Cold Feet

Frank Kermode

  • Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. I: Donne and the New Philosophy by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden
    Cambridge, 296 pp, £35.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 521 44043 2
  • William Empson: The Critical Achievement edited by Chistopher Norris and Nigel Mapp
    Cambridge, 319 pp, £35.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 521 35386 6

William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do without theory altogether. His book The Structure of Complex Words (1951) contains quite a lot of it; so it is not surprising that a generation of literary theorists, not wishing to remain totally out of touch with the best critic of his time, has decided to appropriate Complex Words, a work hitherto much less influential than the very early (and prodigious) Seven Types of Ambiguity. Christopher Norris comes right out and calls Complex Words ‘a work of deconstruction’. His collection is meant to demonstrate that Empson can be accommodated in modern theory. It can now be shown that he was in many ways anticipating the interests and procedures of a newer criticism, though Norris in his Preface cautiously denies any intention to annex Empson’s criticism to any one prevailing trend: ‘it is a hopeful sign,’ he remarks, ‘that “theory” is coming of age when it manages to find room for a strong but problematical figure like Empson, a critic whose thinking goes so markedly against some of its basic precepts and principles.’

As a rhetorical concession this is prudent and ingenious, but it gives some measure of the size of the task. Norris knows very well what Empson thought of these precepts and principles. He once sent the great man some essays from the new French school, including Derrida’s famous lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play’, later treated as a manifesto by his American followers. Empson wrote back to say he found all these papers, including the one by Derrida, or ‘Nerrida’ as he preferred to name him, ‘very disgusting’. Norris, or Dorris, as Empson might have called him in his later career as a theorist, laments, not without reason, that his correspondent showed no signs of having understood what he had found disgusting. On the whole the current tendency is to compare and contrast him not with Derrida but with de Man – Norris spends time on this comparison, and Neil Hertz, in the collection reviewed here, has a whole essay about it. One can only imagine what Empson would have said about that, or what names he would have found for these in so many respects unlikely mates. True, Empson and de Man shared a certain hauteur, and a certain iconoclasm, but the political adhesions were different, and so were the critical dialects, one conscientiously bluff, the other rarefied and prone to gallicism.

That Complex Words is what Norris calls it, ‘Empson’s great theoretical summa’, is the view also of his contributors William Righter, Alan Durant and Colin MacCabe, and Jean Lecercle, whose lively piece includes a remark to the effect that the poem ‘Camping Out’ mentions a girlfriend cleaning her teeth into the lake. Empson, so keen on biography, would have liked him to know that this was no girlfriend but a sister.

Norris’s own essay takes up a good third of the whole book and best explains what is going on. There are, as he rightly remarks, more misunderstandings of Empson’s critical positions than is defensible. For example, Empson’s loose association with the American New Critics of long ago has given rise to the notion that he agreed with their anti-intentionalism, although for forty years he went on explaining with increasing force and irritation that the purpose of criticism was to follow the movement of the author’s mind. He saved some of his more brutal insults for W.K. Wimsatt, co-author of a famous article about ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. In the end, I think, this particular bogey distracted him from what he did best, and in Using Biography he seems to have given up movements of mind in favour of fancies and speculations he wouldn’t at earlier dates have thought relevant.

However, you would expect that this strain in his thought, alien not only to the old New Criticism but to the new New Criticism, might give Norris some trouble. He gets out of it by what I take to be a change in his own position, so that theory, now come of age, can henceforth permit some attention to what was intended. Again, it is a congenial consideration that Empson thought that the New Critics adapted his methods in a sneaky way to import Christianity into the argument: indeed, he believed that the decay of criticism was directly due to this intrusion of what Norris calls ‘surrogate or ersatz theology’. This accounts for his habit, sometimes baffling to the agnostic opponent, of condemning criticism he disagreed with as ‘neo-Christian’. The prefix suggests that indignant denials of Christian faith were merely evasive and would do you no good: you could be neo-Christian without being Christian. I think that historically this has something to do with a certain fashion for Christian criticism, and a more general worry about poetry and belief, at the time of Empson’s return from China; this fashion, led by such as C.S. Lewis and practised by such as Fr Martin Jarrett-Kerr, seemed interesting to others, who may thus have seemed, willy-nilly, to be crypto-Christians.

One point of importance in this, as usual good, but as usual digressive, essay concerns Empson’s refusal to distinguish between the truth of poetry and the truth of science. He rejected the ‘pseudo-statement’ theory of his mentor I.A. Richards, and as time went on had many tussles with the problem of figurative language, which often apparently says the thing that is not. He came to think of most contemporary literary criticism as a dreary professional attempt to avoid decisions about truth-statements made in poems. And of course he suspected a Christian plot. Norris is quite right to say that ‘what comes through most strongly is his deep-laid conviction that the best – indeed the only – way to make sense of complex or problematic novels or poems is to read them with a mind unburdened by the self-denying ordinances of modern critical dogma.’ But of course there are other forms of prejudice. Problems arising from arguments about truth and prejudice were to lead to noisy arguments about Donne.

I believe firmly that Empson was a great critic, but have to regard as wasteful his advocacy, over many years, of an eccentric view of Donne. To understand that view, here documented in full and supported by John Haffenden’s conscientious and adulatory commentary, one point at least is essential. Empson found it all but impossible to believe that any intelligent and honest person could be a Christian. A lot of his work is devoted to showing that even writers who would have been amazed to hear it nevertheless did at some level of sensibility or intellect see through the horrors of the Christian religion; Milton is the most obvious example (Milton’s God, 1961), but the very devout Herbert is another.

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[*] This is a modernised version of the Gardner text.