A Good Reason to Murder Your Landlady

Terry Eagleton

  • I.A. Richards: Selected Works 1919-38 edited by John Constable
    Routledge, 595 pp, December 2001, ISBN 0 415 21731 8

Of all the great 20th-century critics, I.A. Richards is perhaps the most neglected. There is a crankish, hobbyhorsical quality to his work, an air of taxonomies and technical agendas which befits the son of a chemical engineer. His transatlantic counterpart in this respect is Kenneth Burke. Some of Richards’s work smacks of the laboratory, and isn’t helped by his charmless, bloodless prose style, laced as it is with briskly self-satisfied flourishes which his opponents saw as insufferable arrogance. An ardent propagandist for so-called Basic English, a project which reduced the language to a mere 850 words, Richards was also a precursor of today’s global industry of English-language teaching. He published some founding, now forgotten texts in modern methods of language teaching, and once worked with cartoonists in the Disney studios, drawing up simplified language instruction manuals for the US Navy. He also conducted seminars with leading North American educators, and was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation to draw up a statement on the practice of reading. Some of his late works of the 1960s are described by the editor of this superb selection of his writings, a man not averse to rapping his author smartly over the knuckles, as ‘febrile’, ‘unbalanced’ and ‘salvationist’.

It wasn’t only the sojourn in Hollywood that marked Richards out from the average Cambridge don. One of the founding fathers of the Cambridge English School in the early 1920s, he was nonetheless deeply sceptical of the value of English as a distinct discipline, and at one point contemplated going off to train as a mountain guide. (He was a highly skilled mountaineer, and on one climb had his hair set on fire by lightning.) In the event, he went off instead to teach in China, as his most celebrated pupil William Empson was also to do, dropping in on Russia, where he met Eisenstein, and later on Japan and Korea. It is hard to imagine his piously parochial Cambridge colleague F.R. Leavis accompanying him on the Trans-Siberian railway. He also taught for a while at Harvard.

Richards was an unabashed system-builder, an enquirer after foundations and first principles in a field which, then as now, was scandalised by such anti-empiricist bad manners. (The editor of the TLS tells us in the centenary issue of the paper that he automatically deletes theoretical words like ‘discourse’ from his reviewers’ copy, as some of his predecessors no doubt deleted words like ‘montage’ and ‘neurosis’.) How can literary criticism be a system when literature itself is the acme of the anti-systemic, the home of the vividly contingent and sensuously particular? How can it submit to doctrine when doctrine, above all, is what it repudiates? It is true that this view of the literary would have come as something of a surprise to Dante, Pope, Voltaire, Austen, Goethe, Stendhal and Tolstoy; but most of these authors were foreigners, and though other nations may speak of a literary science, the English prefer to define the timeless essence of the literary in terms that have been current only for about two hundred years in a smallish corner of the globe.

The first theorist of academic English in Britain, Richards saw from the start that the discipline was stumbling along without stopping to examine its presuppositions, disastrously unable to justify its ways of talking. His aim was to substitute scientific rigour for belletristic waffle. Academic criticism he thought ‘pernicious’, and he wrote in 1933 that ‘the worst threat to the world’s critical standards comes just now from the universities.’ Even Leavis, for whom ‘academic’ was usually a pejorative term, accused him of being ‘anti-academic’. When Richards sent Leavis a note to congratulate him on becoming a Companion of Honour, he received back an unsigned note which read: ‘We repudiate with contempt any approach from you.’

Richards is commonly thought to have invented ‘practical criticism’, which provides the title of one of his best-known books; but practical criticism had in fact been practised in Cambridge English well before Richards came over to it from the History faculty. (History, he remarked with glum accuracy, was simply a record of ‘things which ought not to have happened’.) Practical criticism might have lent criticism some analytic edge, but Richards, as a theorist avant la lettre, was not a champion of it for this reason. Indeed, he was hardly a champion of it at all. What interested him about close reading, and the characteristic blunders it involved, was the material it could provide for a fully-fledged theory of communication. He described Practical Criticism as ‘a piece of fieldwork in comparative ideology’, and the book has a latent radical edge, recording as it does some remarkably obtuse critical comments from Cambridge students who, as Richards mischievously remarks, are ‘products of the most expensive kind of education’.

To understand how communication functions was not, he insisted, the same as understanding how grammar or philology work. Richards was a discourse theorist before the title was invented (though the broader senses of ‘rhetoric’ came close to it), a scholar for whom the basic unit was the utterance, not the word. In Coleridge on Imagination, he describes Coleridge as a ‘semasiologist’ and proclaims that semasiology will constitute the critical science of the future. As it happened, the word to emerge was ‘semiology’; but Richards was familiar with this term too, and makes use of it in The Meaning of Meaning. He also calls for a theory of interpretation, which later generations would dub ‘hermeneutics’. There is even a dash of post-structuralist prophecy about him: bewitched by the propositional form, so he argues in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, we have failed to grasp that ‘the world – so far from being a solid matter of fact – is rather a fabric of conventions . . . and that sometimes is a dismaying rediscovery which seems to unsettle our foundations.’

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