Faculty at War

Tom Paulin gives his view of teachers of English

  • Re-Reading English edited by Peter Widdowson
    Methuen, 246 pp, £7.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 416 31150 4
  • Against Criticism by Iain McGilchrist
    Faber, 271 pp, £12.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 571 11922 0

Many academic teachers of English are at the moment united in the dismayed recognition that their subject is in a state of acute crisis. Some nourish the suspicion that English literature isn’t properly an academic subject, while others believe that its study can be revitalised by adopting structuralist procedures and developing a ‘materialist criticism’. Partly, the crisis which now afflicts English studies is a reflection of a more general cultural atmosphere – for example, that futureless and pastless sense of blankness which is for various reasons the quality that distinguishes the present generation of students. It could also be seen as a response to the period of critical exhaustion that followed the puritan revolution which Leavis and his disciples led many years ago. And it could be interpreted as a reaction against the failure of traditional scholarly procedures to recognise that they were addressing an audience which increasingly believed in ‘relevance’. At all events, English studies is currently experiencing a major crisis of confidence and it is to this unhealthy condition that Re-Reading English is addressed.

The contributors are collectively of the opinion that English literature is a dying subject and they argue that it can be revived by adopting a ‘socialist pedagogy’ and introducing into the syllabus ‘other forms of writing and cultural production than the canon of Literature’. Where Christopher Ricks believes that it is the teacher’s job to uphold that canon, his opponents assert that it is now time to challenge various ‘hierarchical’ and ‘élitist’ conceptions of literature and to demolish the bourgeois ideology which has been ‘naturalised’ as literary value. It is essential, they argue, to demystify this myth of literary value ‘as a universal and immanent category’. They wish to develop ‘a politics of reading’ and to redefine the term ‘text’ in order to admit newspaper reports, songs and even mass demonstrations as subjects for tutorial discussion. Texts no longer have to be books: indeed, ‘it may be more democratic to study Coronation Street than Middlemarch.’ That verb ‘may’ is a quaint survivor from the world of tentative liberal open-mindedness, rather like the ghost of John Bayley infiltrating a branch of Militant Tendency.

Before considering the terminal ironies of this rejection of printed texts, it is essential to examine the history of English as an academic subject. As Brian Doyle shows in the only valuable essay in this collection, the earliest instruction in English language and literature was provided at University College, London, from the 1820s. As a subject it resembled 18th-century Scottish Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, though it laid a novel emphasis on literature as a vehicle for moral instruction and aimed to offset the utilitarian principles on which the new London foundation was based. English was also given a crucial role in the many schools, training colleges and other institutions of female instruction which were founded in the latter half of the 19th century. Charles Kingsley, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of English at Queen’s College, London, argued that the reading of English would help towards an understanding of the ‘English spirit’ and would therefore counteract the notion that ‘the minds of young women are becoming unEnglish.’ At Oxford there was little support for English studies, but in 1873 English was included in the examinations for a Pass Degree. After a public campaign during the 1880s, a final Honours School of English Language and Literature was founded in 1893.

For a long time this remained largely a women’s course and in The Women at Oxford Vera Brittain noted that English was commonly dismissed as ‘pink sunsets’. In the 1920s English freed itself from its dependent status as an element in the study of ‘the national culture’ and became an autonomous academic subject whose prestige was closely bound to the Cambridge English Faculty. Obsessively, the contributors to this collection return to the figure of F.R. Leavis, and although they would like to make that sour puritan redundant they concede that radical theory cannot bypass something called ‘Left-Leavisism’ – i.e. an embattled and doubly puritanical hostility to ‘the critical establishment’.

Here, we must notice that there is no such thing as a critical establishment in the United Kingdom. Instead, there is in every generation a conspiracy of taste among a number of gifted reviewers who publish their critical judgments in various newspapers and journals (the line of influential poetry reviewing stretches from Edward Thomas to Ian Hamilton). Sooner or later, the taste which innovating literary journalists shape and enforce seeps through to institutions of higher education, which then disseminate it to their students, many of whom transmit it to the next generation of schoolchildren. Today’s rave review of Jake’s Thing is tomorrow’s ‘Discuss foregrounding and différance with reference to the novels of Kingsley Amis and/or Coronation Street.’ Leavis, who was fond of denouncing ‘Amis and the age of Tottenham Hotspur’, believed that cultural life ought to be purer than this. He led an essentially moralistic campaign against what he saw as the Establishment (Oxford, London journalism, the British Council), but because his influential critical enterprise shirked actual politics he remained a Cromwell fulminating in a college garden. Nevertheless he helped to discredit formal academic procedures – textual scholarship, the compilation of reference works, footnotes, indexes, bibliographies and the writing of scholarly articles and ‘standard’ works. His championing of Lawrence and dismissal of Joyce were particularly destructive in encouraging the rejection of classical ideas of form, the espousal of merely adversarial attitudes, and a romantic belief in original inspiration and experience. It was Leavis who succeeded in transforming ‘life’ into a critical term, a touchstone of aesthetic value. He adopted a self-consciously awkward prose style and it may be due to his influence that good critical prose is now dismissed as ‘bellelettrism’ (see, for example, Stephen Trombley’s dismally representative approach in his study of Virginia Woolf).

For many years, the Cambridge stress on the private spirit – practical criticism is an example – helped to energise the study of literature and most critics would admit to having learnt from this informal procedure. Its weakness, however, lay in the assumption that students brought an informed knowledge of history, the classics and the Bible to their reading of a short, isolated text. The teacher addressed an audience which was in possession of its own cultural history and which had a developed sense of memory to draw on and add to. Unfortunately, the emphasis given to the isolated text’s autonomous nature – its freedom from a historical context – implicitly argued the inferiority of history, and as a result successive generations of students became increasingly indifferent to memory, the past and traditional forms. They learnt to scorn reference works and that detailed historical knowledge which the practitioners of close reading termed ‘extrinsic irrelevance’. When a Lawrentian ethic of experience became fashionable in the Sixties, the idea of culture as the pursuit of perfection was subverted by a kind of earnest vitalism which preferred paraphrasing the moral content of novels to discussing the formal properties of literary texts. The result is a blank generation of students who are eager to repair their ignorance, but who are often confronted in lectures by a sophisticated gobbledygook in which terms like ‘foregrounding’ and ‘backgrounding’ jostle with sonorous phrases like ‘the unceasing present of enunciation’. The result is a nightmare of subsidised nonsense, an arid wilderness of combative attitudes, deconstructed texts, abolished authors and demonic critical technicians intent on laying down what they fondly believe is a ‘barrage of finely-honed theoretical work’.

In what is perhaps the dimmest essay in this collection, Antony Easthope argues that traditional literary criticism encourages the reader to identify with the poet and that this is a ‘narcissistic and élitist identification (you too can be Sir Philip Sidney)’. Readers who surrender to their ‘misrecognition of themselves in the Poet’ deny themselves as readers: ‘In contrast, literary science will discuss the poem as construction, acknowledging it as labour; and in so doing, it poses the reader as active and productive in reading the poem.’ Like many of his fellow contributors, East-hope has a Stalinist preference for mechanistic metaphor and he is able to make the experience of reading a sonnet by Sidney sound like a spell in a forced labour camp.

Easthope shares with most contributors an attitude of mind which appears to have emerged in England during the last few years and which Charles Kingsley would have termed ‘unEnglish’. This new attitude is interested in ideas and issues, committed to revolution, self-consciously critical of sexual tokenism, sympathetic to structuralism, and hostile to ‘bourgeois poetry’, liberalism and the concept of sensibility. It accuses much Marxist criticism of creeping liberalism and admonishes it for paying ‘undue and unexamined deference to the privileged, discrete text’. It has broken with patriarchal repression by replacing the formal third-person pronoun with ‘s/he’, and in Yeats’s terms it is ferociously opinionated and ‘fanatic’. Academic study, it argues, should cease to be ‘text-centred’ and instead concentrate on ‘problems’ and ‘topics’. For the academic who possesses this particular cast of mind, Colin McCabe is a liberating figure while Christopher Ricks is a tyrannical élitist who upholds what Terence Hawkes terms ‘the prestigious realms of Culture’.

This new way of thinking – or, perhaps more accurately, of feeling – is a phenomenon which anyone acquainted with less peaceful cultures than the English is bound to recognise. For me it represents the rare possibility of envisaging a Turgenevian novel set in England, and it is probably a tiny indication of the massive social crisis which economic decline and mass unemployment may soon bring about. Although the contributors to Re-Reading English are employed in institutions funded by the state, and although they are published by a capitalist publisher, they have at least the aura of belonging to an underground movement. They appear to be members of a dissident intelligentsia which is preparing the theoretical ground from which an English National Liberation Army may one day emerge. The embattled, anonymous prose-style they share speaks for a dissenting population within an entity which used to be confidently referred to as ‘Great Britain’ but whose imminent fragmentation is prophesied by Tom Nairn and others. Unfortunately, Dr Widdowson and most of his contributors appear to share a deep hatred of art and to be united in a desire to abolish both texts and authors.

They are frustrated sociologists who believe that sonnets and beer mats ought to be treated on an equal footing and examined as interesting ‘cultural artefacts’ (this stupidly philistine term is favoured by David Lodge and other members of the new critical generation). They also wish to abolish value judgments and inaugurate a new era of scientific criticism which will overthrow the hegemony of canonical texts. Some find that hegemony so oppressive that they appear to believe in a parallel world of different texts, or a random world of any and every text, or a black hole of absent texts which resembles a kind of Mallarméan mass demo. Collectively, they wish to ‘puncture English’s pretensions to cultural centrality’ by turning it into something even woollier called ‘Cultural Studies’. They recommend the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University as a model for the future, though prospective applicants who read Michael Green’s vulnerable and tedious account of the Centre’s procedures are likely to think again. One contributor – the hapless Easthope – prefers oral poetry to ‘official written poetry, high cultural poetry’, another wants critical discussions of Shakespeare to ‘foreground such matters as patronage, the social composition of audiences’ etc. Others speak of ‘the production side of the literary process’ and sound the death-knell of ‘the subterfuge text within the text, the ideal text of bourgeois criticism’.

Every member of this critical collective stops well short of the epic innovating idea and treatment which their diagnosis would seem to require. The result is a series of essays which, with the exception of Brian Doyle’s ‘The Hidden History of English Studies’, deserves to be regarded as a symptom of a morbid condition rather than an analytic account of a crisis. Many of the contributors remind me of Edward Thomas’s remark about ‘a self-conscious civilisation turning in disgust upon itself’: culture must be in a terminal condition when teachers of English preach the destruction of their discipline and offer little more than attitudinising in its place.

Another morbid symptom is Iain McGilchrist’s meandering and infinitely tedious non-argument that ‘the only genuine critical theory is that of no theory’. Mr McGilchrist is a fellow of All Souls and an upholder of that élitist culture which so angers Widdowson’s contributors. He appears to be highly cultured – he talks confidently of ‘the ornate, yet simple, splendour of Vierzehnheiligen’, notes the resemblances between Lu Chi and Alexander Pope, and sprinkles his text with impressive bits of Greek, Latin, Italian and German. He is, alas, fatally dull: ‘One could say of art what Lewis said of the Faerie Queene, that it is life itself in another mode.’ One could indeed, but one could, on the other hand, feel that those who want to re-read English are justified in their angry alienation from the vacuous and unintelligent attitudes which McGilchrist holds. His harmless Sitwellian waffle makes me wonder whether English studies will go the way of phrenology. Indeed, one could argue that it has always been phrenology in another mode.