Transcendental Criticism

David Trotter

  • The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections by Richard Poirier
    Faber, 256 pp, £14.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 571 15013 6

‘What to believe, in the course of his reading, was Mr Boffin’s chief literary difficulty indeed; for some time he was divided in his mind between half, all, or none; at length, when he decided, as a moderate man, to compound with half, the question still remained, which half? And that stumbling-block he never got over.’ What to believe, Mr Boffin’s chief difficulty in Our Mutual Friend, is also likely to be the chief difficulty facing the reader of Richard Poirier’s ambitious and eloquent plea for the ‘renewal’ of literature and criticism through a better understanding of Emerson. Believing all may involve something close to a conversion. Believing none will do scant justice to the work of one of the most perceptive of contemporary critics. Compounding with half will please nobody.

From The Comic Sense of Henry James (1960) through A World Elsewhere (1966) and The Performing Self (1971) to Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977), Poirier has pursued a consistent and inventive enquiry into literary language, and into the politics of literary language. ‘When a writer is most strongly engaged by what he is doing, as if struggling for his identity within the materials at hand, he can show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things, how to keep within and yet in command of the accumulations of culture that have become a part of what he is.’ The statement comes from The Performing Self, but the principle it enunciates has guided Poirier’s whole approach to literature. The struggles he chooses to witness are those which take place in and around language and its accumulations. ‘Criticism works best on him,’ he says of Frost, ‘when it gets in close, and stays in close, when it tries to monitor what is going on in the dialectical play of sounds and metaphors.’ When Poirier gets in close to poems like ‘The Silken Tent’ or ‘Home Burial’, the struggles revealed are indeed absorbing.

The Renewal of Literature celebrates the energy of literary language, and defends it against the vagueness and emollience of contemporary criticism. ‘Writing is a form of energy not accountable to the orderings anyone makes of it,’ he argues in The Performing Self, ‘and specifically not accountable to the liberal humanitarian values most readers want to find there.’ Poirier believes that we order literature by making large claims for it, by expecting it to ‘arbitrate real or imagined crises’ and to have a ‘culturally redemptive power’. The Renewal of Literature finds philosophical and polemical reasons to render writing unaccountable to such expectations.

Literature, Poirier says, engages language rather than historical circumstance, and cannot be expected to arbitrate or redeem. It is more concerned with its own crises than with those of the world, and is of lasting interest ‘only if it reveals a thoroughgoing inquisitiveness about its own verbal resources’. Its power lies in that inquisitiveness. ‘We do not go to literature to become better citizens or even wiser persons, but to discover how to move, to act, to work in ways that are still and forever mysteriously creative.’

According to this argument, literary criticism has taken on a task, the production of better citizens and wiser persons, for which it is eminently unsuited. It has paid too much attention to Matthew Arnold, ‘the source and sustenance of a still prevailing humanistic thrust in Anglo-American criticism’. Arnold is reproved for having recommended culture as the help out of present difficulties, and as a treasure house of the best that has been thought and said in the world. Poirier opposes him with encouragements to instability drawn from Emerson. ‘The truest state of mind rested in becomes false.’ ‘An imaginative book renders us much more service at first by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author.’ ‘Criticism must be transcendental, that is, must consider literature ephemeral and easily entertain the supposition of its entire disappearance.’

Action, transition, power, trope, work: these are the key terms of American pragmatism, found in Emerson and William James, to which Poirier would render literature accountable. They amount to an emphasis on the energetic process whereby meanings are created, opposed and altered in writing and reading. Emerson once said that the permanence of all books is determined by ‘their own specific gravity, or the intrinsic importance of their contents’. Poirier might want, in the same spirit, to measure them by their specific energy. Indeed, the permanence of books – the ‘genius’ they embody – is the subject of his most engrossing chapter. Emerson proves the best guide to the question of genius because he believes that it ‘has less to do with particular works and authors than with something we want to discover in ourselves, something that resides not in the sentiments and pieties and moral values abstracted from texts, but in corporate human power’. Poirier’s enquiry into corporate human power becomes a meditation on Emerson’s own genius, the way he simultaneously affirms and disclaims authority over language and experience. Poirier has an acute sense of Emerson and James as temperaments: Emerson on the birth and death of his son Waldo, or responding to Margaret Fuller’s remark that he was more approachable in his lectures than in person; James writing to his brother about the San Francisco earthquake.

Emerson begins the argument as a writer, a genius, a temperament. At a certain point, however, he becomes an adjective, a modifier. We hear of ‘the Emersonian tradition’, ‘the Emersonian legacy’, ‘the Emersonian connection’, ‘the Emersonian position’, ‘the Emersonian inclination’. A major aim of The Renewal of Literature is to establish what, or rather who, he has modified: among poets, Whitman, Frost and Stevens; among critics and theorists, John Hollander, Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, George Kateb, Richard Rorty and Sacvan Bercovitch. Strong claims are made for the validity of the Emersonian position – it represents ‘what literature is most often trying to tell us about itself and how it wants to be read’ – and a strongly schematic view of cultural tradition emerges. What Emerson was to Arnold, William James was to F.H. Bradley, Frost and Stevens were to Pound and Eliot, and the latterday Emersonians are to Arnold’s defender, Lionel Trilling. There is a lot here to have to believe.

‘It is against the spirit of Emerson,’ Poirier says, ‘to conform to a lineage and ... to hold up certain texts as exemplifications of one.’ Yet he does seem to want to establish a lineage, and find texts which will exemplify it. Frost’s ‘West-Running Brook’, for example, is said to derive from and clarify a passage in Emerson. ‘It is among the most profound expressions ever given to the immensely intricate Emersonian linkages of origins, actions and creativity.’ In Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, however, Poirier discusses the poem at some length, and concludes that it is tepid, vulgar and complacent. Critics change their minds, of course, but one wonders what has uncovered the profundity buried for so long within complacency: the intricacy of Emersonian linkages, or the desire to establish and exemplify a tradition? Poirier’s Emersonian inclination sometimes seems like a canon, with all the distorting effects of canonicity, and sometimes like an end to all canons. He doesn’t tell us whether we should speak of an Emersonian habit of writing and reading, a perpetual scepticism about lineages and traditions which are nonetheless recognised to be necessary. He doesn’t say whether this habit survives in texts or despite them.

The Renewal of literature has all the fury of polemic without its resolving crudeness, the sense that at least we know where we stand. For one thing, Poirier refuses to name his enemies. He is a capable polemicist. His 1972 lecture on ‘The Aesthetics of Contemporary American Radicalism’ provides a cogent critique of the anti-technological nostalgia of Mailer and Marcuse, and argues that writers are often very much more aware of the unreality of the pastoral alternatives they posit than historical and political theorists. A chapter in The Renewal of Literature recapitulates this argument, and indeed two of its illustrations (Spenser’s Cave of Mammon, Tawney’s Rise of Capitalism). But now the polemic is not directed at anyone in particular. It is directed against shadowy opponents: ‘pietistic devotees of literature’, ‘those who assume that life would somehow be better if Literature could prevail over video for a general audience’, ‘vulgarians’, ‘the culturally conservative’, ‘middle-would-be-highbrow elements of the literary-critical establishment’. The case made by The Renewal of Literature, Poirier says, ‘will offend various factions’. The factions offended, confounded and amazed during the course of the book include, besides devotees and vulgarians, ‘literary-critical zealots’, ‘theoretical professors’ and ‘the tender-minded’. The Emersonian inclination clearly has its enemies, its oppressors. To invoke these enemies persistently, without identifying them, is to expect the credit of being opposed without the trouble of opposing.

If the enemies of the Emersonian inclination are many but elusive, its friends are few but prominent. At one point, Poirier disputes the merits of Wallace Stevens with Harold Bloom, ‘a critic in whose work I take the most admiring interest’. Critics in whom he takes an admiring interest tend to reappear on the dust-jacket taking an admiring interest in him. There is nothing wrong in enlisting allies, and such alliances by no means preclude mutual criticism. But the impression created here is of an elect surrounded by barbarians too contemptible to name.

The impression is complicated, though, by the respect Poirier feels for the democratic and anti-intellectual tendencies of the Emersonian inclination. He is a severe critic’of élitism, and keen, like Emerson, on ‘letting vernacular idioms play against revered terminologies’. But his own vernacular idioms do not play against or modify from within the revered terminologies of Emersonianism: instead, they play against the enemy, against vulgarians and zealots, against the gratuitous difficulties of Modernism. ‘Difficulty gives the critic a chance to strut his stuff.’ ‘You are already on notice that when something is hard to read there are Big Reasons for its being so, and that you, reader, had better shape up.’ Such taunts are defensive rather than self-critical or self-transforming. We can recognise in their bluffness the means which one group of insiders might find to discomfit another in the eyes of outsiders. One can’t help feeling that Poirier wants to be both inside the silken tent pissing out, and outside pissing in. The uncertainties of his rhetoric make it hard to believe all that he says.

Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing is already, by its reference to Emerson and James, by its illumination of Frost’s way with words, by its setting of Frost against Eliot, an argument for an Emersonian habit of writing and reading. Nobody is better-placed than Poirier to take that argument further. He does so fitfully in The Renewal of Literature.