These Staggering Questions

Clive James finds fault with a good writer

  • Critical Understanding by Wayne Booth
    Chicago, 400 pp, £14.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 226 06554 5

Previous books by Wayne C. Booth, especially The Rhetoric of Fiction, have been well received in the academic world. Since it first made its appearance in the early Sixties, The Rhetoric of Fiction has gone on to establish itself as a standard work – a touchstone of sanity. Probably the same thing will happen to the book under review. Critical Understanding is such a civilised treatise that I felt guilty about being bored stiff by it.

I had better say at the outset that I didn’t find The Rhetoric of Fiction too thrilling either. A prodigious range of learning is expressed in hearteningly straightforward prose, but the effect is to leave you wondering what special use there is in presenting the student with yet another codified list of rhetorical devices. Separated from the works of fiction in which Professor Booth has so ably detected them, these devices are lifeless except as things to be memorised for the passing of examinations. There is also a strong chance that any student who spends much time studying rhetorical devices will not read the works of fiction, or will read them with his attention unnaturally focused on technical concerns.

Worrying about what students might do is the kind of activity which such books – even when they are as well done as Professor Booth’s – inevitably arouse. But any student who could get seriously interested in Critical Understanding would have to be potty or else old before his time. You can’t help wondering why it is thought to be good that the study of literature should so tax the patience. After all, literature doesn’t. Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do.

It could be said that abstract speculation about literature is an activity impossible to stop, so that we should give thanks to see a few pertinent books cropping up among the impertinent ones. It could be said, to the contrary, that the whole business should be allowed to sink under its own weight. By now the latter argument looks the more attractive, if for no other reason than that life is very short. But for the moment let us assume that good books like this are justified in their existence by the corrective they offer to bad books like this. Let us be grateful for Booth’s civilised manner and powers of assimilation. The question then arises about whether his argument makes any sense in its own terms.

Critical Understanding purports to help us think coherently about ‘the immensely confusing world of contemporary literary criticism’. There is nothing immensely, or even mildly, confusing about the world of contemporary literary criticism. The world of contemporary literary criticism does not exist. There is only criticism – an activity which goes on. It goes on in various ways; ways which it suits Professor Booth’s book to call ‘modes’; ‘modes’ which, he thinks, are hard to reconcile with one another, so that a world of confusion is generated, to which we need a guide. He is a very patient guide, but in the long run it is usually not wise to thank someone for offering to clarify an obfuscation which he is in fact helping to create.

Critical ‘modes’ have no independent existence worth bothering about. They are not like the various branches of science – an analogy Professor Booth seems always to be making in some form or other, even while strenuously claiming to eschew it. The various branches of science are impersonal in the sense that anybody qualified can pursue them. But a critical ‘mode’ is never anything except an emphasis, usually a false one. It is an expression of the critic’s personality. The critical personality is the irreducible entity in criticism, just as the artistic personality is the irreducible entity in art. Critical ‘modes’ can be reconciled with one another only by taking the personality out of them. Since there is no way of doing this without depriving them of content, they remain irreconcilable. You can call it confusion if you like, but to worry about it is a waste of time.

Professor Booth has all the time in the world. There is not room in this article or indeed in the whole paper to demonstrate by quotation his strolling expansiveness of argument. To summarise his line of thought is like trying to scoop air into a heap. But as far as I understand Critical Understanding, it offers pluralism as the solution to the alleged problem of reconciling the various critical ‘modes’. Three versions of pluralism are examined, belonging respectively to Ronald S. Crane, Kenneth Burke and M.H. Abrams. Professor Booth does his best, at terrific length, to reconcile these three different pluralisms with each other, but finally they don’t seem able to settle down together except within the even bigger and better pluralism which is Professor Booth’s own.

In Professor Booth’s amiably loquacious style of discourse very little goes without saying, but if anything were to, it would be that pluralism is better than monism. Professor Booth defines his terms with both rigour and subtlety. Trying to convey his definitions in a sentence or two, one is bound to play fast and loose. But as far as I can tell, a monist believes in his own ‘mode’ and can’t see the point of anybody else’s. The pluralist might favour a ‘mode’ of his own but he is able to admit that the other fellow’s ‘mode’ might have something in it. I keep putting inverted commas around ‘mode’, not just because of my uncertainty as to what a ‘mode’ is, but because of strong doubts about whether there is any such thing. I suspect a critical ‘mode’ is a critical method. If it is, then it is necessary to insist once again that there is really no such thing. There is just criticism, an activity to which various critics contribute. It is neither monism nor pluralism to say this: it is just realism. A critic’s method might help him to find things out but we don’t wait for his method to collapse before deciding that he is talking rubbish. Nor is it our method that detects faults in his method. We reason about his reasoning, and that’s it.

Professor Booth’s pluralism has a plural nature of its own, alas. When he means by pluralism that there is a multiplicity of valid critical modes or methods and that some of these might be irreconcilable, I am afraid he does not mean much. When he means by pluralism that the only real critical mode or method, criticism, is pursued in different ways and areas by various critics, he means something, even if not a lot. The latter interpretation of the word, however, would not yield up a long book, or even a long article. The first interpretation has the advantage of providing limitless opportunities to burble on. It offers all the dangerous excitement of the Uncertainty Principle.

Professor Booth is a trained thinker and I am not, so he knows at least as well as I do that the theory of Relativity in physics lends no support to the concept of relativism in metaphysics. No relativist could have come up with Relativity. Einsteinian physics are no excuse for treating reality as a piece of elastic. Nor is the Uncertainty Principle any excuse for thinking that a proposition can hover between true and false. Einstein didn’t like the Uncertainty Principle very much, believing that the Old One does not play dice. Unable to arrive at a Unified Field theory which would reconcile his own theories with other theories which seemed equally powerful, he was constrained to see his own proofs within a pluralist frame. For Professor Booth, this fact is too tempting to resist. Try as he might, he can’t help suggesting that Einstein found certain lines of inquiry inconsistent with one another. He wishes his own pluralism on Einstein.

But Einstein’s pluralism, insofar as it existed, had nothing to do with finding certain lines of inquiry irreconcilable with one another. He never gave up on the possibility of a Unified Field. He just gave up on his own chances of finding it. Einstein believed that there was only one mode of method of scientific inquiry – scientific inquiry.

Different things which had been uncovered by scientific inquiry might be hard to match up with each other – hard even for him – but there was no reason to think that scientific inquiry would not be able to match them up eventually, although probably part of the result would be to open fresh gaps. That was the extent of Einstein’s pluralism. It was the humble admission, by a supremely realistic thinker, that not everything could be done at once by one person. It had nothing to do with superficially exciting notions about the irreconcilability of modes. Einstein thought too concretely to get interested in stuff like that.

Lesser minds are perhaps more susceptible. Pluralism might be on the verge of becoming a fad, like ecology or macrobiotic diet. Beyond that, it could easily become a cult, like Scientology. It would be a pity to see Einstein posthumously co-opted into the role of L. Ron Hubbard. The same thing could happen to Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has been getting praise in the reviews for his alleged pluralism. To a certain extent he has brought this on himself, for appearing to be impressed by Machiavelli’s discovery of incompatible moralities. Machiavelli thought, among other things, that the Prince needed to be cruel in order to be kind – in other words, that ends justified means. When it comes to practice, the evidence in favour of this proposition is not noticeably better than the evidence against it, especially if Italy is your field of study. Anyway for the decent politician there is no choice: he tries to do the liberal thing in small matters as in large, just as Sir Isaiah himself would, if he was put in charge of a state.

Sir Isaiah’s cast of mind is better represented by his admiration for Herzen, who distrusted the idea that good ends could be brought about by bad means. Sir Isaiah’s pluralism is really just the ability to get interested in a lot of different fields. What makes him a distinguished thinker is the way he combines vitality with range and penetration. It would be sad if his sympathy for Machiavelli reinforced the notion that there is some sort of philosophical endorsement to be had for living your life to a double standard. Sir Isaiah, or any other considerable thinker who finds himself saddled with the description ‘pluralist’, should do his best to buck it off. On those terms, pluralism can make any featherbrain a philosopher.

Professor Booth is a solid enough thinker, but he is far too apt to proclaim himself stymied when faced with the huge task of bringing order out of chaos. It would be better for his own morale, although it would lead to much shorter books, if he realised that the chaos is a mirage and that the order he brings out of it is largely uninformative. He pronounces himself daunted by the challenge of reconciling all the differently valid ways of critically responding to a poem. The luckless poem chosen for purposes of demonstration is Auden’s ‘Surgical Ward’. Auden would probably have some short, sharp things to say if he were to rise from the dead and join the discussion. He might as well: he can’t be getting much peace down there.

Scrupulous in his pluralism, Professor Booth offers us his educated guess at how each of his three paradigm thinkers would approach this poem. We have to take it for granted that he is faithful to their respective modes, although an independent observer might point out that the modes can’t be up to much if somebody else can take them over so easily. Be that as it may, it turns out that the three modes scarcely even begin to jibe, whereupon the awed Professor Booth gives forth plangent threnodies, of which the following is merely a sample: ‘Regardless of whether Ronald Crane finds any one sonnet or an entire sequence to be a beautiful construct, or whether Kenneth Burke finds Auden grappling effectively with the task of curing his or the reader’s ills, the “Abrams test” remains: Does an intelligent, sensitive and informed historian find the sonnets responding to years of inquiry and to his effort to write a major history of the poem-as-moment? It is in the nature of the case that we shall quite probably never know the answer to that question.’

Clearly Professor Booth envisages a discussion that can never end. The reader might have difficulty in seeing how it can even start, if it has to be conducted using terms like ‘a major history of the poem-as-moment’ or (from elsewhere in the book) ‘the need for overstanding’. But for the moment-as-moment we can grant that Professor Booth has brought us face to face with the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable. After all, a poem is much more complicated than a cone in space. Professor Booth makes much of this cone. If an observer sees the cone from end on, he thinks it is a circle. If the observer sees the cone from the side, he thinks it is a triangle. How can the observer be sure what he is seeing?

The answer is that he has to go on looking from different points of view, but not necessarily indefinitely. If we found out that the thing was a cone, why shouldn’t he? Eventually he will either find out what we know or will just act on less-than-complete information. But there is no great mystery. Here as elsewhere with Professor Booth’s examples, it is necessary to point out that the matter he has raised is a mare’s nest. When the observer sees the base of the cone and calls the object a circle, it makes just as much sense to say that he has got things right as that he has got things wrong. He has begun to get things right, and within a reasonable time could well arrive at a proper identification of the object. That might open additional questions – such as what the cone is made of, or who put it there – but to say that a discussion never ends doesn’t mean that we don’t reach conclusions. Indeed, if we didn’t reach conclusions along the way there could be no discussion.

A poem is certainly a much more complicated thing than a cone in space, but there is less, rather than more, reason for carrying on as if it presented a challenge to the ‘inadequacy’ of our modes or methods. Unless the ordinary reader is mentally defective he starts getting the poem right straight away. He might not be very sure of what it is, but he can immediately start being reasonably sure of what it isn’t. After a glance at ‘Surgical Ward’ you can see that there are a number of things it might be about. But that number is small compared with the large number of things it is manifestly not about. It is not about the fall of Rome, for example. Auden wrote a poem about that subject, but this one is not it.

So the reader, though he might be puzzled, is not completely in the dark. He can see roughly what area of experience is being talked about, and will probably concede that the reason why he can’t see more clearly is that what is being talked about is something oblique, which is doubtless why Auden has expressed it in the form of a poem. He will give Auden credit for knowing what he is trying to get at, and will be slow to cross the line into that speculative territory where it is possible to suggest that Auden doesn’t know what he is up to and that the poem’s deepest and truest meaning is something the author had no knowledge of. The ordinary reader’s ordinary reading is already a very decisive business.

Indeed, it is not all that easy to see the inferiority of what the ordinary reader does by reading intelligently to what the professional critic does by applying his mode or method. A critic would have to be pretty conceited to imagine that he does a better job than the ordinary reader of deciding what the poem is about. For one thing, the ordinary reader might be more responsive than the critic.

A public, however small, is what establishes a poem, or any other work of art, as worth-while. This public might be so small as to consist entirely of critics, but such is rarely the case. Criticism might guide the public’s attention to the work of art, but unless the public responds then the work of art is a dead duck. To the public’s response there is always something that informed criticism can add, but it is never as much or as important as what the public has decided on its own account. Sensibility comes first and most, intellect last and least. An extreme case is that of Mallarmé, who was derided as nonsensical even by fellow writers. But there was always a public who stuck by him, out of faith that anything which sounded so lovely must mean something. The meaning of Mallarmé’s poems will never be entirely clear. This represents, if you like, a genuinely endless challenge to criticism. But it would be a very trivial critic who believed that the real work of appreciation had not already been done, long ago and by nameless amateurs.

A good critic is always an ordinary reader in the first instance. A bad critic, not being that, is usually obliged to come up with an angle in order to stay in business. If he contented himself with saying what he found to be true, he would sound platitudinous to everybody else, like that guileless American professor of drama who discovered Jimmy Porter’s monologue to be composed of both long and short sentences. So he relies on his mode or method to produce impressive results on his behalf. Structuralism, in this regard, is the greatest invention since pig Latin. It can make any idiot sound unfathomable.

‘When a man talks of system,’ said Byron, ‘his case is hopeless.’ To the extent that they are systems, critical modes or methods are aberrations. They are usually ways for mediocrities to make themselves sound interesting. Occasionally a first-rate critic is to be found promoting a mode or method but the mode or method has little value in itself except as a change of tack. The critical responses occasioned by the mode or method will be of value only to the extent that they express the critic’s individuality, always supposing that he possesses such a thing. Valéry (whose Introduction à la Poétique Professor Booth might care to reread, in order to study the virtues of a short book) believed that a writer’s artistic personality was a different thing from his personality in everyday life. He was preceded in this belief by Croce, for whom the separateness of the real-life personality and the artistic one was fundamental to his aesthetic system. It was, and continues to be, a good principle, but in practice Croce didn’t hesitate to blame Verlaine’s artistic inadequacies on the immorality of the poet’s private life. Croce sabotaged his own system because he had something he couldn’t resist saying. He thought that the test of aesthetics lay in the ability to write criticism. In fact, however, his criticism does not always square up with his aesthetics. If it did, it would not be live criticism, which finds its consistency in its own vitality, and not in relation to a supposedly logical framework.

Professor Booth’s three exemplary thinkers all seem to possess individual critical minds. Hence it is no mystery that their separate lines of approach are hard to match up. The mystery would be if the opposite were the case. Nevertheless Professor Booth agonises about ‘these staggering questions’ over many pages assigned to each thinker and many more pages assigned to the supposed conundrum that what they have to say as individuals is hard to reduce to a single order of collective sense. Crane’s pluralism, it emerges, has mainly to do with approaching poetry in terms of poetics. He is a ‘splitter’, meaning that he makes precise discriminations. Burke’s pluralism takes more heed of something called ‘dramatism’. He is a ‘lumper’, making large claims about what the poem ‘does for’ the writer and the reader. Abrams takes a more historicist approach. But they are all three pluralists about modes and methods within their respective spheres, and since Professor Booth finds himself bound to be pluralist about them, he ends up worried about whether he has involved himself in an infinite regress, although he has apparently failed to notice the further possibility that somebody else might come along and start being pluralist about him.

Perhaps he is trying to thrill himself about the chances of being sucked down a black hole. For those of us with less time on our hands his dilemma looks to be no big deal. From his summaries of them, the three thinkers seem fairly human. Crane, indeed, sounds too finely discriminating to be summarised at all. As I remember his work from my student days, he commands the rare power of straightforward critical argument. The reason why Crane would not be capable of Burke’s perfectly recognisable brand of hoopla has nothing to do with modes or methods. Crane has got his head screwed on. Apparently Burke has never abandoned his belief that his invented line ‘Body is turd, turd body’ says something penetrating about Keats.

‘How can we choose among criticisms,’ asks the blurb anxiously, ‘if we reject the scepticism that would cancel them all?’ But these are false alternatives. It is not scepticism that would cancel all ‘criticisms’, it is simple realism that denies independent existence to any such entities. Criticism is not a science. Scientific truths would still be true if there were no humans. Critical truths are by and about minds. In order to pursue critical inquiry, humans sometimes produce systems of thought. These systems of thought may yield a certain amount of truth, from which in turn we may assimilate as much truth as we are capable of apprehending. But to set about reconciling the systems themselves is like drawing up plans for a centralised world laundry.

Criticism is simply a talent, like any other talent. Some people can tell chalk from cheese just by looking at them. Others can’t tell the difference even when they taste them. But to say that criticism is simply a talent doesn’t mean that a talent is something simple. A talent, both to those who possess it and to those who appreciate it, feels as rich and various as life itself. The question of whether or not critical talent is an allotrope of creative talent is beyond me. The fact that the two talents are so often present in the one head leads me to suspect that they are the same thing in different forms. Perhaps the gift of scientific investigation is yet another form. But I don’t need to wait for these suspicions to be confirmed or denied before suggesting that criticism and art have a certain relationship to one another which can’t be reaffirmed too often, since it is in the interests of mediocre practitioners in both fields to mix up what ought to be kept separate.

Criticism is not indispensable to art. It is indispensable to civilisation – a more inclusive thing. When Pushkin lamented the absence of criticism in Russia, he wasn’t begging for assistance in writing poems. He wanted to write them in a civilised country. Literary criticism fulfils its responsibility by contributing to civilisation, whose dependence on criticism in all its forms is amply demonstrated by what happens when critical inquiry is forbidden. Being indispensable to civilisation should be a big enough ambition for any critic. Unfortunately some critics, not always the less gifted, want to be indispensable to art. In Great Britain the extreme case of this aberration was F.R. Leavis, who behaved as if creativity had passed out of the world with D.H. Lawrence and could only be brought back by the grace and favour of his own writings. A powerful critical talent who destroyed his own sense of proportion, Leavis was our brush with totalitarianism: we caught it as a mild fever instead of the full attack of meningitis. His career was the clearest possible proof that the course the arts take is not under the control of criticism, which must either pursue its own ends or else turn silly.

Professor Booth is too humble to be a dictator. He knows his place. The worst thing you can say about him is that his place sounds so comfortable. As George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago he is obviously doing all right. Most young academics, I fear, would like to be him. It was almost better when they wanted to be F.R. Leavis. At least what they got up to in those days could not be mistaken for anything useful, mainly because anybody who could submit himself to such absolutism had to be self-selectingly obsequious. But nowadays you can build an impregnable career out of polite waffle. If Professor Booth wants to be worried about something, he should worry about that. He should turn his attention to the sociology of academicism.

Nobody objects to proper scholarship. The literary community would be sunk without it. As a denizen of Grub Street I become more and more aware that a thick fog would soon descend if scholarship and learned commentary were not kept up in the universities. Grub Street and the university make a bad marriage but a worse divorce. One can be glad that the universities continue to produce a steady output of solid work. One can even be glad that the livelier academic wits continue to moonlight in Grub Street, even though some of them – especially the ones based in Oxford – seem bent on staying precocious until the grave. But what makes the heart quail is the exponentially-increasing amount of abstract speculation in book form, most of it emanating from proponents of one mode or another. There have been important books of speculation about literature, but they have usually been written by such men as Auerbach and Curtius – mature, greatly learned critical minds who affirmed the permanent values of civilisation by their response to the historical forces which threatened it with annihilation. Those who spent their lives in universities did so as real scholars, not as arid metaphysicians in opportunistic search of a marketable subject.

The PhD system continues to breed thousands of young academics who have no intention of ever setting foot outside the university for the rest of their lives. Not many of them could write an essay you would want to read. Knowing this – or, even worse, not knowing it – they write whole books that aren’t even meant to be read. In America, and here too, it has become standard practice to publish PhD theses as books. A great many of these publications are abstract metaphysical speculation of no value whatsoever. Some comfort can be taken from the fact that nothing is directly threatened except the forests that must be felled to make so much paper. Graduates in English show no signs as yet of emulating those Italian sociology students who would sooner blow your kneecaps off than argue the point. But in the long run it can’t be good that boys and girls are being encouraged to pontificate on topics about which wise men and women would consider it presumptuous to venture an aphorism.

Also there is the likelihood – some would say it is already an actuality – that the sheer volume of interpretation on offer will become a demand creating its own supply. The best route to success for a dull artist might be to create a work that needs interpretation. On the other hand, the bright artist might go out of his way to avoid the attentions of the waiting owls. The result could be a seriously split literary culture, with the dummies pretending to be clever and the clever people masquerading as oafs. We have seen something like this already in the determination of Amis and Larkin – both of them deeply cultivated – to sound like philistines rather than co-operate with the kind of academic industrialism which separates the work of art from the common people. Durrenmatt forecast just such a schism when he made his resonant comment about the necessity to create works of art which would weigh nothing in the scales of respectability. Dodging respectability can be quite fun but with the onset of middle age it tends to get wearing.

Critical Understanding is about as good a book as you can get of its type, yet there is nothing in it which could not have been said in a compressed, allusive article a few thousand words long. In my copy pages 347-378 were missing but I can’t say I was sorry. There were still nearly four hundred pages left, scarcely one of them without its suavely muted cry of anguish about the problem of being pluralistic without being eclectic. There is no such problem. To be pluralistic without being eclectic all you have to be is consistent. But really you don’t have to worry even about that. Consistency comes with the ability, and goes with the lack of it, to see things as they are.