What was new

Eric Griffiths

  • Theoretical Essays: Film, Linguistics, Literature by Colin MacCabe
    Manchester, 152 pp, £17.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1749 1
  • A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory by Raman Selden
    Harvester, 153 pp, £15.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0658 2

A pause for thought in The Tempest:

Miranda:                          O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Prospero:         ’Tis new to thee.

Prospero’s words may or may not be an aside. Immediately after his remark, the other parent and the other child on stage, Alonso and Ferdinand, have 14 lines of dialogue before Prospero speaks to them; Miranda has no more to say in the play. If he curtly tells her what’s what, we can, in those 14 lines, imagine a long look between father and daughter, a long look which silences Miranda, or subdues her for a time. Or his line may be an aside, a sigh of melancholic wisdom, and Miranda be left, unabashedly rapt and attentive through what follows. Prospero often figures nowadays as an embittered killjoy or loopy Chief of Police (with Ariel as multi-purpose, though reluctant, means of crowd control), so it is easy to hear ’Tis new to thee’ rapped out, putting down her enthusiasm. Both these options are equally soft options, both espouse Miranda’s wild surmise as against Prospero’s response; one wishes to protect her from hearing it, and the other to protest on her behalf against its asperity. Prospero, though, happens to be right, and can be imagined talking straight to a daughter he respects more than her would-be defenders, talking without desire to wound but with a sense of the need to warn. And the silence which follows his words would, then, be one they share, each comprehending the worth of the other’s attitude, her excitement intimate with his sense of disillusions possibly to come.

It is a characteristic Shakespearean moment in being so dramatically thoughtful. What strikes me as ‘deep’ here is not what is said, but what the speeches ask me to hear: a range of attitudes to the new. The thought is ‘dramatic’ in the sense that the best way to explicate it is to show the various possible ways of staging the exchange, and how each staging is instinct with differing estimations of the relative value of what Prospero and Miranda realise. The exchange takes place in three dimensions; you can, so to speak, walk round it, and so need not take sides on it. Something important hinges on such a momentary freedom from the imperative to partisanship, because the ‘new’, whether it ever exists, whether it is mostly to be welcomed or feared, and so on, is one of those cloudy powers which sway lives, commanding allegiance or mistrust or each by turns, because they operate neither through reasoned arrival at conviction, nor through impulsive appetites thought can hardly check, but through something that is both reasoning and impulsive – call it ‘temperament’. And temperament is something particularly hard to come to intellectual grips with because, most of the time, we are each of us in its grip.

Colin MacCabe, in 1969, was pretty much a Miranda, agog at Paris and 1968. Indeed, he was a champion of Mirandas in Cambridge, eager to make contact with ‘the brave new thoughts which seemed to circulate everywhere but in the teaching of the Faculty’. He ends up in this book as a slightly grouchy, middle-of-the-road Prospero, muttering: ‘Theory, a word which I must personally confess jars more every time I hear it and jars all the more because it is pronounced in a tone of political piety which seems inappropriate in every way’. Much of what had once seemed an ‘explosive force’ of politico-intellectual commitment struck him in the Paris of 1979 as having all the time been ‘simply ... a response to Parisian fashions’; he travelled to work with Althusser and Derrida in 1972, and in 1983 thinks it an open question ‘whether Althusser, Lacan and Derrida will come to seem merely historical curiosities’. Putting it this way does less than justice to MacCabe’s very flexible responses, for he can be Miranda and Prospero within the space of three sentences as well as over a decade, thus: ‘Barthes’s characterisation of the break between the classic and the modern was of vital importance, for modernism was the product of a radically new positioning of the literary text in relation to both audience and sexuality. However it was also, as Kermode had convincingly indicated in the final chapter of The Classic, hopelessly reductive. Barthes collapsed all pre-modern writing into an unacceptable homogeneity which took no account of the histories of language, education or genre.’ This is not the dialogue of the mind with itself but the Punch-and-Judy back-chat of mindlessness with itself: ‘vital importance’ and ‘hopelessly reductive’, a true identification of the ‘radically new’ and a complete failure to take account of histories, let alone history. There is a difference between dramatically revolving the various aspects of an issue and being in a flat spin; the former is a partial release from temperament, the latter its insistence, despite the motions of self-knowledge, the gestures of retraction.

Literary theory announces itself as the new. MacCabe achieves ‘a new way of thinking through the relationships between the social and the individual’; Selden who, though a Senior Lecturer at the University of Durham, is more wholeheartedly a Miranda than MacCabe, believes he lives in times of ‘new critical self-awareness’. This new critical self-awareness contrasts with the whole of past literary history, when ‘criticism spoke about literature without disturbing our picture of the world or of ourselves as readers.’ ’Tis new to thee, Selden, or, at least, new to theory, for criticism did not speak like this when Coleridge lectured, in Bristol on 16 June 1795, about readers who wept over novels but cared nothing for the victims of the slave trade: ‘true Benevolence is a rare Quality among us. Sensibility indeed we have to spare – what novel-reading Lady does not over flow with it to the great annoyance of her Friends and Family – Her own sorrows like the Princes of Hell in Milton’s Pandemonium sit enthroned bulky and vast – while the miseries of our fellow creatures dwindle into pygmy forms, and are crowded, an unnumbered multitude, into some dark corner of the Heart where the eye of sensibility gleams faintly on them at long Intervals – But a keen feeling of trifling misfortunes is selfish cowardice not virtue.’

Coleridge evidently intended to disturb a picture of the world with which certain readers entertained themselves in the act of reading, and to do so by literary means which politically and ethically challenge a reading habit. The luxuriance of reading is brought up sharp against necessities ignored, and sentiment treated to a glimpse of itself as demonically self-preoccupied. It is a fine passage, but its value is not a scarcity value in literary history: Johnson on Soame Jenyns, Arnold on the Times, Eliot on Baudelaire, Empson on Christianity – all of them, across a range of indignation, needling, defiance, impudent jokiness, and in pursuit of literary-critical considerations, question and re-draw pictures of the world, notions of reading. Criticism forms part of literature, and much acute criticism takes place in imaginative writing: but with Selden’s sketch of a long, dark, complacent age on which self-awareness newly dawned ‘at the end of the 1960s’ it is impossible to make any sense of the history of literature and the part criticism plays in that history. We understand why Miranda believed what she did (she knew no better), but why Selden believes what he says is harder to understand (he ought, professionally ought, to know better).

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