Essays by John Fraser
Cambridge, 260 pp, £25.00, December 1984, ISBN 0 521 25876 6
The title of John Fraser’s book comes from Hamlet’s most famous speech. ‘The name of action’ is what ‘enterprises of great pitch and moment’ lose when ‘the native hue of resolution’ is ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’: not, on the evidence of this volume, too much of a problem for Mr Fraser himself. His immediate target is litcritbiz, perennially anxious to demonstrate that books mean something other than what they say. He tells us that his ‘argumentative adolescence’, and his ‘apprentice years’ in the Sixties, were sorely fretted by Marxists, Freudians, irony-mongers and other assorted nuisances, restlessly disturbing the plain sense of things, while real life and Mr Fraser (‘human feelings and doings – falling in or out of love, fighting a war, and so on’) were taking their natural strong-willed course. For his own part, he has not, ‘at least since childhood’, been afflicted with that ‘sacred awe’ which is felt in France towards ‘the text’, and hasn’t much time either for ‘talk about non-referentiality and organic unity’. His own view, expressed in what is a fair sample of the delicacy of his idiom, is that ‘in distinguished literature the abstractions of ideologies were tested out in terms of the concretions of individual experience, rather than vice versa.’ He doesn’t like that academic ‘hunger ... for metaphysics without ethics’ which ‘separates intellection from the demands of action’, and believes himself to be inhabiting a ‘Shakespearean world’ in which people derive their ‘images of future bliss or woe ... from their past experiences, including their experiences of fiction, written or spoken’.
Hence the Shakespearean title and epigraph, and two essays on Shakespearean plays: one on The Tempest, which emerges as a cut above some of the other plays, where we are indeed ‘confronted with characters intellecting’ (yes, intellecting) but ‘in a potentially reductive fashion’; and the other on a coarsened sub-Leavisian version of Othello, including that Ignoble Moor’s difficulties with women (‘Desdemona, before anything else, is A Woman’). There are also essays on Scott Fitzgerald, Twain, Emily Brontë, Stephen Crane, Traven’s The Death Ship, and of course Swift. It seems that no book concerned with the idea of the man of letters as man of action is nowadays complete without an essay or two on Swift: an honourable exemplar whose best older celebrants have been men of letters who were men of action, including Yeats, Orwell and Foot, rather than academics who make a preening performance of not really being academics, like John Fraser and Edward Said. Fraser on this author cannot match Said’s remarkable amalgam of souped-up abstractionism and overpowering factual ignorance, though his own species of banality will be felt by some to arrive at a similar state of incomprehension by a less colourful route.
There are also two essays on critics: Northrop Frye, bad because he treats literature as though it were an objective science, though Fraser wants us to know that he himself admires ‘empiricism’ in its proper place; and Yvor Winters, good because of his ‘awareness’ of the relations between thought and action, and because it seems that if there had been more men like him, Edward Kennedy might not have become politically prominent. The book’s final section is a series of heavy-footed divagations on the ‘organic community’ and the theme of country v. city. Its four essays are concerned with George Sturt, the Hammonds, the Parisian photographer Atget, Leavis, and the much-sociologised Mexican village of Tepoztlan. It shows about as much social understanding as a wet sponge, with a literary sensibility to match and a penchant for displays of autobiography.
Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986
SIR: I’m not sure why Claude Rawson (LRB, 6 February) felt it necessary to make sniffy remarks about the title of a book he was not reviewing at the end of a review which had long wandered off into the realms of sexual fantasy: but anyhow on the subject of ‘From Hoggart to Gramsci’ he is wrong. It is true that Gramsci died in 1937, and it is true furthermore that Richard Hoggart is very much alive. But Gramsci’s works were not published in his life-time and he was not widely read in the English-speaking world until the 1970s. Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy came out in hardback in 1957 and became a best-selling Pelican a couple of years later. Its author then went on to become the first director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. In 1957 Gramsci was known in Britain only through a slim volume of his writings on politics entitled The Modern Prince. A fuller and more representative selection of his Prison Notebooks came out in English only in 1971. Gramsci’s writings specifically on culture were in fact not published in English until 1985 and their appearance even then was not noted in the London Review of Books.
There is therefore nothing absurd in subtitling a book ‘From Hoggart to Gramsci’. It may be anti-alphabetical but it is not necessarily anti-historical, since that is the order in which the two authors became known and studied in this country. It is possible to object to the way Hoggart was fashionably dropped by the Kulturtheoretiker of the 1970s and the way Gramsci was adopted as a Marxist-for-all-seasons even though many of his relevant writings were still unread. But that is another story.
I seem to remember that Rawson tried out the same little boutade on the readers of another journal, the Times Literary Supplement I think, a year or so ago. Each to his own jouissance.
Vol. 8 No. 5 · 20 March 1986
SIR: Mr Nowell-Smith defends Re-Reading English against my remark about the phrase, ‘from Hoggart to Gramsci’, and says there’s ‘nothing absurd in subtitling a book’ with these words (Letters, 6 March). These words aren’t a subtitle, but part of the substantive text of a chapter of the book, and it would appear that Mr Nowell-Smith is springing to the defence of a book he hasn’t seen. In the circumstances I’m flattered that he should remember my own earlier mention of the matter. It wasn’t actually a boutade but part of an extended discussion of the book in question; it wasn’t ‘a year or so ago’ but in 1982; and I wasn’t, as he seems to think, concerned with whether the remark was ‘anti-alphabetical’ or even ‘anti-historical’. I had been noting that some of the ideologues under review were very lofty about the resistance of ’insular’ British academics ‘to the influence of “European schools of thought” ’, but that this didn’t seem to go with any great interest in learning the languages in which the thinkers wrote; and that the ideologues didn’t do much about exposing themselves to these influences until English translations happened to become available. What I wrote was: ‘Gramsci died in 1937, and his works began to appear in the 1940s, but at least [the author of the chapter] isn’t “insular”.’ My point, if Mr Nowell-Smith will allow me to decode what I thought would be recognised as irony, was that the author was being insular, and that there was indeed a deep insularity about a certain kind of British anti-insularity. Of course, the offending phrase was also in my view ‘anti-historical’, and vulgarly so, whatever the actual state of knowledge of its author. But I wasn’t entertaining ambitious expectations, and my specific complaint was about the provincialism of people who go on preeningly about their cosmopolitan perspectives.
Mr Nowell-Smith’s reference to a translation of Gramsci’s writings on culture published in 1985 is not pertinent either way to the book in which the phrase occurred, which appeared in 1982. Mr Nowell-Smith appears to be an editor of this publication. Maybe that’s what he is really trying to tell us.
University of Warwick, Coventry