Outside the Academy

Robert Alter

  • Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990 by Patrick Parrinder
    Macmillan, 392 pp, £40.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 333 43294 0
  • A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950. Vol. VII: German, Russian and Eastern European Criticism, 1900-1950 by René Wellek
    Yale, 458 pp, £26.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 300 05039 9

These two meticulous surveys of modern criticism in all its vertiginous variety lead one to ponder what it is all about and where it may be heading. The book by René Wellek, focused on Central and Eastern European critics, is the penultimate volume of a vast project he began in the Fifties. The two previous volumes dealt respectively with English and American criticism in this same half-century, and chapters of the first four volumes of the series covered earlier critics that fall within the scope of Patrick Parrinder’s study. Authors and Authority in turn is an expansion of a 1977 book that stopped with the beginning of the 20th century. Now nearly twice its original length, it comes all the way down to the Yale Deconstructionists, the American proponents of cultural studies and the New Historicists. To judge by what René Wellek has observed elsewhere of these recent developments, he is no doubt quite happy to end his own account a generation before they all began.

Parrinder and Wellek adopt similar strategies of exposition: critic-by-critic discussions with a good deal of synopsis of books and even of essays. Wellek actually proclaims this procedure as a methodological principle, expressing scepticism about the coherence of the schools or isms of criticism that might serve as organising rubrics for a different kind of history of criticism. There is good evidence to support his scepticism at his home institution in the so-called École de Yale. In 1979, Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, all at the time Yale colleagues, put together a kind of manifesto entitled Deconstruction and Criticism. There were certain affinities among the five but the differences were more striking. On one side, Derrida, as elsewhere, seized on the ‘play of signifiers’ as warrant for a carnivalesque celebration of self-reflexive critical ingenuity, with Hartman imitating this hermeneutic dance on more leaden feet; on the other side, the dour de Man conceived Deconstruction, in Parrinder’s apt words, ‘as a twilight consciousness rather than a brilliant new dawn’; and on neither one side nor the other, Bloom categorically rejected the Deconstructionist dogma of pan-textuality and affirmed instead his own unswerving vision of literature as a universal Oedipal struggle between belated poets and their ‘strong’ predecessors.

There is warrant, then, for constructing a history of criticism through a series of accounts of individual figures, with, of course, indications of their historical contexts and connections or parallels among them. It must be said that this procedure of summarising critics one by one does not make for compelling narrative history, and though both these books abound in instructive material, few readers will be tempted to go through them from cover to cover. Parrinder and Wellek share a clarity of exposition, a balance and acuteness, and an encyclopedic knowledge of their subject, though Parrinder, half the age of the 88-year-old Wellek, can scarcely equal the magisterial sweep of the Czech-born scholar in his command of intellectual history.

In Wellek’s case, the fatiguing effect of summarising critical arguments one after the other is leavened by his distinctly personal relations to the critics. Thus, he begins his section on the German scholar Friedrich Gundolf (1880-1931): ‘In June 1923, when I was not yet 20, I attended, at Heidelberg, a single lecture by Friedrich Gundolf.’ From there he proceeds to a sketch of Gundolf’s physical appearance, an evocation of the atmosphere of the lecture, and then an account of his intellectual enterprise. Many of the major figures Wellek discusses in this volume are critics with whom he has debated, either in print or in person, over the years. These are actually the critics on whom he writes most interestingly. For most of the journalists, poets, novelists and lesser scholars who wrote criticism, he lets synopsis suffice, with at best only a minimal gesture of evaluation. But when he is dealing with original critics of real intellectual power like Erich Auerbach, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ernst Robert Curtius, Georg Lukacs, Viktor Shklovsky and Leo Spitzer, he offers trenchant and detailed critiques of their key concepts and methods, while also conveying a sense of their achievement. Auerbach’s Mimesis is a masterwork of 20th-century criticism, but it is based on a conception of realism so special that scarcely half a dozen writers in the whole Western tradition really fulfil its implied terms. Spitzer’s three-step method of philological analysis is no method at all but a combination of Spitzer’s own intuitive brilliance as a reader and the immense backlog of linguistic, literary and other knowledge that he brought to bear in reading. Curtius’s central notion of topos wobbles elusively between motif and theme and archetype. Most amusingly, Wellek observes of Lukacs, the Marxist proponent of a crudely reflexionist theory of the novel, that the phrase Wiederspiegelung der Wirklichkeit, reflection of reality, is repeated 1032 times in the first volume alone of his Aesthetik.

Parrinder, too, seems to me most alive as a writer when he is exposing the contradictions and the limiting assumptions of the critics he discusses. He observes, for example, that Harold Bloom’s conception of literature is ultimately conservative and archaic: ‘Great literature is “disturbing” and “uncanny”, yet it forms an authoritative and unchanging tradition; belatedness is inescapable, and the future of literature is therefore foreclosed.’ In contrast to the rather hysterical views triggered by the revelations of Paul de Man’s early involvement with Nazism, Parrinder places the Belgian-born critic in a sober and balanced historical perspective: ‘Paul de Man’s eminence belongs to the decadence of an age of literary interpretation which no longer has any human goals except that of asserting its superiority over other modes of human thought.’ He points with shrewd conciseness to the internal contradiction in the attempt of the New Historicism to uncover in the ‘poetics of culture’, dictated by concerns of power, a key to all the discourse of an age: it ‘claims the universal validity that it denies to other products of the human intellect, while simultaneously failing by the very criteria it invokes: it serves the interests of those who utter it while asserting a knowledge of causality which (as they themselves testify) they cannot attain.’

It is hardly surprising that both Parrinder and Wellek should be most instructive as historians of criticism when they are on the attack, for criticism itself is an activity that can advance – if, indeed, it advances at all – dialectically, by a process in which assumptions are challenged, terms resisted and transformed, ideas questioned and modified. Literature, after all, is a highly heterogeneous and often baffling object of investigation, its contours constantly shifting as new works are created and cultural preconceptions change, with the meanings and values of the individual text and its relations to the extra-textual world multifarious and elusive. Anyone who has ever tried to frame a generalisation about a novel or a poem or a systemic aspect of literature ought to expect, and be grateful for, a response that begins: ‘Yes, but ...’ ‘How can you assume ...?’ ‘Aren’t you forgetting that ...?’

Ever since criticism coalesced as an important cultural institution in the 18th century, there has been a good deal of this enlivening give-and-take, though there were certain characteristic differences in the way it was carried out on the Continent and in England and America. Patrick Parrinder has aptly chosen to highlight ‘authority’ in both the title and the substance of his history of Anglophone criticism. The ideology of the critic as authority, with antecedents in Samuel Johnson and in those arbiters of taste, the Romantic bookmen, reached its apogee in the Victorian sages, who, as Parrinder notes, were actuated by a ‘missionary’ impulse to serve as the enforcers of a new order of cultural coherence based on literature as a secular faith. Where there is such a claim to authority, there are bound to be challenges and counter-claims, a process still vividly observable through the middle decades of our own century in F.R. Leavis and the Scrutiny group, who surely carried on the missionary zeal of the Victorian sages, proceeding by polemic and stirring polemic in all they said. In England and America, criticism began among poets and prose writers outside the academy, only gradually making its way into the precincts of the university and even then not at first altering its culturally engaged character. On the Continent, even though numerous non-academic critics are included in Wellek’s comprehensive survey, the centre was firmly within the academy. In consequence, there is much less of an impulse for the critic to be the priest of a religion of culture, and much more of an aspiration to create a science, a Wissenschaft, of literature. Thus the prominent Anglo-American critics from 1900 to 1950 – for example, Leavis, T.S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling – produce essentially essayistic work, legislating, setting up evaluative hierarchies, and at their worst, attitudinising. The major Central and East European critics of this period – figures like Auerbach, Spitzer, Bakhtin and Jan Mukarovsky – variously seek to describe literature as a historically-evolving system, adapting tools from linguistics, sociology and other disciplines, and sometimes orienting their work in a particular philosophic framework. The differences among them, however pronounced, are debated along academic lines that question the adversary’s scientific rigour, conceptual consistency, terminological precision.

In America and England, the most striking development in the four decades after Wellek’s end-point has been the pervasive academisation of criticism. This change has not by and large brought with it an importation of the European ideal of a science of literature. This is partly a consequence of the increasingly political emphasis of academic life since the Sixties and partly because the European guides adopted by Anglo-American literary scholarship have not been German – apart from a couple of Marxists – or Slavic but French, with a strong preference for murky, enigmatic and paradoxical thinkers like Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard. Both the rush to the political barricades and the allure of Gallic vaticism are reflected in the slogan: ‘Clarity is a form of fascist oppression.’

In this conceptually clouded and politically superheated atmosphere, the practice of criticism as dialogic exchange has been gravely eroded. The politics, moreover, while repeatedly gesturing toward the larger world of real power and events, has no effect on it and no actual involvement in it, the true motive being the consolidation of influence and prestige within the academic establishment. If you are a neo-Marxist or a New Historicist or an advocate of gender studies or a critic of colonial discourse, you don’t engage in serious dialogue with people in rival camps, and certainly not with old-fashioned philologists or humanists, because the benighted others are not just wrong, they are immoral. Although Parrinder does not deal directly with the political or pseudo-political character of academic studies he has a keen eye for the manifold ways in which the nature of the academy as a corporate entity has strongly coloured the language of criticism produced within the academy. Thus he notes that the current purveyors of literary theory (most of whom profess to be vehemently anti-capitalist) act out a dynamic of capitalist competition: ‘The academic “market-leaders” of theory, writing at a more popular level than Jakobson or Frye, have shown remarkable dexterity in refurbishing their product-lines, launching new brightly packaged intellectual models and consigning yesterday’s theories to the remainder shop.’ To this he adds a gloomy conclusion: ‘The main casualty of such built-in theoretical obsolescence has been the ambition of founding a critical science offering not mental excitements but reliable knowledge.’

The character, moreover, of the theories restlessly produced and then made unfashionable smells of the academic lamp, in sharp distinction to earlier English criticism, which, as Parrinder emphasises, drew its distinctive strength from its closeness to primary poetic work. He shrewdly observes of Bloom’s schema of antagonism between ephebe and precursor that it owes more to the structure of the American graduate school than to the conditions in which poetry is created. ‘In the academy students have their work graded, and junior faculty members have their claims to tenure decided, by the very teachers who have influenced them most. The relationship of teacher and taught, the rewards of successful imitation and the penalties of plagiarism are far more immediate and intimate than is the case in the literary world at large.’

If one contemplates the looming figures of Wellek’s European scene and the major Anglo-American critics of the mid-century, it is hard to imagine that our academic present constitutes a great age of criticism. I do not think, though, that we have passed some point of no return. There are still many intelligent critics within the academy, perhaps less visible because they stand with no clique or faction, who are doing valuable work and are dedicated to reasoned discourse. If, moreover, critics were drawn to the academy not only by a secure salary and fringe benefits but also because the general society seemed progressively less interested in literature, a reverse movement may now be taking place. As many university teachers of literature have lost interest in literature, replacing it with more abstract or supposedly political concerns, it begins to appear that the real audience for serious literature, however diminished, is largely outside the academy. It could also be the right audience for criticism, including criticism written by those academics who still possess a passion for literature and a commitment to making lucid sense. One must grant the contention of George Steiner in Real Presences that we as a culture need poetry and art as we will never need criticism, and it is surely a sign of what Parrinder calls ‘decadence’ to replace poetry with criticism. Nevertheless, self-consciousness and self-reflection are constituents of our cultural world, at least in the West. It is a human thing to try to make sense of the perplexities and wonders and ambiguities of evaluation with which literature confronts us, to look for the systemic aspects of literature and to ponder its role in any larger scheme. The criticism of the past two centuries, for all its confusion of tongues, has provided some valuable optics with which to view this shifting landscape, and there will surely continue to be many who will know how to use them, and to add to the set, without the impediment of institutional blinders.