Anti-Humanism

Terry Eagleton

  • D.H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’: Post-Coloniality and the Poetry of the Present by Amit Chaudhuri
    Oxford, 226 pp, £20.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 19 926052 4

One of the most tenacious of all academic myths is that literary theorists don’t go in for close reading. Whereas non-theoretical critics are faithful to the words on the page, theorists see only what their pet doctrines allow them to see. Like the belief that Edmund Burke was a reactionary or that an extraordinary number of male Australians are called Bruce, this is now such a received idea that it seems almost indelicate to point out that it is completely false. In fact, almost all of the best-known literary theorists engage in close reading: witness Roman Jakobson on Baudelaire, Roland Barthes on Balzac, Fredric Jameson on Conrad, Julia Kristeva on Mallarmé, Edward Said on Jane Austen, Paul de Man on Proust, Gilles Deleuze on Kafka, Gérard Genette on Flaubert, Hélène Cixous on Joyce, Harold Bloom on Wallace Stevens, J. Hillis Miller on Henry James. Some theorists are slapdash readers, but so are some non-theoretical critics. Derrida is so perversely myopic a reader, doggedly pursuing the finest flickers of meaning across a page, that he exasperates some of his opponents with his supersubtlety, not his airy generality.

This suggests one serious flaw in the universally acclaimed doctrine of close reading. Can’t you be too close to the text, as well as too distant from it? Doesn’t it disappear like a Rembrandt if you squash your nose against it, dissolving into streaks and blurs? And why don’t the ‘practical’ critics mention this deficiency? On the whole, however, most major literary theorists have heeded Jameson’s admonition in Marxism and Form that no theory of the work is likely to be worth much if it does not ‘come to terms with the shape of the sentences’. It is just that the antagonists of literary theory need their Aunt Sallies, rather as some Ulster Unionists need to believe that nightclubs in the Irish Republic are packed with young people saying the rosary. It is true that a good many literary theorists read as though their work was composed by a computer as well as on one. Just as some doctors are always sick, so some critics can’t write. But it is too rarely pointed out that some of the most distinguished names in the field – Barthes, Adorno, Foucault, Jameson, Geoffrey Hartman – are remarkably fine stylists, more so than the majority of non-theoretical critics.

Writers do not on the whole take kindly to theorists, rather as shamans do not always look with favour on anthropologists. A lot of poets and novelists are natural-born romantics about their own art, if sometimes about little else. Even the grittiest realist can turn out to be a closet transcendentalist when it comes to his or her own psyche; and writers like that are affronted by the claim that the fruits of their inspiration can be rationally analysed. They feel about this rather as Samson and Delilah might have felt about a Freudian account of their relationship. Yet love can indeed be rationally investigated, even if it cannot be reduced to reason. Unless you can give some coherent account, one in principle intelligible to others, of what you find lovable about someone, it is hard to see how you can describe what you are feeling as love. Love finally goes beyond reason – someone else may see what you see in your partner while not being in the least in love with him or her – but it is not antithetical to reason, as writers afraid of being robbed of their brooding inwardness by some bloodless theorist sometimes believe of their art.

Theorists, so the theory goes, are sad, tight-arsed, Apollonian, whereas writers are red-blooded, touchy-feely, Dionysian. A male theorist in a roomful of male poets is usually made to feel, spiritually speaking, that he is decked out in spangled tights and a tutu. Like a liberal among radicals or a moral philosopher in a brothel, he finds that his manhood is perpetually in question. Some feminists, on the other hand, regard theory itself as ‘male’ – as a matter of academic boys anxiously comparing the length of their polysyllables. Besides, writers are no keener than any other guild to have their mysteries laid bare. In this sense, the theorist who explains in phonological detail why ‘A terrible beauty is born’ is better than ‘A hideous beauty is born’ is like the renegade Magic Circle member who reveals that there are two women hidden inside the box about to be sawn in half.

Relations between the two camps have not always been so strained. In periods of revolutionary turmoil, theorists have sometimes redefined themselves as technical consultants to cultural practitioners. Osip Brik, a Formalist critic, played this role for Mayakovsky, as Walter Benjamin did for Brecht. The point about revolutions is that they get left-wing critics out of the house. The critic runs the workshop in which various poetic devices are tested and examined for potential flaws before being passed on to the poet. Even today, certain strains of literary theory lend themselves to the actual practice of writing more than others. Nobody expects psychoanalytic criticism to be much help, since it concerns what the writer must be unaware of if he or she is to flourish. Hence Freud’s refusal to put Rilke on the couch. But Derrida’s writings are a different matter, as Amit Chaudhuri came to recognise in the course of writing the Oxford doctoral thesis on which this study of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry is based.

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