Theory and Truth

Frank Kermode

  • Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars by Geoffrey Hartman
    Harvard, 252 pp, £23.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 674 57636 5
  • Spinoza and the Origins of Modern Critical Theory by Christopher Norris
    Blackwell, 240 pp, £30.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 631 17557 1
  • What’s wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy by Christopher Norris
    Harvester, 287 pp, £40.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 7450 0714 7

The autumn catalogues of some very enterprising publishers announce as many books as usual under the rubric Literary Criticism, or possibly more, but few have titles of a sort that, even ten years ago, would have been found there, and virtually none that would have much interest for the non-academic public that once read old-style literary criticism. This development is welcomed in some academic quarters as a triumph of technology, but it appears that certain persons of importance are beginning to wonder whether the high-tech, jargoned, reader-alienating image of the modern product may not have some disadvantages. Of course it can be argued that there can be no going back, the old criticism having been declared intellectually deluded, dishonest and collusive with political authoritarianism. ‘With the advent of Post-Structuralism and the “death of literature”,’ says one current blurb, ‘the opposition between high and popular culture became untenable, transforming the field of enquiry from literary into cultural studies’ – incidentally, a fair sample of new-era, defiantly messy prose. For, as everybody likes to say, there has been a Kuhnian paradigm-shift, and to be installed on the far side of it is to feel comfortable with the idea that it is no longer necessary to think about literature at all. Among the ancient assumptions now discounted is the notion that one piece of writing might somehow be better than another: and if you believe that, you lack much inducement to write decently, whatever that might mean, yourself.

There seem to be two main motives for altering the purpose and methods of literary criticism. One, perfectly honourable but surely futile, is an intention, variously formulated, to replace the old style with another that has a direct political impact, and might somehow give assistance to oppressed minorities. The second, more selfish, is to get rid of so-called masterpieces, works that other people, assuming an illicit authority, have recommended. It is this part of the programme that now appears to disturb Geoffrey Hartman, though he seems less worried about those threatened masterpieces than about the language in which literature, a category he has not himself entirely abandoned, ought to be discussed.

Minor Prophecies is the best book this quite prolific author has produced for some time. It is made up of disparate essays sharing an important theme: ‘the tension between two kinds of critical style, that of the learned specialist and that of the public critic (a.k.a. man of letters)’. He himself, for instance, is a learned specialist, a pro, whereas the likes of George Steiner and myself are ‘public critics’ (a.k.a. reviewers, vulgarisateurs), given to needless complaints about the ‘dehumanising’ technical language the professional is obliged to employ.

Here one needs to distinguish blanket condemnations of all terminological innovation from more limited objections to unnecessary or pretentious innovation – to the use of some tremendous piece of jargon for what might well be said in such a way that an intelligent amateur would know what one was talking about. For example, instead of ‘B learned a lot from A’ the professional (a.k.a Geoffrey Hartman) is tempted to say: ‘A was crucially propaedeutic to B.’ But the border between professionalism and bombast will always be hard to define.

Hartman believes, correctly, that the differences between those who think we should abandon literary studies for cultural studies – ‘which have done a better job’ – and those who dispute this opinion, have large cultural and educational implications. He writes interestingly about these implications, but without ever confronting the real issue, which is that people who find value in literature, and believe that criticism can explore and illuminate what is valuable in it, simply do not believe arguments coming from people who care nothing for it and so prefer to do cultural studies instead. The latter admittedly have striking advantages, since they are not discussing books, some quite difficult, but engaging impressively in ‘the incrimination of culture – at least of Western society, accused of seeking knowledge in order to gain power’. (It might be base to suggest that this feat is to be performed by people quite obviously doing the same thing.)

Hartman, though strongly tempted by disciplines intended to purge the false discourses of oppression, is too cautious fully to endorse them. Indeed, at one moment he allows himself to make the vital point that to abolish literary studies would be to abandon the world to dangerous fundamentalisms. He accordingly decides that literary critics should ‘remain unashamed of their concern for art’, and quotes with approval Northrop Frye’s remark that to do without criticism would be to brutalise the arts and lose the cultural memory. But reaching this wise conclusion costs Hartman quite a struggle and he sometimes seems to back away from it.

The book contains good, learned essays sketching the troubled history of hermeneutics, and some that return to an old worry of Hartman’s, the English critical style as he sees it – smooth, conversational, exhibiting a lack of original thought and self-reflection: ‘a civil art’, when Hartman feels admiring, ‘a civil jargon’ when he doesn’t. He can be stern on the subject; tea and totality don’t mix, he says, though the British are always trying to mix them. When critics like me try to ‘translate’ ‘rebarbative concepts from German hermeneutics’ into ‘ordinary speech’ they let too much of the substance leak away. And Christopher Ricks has his own especially irritating way of using ‘ordinary-language type of analysis against all who attempt theory’.

We have here a mixture of disapproval and envy. Disapproval of English critical ‘conversation’ spills over into a censure of Richard Rorty: for just as the new, fully professional criticism is fighting free of ‘conversation’, that English laxity, Rorty is calling on philosophers to take it up. Yet a certain envy remains. The book oscillates between a lofty endorsement of high-level ‘theory’ – soaring ‘beyond the middle or conversational style’, eschewing ‘gentility’ – and a criticism that still likes poetry and still (though possibly with more intellectual finesse than he allows) deals ‘conversationally’ with literature. But on the whole the theorists have it, for they alone, equipped with the tools of deconstruction, can offer ‘a sane and sustained response to ersatz religions’, of which, it seems, the study of ‘canonical’ literature is one.

There is also an essay on F.R. Leavis, contrasting his anti-theoretical stance with Kenneth Burke’s speculative daring, and a long, charitable piece on Paul de Man. Few pages lack something learnedly thoughtful to note to quarrel with. And the final essay suggests that there is a future for literary criticism which doesn’t make the mistake of those ‘who are so much in touch with reality that they do not have to be in touch with language’. Given the right liberty of interpretation we can all drink to that.

Christopher Norris would have been an interesting topic for Hartman, for despite being English, civil, lucid and prolific, he is a devoted exponent of Theory. Of the many books he has recently published Spinoza and the Origins of Literary Theory is the most surprising. Norris, who has written the best guides to Derrida and de Man, is a card-carrying Post-Structuralist, but he evidently believes some other members of the party to be guilty of serious deviations; especially abhorrent is the heresy that treats truth as unimportant on the ground that it is only whatever you happen to be suasively saying at the moment.

Wanting to purge doctrine of this damaging imputation, Norris has come up with the novel idea that he can do so by relating modern critical theory to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza, something that very few of his colleagues, or perhaps anybody else, would ever have dreamed of doing. Spinoza is not one of the fathers whose authority is regularly solicited, but according to Norris he should be, for some of the most advanced and influential professionals suffer from misunderstandings which Spinoza, read with the true Norrisian rigour, could clear up for them. He wants to endorse Spinoza’s conceptions of reason and truth; originally developed in opposition to contemporary exegetes, they could now be effective against what he calls ‘the post-modernist-pragmatist malaise’ or ‘anti-theory’ – and the heresy mentioned above, that all truth is relative to the suasive purpose of the speaker, that truths vary with language-games.

A large part of his purpose is to show that it is wrong to associate his own heroes with this false doctrine. Accordingly Derrida is defended against the strictures of Habermas and Stanley Fish; neither he nor de Man can properly be accused of this Post-Modernism wickedness. What’s wrong with Postmodernism has long polemical essays on Habermas, Fish, Baudrillard and others; Baudrillard in particular is repeatedly attacked for suggesting that there is ‘no genuine distinction to be drawn between truth and untruth’, and that ‘the only available measure of “truth” is the capacity to put one’s ideas across to maximum suasive effect.’ Lyotard is similarly censured for his dismissal of any philosophy that ‘claims a vantage-point of knowledge or truth’ transcending ‘the limiting condition of its own, historically-specific time and place’.

Norris will never condone the abolition of the distinction between reason and unreason, between the merely rhetorical and the logical argument (which is why Spinoza’s method of argument, more geometrico, appeals so strongly). And despite uninformed opinion to the contrary, he maintains that de Man and Derrida are with him in this stand against unreason. The issue isn’t trivial; it affects everybody’s manner of life, Post-Modernism ‘aestheticises’ politics, and we should have seen what this meant while experiencing its consequences in the Thatcher decade, still in progress as he wrote.

Norris’s convictions may be like Spinoza’s, but his style of thinking is remarkably unlike that philosopher’s, for he writes torrentially and often repetitively. How his relationship with Spinoza began is a matter of conjecture, but I suspect I had something to do with it. A book I published in 1979 contained a passage on Spinoza, and many pages of this book are devoted to a demonstration that I misrepresented him. Reeling under this assault, at first polite but expressed more keenly second time round, I looked up what I had said and found that although they required extensive refutation, my remarks on the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus occupied less than a page.

On that page I reported an influential remark of Spinoza to the effect that in Biblical exegesis ‘we are at work not on the truth of passages but on their meaning.’ Arguing for unprejudiced enquiry into Biblical texts, he condemned partisan interpretations which distorted meaning ‘in order to make it conform with some truth already entertained’, a practice not only intellectually disreputable but conducive to political authoritarianism. That theologians and politicians nobble the truth certainly has implications that go beyond Biblical exegesis, but at the time that was all I was concerned with. Norris, however, thinks that stopping there gave a false impression, and on reflection I think he’s right.

Spinoza distinguishes an imaginary realm of confused ideas from ‘a critical discourse that offers reasons for its truth-claims’. Truths, accessible to reason alone, have nothing to do with that other realm, and are independent of authority and a priori assumptions. In this way Spinoza, according to Norris, ‘makes the highest possible claims for the pure good of theory, its power to demystify false ideas and bring the mind to an acceptance of truths unavailable through “bodily” or commonsense perception’. He dispenses with the transcendental as a source or guarantee of truth. Since it is in this respect that he so closely resembles de Man and Derrida, Spinoza is an important precursor of the best in modern theory, and a warning to all, especially Post-Modernists, who disparage reason and truth.

But Spinoza’s endorsement of reason raises some problems. For example, his pursuit of reason had to be conducted in language, and he was sceptical about the dependability of that medium. Norris, who takes up everything, necessarily takes up this problem: a mistrust of language may shake his own confidence in the power of reason. But he decides that what scepticism here accomplishes turns out to be an additional value, for by its means Spinoza’s discourse ‘deconstructs its own truth-claims’, and like everything else his thought is all the healthier for a deconstructive purge.

It is part of the received doctrine that for Spinoza, as for everybody else, including, one supposes, Christopher Norris, writing inevitably frustrates the purpose of the writer. But the matter cannot be left there, or we should be left to inquire how Norris avoided the difficulty of self-subversion even while repeatedly affirming the claims of reason and truth, But like his masters he loves an aporia, and finds his way out of this one on the authority of a characteristically gnomic remark by Paul de Man about the possibility and indeed the merit of stating truth in the mode of error. Thought is required to maintain the highest standards of reason while at the same time maintaining full awareness of its own ‘error-prone character’.

It might seem that argumentative leaps of this kind risk being described as ‘mystified’, the word Norris always applies to arguments he dislikes. For that maintenance of awareness of error is presumably also founded on erroneous and deconstructible grounds. Spinoza insisted, just like de Man, whether erroneously or not, that error has its place in the determined scheme of things. But any erroneous argument could be justified in the same way.

If the truth is to be sought by a critique of false ideas, as Spinoza believed, it must presumably be pursued further by a critique of that critique, and perhaps another of that one. Loyalty to reason is evidently a complex matter. But Norris, who attends so patiently to a whole slew of Modern and Post-Modern thinkers – those who accept Spinozan reason without really saying why, and those who, whether they know about it or not, unreasonably reject it – seems surprisingly simple about his own unshakable attachment to the claims of reason, and also to his faith that ‘considerations of truth and justice’ are ‘integral’ to the work of his master Derrida, even if such crirics as Habermas and Searle fail to see that this is so.

I agree that ‘a dead level of consensus thinking or meanings that happen to enjoy a certain currency in this or that “interpretive community” are unsatisfactory measures of truth,’ and it is understandable that Norris should want to dissociate his masters from any such consensus or community. Here de Man is especially useful, distinguishing as he does between the rhetoric that persuades by seduction and the rhetoric that persuades by proof. Unlike the former, the latter variety is not an enemy of truth, and it can be called Spinozan.

With his usual fondness for fluent and far-flung digression, Norris undertakes to examine the differences between the two rhetorics by means of a critique of de Man’s essay on Pascal. The difficulty is that the truth-claims of reason ‘necessarily have recourse to fictive, rhetorical or “literary” modes of expression in order to gain the reader’s assent’. Pascal took this into account, and indeed made it his project to discover the limits of analytic thought, the border at which it would run into the other, less admirable rhetoric. De Man, however, will not take the existence of this no man’s land ‘as a pretext for abandoning the strictest protocols of logical argument and analysis’. In the end he seems to assert – like Pascal – that such thinking cannot be self-sufficient, that it always stands in need of some further justifying ground, and that ultimately it cannot avoid the resort to language in its suasive or performative aspect. But he also makes it clear that any such conclusion ‘has to be earned (so to speak) through a rigorous critique of the values and assumptions that gave rise to the distinction in the first place’.

The conclusion is that the reader ‘should as far as possible respect the different orders of validity or truth-claim laid down by the classical distinction between logic, grammar and rhetoric’. Since we already feel we should do this, or try to, it may seem that Norris goes a long way round to explain the necessity, but that is to misunderstand the implications of the aporia. For instance, Spinoza recognises the fallibility of his reason and yet continues by its means his ‘demystifying’ critique of irrationalism. The instruments of deconstruction are themselves deconstructible. Nothing is as straightforward as you may think it is.

Still, the broad distinction is one most would accept without too much fuss. Norris expresses it as, among other things, a distinction between reason and imagination (the Spinozan realm of confused ideas). That was the usual 17th-century assumption about imagination; Norris doesn’t go on to discuss the immense transformation of its sense a century or so later, but one guesses he would deplore it, as he deplores the escapism of the Kantian sublime and scolds Lyotard for endorsing it. Imagination is dangerous, but can be controlled by understanding. The only other necessary escape clause is also Spinoza’s: that error has its place in the scheme of things.

Norris dutifully cites certain philosophers who find this theory either invalid or trivial. Naturally they must be refuted. This calls for another fluent digression tracing the dichotomy of reason and imagination back to the Platonic distinction between doxa and episteme, opinion and knowledge, a distinction, he claims, that is still valid. Modern ‘neo-pragmatists’ are deluded adherents of doxa, and should learn better manners from Spinoza (and presumably from Pascal also, for he worried, rather obscurely, at the problem in the pensées). Here Norris makes another of his unexpected turns and embarks on an enquiry into what the New Historicism and other Post-Structuralisms think about all this. It emerges that they all suffer from just the deficiency he has shown not to affect deconstruction, with its high regard for ‘the protocols of reason’ and ‘logical accountability’. And these heretical Post-Structuralists are urged to learn from Spinoza to be more truly critical, to acquire the mos geometricum. In all this swirl of argument – the modern political implications of Spinoza’s rationality, what Habermas says about Freud and how Foucault might have reacted to it – we are returned again and again to a credal, and not truly deconstructed, defence of reason.

Deconstruction has to stop somewhere, it is admitted, but the choice of terminus can be puzzling. It seems strange that a literary critic should find the primary use of reason to be an exposure of the covert political devices and desires of other, more mystified, literary critics. Those who go in, or went in, for New Critical close reading, thriving on paradox, ambiguity and other obfuscating aspects of the bad kind of rhetoric, are accused of subtly defending political reaction. Empson (here rather selectively treated, but Norris has written a whole book about him) is excused on the ground that he came to see through that kind of thing; but Empson, who enjoyed a row, would surely, on this and also other points, have sought one with Norris.

This by now conventional attack on the old New Critics as covert defenders of authoritarianism is often conducted in biased or even ignorant ways, and Norris is at his weakest in lending his voice to the claque: New Criticism, he says, ‘was invented for the purpose of elevating poets (like Donne or Marvell) whose work displayed a fine indifference to politics and devaluing others (like Milton or Shelley) who espoused any kind of republican or left-wing stance’. This can only with reservations be said of Donne; and how a professor of English can suppose that Marvell was unpolitical is a nice question, since the bulk of his verse, and virtually all his prose, was highly political and for a long time highly influential. Of course he was not ‘left-wing’, but then that is not an adequate description of the politics of his friend Milton, either.

The fact is that Norris never shows the slightest interest in poetry or poets unless they can be fitted into what for him is always a philosophical or a political discussion or both. To approach them in any other way is to be ‘mystified’. The truth he so values, and in whose cause he here ingeniously enlists Spinoza, is always his truth, his politics. I am not arguing against his politics, only against his identifying them with a truth he treats (against his principles) as virtually transcendental. As for poetry, it seems, for him, to belong to that realm of confused ideas which exists to be deconstructed by rigorous logic. He has a deep suspicion of anybody who shows signs of actually liking poetry – Cleanth Brooks, for instance. Brooks’s remark, that a poem is ‘an emblem of the kind of harmony that ought to obtain in wider realms – in the just society and in the true community’, he would dismiss as at best vacuous and mystified, at worst proto-fascist.

Finally it must be said that this extremely interesting book enlists Spinoza’s aid in the task that now occupies so many willing hands, the deconstruction, or destruction, of literature. Reason demonstrates that to grant it any kind of autonomy, to justify it in terms of metaphor, paradox, ambiguity and so on, is to dignify it falsely. Any claim that literature can be distinguished from other forms of discourse, or that it may call for distinctive critical and interpretative skills, is ‘mystified’, for reasons not very different from those that show all claims to religious experience to be so.

I have no religious experience but I claim to be familiar with the experience of poetry, and from that knowledge I infer that Norris isn’t, so that like all who dismiss literature as a mystified concept he is simply, though very intelligently, wrong. My knowledge will of course be discounted on the score that it is merely an inherited and false set of presuppositions, the consequence of brainwashing by devious or deluded purveyors of ‘tradition’. Yet it is as well founded as Norris’s confidence in Spinozan reason, and his certainty that politics provides the only terminus of sound theoretical discourse about writing.

The question that so exercises Hartman – what is to become of literary criticism? – is really a question of how it can survive in a time when its most influential exponents are doing their best to abolish it: Norris with puritanical rigour, Hartman with all sorts of hesitations, regrets and backslidings. There has always been Theory, but it was generally of the sort that could co-exist with poems, and with reading and writing less problematically considered. And there have always been defenders of poetry against the Platonists and the puritans. People who want to expel poetry from their republic have an august predecessor, yet their theoretical position has from the beginning had theoretical opponents, and at present the supply of these seems to be drying up.

This must be irritating to people who actually like reading, teaching and commenting on literary works rather than, or as well as, engaging in the metadiscipline of theory. It plays the devil with teaching, does nothing whatever to preserve or educate the reading public on which the whole critical enterprise ultimately depends, isolates the theorists from the artists as well as from art. So the condition of literary criticism in this fin-de-siècle age looks pretty parlous. Perhaps we’ve had too much of it, perhaps too much of it has been second-rate or drearily institutional. It would be too much to expect a high proportion of it to be much good, though that is equally true of theory, which may itself die drearily by institutionalisation and the stupefying efforts of epigoni. Genres and fashions come and go; it was long ago suggested that literary criticism has been to the 20th century what the published sermon was to the 19th, and so may share its fate of oblivion. But that, as Hartman was obliged to admit, would be a disaster: and not the least appalling consequence would be that the field would be left, however temporarily, to the mob of theoretical epigoni, and then to the fundamentalists.