Structuralism Domesticated

Frank Kermode

  • 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.

Indeed, his record provides the main reason why reviewers shied rather than trampled all over him. He can write (they think) and he can read, and he’s proved it. Structuralism is a priori absurd and offensive: but Lodge is not, for all his dabbling with it. Hence a difficult problem of tone. One must demonstrate that structuralism is an ignorant folly, but at the same time allow that it is here practised by a critic commonly thought to be in the same class as oneself. Reviewers solved their problem in various ways.

John Carey, in the Sunday Times, explained first that whoever thinks there is anything in structuralism except one or two points that are already obvious is in need of ‘sedation and devoted nursing’. Lodge, however, is not your wilder type of structuralist, and has nothing to do with post-structuralism, which Carey (though not Lodge) identifies as ‘the Marxist branch’ of structuralism. So Lodge concerns himself only with what he calls ‘classical’ structuralism, and this at any rate is a relief.

All the same, Lodge’s claims for that relatively ancient, relatively lucid discipline ‘seem rather excessive’; and Carey therefore has a go at the longest piece in the book, which brings ‘the whole battery of modern formalism and structuralism’ to bear on Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’. I shall come back to that analysis: the point here is that Carey ridicules the essay because it fails to tell him anything he doesn’t know. But the whole point of such an exercise is to illuminate the processes by which one knows what Carey knows (and possibly more besides). The argument that ‘classical’ structuralism does not illuminate, or help us to evaluate, a particular work is strictly beside the point. It is also wrong to claim that structuralists ‘denounce’ the ‘classic realist mode’: their understanding of the conventions of that mode may make them anxious to break free and try something else, but that is a sequel that may or may not occur – in Lodge’s case it doesn’t. So Carey, although he ends by commending Lodge, especially for his straight pieces, spends most of his space attacking a critical method of which he seems to have a somewhat imperfect understanding.

Graham Hough, in the TLS, was equally put out that one of the confraternity should fall for this Parisian nonsense, but makes a more positive attempt to convict the young man of heresy. He claims, quite rightly, that Lodge uses a very limited set of structuralist tools, but thinks that he has lost the caution that marked his earlier ventures, and is ‘now ready to practise structuralism in the open streets’. And although he remains underneath all this ‘a perfectly healthy critic of the older school’, or perhaps because he does, Lodge needs correcting on matters of fact and theory.

His worst fault is to have believed Saussure on the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. Now it is true that this doctrine is absolutely central to the thinking of Saussure, and that it entails the belief that signs must be understood in relation to other signs, and not by their direct reference to the world. And it is also true, as Hough points out, that there are linguistic elements that are not arbitrary in quite the degree Saussure proposes but in which there is a measure of ‘motivation’. Lodge, as Hough is perfectly well aware, is perfectly well aware of this, and claims only that there is a ‘nucleus of arbitrariness at the heart of language’, though he does believe that this nucleus is of very great significance not only for language but for all sign-systems, of which language is the model. Hough, however, charges Lodge with hanging on to ‘this battered dogma not because it is true (the last thing any real structuralist would dream of bothering about) but because he can use it’.

The whole question of arbitrariness continues to exercise linguists, who regard it as a matter of some difficulty. For Hough, though, it is a battered dogma, and anybody who hangs on to it, in however qualified a form, is trifling with the truth. It is a genuine mystery to me that a mind so civil, so elegant, as Hough’s can commit itself to so barbarous an argument, which proceeds from an imperfect demonstration that Lodge is wrong to a light-hearted accusation of bad faith. The argument is bewilderingly complicated by the claim that ‘a large part in the endeavour of poetic language is precisely to overcome the arbitrary,’ which seems to concede the point that language is normally arbitrary. The authority of Mallarmé (who notoriously believed in ‘yielding the initiative to words’) is invoked to support the view that if we try hard we can ‘give every signifier an intrinsic, not merely a conventional relation to its signified’. In such ways may a blast of genuine common sense destroy the puling activities of the ignorant and the mendacious who have taken note of Saussure. Still, Lodge’s book is once again commended, partly because he doesn’t go the whole structuralist hog (identified here with deconstructionism), but mostly because he often forgets all this stuff and begins ‘to relax and slip back into the old ways’, so that he is virtually indistinguishable, at his best, from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Presumably he also lapses back into truth-telling.

Finally, a reviewer in the Times, who begins quite as if he knew what he was talking about, ends by remarking that ‘the liveliness of Mr Lodge’s collection seems to contradict his thesis by vindicating the signified over the signifier.’ So far as I can see, this sentence is complete nonsense: evidently Lodge’s exposition of structuralism, though praised for its conscientious lucidity, has completely baffled his reviewer. Each of these three writers shows an extraordinary resistance to the new because it is new, and we can suppose that if Lodge had not been well respected on other grounds he might well have fared worse.

Still, I should now turn away from these reviewers and say something about Lodge’s book, and especially the part that can be called structuralist. The reviewers are of course right to claim that Lodge’s use of formalist-structuralist techniques is cautious and selective. For he is a critic of the old sort, though not perhaps quite as old a sort as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; and he likes to confront enigmas in, and offer interpretations of, individual texts. This is not the purpose of ‘classical’ structuralism, as I have already mentioned. Indeed, there is a strong feeling among purists, witness Jonathan Culler’s new book The Pursuit of Signs, that interpretation is the devil’s own temptation, and that all manner of people who might be expected to know better tend to yield to it. But Lodge is unashamed, and indeed chose the Hemingway story for his experiment in formalist description precisely because it offers problems of interpretation. And the truth is that he does provide insights into the story: but he does so as a very good reader reading with exceptional care. What the method enables one to do is to run the story slowly and ask what, at any moment, it expects or what may be expected of it. To be brief, the story is about a young American woman in Rapallo who takes a fancy to a cat observed sheltering from the rain. She goes to fetch it, can’t find it, and returns; a solicitous padrone sends the maid up with a cat. We do not know whether it is the cat she wanted. Lodge contributes to this little enigma the observation that the perspective is suddenly shifted to the woman’s husband, lying reading on the bed, when the maid comes in: he has not seen the original cat, so the indefinite article is appropriate (‘a big tortoiseshell cat’) as it would not have been if the point of view had continued to be that of the wife. Actually Lodge goes slightly wrong about the cat: because the wife refers to the cat seen from the window as ‘kitty’ he supposes it must be a small one, though Americans use the term for cats of all sizes. Still, by showing how it works he makes the ‘enigma’ a little more interesting. John Carey appears to think that if structuralism was any good it would solve the problem once and for all: if structuralists were to make such claims they would certainly be the quacks or nuts he takes them to be.

Analyses of this kind can only show what it is that happens in the course of a competent reading of a narrative, which is why the early practitioners had such a preference for lightweight literature like the James Bond novels. But it is arguable that a more explicit understanding of what is going on may, in the case of a good reader, make better readings possible. Thus it is with the most perceptive of the French narrative analysts, Gérard Genette. He uses Proust as a reservoir of illustrations for his narrative poetics: but he also uses that poetics as a set of instruments for giving ‘a more precise description of Proustian narrative in its particularity’. This second operation is not strictly part of the original formalist programme, and the Preface to Genette’s Narrative Discourse shows that he thought this having-it-both-ways called for some fairly elaborate special pleading. Lodge is in much the same case, except that he sees no need, in the different atmosphere of English intellectual life, to do the pleading. He says his Hemingway analysis is intended to further the view that formalist-structuralist methods can ‘help us to solve problems of interpretation and to correct misreadings’. In fact, the method is designed rather to specify the problems and characterise the misreadings; it is concerned with what competent readers do. If a more valuable reading of a narrative in its particularity starts there, so much the better.

It is obvious that Lodge’s main interest is in the particularity of writings. But he does not find this interest incompatible with an admiration for, and a desire to use, the extraordinary achievements of such theoreticians as Roman Jakobson, now mid-way through his ninth decade and hardly to be thought of as a poseur from the Left Bank. Indeed, when one thinks of that fertile and penetrating mind, it is hard to avoid the reflection that it really takes an English reviewer to suggest that the whole movement of thought to which he has so seminally contributed is a load of newfangled foreign nonsense. One can see why Lodge’s attempt to domesticate structuralism has to be cautious, and why he needs to go on demonstrating that he can do things in the old-fashioned English way as well as anybody. He hasn’t gone off his critical head: in a sense he is doing no more than any shrewd and conscientious professional critic ought to be doing.

Not many, one must concede, could bring it off so amusingly. In one essay here collected Lodge analyses a trivial short story of his own: besides being entertained, readers will painlessly learn a lot about the fabula/suzjet distinction (one of the least disputable of formalist conceptual advances). He is as lucid when trying something new as he is when performing more conventionally on Hardy, Waugh, Ted Hughes and Tom Wolfe.

It’s to be hoped, then, that readers won’t be put off this civil and modestly adventurous book by the jokes and sneers of the smart, dismissive reviewers into whose hands anything of this kind is likely to fall. The two I have named in this review happen to be among the most able and receptive we have: judge, then, of the remainder, and discount their judgments accordingly.