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’.

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