Anger and Dismay

Denis Donoghue

  • Literary Education: A Revaluation by James Gribble
    Cambridge, 182 pp, £16.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 25315 2
  • Reconstructing Literature edited by Laurence Lerner
    Blackwell, 218 pp, £15.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 631 13323 2
  • Counter-Modernism in Current Critical Theory by Geoffrey Thurley
    Macmillan, 216 pp, £20.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 33436 1

A few weeks ago I gave a lecture at Reading, to a Conference of Higher Education Teachers of English. My visit was brief, but long enough to reinforce my sense that teaching English has become a heavy duty. It seems to be a long drag before you get to the point of reading any literature. In the olden days a critic speaking to that Conference would have talked about a poem or a novel. I recall F.W. Bateson talking about ‘Westron Wind, when wilt thou blow’: we all assumed that this was the kind of thing we should be doing in class. Bateson went pretty directly to the poem; he didn’t examine the referential claims of language, the validity of literature as an institution, the university as an instrument of power, the authority of a literary canon, male domination in English grammar, the alleged speciousness of logocentrism, or the several theories of hermeneutics. We knew, having read Bateson’s books, that he had political attitudes: he didn’t regard linguistic acts as pure or ideologically disinterested. But he didn’t think he had to keep clearing the ground or clearing himself before coming to ‘Westron Wind’. There were, indeed, arguments at those conferences, but they were about critical methods. L.C. Knights gave us a lecture which might have been called – and perhaps was – ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth now?’ But he took enough intellectual lore for granted to get pretty quickly to Hamlet or Coriolanus. If Bateson or Knights had been lecturing to the Conference at Reading, I don’t think they would have reached a poem or a play: political entanglements, disguised as theoretical issues, would have kept them back from it.

The ready reply to this bout of nostalgia, I suppose, is that the olden days were corrupt: the apparent unity of purpose among teachers of English was the result of our thoughtlessness and inertia. If the present generation of teachers are bent on making literature serve a political cause – Marxism, Feminism, or whatever – we did the same, except that our causes – Liberalism, Humanism, Socialism, Christianity, or (think of the Leavises) Englishness – were not named. Besides, if you haven’t got a theory, you’re likely to be in the grip of someone else’s.

These sentiments are fairly recent. It has long been assumed that the niceties of theory are congenial to French Cartesians, and to Americans, whose literature, in any case, floats free of terrestrial commitment, but that the few English critics who bother with theory are tourists: mid-Atlantic figures like Frank Kermode and Tony Tanner, or Francophiles like Stephen Heath and Stephen Bann. Samuel Johnson had moral principles, but nothing like a theory of literature: he didn’t need one. The force of English common sense is that it leaves you free to deal with the things that matter.

Till recently, Johnsonian sentiments have prevailed: supported, if challenged, by a well-known argument in which F.R. Leavis is regarded as having established the independence of literary criticism from philosophy. In March 1937 René Wellek wrote an open letter to Leavis, arising from the publication of Revaluation. He found much to admire in the book, but regretted that its assumptions were not produced and defended: ‘I could wish that you had stated your assumptions more explicitly and defended them systematically. I do not doubt the value of those assumptions and as a matter of fact I share them with you for the most part, but I would have misgivings in pronouncing them without elaborating a specific defence or a theory in their defence.’ Leavis answered by saying that literary criticism is one thing and philosophy quite a different thing. He had no intention of queering one discipline with the habits of another. Words in poetry, he said, invite us ‘to realise a complex experience that is given in the words’. The relation between different works is ‘an organisation of similarly “placed” things, things that have found their bearings with regard to one another, and not a theoretical system or a system determined by abstract considerations’. He didn’t quite say, as Gilles Deleuze has said in Proust et les Signes, that philosophy only arrives at abstract truths which compromise no one and disturb no one: ‘they remain gratuitous, because they are born of the intelligence which accords them only a possibility, and not of a violence or of an encounter which would guarantee their authenticity.’ Nor did Leavis say, though he implied, that all you can do with a theory is apply it, and that the more forcefully you apply it the clumsier your ostensibly critical acts are likely to be. ‘I think I have gone as far in explicitness as I could profitably attempt to go,’ he said, ‘and I do not see what would be gained by the kind of explicitness Dr Wellek demands (though I see what is lost by it).’ What is lost by it, Leavis intimated, is seen clearly enough in Wellek’s premature summaries, his blurring of essential differences between one poem and another, his confusion of Wordsworth’s poetry with what a philosopher might extract from it as its ‘thought’.

That Leavis had the better part of the argument is, I think, clear enough. His victory in that episode has been one of the main causes of the indifference English critics have on the whole maintained toward literary theory. It may even have served to justify indifference to what Northrop Frye called for, and called ‘a coherent and comprehensive theory of literature, logically and scientifically organised, some of which the student unconsciously learns as he goes on, but the main principles of which are as yet unknown to us’.

I’m not in a position to report that indifference to theory has ceased. Most of the teaching of English is still, I imagine, a mixture of practical criticism, literary history, and intermittently the lore of politics and sociology. But it is clear that many teachers of English have been impelled to take notice of theoretical issues, and to argue them in terms I find familiar from my teaching in New York. It is assumed, in these three books, that a dangerous spirit is at large in our colleges and universities, and that it must be stopped. The spirit is sometimes called Structuralism, sometimes Deconstruction or Post-Structuralism.

James Gribble’s book is a call to action: the teaching of literature, he argues, should be based upon the centrality of literary criticism. Literary criticism is ‘that form of discourse which undertakes the analysis of works of literature so as to do justice to their “embodiment” or “realisation” of meaning’. The words within inverted commas show that Leavis is Gribble’s model, and that the stress Leavis placed on those words amounts, for Gribble, to a morality. As an extension of Leavis’s concerns, Gribble examines the problems raised by such matters as meaning, subjectivity, objectivity, feeling, reality and sincerity. The main problem is the relation between language and the values to which these words testify; or rather, how to represent language as intervening in their ‘embodiment’.

Gribble makes much of D.W. Harding’s essays, in Experience into Words, on the moment at which, in particular cases, cognition seems to accept a linguistic destiny. My own sense of the matter is that meaning is not to be thought of as somethng to be transmitted from one mind to another, or as a message to be delivered. It may be rather what we recognise in retrospect as having taken place, an event in cognition, desire, intention, and so forth. On ordinary occasions language is used as an instrument in the service of desires which need only that service to be articulated: but there are events of cognition in which the intervention of language takes place at a very early stage, and largely determines the form and character of whatever fulfilment occurs. It is as if language contained those possibilities which are recognised and named, after the event, as a thought or an idea. ‘The phrasing we adopt,’ as Harding said, ‘is part of the attitude we find we have taken up.’ Christopher Ricks’s common style is a case in this point. He doesn’t, I imagine, decide what he wants to say, and look for the words to convey his meaning. He chooses what he will say from the possibilities offered him by phonetic coincidence: he puns to think. Gribble worries the meaning of meaning – usefully, but I don’t think he would claim decisively. I mention it only as an example of the pedagogical problems he raises. He is happier with particular occasions of interpretation: adjudicating the performances of Leavis, Graham Hough and Cleanth Brooks on ‘Tears, Idle Tears’; and of Jonathan Culler and Terence Hawkes on William Carlos Williams’s ‘This is Just to Say’.

Theories of Structuralism make Gribble particularly angry. He quotes a bit from Roland Barthes only to say he finds it impenetrable. A long paragraph from Culler’s Structuralist Poetics he regards as ‘woolly rhapsodising’. He quotes in silence a passage from J. Hillis Miller as if it spoke nonsense for itself. But Gribble doesn’t make the necessary distinctions. He lumps Structuralism and Deconstruction together, forgetting that the most severe attack on Structuralism has come from Derrida’s chapter on Lévi-Strauss in De la Grammatologie and the chapter on Jean Rousset in L’Ecriture et la Différence: where Derrida says that Structuralism may be interpreted ‘as a relaxation, if not a lapse, of the attention given to force, which is the tension of force itself: form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself.’

Blurring differences, Gribble treats Harold Bloom as an adept of Deconstruction, for no reason except that Bloom took part, a few years ago, in a bizarre exercise published as Deconstruction and Criticism. Structuralism, Deconstruction and Bloom’s ‘Agonism’ are, in fact, separate activities. Structuralism is the application of Saussurean linguistics to situations which, it is hoped, can then be seen as the site of impersonal systems. Deconstruction is a chapter in the continuing story of Scepticism, its special mark being the Nietzschean exhilaration with which it accepts the doom it insists on. Agonism is a Freudian tragedy, a myth of catastrophe which a writer can elude for a time by certain desperate manoeuvres.

Reconstructing Literature consists of nine essays by eight writers – one of them takes two shots – in more or less dismayed relation to Structuralism and Deconstruction. The writers are Laurence Lerner, Cedric Watts, Roger Scruton, John Holloway, Gabriel Josipovici, Wayne Booth, Robert Pattison and Anthony Thorlby. Four of them teach at Sussex, so I suppose the book started as a bright idea in the Senior Common Room at Falmer. Some of the essays are genial performances. Josipovici obviously likes Barthes’s work, and writes happily of it, but the bits he quotes for admiration don’t raise any question of theory or method: they’re perceptions any superior unmethodical intelligence might produce. Wayne Booth has a handsome essay on Gérard Genette as a rhetorician. But most of the others are gruff. Scruton implies that you’d need to be demented to propound what Derrida calls Grammatology, and goes on to defend the idea of tradition, the rights of the common reader, and ‘the objectivity of critical judgment’. Watts, out-Scrutoning Scruton, asserts that ‘Structuralist, Post-Structuralist and Deconstructionist theory is a confused and entangled body of material which, at its most extreme, enters the realms of dementia (as is shown by the sad case of one prominent advocate)’ – a nasty swipe at Althusser, as if I were to say that Mailer’s novels are crazy because he knifed his wife. More to the point, Watts attacks Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of the myth of Oedipus, and goes to Frazer’s account of the scapegoat to find a better one. John Holloway’s essay looks with a cold eye at Saussure, Barthes, Terence Hawkes, and especially Catherine Belsey, and makes a telling point about Belsey’s getting Emile Benveniste wrong; good, detailed stuff. Robert Pattison’s essay deals with Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset; imagines what ‘Textualism’ or ‘the textuary method’ would say about it; then points out the defects of what the method would have said. But why not choose something ‘the textuary method’ has actually done – Cynthia Chase’s essay on Daniel Deronda, say, or Hillis Miller’s on Stevens’s ‘The Rock’ – and indicate its disability? Anthony Thorlby’s essay is an elaborate demonstration that Kafka’s stories are ‘structuralist’, in the sense that they present ‘structure as such’: hence their anxiety. ‘The anxiety which links so many different types of structure at a psychological level comes into being as soon as any one of them is regarded purely as structure; anxiety grows as a result of examining structure separately from what it is a structure of. For structures “as such” are empty of any content requiring or permitting belief.’ (Which reminds me that I sense in these and other books a growing desire to recover the old distinction between form and content.) Laurence Lerner writes about the difference titles make to our interpretation of poems, novels and paintings: what his essay has to do with Structuralism etc I have no idea.

The trouble with Reconstructing Literature is not merely that it’s a rag-bag of points well made, decent sentiments, trivial notions and long-playing prejudices, but that it hasn’t identified its target. If there is a clear and present danger to humane letters, it should be made clear and present. If not, not. The book doesn’t know what it’s looking at, among the several quite different objects it might plausibly be looking at, such as Structuralism, Deconstruction, Reader-Response Theory, and various forms of Hermeneutics.

The problem is: how are we to decide how much critical and diagnostic work can safely be left to time, and how much of it we have to do for ourselves? There are some Structuralist ideas whose time has passed – ‘the death of the author’, for instance, now seems a stale conceit. There are ideas hostile to Structuralism which are equally stale: the notion, for instance, that Structuralists think there is no ‘real world’ beyond language. The best course is specific. If you think a particular book is bad and likely to be influential for that or another reason, you should take time to show its character, as James Guetti does in the current Raritan, the particular bad eminence being Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, its vice ‘a rhetoric that disallows more independent and inquiring acts of mind by appearing to grant a release from them’.

Geoffrey Thurley’s book is a spirited attack on the assumptions he finds in a welter of texts diversely representing Modernism, Structuralism, Deconstruction. At the beginning I thought he was going to waste his strength: he kept swinging his sword at everybody and everything. These pleasures enjoyed, however, he soon comes to his own argument, which he describes as empiricist and Aristotelian. ‘A mature empiricism allows “reading” to take place in the traditionally understood way: we read by perusing a surface and understanding its import.’ The text is there, and it is there as someone’s statement, utterance, assertion. Reference is feasible, a sign is a sign of something. ‘The essence of the linguistic sign is that it can be used in the absence of what it generally stands for.’ Communication is feasible because it is, ‘like the capacity to refer and the existence of something to refer to, built into language at the outset’. In this spirit Thurley considers such concepts as meaning, reference, author, subjectivity, theme, intention, interpretation, description and evaluation. ‘Our language,’ he maintains, ‘must sustain a certain minimum stability of reference within its signs, just such a stability as the persisting outside world sustains.’

Thurley doesn’t tackle all the problems involved in his empiricism: he apparently thinks that common sense will do its part and his own verve the rest. But he doesn’t always rely on that partnership: he has his authorities. The critic he resorts to, as to the unfailing source of whatever authority he needs, is Leavis: ‘Leavis, we can say, was a moralist because he was a critic, not vice versa. Indeed, his moral fervour and his critical fineness are one and the same.’ For a different but companionable authority, Thurley recurs to Wittgenstein, and speaks of his ‘profound awareness of the frontiers of expression and of the underlying nature of language’. Unless I have missed a smile, Thurley frowns on every other eminence except, locally, Erwin Panofsky for his Meaning in the Visual Arts.

Common sense is fine, and empiricism pretty good, but Thurley’s version of each won’t persuade anyone who isn’t persuaded already. Leavis was, not at all incidentally, a persuasive writer: sentence by sentence, his elaborately qualifying style forced the reader into a space of discriminations, and insisted upon an equally conscientious response to them. Anything less, the reader was impelled to feel, was barbarous. Why, in addition, would one want a theory? The only theory worth having would come after the discriminations, and show their coherence. ‘The intelligence always comes after,’ as Deleuze says: ‘it is good when it comes after, it is good only when it comes after.’ But it is well to have common sense reasserted, since it has been made to feel ashamed of itself. I don’t think there is a war on, but there are rival rhetorics, competing for attention. Nothing new in that. What is new is the division of ‘English teachers’ into separate units, the divisions being far more insistent than the old separation of language-people from literature-people, or historians from critics. Theory, for the past ten or fifteen years, has been construed as a problem in philosophy: its vocabulary has been derived from epistemology and ontology. I think that phase is nearly over, and that the issues now, though offered in theoretical terms, are far more directly political. I don’t think there can be much communication between the several affiliations: each cell is pre-occupied with working out its own strategies. I assume that a theory, like Deleuze’s ‘intelligence’, comes after the impulses and sentiments it organises, and that, once in place, it proposes a plan of action, a campaign. For that reason, a theory takes part in what Kenneth Burke calls the ‘bureaucratisation of the imaginative’. Instead of denouncing Structuralism or Deconstruction, perhaps we should be asking what the bureaucratisation of the imaginative comes to. Otherwise put: to teach English, must I change my life?

The Critical Quarterly has celebrated the journal’s 25th anniversary[*] by dealing in its current number with theoretical issues: but to no decisive end. Patrick Parrinder refers, in an aside, to ‘the mad rush to theorise literary studies in the past few years’, and to ‘the reductiveness of much current theory, its overweening ambitiousness and vanity, the incommensurability of different theories’. Colin MacCabe refers to ‘the cultural supremacism of Leavis’. Bernard Bergonzi traces the development of Leavis’s attitude to Eliot’s poetry and criticism, and shows how Leavis used Blake and Lawrence as sticks with which to beat Eliot. ‘What Leavis does to Eliot in The Living Principle looks like a mode of psychodrama, involving rituals of expulsion and exorcism and ultimate destruction.’ P.M.S. Dawson argues that ‘Leavis’s criticism is inherently conservative, and insidiously so in the way that ideological demands are disguised as critical principles.’ But the pressure of literary theory seems particularly regrettable in David Lodge’s essay on Milan Kundera. Much of it is an interesting, useful account of The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but Lodge thinks it necessary to spend several pages working out his notion that ‘the modernist novel is generally characterised by a radical rearrangement of the spatio-temporal continuity of the narrative line – what the Russian Formalists called the deformation of the fabula in the sjuzhet.’ For God’s sake! And the detour takes in Barthes on the ‘death of the author’, Genette’s ‘analepsis’, Dorrit Cohn’s ‘memory monologues’, and a footnote explaining what Wayne Booth meant by ‘the implied author’ and what Lodge means by it. At the end of the detour, Lodge offers as his conclusion what anyone who has read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting knows: ‘it never allows the reader the luxury of identifying with a secure authorial position that is invulnerable to criticism and irony; but that it is the work of a distinctive, gifted, self-conscious “author” is never in doubt.’ It has never been in doubt, so the assertion is null.

[*] Critical Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos 1 and 2, Manchester University Press, £8, May, ISSN 0011-1562.