Thinking Persons

John Ellis

  • Addressing Frank Kermode: Essays in Criticism and Interpretation edited by Margaret Tudeau-Clayton and Martin Warner
    Macmillan, 218 pp, £40.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 333 53137 X
  • The Poverty of Structuralism: Literature and Structuralist Theory by Leonard Jackson
    Longman, 317 pp, £24.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 582 06697 2
  • Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory by Bernard Harrison
    Yale, 293 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 300 05057 7
  • Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science by Mark Turner
    Princeton, 298 pp, £18.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 691 06897 6
  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson
    Stanford, 530 pp, $49.50, December 1990, ISBN 0 8047 1821 0

These five books continue in then very different ways the intense debate about the purpose of literary criticism and its relation to ‘theory’. Addressing Frank Kermode has its origin in a conference devoted to Kermode’s work. Five papers selected from those delivered at the conference are followed by a reply from Kermode himself; five more follow which ‘acknowledge, more or less directly’, his ‘influence’. The uncertainty visible here betrays some wishful thinking on the part of the editors, for many of these essays are conventional festschrift contributions largely unrelated to the thought of the figure whom they honour. Three of the contributors do, however, engage Kermode’s thought in a fairly serious way: John Stokes, George Hunter and Patrick Parrinder. Two ways of doing so were possible. Either Kermode’s general view of the critic’s task or his ideas concerning specific texts or groups of texts could have been the focus of attention. Stokes and Hunter choose the second of these possibilities and examine aspects of Kermode’s Romantic Image and Forms of Attention respectively; Parrinder objects to Kermode’s general view of criticism. Kermode’s response – appropriately enough, the most interesting essay in the book – is both explicitly and implicitly more concerned with Parrinder’s comments than with any other issue raised by his critics. Taken together with the prologue to his An Appetite for Poetry (which appeared in the same year as the conference), it gives us a clear and sometimes forceful account of how Kermode views the contemporary scene.

Parrinder’s criticism of Kermode is simple and direct: ‘As a general rule, whenever he outlines the purpose and function of criticism he tacitly redefines criticism as interpretation.’ What specifically is wrong with this? Parrinder finds that Kermode’s ‘attachment is not to any particular interpretative system but to the notions of the canon ... and of the professional practice of interpretation’. Because he has no system, this is ‘permissive and pluralist’, and is complicit in the academy’s ‘obsessive and monotonous return to a core of texts which might seem scarcely in need of further elucidation’. Worst of all, this removes criticism from the sphere of cultural politics, and since for Parrinder ‘what qualifies criticism as criticism’ is that ‘it assails what it takes to be false values in the name of true values,’ it follows that Kermode’s criticism is barely criticism at all: he is guilty of ‘neutralising and perhaps neutering the critical act’. We need a ‘clear message to convey to the people outside’, according to Parrinder, for ‘if criticism prefers to reduce itself to interpretation and to stop asking what is taught and why it is taught ... somebody else, perhaps somebody far more sinister’, does it instead. Thus Parrinder sets out the difference between criticism as Kermode’s generation understood it and as many in the present generation are coming to understand it. It is a difference that is worth pondering.

In his reply Kermode evidently felt constrained by the situation he was in, and his tone is for the most part gentle and self-deprecating. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that in spite of his evident concern not to appear churlish by criticising those who have gathered to honour him he speaks plainly on one point. Parrinder had accused him of being narrowly professional, of serving only the internal needs of the university world. But Kermode essentially tells Parrinder that he has everything the wrong way round: ‘the entire operation of high-powered academic literary criticism’ ultimately depends on the preservation of the reading public without which literature cannot exist; and university teachers of literature ‘can read what they like and deconstruct or neo-historicise what they like, but in the classroom they should be on their honour to make people know books well enough to understand what it is to love them. If they fail in that, either because they despise the humbleness of the task or because they don’t themselves love literature, they are failures and frauds.’ When a man as noted for his tact and tolerance of other viewpoints as Frank Kermode speaks so trenchantly, we should do well to listen. For here he is surely correct: it is Parrinder’s kind of socio-political criticism that has a narrowly professional base and is out of touch with the wider world of readers.

George Hunter puts his finger on the crucial difference between these two views of criticism when he says that Kermode’s most important quality as a critic is ‘his acute responsiveness to a great variety of texts’. If this is what makes Kermode an extraordinary critic, it should tell us something about the nature of criticism. What we call ‘literature’ is indeed a great variety of very different kinds of texts written by all kinds of people of differing temperaments, hopes, anxieties, ambitions and viewpoints (on social and political questions as well as every other kind of question), at different times, in different places, and about different issues. People write, and read, for all kinds of fundamentally dissimilar reasons. This diversity can be no less than the diversity of life itself.

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