I am a Cretan

Patrick Parrinder

  • On Modern Authority: The Theory and Condition of Writing, 1500 to the Present Day by Thomas Docherty
    Harvester, 310 pp, £25.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 7108 1017 2
  • The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert by Christopher Prendergast
    Cambridge, 288 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 521 23789 0

The story goes that, on the day when William Empson moved into Magdalene College, Cambridge, to take up a fellowship, his suitcases (as was the custom in those days) were unpacked by one of the college servants. The gyp was so shocked by the contents of Empson’s bags that he decided to report him to the college authorities. Next morning the young poet and critic was summoned before the senior dons and accused of concealing ‘sexual machinery’ in his luggage. Empson received his marching orders, and the best that his mentor I.A. Richards, also a fellow of Magdalene, could do was to fix him up with a hastily-arranged professorship in Tokyo.

The point of this (surely apocryphal?) story is not to present Empson as a worthy forerunner of our current morality, even though the ‘machines’ in question were made of rubber. What brings his escapade to mind is the contemporary craze for metaphors of ‘unpacking’, ‘untying’, ‘unlocking’, ‘uncovering’ and ‘undoing’ to describe the process of textual analysis. The supposed aim of these interpretative acts is to liberate the hidden contents of the ‘laden’ or ‘fraught’ text: but opening up the text increasingly resembles a search for contraband. In these deconstructive times authors are routinely unmasked as imposters travelling under false pretences, and even the best-accredited texts are revealed as having secret compartments and false bottoms.

The two contending schools of literary interpretation today may be compared to two sorts of baggage inspector. The first simply searches your belongings for signs that you are who you say you are; the second is more concerned to establish your guilt by planting some offending item upon you. On the one hand are the followers of E.D. Hirsch, whose concern is to establish the original and ‘correct’ meaning of a text. According to Hirsch, this is the meaning the author put there. On the other hand is the school of ‘misreading’, which argues that texts contain whatever can be read into them, so that responsibility for their contents belongs to the reader. The moral attitudes prevalent in these two schools are in sharp contrast to one another. Hirsch, like an upright customs official, writes of the ‘vocation’ of the interpreter and the duty of ethical probity that goes with it. The deconstructionist, more often than not, is a self-conscious outlaw. Thomas Docherty in On Modern Authority takes up the pose of the Noble Robber and gleefully uncovers an etymological affinity between criticism and crime. His aim is to redistribute textual power and authority to the dispossessed ‘readers and listeners’, who have been condemned to languish in the shadow of authorial tyranny (so Docherty argues) ever since the Renaissance.

In Validity in Interpretation (1967) and later essays, Hirsch argued that texts have both a determinate ‘meaning’ and a wider and less determinate ‘significance’. The text ‘means’ what the author intended it to mean, though recovering this intention may not be easy. In literary interpretation, as in a face-to-face speech situation, there is a moral duty to attend to what the writer or speaker is trying to say. Having done this, we are free to assess its ‘significance’. Any attempt to draw distinctions between the modes of interpretation appropriate to the spoken word, to written speech and to literary texts is futile, according to Hirsch. For the deconstructionist school, on the other hand, the difference between speech and writing is fundamental, though also extremely complex. Docherty is like many contemporary theorists in arguing that the problem of meaning in literary texts cannot be reduced to that of a confrontation between speaker and listener. The act of writing produces meanings not governed by a supposed authorial intention, but licensed by the dizzying variety of the typographic font.

Docherty fails to explain how what he calls ‘typographic writing’ differs in kind from alphabetic writing, and how either form can come to express the meanings ‘not of a human consciousness but of the language, the written medium, itself’. The view that language creates meanings independently of human consciousness, implausible as it may seem, is held, or appears to be held, by a broad spectrum of contemporary literary theorists. And yet if we wish to challenge Hirsch we do not need to indulge in fantasies of language ‘writing itself’, nor is it necessary to deny that a text has a determinate and commonly available meaning. The meaning is that about which interpreters should in principle be able to agree. But every text also possesses a ‘significance’, and it is this category (which Hirsch wrongly regards as being of lesser importance) with which criticism is primarily concerned. Criticism (pace Hirsch) rates significance above meaning because the critic’s prime task is not to agree but to disagree with the prevailing views.

But disagreement – and intellectual life in general – becomes pointless unless there is some common ground of agreement to start from. The critic’s role (and here I agree with Docherty) is an oppositional one, but this does not entail, as is nowadays so often claimed, that the interpretative process is one of ‘constructing’ the texts rather than construing them. Given that the texts are in the public domain, our interpretations are also public acts, which aim at being comprehensible to other readers. At the risk of shorthand one can argue that the way for criticism to be oppositional, in this context, is to dispute the significance of the text and to leave meaning, in most cases, to the editors and commentators. This is not to imply that the procedures of editing and commenting should be free from criticism, nor is it such a self-denying ordinance as it may sound. The significance of a text (and of a commentary) is why we read it.

Hirsch’s appeal to an ‘ethical imperative’ limiting the meaning of a text to the author’s intended meaning is far from satisfactory. In Validity in Interpretation, for example, he attacked the Empson of Seven Types of Ambiguity for his preoccupation with ambiguities and ‘latent meanings’. That suggests a primly narrow-minded approach, but unfortunately Docherty’s arguments on this point do not help. The basis of Hirsch’s ‘ethical imperative’ is the Kantian injunction that men should be conceived as ends in themselves and not as the instruments of others. That is, we should treat people and the texts they produce in the same way. According to Docherty, Hirsch is guilty of self-contradiction over this. In undertaking to reconstruct the author’s meaning, the interpreter submits to the author’s authority, becoming, in effect, his instrument and thus disobeying the Kantian injunction. In other words, it seems to be Docherty’s view that to adopt someone else’s attitudes, even momentarily, in order to understand them is to come under their power. This view reduces understanding to a morally reprehensible form of subservience. Since it robs the process of understanding of any meaningful content, Docherty’s argument leads to a Humpty-Dumpty world in which the interpreter can re-assign meanings ad lib and the strongest misreader is master.

The first casualty in a Humpty-Dumpty world is the differentiation of meanings. ‘Authority’ is a concept not only historically and etymologically linked to ‘authorship’ but, in Docherty’s usage, an effective synonym for it. His book might as well have been called On Modern Authorship. Or it might have been called On 17th-Century Authorship, though the time-period announced in his subtitle is ‘1500 to the Present Day’. The ‘modern’ period for Docherty is, variously, the post-Gutenberg era of ‘typographic writing’, the post-Copernican age of modern science, the period inaugurated by the Renaissance (which gave rise to the quarrel of Ancients and Moderns) and the period inaugurated by the Reformation. The occasional invocation of T.S. Eliot and of Walter Benjamin (whose ‘Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ Docherty misreads as the age of the printing press rather than of photography and sound recording) adds further terminological lubrication. In his earlier book John Donne, Undone (1986) Docherty poured scorn on Eliot’s theory of ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in 17th-century poetry, a theory which – so far as Donne was concerned – Eliot in any case quickly abandoned. Docherty’s ‘modern age’ is a vague literary-historical myth of precisely the sort that Eliot advanced.

What Docherty refers to as ‘modern authority’ is the ‘authoritarian’ dominance of an identifiable, individual (male) author over his readers. This mode of authorship reflects the modes of authority in society as a whole – principally, the nation-state and the patriarchal family. The 17th century witnessed a ‘crisis of authority’ in England, as evidenced in the Civil War (which also lurked in the background of Eliot’s theory). But Docherty is not concerned to identify the changes in external authority by means of historical or sociological research: instead, they are read off from a series of interpretations of familiar literary texts, so that the argument remains trapped within its hermeneutic circle.

Docherty announced his earlier and livelier book as the ‘first critical, even criminal, word on Donne’. The Donne who emerged was a poet very different from the orthodox account of him. The textual criticism in On Modern Authority is teasing and intricate, but very much less innovative in its conclusions. Shakespeare is reaffirmed as the Great Questioner, questioning the ‘very activity, writing and authority, which literally gave him identity’. Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ reveals the contradictory positioning of women in the patriarchal family. Herbert’s claim to have written under divine inspiration focuses the logical dilemmas of authority and authorship (this problem, however, was expounded much more wittily a few years ago by Bernard Sharratt). Docherty then resurrects the death-of-tragedy thesis in chapters on Corneille and Racine, acknowledging the work of George Steiner, which, we are told, ‘corroborates, but overstates’ Docherty’s present argument. Finally we come to Swift’s Tale of a Tub (which prefigures contemporary critical attitudes) and to the rise of the novel. The novel is described as an ‘experimental’ form, ‘always deviating from conventions, even its own’. He mysteriously adds that ‘this is not the usual theoretical conception of the novel’.

As a literary historian, Docherty by the end is not a terribly convincing opponent of what he has called ‘ “conventional” (non-theoretically informed) criticism’. As a theorist, he falls foul of his own heavy-handed prose. The author of so many categorical statements, pious protestations and deferential citations of other theorists does not strike one as a natural delegator of interpretative authority. (‘This is of crucial importance,’ he affirms at the beginning of a typical paragraph.) Whatever he may think of other writers, he himself is an author who wants and expects to be listened to. The genre to which On Modern Authority belongs – currently a rather overcrowded one – is summed up by Christopher Prendergast in The Order of Mimesis as ‘a critique of authority in which, from the terms of the critique itself, what is at once presumed and indefensible is the authority of the critique’. Prendergast’s most significant move is to link such examples of contemporary theory with the famous declaration of Epimenides: ‘All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan.’

But are not all authors, to some extent, Cretan Liars whose discourse is steeped in duplicity? One could take the example (discussed in Docherty’s earlier book) of Donne’s love poems, including those which claim to have been written in flagrante delicto. When Donne describes his mistress undressing or affirms that they are lying in bed together, he does so in what earlier 20th-century critics used to celebrate as the authentic tones of the speaking voice. But this is and must be a pretence. The situation in the poem is necessarily an imagined one, and the ‘speaking’ discourse is in fact a written discourse, so that the air of direct speech is a rhetorical illusion. And all mimetic art is based on comparable illusions, though critics have sometimes forgotten this fact. In recent years deconstruction has launched a sustained assault on realist and representational art, just as it has on authorial meaning. Prendergast, who in 1971 edited the Cambridge structuralist pamphlet ‘Signs of the Times’ with Stephen Heath and Colin MacCabe, might be said to have played a small part in the assault on mimesis. Now he has tentatively and scrupulously set out to rehabilitate it.

Plato argued for excluding the poets because he considered that their mimetic activities would tend to undermine the social order. Modern French critical thought, however, has insisted that ‘realist’ writing is no longer subversive. The ‘scandalous’ texts with their sexual machinery which excited so much censorious attention in the 19th century (and in England much more recently) now stand accused of being ‘a function of the doxa’, which means, more or less, ‘on the side of the police’. However much they appear to criticise bourgeois values, the realist novelists are found guilty of endorsing bourgeois conventions of representation. Thanks to their very lucidity, realist narratives are accused of presenting a historically and culturally-conditioned way of seeing the world as if it were natural and inevitable. This charge was most enthusiastically pressed by Roland Barthes. Prendergast, a lecturer in French, was and remains fascinated by Barthes, so that he is well placed to deplore the hardening of brilliant aperçus into deconstructionist dogma and to disparage the ‘ritual intonings of le roland-barthes sans peine’.

The trouble with condemning fictional realism as ‘bourgeois’ or (as the later Barthes put it) ‘fascist’ discourse is that logically such a condemnation extends to non-fictional description and thus to all referential uses of language. Theorists have a vested interest in evading or disguising this fact. Usually they have rushed to condemn fictional realism on the assumption that to do so would strengthen the claims of their own discourse to represent the ‘reality’ of representation. Realism is discredited as an ‘authoritarian’ discourse in order to assert the authoritative claims of a new mode of (sometimes fictional, but more usually theoretical) representation.

Though the Cretan Liar is Prendergast’s paradigm for contemporary theory, he also argues that the leading French 19th-century novelists were deliberate and self-conscious Cretan Liars. (Perhaps it is the very parallels between current literary theory and 19th-century realism, as forms of writing at once ‘scientific’ and outspokenly oppositional, which account for the intensity of their mutual antagonism?) In Balzac the narrator is a shining and somewhat implausible exception to the venality and hypocrisy of the literary world. Stendhal’s exposures of the inauthenticity of language lead logically to the fulfilment-in-silence which rounds off his novels: both Julien and Fabrice eventually find their true identity as prisoners in solitary confinement about whom nothing can any longer be said. Flaubert ironises the world of cliché-ridden discourse, but since all discourse is contaminated with cliché he ends up wryly complicit with the language he rejects.

The French realists, Prendergast forcefully suggests, have never made unproblematic reading: what is new in the deconstructionist account of them is a contemptuous dismissal of the tragic sense and of the social documentation which opened up these novels to humanist criticism. The 19th-century bourgeois ‘order of mimesis’ tended to foreground a style of tragic sobriety; the current critical tendency is much more at home with comedy and farce, with ‘high seriousness’ reserved for the enunciations of theory. Prendergast’s own approach is affected by this. There is a considerable disjunction between his chapters on Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval and Flaubert and the theoretical chapters devoted to such topics as the Aristotelian categories of probability and necessity and Barthes’s somewhat numbing conception of the doxa.

Mimesis is necessary, Prendergast concludes, ‘because it provides forms for engaging with ... the order of the day.’ Barthes seems to have tried to resist such engagement, even to the extent of condemning as ‘fascist’ the subject-predicate structure of sentences. (He was, of course, still able to use the word ‘fascist’.) Like Conrad’s anarchist professor with a bomb in his pocket, Barthes could see no escape from the Cretan Liar paradox short of smashing the very syntax out of which paradoxes are made. Prendergast’s is a more pragmatic response: since the bomb is capable of blowing us all up, we may have to pretend that we haven’t really got it. Since he favours a ‘contract’ model of mimesis and his discussion abounds in legal metaphors, the Liar paradox causes him considerable anxiety. In a court of law the Liar is plainly an unreliable witness. (On the other hand, without a population of Cretan Liars we might have no need of a legal system.) Prendergast speaks of the paradox’s ‘dizzying regress and insane proliferation’, of its ‘infernal logic and intricate self-referentiality’, of its ‘maddening circularities’. There are other ways of conceiving Epimenides’s figure – he may have had a more tragic and more straightforward story to tell. But if Prendergast’s rhetoric serves to describe the deconstructive enterprise more closely than it applies to Ancient Greek thought, this is highly revealing of his approach. The Cretan Liar, whether or not he is a truth-teller, is a seductive story-teller. Though Prendergast in this penetrating study has seen through the posturings of recent French theory, it still tells the sort of story he most enjoys hearing. Other readers must reserve the right to prefer other sorts.