Vol. 3 No. 15 · 20 August 1981

Search by issue:

In theory

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

Did Darwin get it right?

SIR: In his lucid article ‘Did Darwin get it right?’ (LRB, 18 June), my colleague John Maynard Smith states that he fully shares Darwin’s views on how we are to understand the conservation of major patterns of morphological organisation in the living world. It is worth commenting on these views since they are significant in assessing the supposed status of Darwinian theory as the unifying theory in biology.

Maynard Smith quotes from the conclusions to Chapter Six of the Origin of Species where Darwin states: ‘On my theory, unity of type is explained by unity of descent.’ A few pages earlier in the same chapter Darwin asserts that ‘the chief part of the organisation of every being is simply due to inheritance’ of former adaptations from a ‘common progenitor’. These remarks are elaborated elsewhere in the book, especially in Chapter 13.

The explanatory power of Darwin’s remarks on conservation or invariance, insofar as they have any, depends upon the truth of an implicit theory of inheritance, which in turn is based on a specific assumption about the nature of biological patterns. The theory of inheritance can be reconstructed and asserts that the individual elements of a pattern (say, the bones of a limb) are effectively capable of self-reproduction. Thus, if all the elements reproduce exactly, both number and size will be conserved; if reproduction is inexact, then the size of an element may change and, if this mode of reproduction continues over a number of generations, the progressive reduction in size of an element may lead to its disappearance, and, hence, a change in number. Apart from the fact that it does not account for the conservation of spatial relations, the theory is simple and neat. Unfortunately, it is also false – the elements of biological patterns are not self-reproducing. Moreover, the assumption on which the theory rests – namely, that biological patterns are composed of independent elements which retain their individual identities through historical change – is, at best, problematic, if not simply wrong. A similar assumption was made by some of the early geneticists, who believed that a specific self-reproducing ‘gene’ (or group of ‘genes’) stood in direct causal relation to a specific individual ‘part’ of an organism, a belief which was not supported by the discoveries of classical genetics – there seems to be no one-to-one relationship between ‘genes’ and ‘parts’. More significantly, there is a reasonable amount of evidence which suggests that when at least some biological patterns change, they do so not in a piecemeal fashion but as wholes, so that the identification of an element in the ‘new’ pattern with one in the ‘old’ is difficult, if not impossible. Despite its questionable status, this assumption about the nature of biological patterns is rarely questioned.

The whole issue was discussed in a masterly fashion in 1894 by William Bateson in his Materials for the Study of Variation, where he pointed out that Darwin’s view of the inheritance of patterns in organisms is based on a false analogy with the transmission of property in human society. Bateson’s remarks on historical explanations in biology, made a few years earlier in the context of a discussion of the repetitive, segmental, organisation of vertebrates, are still relevant: ‘This much alone is clear, that the meaning of cases of complex repetition will not be found in the search for an ancestral form … Such forms there may be, but in finding them the real problem is not even resolved a single stage; for from whence was their repetition derived? The answer to this question can only come in a fuller understanding of the laws of growth and variation, which are as yet merely terms.’ The point is that in each generation the organism re-produces a specific pattern, and it is in terms of this process that conservation must be explained. We do not understand how this happens, so that to talk, as Darwin does, of the invariance of biological patterns in terms of ‘descent’ and ‘inheritance’ is not to provide an explanation, as Maynard Smith seems to imply, but to pose a problem. Chomsky has made a similar point about historical explanations of the ‘formal universals’ of language.

As Maynard Smith correctly remarks, Bateson’s ‘laws of growth’ or ‘laws of form’ are still unknown. It is possible that there are no such laws, but their existence is not refuted by his observation that some early vertebrates had more than two pairs of fins, any more than the existence of laws of motion is refuted by the observation that not all moving bodies describe elliptical trajectories.

The search for ‘laws of form’ is characteristic of a coherent ‘rationalist’ tradition in biology. Initiated by Linnaeus, analysed by Kant, developed by ‘the illustrious Cuvier’ and his followers and partially eclipsed by ‘Darwinism’, it survived in the thought of relatively isolated individuals such as Bateson, Driesch, D’Arcy Thompson and Waddington among others. Reconstructed, one can see it as a tradition which seeks to understand the biological domain in logical and systematic terms and supposes that different organisms might be transformations of each other, not merely in the historical and material sense of the term, but in the more fundamental mathematical sense; just as, in a much simpler way, the different forms of motion which are possible for a body moving under central attractive forces are transformations of each other and comprise a system which is intelligible in terms of the ‘laws’ responsible for its production. Within the empirical diversity of organisms, it is supposed, might be a rational, and therefore intelligible, unity.

Is this a manifestation of ‘physics envy’, as Maynard Smith maintains? Possibly, but I suspect that simpler emotions are involved. One is plain dissatisfaction. ‘Darwinism’ has provided a population biology – the theory accounts more or less satisfactorily for the differential growth of populations of given forms as a consequence of the relative degree of functional adaptation of the individuals comprising them – but has little of interest to say about the production and reproduction of these forms. The other is simple boredom. After 120 years of talk, almost everything of interest that can be said about functional adaptation has been said.

Whether the suppositions of the ‘rationalist’ tradition are tenable remains to be seen, but it at least offers the possibility of devising new and interesting hypotheses about structure, reproduction, transformation, the nature of species and taxonomy. As the detective in Borges’s ‘Death and the Compass’ observes, ‘You’ll reply that reality hasn’t the least obligation to be interesting. And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid that obligation but that hypotheses may not.’

Gerry Webster
School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex

Strange but equal

SIR: I.M. Lewis misses the point about Mme Favret-Saada’s Witchcraft in the Bocage (LRB, 18 June). The book is not about ‘objective’ knowledge of what may be witchcraft. The stake is truth – against scientific objectivity. Mme Favret-Saada discards all the usual advantages of the ethnographer: the ‘savages’ are not her ‘objects’. She does not ‘observe’: she enters their world, not to spy as a stranger, but bona fide. There is no methodological barrier between her and them. She does not describe them: she recounts an adventure with other people, who are very strange but equal.

The methodological barrier is between her and her colleagues. Between her and I.M. Lewis. His reaction to the book proves it.

Octave Mannoni
Paris XVI

Academic Psychology

SIR: Geoffrey Hawthorn’s reply to my previous letter (Letters, 6 August) was both cricket and not cricket, exactly as he said I took his review to be; and some of it was played in bad light. He selected for further discussion two of the several issues I raised in my letter: the method (or ‘strategy’) of inquiry in social psychology, and the ‘liberal fallacy’. I shall therefore briefly comment only on these two points.

My ‘strategy’ is certainly not a form of ‘hypothetico-deduction’ (against some representatives of which, as he wrote in his review, I ‘raged’ in my book). I think he is right in saying that, once you have hedged your generalisations with enough refinements, they stop altogether being general. But intriguing problems do remain. For example, as I wrote in Chapter Seven of the book, despite the enormous social, cultural, historical and political variety of the contexts where social stereotypes appear, there exists only a very limited number of their forms. One could – and I think should – at least try to generalise about them. But let me make yet another confession. As far as methods are concerned, I have become over the years increasingly eclectic, quite happy to fit the ‘strategy’ to the problem at hand. The way some of my work developed reminds me sometimes of what a journalist once told me about political decisions in his country: ‘First we act; then we plan; then we think.’ Hypothetical, perhaps; deductive, certainly not. All of us have sometimes data in search of a theory, and sometimes a theory in search of data. This is better than having no search at all.

Geoffrey Hawthorn’s other point concerns the issue of the truth or falsity of certain beliefs which, as he says, does matter when we study or discuss a problem in the human sciences. To some extent I agree, but I wish I could agree much more than I do. When conflicts or tensions between large social groups are concerned, distinctions between truth and falsity of beliefs can become extremely opaque, and sometimes there may be more than one of each. It is enough to think about the Middle East or Northern Ireland to come to this unpleasant conclusion. Perhaps even more important is the fact that demonstrable falsities have never been particularly inhibited from becoming powerful social myths powerfully contributing to the determination of social behaviour en masse. Any number of examples, from accusations of witchcraft to the blood myths of our recent European past, come to mind. It is our job to study the concrete effects of these myths, however true or untrue they may appear to be. The ‘coloured’ students, to whom Hawthorn refers in his letter, may have come to this country their heads stuffed full with all kinds of ‘fantastical beliefs’ about it. This does not mean that these beliefs did not markedly affect their attitudes and subsequent behaviour once they were here.

The trouble is not so much that Hawthorn threw (?) a high no-ball (I don’t know what it means and refuse to find out) in bad light. It is rather that we have chosen to work in areas of which the éclairage is permanently at best dim and intermittent. But then, as they say on the ‘Continent’, one does what one can.

Henri Tajfel
University of Bristol


SIR: Angela Carter describes Original Sins by Lisa Alther as having ‘the air of the novel as commodity, of an item designed to be sold by weight’, while Lorna Tracy’s Amateur Passions is a ‘slender collection … fiction produced by authentic literary compulsion’ (LRB, 2 July). Is caviar less of a commodity because it is sold by the ounce rather than by the pound? The fact that the reader has a fine and discerning palate does not make her or him any less of a consumer. Art does not rule out profit, as Angela Carter herself should know.

Hannah Barber
London E2

SIR: Re: review by Angela Carter of Original Sins by Lisa Alther (608 pp., £6.95) and Amateur Passions by Lorna Tracy (192 pp., £7.95). It is all very well for reviewers in your pages to sneer at fat, relatively cheap books as items ‘designed to be sold’. Angela Carter presumably gets review copies. The rest of us are not so lucky and I, for one, am delighted in these hard times when I get value for money. Does she thinks that the ‘slender, almost anorexic collection of short stories’ by Lorna Tracy is not designed to be sold? Perhaps, indeed, it is not, at £7.95 for 192 pages.

Antoinette Burton
London N16

SIR: I was intrigued by Angela Carter’s highly favourable review of Lorna Tracy’s slim volume, Amateur Passions. In the final analysis, I wonder if Ms Carter would agree with me that on the evidence so far this author’s work is costagomic?

R.A. Delgado
Gorebridge, Midlothian

Not cricket

SIR: David Lodge’s rather self-absorbed article/apologia, ‘A Catholic Novel’ (LRB, 4 June), reveals his understandable pique at ‘an exceptionally hostile review’ of one of his Catholic novels. Perhaps such criticism induced him to become both writer of and commentator on his own work? But is it cricket to publish novels and then publish detailed explanations and vindications of them? To champion the ‘reassurance and stability afforded by the Catholic metaphysical system’ while exploiting the endless possibilities of casuistry for personal, artistic and critical mileage?

Lodge’s whole piece seems to exemplify the structuralist fashion of breaking down the distinction between Art and Life, and of self-consciously creating experience rather than attempting merely to describe it.

Alan Hurst
London NW3

Modern Spain

SIR: Ronald Fraser’s Marxist analysis of the present situation in Spain (LRB, 16 July) was interesting. He was, however, supposed to be reviewing a book on modern Spain by Professor Carr. The book was almost totally ignored: no attempt was made to assess or criticise it. Could the book be properly reviewed in a later issue? I am at least as interested in the views of Professor Carr on modern Spain as I am in those of Mr Fraser – an interest that might well be shared by other readers.

J.E.R. Little

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences