- Working with Structuralism by David Lodge
Routledge, 207 pp, £10.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0658 6
This is a collection of essays by one of our best literary critics, in fact exactly the kind of thing one would expect from him; it simply continues the good work in the manner of his last two books. Why, then, do the reviewers shy like frightened cab-horses? Because Professor Lodge not only includes about seventy-five pages of ‘structuralism’, but actually uses the word in his title, and suggests that it is possible for an English professor to get along with it. Given the mood of rancorous philistinism that at present characterises reviewing in the weeklies, Lodge is to be congratulated on his courage. It is true that he had done this kind of thing earlier, but that was in the days before the great Cambridge scandal woke critics from their undogmatic slumbers. And perhaps he could also assume that his established reputation as a novelist might, with the aid of his solid critical achievement, protect him from insult.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 16 · 3 September 1981
SIR: I am puzzled that my TLS review of David Lodge’s Working with Structuralism should have upset Frank Kermode so much (LRB, 20 August), and I should like to remove the extremely misleading impression he has given of what I said. One would gather from his comments that my review was an attack on David Lodge. It was not: it was an appreciation, both of this book and of Lodge’s earlier criticism, with some sceptical reservation on points of doctrine. It is all the harder to understand what Kermode’s fuss is about since his eventual conclusions are exactly the same as mine: that David Lodge is an interesting and valuable critic who has made very moderate use of structuralist methods, and has hardly integrated them at all with his critical writing in other modes.
As for the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, no one who is interested in these matters needs to be told that it is open to discussion. I called it a battered dogma: 1. because it is a dogma, a central one, as Kermode himself remarks, to Saussure and his latterday disciples, and 2. because in its unqualified form it has been cogently attacked by Jespersen, Benveniste, Jakobson and others. This amounts to a pretty formidable battering. In any case, what I was taking exception to was the literary conclusion derived by structuralists from this linguistic doctrine – a conclusion that is certainly not necessary, and, to my mind, not even plausible. I think I made this plain, but Kermode studiously avoids allowing it to appear by cutting short his quotation from my review before the point is reached.
This is not Frank Kermode at his best: and one of the reasons so many of us are sick of the very word ‘structuralism’ is that for the last ten years it has been generating these fretful aberrations in otherwise scrupulous and sensible people.
Vol. 3 No. 17 · 17 September 1981
SIR: Frank Kermode (LRB, 20 August) gives the impression that reviewers of David Lodge’s Working with Structuralism have been unanimous in their hostility to structuralism. It seems worth pointing out that this state of affairs exists more in his imagination than in reality. Of the six reviews of the book which I have seen, four have been written by critics who are avowedly sympathetic to structuralism (Terence Hawkes in the New Statesman, Terry Eagleton in New Society, Anthony Burgess in the Observer, and now Kermode himself in the LRB). It is certainly true that John Carey in the Sunday Times and Graham Hough in the TLS showed themselves a good deal less friendly, but since they are in a minority of two, since they both end by commending Lodge’s book, and since they both are, as Kermode puts it, ‘able and perceptive’, it makes no sense at all to write, as Kermode does, of ‘the jokes and sneers of the smart dismissive reviewers into whose hands anything of this kind is likely to fall’. Instead of peopling his world with imaginary enemies glibly chanting xenophobic slogans, Kermode would do well to recognise that the real arguments which have been put forward against structuralism are many and various and that they are usually advanced not in any spirit of intellectual ‘smartness’ but out of deeply felt convictions. These arguments demand to be answered. The protracted cry of injured self-righteousness uttered by Kermode is no substitute for argument – or for wit, which, while amply present in some of Carey’s remarks on structuralism, is sadly absent from Kermode’s reply to them.