Touching and Being Touched

John Kerrigan

  • Reading after Theory by Valentine Cunningham
    Blackwell, 194 pp, £45.00, December 2001, ISBN 0 631 22167 0

A few months before his early death from tuberculosis, John Keats scribbled these lines in his papers:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d – see, here
it is
I hold it towards you.

Once read, always haunted. As it moves through subjunctive volition and vain hope into nightmare, this poignant yet ominous sentence finds some resolution at ‘conscience-calm’d’, only to be extended by a gesture which disturbs the more because what is so frankly held out is both the living hand that wrote what we read but also (Keats being dead) the cold hand in the tomb.

The eeriness of the effect is heightened by the passage seeming to come from nowhere. It is often said that the lines were intended for an unfinished play or written as a lyric to Fanny Brawne, the young woman who did not take Keats’s hand in marriage because of his dismal prospects. Yet even if the fragment has Fanny in view as ‘thou’, ‘thine heart’ and so on, we cannot escape its address. When Keats writes ‘– see, here it is/I hold it towards you,’ it’s not just the sudden appearance of the first person that creates a shudder but the slip from ‘thou’ to ‘you’, as though the poet were reaching past his lover to us.

I was reminded of the power of this passage, in all its strange tactility, by Valentine Cunningham’s too brief discussion of it at the climax of Reading after Theory. For the most part his book is a polemical but unsurprising survey of the strengths and drawbacks of Theory as it has influenced literary study in the last few decades. The settling of accounts may be timely, given that so many ‘new approaches’ have run out of steam. But the real test of the book comes in the chapter called ‘Touching Reading’, which goes beyond survey-mode and argues for a style of criticism that is alert to touch and tact. The chapter raises fascinating questions, though whether Cunningham manages to slay the dragon of Theory with the sword of tactility is doubtful. He certainly doesn’t show himself capable of grasping ‘This Living Hand’.

Cunningham refuses to join ‘the chorus of mere whingers against Theory, all those mouthy conservatives from (say) Helen Gardner . . . to Roger Shattuck . . . with their romps up and down the glooming critical slopes of the Blooms, Allan and Harold’ – this is a fair sample, unfortunately, of his idea of lively prose. He accepts that post-structuralism, new historicism, queer studies and all the other movements he bundles together as Theory have done some good. They have made us more aware of the competences involved in reading. By rejecting the hegemony of Dead White European Males they have helped to bring such neglected writers as Sarah Fielding into the canon. Theory has drawn attention to marginalised groups, making it harder to ignore the ‘black-creole face of Bertha Mason’ in Jane Eyre. Above all, Theory has highlighted the importance of literature in constructing the realities we perceive.

Yet Theory makes a bad habit of hermeneutic suspicion. It ravages texts with a rhetoric of ‘lapse, failure, lack’, and treats them as guilty of thought-crimes. ‘I don’t want to say that Theorists write gibberish,’ Cunningham mildly remarks, ‘but they can get pretty close.’ Theory smothers literature in reams of secular Midrash, or loftily floats above it in pursuit of its own agenda. Worse, Theorists misread. In a slightly weird passage that shows the vitality of Cunningham’s Protestant background (his first book was a sympathetic study of Dissent in the Victorian novel), he declares: ‘Theory makes idols, eidolons, dolls, toys, out of texts, out of literature. And the whole deity, the whole person, the whole text thus reduced cries out to be allowed to expand, to grow up, to have its whole self back again.’ His strongest objection, however, is to Theory’s rancorous contempt for humanism and the human subject.

Cunningham is well-read and committed, and he lands some solid punches, but it’s impossible to stick with him for long because he argues so crudely. Not all manifestos dumb down – Marx and Engels avoided it – but Cunningham has been tempted into relentless simplification by the remit of the Blackwell Manifestos, the series his book appears in. After boiling down the history of literary theory since Plato to ‘a sketchy sketch map’, he declares with naive circularity that it shows little variation. The contending forces within MLA-style Theory are summarised with equal breeziness, and little effort is made to unpack the paradoxes. Cunningham complains, for instance, that theoretically inclined critics, who favour decentring the individual, often write about themselves at length, but he does not explore the rationale of this (to him) hypocritical egotism. However open to abuse the autobiographical impulse may be, to set out the life circumstances that ‘situate’ one’s critical judgments can be virtuously self-analytical and helpful to the reader.

The pitch sharpens only when he gets on to touch. Though the title Reading after Theory nods approvingly at the cliché that we always read in the shadow of one theory or another (but do inherited assumptions affect us in the same way as a theory we subscribe to?), what he chiefly wants to project is the message that Theory should be replaced by honest-to-goodness, hands-on Reading. As one would expect from a critic so mistrustful of theorising, Cunningham never conceptualises what he means by this, but waxes rhapsodic about ‘tact: gentle touch, caring touch, loving touch; appropriate handling, unmanipulative reading’. He associates this tactility with a sacramental sense of language and his book becomes a catalogue of touching hands, hands in and out of pockets (Dickens), reverent touches, and reveries about being emotionally touched.

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