Intelligent Theory

Frank Kermode

  • Figures of Literary Discourse by Gérard Genette, translated by Alan Sheridan
    Blackwell, 303 pp, £15.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 631 13089 6
  • Theories of the Symbol by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Catherine Porter
    Blackwell, 302 pp, £15.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 631 10511 5
  • The Breaking of the Vessels by Harold Bloom
    Chicago, 107 pp, £7.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 226 06043 8
  • The Institution of Criticism by Peter Hohendahl
    Cornell, 287 pp, £14.74, June 1982, ISBN 0 8014 1325 7
  • Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction by Ann Banfield
    Routledge, 340 pp, £15.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0905 4

The first four books would normally be described as literary criticism, though they exhibit a considerable variety of interests, sociological, historical, theoretical; in Harold Bloom’s case ordinary language is defeated, for we need some such compound as cabbalistic-rhapsodic. None of them shows much interest in British writing, or the British literary scene, or in literary criticism as it is now practised and taught here. Hohendahl limits himself to the role and operations of criticism in West German society; he might have said more about the ways in which it works here and in the US, for the situations are not, it appears, radically different, but his argument is dominated by the critical theory of Frankfurt, and especially of Habermas. Todorov’s book is a lively and learned history of certain phases of sign and symbol theory, a subject one can imagine somebody here taking on: but the result would be very differently conceived, and Coleridge, and probably nowadays Hamann, would get more than passing mention. Bloom is sui generis, but he is also wholly American, wholly un-English. Genette, though by any unprejudiced standard an extraordinarily fine critic, is also interested in systematic literary theory – though it is an opinion now strongly maintained in this country that the second part of that statement flatly contradicts the first.

One expression of this view occurred in a recent letter to the London Review of Books. Its writer, Mr Stephen Logan, elegantly transforms Eliot’s parenthetic observation that ‘there is no method except to be very intelligent’ into a pronouncement that intelligence is ‘largely a matter of perceiving the disabling restrictions of method’. I doubt whether Eliot would have approved of this stronger version. He made the original remark in the context of a brief but admiring allusion to Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, a fragmentary yet still methodical work. Eliot offers it as an instance of ‘intelligence ... swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition’, and is certainly saying that we should admire the intelligence of the operation rather than its method: but he is not saying what Mr Logan says.

It would surely be unfortunate if it became the fashion to regard any sign of interest in literary theory and method as in itself a failure of intelligence; and it would be positively bizarre if those who held this view further asserted that merely by doing so – by the fact of their having perceived ‘the disabling restrictions of method’ – they had proved their own intelligence. Intelligence has enemies and ought to be defended (the enemy identified by Eliot in ‘The Perfect Critic’ is, by the way, emotion, not method), but that is not equivalent to calling whatever one chooses to defend by the name of Intelligence.

It is often remarked that no theory exists that accommodates all the relevant data, and it is certain that literary theory is no exception. Moreover it can be a nuisance. Eliot complains that Coleridge ‘is apt to take leave of the data of criticism’, seduced by his metaphysical interest, which was, ‘like most metaphysical interests, an affair of his emotions’. But he does not claim that Coleridge invariably fails to return from his more abstruse speculations to the work of art ‘with improved perception’, only that his failure to do so always is ‘an instance of the pernicious effect of emotion’. He is hence a lesser figure than Aristotle. But this judgment does not preclude the one with which Eliot begins his essay: namely, that ‘Coleridge was perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last.’

Perhaps it is because Eliot invoked him in the essay which includes the remark about intelligence and method that Aristotle recurs in the discussion of these matters. Mr Logan, on the evidence of style as well as content, is an adherent of Christopher Ricks, whose essay ‘In Theory’ (LRB, Vol.3, No 7) claimed Aristotle as an ally. He says that ‘Aristotle is to be believed’ when he observes that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.’ We obey, and believe. Aristotle further says that a builder’s notion of a right angle is not the same as a geometrician’s, and that is also to be believed. The builder is concerned entirely with utility, the geometrician with truth. The general application of these sound observations to ethics (the subject Aristotle happens to be discussing) is (I have been told) problematic, but it is unlikely that he would ever have expressed a preference for the banausic over the theoretic, the carpenter over the geometrician: indeed, he repeatedly affirms the superiority of theoretical to practical wisdom, and also argues that theoretical knowledge is important to the practical life because it makes it easier to choose aright. Here again he is to be believed.

I do not seek to enlist Aristotle in defence of literary theory, but only to suggest that his remarks cannot support the view that theory is necessarily unintelligent or necessarily the bane of literary criticism. Of course, if we removed Aristotle from the scene of contention, the difference of opinion would remain. It is of some importance, I think – not merely a polemical throwing about of brains by rival British critics who can safely be left to their expressions of mutual contempt. But if everybody simply takes sides, Intelligence here and Theory there, the only certainty is that there will be stupid as well as clever people on both sides. (Aristotle, incidentally, is to be believed when he speaks of the danger of cleverness in people lacking a prior disposition to temperate dealing.) What needs to be said now, I think, is that critics given to theoretical or methodological speculation are not necessarily, for that reason, stupid about the ‘data’, the works under consideration. It is the great, one might say exemplary, virtue of Genette that he is manifestly intelligent in both kinds, practical and theoretical.

His three volumes of Figures were written between 1959 and 1972. The bulk of Figures III has already appeared in translation as Narrative Discourse (Cornell University Press, 1980). It is probably the best articulation (though it cannot cover all cases) of the ways in which narrative disposes itself in time, mood and ‘voice’: but it is also full of insight into the chief source of its examples – namely, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, a work to which Genette repeatedly returns ‘with improved perception’. This new volume is a selection from the remainder of Figures. It opens with an early essay called ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’, which dates back to 1964, a time of innocence for literary structuralism, when a ‘science of literature’ could be thought of as just round the corner – its linguistic model not yet seriously threatened by Chomskyan criticism, its concealed metaphysical assumptions not yet exposed by Derrida. Genette is cautious: structuralism of its very nature is tempted to invent rather than to discover; it is not merely a method but a general tendency of thought, ‘or as others would say (more crudely) an ideology, the prejudice of which is precisely to value structures at the expense of substances, and which may therefore overestimate their explanatory value. Indeed, the question is not so much to know whether there is or is not a system of relations in a particular object of research, since such systems are everywhere, but to determine the relative importance of this system in relation to other elements of understanding ...’ Clearly he did not share the more extravagant hopes of the period, or suppose that there could be a structuralist takeover of criticism. Characteristically, he sees the matter in a different light, noting the affinity between the new structuralism and older kinds of ‘immanentist’ criticism, including the work of Spitzer but also including the New Criticism; and over against these approaches he sets the hermeneutic, better suited to handle works to which history has assured a surplus of meaning. There is a suggestion here that structuralism might do best with dead, remote or trivial subjects: it had made its first non-linguistic success with ethnography, and the early structuralist critics showed a decided preference for trivial books like the James Bond novels.

Genette was nevertheless strongly affected by the revival of Russian Formalism and by Jakobson in particular; he is as interested as Todorov (and some modern American critics) in the relations between new forms of discourse analysis and old forms of rhetoric; and there is no doubt that for all his reservations it would be proper, should the term ever come into use as a neutral description of a period style, to call him a structuralist critic. One of the essays here translated is the well-known ‘Frontiers of Narrative’, which appeared in the celebrated eighth issue of Communications in 1966. That issue amounted to a manifesto for the new school of narrative analysis, now dispersed, which again, under the conditions adumbrated above, might be called ‘structuralist’.

The second half of this collection is devoted to essays on Stendhal, Flaubert and Proust, all of the Sixties; and it is these essays that should impress the party of Intelligence. Genette always starts from the data, from the fine perception of a variation in tense, or the placing of an adverb, or a relaxation of rhythm. The silences and shocks of Flaubert are not only exactly described but exactly felt (perhaps you can’t have one without the other) and the detail reflects a global understanding of Flaubert which has great strength and subtlety. This understanding is expressed in critical language of more than adequate flexibility and lucidity; it never calls attention to its own virtuosity (which is one way of claiming Intelligence), but only to what intelligence is properly extended in recognising – the virtuosity in the data, the presences and absences, thus discerned, which give the whole work its unique habit.

Genette’s reputation for this kind of discernment rests most firmly on his Proustian studies, and the essay called ‘Proust and Indirect Language’ is one of the best, and certainly ought to please those to whom minute attention to a writer’s language is paramount. Some of Proust’s characters are ‘mere collections of linguistic accidents’ (Norpois, Bloch, for instance), and Genette looks into the nature of these accidents, mannerisms, impediments; he considers Marcel’s obsession with the illusorily referential aspect of certain names, the linguistic mechanisms of snobbery, and other such matters, all with the most fertile and ingenious attention to detail, to the minute slip or the misplaced phoneme. These observations, trivial in themselves, provide evidence for what Genette calls ‘the poetics of language’, but also for Proust’s critique of two illusions: the referential (belief in the identity of the signified and the referent) and the semantic (belief in a natural relation of signified to signifier). Whether or not one is interested in what James called ‘the splendour of the indirect’ – and whether or not one thinks that Genette’s methodological indirections sharpen his feeling for Proust – it is hardly to be denied that by one means or another he writes good criticism. The translator, Alan Sheridan, copes well with some difficult problems in the discussions of Proust’s language, though not all readers will know without more help what the joke about the name ‘Cambremers’ may be (page 248).

Few contrasts could better illuminate the sobriety of Genette’s procedures than to set beside Figures of Discourse Harold Bloom’s The Breaking of the Vessels. Bloom, though a man of learning and passionate about poetry, is chiefly in love with his own system, first established in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and restated with ever-increasing fantastication in a series of subsequent works. Thus the original scheme, with its central notion of an Oedipal relation between poets and their precursors and its apparatus of swervings, crossings and so forth, all given in a novel and eclectic terminology (‘clinamen’, ‘tessera’, ‘kenosis’ and the like), was cabbalised and extended until it became a general theory of culture, considered by the author himself an example of Jewish Gnosticism. The original scheme is still in place, and as I was reading this new book, with its cabbalistic title, I was noting that it was but a spume that played upon the ghostly paradigm of The Anxiety of Influence when I turned the page and read: ‘Yeats wrote that “Plato thought nature but a spume that plays/Against a ghostly paradigm of things.” ’ However, this is probably what Bloom calls a ‘strong misreading’; the swerve from Yeats’s text doesn’t seem to me to help Yeats, but that is not the point. Opinion as to such swerves is likely to vary. Bloom is a full blown Emersonian, believing with his master that ‘man ... should treat the entire extant product of the human intellect as only one age, revisable, corrigible, reversible by him’; and he calls all who think this a hard doctrine ‘moldy fig academics’ incapable of understanding that other pronouncement of Emerson’s: ‘the great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions.’ Actually there may be a class in between the fully liberated spirits and the moldy figs, consisting of those who would endorse the first part of that statement and not the second.

Bloom thinks very well of E. A. Speiser’s version of Genesis 1: ‘When God set about to create heaven and earth – the world being then a formless waste, with darkness over the seas and only an awesome wind sweeping over the water – God said “Let there be light” ...’ I can’t comment on Speiser’s interference with the traditional sentence division, but I have my doubts about ‘awesome wind’ (which is but one word, admittedly rich, in the original), and I don’t know where ‘sweeping’ came from. The rearrangement is supposed to show that the original text strove to exonerate God from ‘an inadequate initial performance’, but that is what Gnostics accuse him of anyway, and I do not see how the author can be justly exposed by altering what he wrote, for example ‘In the beginning’, and the word meaning ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’. But Bloom prefers the swerved version: it fits his mystical view of poetry as pneuma (the Greek equivalent for ruach, the Hebrew word for ‘wind, spirit’). He adds ingeniously that poetry is ‘act’, in the sense of Hebrew davhar meaning both ‘word’ and ‘thing’, rather than of Greek logos, which would have to be used to translate davhar, though it rushes off, semantically speaking, in the opposite direction.

The data of Bloom’s investigations come from strong poetry (including strong prose) wherever he finds it, so there is a wide choice; and here he discusses works as far apart as those of the Yahwist and Nathanael West. And in spite of his doctrinal high-handedness he often has splendid things to say about his choices. The second of the three lectures (the Wellek Library Lectures) here published is indeed remarkable. It is eloquent on the Yahwist’s story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and on Freud as wrestler (his ‘agon with the whole of anteriority’). Freud is of course essential to the whole project, and here he becomes the instrument by which Bloom extends his theory to what must presumably be its limits. ‘Psychoanalysis is the culture of which it purports to be the description’... ‘Our sexuality is in its very origins a misprision, a strong misreading’ by the infant. Lovely stuff, but the moldy fig academic in me counsels caution. God’s truth or hocus-pocus? When I read Genette I find myself saying: ‘Yes, indeed!’ When I read Bloom: ‘Good God, how extraordinary!’

For sobriety, it seems, we must look to the French. Todorov’s data are not primary texts but theories of symbol, of which he offers a selective history before stopping at the threshold of a theory of his own. There is a chapter on Aristotle and the Stoics, then one on Augustine as co-ordinator of these precursors, inventor of the distinction between natural and intentional signs, and herald of a union between sign-theory and hermeneutics. Here begins the slow process of distinguishing between signification and symbolisation.

In dealing with the great changes of the Romantic period Todorov selects Moritz as his central example, since he combines most of the features of the aesthetic which now replace rhetoric; the choice is justified, though Moritz actually didn’t use the word ‘symbol’ in the new sense, as alluding to the wholeness of the work of art. It was Kant who distinguished symbol from arbitrary sign, and gave it its modern sense, which Goethe and Schiller circulated. But Moritz develops the persistent opposition of symbol and allegory, which is always disparaging to the latter. It is founded on the notion that allegory always refers to something beyond itself, whereas symbol doesn’t – a notion celebrated by Schelling when he said that mythology expressed no meaning beyond itself, was not allegorical but tautegorical. This last word he picked up from Coleridge: ‘tautegorical’ means ‘expressing the same subject but with a difference’, says Coleridge, but allegory means ‘expressing a different subject but with a resemblance’. This very suggestive formula helps to explain romantic opposition to imitation, and the elevation of music to first place among the arts (confirmed by ‘Symbolism’ proper).

Traditionally, the difference between signs and symbols turned upon the directness of the former and the indirectness of the latter; and it was assumed that the symbol was, in Todorov’s word, ‘metasemiotic’. The distinction was in some form recognised by everybody from the patristic period down to the 19th century, and Todorov thinks it ought to be accepted still. The modern view that ‘everything is sign’ he characterises as anti-romantic, and as a source of confusion; he has a particularly neat demonstration of Piaget getting into a muddle for lack of a genuine understanding of the difference between sign and symbol. I suppose one could call Todorov’s attitude neo-romantic, and it is not surprising that he finds attractive the idea, fostered by German Romanticism, that language was originally fully motivated but in the course of time grew arbitrary; poetry is our way of restoring that primordial motivation.

This is a much more entertaining book than its topic, and the scholarly seriousness of its method, might lead one to expect. There are very good chapters on Freud and Saussure. The latter includes the previously untold story of Mlle Hélène Smith, a glossolalist of whom no one doubted the sincerity: she spoke Martian and Sanskrit. These languages were eventually explained by an ingenious philologist as French distorted by a remarkable series of puns and free associations. Saussure’s failure to solve the problem is held to foreshadow his failure to deal satisfactorily with the symbolic aspect of language (the language of the glossolalist is always motivated – Saussure held dogmatically to the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs). Todorov is not being merely anecdotal: he wants to illustrate our need for a new ‘symbolics’, a new understanding of motivation which sees it as something more than mere deviance from the arbitrariness of the sign, and the preserve of savages, lunatics and children. Perhaps he will now write his own ‘symbolics’.

The disadvantage of Hohendahl’s book, at any rate for English readers, is that he takes no notice of anything that has happened here in the way of literary sociology since Fiction and the Reading Public; but it is arguable that not enough has happened, and also that a concentrated look at the West German scene, and German ways of considering these problems, will do us good. German criticism divides more neatly than ours into scholarship and reviewing, Literaturwissenschaft and Tageskritik, but it is still the case there that a remarkably small number of people, considering the potential size of the public, actually read what the reviewers review, and of those only a few pay much attention to what they read in that line, their notion of an interesting book being different from that of the critics. The split between mass and ‘élite’ culture thus indicated suggests that the publishing industry has direct control over the reading public. The New Left attacked literary criticism itself, therefore, as the instrument, or anyway not the opponent, of the ruling system. Literary criticism that perpetuates false old notions of aesthetic autonomy must be replaced by something that has practical political force. It will have much more to say about the mechanisms of the book trade than about randomly selected books.

Or so it was argued in the Sixties. But bourgeois criticism and bourgeois professors of literature have survived, chastened no doubt by the insistence of the public and of students on the need to deal more seriously with ‘trivial literature’. The end of bourgeois criticism has been postponed. Literary critics have not assumed their destined role as shapers of future literature, a role that would require them to consider the ‘consciousness industry’ in much more depth than they seem inclined to do. Meanwhile they carry on talking down, or narcissistically, in the old way.

Hohendahl provides a lot of interesting detail – for example, about the way best-sellers are handled: their success may depend upon their being ideologically acceptable to the newspaper owners, and their promotion is not by means of criticism, even Tageskritik, but by the contrivance of ‘media events’. On the whole it is easy enough to detect the parallels with our own situation: what is different is Hohendahl’s attempt to subject these data to a socio-political critique. The very expression ‘institution of criticism’ may sound odd or suspicious to English critics: not long ago Dame Helen Gardner took issue with me for calling the Church an institution, and it is unlikely that anybody who thinks like her will find a use for Hohendahl’s term. There are ways of doing criticism which make all speculation about its method, or its role, actual or desired, in society, seem redundant. Some intelligent people adopt these ways, but they should not be thought of as the only forms of intelligent critical activity.

Finally, Ann Banfield’s book is an attempt to provide a grammar of narrative on a method deriving from Chomsky rather than from Saussurean structuralism. I suppose we all thought we knew what needed to be known about style indirect libre (erlebte Rede, free indirect speech; now more usually free indirect discourse, or FID for short). But of late it has been much studied, with surprising results. Ms Banfield has done much of the work, and here she develops it with rigour and lucidity. The inquiry now encompasses pretty well all the familiar problems, of showing and telling and the like, deciding that narration is a linguistic category independent of ordinary discourse; it is this category she defines, using precise linguistic argumentation. Her book is a notable achievement, and will need to be taken into account by all who want a more than merely intuitive understanding of the differences between sentences as they occur inside and outside narratives.