Talk about doing

Frank Kermode

  • Against Deconstruction by John Ellis
    Princeton, 168 pp, £13.70, February 1989, ISBN 0 691 06754 6
  • The New Historicism by H. Aram Veeser
    Routledge, 318 pp, £30.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 415 90070 0
  • Rethinking Historicism: Critical Essays in Romantic History by Marjorie Levinson, Marilyn Butler, Jerome McGann and Paul Hamilton
    Blackwell, 149 pp, £22.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 631 16591 6
  • Towards a Literature of Knowledge by Jerome McGann
    Oxford, 138 pp, £16.50, May 1989, ISBN 0 19 811740 X
  • The Stoic in Love: Selected Essays on Literature and Ideas by A.D. Nuttall
    Harvester, 209 pp, £25.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0614 0

Anyone presuming to review works of modern literary theory must expect to be depressed by an encounter with large quantities of deformed prose. The great ones began it, and aspiring theorists usually carry their heads grotesquely to one side in emulation of these models. What begins as servile mimicry soon becomes a pathological condition. It is a relief that two of the present five books may be pronounced orthopaedically sound.

Opinions differ as to whether Deconstruction will take over the academy, or be ‘co-opted’ by it, so dwindling into a slicker version of the old New Criticism. Some think or hope that it will simply fade away. The intemperateness of its propagandists seems to be increasing; large claims are made for its beneficially cathartic effect on the institutions which house it, and this could be construed as a sign of desperation. On the other hand, some assaults on Deconstruction, by eminent but not very well-informed elders, have provided the defenders with a good deal of scornful merriment as well as some useful ammunition. On the side of the elders it can be said that it isn’t altogether easy to find out what Deconstruction really is: its practitioners automatically object to any and all descriptions of it, and invariably claim that all adverse criticism depends on the very presuppositions that have already been terminally deconstructed.

The virtue of John Ellis’s book is that he insists on putting his questions in pre-deconstructive terms, refusing to believe that they can be dismissed as inapposite. For, as he remarks more than once, the importance of a new way of thinking can only be estimated by what intelligent people regard as intelligent discussion of it, not by brusque refusals of such discussion on the ground that it does not accept in advance the rules the inventors of the important new way of thinking have laid down. One can only ask legitimate questions by becoming an insider, and then the questions become irrelevant. Sceptics have to understand that they can say nothing to the point without ceasing to be sceptical.

Ellis thinks there is something very odd about accompanying announcements of a major intellectual development with a ban on attempts to state what it is, or to evaluate it. All he asks for is a serious dialogue between the parties, such as we have not yet had. In the end, the obstinate refusal of such a dialogue makes him angry, but for a while he keeps cool and contents himself with ‘examining the logic of the central issues and arguments’ in a mannerly prose which clearly marks him as an outsider. His book is worthy of the serious response it asks for, but all he really expects is the rejoinder that logical analysis is inappropriate; Deconstruction is not a theory but a ‘project’, and has a different ‘logic’. Ellis wants to know what this alternative logic is. But to answer him the defenders would have to use his old logic, which allows for alternatives such as either/or and true or false, as the new one does not. He points out that among themselves the deconstructors are ready enough to say that X’s position is wrong, or that Y has absurdly misunderstood something: so that there are circumstances in which rational argument creeps back – Derrida notoriously accused John Searle of misunderstanding him even when what he was saying was perfectly clear. Ellis therefore boldy assumes the right to judge some of Derrida’s main arguments, and accordingly takes on the Grammatology.

Before long he is vigorously denouncing the treatment of Saussure in that book (very central to Derrida’s ‘project’) as based on the palpable error of representing Saussure as ethnocentric, and holding him responsible for perpetuating a general failure to notice the priority of writing over language, a failure related to the dominance of the ‘metaphysics of presence’. Ellis is willing to question this cardinal doctrine and ask in what sense writing is prior to speech – even though that question is now assumed to be so naive and ignorant that people have long been ashamed to ask it, and Derrida’s expositors have usually passed over the topic in silence. Ellis thinks the whole argument depends on a piece of legerdemain, intended to conceal the fact that what is really being talked about is the much more familiar problem of the relation of words to things, of signs to referents. The wrong view of this is what Derrida calls ‘logocentrist’, but his refutation of it looks less sensational if you reflect, as Ellis does, that it is now rarely held, having been exposed in other terms by other philosophers, notably Wittgenstein. But ‘the resistance to any awareness of other critiques of logocentrism means that all criticism of the deconstructive critique must be regarded as a return to logocentrism.’

Why is nobody willing to say exactly what this word means? Because, say its users, ‘a demand for clarity begs the question at issue.’ Ellis disagrees, and offers this old-style definition: it is ‘the illusion that the meaning of a word has its origin in the structure of reality itself and hence makes the truth about that structure seem directly present to the mind’. But this position was familiar long before Deconstruction came in with its mystifying demands for demystification. What is now obscurely attacked is a view generally agreed to be naive and uninformed, especially by readers of Wittgenstein, Sapir, Whorf and others. And according to Ellis, Derrida has done little more than add to the existing consensus a kind of gratuitously revolutionary fervour – a ‘rhetorical absolutism’.

None of this will be accepted or perhaps even discussed. Ellis complains that what he takes to be the deconstructive habit of simply putting something ‘in question’ and then moving on ought not be preferred to the old-fashioned way of thinking, which tries to move the argument along, not simply to find something else to put into question. When he himself moves on from linguistics and philosophy to deconstructive literary criticism, he makes similar points, arguing that since it is admittedly at its best when expounding hidden complexities in texts, it is much more like other sorts of criticism than it tries to look: here again what is striking is not the new achievement but the new self-admiring rhetoric. Is it the case, he asks, that there is a general belief in the obvious (traditional, authoritarian) single meaning of a text, a belief which must therefore be demystified and deconstructed? No, few hold such an opinion; what is being demystified anew is merely the old Lansonism, long since discredited everywhere except in France, where it required the Sixties revolution to supplant it. Moreover it is ‘vacuous in theory, and counterproductive in practice’ to insist on ‘ironic’ readings in all cases.

It cannot be said that Ellis has dealt with every aspect of Derrida and Deconstruction, but on the ones he tackles – such issues as the famous reversals of centre and margin, the doctrine that all interpretation is necessarily misinterpretation (reduced by calmer exponents such as Jonathan Culler to the uncontentious assertion that no interpretation can ever be final), and the dashing new formulation of the old problem of intention – Ellis argues with force and clarity. Moreover he happens to believe that some writings are more complex and more valuable than others, and has little difficulty in showing that this is covertly assumed by deconstructors, who ought not, according to their own lights, to assume anything of the kind.

Ellis concludes that what Deconstruction provides is largely an emotional bonus – it gives its adherents ‘a routine way to a feeling of being excitedly shocking’. They get the feeling that might attend a genuine piece of original thinking, but here it can be achieved without comparable effort. Along the way, ‘shared enquiry’ which characterises genuine intellectual research is sacrificed. It might be a good idea for people who want to adjudicate between Deconstruction and Ellis to read or reread the Grammatology, and perhaps the Searle-Derrida debates, plus Rudolf Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror, which gives a more sympathetic philosophical account, indeed treating Derrida more or less simply as a philosopher (it is almost as hard as Ellis is on the literary criticism). They would, I think, conclude that there is here a case to answer, and that the answer that Ellis is using the wrong logic, or is simply ignorant of what Deconstruction really does, won’t wash.

The most powerful rival to Deconstruction in the literary field is at present the New Historicism, and H. Aram Veeser’s large and uneven collection of essays sets out to explain what it is, why there are so many different kinds of it, so many differences of view within its ranks, and so much opposition from outside them. The prefatory explanations of Veeser himself are enthusiastic but in some respects inaccurate. He believes the New Historicism has given us what we sadly lacked, a chance to cross disciplinary boundaries, to use the findings of anthropology (mostly Clifford Geertz’s ‘thick description’), politics, economics, and so forth. The assumption seems to be that hitherto all modern literary criticism has been ‘empty formalism’, blind to history and to these other subjects. Once more a revolutionary banner is raised, and the old guard is accused of misrepresenting this splendid new thing as a mere cover for a revived academic Marxism.

There is an able and fastidious piece by Stephen Greenblatt, a pioneer of the style, but the shrewdest essay is Hayden White’s survey of the whole collection. White considers this new style of doing history from the point of view of a professional philosopher of history, or metahistorian. He points out that in its simplest form – a combination of formalist practice with an increased attention to the historical contexts in which literary texts originate – New Historicism contains little that might ruffle most conventional critics or historians. It is in thinking overmuch about the theoretical implications of an initially reasonable ambition that the New Historicists get themselves into internal arguments and attract external opposition – for example, by destroying distinctions between text and context, so that the records intended to illustrate or provide the context become texts of equivalent status to the ‘literary’ works which were the ostensible motive of the enquiry. Literature thus becomes just one function of a cultural system, one discourse among others.

This attitude is reflected even in the work of Greenblatt, whose rhetorical strategy is to begin with some text apparently very remote from the central interest and move in from that periphery on to King Lear, or whatever the ‘literary’ work in question happens to be. That there can be a genuinely fresh look at texts for the most part already well-known to historians, including literary historians, may be seen from Steven Mullaney’s book about the London theatres of Shakespeare’s time, which studies the civic or political margins, the ‘liberties’ and the Southwark bank, in relation to the cultural and social patterns of the City which excluded them, and considers their effect on the plays. But even this kind of interesting quasi-archival work isn’t theory-free: White makes the point that you can’t have history without a theory of history, so that to view it as ‘a sequence of integral “cultural systems” of which both literature and social institutions and practices are to be regarded as manifestations’ is to speak for an ideology as surely as a Marxist might.

Veeser himself lists five assumptions as common to all practitioners: 1. ‘that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices’; 2. ‘that every act of unmasking, critique and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practice it exposes’; 3. ‘that literary and non-literary “texts” circulate inseparably’; 4. ‘that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths or expresses unalterable human nature’; 5. ‘finally ... that a critical method and language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.’

I suppose No 3 is the most worrying of these, for it raises the question of text and context, and also the whole unexamined question of literary value. The others are familiar under many different guises, and in any case seem not to impinge very strongly on the practice of all the New Historicists. I myself find that their yoking together of disparate texts – I don’t say ‘heterogeneous’, for that would beg the question – can make a serious point yet have the effect of a pleasing historiographical conceit. Veeser correctly remarks that rather similar and indeed much more complex feats have been achieved in the past – for example, at the Warburg Institute – and without the support of Geertz or Foucault.

For Greenblatt the work of art ‘is the product of a negotiation between a creator or class of creators, equipped with a complex, communally shared repertoire of conventions, and the institutions and practices of society ... the process involves not simply appropriation but exchange.’ These ‘negotiations’ are the material of what I have called his ‘conceits’, and it is hard to find much to dislike in them, though some Post-Structuralists will object to the ‘negotiations’ as diverting attention from language. Greenblatt’s ‘cultural poetics’ can, in fact, be thought of rather simply as a blend of the formalist and the historical, very interestingly applied but essentially less ‘new’ than others tend to make it sound. As with Deconstruction, there is a certain amount of hype. You’d think, reading some of these pieces, that professional exponents of Renaissance literature had until yesterday still been swearing by Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture.

It is interesting that in an academy now engrossed in Theory even this new development, which could be represented as an adjustment of normal practices rather than a shocking paradigm-shift, has quickly become a locus of theoretical dispute about what it is and how it stands in relation to other disciplines: so that there already seems to be more theory than practice, which is, after all, the trend. As Stanley Fish remarks in a magisterial afterword to Veeser’s collection, most of these people are not doing New Historicism but only talking about doing it, often in prose that has taken on that self-important semi-illiteracy of which I have already complained.

There is also a tendency among the contributors to avoid the ostensible subject of the collection; a few of the essays have little perceptible connection with the question at issue, let alone with literature. Stronger contributions are Gerald Graff’s calm, exploratory essay on ‘co-optation’ – the power of the institution to absorb and neutralise new fashions – and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s convincing demonstration that the New Historicists haven’t really given enough thought to history, or even to the sense in which the word ‘historicism’ has formerly been used. This chimes with Fish’s observation that in the modern academy people often do very well by talking about what they are not actually doing, thus ascending to a new and comfortable level of contentious idleness. The best practitioners escape this charge, not because they espouse superior versions of the New Historicism, but because, even willy-nilly, they say something interesting about what, as one contributor puts it, used to be known as literature.

Rethinking Historicism is a shorter collection and deals with a rival brand of New Historicism, with a main interest not in Renaissance but in Romantic literature. An Introduction by Marjorie Levinson is followed by a long essay from the same hand, with the consequence that nearly half the book is written in unacceptable prose and offers some opinions that will always remain pretty mysterious. One typical claim is that Marilyn Butler’s contribution to the collection is distinguished by a calculated absence of Theory, and that this lack is a subtle snub to Mrs Thatcher: for it ‘undermines the deeply abstract objectivity used to legitimate the deeply concrete interests of the groups in power.’ The even more deeply abstract point seems to be that good historical writing is always presentist. This branch of historicism is distinguished sharply from Greenblatt’s, which has an unhappily pastist bias, so missing the point that ‘the real power of art-works’ is ‘to flare up at a certain moment, thereby introducing their distinct order of production into the alien formations of another age ... We do to the past what it could not do for itself.’

There follows Marilyn Butler’s Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge, a plea for a new canonical openness and for the relevance of Southey to the Romantic scene. Paul Hamilton’s ‘Keats and Critique’ argues that ‘the interchangeability in Keats’s poetry of its ideal status and its political reticence gradually begins to expose the contemporary politicising of the ideal and the idealising of the political.’ Jerome McGann, the remaining contributor, starts from Franz Fanon and argues that the works of the past must be freed from the ‘imperial imagination’ or, if you prefer, ‘the burden of the past’; a re-imagining of the past, illustrated here by re-imaginings of Aeschylus and Blake, Byron and Pound, gives us poems containing more history than they themselves were aware of, and affords us a chance to break with the Kantian aesthetic of disinterest, to see poetry as concerned with knowledge and with present and also future history, and to call into question ‘all that is privileged, understood and given’.

McGann’s Clark Lectures, the title referring to de Quincey’s distinction between the literature of power and the literature of knowledge, state these views more extensively. They are described by their author as part of a larger project to make a severe theoretical adjustment to literary history. The topics are mostly Romantic, though the Cantos come in as a clinching case.

McGann knows the fine print of scholarship in the relevant areas but has also read the indispensable books of the theoretical moment. The manner is not, as in so much of the writing I’ve been discussing, vulgar, but it is ponderously modish, its intention seemingly rather more to impress than to please. However, McGann does apply himself intently to particular texts, and finds new things to say about them, so it cannot be said of him that he talks about doing and doesn’t do.

He thinks we continue to be seduced by that originally Kantian idea of disinterest, as mediated by Wordsworth and Coleridge and endorsed by many later poets and critics – an idea fatal, he thinks, to the recognition that literature has to do with knowledge. The Romantics who did not fall into this error were Blake and Byron (of whom McGann is the Clarendon Press editor). He then puts D.G. Rossetti and Pound – one marginal and one clear case – on the good side of the Romantic tradition. If this strikes us as an odd group, that is because we are still using old and false categories. Blake is there because he understood that knowledge in poetry is an activity, not a content, and that poetry assumes ideological positions with regard to its own activity. Byron in turn, though in a very different way, understood that ‘the truth-experience of poetry is always transactional’; or, as Habermas expresses it in an admittedly different context, it is ‘communicative action’. The largely biographical chapter on Rossetti explains how his intimate associations with the trade practices of the period irked him in his mistaken attempt to show that art ‘occupies a transcendental order’. This attempt was also fatal to Elizabeth Siddall, whose suicide is described in a rather typically murky way as ‘no more than the exponent and capstone of his disastrous quests for the Beatrice which his experiment required’.

McGann knows a lot of interesting things about all his poets but the fit still seems dubious, especially that of the Rossetti chapter, which is only made possible by the contention that literary historians have hitherto been wrong about Rossetti, which anyway follows from their being wrong about everything else. By the way, it isn’t likely (page 75) that Rossetti wrote a grown-up letter to Ford Maddox Ford, who was only nine when Rossetti died. F.M. Brown must be meant. Pound, to put it mildly, provides ample material for the study of the relation between poetry and ideology; the Cantos (fascist, but ‘one of the great achievements of Modern poetry in any language’) is a work that ‘embodies a disturbing mode of truth: equivocal authority, uncertain knowledge – a fascist, not a Daniel, come to judgment’. The Cantos thus illustrate Benjamin’s dictum, that the documents of civilisation are also documents of barbarism.

I happened to hear the Blake lecture and found it difficult or even impossible to follow, mostly, I thought, because we were asked to study plate three of Jerusalem on a slide so dim that the detail to which the lecturer constantly and confidently referred was invisible. But the text as we now have it, with a clear photograph of the plate in question, shows that it would have been hard to follow anyway. The general point is that Blake is, in the ‘modern revaluation of imagination’, an ‘originary’ figure (this word is wrongly described in the latest OED as ‘now rare’ – the question is how we managed without it until Derrida’s translators came to the rescue). And it does become clear that the virtue of this lecture lies in the detailed study of the Blake plate, with its rather mysterious excisions, here gnomically referred to as the ‘representation of an absence’. It’s by no means the case that this author has nothing to say, but it is unfortunate that he has developed such modishly obscure ways of saying it.

In this, as in other respects, there is a world of difference between A.D. Nuttall and most of the writers I’ve discussed. His criticism is strongly based in philosophy and the Classics, a product of Oxford Classical Moderations: but this provenance doesn’t entail a lack of audacity. He calls himself solitary but sociable, and it is a pleasure to follow him on ‘the fiery track of a certain idea’. He’s indeed something of a wild man, who once sought (in a book on Herbert) to demonstrate that Jesus was insane, and now offers speculations equally original (whether they will turn out to be originary only time can tell) on Shakespeare, Pope, Swift, Ovid, Virgil and C.S. Lewis. One essay is a piece of straight philological research into Latin ‘causal dum’. Another is a philosophical enquiry into the good old problem, or should one say the good new ‘problematic’, of Intention. It is called ‘The Intentional Fallacy Fallacy’. The long opening piece argues for a strong affinity between Shakespeare and Homer and Euripides, supposedly via Virgil. The title essay is a discourse on ancient Stoicism in its relation to two later types of the philosophy, one that eschews emotion altogether and another that seeks it out in order to repress it. This ‘dynamic’ variety attracted, among others, Augustine and Virgil, whose Aeneas weeps and loves. There is an elegant and learned essay on the adunata topos, the catalogue of impossibilities. Nuttall has a special talent for extracting large significances from a single text; his characteristic move is to say, ‘But of course there is more to it than that,’ before making some original and sensitive comments on, say, Pope’s Homer. He remarks that ‘the phrase “as a matter of fact” is commonly used to introduce a lie.’ If this is so, the rather similar but more mannered expression ‘in a manner’ is also under suspicion, and he uses it far too much. But the fault looks venial to anybody who has just read through tracts of mortal prose by some of his contemporaries.