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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in