Presidential Criticism

John Sutherland

  • Victorian Subjects by J. Hillis Miller
    Harvester, 330 pp, £30.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0820 8
  • Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on 20th-Century Literature by J. Hillis Miller
    Harvester, 266 pp, £30.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0836 4

There are up to ten thousand American academics who could claim the job description ‘literary critic’ as they make their way to the annual convention of the Modern Languages Association. J. Hillis Miller is one of the handful who matter. Like those mystic few who know the Coca Cola formula, such people shouldn’t be allowed to travel on the same plane. The collective loss would be irreparable. Harvester Press salutes Miller with a three-volume retrospective of his incidental essays. His pieces on Victorian and modern literature are published now. The theoretical essays will come out next May.

Born in 1928, Miller took his first degree in science. He converted to literature as a graduate and was steeped in New Criticism during its most doctrinaire phase. He describes his emancipation from its discipline as something comparable to Dorothea’s loss of her provincial innocence in Middlemarch:

When I think of the effect on my conception of what literary criticism might be of my reading, around 1953, first of Marcel Raymond, and then soon after, of Georges Poulet, Albert Béguin, Jean Rousset, Jean-Pierre Richard, Jean Starobinski and Gaston Bachelard, I am reminded of a passage in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Marcel Raymond I read first in the English translation, published in 1950, of De Baudelaire au Surréalisme. It became immediately a precious book for me, both as an evidence of the power of poetry and as evidence of a power in criticism I had not before encountered. The reading of this book and then of Georges Poulet’s first volume of the Etudes sur le Temps Humain as much marked an epoch in my life as did Dorothea’s first encounter with Rome, in George Eliot’s novel, mark an epoch in her life.

Miller has written illuminatingly on Eliot, and the analogy might seem appropriate. But it can scarcely be thought to serve. Dorothea’s experience in Rome undermines her ego and her lofty Saint Theresa aspirations. She starts her life’s journey to self-extinction and the unvisited grave. J. Hillis Ladislaw (né Brooke) would have ended up teaching at some godforsaken community college in the middle of nowhere. Or perhaps he would have become a Mr Chips, beloved by generations of school children. He would not have become President of the MLA and (arguably) the most celebrated American critic of his generation.

Europe liberated Miller. But in another sense he exchanged the indentures of New Criticism for those of Geneva. He was always willing to be the Yankee evangelist for a European messiah whose shoes he was not fit to lace. In the Fifties and Sixties it was (mainly) Georges Poulet. Thereafter – and more controversially – it would be Paul de Man. The Geneva critics taught Miller to conceive of literature not as words on the page, not even as literature, but as ‘consciousness’. At its simplest, phenomenology resurrected the author whom New Criticism had killed. The text could now be known ‘from within’ as a ‘creation of self’ and an ‘act of mind’. The critical act was ‘consciousness of a consciousness’. The reader’s consciousness of the critic’s added another layer. Mentation was all. This phase of Miller’s career was astonishingly productive. For him as for Henry James, Europe made literature discutable. Always fluent, Miller now erupted with articles, books, essays and reviews – almost always prefaced with genuflection to the European sages who had inspired him.

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