Graham Hough looks at a collection of American essays which allege a crisis in criticism, and ponders the long history of debate on literary education

  • Criticism in the University edited by Gerald Graff and Reginald Gibbons
    Northwestern, 234 pp, £29.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 8101 0670 1

The state of chronic hypochondria in which literary education subsists shows no sign of abating. Indeed, in some quarters it is entering an acute phase. Regular and formerly healthful activities lose their zest, attacked by morbid depression of spirits. The milder forms of therapy effect little improvement, and a battery of fantastic remedies is brought to bear, which in spite of energetic promotion do not seem able to establish themselves. Either the patient’s system rejects them, or they provoke hysterical symptoms more alarming than the original complaint.

It is the condition of literary criticism that causes most anxiety. Contributors to the volume Criticism in the University almost all talk of the ‘crisis in literary criticism’, as though it is simply to be taken for granted that there is one. To the seasoned literary academic the very words are like a knell. After years of committee-room dissensions that begin as relatively dignified querelles de clercs and end up as cat fights he would be glad to forget the whole business. But this should not obscure the fact that these banal contentions are froth on the surface of some powerful tides. Plato in the Ion finds it worth while to spend a whole dialogue on demolishing the ill-founded pretensions of a professor of literature. Two key passages in the Republic are concerned with the place of poetry in the education of the guardians – the second of these leading indirectly to a vision of the soul’s eternal destiny. Debates about literary education have ancient and extensive roots because over long periods of our culture all non-technical education was literary. The composition of the canon and the methods used in its exposition were therefore of prime importance.

There are times (such as the later hours of a faculty meeting) when it is difficult to give these considerations their due weight. As one who came to academia from Grub Street, and not from graduate school, I am disposed to think of literary criticism as part of literature, not as a piece of scholastic apparatus. It is the burden of these pages – American pages, but the situation is not so very different here – that this is no longer the case. It is everywhere assumed, the editors remark, ‘that the recent history of criticism is the history of academic criticism, and that this situation need occasion no comment since it is appropriate and usual. Indeed ... the very word “criticism” has become synonymous with “academic criticism”. To add the qualifier would be redundant since no other kind is considered, or perhaps even generally conceived as possible.’ This is an old story. I remember writing words to precisely this effect in the heart of the Leavis period, many years ago. But though one deplored then as now the neglect of the whole class of educated non-professional general readers, though one thought then as now that it was to these readers that criticism should primarily be directed, the drift of the argument was rather different. At that time the adult reader with an interest in life and the word that extended beyond the merely literary seemed to be ignored in favour of a captive audience of students, with their fussy little problems, their eyes on examination syllabuses and on plausible opinions to put in essays. Today the purported audience appears to be a band of heavily-armed technicians, employing a dialect far removed from common human speech to devise questions that no one has ever asked in order that they may provoke suitably ingenious answers. I do not know that this is exactly a crisis in literary criticism. In a world full of sin and misery what happens in the arts faculties of universities rarely deserves the name of crisis. And it is not so much an occurrence within literary criticism that is in question as the replacement of criticism by a quite different activity.

It is painfully evident among the contributors to Criticism in the University that practically everyone is bored and irritated by the teaching of literature on traditional lines, and more than doubtful whether it is doing any good to anyone. Besides irrelevant but heartfelt grouses about their salaries, conditions of tenure and prospects of promotion, some of these writers seem to feel a resentment amounting almost to hatred of their calling. Much of this no doubt lies deep in the sociology of academic life in general, but one can guess at more particular reasons. Not long ago Sir Peter Medawar remarked that when the momentous DNA discoveries were being made there were plenty of people in the English faculties of universities quite as clever as Crick and Watson – but Crick and Watson had something to be clever about. For the last thirty years or so ambitious literary exegetes have lacked precisely this – something to be clever about. Commentary and interpretation of the classic canon is by now so copious, so complete, that no addition to it is likely to matter very much. Most of the editing of any importance has been done. No creative upheaval like the Modernist movement of the earlier part of this century has come about, to make us re-draw the map of literary history. So one has had the sad spectacle of many trim and high-powered intellectual machines with their wheels spinning vainly in the air.

Naturally this situation could not be allowed to continue: and there were indeed plenty of people clever enough to do something about it. If no problems offer themselves, problems can be invented. If mowing the lawn with the mowing machine has become too easy you can always try doing it with the vacuum-cleaner. Ancillary disciplines can be brought in and applied to questions for which they were not intended. A system devised for the analysis of Russian folk-tales can be adapted to the later novels of Henry James. The microscopic machinery of phonemic analysis can be blown up to the macroscopic scale and used to examine the structure of narrative. And endless fascinating variations can be discovered in practically anything by applying what the French (but nobody else) can recognise as psychoanalysis. And so we have had Saussurean and Jakobsonian linguistics, Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Barthesian structuralism, post-structuralism, Derrida, de Man, deconstruction. A Marxist tincture has always been acceptable to the French avant-garde: so, dutifully, in England and the United States the ashes of Thirties Marxism were rekindled to a subfusc glow. And so one problem was solved. Now there was plenty to be clever about.

Linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis and Marxism are all criss-crossed with intricate technicalities in their own right, and soon become more so when applied to questions with which they have no obvious connection. Some of the early practitioners – Lévi-Strauss and Barthes – were brilliant and attractive writers who naturally drew pupils into their orbit. Others like Derrida and Lacan were experts in mystification, and opened up for their followers endless vistas of profitable bewilderment.

Amid this busy hum it was possible to detect a few discordant notes. Most of the new movements originated in France, and the early practitioners have attracted accomplished disciples. One of the best books on Barthes is by the Englishman Stephen Heath, written in French, and Barthesian French at that. No small feat. But all such endeavours have an unavoidable air of trotting obediently along paths that have been opened up by others. A further difficulty is that to include literature in a more comprehensive semiotic enterprise readily leads to its being swamped by extra-literary interests. Barthes’s elaborate schematism may or may not be the appropriate means for the analysis of fashion: but when similar methods were applied to a short nouvelle of Balzac in S/Z, it was obvious to most readers that the complications of the machinery, whatever their intrinsic interest, were far in excess of any useful work that it could do. In his essay in the present book ‘Back to History’, E.D. Hirsch anatomises the situation as a conflict of interests. The conflict is between undergraduates and their teachers. The interests of undergraduates reading literature are what they always were. They want to read the great works of the past: ‘they want to know what the great authors meant, and why their works were and are still considered to be great.’ Or at least they want to know these things – and one would think it a more than sufficient occupation for the undergraduate stage – before beginning to ‘re-semanticise the text’, or serve it up as grist for semiotic, psychoanalytic or Marxist mills. Professors, on the other hand, are harassed by the ever-pressing demand for new publication; and there are so many publications already that all the historical interpretations of the great works of the past, all expositions of what they meant, have been uttered already, many of them a dozen times over. Professors therefore seize avidly on the gleaming goods offered by the immense hypermarket of the nouvelle critique, regardless of the interests of their pupils or the future of literary education.

This conflict of interests expresses itself ideologically as a debate between those who think it their business to recover and expound the historic meaning of the great literary texts and those who believe this task to be arid and unrewarding, and in any case theoretically impossible. For these latter the text is only the locus of an infinite variety of reinterpretations, the original meaning being an unreachable Ding an sich. Hirsch goes on, unfortunately, to spoil a good case by dramatising it as a debate between Ancients and Moderns – a tacit appeal for old fogeys of the world to unite. But there is nothing ancient about untendentious historical investigation; and multiple interpretation goes back through the Middle Ages to the allegorising fathers of the Church. Hrabanus Maurus thought it mattered little that one did not succeed in reaching the sense intended by the author, for one has always a sense foreseen by the Holy Spirit. I expect Harold Bloom would agree. Even if one grants that much of the current unrest is about how to keep literary academics off the streets, the conflict between those who regard the text as a bucket with a determined and finite content and those who regard it as an ever-flowing fountain is still both a genuine and a very old one.

The split between one-pointed historical exposition and freely divergent interpretations has its origins in the interpretation of Scripture, where literalists and allegorists have fought it out, without conclusion, for many centuries. Since the two antithetical types are probably permanent, a conclusion is not likely. But this has nothing to do with Ancients and Moderns. Literalists like Aristotle and Dr Johnson occur in all ages; so do allegorists like Origen and Blake; and two of the most determined allegorists, Marx and Freud, are guiding spirits of the modern period. More to the point is to ask how illuminating and how fruitful different allegorising strategies turn out to be.