In his sprightly review of a book of critical essays, On Modern British Fiction, Terry Eagleton commends one contributor’s essay for dealing in ‘complex ideas, which was never quite criticism’s strongest point’ (LRB, 12 December 2002). When people like Eagleton write slightingly about ‘criticism’ or ‘English literature’, they hardly ever mean ‘criticism and literature as it has been written by writers’, and almost always mean ‘English literary studies in universities, from about 1910 to 1950’ – from ‘Q’ to Leavis. Thus Eagleton’s own slight is as parochial and anti-intellectual as his target, for no one could seriously argue that criticism, in the largest sense – seen as a branch of aesthetics, or as the grandchild of philology and Biblical higher criticism – has not dealt in ‘complex ideas’. Walter Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama that ‘it is characteristic of philosophical writing that it must continually confront the question of representation,’ and if, by these lights, philosophy is often a kind of criticism, dealing with mimesis, then by the same token criticism is often a kind of philosophy. (And literature is often both.) Above all, criticism is a form of literary thinking, historically undertaken not by academics or by theorists, of course, but by writers, and if its ideas do not seem ‘complex’, then it is our idea of complexity which is being challenged.
‘Criticism’ is a word large enough to accommodate not only the Biographia Literaria (complex enough that Coleridge is barely comprehensible at times) and Contre Sainte-Beuve and Woolf’s essays, but also Heine’s Religion and Philosophy in Germany, and Schiller’s essay on naive and sentimental poetry, and Lev Shestov’s philosophical writing on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and Thomas Mann’s Schiller-influenced criticism, and the work of Renato Poggioli and Erich Heller, and Edmond Jabès’s epigrams and fragments, and so on. Readers can provide their own additions, and if they are like me they read this stuff pretty much as they read other genres of literature. (Benjamin again, from One-Way Street: ‘Criticism must speak the language of artists.’) Of writers still alive, even Eagleton would find it hard to deny that the essays of J.M. Coetzee, Czeslaw Milosz and Milan Kundera are criticism, or that they deal in ‘complex ideas’. But Eagleton, one of the most widely read theorists alive, knows all this, so what does he mean? I suspect that he not only wants to reserve theory (along with philosophy and aesthetics) as the proper domain of real thought, but that he also means to suggest, with a wink and a nod, that literature itself does not really deal in ‘complex ideas’ either. For if criticism, that parasitical, absorptive and co-dependent discipline, has little to do with ideas, then what of its even softer, more vulnerable host?
In his poem ‘On Being Dealt the Anti-Semitic Card’ (LRB, 2 January), Tom Paulin doesn’t ask whether the card he is handed has any connection with the cards he himself deals. Is he simply the victim of such accusations in order to make him ‘police the Index/of what can and cannot be said’? No doubt there has been an escalation of intemperate rhetoric on both sides, to which Paulin has been no mean contributor. The notional ‘Index’ may not specify what can be said, but it does give some guidance on how to say it. Or is he the target of fatwas because he denies the legitimacy of Israel as a state, which is to imply that all peoples may have nation-states, with just one exception? Most likely, however, it is because of his – and others’ – predilection for likening Israeli soldiers to the SS and West Bank settlers to Nazis. To criticise the actions of such persons is one thing – half the Israeli press does it on a daily basis; to equate them, in grotesque defiance of all proportionality, with the Jews’ worst oppressors is a deliberate insult. Long poems deploring Auschwitz, Kristallnacht, Dreyfus and the Crusades do not tip the scales against that. The anti-semitic threat today comes not from dead white Jew-haters but from the Middle East, where Egyptian television beams out the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Syrian Defence Minister repeats the ‘ritual murder’ libel and Ayatollah Khameni is the keynote speaker at Holocaust denial conferences. When Paulin publicly and explicitly denounces these developments, without prompting and with no ifs and buts, his bona fides will become more credible.
All Souls College, Oxford
The final anecdote in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Short Cuts piece on D.A.N. Jones (LRB, 2 January) – when, following a mild stroke, he sought to recall a passage from Homer – put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s reaction to the ‘paralytic stroke’ he suffered on the night of 16 June 1783. Johnson found on waking from a short sleep that there was ‘a confusion and indistinctness’ in his head. ‘I was alarmed,’ he wrote subsequently to Mrs Thrale,
and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse. The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties.
Alan Bennett’s diary entry about the diagnosis of Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s (LRB, 2 January), reminded me of a psychogeriatrician’s comment in the late 1980s. She told me that she no longer relied on her patients’ recollection of the name of the Prime Minister: they might not be able to count backwards, know the day and year, or identify a skirting board, but they could all name Margaret Thatcher.
Bruce Clunies Ross’s portrait of the late Wallace Robson (Letters, 2 January) is certainly recognisable, though his undergraduates probably got more from him than did graduate students like Clunies Ross, since at Oxford the weekly tutorial was statutory, and Robson’s wide-ranging and humanistic mode of criticism, always mindful of ‘the common reader’, was perhaps better suited to undergraduate teaching. He did, however, take only one of my essays to read, and never returned it. He would, of course, listen to us reading our essays aloud, but rarely if ever commented on them. Instead he would take one point and in a single sentence segue from it into his own rapt monologue, his eye fixed on the furthest corner of the ceiling.
These monologues were riveting. His winding explorations were both meditative and unconventional, always trying to get to the heart of the matter. (‘Central’ was one of his favourite terms of praise.) He was an admirer of Leavis, though deploring the downgrading of Shelley. ‘Leavis was wrong about Shelley,’ he said, discussion-stoppingly, when I retailed some Leavisian point about ‘When the lamp is shattered’. He could also be memorably pithy or witty. On Leslie Stephen, he remarked: ‘Ah, yes. Hours and Hours and Hours in a Library.’ On André Malraux: ‘The avant-garde of the day before yesterday.’
He may have lost our essays, and it was exasperating when the most I could wring from him in the way of comment on two mock exams was that the second was better than the first. (‘Well, was it … better?’ ‘Ye-e-es. Better. Better.’) But I also felt braced by his refusal to reassure and to talk down. He showed that literary criticism could be, as he once put it, ‘both a discipline and a joy’.
University of Kent, Canterbury
Wallace Robson’s former pupils will have difficulty recognising Frank Kermode’s account of him (LRB, 28 November 2002). ‘Ferocity’? Yes, but only about colleagues. I recall one tutorial interrupted by a phone call from Helen Gardner. Wallace listened, interspersed an occasional, characteristically drawn-out ‘Yes’, and finally said, with the mildest possible hauteur, ‘don’t take that tone of voice with me,’ and put down the receiver. As for his ‘attacks on the entire literary canon’, he had a mesmerising sensitivity to word, text and idea. Once, having referred to the lines about the Incarnation in Dryden’s ‘Religio Laici’, he asked if we realised they were about the Divine Condescension. There was a pause – one learned to respect them. ‘“Condescension": a beautiful word until they ruined it.’
Wallace Robson did indeed have a reputation for being disorganised, evasive and lazy about things he was not very interested in. An undergraduate magazine at his college, Lincoln, got into trouble for publishing a cartoon based on a famous Victorian painting, with the caption: ‘When did you last see your tutor?’ Bruce Clunies Ross makes a strong and vengeful case against him, but there was another side to Robson, as I can attest: a few years before Ross, he supervised my own thesis. We got on well and remained friends after I left Oxford. I found him helpful; we met as often as I felt I needed to, about once a term. I was then in my late twenties, and had a fairly clear idea of what I was doing.
Robson’s reputation for learning and judgment, which Frank Kermode refers to, was entirely justified. He wrote essays rather than monographs; he was not productive in the way that would satisfy a research assessment exercise, but his three collections – Critical Essays (1966), The Definition of Literature (1982) and Critical Inquiries: Essays on Literature (1993) – are acute and wide-ranging. His bad behaviour with Ross may reflect the fact he was getting fed up with Oxford in the 1960s. After a brief unhappy spell at Sussex, he went to Edinburgh as Masson Professor, where he seemed contented and succeeded in running a department. His marriage, rather late in life, certainly helped. He could be very good company and a provocative talker; on the last occasion that I saw him he remarked over lunch, in that hypnotic, droning voice: ‘I’ve been rereading Evelyn Waugh – so much better than Dickens.’
I’ve been using back issues of the LRB to start the fire in my wood-burning stove, and reread something in each issue before it goes up in flames. Terry Castle was leading my list of nominees for the writer of the most memorable pre-fire pieces, and Alan Bennett has been impossible to ignore. But as of today, the front-runner is A.N. Wilson on Paul Theroux’s book about V.S. Naipaul (LRB, 13 May 1999): ‘Of all the lice on the locks of literature at present crawling about, he is one of the lustiest. He has produced an unforgettably disagreeable example of envy and bile: a portrait of Mozart by Salieri.’
Red Hook, New York
Paul Laity cites Richard Weight’s account of the Silver Jubilee celebrations in Shilton, Oxfordshire, as an example of the ‘darker ties of racial unity’ still ‘binding’ in the late 1970s (LRB, 28 November 2002). The villagers gathered, he says, at the church under ‘two huge flaming crosses’. They then said prayers for the nation, before trooping down to the village pond to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. A Celebration of Shilton 1952-2002 gives a less lurid version of these events: ‘On the evening of Accession Day what seemed like the whole village turned out to the Old School to get flaring torches. Holding them aloft the procession wound down to the pond and then up Straight Hill. Looking back from the top of Straight Hill the torches could be seen reflected in the pond as villagers walked by. Back at the Old School there were refreshments.’