An Epiphany of Footnotes

Claude Rawson

  • Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work by Jerome McGann
    Harvard, 279 pp, £21.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 674 81495 9

According to Jerome McGann, poetry became desocialised as a result of Kant’s definition of the aesthetic experience as wholly and essentially subjective. A consequence for criticism ever since has been that ‘poetry’s historical and social relations are regarded as peripheral (“extrinsic”) concerns.’ Coleridge’s declaration that a poem proposes ‘for its immediate object pleasure not truth’, and his particular conception of Imagination as an internal and self-enclosed harmonisation, ‘extends and elaborates the Kantian analyses of the aesthetic experience’. McGann favours poets with a more activist or ‘illocutionary’ conception of their art: Blake rather than Wordsworth, or the Language poets rather than some more traditionalist poets now writing in America. But his overriding concern is to insist on a critical method which recognises that all poems, not just activist ones, are ‘social acts’ which cannot be understood in separation from the circumstances which attended their composition, publication, reception and subsequent transmission. Bibliography and textual criticism, whose importance to literary studies he has always seen as central rather than peripheral or ancillary, are here again brought into play in a series of eloquent and sophisticated analyses of particular literary texts, though these disciplines are always and properly treated as forming part of a larger historical and biographical matrix. The essays in this book range from the Old Testament to recent American poetry, but the main topics of investigation fall within the Romantic and Early Modern periods.

Like some of McGann’s earlier books, this is a collection of essays rather than a single developing argument proceeding in linear form. It is broadly unified by a number of common concerns but retains a rather miscellaneous character, not itself objectionable but inevitably entailing the double and opposite awkwardnesses of discontinuity and repetition. Less easy to swallow is a penchant for portentous self-justification that leads McGann to ‘theorise’ his method: the more heterogeneous pieces ‘execute shifts in the formal continuities of the book, they re-open its subjects from a set of slightly altered perspectives. Indeed, the critical virtue of certain disciplined discontinuities in literary work is a recurrent concern here and is specifically developed in several of the chapters.’ The defence sounds like an academic version of Wallace Stevens’s poetic project of arriving at insights through circularities rather than continuities of exploration, repeated affrays from various angles which precede the homing-in. McGann himself looks to Blake, whose ‘habit of returning to the same topics from slightly altered perspectives seems to me one of his most impressive rhetorical moves’. Other models are said to be Plato, Montaigne and Adorno. In fact, most of the individual essays seem organised in traditionally-structured ways, as academic exercises in precisely the format which is disavowed in the book as a whole.

McGann’s mission to re-establish the ‘performative’ character of poetry has been pursued in a series of volumes of which this is described as the fourth but not the last, and his view of poems as ‘social acts’ is one of which we are reminded in most of the chapters of most of them. The feeling that such reminders are called for just now is understandable, though his repetitions will, I suspect, be found wearisome by the converted and unconverted alike. He is particularly determined to oppose all conceptions of the poem as an autonomous closed system, a mode of thought which, in his view, brings together the otherwise very disparate New Criticisms, old and new. One of the variations on this theme, which I shall dwell on in this review as representative of what seem to me McGann’s strengths and weaknesses, occurs in a chapter which takes issue with the subtitle of the famous essay on Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ in Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn: ‘History without Footnotes’. McGann sees in this subtitle ‘a coded declaration about the nature of poetry and criticism: that poetry is important precisely by virtue of its ahistoricality, its divorce from everything factive and circumstantial. Just as for later critics like de Man and Stanley Fish, for Brooks poetry is an intertextual system.’

McGann writes with a courtesy to opponents unusual in books as forthright and combative as his are. But most informed readers would, I think, recognise in these words a simplication of Brooks’s specific position, of the imputed links between old and new New Critics, and of the alleged common ground between closed systems of the well wrought urn variety and those governing an ‘intertextual field’. The idea that an intertextual system implies a self-enclosed ‘ahistoricality’ is tendentious to the point of large-scale inaccuracy, since intertextual relations are themselves historical facts, transactions across time and space, and since many of McGann’s own reconstructions of the meaning of poems, including the discussion of ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ in this book, are heavily concerned with the intertextual recovery of literary echoes and allusions. So for that matter are many footnotes, the genre in whose defence McGann is writing.

McGann writes as a distinguished textual editor and annotator and is honourably committed to a high idea of these activities, traditionally the Cinderellas of literary studies. Here as in his earlier books he properly insists that textual and bibliographical knowledge is to be valued not merely in the specialised operations of editorial backroom boys, providing the pre-critical and preferably concealed foundations for the act of reading, but that it is an immediate and radical constituent of the historical recovery on which all accurate reading depends. His defence of footnotes, therefore, should be assumed to take in the textual apparatus along with its less lowly brethren of the explanatory or historical commentary. This is valuable at a time when the fashionable modes of reading are more than usually free-wheeling, when reading is replaced by what are sometimes coyly referred to as ‘readings’, and when an exacerbated predisposition to literary theory sometimes dislodges the reading process altogether.

‘Theory’ isn’t what McGann is against, however. He seems uncomfortable at the idea that his empiricism might be thought empirical, and his desire to see his own position ‘theorised’ (a favourite phrase) inevitably leads to some of the reductiveness or slippage that often besets theoretical pronouncements when they confront particular textual realities. As is usually the case, the generalising assertions are less interesting than the discussions of particular works which are ostensibly offered as illustrations. When the slippage sometimes extends to these also, it is likely to be at moments when McGann strains to integrate his local and specific perceptions of a work or author within the larger frame of his argument.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in