In the latest issue:

Botanic Macaroni

Steven Shapin

What made the Vikings tick?

Tom Shippey

In the Lab

Rupert Beale

Will there be a Brexit deal?

Anand Menon

Short Cuts: Under New Management

Rory Scothorne


Bridget Alsdorf

Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison

Poem: ‘Country Music’

Ange Mlinko

On the Trail of Garibaldi

Tim Parks

Art Lessons

Peter Campbell

You’ll like it when you get there

Tom Crewe

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini

‘The Vanishing Half’

Joanna Biggs

At the Movies: ‘The Truth’

Michael Wood

The Suitcase: Part Two

Frances Stonor Saunders

Poem: ‘Siri U’

Jorie Graham

Diary: Getting into Esports

John Lanchester


Is there an honourable, thoughtful alternative to literary theory? Literary theory at present dishonourably pretends that there is not. So the case against literary theory begins with its overbearing insistence that there is no genuine case for anything else. The advocates of theory often declare that we are all theorists whether we realise it and acknowledge it or not. This stratagem is an easy extension of the announcement that we all have an ideology whether we realise it or not – an announcement which has had too easy a ride, since the choice of the word ‘ideology’ is itself the reflection of an ideology. To choose another word – ‘faith’, for instance – and to announce that everyone has a faith whether realising it or not, would be to tilt the implications away from the political incitement to which the word ‘ideology’ ministers.

The theory-missionaries who find it convenient to practise baptism with a hose are clearly running a risk, since in theory they are running another argument: that these days we urgently need more literary theorists. For if everybody really utters theory, as everybody talks prose, there never could be more theorists than we already have or are. Still, the risks of inviting this retort are thought worth taking, because there are three advantages to the political insistence that the only distinction is between those who acknowledge that they are theorists and those who, deceived or devious, deny that they are.

First, this shifts attention away from the demerits and merits of theory in general and of any theory in particular; second, it sheerly attributes good faith to one party and bad faith to the other; and third, it erases even the possibility of any other distinction, such as that between an allegiance to theory and an allegiance to principles. These three polemical advantages are a matter of tactics. (Not of strategy, though this is the word so loved of armchair generalising critics just now – a recent vade-mecum is called Textual Strategies.) An attendant disadvantage, though, is the manifest arrogance of the claim, since it arrogates to itself, not only intellectual strenuousness and advancement of thought (as if the alternative to ‘advanced thought’ were retarded thought), but also all good faith.

Geoffrey Hartman of Yale, whose advocacy of literary theory (rather, of one rampancy of it) is impassioned and learned, is not personally an arrogant man. But the enterprise arrogates so handsomely that his nature is subdued to what it works in. So it is not surprising, though it is shocking, to find that in Criticism in the Wilderness* Hartman musters the theorist’s arrogations. On bad faith and the inescapability of theorising: ‘Leavis’s refusal to acknowledge that he was a theoretician malgré lui showed how strongly fixed the aversion to theorising had become.’ On principles: ‘There were English stirrings of theory, nevertheless: in Richards’s work especially, even if “principles” sounded more modest and practicable than laws, methods, etc.’

Hartman gives no evidence at all that Leavis was refusing to acknowledge something. Indeed, since Hartman refuses to acknowledge that there are such things as principles and that they differ from theory (and not just from ‘laws, methods, etc’), he feels himself under no obligation even to imagine what might count as evidence for his assertion against Leavis. The tactic, throughout the book, is to divide all criticism into two camps: theory, and practical criticism. If it is acknowledged, just for once, that someone used the word ‘principles’, he is merely being English and sly, and availing himself of the fact that the word ‘principles’ sounds modest and practicable. Hartman, who rebukes Matthew Arnold for deprecating French thought, says sternly that ‘concepts of national character are dangerous or comic,’ but proceeds immediately to ignore the danger and the comedy: ‘but this Anglo-American conservatism ...’ In fact, he has all along proceeded by using concepts of national character (no harm in that, unless you announce there is harm in that), as when he suggests that T.S. Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ really shows ‘that social and intellectual issues have gotten confused in a characteristic English way.’

Annulling even the possibility of a principled alternative to theory – namely, principles – Hartman slides into the politicised falsity which pretends that the alternative to one’s own programme is vacancy or chaos. ‘We have as yet no principled, or theoretically founded, way of dismissing the question of critical style.’ A treacherous ‘or’ there, since the two are not offered sincerely as alternatives: ‘theoretically founded’ is being equated with ‘principled’, and principles find themselves glossed away. It is tacitly urged that theory is our only hope, as when we are told either to try to understand other cultures or else to ‘find a theory (and not just a prejudice) that allows us to overlook their existence’. The use of ‘prejudice’ there is prejudicial, since converts can gullibly be won to the cause of theory if the only alternative to theory is prejudice.

Yet an alternative exists, and a dedication not to literary theory but to literary principles is neither a self-deception nor a subterfuge but a grounded choice. Theory is characterised by its degree of elaboration, concatenation, completeness, abstraction, self-consciousness, and technicality risked. None of these is unique to theory, and since matters of degree are involved, there will always be disputed instances. But to deny that theory is characterised by something – indeed, by some such things – is simply to eviscerate the argument. The word ‘theory’ points towards philosophy, which is why Hartman can speak repeatedly of theoretical or philosophical criticism, or of ‘the philosophy or theory’. It would be as debilitating to claim that all men who think are philosophers as it would be to claim that there is on every occasion a clear-cut distinction of kind. T.S. Eliot, who could have held down a job in the philosophy department of Harvard but fortunately found even better things to do, said that ‘to theorise demands vast ingenuity, and to avoid theorising requires vast honesty.’ In his vast honesty, Dr Johnson stands as the greatest of English critics, and his greatness is not distinct from his sustained and rational opposition to philosophy and to theory.

‘The task of criticism’ was, for Johnson, to ‘establish principles’, and he everywhere made clear that his refusal to elaborate and concatenate the needed concepts beyond a certain point (a point reached early) was not a refusal to continue to think, but a decision to think thereafter about the application of the principles rather than to elaborate principle into theory. His comprehension of Areo-pagitica, ‘a speech of Mr John Milton, for the liberty of unlicensed printing’, is profound in the immediacy with which it arrives at the principles at issue:

The danger of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government, which human understanding seems, hitherto, unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every skeptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion.

Johnson was given to growling ‘And there’s an end on’t,’ but here is not the end on’t – only the end of thinking in the abstract or in theory about the matter. Hartman approvingly quotes John Crowe Ransom: ‘The good critic cannot stop with studying poetry, he must also study poetics. If he thinks he must puritanically abstain from all indulgence in the theory, the good critic may have to be a good little critic.’ But abstaining from theory and committing himself to principles made the good critic Johnson not a good little critic but a great big critic.

The distinction between theory and principles is not just a terminological matter. (In any case, those who study literature should not grant that there is such a thing as a terminological matter.) To head an examination paper with the words ‘The History and Theory of Literary Criticism’ is to incite an understanding which is partial in both senses. The strength of William Empson’s criticism has always been its commitment to principles and not to theory, and this strength is clear in one of his apophthegms, itself a principle about principles: ‘Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions which can’t be solved by analysis.’ A fully-fledged theory is a philosophy; a fully-compacted principle is a proverb. Theory is hostile to contradictions; proverbs admit contradictions, and leave us only (only!) to decide which of two contradictory proverbs applies on any particular occasion. Principles, like proverbs, suppose that difficulties are more worth our attention than are problems; theory, like philosophy, is sure that once you have said, ‘What you must do is to admit that a problem exists,’ then what you must do is attend to the problem. But it does not follow that you must attend to that problem. The contrast is between an exchange in Measure for Measure

ISABELLA: Yet show some pity.

ANGELO: I show it most of all, when I show justice,

For then I pity those I do not know –

and John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Angelo utters a thought – thought as principle – which is not less serious and searching than are Rawls’s concatenated and elaborated thoughts – thoughts as theory. Not less serious, and more often appropriate to the study of literature.

‘One sees that what is at stake is still “an anti-self-consciousness principle”,’ complains Hartman. But theory must not arrogate to itself all self-consciousness. Angelo’s words lack self-knowledge but not a due self-consciousness. Anyway, there is, as the very wobble within the word ‘self-conscious’ attests, some reason for opposition to the mere maximising of self-consciousness, and insofar as theory works for this maximising, theory may legitimately be resisted. Hartman’s concessions are meant to witness to his mind’s not being bolted and barred, but they open up these matters more than is prudent. ‘The practical critic may be blind to what he is doing and the hermeneuticist too aware, but ...’ Remember that for Hartman every non-hermeneuticist is a practical critic, and wonder if Dr Johnson and T.S. Eliot were blind to what they were doing; and then ask what it would be, within Hartman’s world of discourse, for the hermeneuticist to be ‘too aware’. The entire book is blind to, or deafeningly silent about, these dangers of too much awareness of what one is doing, but from the silence it does sound as if there may, after all, be limits to the value of self-consciousness. They are limits of which principles are more aware than is theory. ‘There are some good reasons underlying the resistance to theory: here I wish to signal only the bad ones.’ Fine, but what is this ‘here’ business? Here, there and everywhere, Hartman signals only the bad reasons for resisting theory. Or rather, he offers just this once a small footnote: ‘For some good reasons, see R.P. Blackmur’ – these then not at all being good reasons for resisting theory, so much so as to make one suspect that Hartman has selected them to show that even the good reasons aren’t much good. ‘Neither afraid of theory nor overestimating it’: but the book has no terms with which to conceive of the overestimation of theory.

The antagonism of theory to principles turns on the value of a high degree of elaborated concatenation. It is analogous to the argument about exactness and cogency on which Aristotle is to be believed: ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.’ What is true of exactness and cogency here is as true of elaborations and recedings of a philosophical nature. The death of D.H. Lawrence in 1930 moved E.M. Forster ‘to say straight out that he was the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.’ Whereupon T.S. Eliot’s philosophical proclivities notoriously encouraged him to speak in a certain way: ‘The virtue of speaking out is somewhat diminished if what one speaks is not sense. And unless we know exactly what Mr Forster means by greatest, imaginative and novelist, I submit that this judgment is meaningless.’ But the philosophical incitement was disabling, not enabling, and Forster did well to resist it and to turn the tables on it: ‘Mr T.S. Eliot duly entangles me in his web. He asks what exactly I mean by “greatest”, “imaginative” and “novelist”, and I cannot say. Worse still, I cannot even say what “exactly” means – only that there are occasions when I would rather feel like a fly than a spider, and that the death of D.H. Lawrence is one of them.’ For the resistance to the philosophical web was no less adroit than dignified. Once you insist on recessive elaboration, not one of your own terms is stable.

Keats’s ‘negative capability’ is twice smiled upon by Hartman in passing, but it is not heeded. Nor could it be, given the disposition of the book, for Keats’s paragraph is not only an exemplary principle but is itself a defence of principle against any irritable reaching after something more:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, – at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature – which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact – reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

What is compelling in Keats’s own achievement here is the even-handedness by which it warns against ‘any irritable reaching after fact – reason’, seeing so clearly that literature has both to acknowledge and to resist the claims of history or science (fact) and of philosophy or science (reason). Coleridge was ‘incapable of remaining content with half knowledge’, the word ‘knowledge’ encompassing both factual exactness and philosophical stringency. Keats’s word ‘perhaps’ is then itself evidence of this invaluable ‘negative capability’, in the moment when he imagines the needless elaborations of his own principle into a theory of the matter. ‘This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this ...’ It is the mark of those critics who have given their allegiance not to theory but to principles that they decline to pursue things through volumes. The work of Donald Davie, for instance (the best critic of the post Eliot-Leavis-Empson world), neither practises nor advocates literary theory; its hard thinking is resolutely unelaborated beyond the exposition and application of principles. Hartman praises highly Purity of Diction in English Verse, as well he might but as he may not, given his inability to allow for the high value of any such enterprise as Davie’s.

There is theory and theory, though, and the current advocacy of theory is distinguished by some urgings which are not endemic in theory itself but are the present clamourers for prime time. Hartman’s book has many merits and demerits which have nothing to do with theory: notably, the merits of agility of mind and of adept erudition, and the demerits of travestying its opponents and of verbal affectation. ‘That hyphen-hymen persephonates Emily’: except for the word ‘that’, every word of this sentence is insulting to Emily Dickinson, and to Persephone come to that. Similarly there is a good deal of the twinkling play with names which has been gravely deplored when committed by those outside the hermeneutical circle, but which is esteemed when practised by the insiders. Derrida is loved for his Hegel/aigle, and Hartman likes the thought of himself as ‘art-man’. But these demerits are peripheral: what is at the heart of the book is the insistence that ‘we’ too much divide creation from criticism. (‘We’ in Hartman, as in much else of this ‘We-tend-to’ school of criticism, often means You guys: ‘We like to consume our literature. We like to think of critics as service stations that keep readers fuelled for their more important business, refreshing them and speeding them on.’) Sometimes Hartman speaks as if there isn’t really such a division between creation and criticism at all; on other occasions, as if there is but we shouldn’t overstate it. The latter is more plausible and is better substantiated by Hartman, but it is the duller claim, so he needs to enliven things by occasionally enunciating the more extreme doctrine – more extreme but also more the done (or said) thing these days. ‘Refusing the subterfuge of a passive or restrictive role, he [the reader] becomes at once reader and writer.’ Where does this leave the writer? Nowhere. And where does it leave the reader who is not a critic or hermeneuticist? In the same place.

The betraying moment comes when Hartman juxtaposes real reading with what passes for it in the real world: ‘We have talked for a long time, and unself-consciously, of the work of art; we may come to talk as naturally of the work of reading ... I would suggest that as in work generally there is something provocative of or even against nature in reading: something which develops but also spoils our (more idle) enjoyment of literature. Hence the tone of weariness and the famous acedia that characterise the professional reader even when he has the force to recycle his readings as writing.’ How anybody can enjoy literature, even idly, other than by reading it: this remains unattended-to (as does the sudden use of ‘unself-consciously’ in an approbatory way, happily equivalent to ‘naturally’), because what matters is the supersession of readers by professional readers. There is, naturally, nothing wrong with the admission that a critic is a professional reader: but there is something very wrong with saying that non-professional reading isn’t really reading at all, and is the ‘more idle’ ‘enjoyment of literature’. It is this double impulse – to occlude non-professional reading, and, complementarily, to occlude the fact that writing is something done by writers prior to critics – which animates not literary theory in general but the reigning usurpers. It is then a short step to the abolition of much else. Hartman speaks with level derangement of the ‘illusion that genius exists.’ No, he doesn’t mean the illusion that there are geniuses around now, he means what he blankly says: the illusion that there is such a thing as genius.

Geoffrey Hartman is not a theorist himself, not even a theorist malgré lui, but an advocate of theory. Stanley Fish is both advocate and theorist. The blurb to Is there a text in this class? dubs him ‘one of America’s most stimulating literary theorists’: the advertisements have upped this to ‘one of the world’s most stimulating literary theorists’. The blurb alone could occupy a hermeneuticist for some time, especially with its saying that Fish ‘offers a stunning proposal for a new way of thinking about the way we read’. Not since Nureyev was described on the BBC as ‘a staggering dancer’ has there been so soft a sell as this stunning of our thinking. But Fish, who is very lively, does not stun critical thought, though his theory would, if acted upon, lobotomise it.

His procedure is to reprint a series of his essays in theory, prefacing the whole with a jokey-titled ‘Introduction, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Interpretation’. Fish is indeed the Dr Strangelove of the theory effort. Most of the essays are further prefaced by some account of their rectifiable weaknesses, of their imperfect advance upon the truth. There can be heard a curious hymn-like crooning. Nearer my God to Me. There is much humour in this, some of it deliberate. Everything must be set down, for the record, which is the record of a theorist’s shucking of successive approximations or falsities. Some of what he shucks it is odd of him to have encumbered himself with in the first place – most notably, a belief that the collusive couple ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ were honest and helpful. Eventually they are recognised to be neither honest nor helpful, but the weaning from them seems needlessly delayed.

Other evacuations amount to the jettisoning of literature and of criticism, so Fish’s robustly skilful moves should be declined. He is set to discard, first, the distinction between interpretation and that which is interpreted, and, second (except that it comes to the same thing), the distinction between reading and writing (though not exactly the distinction between writing and reading, on which he is uncharacteristically silent). For Fish, there is no such thing as a text, or as facts, except as constituted by interpretation itself; it is ‘interpretive communities’ (Fish’s bolt-hole, to escape from solipsism and relativism, neither of which he finally decides could possibly exist anyway) which produce meanings; interpretation is the source of texts, which are the products of interpretation. There is much italicising of words like produce and create. It is ‘interpretive strategies’ which ‘write [his italics] the text I write when reading “Lycidas” ’. Each of us reads the poem he has made. ‘Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.’ Once again, as in Hartman, the two-handed engine stands ready to smite both non-critic readers and authors: ‘Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.’ Where does this leave writers, the original writers? Nowhere. And readers, ‘in the conventional sense’? In the same place, yet once more.

Now there is an evident objection to all this, and Fish is too intelligent (and too canny) not to acknowledge it. Granted there is an act of interpretation, ‘what is that act an interpretation of?’ But Fish brushes this away like a fly: ‘I cannot answer that question, but neither, I would claim, can anyone else.’ Well, a fly has the right to decline to enter the fly-bottle, and nobody but a theorist need feel under any obligation to answer such a question other than with the unelaborated answer, ‘a remark’, or ‘a poem’, or even ‘a text’ – something which, despite all the theoretical or philosophical problems, may be pointed out and reproduced. And if, as Fish claims, no literary theorist can give an answer to the crucial question about interpretation, ‘What is that act an interpretation of?’, then literary theory is even more of a Serbonian bog than one had thought. But though it is clear why Fish exercises all his ingenuity on claiming that there is no such thing as anything independent of interpretation, no ‘distinction between interpreters and the objects they interpret’, it will still not do for him to claim to be no worse off than any other theorist when it comes to answering the leading theoretical question. He dissociates himself from ‘our commonsense intuition that interpretation must be interpretation of something.’ But you are not necessarily saved from nonsense by insisting that you are not gullible about common sense, and the nonsense is there in the fact that Fish’s use of the word ‘interpretation’ disavows not just ‘our commonsense intuition’ but the very history and meaning of the word ‘interpretation’. The one thing about the word ‘interpret’ which cannot be ignored is its propensity to be a transitive verb. But Fish needs the word ‘interpretation’ to lend dignity and substance to his enterprise, which is why he has not made up a new word instead (is ‘decertainising’ his own new word? I trust so): but the word ‘interpretation’ will not be the self-consuming artifact he asks it to be, will not commit suicide for the illusion that you could have an interpretation that was not of something.

Which is why the advertisement’s sentence, plucked from the blurb, is so false to the book, or true to a falsity in the book: ‘Arguing for the right of the reader to interpret and in effect create the literary work, Fish skillfully avoids the old trap of subjectivity.’ In effect create the literary work? Nowhere in this book of nearly four hundred pages do the words ‘in effect’ qualify ‘create’ (or ‘produce’ or ‘write’ the literary work): rather, ‘create’ and its variants are repeatedly italicised in order to underline that Fish is not genially and permissively saying that the reader only ‘in effect’ creates the literary work. One sees why it is prudent to foist the words into a blurb and advertisement, since the naked claim is preposterous (before-after, arsy-versy). If the reader really does, and not just ‘in effect’, create the literary work, what did the author do? He is just a spare pen at the hermeneuticist’s wedding. But the trouble is that this is exactly Fish’s claim.

Fish never says ‘in effect create’, partly because he is strong-minded, and partly because for him there anyway isn’t any difference between ‘in effect’ and ‘in fact’. The only fact is an effect. He says ‘in fact’ a great deal in fact – oddly for someone who insists that there are no facts tout court. He says that even ‘Milton’, if we say that ‘Lycidas’ was ‘written by Milton’, is a ‘notion’ and an ‘interpretation’. His book has no truck with the kindly misguided liberalism of ‘in effect’; the acknowledgment would not be a small one at all, but a huge crevice in the argument. Once admit that the reader in effect creates the literary work, and you cannot escape the question: ‘What then is in effect being contrasted with?’ Fish might say that he couldn’t answer that question (any more than ‘What is that act an interpretation of?’) – but nor could any other theorist. Yet he couldn’t afford to make a habit of not being able to answer such questions. Better do as he does: that is, never allow the question to be raised in effect or in fact, the question of how we can speak of what the author did – as distinguished from what the reader does – once we have appropriated the words ‘create’, ‘write’ and ‘produce’ for the reader’s part in the enterprise. The silence here too is deafening in its effrontery, as it was when Hartman was able equably to say that the reader ‘becomes at once reader and writer’ (though Hartman hedges as Fish does not). The wish to save readers – by which is meant critics – from feeling inferior has led to the rendering of authors superfluous except as somehow the inexplicable occasion for critics to go about their bankrupt business, since there are now no words left with which to describe what authors effected or achieved. Critics, academic critics, are to take over from both non-professional readers and from writers. Fish believes that he is doing the profession a service:

Perhaps the greatest gain that falls to us under a persuasion model is a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our activities. (In certain quarters of course, where the critical ideal is one of self-effacement, this will be perceived to be the greatest danger.) No longer is the critic the humble servant of texts whose glories exist independently of anything he might do; it is what he does, within the constraints embedded in the literary institution, that brings texts into being and makes them available for analysis and appreciation. The practice of literary criticism is not something one must apologise for; it is absolutely essential not only to the maintenance of, but to the very production of, the objects of its attention.

Once again, the alternative is travestied: there are other possibilities than megalomania and ‘self-effacement’. And notice, for instance, how the alternative to ‘the greatest gain’ turns out not to be ‘the greatest loss’ but ‘the greatest danger’. More important is the obliteration of the writer – a person who might first of all be thought of as bringing texts into being and making them available, a person who might be thought to have at least some small claim as having humbly contributed to ‘the very production’ of literary works. Like Fish, I don’t think that the practice of literary criticism is something one must apologise for, but if Fish’s claims were true, then no apology by academic critics – to authors and to readers – could ever be adequate. Dr Strangelove nukes them out of existence.

The attack on not just the authority of authors but their very existence is inseparable from the attack on intention in literature. Fish is very persuasive on the inescapability of interpretation, and he shows that if you seem to meet an utterance which doesn’t have to be interpreted, that is because you have interpreted it already. But it is a fundamental objection to the extreme of hermeneuticism today that, in its adept slighting of authorial intention, it leaves itself no way of establishing the text of a text. To put it gracelessly like this is to bring out that some of the convenience of the word ‘text’ for the current theorists is its preemptive strike against the word ‘text’ as involving the establishing of the words of a text and their emending if need be. For on Fish’s principles, need could never be. There are no facts independent of interpretation: moreover every interpretative strategy can make – cannot but make – perfect sense, according to its lights, of every detail of every text.

To put it at its simplest, Fish’s theory has no way of dealing with misprints. His book happens to be full of misprints. I acknowledge that I call them misprints only by an act of interpretation: that is, I judge that Fish’s enterprise in Is there a text in this class?, unlike Joyce’s in Finnegans Wake, makes it so unlikely that he intended to call the word ‘pleasurably’ an ‘abverb’ that I’d feel bound – if I were his executor and he dead – to change it, to correct it, for the next printing. Of course, he could want the word ‘abverb’ (as in ‘pleasurably’), but I so much doubt it that I’d bet on it. In other words, we may legitimately judge that we should here read another word (‘adverb’), in the most fundamental sense of what it is we should read. The result of my interpreting it as a misprint would be the emendation of the text of this text, and would be the removal thereafter from interpretability at all of the word ‘abverb’ once so interpreted. Fish didn’t mean ‘abverb’, and so it doesn’t make sense to ask what he meant by it. I’d do the same with other misprints here, all of which could be in lively creative relation with other words in their vicinity but all of which I am confident are merely misprints: ‘disinterested’, which might be distantly disinterested, but isn’t; ‘defintion’, which lacks clear definition; ‘ambguity’, which has one type of it; ‘Ftting together’, which doesn’t; ‘innaccurate’, which is so (like an Errata-slip which I once saw, headed ‘Erata’, and which the hermeneuticist might offer as a meta-Errata-slip); ‘exhilirating’; and – best of all – ‘paristic on everyday usage’, which would do very nicely as meaning ‘parasitic on Paris’ yet which is probably not a revealing pun but a misprint such as reveals nothing except that Harvard University Press lacks good proofreaders. Nothing except that Fish, like other extremists of interpretation, is committed to an inordinate and unworkable sacrosanctity for the text of any text. His theory forbids him to emend, since there isn’t any thing which he could emend, there being no text independent of interpretation, and all interpretation being, on his explicit and detailed account, perfectly self-fulfilling. ‘Interpretation creates intention,’ so you could not posit an intention outside your interpretation; and since interpretations always work perfectly upon whatever they are given, you can’t use intention to emend a misprint.

Yet I don’t believe that when Fish refers to Christina Brooke Rose, he is referring to a hitherto-neglected near-namesake of Christine Brooke-Rose, or somehow subtly intimating something about Christine Brooke-Rose by ‘subverting’ her into a Brooke-Rose by any other name. I think Christina should be interpreted as a mistake or a misprint, and so should be tacitly or physically emended away, out of harm’s (hermeneuticism’s) way. The same goes for all the other people who are here misnomers: Macauley, and Mark Kinkead-Weakes, and Frederic Jameson, and Philip Hosbaum. These phantoms have in common only that they appear in Fish’s book and should be emended into disappearance, as should a nonexistent poem by Wallace Stevens twice called ‘Anecdote of a Jar’. At least, I hope that Fish wouldn’t claim that this mistitling has called the poem into existence, along the lines of his conclusion to ‘Interpreting “Interpreting the Variorum” ’: ‘I was once asked whether there are really such things as self-consuming artifacts, and I replied: “There are now.” In that answer you will find both the arrogance and the modesty of my claims.’

The case of the poem which perhaps didn’t exist is there in Fish’s telling how he left up on the blackboard the list of names from a previous class on linguistics:


Then, having drawn a frame round it and added a fictitious page-reference, Fish told the incoming class (students of 17th-century religious poetry) that this was a poem. They then exercised their critical faculties on it, and said much that was ghoulishly plausible and imaginative. For Fish, this odious experiment proves that ‘skilled reading ... is a matter of knowing how to produce what can thereafter be said to be there. Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing. Interpreters do not decode poems; they make them.’ But his demonstration is flawed in three crucial ways. The first concerns his claim that ‘my students did not proceed from the noting of distinguishing features to the recognition that they were confronted by a poem; rather, it was the act of recognition that came first – they knew in advance that they were dealing with a poem – and the distinguishing features then followed.’ But when the students came in, Fish ‘told them that what they saw on the blackboard was a religious poem,’ and therefore to speak of their ‘recognition’ of it as a poem is to ignore too much about the experiment (and about its replacing of authors’ authority by pedagogues’ authority and sanctions). Second, Fish cannot himself describe the names on the blackboard without just such a removing of the matter from contestable interpretation as his theory forbids:

Ohmann’s name was spelled as you see it here [‘Ohman(?)’] because I could not remember whether it contained one or two n’s. In other words, the question-mark in parenthesis signified nothing more than a faulty memory and a desire on my part to appear scrupulous. The fact that the names appeared in a list that was arranged vertically, and that Levin, Thorne and Hayes formed a column that was more or less centered in relation to the paired names of Jacobs and Rosenbaum, was similarly accidental and was evidence only of a certain compulsiveness if, indeed, it was evidence of anything at all.

But the insistence, confident of its own stability, that something in a text ‘signified nothing more than’ what its writer now declares; the belief that something, several things, in a text can be attributed to accident (‘similarly accidental’), and that we can rest assured that something ‘was evidence only of a certain compulsiveness if, indeed, it was evidence of anything at all’: these are admissions as to accident and as to evidence which are incompatible with Fish’s theory of interpretation. For Fish, there is no such thing as evidence distinct from interpretation, and from interpretation’s self-fulfilling perfection. Yet he needs here to say that something in a text may not just be explained but may be explained away (away from the need to be interpreted as signifying something); he says that something in a text might be evidence of nothing at all. How could it, on his terms? Or (it comes to the same thing) how could it not be, since on Fish’s terms all evidence is evidence of nothing at all? In other words (see how he uses ‘In other words’ there), he can make his classroom experiment real to us, and establish its interest, only by declaring what the listed names really were, really accidental or partly so. Yet for him the idea ‘really were’ is a delusion, a vacancy. Then at the very end of this essay, he says: ‘That text might be a poem, as it was in the case of those who first “saw” “Jacobs-Rosenbaum Levin Hayes Thorne Ohman (?)” ... but whatever it is, the shape and meaning it appears immediately to have will be the “ongoing accomplishment” of those who agree to produce it.’ But there are two questions still. First, what can it mean for Fish to put the word ‘saw’ in inverted commas since on his terms there could not possibly be a difference between seeing and ‘seeing’? Second, why is the order given here for the names different from that on the blackboard as Fish has several times given it (‘Thorne’ before ‘Hayes’, not after)? Perhaps, as with the old radio programme and its ‘this week’s deliberate mistake’, Fish is a pedagogue to the last, keeping us on our toes with a last-minute trick. But I doubt it. The difference is not to be interpreted except by being interpreted away (removed from the sphere of interpretation thereafter) as ‘accidental’ – that is, interpreted as a slip not needing to be further interpreted. But for Fish to acknowledge any such error or accident or misprint, any possibility of wise emendation, would be for him to acknowledge something independent of interpretation, even if it were only the fact that he had meant to give the list once more in the real and authorised version.

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Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981

SIR: Christopher Ricks’s lengthy discussion (LRB, 16 April) of the tactics by which the American scholars Hartman and Fish have recently managed to ‘theorise’ interpretation into being the primary act of literary creativity (authors being thus regarded as, at best, honest traders in raw materials) contains much sensible and pointed argument. ‘Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing.’ claims Fish in a flourish of ‘either/or’ism. Ricks, by way of a splendid reductio argument based on misprints in Fish’s own text, shows just how thin and vulnerable are claims for the reader as, really, the writer too. Ricks rightly wants to ask the big question about the act of interpretation which both Fish and Hartman are reluctant to pose – ‘what is that act an interpretation of?’ – but here I think his own argument could be more positive. For, hermeneutic excesses duly refuted, it is surely the case that what the two Americans view as the ‘productivity’ of the reader, the way in which reading from a work and reading into or upon it are often impossible to differentiate, continues to present something of a snag for the formal teaching of literary criticism?

At the same time, of course, it is also a source of academic opportunity. A year or so ago, I was amused to read a publisher’s brochure which announced John Bayley’s latest work on Hardy with the statement that this offered ‘a completely new reading of Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. Yet it is precisely ‘new readings’, hitherto unrealised (or unpublished) accounts of works, which constitute the critic’s main stock-in-trade. Published critical readings are, nowadays, professional performances requiring originality. You may not consider yourself a ‘producer’ of the work under analysis, but certainly your consumption needs to be conspicuous. To see all such variant readings (and, in some areas, how the shelves groan!) as somehow sanctioned and guaranteed by either the author’s intentions, or, for that matter, ‘the text’, begs questions in areas where Ricks seems at the moment disinclined to travel.

It is one thing to show the shortcomings of uncompromising ‘interpretative’ theories when applied to that most objective level of textual organisation – word form. It is quite another to tackle just what happens when a work’s semantic and imaginative possibilities are actualised through the mind of a particular reader.

Behind some of Professor Ricks’s comments, and his quotations from Keats and Shakespeare, there seems to be the assumption that those various modes of thinking and argument employed by novelists, poets and dramatists in their writing are naturally those most appropriate to critical inquiry too. If, indeed, this is how his critical ‘principles’ are derived, then I should like to see the case argued and the question noted above given some close attention. I’m not asking for any ‘elaborated concatenations’ either; Ricks’s plainstyle will do nicely.

John Corner
University of Liverpool

SIR: Presumably the title of Professor Ricks’s article, and the fact that it does not appear as a book review, should lead us to interpret it (if ‘we’ may be allowed to ‘interpret’) as an intervention in the ‘Cambridge’ debate, a companion piece to Michael Mason’s rather more cogent critique of Colin MacCabe’s work on Joyce and 19th-century realism (LRB, 16 April). For whatever reasons, reviewing which makes repetitive but clever fun of the sillinesses of the author of the book under review is thought to be a legitimate activity. Had Ricks’s knockabout fun with the excesses of Hartman and Fish so appeared, it would hardly be worth a reply. The title and the context of the piece suggest, however, a more substantial polemic. This, I take it, is an exposition of the reasons for continuing unquestioningly to do so cleverly and well what the constituency of readers addressed by the London Review of Books love to do, or see done, cleverly and well. If it is also an example of a more traditional critical practice and its intellectual resources, it makes very sorry reading.

So charmingly unself-conscious is Professor Ricks in his principled (theoretical?) preamble to his onslaught on Hartman (a nice man) and Fish (an implicitly odious one) that I hesitate to draw attention to moments of slippage (or ‘wobble’, to use his own preferred nursery word) in his argument. Perhaps I should also hesitate to call it an argument, as it may be merely an assemblage of proverbial wisdom. Rather than imitate his own technique of laborious exposure of all the logical flaws in Hartman and Fish, I shall refer to one profoundly symptomatic instance. It is his invocation of Aristotle’s contrast between mathematical and oratorical demonstrations as evidence of the same kind as Keats’s distinction between philosophy and literature (the fact that elsewhere in his letters Keats suggests the superiority of philosophy to poetry, reflecting a rather more complex and interesting relation between the two than Professor Ricks will permit, is somewhat disingenuously concealed). Literature may well be a branch of oratory – is this what Ricks means? – but surely the developing distinctions between them, if only by their practitioners, in the period separating Aristotle and Keats should be explored in a historical/theoretical way if literary criticism is to retain any credibility at all? If oratory is being endorsed here as in some way exemplary (i.e. as not amenable to theoretical analysis), it must also follow that ‘criticism’, defined perhaps more broadly, should be concerned with the sorts of things it does demonstrate, those to whom it is addressed, what interests it serves and in what contexts it is delivered. We must assume that it is not, and was never, merely the verbal ludo of those much-maligned geniuses whom Professor Ricks wishes to protect.

It is precisely through slippages of this order that the article is so wanting. The notion of history does not occur once throughout. Historical understanding as such seems to inform, predictably enough, only Rick’s presentation of an enclosed world of literary criticism developing from, roughly, Dr Johnson to Geoffrey Hartman. Its apparently admirable irresolutions, its inner agonies and now its death-throes are presented as self-determining.

I suggest that by suppressing the concern with history as an issue in the controversies surrounding critical theory, Professor Ricks simply compounds the existing notion that they are not, in fact, informed by real and imporant political differences, if only in the politics of higher education. The Left has shown rather more honesty in these matters. Any examination of the debates generated by the work of F.P. Thompson, John Berger and Raymond Williams (to say nothing of earlier disagreements between Lukacs, Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno) will reveal a lot more of what is at stake for education and the culture as a whole in these questions of the value and significance of literary and artistic production.

Incidentally, Professor Ricks fails to deal adequately with Hartman’s distinctions between professional and non-professional readers. Implicit in his own comments is an equally tortuous patronage of a hypothetical ‘common reader’, a determination to see him or her as the member of a delightfully non-productive class of Eloi. H.G. Wells’s own sense of the different kinds of intelligent reading would be worth exploring here, but anyone who has engaged with students, particularly outside the context of the university English department, by listening to rather than addressing them, ought to recognise this.

Simon Edwards
Whitelands College, Roehampton Institute

Vol. 3 No. 10 · 4 June 1981

SIR: In a fine piece of cut-and-thrust polemic, Professor Ricks has deftly exposed some of the humbug and extravagance of certain recent literary theorising (LRB, 16 April). It is unfortunate, though, that in the process he is led to disparage all theory about literature, and philosophy to boot.

Of course ‘theory’ is a bogy word and an easy target, particularly when contrasted with ‘practice’; practice connotes the active and practical, while theory suggests something remote and impractical. But for all that, unreflective practice can look unserious, even philistine. It should not be forgotten that the foundations for the critical practice approved by Profesor Ricks are grounded in a long and distinguished tradition of theorising, not least at Professor Ricks’s own university, over the last sixty years. Professor Ricks prefers to see this tradition as concerned with principles rather than theory. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s meant just to sidestep unwanted connotations. But when he equates principles with proverbs and goes on to allow that ‘proverbs admit contradictions’ he is surely doing less than justice to a whole corpus of serious and reasoned theoretical work.

Poor theory should be met with good theory, not with no theory. There is no need for those who are sceptical of theorists like Hartman and Fish to retreat to proverbs. Nor, I think, should the term ‘literary theory’ be conceded to one particular school of theory.

Peter Lamarque
University of Stirling

Vol. 3 No. 15 · 20 August 1981

SIR: With the shrewd particularity that distinguishes his work, Christopher Ricks has, in two recent contributions to the London Review of Books, touched on a matter of great general importance. I wonder if I might be given space in which to try taking hold of it explicitly?

In the first of the pieces I am referring to (LRB, 16 April), Professor Ricks tested the firmness of the grounds on which some contemporary literary theorists take their stand. The most telling point made in this review was about the implications of believing that literature has a mainly, or even a purely, notional existence. The belief gains its credit by being ushered in along a line of reasoning taut enough to look true: since a work of literature is susceptible to an infinite variety of interpretations, shouldn’t we concede that the work thus variably interpreted cannot itself be of a constant nature? We can give the answer this question begs for, however, only if we concede also that the variety of possible interpretations is indeed infinite, and if we ignore the distinction between the work’s material form (‘text’ old style) and its meaning (‘text’ new style). Ricks enforces his point by insisting on this distinction. Unless we establish and trust a certain arrangement of words as the object to which an interpretation corresponds, we have no means of judging whether one interpretation is any more plausible than another. When the author’s wording is malleable, so is the critic’s. And this being the case, one could no more say whether an interpretation should be believed than whether the misprints in Stanley Fish’s book weren’t really surreptitious meanings which had slipped the noose of conscious control. The alternatives are plain: either the wording of a literary work is determinate, and determines the range of plausible interpretations; or it is indeterminate, and the plausibility of a given interpretation is indeterminable.

Professor Ricks will have noticed that he was impelled to make a very similar point in reviewing John Carey’s book on Donne (LRB, 18 June). Professor Carey is not, of course, given to propounding theories of the sort propounded by Stanley Fish. He is not, indeed, much given to theorising at all; and his prose exhibits those qualities of wit and sturdy elegance which often bespeak a canny aloofness from abstract discussion. Nonetheless, as Ricks has deftly shown, Carey’s treatment of Donne’s ‘To his Mistris Going to Bed’ invites the same sort of questioning as Fish’s remarks about the malleable text. What are the consequences of saying about a poem, by Donne or anyone else, things which its wording will not bear out? If the principle is endorsed that the printed page sets limits to the range of plausible interpretations, the answer is simple enough: an interpretation which tries too strenuously to exceed the limits must be rejected. But if that principle is itself rejected, the consequences are less simple and more disquieting.

No doubt many people remember the article in the TLS (22 February 1980) in which Professor Carey maintained that literary values are subjective. The debate between himself and George Watson which followed was earnest, entertaining and instructive; one could readily feel grateful to Carey for having laid important issues freshly open. But amidst the gratitude, I remember being wrought to a less comfortable sensation. At one point in his article, Carey asks of ‘dependable literary values’:

But how can such values retain their credibility in the godless universe which most people now inhabit? Modern man is quite used to the idea that we are the temporary occupants of a cooling solar system … that good and evil and other such ephemera were created by the human mind in its attempt to impose some significance on the amoral flux which constitutes reality. From this perspective, literary evaluation of any kind might seem almost comically irrelevant.

The very poise of the contention is disarming. With such adroitly imprecise wording, we are at a loss to know how far, if at all, Carey thinks he is distorting the perspective he presents. Is it as true as it is striking to say that a ‘godless universe’ is what ‘most people now inhabit’? And is the idea of good and evil as ‘ephemera’ so widely current that ‘modern man’ can be supposed ‘quite used to’ it? The rush of objections is no sooner afoot than it is impeded by a slight uncertainty as to whether ‘this perspective’ is the one that Carey himself looks down. There is, however, no uncertainty about the evidence the passage affords that insisting on the subjectivity of literary values is the outcome of opinions deeper than those usually stated in literary criticism. This is as much as to say that subjectivism in literary criticism is just one manifestation, and often an elusive one, of subjectivism in general. For criticism, to adapt Arnold’s dictum, is the application of moral ideas to literature. Hence what a man says about books will somehow shine a light into the principles which govern what he says about anything.

Professor Carey would not, I think, dispute this. And the fact that he would not makes for the salutary differences between his work and work done by those critics who espouse a more radical subjectivism. Nonetheless, as Ricks pointed out in his masterly, yet hearteningly unmasterful review, the tendency of some of Carey’s most salient remarks is strongly subjectivist. Fortunately, the tendency is not consistent. Carey affirms a belief that religious, political and moral beliefs are based on ‘arbitrary preferences’. If this were entirely true, there would be no point in saying it, since the appeal to reason that it makes is only worth making on the assumption that reason is not arbitrary. And if that absolute is granted, why not others? The curious thing about value judgments is that they continue to be made, by those who think them subjective as well as by those who don’t. The conception of what value consists in may vary: but the conception of value itself, as a property to be sought out and assessed, is as inalienable from human thought as the categories of time and space. Thus it is that one can publish a work of criticism in the hope that some readers, at least, will judge it valuable. Because so much of Carey’s writing is informed by principles finer than his axioms, this hope is fulfilled oftener than it would be if the axioms were paramount. Intuitive reason is stronger than subjectivism.

Ultimately, this is always the case. It is easy to observe that anyone who denies that the worth of an opinion can be judged – and judged truly, not ‘subjectively’ – is invoking the very standards of worth he aims to discredit. For again, if this judgment itself has value only to the person making it and to those who share the same dream, then to make it is redundant. There is, however, no such thing as pure subjectivism this side of madness. The phenomenon to which we might give that name is simply an extreme form of the disposition to doubt that values can be absolute.

At the height of the ‘Cambridge dispute’, when proponents of the more progressive modes of criticism were sending manifestos to the press, it became apparent, I think, that only one issue was really being argued about. Beneath their many superficial differences of opinion, critics are united or divided according as they do, or do not, believe in absolute values. Because the values concerned have a bearing on so many important activities, of which literary criticism is just one, pacts among critics during a dispute will be ardently entered into, and oppositions militantly declared. The ideas that one has about, say, truth, beauty and goodness, as these are manifested in works of literature, do not pertain exclusively to works of literature. This is obvious; and yet we seem often not to recognise the corollary: that when literary values are at stake, much more than literary values is at stake.

Our zeal in defending one mode of criticism against another is warrant that we sense this. But we need to see it as well as sense it. For it is inevitable that arguments about the proper nature and function of criticism will continue; and they will do so with more virulence and less profit than need be if we fail to acknowledge the depth and seriousness of the issues they are rooted in. The most immediate benefit of making this acknowledgment is that the true causes of division among critics become clearer, and are unlikely to be obscured by the polemical gambits which are their effect. Essentially, I think, the matter stands thus: those who, wittingly or not, want to push literary criticism towards subjectivism will maintain that the attempt to preserve absolute values – not, incidentally, the same as arguing that only one interpretation of a work can be correct – is obtuse and disabling. Those who want to pull literary criticism away from subjectivism, on the other hand, will maintain that to try to discredit absolute values is pernicious and at heart illogical. Of course, the subjectivist and the defender of absolute values mark only the limits of a scale along which more equivocal positions can be taken up. Not all divisions will be and look as sharp as that which one might imagine between, say, C.S. Lewis and the recent book by Stanley Fish. And not all divisions, though sharp, can be predicted from blatant differences of critical approach. One would not expect a deconstructionist to be much in sympathy with Dr Johnson’s type of criticism (nor, probably, would he expect much sympathy in return). But it would be wrong to think, therefore, that such divisions are invariably manifest in sharp outward differences. And it would be equally wrong to think that the absence of such differences precludes the possibility of deep division. What one needs is an aptitude for discerning the tendency of a critic’s thought – whether towards or away from subjectivism – regardless of the critical tradition to which he has allied himself. It was this aptitude that Ricks was exercising in his review of Carey’s new book. Though their styles of argument and expression are instantly distinguishable, Ricks and Carey are allied to the same tradition. Both believe, for instance, that a writer’s life and works are intimately related, and thus that the connections between the two can, and should, be explored. But, knowing this, Ricks can see that, and see why, he and Carey are nonetheless deeply divided. And it is this ability to identify the root cause of diverse disagreements (the cause being termed pyrrhonism or ‘corrosive scepticism’) that made it possible for Ricks, in his review, to be at once severe and temperate.

The free play of the mind upon all subjects is no less desirable now than it was when Arnold, in the 1860s, expressed his desire for it. But there is a balance to be sought. Free play of the mind is one thing: holding nothing sacred (or even constant) is quite another. You don’t have to be a subjectivist to think that conventions are sometimes mistaken for truths. Johnson, for one, felt the need ‘to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established’. But when custom had been disregarded, or allowed for, nature and ‘essential principles’ remained. Similarly, Arnold’s desire for free play was tempered by his acknowledgment that ‘the prescriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal validity.’ To distinguish nature from custom, reason from speculative reasoning, or belief from prejudice, requires more than fine distinctions. It requires also that we take some things, such as the concept of value, on trust. This necessity may incur the scorn of hardened subjectivists. But there is no good reason why it should, when what subjectivism will not take on trust, it takes instead for granted. The play of the mind, to be truly free, must be bounded by freely acknowledged truths.

Stephen Logan
St John’s College, Oxford

Vol. 4 No. 4 · 4 March 1982

SIR: In the reprinting of Professor Christopher Ricks’s essay, ‘In Theory’ (LRB, 16 April 1981), in the recent anthology of pieces from the LRB (London Review of Books: Anthology One) some unfortunate errors occurred. Fifteen hundred words of Professor Ricks’s discussion of Stanley Fish’s Is there a text in this class? were omitted, and, amongst other printing errors, several instances of misprints in Fish’s book, cited by Professor Ricks, were silently corrected. An errata slip is in hand. Anyone who has already bought the book should obtain a copy of the slip from Junction Books.

Michael Mason
Junction Books, 15 St Johns Hill, London SW11

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