Thinking Persons

John Ellis

  • Addressing Frank Kermode: Essays in Criticism and Interpretation edited by Margaret Tudeau-Clayton and Martin Warner
    Macmillan, 218 pp, £40.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 333 53137 X
  • The Poverty of Structuralism: Literature and Structuralist Theory by Leonard Jackson
    Longman, 317 pp, £24.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 582 06697 2
  • Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory by Bernard Harrison
    Yale, 293 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 300 05057 7
  • Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science by Mark Turner
    Princeton, 298 pp, £18.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 691 06897 6
  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson
    Stanford, 530 pp, $49.50, December 1990, ISBN 0 8047 1821 0

These five books continue in then very different ways the intense debate about the purpose of literary criticism and its relation to ‘theory’. Addressing Frank Kermode has its origin in a conference devoted to Kermode’s work. Five papers selected from those delivered at the conference are followed by a reply from Kermode himself; five more follow which ‘acknowledge, more or less directly’, his ‘influence’. The uncertainty visible here betrays some wishful thinking on the part of the editors, for many of these essays are conventional festschrift contributions largely unrelated to the thought of the figure whom they honour. Three of the contributors do, however, engage Kermode’s thought in a fairly serious way: John Stokes, George Hunter and Patrick Parrinder. Two ways of doing so were possible. Either Kermode’s general view of the critic’s task or his ideas concerning specific texts or groups of texts could have been the focus of attention. Stokes and Hunter choose the second of these possibilities and examine aspects of Kermode’s Romantic Image and Forms of Attention respectively; Parrinder objects to Kermode’s general view of criticism. Kermode’s response – appropriately enough, the most interesting essay in the book – is both explicitly and implicitly more concerned with Parrinder’s comments than with any other issue raised by his critics. Taken together with the prologue to his An Appetite for Poetry (which appeared in the same year as the conference), it gives us a clear and sometimes forceful account of how Kermode views the contemporary scene.

Parrinder’s criticism of Kermode is simple and direct: ‘As a general rule, whenever he outlines the purpose and function of criticism he tacitly redefines criticism as interpretation.’ What specifically is wrong with this? Parrinder finds that Kermode’s ‘attachment is not to any particular interpretative system but to the notions of the canon ... and of the professional practice of interpretation’. Because he has no system, this is ‘permissive and pluralist’, and is complicit in the academy’s ‘obsessive and monotonous return to a core of texts which might seem scarcely in need of further elucidation’. Worst of all, this removes criticism from the sphere of cultural politics, and since for Parrinder ‘what qualifies criticism as criticism’ is that ‘it assails what it takes to be false values in the name of true values,’ it follows that Kermode’s criticism is barely criticism at all: he is guilty of ‘neutralising and perhaps neutering the critical act’. We need a ‘clear message to convey to the people outside’, according to Parrinder, for ‘if criticism prefers to reduce itself to interpretation and to stop asking what is taught and why it is taught ... somebody else, perhaps somebody far more sinister’, does it instead. Thus Parrinder sets out the difference between criticism as Kermode’s generation understood it and as many in the present generation are coming to understand it. It is a difference that is worth pondering.

In his reply Kermode evidently felt constrained by the situation he was in, and his tone is for the most part gentle and self-deprecating. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that in spite of his evident concern not to appear churlish by criticising those who have gathered to honour him he speaks plainly on one point. Parrinder had accused him of being narrowly professional, of serving only the internal needs of the university world. But Kermode essentially tells Parrinder that he has everything the wrong way round: ‘the entire operation of high-powered academic literary criticism’ ultimately depends on the preservation of the reading public without which literature cannot exist; and university teachers of literature ‘can read what they like and deconstruct or neo-historicise what they like, but in the classroom they should be on their honour to make people know books well enough to understand what it is to love them. If they fail in that, either because they despise the humbleness of the task or because they don’t themselves love literature, they are failures and frauds.’ When a man as noted for his tact and tolerance of other viewpoints as Frank Kermode speaks so trenchantly, we should do well to listen. For here he is surely correct: it is Parrinder’s kind of socio-political criticism that has a narrowly professional base and is out of touch with the wider world of readers.

George Hunter puts his finger on the crucial difference between these two views of criticism when he says that Kermode’s most important quality as a critic is ‘his acute responsiveness to a great variety of texts’. If this is what makes Kermode an extraordinary critic, it should tell us something about the nature of criticism. What we call ‘literature’ is indeed a great variety of very different kinds of texts written by all kinds of people of differing temperaments, hopes, anxieties, ambitions and viewpoints (on social and political questions as well as every other kind of question), at different times, in different places, and about different issues. People write, and read, for all kinds of fundamentally dissimilar reasons. This diversity can be no less than the diversity of life itself.

How must a critic approach this overwhelming diversity? That question answers itself: if you are going to deal with such a body of texts, you had better be, like Kermode. ‘acutely responsive’ to the particular agenda and emphasis of each and every text. If, on the other hand, you follow Parrinder’s urging, and have a ‘system’, an agenda of your own and a set of concerns determined in advance, you will never be able to do justice to the diversity of concerns which confront you. The ‘pluralism’ which Parrinder objects to is dictated by the diversity of literature; the ‘monotony’ which he finds in Kermode’s method can’t arise if this diversity is respected: yet monotony will certainly be the result if one looks for and finds only one issue – one kind of political content construed in only one predetermined way – regardless of the text.

From this standpoint, Parrinder’s contrast of ‘content’ and ‘interpretation’ as the two possible aims of criticism is misconceived, for both are concerned with content. The real contrast should be between a concern for the unique content of each individual text, on the one hand, and on the other hand a rigid view of what will be allowed to count as content before the text’s own character is known. The paranoid idea that a sinister presence seeks to and might actually be able to control the content of the canon is merely an extension of this error: it is only a small step from the belief that criticism should treat literature as if it were reducible to a single set of ideas to the phantasy that someone could actually make it so. Conspiracy-theory thinking assumes that the world is exceptionally well-organised and tidy, and that a tightly-knit, disciplined, highly effective social group with a single, clear idea of its interests pursues those interests with well-laid, brilliantly executed plans. Reality is of course quite different: what we call literature is the result of the interaction of millions of people of very different kinds of outlook, interests and taste. A critic who thought that he should seek to control the content of the canon lest another person do it would have lost sight of that reality. Stalin, Hitler, Mao and others like them have tried to do so and failed; why should ‘progressive’ literary critics think that they either could of should follow in such ugly footsteps?

Leonard Jackson begins his The Poverty of Structuralism with the bald statement: ‘Modern literary theory is very strange.’ Indeed it is, but it is easier to see this than to pin down just how and why it is strange. In Addressing Frank Kermode Kermode prefers on this occasion to duck the question of theory by claiming not to be a systematic thinker, but in An Appetite for Poetry he expressed some doubt about modern literary theory with an interesting observation: in other fields of inquiry theory and practice are mutually reinforcing, but in literary theory they are not. To understand how this happens and why it is a serious defect we need once more to consider the great diversity of literary texts. Because of this diversity literature defeats almost any attempt to generalise about its content. But this creates a vacuum, and all vacuums are unstable: since literature as a whole has no specific agenda those who do not see why will always be tempted to impose their own. Now a paradox arises: what makes the situation tempting is the promise of grand results, but the outcome can only be limiting and parochial. When Shakespeare or Chaucer are read primarily with thoughts of the need for a socialist transformation of modern society in mind, or when we relate them mainly to very recent changes in the lives of women, that is parochial reading. Lisa Jardine’s essay on Othello in Addressing Frank Kermode is a particularly bad case.

The books by Jackson, Harrison and Turner exemplify in various ways the kinds of problems which occur in a field where theory is so distant from practical reality. Jackson’s starting-point is his conviction that modern literary theory is founded on the work of Marx, Saussure and Freud, and The Poverty of Structuralism (concerning Saussure’s influence) is to be the first of three volumes, one on each of the trio. He thinks that all three have been misused, but has two rather different versions of what that misuse consists in. In one version, their views have been distorted, but in the other ‘the merits of these thinkers have been dropped and the weaknesses built upon.’ Jackson’s uncertainty here is crucial, and it leads us to the central weakness of the book. Sometimes Jackson has it that Saussure was not ‘a linguistic idealist who believed that the world is constructed in language’, and from this standpoint he can argue that Derrida has distorted him. At other times he argues that Saussure’s theory of meaning is wrong because it attempts to derive meaning from the pure difference of signifiers, seemingly conceding that Saussure is a ‘linguistic idealist’ after all. If that were so, then Derrida did not distort him, but only accepted something said by Saussure which Jackson wishes he had not said. But it is not so. In Saussure’s theory signs contrast because their uses contrast, and a contrast in use is established only by observable differences in the situations where their use is appropriate. Saussure is thus grossly misunderstood if he is seen as a ‘linguistic idealist’ for whom meaning is established by the play of signifiers alone – so misunderstood that the enormous difference between Saussure’s thought and Derrida’s incoherent semantics vanishes.

Why does Jackson not see the difference? The root of the problem lies in Jackson’s own semantics: he is quite happy with the creaky old positivist view with which Chomsky launched the MIT tradition in linguistics, though the subsequent history of that tradition shows that nothing was so poorly thought through as its crude and antiquated account of meaning. Saussure and Derrida can look similar only because both are measured with this blunt instrument.

Jackson deals vigorously with the fancifulness of literary theory that has built on Saussure and many of the points he makes are well-taken, but his wooden semantics will severely limit the impact of his book. One must remember just why Saussure appealed to literary critics: in his work they saw a sophisticated semantic theory that showed them how to go beyond naive realism. Their own subsequent elaborations of this theory (largely under the influence of Derrida) were mostly quite silly, but they always dealt with objections to these excesses by returning to the first step in the process and denouncing the poverty of naive realism in semantics. Jackson’s book invites the one argument that those he criticises have always used to defend themselves.

Inconvenient Fictions suffers from the separation of theory and practice in a different way. Harrison contributes to literary theory as a philosopher, but it is soon clear that he is out of his depth. He tells us, for example, that the New Critics sought ‘a single, privileged, final elucidation of the text’, and that they dealt in such things as ‘interpretive paraphrase’ or even ‘extra-linguistic’ meaning. It is hard to contribute intelligently to theory of criticism without knowing that the New Critics denounced the ‘heresy of paraphrase’, that ambiguity was a prized notion for them and that the meaning of poems was a matter of ‘these words in this order’. There is much more in similar vein. Lacking any knowledge of work on fictionality, Harrison thinks he needs to tell critics that they are making a mistake in treating fiction as if it were scientific discourse; he thinks that the biggest current issue in criticism is humanism versus deconstruction, which has not been the case for some time; his notion of what Formalism was is simply wrong; and even in the area of theory with which he is most concerned, deconstruction, he appears to know virtually nothing of the debate so far, and so repeats familiar arguments as if they had not been heard before. His main defence of Derrida – that Derrida never really said all those things that literary critics say he said – became a cliché of the debate long ago. There is perhaps some amusement to be found in the fact that Harrison specifically disowns everything said ‘on this side of the English Channel’ about Derrida, specifically including Christopher Norris and citing Norris’s view that in Derrida ‘one is left with a limitless free play of textual potential, open to a reading which asserts its creative independence of traditional sanctions.’ Norris himself, however, recently disowned all of North American deconstructive criticism for much the same reason! Harrison’s claim at least avoids the extra difficulties faced by Norris, which are two: first, Derrida himself thinks that North America is the real stronghold of deconstruction, and second, the passage cited by Harrison shows that Norris himself would have to be grouped with all of those wild North Americans. But in point of fact the idea of free-play (as I showed in my book Against Deconstruction) comes directly from Derrida’s own writings, just as Norris earlier said it did. It was invented neither by Harrison’s confused English nor Norris’s confused Americans.

What Harrison should have known, however, was that the same argument was already used by Jonathan Culler ten years ago. The real question that needed to be asked was this: what is it about this system of thought that requires the repeated denials that even its own devotees really understand it, and that its founder said what he plainly did say? The political theorist Stephen Holmes gives an interesting possible answer for the analogous case of anti-liberal political thought. At first, extreme claims are made, but under challenge there is a retreat to watered-down versions so ordinary that they can not be objected to. This shift from one foot to the other allows both originality and sobriety to be displayed and thus ‘the naive are offered something extraordinary, and the doubters are appeased.’ The question remains whether a Derrida without extreme claims would ever have attracted any attention.

One of the signs of a confused field is the sporadic appearance of books which offer a programme of radical reform to clear up the whole mess. Mark Turner’s Reading Minds is such a book. Turner sees modern literary criticism as a ‘marvel of self-sustaining institutional and human ingenuity’, modern theory ‘however heady or marvellous’ as ungrounded and fragmented, and critics themselves as ‘discounted in both popular and intellectual culture as self-absorbed but mostly harmless irrelevancies’. What is to be done about this? Turner’s programme is announced in ambitious terms as one which will constitute ‘a fundamental revision of the idea of the humanities’, and take us into ‘the great adventure of modern cognitive science, the discovery of the human mind’ which will ‘fundamentally revise our concept of what it means to be human’.

Intrigued by these large claims, I immediately looked for a bibliography to see what kinds of modern work in cognition Turner would use and in what fields; psychology? information and computer science? philosophy? But the book has no bibliography, and a quick look through its footnotes reveals the puzzling fact that the MIT tradition in linguistics is the only area of modern thought that Turner knows and uses to any serious degree. The text soon reveals the fact that in his usage the phrases ‘the modern study of the mind’ and ‘the Age of Cognitive Science’ have an alarmingly restricted meaning. They refer primarily to the work of a dissident splinter group within MIT linguistics which calls itself ‘cognitive linguistics’. What make this whole enterprise immediately dubious is the fact that semantics has always been the weakest aspect of Chomskyan linguistics, and that the messianic attitudes of MIT linguists have effectively isolated them from other sources of knowledge in semantic theory. If we bear this last consideration in mind, Turner’s grandiose opening words are ominous: ‘The coming age will be known and remembered, I believe, as the age in which the human mind was discovered.’ Perhaps the most curious thing about the MIT tradition is that even when serious doubts arise about its most central claims, dissidents always begin at square one with the same messianic delusions and the same refusal to learn from the experience of other schools of thought. And so, for all his good intentions and in spite of some interesting pages here and there, Turner’s book suffers from the fatal self-imposed handicap that is Chomsky’s legacy.

If the previous three books seem to prove the negative side of what one might call Kermode’s principle (theory that does not arise from and flow back into practice is suspect), Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson gives powerful positive evidence of its essential correctness. This is a careful and comprehensive account of the work of a sophisticated thinker who was thoroughly immersed in the practical business of criticism. Morson and Emerson bring to the task both a comprehensive knowledge of Bakhtin’s writings and the theoretical knowledge and sophistication needed to expound and analyse his ideas. The result is a model of its kind, and an absorbing book that will give theorists (at least those not hopelessly stuck in a closed ‘theoretism’) much to think about. Bakhtin was a theorist who mistrusted grand theory and the closed systems of thought which make it impossible to maintain that essential quality of the first-rate critic – an acute receptivity to a great variety of texts. Morson and Emerson coin the term ‘Prosaics’ (in place of ‘Poetics’) to designate this mode of thought which resists grand ideas that distort and falsify the diversity of life and literature. Bakhtin particularly rejected Marx and Freud as examples of unsound theoretism, observing that these systems do not allow us to investigate human situations, for they only permit us to discover what we already know, Here Bakhtin may seem to be making a point very similar to a common recent criticism of much Marxist or feminist criticism: that it is repetitious and sees the same thing in very different works. If we look more closely, however, we see that Bakhtin does more than this: by stressing the way in which rigid systems close off our ability to investigate and observe, he explains how and why this result occurs. In reading this book I was often struck by Bakhtin’s ability to formulate issues and distinctions in ways that bring out their real point more fully and clearly than others have been able to do.

Bakhtin emerges in this treatment as a strong theoretical intelligence always turned to the practical realities of the literary scene; whether he thinks about the character of the novel, of authorship and creativity, or of history in relation to literature, we always see a man for whom theory was a matter of looking hard at concrete situations and abstracting from them the principles that he saw at work Bakhtin admired Goethe, and it is probably not a coincidence that this rejection of a certain kind of theory is reminiscent of Goethe’s criticism of Schiller’s speculative philosophising and insistence that he himself was not a philosopher in the real sense of the word; and that denial brings me back once more to Kermode, who in Addressing Frank Kermode claims with essentially similar intent that he is not ‘what it would be proper to call a thinking person’. In both cases, these otherwise implausible denials imply a rejection of inflexible theory that is imposed on facts rather than abstracted from them.

Morson and Emerson organise their book by themes and topics rather than chronologically, but take care to show the development of Bakhtin’s thought on a particular topic, including the twists and turns which it may on occasion have taken. This is especially useful where misconceptions have arisen because an atypical aspect of his thought has been taken out of its broader context. They are also careful to correct mistaken ideas about Bakhtin (including the tendency of some Marxists to claim this very anti-Marxist thinker as one of their own), but the main weight of their treatment is a positive one: they present Bakhtin as the embodiment of a different approach to theory than that which now prevails, one that is more productive and more compatible with the reality of literature and with the practice of first-rate criticism. It this book – and Bakhtin himself – become as influential as they deserve to be, literary theory will be a different and more useful kind of activity.