A Good Reason to Murder Your Landlady

Terry Eagleton

  • I.A. Richards: Selected Works 1919-38 edited by John Constable
    Routledge, 595 pp, December 2001, ISBN 0 415 21731 8

Of all the great 20th-century critics, I.A. Richards is perhaps the most neglected. There is a crankish, hobbyhorsical quality to his work, an air of taxonomies and technical agendas which befits the son of a chemical engineer. His transatlantic counterpart in this respect is Kenneth Burke. Some of Richards’s work smacks of the laboratory, and isn’t helped by his charmless, bloodless prose style, laced as it is with briskly self-satisfied flourishes which his opponents saw as insufferable arrogance. An ardent propagandist for so-called Basic English, a project which reduced the language to a mere 850 words, Richards was also a precursor of today’s global industry of English-language teaching. He published some founding, now forgotten texts in modern methods of language teaching, and once worked with cartoonists in the Disney studios, drawing up simplified language instruction manuals for the US Navy. He also conducted seminars with leading North American educators, and was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation to draw up a statement on the practice of reading. Some of his late works of the 1960s are described by the editor of this superb selection of his writings, a man not averse to rapping his author smartly over the knuckles, as ‘febrile’, ‘unbalanced’ and ‘salvationist’.

It wasn’t only the sojourn in Hollywood that marked Richards out from the average Cambridge don. One of the founding fathers of the Cambridge English School in the early 1920s, he was nonetheless deeply sceptical of the value of English as a distinct discipline, and at one point contemplated going off to train as a mountain guide. (He was a highly skilled mountaineer, and on one climb had his hair set on fire by lightning.) In the event, he went off instead to teach in China, as his most celebrated pupil William Empson was also to do, dropping in on Russia, where he met Eisenstein, and later on Japan and Korea. It is hard to imagine his piously parochial Cambridge colleague F.R. Leavis accompanying him on the Trans-Siberian railway. He also taught for a while at Harvard.

Richards was an unabashed system-builder, an enquirer after foundations and first principles in a field which, then as now, was scandalised by such anti-empiricist bad manners. (The editor of the TLS tells us in the centenary issue of the paper that he automatically deletes theoretical words like ‘discourse’ from his reviewers’ copy, as some of his predecessors no doubt deleted words like ‘montage’ and ‘neurosis’.) How can literary criticism be a system when literature itself is the acme of the anti-systemic, the home of the vividly contingent and sensuously particular? How can it submit to doctrine when doctrine, above all, is what it repudiates? It is true that this view of the literary would have come as something of a surprise to Dante, Pope, Voltaire, Austen, Goethe, Stendhal and Tolstoy; but most of these authors were foreigners, and though other nations may speak of a literary science, the English prefer to define the timeless essence of the literary in terms that have been current only for about two hundred years in a smallish corner of the globe.

The first theorist of academic English in Britain, Richards saw from the start that the discipline was stumbling along without stopping to examine its presuppositions, disastrously unable to justify its ways of talking. His aim was to substitute scientific rigour for belletristic waffle. Academic criticism he thought ‘pernicious’, and he wrote in 1933 that ‘the worst threat to the world’s critical standards comes just now from the universities.’ Even Leavis, for whom ‘academic’ was usually a pejorative term, accused him of being ‘anti-academic’. When Richards sent Leavis a note to congratulate him on becoming a Companion of Honour, he received back an unsigned note which read: ‘We repudiate with contempt any approach from you.’

Richards is commonly thought to have invented ‘practical criticism’, which provides the title of one of his best-known books; but practical criticism had in fact been practised in Cambridge English well before Richards came over to it from the History faculty. (History, he remarked with glum accuracy, was simply a record of ‘things which ought not to have happened’.) Practical criticism might have lent criticism some analytic edge, but Richards, as a theorist avant la lettre, was not a champion of it for this reason. Indeed, he was hardly a champion of it at all. What interested him about close reading, and the characteristic blunders it involved, was the material it could provide for a fully-fledged theory of communication. He described Practical Criticism as ‘a piece of fieldwork in comparative ideology’, and the book has a latent radical edge, recording as it does some remarkably obtuse critical comments from Cambridge students who, as Richards mischievously remarks, are ‘products of the most expensive kind of education’.

To understand how communication functions was not, he insisted, the same as understanding how grammar or philology work. Richards was a discourse theorist before the title was invented (though the broader senses of ‘rhetoric’ came close to it), a scholar for whom the basic unit was the utterance, not the word. In Coleridge on Imagination, he describes Coleridge as a ‘semasiologist’ and proclaims that semasiology will constitute the critical science of the future. As it happened, the word to emerge was ‘semiology’; but Richards was familiar with this term too, and makes use of it in The Meaning of Meaning. He also calls for a theory of interpretation, which later generations would dub ‘hermeneutics’. There is even a dash of post-structuralist prophecy about him: bewitched by the propositional form, so he argues in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, we have failed to grasp that ‘the world – so far from being a solid matter of fact – is rather a fabric of conventions . . . and that sometimes is a dismaying rediscovery which seems to unsettle our foundations.’

As an anti-foundational pragmatist, Richards believed that all understanding involves guesswork and inference, that interpretation is potentially infinite, that meaning is plural, unstable and contextual, that metaphor in language goes all the way down, and that the mind and its operations are fictions. He rejected a linguistic atomism from the outset with his notion of the ‘interanimation’ of signs – the way in which they prop each other up. Perhaps it is no wonder that he escaped from Quiller-Couch’s Cambridge to China, where he would find what appeared to be a language at home with ambiguity, gratifyingly oblivious of such metaphysical categories as cause, essence, substance, attribute, accident and the like. The Chinese language, as he describes it in Mencius on Mind, makes no sharp Western-type distinction between knowing what a thing is and registering its moral significance, thus reminding us that the assumption that knowledge of things is a value in itself is a peculiar, historically contingent one. What supposedly matters to the Chinese philosopher Mencius is the force or ‘gesture’ of an utterance, the purposive thrust of discourse rather than its bare propositional structure. Verbal forms and structures should be grasped in terms of discursive intentions and effects, not the other way round. Bakhtin was developing just such a view at roughly the same time as Richards, while Brecht, who like Richards was fascinated by Chinese culture, speaks of the Gestus (‘gist’, ‘gesture’) of an action or statement. The classical name for this view of language, as well as for language of this kind, is ‘rhetoric’; and Richards was a rhetorician in the deep, broad sense of the word as well as in the narrower, manipulative one.

Ambiguity, for Richards as later for Empson, is among other things a coded sort of anti-chauvinism. To be hospitable to different meanings is to be open to a diversity of cultures. Empson shared his teacher’s bumptious, idiosyncratic spirit, his sceptical, cross-grained, briskly rationalist mind, though his criticism could live with muddle and contradiction, indeed could find them moving and vitalising, as Richards’s never could. In some respects, Empson is a Richards shorn of the system, though quite as much of an oddball. Both men, rather like the great émigré artists whom early 20th-century England attracted, were cosmopolitan enough to cast a quizzical eye on Western assumptions. Ambiguity, that is, went hand in hand with anthropology. Malinowski contributed an appendix to The Meaning of Meaning, and Richards writes in his Principles of Literary Criticism of the extreme cultural relativity of value. He was quick to spot the Eurocentrism of academic psychology, and speculates in his Mencius monograph that there may be a whole range of different but valid mindsets.

For Richards, then, theory was the enemy of reductionism and dogmatic rigidity, not its incarnation. It is common sense which believes in sticking to your own kind, not disciplined speculation. If Richards called for rigour, it was in the name of the non-rigorous, of a finer appreciation of complexity, flexibility and what he called ‘multiple definition’, whereas the common sense of the common room doggedly trusted that each word had one fixed meaning. Richards dismissed out of hand any simple application of a priori principles to a literary work, and thought in the end that it was all about feeling and judgment. He was far less dogmatic than, say, C.S. Lewis, who once handed Richards a copy of his own Principles to read in bed with the tart comment: ‘Here’s something that should put you to sleep.’ He was a lot more abstract than Lewis, to be sure, but it was precisely that power to abstract from his own social situation which made him more adaptive and adventurous.

The quarrel between Richards and Leavis was really about whether to beat science or join it. The American New Critics won themselves the best of both worlds in this respect, yoking hard-nosed analysis to a sense of the numinous. The poem was an examinable object, a taut structure of tensions and polarities, but this lent it an indeterminacy of meaning which had transcendent, even theological implications. Richards took a grim view of modern civilisation, but considered, ironically enough, that a scientifically-based criticism and psychology could insulate us from the most degrading effects of a scientific-technological society; or, as he quaintly put it, from ‘the more sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loudspeaker’. He was also something of a Benthamite utilitarian in his theory of value. Leavis, for his part, denounced a ‘technologico-Benthamite’ civilisation which seemed to encompass everything from hairdryers to oxygen tents, and preached instead a pseudo-transcendent humanism. Yet Richards’s remark about loudspeakers is pure Leavis, and the two men were at one in holding that art was not only the deepest repository of human value in a mechanised world of declining standards, but that its influence could be socially redemptive. Poetry, Richards observes in vatic Arnoldian vein in Science and Poetry, ‘is capable of saving us; it is a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos.’

Both critics clung for different reasons to a continuity between art and common experience, scorning the idea of a specialised aesthetic domain. For Richards, however, science and technology are here to stay, and art can do little more than supplement their emotional deficiencies. Its function is thus emotive rather than cognitive: indeed, this aesthetic emotivism is simply the flip-side of his positivism. A positivism which expels value from the material world can always smuggle it in again by the aesthetic back door as a form of spiritual solace, but only at the cost of refusing art cognitive status and so, ironically, closing ranks with the aesthete. Leavis, by contrast, refused the positivist monopoly of knowledge; for him, art was as much a mode of knowledge as geology, not just a device for refining or adapting our sensibilities. The two men also differed over the status of criticism. Richards despised English as an academic subject and moved off into the philosophy of language. To this extent, he resembled Wittgenstein, who was later to make a number of bungled attempts to give up a lethally addictive philosophy. Since the criticism and philosophy of the time could yield Richards almost nothing, he turned instead to psychology or anthropology or ancient China, as well as to Coleridge, who wrote at a time when art and philosophy could still fruitfully interbreed before the former soared off into idealism and the latter lapsed into positivism. For Leavis, by contrast, English was the vital nub of the whole academic enterprise.

Richards’s scientific psychology might be less charitably described as ‘psychologism’. He held the view that meaning is a mental process rather than a way of doing things with signs, a doctrine in some ways at odds with his pragmatism. Perhaps he was partly bounced into this opinion by a reaction against Behaviourism (he was a colleague at Harvard of B.F. Skinner), and wrongly supposed that such mentalism was the only alternative to it. When it comes to utterances, he urges us to attend not to what is said, but to the mental operations of the speaker. But it’s hard to know how to describe the mental operations behind ‘He’s gone and smeared mango chutney on it’ or ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness’ beyond merely repeating the words. Thought, he considers, is a kind of ‘mental pointing’, a view demolished by the later Wittgenstein. In Kantian vein, he holds that statements about poems are secretly statements about their readers, which makes him a precursor of reception theory as well as a proto-semiotician and post-structuralist.

For all his hostility to empiricism, Richards remains caught in the classic empiricist belief that a successful act of communication – ‘understanding’ a poem, say – consists in transporting a mental experience whole and entire from one mind to another. To make sense of my statement ‘Just put it down on the table’ is to re-create in your own mind the intricate sensuous experience I have as I pronounce the words, with every bit of its unique flavour and complex density preserved intact. Meaning, according to this view, is a state of mind, not a social practice. It will not do to claim that I can speak or understand these words without having any experience at all, or that even if I do have a few weird flashes behind my eyeballs as they are spoken, they can logically be no part of the meaning of the utterance. If meaning is inherently public and rule-governed, then the fact that I can’t read Treasure Island without visualising Long John Silver as a one-legged version of my grandmother is of interest only to my psychotherapist and myself. Richards’s thought here is bedevilled by the word ‘experience’, which tempts us to model non-sensory activities on sensory ones, as though reading a poem were akin to deliriously sniffing boot polish every three seconds. He would have been bemused by Wittgenstein’s point that intending is not an experience, or by a writer’s insistence that he or she was ‘experiencing’ nothing in particular at the time of writing, or perhaps was feeling a lot of quite disparate, inconsequential things, or was aware of little but the act of writing itself.

Richards’s flawed theory of communication is superficially more plausible in the case of poetry, whose language is often (though by no means always) intricately sensuous and densely textured; but it is still a mistake to imagine that the meaning of ‘And miles to go before I sleep’ is a set of mental images I have, or mental processes I perform, when I read the words. It is a mistake which post-Romantic literary types, with their penchant for the vividly particular, are especially liable to make. One good reason for not holding this theory is that it is hard to know what Milton’s ‘original experience’ was in writing Paradise Lost, and therefore hard to know whether you are re-creating it correctly in your own head. All you have is a host of readerly ‘experiences’ of the poem, in which case you are in danger of being landed with as many Paradise Losts as there are readers of it. Richards concedes that the ‘original experience’ of the poet is now inaccessible to us, and is prepared instead to characterise the poem as the sum total of all its various readers’ experiences of it. But a critic as obsessional about order as he is clearly needs to sidestep a tidal wave of epistemological anarchy here; so he adds the proviso that the only readerly versions that count are those that do not diverge too widely from the author’s experience, which he has just informed us is inaccessible.

For Richards, then, a quality like beauty lies not in the words on the page, but in our response to them. But if you want to claim with the likes of Stanley Fish that the words on the page have no say at all in the matter, then you cannot logically speak of response – you cannot answer the question ‘What is it that you are finding beautiful?’ Your experience is no more an experience of this work of art than is the stomach ache you happen to feel while contemplating it. Richards himself prudently avoids allowing the text to evaporate entirely into the reader, claiming in his psychologistic jargon that the poem is the cause of the experience of beauty in us. But this is just what we mean by saying that the poem is beautiful. Not many critics imagine that beauty is in the poem in the sense that Jeffrey Archer is in jail. That there can be no beauty or envy or agony without an interpreter doesn’t mean that to describe a poem is to describe the interpreter. There can be no bank robberies without interpreters either, but it would be a poor sort of legal defence for a robber to claim that his felony was all in their minds. Since Richards holds to a continuity between literary and real-life psychology, what he asserts of literary situations is likely to be true of non-literary ones too, in which case propositions about hostile aircraft only two hundred metres away are also secretly propositions about us rather than the aircraft. In a peculiar epistemological narcissism, all accounts of the world are oblique accounts of ourselves. What might seem to work with poetic beauty, however, sounds less plausible when it comes to things being oblong or poisonous, even though both qualities clearly involve interpretation.

Richards’s Kantian view of art is tied up with his controversial opinions about the role of beliefs in literature, and Volume Ten of this edition, I.A. Richards and His Critics, valuably documents this and other critical debates about his work. Beliefs in literature are really what Richards calls ‘pseudo-statements’, to be evaluated not for their truth or falsehood but for their pragmatic role in organising our feelings. It doesn’t matter whether Dante actually believed in God, or whether the reader does. What matters is whether such beliefs get something done emotionally. Once again, what seems to concern the object turns out to concern the subject. This is a questionable theory of the relation between poetry and doctrine: it is true that we don’t need to be Tories to relish The Dunciad or Anglo-Catholics to appreciate Four Quartets, but it is also the case that silly, vicious or palpably wrong-headed beliefs in literature, whether sincerely held or merely strategic, can diminish our enjoyment of it. In a similar way, Richards sees that literary utterances are not at root factual propositions even when they happen to be empirically true; but he does not acknowledge that factual inaccuracy or flagrantly nonsensical beliefs can undercut an aesthetic effect. Our faith in the solidity of a realist character is bound to be shaken if he gets from Paris to Berlin in three minutes flat.

Where the notion of pseudo-statement may work rather better is in the theory of ideology. Propositions like ‘Prince Charles is a hard-working fellow, not hideously ugly’ may be empirically true, but this is not the point. The force of such statements is generally to act as supports for a set of emotive attitudes, such as ‘Royalty is an excellent thing.’ If the statement in question is falsified, it can be replaced by another without too much disruption to the web of attitudes as a whole. This is one reason why ideology is so resistant to rational refutation: like the statement ‘This is sublime’ for Kant, it involves the kind of utterance which is propositional only in its surface grammar. This is not to say that ideology is simply subjective, any more than aesthetic judgments are for Kant; but neither are they quite the descriptions of the world they appear to be.

Richards produced a full-bloodedly naturalistic theory of value, an audacious move at a time when the air was heavy with intuitionism, crypto-religious symbolism and the like. The value of art lies in its power to balance and order our otherwise unruly psychological impulses, organising our desires or ‘appetencies’ into the fullest, richest, most coherent regime. He thus apparently derives a value from a fact, since to claim that a poem can do this is both a description of it and an evaluation. Once we have solved the communication problem, he announces with strange insouciance, the value question can more or less take care of itself.

This theory of value is utilitarian in origin. Each human subject is a kind of miniature liberal state, which to get the best out of itself must create an equilibrium between its conflicting tendencies, rather as the liberal state holds the ring between competing notions of individual wellbeing. Anything is valuable, in art or life, which satisfies an appetency without frustrating a more important one. Richards is aware that unless he is to go transcendent or intuitionist, ‘important’ has to be defined within the system he has set up; so he characterises an important impulse as one whose thwarting involves a widespread disruption of other impulses. It is hard to see on this hypothesis how murdering one’s landlady is objectionable if suppressing the desire to do so throws one into psychic disarray. What Richards would need to appeal to here, as with the model of the liberal state, is how far the fulfilment of one’s own desires may involve the frustration of other people’s, such as the landlady’s right to realise her own appetencies by staying alive. But though Richards occasionally gestures in this direction, his model is too individualist to accommodate this social dimension. It is also vulnerable to the deontological argument that some desires are just bad whether or not they involve thwarting other desires, one’s own or other people’s. Killing a small child might enhance appetencies all round, but many would find it objectionable even so.

Value, then, becomes ‘a problem of organisation’, and ‘states of mind in general are valuable in the degree to which they tend to reduce waste and frustration.’ Richards is a kind of bureaucrat of the soul, a writer who sometimes sounds more like a refuse disposal officer than a critic. In a curious crossing of Bentham and Pater, value is economy, a matter of realising as many impulses as possible with the least sacrifice or curtailment. Like almost all criticism from Aristotle to Northrop Frye, Richards makes the formalist assumption that unity and coherence are goods in themselves, a value-judgment which his system presupposes rather than demonstrates. It is just that he replaces a traditional Romantic organicism with a more up-to-date neurological version of it. Had the England in which he was writing not been so insulated from radical Modernism, an art which can celebrate contradiction, dissonance and unfinishedness, he might have paused to re-examine this stock notion. Like many liberals, he assumes that conflict is destructive in itself.

If poetry is important, it is because it represents the subtlest, most economical organisation of human impulses there is. Richards can thus practise his ‘scientific’ naturalism with no detriment to a Romantic elitism: it is just that the poet is no longer the most visionary of souls but the most neurologically sound. He is to be admired for his normativity, not his eccentricity. The doctrine of art as a disinterested equilibrium of the soul, tempering disruptively partisan interests by balancing them with their opposites, runs back through Arnold to Schiller. But it must now be put on a scientific basis, given the way that modern life, with its brittleness of response, noisy disruptions and drastic impoverishment of experience, has thrown us out of kilter. Richards was thus one of the many critics – Walter Benjamin is perhaps the most celebrated – who recorded the death of experience or decline of bourgeois interiority in the late capitalist epoch. Like Leavis, he imagined that the effects of industry, technology and mass culture could be fended off by sensitive readings of Donne and Hopkins; Benjamin was a little less sanguine in his expectations. The idea that poetry would save us was part of the problem, not the solution.

Culture, however, is not at all as serenely disinterested as it appears. For Arnold, a contemplative aesthetic wholeness had now to translate itself urgently into social action, not least if it was itself to survive; yet the inevitable partisanship of social action would seem to betray the harmony of being which it was meant to realise. Like his Victorian predecessor, Richards is a moralist, educationalist and social reformer as well as a philosopher-critic, for whom poetry must teach the populace psychical disinterestedness for deeply self-interested reasons. The less well-educated, he remarks, ‘inhabit chaos’, thereby posing a threat to social stability in an age of political upheaval. If he is interested in rhetoric, in suasive rather than cognitive discourse, it is partly because he is tempted by the idea of an enlightened manipulation of popular psychology in the service of social control.

This was not a novel theme in the European culture of his day. There are some dim parallels between Richards’s conservative ideological programme and the leftist avant-gardes in Germany and the Soviet Union, which saw in art a similar opportunity to re-educate human feelings in the cause of a new dispensation. Socialism demands a cultural as well as political revolution, the construction of a New Man whose perceptions and responses are geared to action, solidarity and the flux of urban experience. The human mind of the future, Richards warns us, will be far more shifting, provisional and diffuse, which makes that psychic therapy or spiritual hygiene we know as poetry all the more pressing.

Equilibrium, then, is finally in the service of political propaganda; and Richards’s emotive theory of art as a reorientating of our responses lent itself to this purpose from the outset. It is not of course that, like Proletkult or the Left Front in Art, he embraces an explicitly didactic view of art. On the contrary, the beauty of his case is that the didacticism lies in the disinterestedness, so that he can avoid aestheticism and instrumentalism at the same time. By being, like the ideal poem, ends in ourselves, we will be all the more instrumental in serving the ideal political state. Richards was perhaps not himself entirely unattracted by ‘the more sinister potentialities of the cinema and the loudspeaker’; but he was a critic of remarkable ambition and originality, and this handsome, meticulously prepared edition of his writings represents an intellectual event of some magnitude.