Textual Intercourse

Claude Rawson

  • 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.

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