Mortal Scripts

Christopher Norris

  • Writing and the Body by Gabriel Josipovici
    Harvester, 142 pp, £15.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7108 0495 4
  • The Definition of Literature and Other Essays by W.W. Robson
    Cambridge, 267 pp, £19.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 521 24495 1

In the present climate of polemical exchange one may doubt whether Gabriel Josipovici would take very kindly to being enlisted on the side of ‘literary theory’. Though his essays make reference to figures like Barthes and Derrida, they do so with an air of studied detachment, as if to forestall any charge of deeper complicity. If it comes to a straight choice between ‘interpretation’ and ‘theory’ – however unreal the terms of that choice – Josipovici is in the business of interpreting texts, and only has time for theoretical diversions when they happen to point up a reading or adorn a theme. Yet it is fair to remark that these essays (based on his Northcliffe Lectures for 1980-81, delivered at University College, London) could scarcely have taken their present form had it not been for Josipovici’s involvement with recent literary theory. Indeed, it is one of the merits of this book that it moves between ‘theory’ and ‘interpretation’ with an unforced naturalness which helps to discredit that false and misleading dichotomy.

As in his earlier collection The World and the Book (1971), Josipovici practises a kind of two-way mediating process. There, his main concern was with themes of a generally ‘structuralist’ provenance, his argument being that these had a range of application beyond their current, self-consciously technical uses The point was well made in chapters on Medieval and Renaissance literature. Structuralism might seem offensively newfangled to readers trained up on post-Renaissance notions of authorial presence and the unique, individual character of literary works of art. Yet one only had to look outside this chapter of cultural history to find some very different conventions at work. To read Chaucer or Dante in the light of structuralist narrative theory is to realise that such ideas are often uncannily mirrored by texts which predate our own most basic cultural assumptions. What the critics are nowadays so busily deconstructing – the complex of attitudes that made up 19th-century ‘expressive realism’ – was of course quite alien to the texts in question. Themes like ‘intertextuality’ and ‘the death of the Author’ take on a much wider, though perhaps less dramatic significance when viewed in this extended historical perspective. How else should one explain the formulaic habits of thought, the sheer conventionality and absence of ‘creative’ individualism in poetry composed to a wholly different set of cultural prescriptions? Structuralism here came into its own, not so much a ‘theory’ as a matter of straightforward interpretative tact. Critics like Barthes could be talked down, as it were, from the heights of speculative self-absorption, and their ideas put to work in the service of imaginative scholarship.

There is much to be said for Josipovici’s enterprise. Opponents of ‘theory’ tend to regard it as something monolithic and entirely given over to the business of tightening its own nuts and bolts. F.R. Leavis was subject to the same delusion when he fiercely denied (in response to René Wellek) that literary critics could or should attempt a ‘philosophical’ account of their arguments and judgments. Leavis took philosophy to be a business of abstract generalisation, wholly out of touch with the experience of actually discovering one’s responses through the process of writing and reading. Critical theory could only represent a species of needless distraction, an activity which got in the way of any genuine, immediate response. Leavis, in short, spoke for the expressive-realist tradition at its most dogmatic and – one might argue – its most theoretically bankrupt. The notorious exclusiveness of The Great Tradition is one aspect of his failure to conceive that there might be a literature which actually exploited conventions, which made the very most of its own problematical nature, and yet deserved serious attention. Leavis’s objections to ‘theory’ in criticism were fully in line with his dismissal of Finnegans Wake as a consciously worked-up abuse of language, a godsend for the faithful exegete. They are also worth recalling when one reads that tetchy footnote to The Great Tradition reviling Sterne as ‘a nasty trifler’.

Sterne must, of course, be a standing provocation to any critic who values literature for its wisdom, maturity or ‘reverent openness before life’. From the opposite point of view, it was more than a passing whimsy which led the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovski to hail Tristram Shandy as ‘the most typical novel in world literature’. The contrast is nicely representative. Leavis rejects the experimental strain in fiction – just as he rejects critical theory – on the grounds of its perverting the natural relation between experience (maturely grasped), language (concretely realised) and form (adequately disciplined). Sterne can only figure to this way of thinking as a writer who wilfully reverses every stage of that process and creates a monstrosity of self-indulgent nonsense. For a formalist like Shklovski – one who believes that conventions exist to be broken, and that the canons of realism are just one convention among others – for such a critic, Tristram Shandy must indeed enjoy privileged status.

Josipovici has a good deal to say about Sterne in the course of these essays. He is at one with the formalists in admiring Tristram Shandy for its adept games with narrative convention and its power of forcing the reader to recognise his or her share in its curious unfolding. He can likewise marvel at the sheer technical control which enables Sterne ‘to play with time ... to stop, move off in a different direction, turn round suddenly and pounce on the reader from behind’. Thus far the formalist in Josipovici, the critic who can cite (with provisional approval) Northrop Frye’s contention that ‘of course all art is conventionalised’ and that therefore, as a balancing perspective, we should try seeing the comedies, rather than the tragedies, as central to Shakespeare’s development. It is a viewpoint which provides Josipovici with numerous suggestive examples and connections, from Shakespeare and Sterne to Kafka, Borges and Muriel Spark. The powers of artifice, of code and convention, exert a claim which should at least give us pause in the drive toward ‘deep’ interpretations of motive and meaning. ‘Sterne goes shallower than that,’ as Josipovici artfully puts it.

His case is argued most tellingly in a chapter on Othello which contrasts the Moor’s openhearted rhetoric and stylised self-image with Iago’s destructive play upon notions of authentic inwardness and truth. It is – though Josipovici doesn’t say as much – a reading opposed point for point to Leavis’s view in his essay ‘The Othello Music’. Leavis thinks of ‘rhetoric’ as a species of self-deceiving bombast inherently at odds with authentic, ‘creative-exploratory’ language. Josipovici puts the case – paradoxically – for conventionalised expression as a form of unself-conscious linguistic grace, all too easily corrupted by the wormings of individual conscience which Iago exploits.

But Josipovici sees a limit to the formalist aesthetic, or rather that version of it which has lately preoccupied critical thought. If writing is possessed of a formal or figural dimension beyond any author’s control – if Tristram Shandy is indeed the prototypical ‘text’ – the implications of this may have a sinister, as well as a liberating aspect. Josipovici quotes a passage from Beckett: ‘Devised deviser devising it all for company. In the same figment dark as his figments.’ To acknowledge the formalistic character of language, its reliance on rhetorical codes and conventions, may be in some ways wiser, less dangerous, than pursuing an ideal of authentic self-expression. But formalism has dangers of its own, not least the kind of narcissistic brooding which threatens the writer convinced (like Beckett) that art has finally exhausted its expressive possibilities.

Josipovici has some pertinent remarks about Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus, where music becomes the representative art of culture given up to terminal exhaustion, a latterday pact with the forces of demonic unreason. The composer Adrian Leverkühn renounces the expressive resources of Western tradition in exchange for a repertoire of calculated styles and parodic devices which work to deconstruct the very bases of musical meaning and value. His masterpiece is described (albeit rather vaguely) as a deliberate counter-statement to Beethoven’s Ninth, as a work whose purpose is to ‘revoke’ or negate the spirit of liberal humanism. Josipovici goes so far as to suggest that this may be the logical end-point of that formalist or neo-classical ethos which unites such figures as Borges, Eliot, Stravinsky and Picasso. The valorisation of ‘device’ over ‘meaning’, or the emphasis on style and form as the primary realities of art, have consequences far beyond those envisaged by current formalist (or structuralist) theory.

There would seem to be no exit from the peculiar double-bind to which Josipovici’s arguments point. ‘Artists of the cult’ – by which he means out-and-out formalists like Leverkühn – appear destined to the same destructive impasse as those ‘artists of subjective individualism’ whose quest for authenticity leads to ultimate silence or despair Iago is not only a masterly perverter of the jargon of authenticity. He is also, as Josipovici remarks, a plotter of infinite resource, devising situations and a deadly logic of action and consequence which disturbingly parallel the dramatist’s own activity. If ‘plot’ takes precedence over ‘character’ – as it does for a long line of critics from Aristotle to the present-day formalists – there is more involved than a matter of elective technique or emphasis. Iago’s plotting of Othello’s downfall is seen by Josipovici as a highly suggestive metaphor, an instance of devilish contrivance somehow in league with the formal exigencies of art itself. Othello recounts his own martial exploits, naively rhetorical, perhaps, but innocent of covert design. Iago ensnares him in a far more sinister and, so to speak, compelling dramatic role. In the end, it is Iago who triumphs, ‘not just because both Othello and Desdemona are dead, but because the making of the play Othello shows the triumph of plotting over story-telling’.

What hope, then, for art if its every resource can be turned into a species of demonic self-parody, a virtual technique for destruction? His response to this question is the heart of Josipovici’s argument, though it might appear, from the formalist standpoint, not so much a real thinking-through as a last-ditch redemptive ploy. Writing remains a bodily activity, a mortal labour whose effects are variously registered, inscribed or metaphorically suggested in the text. Tristram Shandy makes brilliant play with this material predicament. It constantly brings the reader up short against intractable ‘facts’ – like Yorick’s death, or Tristram’s conception and long-delayed birth – which absurdly complicate the narrative and remind us of the ways in which ‘life’ impinges upon ‘art’. Josipovici sees this as a standing riposte to the formalist idea of Tristram Shandy as ‘a game with the reader, a brilliant rhetorical exercise’. Sterne’s bodily fictions and metaphors have the effect of arresting textual play in the face of such imponderable absolutes as birth and death. ‘Tristram writes for all he is worth, but there is no privileged time for writing, no chamber sealed off from time and the world in which the writer can settle at his ease.’ Sexuality and death are held at bay by every trick in the narrative book, but they still return to haunt the very texture of Sterne’s writing. Such is the lesson which Josipovici reads in Tristram Shandy: the inadequacy of a purely ‘formalist’ criticism when confronted with the bodily and time-bound predicament of writing.

But can this generalised interpretative faith really hold out any answer to formalist or structuralist theory? More specifically: why should not Sterne’s self-conscious intimations of mortality be seen as further devices in the service of an artful narrative technique? Whatever existential significance the critic may vest in the text, it remains always open to the kind of deconstructive reading which Josipovici – as formalist devil’s advocate – is ready to provide. Sterne’s textual metaphors of life and death remain just that – metaphorical and textual – despite the very natural interpretative will to invest them with a larger human relevance. It is this reductive logic in the formalist position which Josipovici both acknowledges and needs to turn back against itself if his argument is to carry conviction.

The resultant tensions are revealed very clearly in the following gloss upon Sterne’s ‘Alas, poor YORICK!’:

We recognise the strength of our feelings – we want to feel for Yorick. But we are only made aware of them because they are deflected. After all, the phrase is not Tristram’s ... it is a quote from the most famous play in the language. So, if it is not Yorick’s fate which moves us here, what is it? Is it that of Tristram, for whom we feel through the uneasy language? But no, it is not that either, for Tristram himself is the product of Sterne’s imagination ... But who is Sterne? An eccentric 18th-century clergyman? ... The Sterne we experience as we read is the Sterne who wrote – no, the Sterne who writes. As he writes he comes alive, and as he writes he dies a little more each day. The recognition of the latter is what makes the former possible.

The last sentence here is not so much a logical outcome as one further twist in a spiral of opposed interpretations which could otherwise go on to infinity. From a deconstructive standpoint, that appeal to ‘the Sterne who writes’ is incapable of resolving the issue as Josipovici desires. The bare fact of its having been written – of its surviving as a text for many kinds of divergent interpretation – would then be all that remained of Sterne’s involvement with Tristram Shandy. Few novels have driven that lesson home with such insistent relish. Hence the humanising pathos of Josipovici’s language, his refusal to countenance the argument which leads from formalism to deconstruction, from the narrative games of Tristram Shandy to the idea of a writing totally cut off from authorial presence and intent.

His closing reflections on Kafka take up the same challenge in a yet more problematic form. The ‘texts’ in question are a series of jottings addressed to Kafka’s friends during his final illness and confinement in the Kierling sanatorium. Some are intelligible as snatches of dialogue, casual observations or simple requests for help. Others have a cryptic strangeness and resonance which baffle any attempt to reconstruct a likely context. ‘A bird was in the room.’ ‘Mineral water – once for fun I could ... ’ ‘A lake doesn’t flow into anything, you know.’ ‘So the help goes away again without helping.’ Kafka was reduced to these scribbled messages by an illness (tuberculosis of the larynx) which prevented him from speaking. Josipovici underlines the cruel irony of this situation for an artist who looked upon writing as an enterprise fraught with ambiguities and dangers, a hopeless attempt to overcome the distance between self and other, writer and reader. He quotes from one of Kafka’s letters to Milena:

Writing letters is presenting oneself naked before the fantoms; they avidly await the gesture. Written kisses do not reach their destination, the fantoms drink them on the way. Thanks to this nourishment they multiply at such an amazing rate ... The spirits will not die of hunger, but we will so die.

The passage has a certain familiar ring. It could be placed alongside Derrida’s numerous examples of the way in which writing has been condemned, down through the history of Western thought, as a threat to authentic meaning and truth, subverting the authority of genuine (spoken) language through its proneness to all manner of distorting misinterpretation. Writing is the ‘dangerous supplement’ which opens up giddying perspectives of rhetorical aberration.

Josipovici is not directly concerned with Derrida or deconstruction. He is, nevertheless, pitching his argument against such claims as these when he seeks to comprehend the mysterious, haunting quality of Kafka’s scribbled messages. The very fact of Kafka’s having written them down – however humdrum, private or redundant the messages may seem – is enough to provoke ‘a sense of awe and wonder’. There is a striking contrast in Derrida’s treatment of a marginal jotting by Nietzsche: ‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’ How should we interpret this sentence? Derrida asks. Might it not contain some cryptic significance decipherable only by means of, say, a Freudian or Heideggerian reading? Or was it merely a casual memorandum with not the least bearing on anything besides the weather and Nietzsche’s forgetfulness? Derrida sees no need to decide in a case which – absurd as it may seem – enables him to pose a yet more outrageous question. Perhaps Nietzsche’s note is neither more nor less ‘marginal’ than any other of his writings? The appeal to context as a yardstick of significance comes up straight away against Derrida’s argument that texts have not one but any number of possible ‘contexts’, so that meaning is always potentially limitless and not to be contained within a clear-cut order of relevance. Might it not be the case, Derrida asks, that Nietzsche’s entire literary production is of the same undecidable status as the sentence ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’?

Josipovici is utterly opposed to any such radical scepticism as regards meaning and authorial intent. Yet his choice of these particular ‘texts’ from Kafka can be seen as both a challenge and a standing invitation to the kind of deconstructive reading which Derrida would bring to bear. According to Josipovici, their language wrests a human significance from the very qualities of strangeness, redundancy and flat self-evidence (‘a lake doesn’t flow into anything, you know’) which put them beyond reach of ‘literary’ interpretation. What they convey ‘is not meaning, not a message, but a person: Kafka. His longings, his ineluctable privacy, his inability to say what he wants to say’. This presents most acutely the quarrel between deconstruction and every form of humanistic interpretative faith. And faith is indeed what the issue comes down to, for all that Josipovici – with his own kind of closely-wrought argument – would seek to persuade us otherwise. Writing and the Body is an eloquent attempt to forge a language of communal meaning and trust against the rigours of formalism and deconstruction. Though its arguments involve a good deal of implicit theorising, their persuasiveness can only be felt if one consents at the last to let go of all theories and be led back into the communal interpretative fold. There is no final word in this vital debate. In the end, as Josipovici reflects, ‘I have to trust you to make up for yourselves what can never be said.’

Robson’s essays belong to a different world. Where Josipovici makes a point of facing up to the deconstructionist challenge, Robson is content with a moderating stance which implicitly trusts that these problems will soon disappear, given a degree of good will and understanding among all concerned. He writes in defence of a ‘plain, straightforward language’ as the natural medium for criticism, and confesses to a rooted mistrust of the ‘rigorist’ abstractions now on offer. All the same, he is uneasily aware that structuralism and its latterday offshoots have thrown up conceptual problems which require something more by way of answer than can easily be couched in a ‘plain straightforward language’. His essay ‘On Liberty of Interpreting’ adopts a broadly pluralist standpoint which might have seemed culpably libertarian to many if the piece had appeared ten or fifteen years ago. As it is, in the face of such claims as those currently advanced by Derrida, Hartman or Bloom, the essay assumes a far more conservative aspect. On the one hand, ‘this argument for liberty of interpreting seems to me to point in the right direction.’ On the other, ‘unless there is common ground between the old readers and the new, a “semantic constant” as we might call it, the poet’s work is no longer there to interpret.’ This search for ‘constants’ – humanistic, common-sense, moral and consensual – is the nearest thing to a running theme in his otherwise rather random and disjointed volume of essays.

‘The Novel: A Critical Impasse’ finds Robson again bumping up against the problems imposed by his careful even-handedness. He goes so far as to admit the persuasive force of current neo-formalist doctrine: that fictions are in some sense irreducibly fictional, that realism (or novelistic ‘truth’) is a matter of dominant convention. To require that novels be ‘at the same time fact and fiction’ strikes Robson at one stage as strictly inconceivable: assuming, that is, ‘certain metaphysical presuppositions which I believe a rational person must accept’. Yet he then goes on to shift the terms of debate so as to make room for a notion of fictional truth supposedly immune to such criticism. What the realists (novelists and critics) have in mind is ‘not literal truth but lifelikeness, verisimilitude’. But it is precisely the latter supposition – the idea of a ‘verisimilitude’ which somehow escapes or transcends the conventionalised codes of fiction –that the structuralists have been at such pains to deny. He has set up a hopelessly naive position (straightforward correspondence to ‘facts’) which would then have the structuralists tilting at windmills. He can thus reoccupy traditional ground with a comforting sense of having thought things through to a point well beyond the present disrupters of common-sense wisdom.

These excursions into theory have a somewhat dutiful air, and give a sense that Robson is simply clearing the ground for a return of the kind of old-style interpretative criticism which – as he complains at one point – is nowadays out of fashion. In fact, the majority of his essays here are straightforward revaluative pieces with scarcely a thought for the questions he raises elsewhere with regard to the problem of critical evaluation. Robson is informed and highly readable on Tennyson’s modern standing; on the strengths and limitations of Robert Frost; and on critics (Yvor Winters especially, but also Eliot and Richards) whose quirks he sets off against their more authoritative judgments. Here he writes with an assurance that values are relative but arguable, that criticism, as he puts it, ‘decides nothing’ but can yet sustain a dialogue of reasoned disagreements. All the more evident by contrast is the deep confusion that sets in when he tries to apply the same kind of moderating wisdom to those other, more intractable issues of theory and principle.

His essay on Richards leaves no doubt of what Robson admires in his subject: the fact that Richards ‘came forward as an advocate of “ordinary fluid language with full settings”, against those logicians and grammarians who are “stuck fast in an injudiciously technicalised set of words”’. Time has worked some curious changes in what counts as ‘technical’ versus ‘ordinary’ language. In the Twenties Richards stood pre-eminently for the ‘Cambridge’ style of criticism: tough-minded, analytical, and squarely set against the old, belletristic mode. Among Oxford scholars the fashion was to deplore these latest developments, on the grounds – as William Empson scornfully put it – that one shouldn’t prune down too far toward the roots of beauty for fear of destroying the plant. Fifty years on and Robson, very much an ‘Oxford’ voice, can look to Richards as a mainstay of critical good sense against other, currently more threatening forms of theoretical presumption. Indeed it is now possible to see how Richards could move, without undue strain, from his early ‘scientistic’ phase to his later neo-Coleridgian philosophy of poetry, metaphor and mind. It is unlikely – though not inconceivable – that some such ironic destiny awaits the acolytes of post-structuralism.