Theory and Truth

Frank Kermode

  • Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars by Geoffrey Hartman
    Harvard, 252 pp, £23.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 674 57636 5
  • Spinoza and the Origins of Modern Critical Theory by Christopher Norris
    Blackwell, 240 pp, £30.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 631 17557 1
  • What’s wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy by Christopher Norris
    Harvester, 287 pp, £40.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0714 7

The autumn catalogues of some very enterprising publishers announce as many books as usual under the rubric Literary Criticism, or possibly more, but few have titles of a sort that, even ten years ago, would have been found there, and virtually none that would have much interest for the non-academic public that once read old-style literary criticism. This development is welcomed in some academic quarters as a triumph of technology, but it appears that certain persons of importance are beginning to wonder whether the high-tech, jargoned, reader-alienating image of the modern product may not have some disadvantages. Of course it can be argued that there can be no going back, the old criticism having been declared intellectually deluded, dishonest and collusive with political authoritarianism. ‘With the advent of Post-Structuralism and the “death of literature”,’ says one current blurb, ‘the opposition between high and popular culture became untenable, transforming the field of enquiry from literary into cultural studies’ – incidentally, a fair sample of new-era, defiantly messy prose. For, as everybody likes to say, there has been a Kuhnian paradigm-shift, and to be installed on the far side of it is to feel comfortable with the idea that it is no longer necessary to think about literature at all. Among the ancient assumptions now discounted is the notion that one piece of writing might somehow be better than another: and if you believe that, you lack much inducement to write decently, whatever that might mean, yourself.

There seem to be two main motives for altering the purpose and methods of literary criticism. One, perfectly honourable but surely futile, is an intention, variously formulated, to replace the old style with another that has a direct political impact, and might somehow give assistance to oppressed minorities. The second, more selfish, is to get rid of so-called masterpieces, works that other people, assuming an illicit authority, have recommended. It is this part of the programme that now appears to disturb Geoffrey Hartman, though he seems less worried about those threatened masterpieces than about the language in which literature, a category he has not himself entirely abandoned, ought to be discussed.

Minor Prophecies is the best book this quite prolific author has produced for some time. It is made up of disparate essays sharing an important theme: ‘the tension between two kinds of critical style, that of the learned specialist and that of the public critic (a.k.a. man of letters)’. He himself, for instance, is a learned specialist, a pro, whereas the likes of George Steiner and myself are ‘public critics’ (a.k.a. reviewers, vulgarisateurs), given to needless complaints about the ‘dehumanising’ technical language the professional is obliged to employ.

Here one needs to distinguish blanket condemnations of all terminological innovation from more limited objections to unnecessary or pretentious innovation – to the use of some tremendous piece of jargon for what might well be said in such a way that an intelligent amateur would know what one was talking about. For example, instead of ‘B learned a lot from A’ the professional (a.k.a Geoffrey Hartman) is tempted to say: ‘A was crucially propaedeutic to B.’ But the border between professionalism and bombast will always be hard to define.

Hartman believes, correctly, that the differences between those who think we should abandon literary studies for cultural studies – ‘which have done a better job’ – and those who dispute this opinion, have large cultural and educational implications. He writes interestingly about these implications, but without ever confronting the real issue, which is that people who find value in literature, and believe that criticism can explore and illuminate what is valuable in it, simply do not believe arguments coming from people who care nothing for it and so prefer to do cultural studies instead. The latter admittedly have striking advantages, since they are not discussing books, some quite difficult, but engaging impressively in ‘the incrimination of culture – at least of Western society, accused of seeking knowledge in order to gain power’. (It might be base to suggest that this feat is to be performed by people quite obviously doing the same thing.)

Hartman, though strongly tempted by disciplines intended to purge the false discourses of oppression, is too cautious fully to endorse them. Indeed, at one moment he allows himself to make the vital point that to abolish literary studies would be to abandon the world to dangerous fundamentalisms. He accordingly decides that literary critics should ‘remain unashamed of their concern for art’, and quotes with approval Northrop Frye’s remark that to do without criticism would be to brutalise the arts and lose the cultural memory. But reaching this wise conclusion costs Hartman quite a struggle and he sometimes seems to back away from it.

The book contains good, learned essays sketching the troubled history of hermeneutics, and some that return to an old worry of Hartman’s, the English critical style as he sees it – smooth, conversational, exhibiting a lack of original thought and self-reflection: ‘a civil art’, when Hartman feels admiring, ‘a civil jargon’ when he doesn’t. He can be stern on the subject; tea and totality don’t mix, he says, though the British are always trying to mix them. When critics like me try to ‘translate’ ‘rebarbative concepts from German hermeneutics’ into ‘ordinary speech’ they let too much of the substance leak away. And Christopher Ricks has his own especially irritating way of using ‘ordinary-language type of analysis against all who attempt theory’.

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