- 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.
Vol. 14 No. 10 · 28 May 1992
From Patrick Parrinder
John Ellis (LRB, 14 May) seems addicted to the notion of literary criticism as inter-generational struggle. Frank Kermode’s tolerance and responsiveness to the variety of literary texts thus becomes an attribute of ‘criticism as Kermode’s generation understood it’. (This is the generation of Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Paul de Man and other critics famous for not having an agenda of their own or a ‘set of concerns determined in advance’.) My own theoretical critique of Kermode comes to stand for ‘Parrinder’s kind of socio-political criticism’, which typifies the worst excesses of ‘many in the present generation’. It certainly makes a change from being accused, by one’s more socio-political contemporaries, of unashamed empiricism.
Reading Ellis’s remarks, I have come to the empirical conclusion that the more you pontificate about the diversity of life and the need to respond to the ‘particular agenda and emphasis of each and every text’, the less likely you are to extend this particular courtesy to the text with which you are arguing. Your reviewer suggests, among other things, that I suffer from a paranoid fear that people from beyond the literary world are seeking to get control of the canon. The paper in question was delivered to a conference held a few weeks after Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding. To this day (and probably for a long time to come), Rushdie’s works are inadmissible to the ‘canon’ of English literature as taught in many countries of the world. There are postgraduates at British universities who would not feel free to study and interpret these texts if they wished to. At a more mundane and certainly not a sinister level, most literary academics have been conspicuously apathetic (by comparison, say, with historians) about the redefinitions of English literature and the English language currently being enshrined in the National Curriculum. Government ministers and the popular press – not to mention the Prince of Wales – have all had their say about these things. My belief is that the reduction of criticism to interpretation solely, rather than to interpretation plus evaluation, disables academics in these arguments by robbing them of a language adequate to describe and defend their discipline. They are reduced, some of them, to platitudinous talk about life’s diversity.
University of Reading
Vol. 14 No. 11 · 11 June 1992
From Leonard Jackson
It beggars belief that your reviewer should prefer Saussure’s model of semantics – now 76 years old – to the powerful and delicate models of modern linguists and logicians. If John Ellis (LRB, 14 May) were an aeronautical engineer he would prefer airships. Light dawns when we see what he thinks Saussure’s model was. ‘In Saussure’s theory,’ he writes, ‘signs contrast because their uses contrast, and a contrast in use is established only by observable differences in the situations where their use is appropriate.’ This is a sensible sounding theory, but there is not a sentence of textual support for it in the Cours de Linguistique Générale, and I think Ellis must have got if from some secondary source. It is not even consistent with Saussure’s overriding principle of keeping the linguistics of language separate from the linguistics of speaking.
This is a relatively benign example of the way in which literary critics and literary philosophers have responded to the weaknesses in Saussure by re-inventing him. By modern standards Saussure’s accounts of both syntax and semantics are inadequate. His claim that language ‘is a system of differences without positive terms’ leaves him no logical scope for anything but a semantics of pure differences (presented chiefly in the chapter on linguistic value). It won’t work, and in The Poverty of Structuralism I offered a reductio ad absurdum argument against it. Otherwise, his theory of meaning is merely a gesture in the direction of some unformulated semantic problems. But its very blankness has been an invitation to psychoanalysts, literary critics and philosophers from Lacan onwards to project onto him their own consciousness of the complexities of what is to be explained, and confuse that with a theory.
When they look at generative grammar they see a precise theory and can see how little it explains. Unlike linguists, they don’t think that is a signal to extend the theory and explain more, step by step. They think it shows that formal semantic theories are philosophically inadequate; and they turn to Saussure instead, and inscribe upon him travesties far more amazing than Ellis’s. An example of an early travesty of Saussure – a wild philosophical misreading – is Derrida’s claim that Saussure elevates the spoken language over the written form because of a metaphysical prejudice (phonocentrism). The claims of some of the literary critics I called linguistic idealists are wilder still. The imaginary Saussure they have constructed is an idealist philosophers and not a linguist.
Ellis’s principles would, I think, lead us to reject as ‘positivist’ not just formal semantics but the whole tradition of formally modelling the mind in fields like artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology; and that is hard to justify on the basis of literary criticism. Ellis is absolutely right to think that the complex significances that a literary critic can pick up are far beyond anything that can be modelled by any present or presently conceivable method of semantic modelling. You don’t need to go to a fine critic like Kermode. Any hack reviewer is doing things that not even the greatest linguist can explain. But that is no justification for reviving dead linguistics.
Vol. 14 No. 12 · 25 June 1992
From Bernard Harrison
I wonder if you would allow me to protest at some of the inaccuracies in John Ellis’s review (LRB, 14 May) of my Inconvenient Fictions’? Ellis appears not to grasp the distinction between assertion and argument, and consequently to be a connoisseur of the apparently incriminating turn of phrase taken out of context. He accuses me, for instance, of saying that the New Critics ‘dealt in such things as “interpretive paraphrase” or even “extralinguistic” meaning’, forgetting that they ‘denounced the “heresy of paraphrase” … and that the meaning of a poem was a matter of “these words in this order”.’ Well, quite. Only Professor Ellis is himself paraphrasing, after a fashion, a passage of philosophical discussion in which I argue that the right of a particular New Critic (Wimsatt) to insist that ‘no critical paraphrase is to be regarded as more than a stepping-stone to a further, and this time ultimate and definitive experience of meaning which can be obtained only from the text’ (my words, plus context this time) can be purchased, paradoxically, only at the cost of treating the meaning made available by the words of the text ranged in order as one which cannot be propositionally expressed: as extralinguistic, therefore.
This argument doubtless has a strong smell of Deconstruction about it, which may be why Ellis, who has written a book on Deconstruction and plainly considers himself to have decisively demolished Derrida, regards it as unworthy of notice. The impression given by his review, indeed, is that the sole purpose of my book (besides subjecting New Criticism to ignorant denigration) is to defend Deconstruction root and branch; and he expressly asserts that my ‘main defence’ of Derrida is ‘that Derrida never really said all those things that literary critics say he said.’ That I am not, to say the least, to be relied on as a whole-hog deconstructionist should have been evident from the swingeing attack on Paul De Man’s reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Essays on Epitaphs’ which occupies the second half of my Chapter Seven. Nor am I primarily concerned to establish what Derrida said (though no doubt there are extensive differences between Ellis and myself over such questions, as well there might be, given the auguries cast by Ellis’s performance as a guide to what I say), but rather to establish what parts of what he says, or is alleged to have said, survive or fail to survive philosophical criticism. The conclusion for which I argue is that enough does survive to undermine various traditional forms of critical humanism effectively, but that it is possible to rebuild a conception of criticism worth calling humanist which accommodates what in deconstruction survives rational scrutiny.
So much is bad enough. What is worse is to hear from him that my book offers a canonical instance of the divorce, of which Kermode has complained, between theory and practice in literary criticism. How could your readers guess that the exclusively theoretical chapters account for no more than a quarter of its length, and that the remainder consists of essays, on Sterne, Forster, Muriel Spark, Wordsworth, Biblical parable etc, designed expressly to submit the book’s theoretical conclusions to the test of practical criticism? Professor Ellis needs to learn, perhaps, that ‘these words in this order’ is a principle which applies as much to fair dealing in controversy as to the study of texts.
University of Sussex
From Mark Turner
John Ellis believes my Reading Minds is MIT linguistics when in fact it challenges MIT linguistics. Its fundamental points are incompatible with MIT linguistics in ways anyone merely competent must see. Its central topics – bodily experience, image schemas, argument, folk theories, cultural models, cultural literacy, metaphor – are in principle untreatable within MIT linguistics, which is centrally concerned with what it claims are general formal principles governing all language and independent of bodily experience, imagination or cultural meaning. Ellis proposes that Reading Minds uses no scholarship other than MIT linguistics when in fact it uses no MIT linguistics work at all. He complains that MIT linguistics gives insufficient place to semantics, which is the identical complaint to be found, in detail, on pages 20 and 21 of Reading Minds. Had he read the text instead of browsing the end-notes and looking for a bibliography, he could not have classified cognitive linguistics as a splinter group of MIT linguistics – a classification that would astound any linguist in the way that classifying Chinese cooking as a dissident variant of French cuisine would astound any food critic.
University of Maryland
Vol. 14 No. 13 · 9 July 1992
From John Ellis
Three letters (Letters, 11 June, Letters, 25 June) reply to my review (LRB, 14 May) of five books on literary theory. Bernard Harrison complains that I quote him ‘out of context’. I said that Harrison showed ignorance of well-known New Critical dogmas (the heresy of paraphrase, the importance of ambiguity, the meaning of a poem is these words in this order) when he said that they dealt in interpretative paraphrase, looked for a single and final elucidation of a text, and even sought extra-textual meaning. Only the fuller contexts will show whether Harrison really did say these things. Here are two of them: Derrida is ‘a valuable counterbalance to the New Critical insistence on the scholarly pursuit of a single, privileged, final elucidation of the text’; and ‘New Criticism does not, that is, believe in the possibility of illuminating the text through extra-textual access to the opinions, life and character of its author; on the contrary, it treats knowledge of the author’s intentions as something to be sought primarily through interpretative paraphrase of his text’. Clearly, Harrison was not misquoted.
On the third point (these words in this order) Harrison’s book does not say what he now says it says. He quotes from his text but then continues with ‘the words of the text ranged in order’, claiming to supply a fuller context omitted by me. But those words do not occur in his text: he supplies a context that is not there. His book actually says things such as ‘never very far from the surface of [Wimsatt’s] argument is [a thesis] that the experience of what I have been calling the absolute meaning of a work of literature goes beyond language’ – just as I said. Harrison, in effect, admits that he said it, but claims also to have mentioned the principle that contradicts him, as if it didn’t. But it does.
As to Derrida: Harrison tries to avoid my real criticism of him by pretending that the issue is one of my being against and his being for Derrida. But my point was that he seemed to know almost nothing of the extensive literature for and against deconstructionist criticism. For example, even the most standard of all expository books (by Jonathan Culler) would have made it clear to him that his ‘new’ approach (rejecting the notion of free-play) was not new, and there are also published criticisms of it that he overlooks. It was on the basis of these large gaps in his knowledge about both the New Critics and deconstructionist criticism (and much else besides) that I judged him out of his depth in a field not his own, and it was in this sense that I said that his book suffered from the divorce of theory and practice ‘in a different way’ – a phrase which showed that I was not charging Bernard Harrison with failing to talk about literary texts. (This is a real case of quotation out of context.)
Mark Turner complains that I believe his ‘Reading Minds is MIT linguistics when in fact it challenges MIT linguistics.’ He is a careless reader. What I actually said was that ‘cognitive linguistics’ (not his book) was ‘a dissident splinter group within MIT linguistics’. Unless I am mistaken, the word ‘dissident’ means one who challenges the mainstream. The list of topics he covers would indeed be inconsistent with the assertion that his book ‘is MIT linguistics’, but not with my actual statement that it used cognitive linguistics.
Beyond these mistakes there remains only the question of the origin of this group: does it emerge from the generativist community or from elsewhere? The facts are clear. Ronald Langacker, correctly called by Turner ‘a founder of the field of cognitive linguistics’, was formerly an orthodox Chomskyite, and is the author of a well-known generativist textbook. Even now, the terms, assumptions and limitations of his Foundations of Cognitive Grammar make its origins unmistakable, however hostile it may be to the ruling orthodoxy. Another central figure is George Lakoff, the quintessential dissenter within the MIT tradition. Does it matter where they come from? Yes, because the shared sense that a ‘revolution’ had taken place in 1957 led Chomsky’s followers to treat previous thought in linguistics as an irrelevance; that in turn meant that when some of them worked their way back to a saner (but outside MIT, commonplace) view of semantics, the journey seemed like another great achievement and mini-revolution from within. This is why the naive grandiosity of Turner’s announcing ‘the great adventure of modern cognitive science, the discovery of the human mind’, struck me as vintage MIT, dissident or not.
In response to my saying that Leonard Jackson had grossly misunderstood Saussure’s semantics, Jackson claims that my own version has no textual support in Saussure. We shall see. Here is Jackson’s criticism of Saussure: ‘if our discourse is composed of meaningless signifiers, whose sole signification is their difference from other signifiers, it is logically impossible that the play of differences will ever throw up the meaning of the word “aunt”.’ I said that he was wrong since for Saussure ‘signs contrast because their uses contrast.’ Now here is Saussure: ‘Analysis is impossible if only the phonic side of the linguistic phenomenon is considered. But when we know the meaning and function that must be attributed to each part of the chain, we see the parts detach themselves from each other …’ And: ‘The linguistic entity exists only through the associating of the signifier with the signified. Whenever only one element is retained, the entity vanishes.’ And that should suffice.
Jackson wants to contrast the weaknesses of Saussure’s semantics with the ‘powerful and delicate models of modern linguistics’, but his extraordinary misconceptions about Saussure, on the one hand, and his generativist allegiance, on the other, give us reason for doubt. Since the disastrous beginning of Chomsky’s semantics of 1957, a never-ending search has been going on for a semantic model that will work for natural languages. New models are usually withdrawn for repair as soon as they are introduced. Jackson must be dreaming if he thinks the search has produced something that has finally convinced everyone that it is ‘powerful and delicate’. Finally, I wonder why he thinks he needs to tell me that Derrida misinterpreted Saussure.
University of California, Santa Cruz
Vol. 14 No. 15 · 6 August 1992
From Leonard Jackson
If John Ellis is right, (Letters, 9 July), Saussure grossly misunderstood his own theory. What Saussure wrote was: ‘Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.’ It is against this conception (which I call difference-semantics) that I directed my reductio ad absurdum argument.
Ellis can’t believe that Saussure meant what he said, so he brings in unSaussurean concepts. His version runs: ‘signs contrast because their uses contrast, and a contrast in use is established only by observable differences in the situations where their use is appropriate.’ It will be seen that he has replaced Saussure’s language-system theory by a language-use theory. I said there was not a sentence of textual support for this in Saussure. Ellis has now presumably reread the Cours, and found, as I told him, nothing about use or situational appropriateness. So he quotes two sentences which refer to something else: meaning and function in the linguistic chain, and the unity of signifier and signified in the sign – all language-system matters concerning the relation of sound-images and concepts. Saussure is actually making the point that we perceive signifying chains like si je la prends and si je l’apprends as divided differently because of differences in the way the signifiers function in the chain.
One argument of The Poverty of Structuralism was that literary critics and philosophers, untrained in linguistics and hostile to it, had systematically misread Saussure. Saussure meant literally the sentence I quote from him, and many others like it; he neither meant nor said anything like Ellis’s sentence. So I can’t help feeling that Ellis has now advanced from the status of critic of my thesis to that of published evidence for it: he is doing just what I say people like him do. Ellis has of course made clear his own hostility to the main developments in linguistics since 1957; it doesn’t matter if you are a follower of Chomsky or an opponent – if you are even influenced by him you are damned. That will cover almost every living scientific linguist and certainly covers me.
But it goes deeper than that. The same logic that identifies Chomsky with his critic Turner identifies Derrida with his critic Ellis. There are at least two traditions in the study of language: empirical grammatical investigation and inventing philosophical fables like ‘language-games’ or ‘phonocentrism’. Panini, Priscian, Saussure, Jakobson, Chomsky, Lakoff, Turner and even I have had a certain commitment to the former. Plato, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida et al do the latter. Ellis, like other literary critics, is the captive of philosophical fables about Saussure. That is why he cannot believe that Saussure meant to assert as literal truth the proposition: la langue ne comporte ni des idées ni des sons qui préexisteraient au système linguistique; why he confidently invents a different Saussure; and why he accuses me of misunderstanding Saussure when I adopt the literal sense of Saussure’s exact words.
Vol. 14 No. 19 · 8 October 1992
From Bernard Harrison
Having been out of the country, I have just come across Professor John Ellis’s lengthy reply (Letters, 9 July) to my letter of 25 June. Ellis says he did not quote me out of context, but interprets ‘context’ in a way which shows him still incapable of extracting the plainest implications of an argument. Nobody, surely, can seriously suggest that the New Critics made no use of interpretative paraphrase. What is at issue between Ellis and myself is simply whether, in my book, I show ignorance of two caveats with which the official methodology of New Criticism hedged the practice: that there can be no appeal to meanings external to the text, and that no paraphrase can capture the full meaning of the text. In my letter I drew his attention to a passage (page 23-28) in which I argue that these two caveats are in principle inconsistent with one another: how, then, could I have been unaware of them? Nothing in Ellis’s reply addresses this rather simple point.
Ellis’s other ground of attack is that I put forward a supposedly ‘ “new” approach’ to Derrida which is not in fact new. He bolsters this by appeal to a passage on page 133 of Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction (at least, I take it that must be the passage he has in mind) in which Culler suggests, correctly, that Derrida’s arguments do not license talk of ‘an indeterminacy that makes meaning the invention of the reader’. Fair enough: the trouble is that my putative claim to be putting forward a new interpretation of Derrida is an invention of Ellis’s. On page vi of Inconvenient Fictions, I expressly renounce any claim to scholarship where Derrida is concerned, and acknowledge my debt to two Derrida scholars, John Llewellyn and Henry Staten, for ‘confirming my halting sense of what is central to Derrida’s position’. The only claim I would make for the book’s originality in this quarter would concern its attempt to show that some of Derrida’s arguments, once disentangled from a range of ‘exciting’ conclusions which have been taken to flow from them but to which they lend, in fact, no support, can be developed further in directions which lead towards a confluence of deconstruction with a range of views recently very widely considered to characterise an outmoded liberal humanism. Ellis could only begin assembling a case to back up his accusation of ignorance if he were to do what his review so signally failed to do: pay some attention to the book’s central claims and arguments.
University of Sussex