Claude Rawson

  • Ferocious Alphabets by Denis Donoghue
    Faber, 211 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 571 11809 7

Denis Donoghue begins, a little self-indulgently, by reprinting six short BBC talks on ‘Words’. The excuse is that such radio talks offer a simple if incomplete model for Donoghue’s conception of literary discourse: as an address to an invisible audience, or dialogue for ever aborted by the absence of a second party. Print, unlike radio, is silent. But the writer also seeks a ‘communion’ which is never achieved, and ‘style’ is his compensation for the lack, as ‘culture is a compensation for the frustrations attendant upon biological life.’

These reflections emerge in two chapters of self-observation in a neo-Romantic mode of which Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ and Allen Tate’s coyly named imitation of Poe, ‘Narcissus as Narcissus’, are well-known exemplars. Where Poe and Tate look back at themselves writing a poem, Donoghue contemplates the composition of five-minute literary causeries: an unintended concession to that current orthodoxy which sees ‘literature’ as no more important or special than any secondary discourse about it, so that a tertiary discourse about the secondary may be undertaken without inhibition. There is no trace of the irony of Tate’s title, and a good deal of Shandean buttonholing: ‘I found it impossible to avoid sounding smug ...’

Donoghue’s sense of art as perennially subjected to biological and circumstantial frustration belongs to a similar Romantic tradition. It has many forms: Shandy for ever trying to synchronise his writing with what the writing is about, and seeking thereby a total and impossible intimacy with his reader; or Poe worrying about the impossibility of a long poem because it cannot be read at one sitting, so that ‘the affairs of the world interfere’ with the integrity of poetic effect. Poe calculated that 100 lines was about the right length and gave exactly 108 to ‘The Raven’. Donoghue ponders the possibilities of the five-minute as against the twenty or thirty-minute radio talk. A romantic self-consciousness couples strangely with the exactitudes of arithmetic. Poe claimed to pursue poetic ‘intensity’ with ‘the precision ... of a mathematical problem’, and there is a whole Shandean mathematics of empathy.

Donoghue’s conception of the interactions between author and invisible reader implies Wordsworthian notions of the poet as ‘a man speaking to men’, augmented by a later and sophisticated awareness of the written text as a formal (and fictive) occasion for the encounter. Donoghue rejects the ‘communication’ models of Jakobson or Richards, with their idea of message or signal passing from ‘addresser’ to ‘addressee’ or ‘source’ to ‘destination’, and offers instead a model based on the traditional image of ‘conversation’.

This ‘conversation’ is a play of uncompleted intimacies, an effort of ‘communion’ rather than ‘communication’. There is no finality of content but an ever-unfulfilled desire to share the experience behind the words. It differs from the Augustan idea of literature as conversation, where intimacy is discouraged, and where discretion, reticence, the hauteurs and urbanities proper to worldly exchanges among gentlemanly equals, probably approximate to ‘communication’ in Donoghue’s terms: to signals of status, and (in the literary ideal if not in the social practice) to the imparting of information and wisdom. Empson’s bluff clubbable mannerisms belong perhaps to that conception of ‘conversation’. Donoghue notes phrases like ‘in that age’, or ‘Macaulay complains somewhere’, as examples of a gentlemanly affectation which pretends to be above minute precisions, in language reminiscent of Ford’s complaint against Fielding’s pretence of being too lofty to remember the name of a parish. For Fielding, such signals of status implied a decorum of conversational content: your claim to a reader’s attention entails a duty to tell him substantial things and not to bore him with minutiae.

There is a Shandean parody of this which in effect creates an alternative model:

Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all, – so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.

Here ‘intimacy’ is forced on the reader. The very reticences are themselves invitations to mental activity and participation. The transaction proceeds, one might suppose, according to the Donoghue prescription, for ever unfinalised, made up of hints, suggestions, unrealised velleities, half-formed thoughts, broken-off sentences, and finally an unfinished book. Donoghue tells us that ‘the best conversations never end; they are merely postponed’, with ‘the “I” and the “you” ... constantly changing places’ and ‘the desire of communion’ kept constantly ‘mobile’. It is apposite to remember that Donoghue once wrote an excellent essay called ‘Sterne, Our Contemporary’.

But in fact Donoghue’s unfinished ‘conversation’, unlike Sterne’s, is controlled by a rather literal-minded ideal of good manners, in which ‘definitive’ statements are out of place, and where ‘it is considered vulgar ... to claim the last word’ or to press your case too hard. The Shandean ‘incompleteness’ in no way precludes hectoring, cajoling, or the running of arguments into the ground. Where Sterne invokes codes of ‘good-manners’ it is in a spirit of jeering transgression and with no thought of that tactful politeness which underlies the Donoghue model and makes it, after all, closer in some ways to the Augustan ideal of conversation.

Of course, neither of the conversational models, Augustan or Shandean, is a reproduction of actual or probable talk, but a stylisation evoking the idea of conversation and creating its own fictive world. The unruly aggressions of Sterne’s manner are as literary as the polished hauteurs of Fielding, and would indeed be found intolerable in any real conversation. Donoghue writes well on the gap between text and conversation, notably in the style of William Gass, which particularly depends on the page rather than the voice and couldn’t be reproduced by the ‘human voice ... without embarrassment’. He tends to say this of styles he dislikes, but it applies to others. And because he is talking more about critics than writers, his exempla are sometimes simpler and even cosier than they might be. His principal model for that writing which compensates for the lack of an interlocutor by dividing itself into more than one mind is Eliot, not Sterne: the Eliot, it would seem, mainly of the critical writings, urbane and didactic, or perhaps of the Four Quartets.

‘Ferocious alphabets’, the title of this genial book, refers to ‘ideological strife among modern critics’. It comes from Stevens’s ‘The Pure Good of Theory’, which describes the transfiguration of discordant energies, ‘Groaning in half-exploited gutturals’, by imagination’s momentary ‘universal flare’. Those ‘gutturals’ are the harsh element in which the seductions of the interior paramour are consummated. ‘Heavenly [the book oddly reads ‘heavily’] labials in a world of gutturals’ are what the girl in ‘The Plot Against the Giant’ will whisper to him and ‘undo’ him with. They come ultimately, I imagine, from Whitman’s ‘Whispers of heavenly death ... Labial gossip of night, sibilant chorals’, urgent beckoning sounds, oddly combining peace and shrillness. Stevens’s line is cited by Donoghue to show that writers in English ‘find the letter s troublesome’ and that Stevens would not have called sibilants ‘heavenly’, or ‘heavily’. But Whitman did, near enough. Stevens thought they had possibilities too, actually.

In modern criticism, Donoghue distinguishes between epireading (good) and graphireading (bad). Epireading extends the concept of compensation from writer to reader. It is the reader’s way of making up for the ‘tokens of absence ... in written words’, and of getting back to the primary utterance or epos. His ‘object of discovery is not a message ... but a person ... From print to voice: that is the epireader’s direction.’ The heroes of this tradition are Hopkins (G.M.), Poulet, Burke (K.), Ricoeur, Poirier and Bloom (H.). They are described in brief, attractively idiosyncratic little essays. Graphireading, by contrast, is concerned with ‘text’ rather than ‘person’. It has to do with the disappearing author and ‘the obsolescence of the self’. Its heroes include Derrida, Barthes, Paul de Man. Here readers ‘write’ or ‘produce’ the text, in a dynamic proliferation of code-play and language-games. Graphireaders restore words ‘to their virtuality’. They are, for example, hospitable to all puns, except those deriding Derrida. They believe that ‘print is cool, unsentimental, unyearning’, that ‘interpretation is a bourgeois procedure’, and that epireaders ‘turn literature into a sentimental tragedy, the most bourgeois form of literature, short of the realistic novel’.

We know whom Donoghue prefers. But he prefers even more to ‘retain the opposition as rival forces within our minds’. He notes that we value such oppositions in Yeats, in Eliot, in Stevens, admiring ‘in poetry what we inflict pains to suppress in criticism’. But Yeats’s ‘quarrel of self and soul’ was a principle of live antagonism, not a liberal openness to plurality, a matter of tension, not accommodation. Donoghue’s gentle path, I suspect, leads in the end to that place where the best lack all conviction, except in agreeing about the passionate intensity of the worst. Donoghue must be classed among the best. He does not lack all conviction, but sometimes seems to lack the courage of some of it. His healthy ‘detestation’ of the inhumane occasionally peters out in a cosy ecumenism.

Donoghue’s book is animated by a principled and thoughtful resistance to critical ‘theory’. He recognises its inevitability as a tendency of the human mind, and its potential or occasional value in the clarifying or refining of critical perceptions, but he is suspicious of it as a primary pursuit or an end in itself. One of his difficulties is that a principled argument against ‘theory’ has itself to be conducted in theoretical or quasi-theoretical terms. The alternative is to be accused, rightly or wrongly, of intellectual philistinism, since any summary dismissal of pretentiously elaborate structures of thought is likely to be construed as an attack on thought itself. David Lodge, accustomed to having it both ways in such matters, describes the typical British objector as Hopkins described Browning: as ‘a man jumping up with his mouth full of bread and cheese shouting that he will stand no damned nonsense.’ Donoghue is too civilised to carry on so: he has his cheese, if at all, fastidiously poised on the end of his fork, while he discourses tolerantly and with grace.

The result is an oddly half-hearted book. The five-minute word-talk gives it its essential structure, a cultivated informality, a conversational tone, a small-scale airing of concepts not pressed too far. The manner is carried over into the later chapters, with their brief introductory sketches of critical masters. The courtesy and fairness with which he expounds their thinking suggests that this might have made an admirable expository book. The polemical objective is humane and honourable, but it lacks urgency and concentration of purpose, so that the personal testament dilutes the expository matter, and vice versa. This is not the best of Donoghue’s many good books, but it is serious, undogmatic and fair. If it avoids talking with its mouth full of cheese, it is largely free too of another and equally British virtue, that species of accommodationism known as ‘working with’ things one makes a show of admitting one doesn’t really like.