Certainties

Donald Davie

  • In Defence of the Imagination by Helen Gardner
    Oxford, 197 pp, £12.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 812639 5

The imagination is always worth defending, and is usually in need of defence. But it is not always clear what or whom it needs to be defended against. Some might think, for instance, that the imagination is always under threat from the people who, twenty years ago, ‘extrapolating from trends’, judged that ‘the steady increase since the war in the numbers in sixth forms, and in those getting good results in their A-level examinations, would continue.’ But for Helen Gardner, who served at that time on the Robbins Committee on Higher Education, those confident extrapolators of trends figure cosily enough as ‘our statisticians’; and she is not assailed by any suspicion that she, as representing the literary imagination on that committee, might have been expected to distrust these predictions, on the grounds that desire for higher education, and the capacity to profit by it, might imaginably depend on factors less quantifiable than a post-war baby-bulge. The imagination that Dame Helen would defend is indeed a brisk and businesslike person, public-spirited, good on committees; it could hardly be mistaken for a creature of the same name defended long ago by William Blake.

Dame Helen herself seems often to speak on behalf of some public body. And sure enough she speaks up for Lord Robbins and her other colleagues, for the most part robustly impenitent though prepared to concede ‘a disturbing development, which we did not anticipate when we reported in 1963’ – that is to say, ‘a marked swing against science in the schools and a consequent difficulty in filling the science places provided’. And yet C. P. Snow’s not specially prescient imagination had already anticipated this, blaming the malign image of science and technology purveyed by that modern literature on which Dame Helen speaks as an expert. In fact, however, even when she speaks out of this special expertise she still appears to have the backing of some powerful though shadowy committee, as when in the first of these Charles Eliot Norton lectures she declares, with no shadow of demonstration or argument, that Thomas Hardy the poet ‘cannot by any standard of evaluation be called great’. Though an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford obviously speaks on such matters with authority, for Dame Helen to deliver herself of this ex cathedra judgment solely on her own authority would surely seem very patronising to her Harvard audience, as if Cambridge Massachusetts were waiting to get the word from the banks of Isis. So we must suppose that the Emeritus Professor is speaking for a consensus. Where that consensus is, or how it is constituted, is not made clear: but it makes a similar pronouncement in the second lecture, quieting anxious flutters in many a Harvard breast by the definitive ruling that W. B. Yeats is ‘the greatest poet in the English tongue of this century’. Perhaps Yeats is that, and perhaps it doesn’t much matter whether he is or not: but one is naturally curious to know how and where the decision was arrived at.

Wherever the examining committee sat, it plainly met in what it took to be an hour of crisis. Noting, to quote from Dame Helen’s report on its proceedings, that ‘with the exception of Ted Hughes ... post-war English poetry has not been exciting,’ it discovered also that ‘the American poets of the post-war period were much more experimental and adventurous than the English; but neither the Beat Poets of San Francisco, nor the Black Mountain Group, nor the confessional and autobiographical poets that followed, could be said to have produced great art.’ (‘Alas,’ thought Harvard despondently, ‘there goes our candidate, Lowell.’) Worse was to come. ‘By the mid-Sixties the whole conception of great art or high culture was under attack, more vehemently in America than in England.’ (As for Scotland or Ireland, Wales or Australia, they are not inspected.) ‘Most important from the point of view of these lectures was an attack on literary standards and literary values as being élitist ...’ And this at all events explains Dame Helen’s tone of voice. What we took to be peremptory or even arrogant was on the contrary the note of urgency: things have gone from bad to worse, the rot must be stopped, and she’s the gal to do it if anyone can. Moreover the military metaphor (‘attack’ and ‘under attack’ – I myself in my rash youth am said to have made an attack ‘against [sic] Eliot’) plainly lends substance to the title: ‘In Defence of ...’ Of what, however? Of imagination? It seems so. But also we are called to a defence of ‘great art’, of ‘high culture’, of ‘literary standards and literary values’, even of that excitement which in Britain since 1945 only Ted Hughes has provided. Whether these endangered entities are sub-species of the genus Imagination, or distinct genera equally to be defended, is not clear. But at least, we realise, an academic audience is to hear clarion-calls. It is stirring stuff.

And yet we come back to our first question: where, and who, are the enemy? Is it the post-1945 poets who have, perversely or from incapacity, failed to set the adrenalin flowing as Yeats and Eliot did? We have seen that it is not the statisticians and bureaucrats of Public Education. And it’s inevitably something of a let-down that when the enemy is unmasked he should turn out to be ... other critics. The first to be identified is our own Frank Kermode, whose argument in his 1973 Eliot lectures, The Classic, is in two sentences of the second lecture neatly travestied and so dismissed. He survives to fight another day, as we shall see. The next antagonist, in a third lecture called ‘Shakespeare in the Directors’ Theatre’, is Jan Kott, author of Shakespeare our Contemporary, whose ‘dreary absurdities and solemn nonsense’ are however assailed, reasonably enough, in the persons of directors like Peter Brook and John Barton whose productions are determined by Kott’s or some other’s attempts to find in Shakespeare 20th-century ‘relevance’. Next man up is Stanley Fish, author of Surprised by Sin, Self-Consuming Artefacts and Is there a text in this class? Fish is a resilient veteran of many tumbles in such tourneys, and he seems to thrive on them, but because he is engaged on a scholarly patch that Dame Helen has made peculiarly her own (the prose of Donne’s Sermons), here he takes unusually heavy punishment and seems to be conclusively unhorsed before the end of what must have been a very demanding lecture to listen to.

The next joust features Kermode again, and has a special piquancy in that the book of his that Dame Helen takes issue with, The Genesis of Secrecy, itself began as Charles Eliot Norton lectures. And yet this contest provides but poor entertainment: indeed, it soon arouses in the spectator a sour suspicion of disingenuousnes in both contestants. For the text under discussion is Scriptural, the Gospel of Mark; and we are nowhere told which of the antagonists, if either, is a believing Christian. I suspect that Dame Helen is, and that Kermode suavely but quite strenuously isn’t. To pretend that this doesn’t matter, when discussing a text that Christians accept as in some degree divinely inspired, is folly. To be sure, scholars should strive to be disinterested, but it is self-vaunting to refuse to declare an interest where such a declaration is called for. On the question whether the Christian scheme of redemption is or is not believable, everyone must have an opinion one way or the other; and to have no interest to declare on that issue does no one any credit. Certainly I cannot help but detect odium theologicum in the remorselessness with which Dame Helen harasses Kermode after the close infighting is over. What she worries at now is Kermode’s phrase, ‘institutional control’, seen by him as the only check on the theoretically infinite number of meanings that, in his view, can be read out of any given text. One such institution, plainly, is the Church; another, he argues, is the university, or, at any given time in relation to any given discipline, ‘the academic community’. In her rejoinder Helen Gardner resumes her tone as the spokesperson of a Quango or a Royal Commission, and elevates it to a new level of marmoreal sublimity: ‘A university is a community engaged in a common enterprise of advancing and disseminating knowledge, and it lives by its faith in the value and importance of this enterprise. It exists to promote the fruitful intercourse of minds with minds, and is bound together by the respect its members feel for each other’s contribution to the common end.’

For pity’s sake, are we talking about the university as conceived in the head of John Henry Newman, or about the sorry actualities in which Frank Kermode and I and until lately Helen Gardner have severally earned our keep? We may believe indeed that the Oxford English Faculty maintained, while Dame Helen was a member of it, a standard of considerate civility by which our own institutions may be judged and found grievously wanting, though gossip going the rounds doesn’t altogether suggest this. Doubtless Harvard was suitably chastened to be reminded of a lofty standard that it, too, had miserably failed to live up to. But Frank Kermode was clearly talking about universities as they are, not as (we all know) they ought to be. And who that has had experience of them can deny that in any one university, or congerie of universities, at any given time, one style of, for instance, literary criticism is more readily acceptable than other styles? One need not accept Kermode’s conspiratorial version of the familiar storm in a Cambridge tea-cup that lately impelled him out of his Regius Professorship there, nor need one endorse his too promptly wounded response to recent reviewers, to concede none the less that in universities as in other institutions power-plays happen. Universities are institutions – and not just, as Helen Gardner scornfully concedes, ‘for sociological analysis’. Institutions is what they are, and what they feel like day by day for those who work in them. This is not scandalous: it is inevitable, it is the name of the game. And for Helen Gardner to mount so smoothly and unconcernedly from what universities are to what they ideally ought to be only shows all over again how much she is at home with the bland idiom of the communiqué or the agreed statement.

The last of her lectures/chapters shows very clearly how hard it is for her to recognise this. It is called ‘Apologia Pro Vita Mea’ (and was any Charles Eliot Norton lecture so entitled, before?). She is engagingly grateful for the good luck she has had. And yet she has been more fortunate than she realises: at every stage of her life she either endorsed the national consensus, or she could feel that consensus endorsing her. Nothing is stranger or more instructive, in this connection, than the series of chances which led her, schooled on Medieval literature (Walter Hilton) and Renaissance literature (Donne), into becoming an authority on Eliot, the most elusive and in some ways the most sinister of the poets of her time. From the bridgehead thus adventitiously established she has advanced, not blandly indeed but with a bluffy confident pugnacity utterly at odds with any tone of Eliot’s, on Eliot’s co-evals such as Pound and Yeats, Hardy and Stevens. And yet, as her own narrative artlessly reveals, she has never experienced, even vicariously, the profound doubts that the 20th-century poet has about how language cleaves, or fails to cleave, to the reality that his words claim (how uncertainly) to name and to articulate. For her part, she enjoys all sorts of sanguine certainties – for instance, about the rectitude of British policies in peace and war: and yet she has stumbled into trafficking with a company of 20th-century poets who are modern precisely because they all lack just that sanguineness, just those certainties. Inevitably, therefore, she has domesticated these poets, drawn their fangs, muted or discounted their most probing and disconcerting speculations. If we are not to despair as it seems Frank Kermode has despaired, we must learn to refute his argument that all verbal formulations, and all literary forms, are ultimately arbitrary, because only by arbitrary convention are they prevented from signifying endlessly, and therefore to no purpose. But Helen Gardner’s sturdy common sense won’t help us with this. Kermode’s is the 20th-century sensibility; hers is, charmingly but irrelevantly, stalled with, perhaps, Michael Drayton. In that once again, I dare say, the consensus is with her.