The Things about Bayley

Nicholas Spice

  • The Order of Battle at Trafalgar, and other essays by John Bayley
    Collins Harvill, 224 pp, £12.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 00 272848 6

There is a certain kind of knowledge – perhaps the most important – that cannot be explicitly taught or diligently learnt. For example, a tribe of Indians on the river Xingu lives on the water. Their houses are built on stilts in the swamps and the inhabitants move from place to place by boat. The survival of the tribe depends on good boats, and the chief task of the men is to make them. The art is handed down from father to son, but without any direct instruction. The boys learn it from the men by watching them, by being around when the boats are being built.

This illustration is the only thing I can remember from a lecture by Bruno Bettelheim which I heard in 1975. It struck me at the time because I had just finished a year at an American university, where I had sometimes had the impression that knowledge was understood to be palpable stuff which it was the duty of learning to shift methodically from one location (a database, a book, the brain of a teacher) to another. Reading English at Oxford with John Bayley had been more like learning to build boats on the river Xingu.

There was no obvious method in the way John Bayley taught, and no manipulation. I suspect that being a teacher did not interest him. Talking to people about books, however, did, and if those people happened to be students, then that was well enough. A tutorial with John Bayley was a conversation: about what you had been reading, or, if you had read nothing, about something else. The conversation was not competitive. You were encouraged to go further down a line of thought, or you were not encouraged to. Like evil in the Augustinian universe, discouragement was merely the absence of its opposite. If Bayley thought you were barking up the wrong tree, he would typically say, ‘Quite probably you’re right,’ but in such a way that you knew that quite probably you were wrong.

Bayley treated books with the same searching deference with which he treated the views of his pupils. His approach to a work was like that of someone tapping a wall to find out where it is unsound, or like the bell-makers at the end of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev who test the integrity of the newly-fired bell by tapping the cast with hammers and listening. What Bayley was listening for was the note of personality, and the imperfections – the hollow places and cracks – in the works he examined were often where he could hear it most plainly. The art of criticism lay in knowing what to listen out for, and having heard it, to identify and characterise it. ‘I suppose the thing about Hardy is,’ Bayley would typically begin, as though together we were to try and get to the bottom of a fascinating, but contradictory, mutual acquaintance.

The presiding genius of these discussions was humour. The contingencies and incongruities of life, the comicality of authors, the portentousness of critics – these were a source of constant delight to Bayley, whose sense of the ridiculous irradiated even the most sombre subject-matter with a mildly facetious gaiety. His wit was chiefly directed at people, situations and points of view that took themselves too seriously, and he delivered his one-liners with an inimitable conspiratorial intensity which imbued them with a mock-gravity bordering on the hilarious. At the foot of an immensely long undergraduate essay on George Eliot, written by a friend of mine, he wrote, ‘Some good things here, I expect,’ a comment that was both a reproof and a vote of confidence, while at the same time managing to say everything about the sort of essays one should write on George Eliot. When the same friend did well in his final exams, Bayley sent him a postcard of Napoleon. On the back he wrote: ‘The world lies at your feet. I should leave it there for a while, if I were you.’ An extensive apocrypha of Bayley anecdotes and sayings grew up around him, and his pupils competed in the art of caricaturing him. These stories were the concise embodiment for us of everything that Bayley stood for, and we repeated them as a reflex, a part of the process of modelling ourselves after him. As his pupils we did not learn facts or techniques. Like the Indian boys on the river Xingu, we attended to the practice of a traditional art, and to the extent that we learnt to practise it ourselves, we did so mainly, not by studying it, but by identifying ourselves with a master. As the psychoanalysts say, we introjected him.

There’s a limit, I suppose, to how much introjection a man can take, and in 1974 John Bayley reached it, giving up as a tutor to devote himself to writing. Since then he has published several books and a stream of essays in the academic and periodical press, a stream which is only now at its remarkable flood. The Order of Battle at Trafalgar is a selection of 23 of these essays, mostly book reviews, published in various journals (including the London Review) since 1981, and on a wide range of subjects chosen for him by editors rather than by himself.

Bayley’s writing bears a close relation to his teaching. His essays are a written version of his conversation, as his conversation in tutorials gave utterance to a silent musing – the intellectual habit of a lifetime. It is as though, when called upon to teach or write, Bayley has only to bring the stream of his inner thoughts to the surface and let it flow for a while.

That criticism should be a conversation and not a monologue follows naturally from the first principles of Bayley’s intellectual faith: that people are more interesting than ideas, and that since literature is written by people, about people and for people, it is best treated as human stuff and in a human way. Once upon a time Bayley would not have felt the need to spell out such a commonplace, but as fashions in the university have changed he has been drawn increasingly onto the offensive. The present volume acknowledges this, setting the tone, not without a characteristic touch of facetious hyperbole, in the title (which is a reference to a remark of Lionel Trilling’s), and then launching straight into the fray with three essays on the nature of literature and literary criticism. The enemy is identified as a motley alliance of formalists, structuralists, deconstructionists and Marxists, the ‘new men’, as Bayley calls them, sometimes named but mostly nameless methodologists of the text who have denied literature’s humanity and thrown value to the dogs. Bayley engages with these shadowy opponents in a very generalised way, impatiently lumping them together as though he cannot bring himself to look too closely at any one of them, yet is unable to stop looking altogether. Perhaps he is drawn to the ascetic pleasures of theory more than he cares to admit. At any rate, these opening essays are valuable for what they tell us about Bayley rather than for what they tell us about Barthes and co.

In Bayley’s view, criticism begins with, and must stay close to, the ordinary experience of reading – that is to say, with you and me sitting by the fire reading Wordsworth for pleasure or tucked up in bed with a novel. Once this reality is lost sight of, the way is open to any amount of academic nonsense. The common reader, or common critic, as Bayley sometimes calls him, has no time for the idea that authors do not exist, or that War and Peace is about literariness rather than life, or that the criticism of Geoffrey Hartman or Paul de Man is poetry to be read alongside Byron and Blake, or that literature, as a function of class oppression, is a burden from which we must all be set free. ‘For him the insides of books are ... things like those in his own life, real or imagined, real angers, joys, and disgraces, taking place in damp streets, stately homes, blue lagoons etc.’ His immediate reaction to a book will be to ‘laugh or cry’, to ‘love and hate’, not to set to work on a linguistic or sociological analysis.

The common reader takes the same kind of interest in his experience of books as in his experience of people. ‘For the inherently sane, who are interesting to each other as human beings, it is normal to explore the ways in which consciousness multiplies itself.’ Exploring the ways in which consciousness multiplies itself is what literature does, while at the same time being an expression of such multiplicity. Literature explores life as criticism explores literature, and all three rejoice in inconsistency and paradox, discontinuity and division, incongruity, ambiguity and loose ends. The enemies of life, and therefore of literature, are strict definitions, tidy solutions, planning and control – any attempt, in fact, to curtail or curb ‘the endless rewarding flux out of which no definitive conclusions can ever be drawn’. It follows from this that a theoretical approach to literature cannot ultimately comprehend what literature has to offer. Theory is doomed, by being theory, to miss the point. Mean while, literature will miss the point of life if it too becomes theoretical, if it plans its effects too consciously or is ‘over-knowing’. When this happens, we ‘get the point too soon’ and yawn. As Tolstoy put it, ‘you see what the author would be at and it bores you’ (one of Bayley’s favourite quotations). So the more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘exploitative’ literature becomes, the more it runs the risk of losing our attention, while innocent openness and simplicity captivate us. The cleverness of a Borges proves tiresome, the gaucherie of Keats profound.

In Bayley’s aesthetic universe, the distance that a work of literature has travelled away from the experience of being human is measured by the degree of humour present in it or allowed by it. Humour is the unavoidable companion of a willingness to accept the messiness of life: you cannot have one without the other. As the faculty that delights in division and makes irony possible, humour stands guard over the spirit of life, like an angel over the Ark of the Covenant, warning off fanaticism and the humourless excesses of the rampant ego. Humour ensures our freedom of movement, allowing critics to sidestep the designs of authors, and literature to sidestep the importunities of critics. Paradoxically, humour is the faculty that respects the seriousness of a work of art. For to take anything seriously we must not take it too seriously.

Anyone familiar with the development of Bayley’s ideas will know the seminal work to be his British Academy Chatterton Lecture on Keats, delivered in 1962. This remarkable essay expounded Bayley’s greatest critical discovery, which, coming early in his career, like the discoveries of mathematics, formed the basis of everything that has come after. This ‘discovery’ was, roughly speaking, that the maturity which Keats appeared to be finding in his later work – typically ‘Hyperion’ – spelt death to his art, the true spirit of which was embodied in earlier, more ingenuous poems such as ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. This contention turned conventional notions of taste upside down, since it asked us to recognise how imperfection, awkwardness, even vulgarity could deepen the expressive power of a work far beyond the range of tastefulness and a suave technique. Now, in an essay entitled ‘Full-Grown Infants’, Bayley returns again to these earlier perceptions and develops them further, pointing out how, in the opening lines of ‘Ode on Indolence’, ‘awkwardness is a part of the accuracy,’ and speaking of the way Keats learnt in the Odes to ‘perfect’ clumsiness. Criticism, says Bayley, is most unlikely to be able to handle such subtleties because of ‘its very coherence and consistency, its reversal of the strategies of negative capability’. The last sentences of ‘Full-Grown Infants’ say it all: ‘Keats’s poetry never minds the symbolic or portentous any more than the facetious: its greatest art in the end, as well as its greatest livingness, is not taking itself seriously, which is why the overt and official seriousness of ‘Hyperion’ became a kind of death. Or we could say that the seriousness of Keats’s art in the Odes is never the same thing as the seriousness of the critic’s performance of it.’

John Bayley is one of the few great academic critics whose books the general public will buy and enjoy. In the university world, however, he is counted by many to be old fashioned, and he is attacked with considerable vehemence. The arguments brought against him divide between the philosophical and the political. Critics deeply involved in the movement to make literary criticism a discipline deplore the wholly unsystematic nature of Bayley’s thought. Asserting that any act of criticism implies a theoretical position of some sort, they discount Bayley’s refusal to come clean on the theoretical foundations of his work as a sign of intellectual laziness or cowardice. They point out that his terminology is loaded with undefined and undefended assumptions. That he uses words like ‘life’, ‘personality’, ‘art’, ‘humanity’ and ‘reality’, implying that they are self-evident absolutes which any ordinary person will take for granted. To make matters worse, he uses favoured terminology inconsistently (Stanley Fish claimed to find 17 different meanings for the word ‘division’ in Bayley’s book The Uses of Division). Meanwhile, Bayley’s belief in the role of the critic as a judge is derided as antediluvian, and the scale of values by which he judges things is itself judged to have no more validity than Neoclassical decorum or Arnold’s touchstones.

Bayley does not defend himself against such strictures particularly well, and this lays him open to unnecessary misunderstandings. For example, he writes about the common reader in a thoroughly muddling way, at times seeming to suggest that criticism should content itself with simple exclamations of pleasure and distaste, with oohs and ahs and grunts of disapproval, at others attributing to his average enthusiast all the percipience of a Henry James or a John Bayley. How many readers – how many of us when we read for pleasure – reflect about Keats that ‘his poetry resists in every fibre of its being the logic of its own verbal status,’ or, about Hardy, that his art ‘can never lie in the teeth of its own technique’? These are highly sophisticated judgments formulated at a level which few readers (amateur or professional) ever attain. Indeed, over the more than thirty years that Bayley has practised as a critic, he has developed his own distinctive language for discussing literature, which has drawn deftly on the theories that have come and gone, and made their more refined vocabulary its own. This is nowhere so true as in his play with concepts of fiction and reality, in his delicate understanding of the way, as he puts it, ‘fiction and life are, so to speak, continually changing places, each under the scrutiny that produces art.’ It is understandable that he should be impatient when the critical community laboriously reinvents these verities, literalising them in grandiose theoretical systems. But theory, the philosophy, sociology and politics of literature, when properly conceived, has its place in the university too, and in his more irritable moments Bayley can seem to deny this.

Bayley’s position is better defended, it seems to me, from a standpoint outside the confrontation of theory and no theory. For this is not a fruitful choice. The choice should be between alternatives that are complementary, not mutually exclusive, between theory and interpretation, or theory of interpretation and interpretation. Other art forms take this for granted. In music, for example, no one would dream of replacing a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with a piece of Schenkerian analysis or a lecture on the relationship of the Romantic concerto to the structures of the capitalist state. Moreover, musicians who heard the performance would have no trouble discussing its merits. This is because they would share a traditional language, a language which has grown over centuries of musical practice within one particular culture, a language of which Brahms himself spoke a dialect. Literary interpretation works the same way. Its understanding is made possible by tradition, and it justifies itself, not by appeal to theory, but by appeal to the community at large. The community can take it or leave it. When Bayley speaks of a Hardy poem as ‘ringing true’ or asks us whether we ‘feel at home’ with Turgenev, he speaks as a jazzman might speak of swing or as a Classical musician speaks of tempo.

Given the nature of Bayley’s criticism as an interpretative art practised from within a tradition, it is inevitable that it should provoke political hostility. Accordingly, critics of the Left point to Bayley’s unregenerate habit of judging books as a sure sign that he is a member of the ruling élite, intent on maintaining its power base by perpetuating the myth of Literature, a canon of texts which is itself the product of ruling élites and part and parcel of their co-optive and repressive power tactics. The fact that Bayley has operated out of Oxford has given this argument excellent ad hominem ammunition. To obscure and not so obscure Judes locked out of the privileged domain, the thought of Bayley pottering among his papers in comfortable tutorial rooms above a peaceful quadrangle, while public school boys (like myself) make precocious conversation about the Great Tradition, is a bitter stimulus to analysis of his work. And Bayley’s public appearances in print are not calculated to placate them. His relaxed discursive style and his flouting of the academic proprieties (methodology, footnotes, a suitably grave demeanour) infuriate his more earnest colleagues, especially, perhaps, the younger ones who see his style as the style of a leisured class that has never had to fight for its position in a hard world where jobs are scarce and competition for them ruthless.

Bayley is not above a bit of ad hominem rhetoric himself. But interestingly, he fires his salvos, not from the enclaves of privileged gentility, but from the philistine encampments of the Thatcherite Right. One can see well enough the superficial similarities between some of the things Bayley hates about theory and some of the things one might hate about socialism, but it is an unnecessary and invidious linkage, and the fact that Bayley himself makes it is disappointing. When he describes the new theorists as a ‘minority of activists’ working to overthrow the legitimacy of Literature and spoil the pleasures of ‘the silent majority’, he writes like a columnist in the Daily Mail or, at best, in the Spectator in its new character as chief purveyor of right-wing cant to the yuppies. It’s a peculiar idiom for so civilised and sensitive a man to fall into, and when he does so he momentarily loses touch with his sense of humour. And it is a sad irony that on the most fateful issue of all – the future of everything that Bayley stands for – Bayley himself should have drawn up the lines of battle in the wrong place.