Touching and Being Touched

John Kerrigan

  • Reading after Theory by Valentine Cunningham
    Blackwell, 194 pp, £45.00, December 2001, ISBN 0 631 22167 0

A few months before his early death from tuberculosis, John Keats scribbled these lines in his papers:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d – see, here
it is
I hold it towards you.

Once read, always haunted. As it moves through subjunctive volition and vain hope into nightmare, this poignant yet ominous sentence finds some resolution at ‘conscience-calm’d’, only to be extended by a gesture which disturbs the more because what is so frankly held out is both the living hand that wrote what we read but also (Keats being dead) the cold hand in the tomb.

The eeriness of the effect is heightened by the passage seeming to come from nowhere. It is often said that the lines were intended for an unfinished play or written as a lyric to Fanny Brawne, the young woman who did not take Keats’s hand in marriage because of his dismal prospects. Yet even if the fragment has Fanny in view as ‘thou’, ‘thine heart’ and so on, we cannot escape its address. When Keats writes ‘– see, here it is/I hold it towards you,’ it’s not just the sudden appearance of the first person that creates a shudder but the slip from ‘thou’ to ‘you’, as though the poet were reaching past his lover to us.

I was reminded of the power of this passage, in all its strange tactility, by Valentine Cunningham’s too brief discussion of it at the climax of Reading after Theory. For the most part his book is a polemical but unsurprising survey of the strengths and drawbacks of Theory as it has influenced literary study in the last few decades. The settling of accounts may be timely, given that so many ‘new approaches’ have run out of steam. But the real test of the book comes in the chapter called ‘Touching Reading’, which goes beyond survey-mode and argues for a style of criticism that is alert to touch and tact. The chapter raises fascinating questions, though whether Cunningham manages to slay the dragon of Theory with the sword of tactility is doubtful. He certainly doesn’t show himself capable of grasping ‘This Living Hand’.

Cunningham refuses to join ‘the chorus of mere whingers against Theory, all those mouthy conservatives from (say) Helen Gardner . . . to Roger Shattuck . . . with their romps up and down the glooming critical slopes of the Blooms, Allan and Harold’ – this is a fair sample, unfortunately, of his idea of lively prose. He accepts that post-structuralism, new historicism, queer studies and all the other movements he bundles together as Theory have done some good. They have made us more aware of the competences involved in reading. By rejecting the hegemony of Dead White European Males they have helped to bring such neglected writers as Sarah Fielding into the canon. Theory has drawn attention to marginalised groups, making it harder to ignore the ‘black-creole face of Bertha Mason’ in Jane Eyre. Above all, Theory has highlighted the importance of literature in constructing the realities we perceive.

Yet Theory makes a bad habit of hermeneutic suspicion. It ravages texts with a rhetoric of ‘lapse, failure, lack’, and treats them as guilty of thought-crimes. ‘I don’t want to say that Theorists write gibberish,’ Cunningham mildly remarks, ‘but they can get pretty close.’ Theory smothers literature in reams of secular Midrash, or loftily floats above it in pursuit of its own agenda. Worse, Theorists misread. In a slightly weird passage that shows the vitality of Cunningham’s Protestant background (his first book was a sympathetic study of Dissent in the Victorian novel), he declares: ‘Theory makes idols, eidolons, dolls, toys, out of texts, out of literature. And the whole deity, the whole person, the whole text thus reduced cries out to be allowed to expand, to grow up, to have its whole self back again.’ His strongest objection, however, is to Theory’s rancorous contempt for humanism and the human subject.

Cunningham is well-read and committed, and he lands some solid punches, but it’s impossible to stick with him for long because he argues so crudely. Not all manifestos dumb down – Marx and Engels avoided it – but Cunningham has been tempted into relentless simplification by the remit of the Blackwell Manifestos, the series his book appears in. After boiling down the history of literary theory since Plato to ‘a sketchy sketch map’, he declares with naive circularity that it shows little variation. The contending forces within MLA-style Theory are summarised with equal breeziness, and little effort is made to unpack the paradoxes. Cunningham complains, for instance, that theoretically inclined critics, who favour decentring the individual, often write about themselves at length, but he does not explore the rationale of this (to him) hypocritical egotism. However open to abuse the autobiographical impulse may be, to set out the life circumstances that ‘situate’ one’s critical judgments can be virtuously self-analytical and helpful to the reader.

The pitch sharpens only when he gets on to touch. Though the title Reading after Theory nods approvingly at the cliché that we always read in the shadow of one theory or another (but do inherited assumptions affect us in the same way as a theory we subscribe to?), what he chiefly wants to project is the message that Theory should be replaced by honest-to-goodness, hands-on Reading. As one would expect from a critic so mistrustful of theorising, Cunningham never conceptualises what he means by this, but waxes rhapsodic about ‘tact: gentle touch, caring touch, loving touch; appropriate handling, unmanipulative reading’. He associates this tactility with a sacramental sense of language and his book becomes a catalogue of touching hands, hands in and out of pockets (Dickens), reverent touches, and reveries about being emotionally touched.

The privileging of touch is superficially attractive. Unlike sight and hearing, the main senses used to access texts, touch does not function remotely; to claim prominence for it in reading is to close the gap between reader and work. Touch does not depend on local inlets (eye, ear, tongue) but can involve any surface of the body, and thus suggests how reading implicates the whole person. Yet there are dangers in promoting touch. Leigh Hunt finely praised ‘Dear Hazlitt, whose tact intellectual is such,/That it seems to feel truth, as pure matter of touch,’ but the Romantic cult of touch as a medium of truth would lead to D.H. Lawrence, a writer with a number of disconcerting points of contact with Cunningham. Lawrence wrote superbly about the way touch gets under the guard of consciousness in such stories as ‘You Touched Me’ and ‘The Man who Died’ (a happily blasphemous tale about the sexual awakening of Christ), but in his later poetry he elevated touch over thought and eccentrically concluded that ‘Once men touch one another, then the modern industrial form of machine civilisation will melt away/and universalism and cosmopolitanism will cease.’

It would evidently be wise for anyone advocating touch to be aware of how it has been theorised. Cunningham, however, ignores the extensive discussion of this subject in Western thought, not least during the French-led Theory boom. For the self-preoccupied Sartre, touch was unreciprocal. When I caress someone, he coolly announces in Being and Nothingness, I am caressing my own body with the body of the Other. Merleau-Ponty, by contrast, argued that ‘in the very act of touching, one is touched in return’ – a fair point till you ask what agency the litter-bin I’m touching exercises when it touches me back. Taking his cue from Jean-Luc Nancy, who has written extensively and opaquely about touch, Derrida, in a meditation called ‘Le toucher’ (1993), deconstructed the border between surface and depth. Touching, he observes, touches on a limit, its own limit, which is also the limit of the untouchable, the point beyond which I cannot reach into whatever I touch. Therefore, he provocatively adds, ‘what one does not touch is that which one touches and it is part of what is called touch. To touch, to touch him/it, is possible only by not touching.’

This may be gnomic, but clarity is hard to secure. If you ask physiologists, you are told that touch is not a single thing but a mixture of sensitivities to surface texture, density, pressure. And if you pursue the uses of the word, you find one of the longest entries in the OED with a wide range of potential literary critical applications. There is diagnostic touch (as in medicine); touch as the touchstone that is rubbed against gold or silver to measure its fineness (a term appropriated by Arnold to describe how verses of proven quality can be used to gauge the relative merit of literary works), and touch as the tester’s mark, his or her seal of approval. If reading is like a performance on the instrument of the text, there is the touch of the harpist or pianist. In the past to touch could mean ‘to get at, to catch’ an implication. And it can still mean ‘to censure’, a favourite pastime with critics. It begins to look as though Cunningham has not handled the theme of hands too comprehensively but, rather, that he has narrowed his notion of criticism by neglecting the semantic range of touch.

His chief limitation, however, is that he fails to explore how the figurative possibilities of touch that so attract him (feeling ‘in touch’ with dead authors, and so on) are grounded in the actualities of reading. He starts well, quoting a poem in which Czeslaw Milosz reads the Greek New Testament while running his finger along the lines of text; but he quickly abandons this scene to talk about ethics and the Eucharist. How much of the tactility that Milosz describes remains when we scan the columns of the LRB? Few psychologists now accept the thesis of the 20th-century Russian school that ‘touch teaches vision’ and that touch is the prime modality that mediates between different senses, but touch is plainly important in giving object-meaning to vision. This is observable in children, who develop their sense of words by handling and sounding letters – oral satisfaction bound into the haptic and the visual. Adult reading may be swifter, but we value a poet like Keats because, scanning his verse for information, we are slowed by the proliferation of meaning, across linked phrases and line breaks, within a system of prosody that makes the movement of syntax more palpable, until words become (as Wordsworth called them) things, and the mouth is fed with sounds that are richly onomatopoeic.

There may be deeper energies. The spread of information technology was supposed to end the Gutenberg era, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. We hang onto the printed word as though in fear of losing Mother. It can hardly be said any longer that computer screens are difficult to read; we prefer books because they are satisfying to handle, dog-ear, clutch, and in some cases fling across the room. Cunningham notes that readers talk of ‘ingesting’ texts, though for him this imagery relates to Holy Communion and the presence of Christ. Even psychoanalysis seems to get closer to providing an explanation than that, and has long been interested in the reason readers speak of devouring and digesting books. Melanie Klein’s claim that reading has the unconscious significance of drawing knowledge out of the maternal body seems a bit reductive. But there may be some relevance in Winnicott’s proposal that early dependence on the breast is transferred to ‘transitional objects’: things like the well-chewed corner of a blanket, or a teddy bear, that bridge inner and outer worlds, are held onto with corresponding intensity, and lay the basis for the infant’s encounters with culture. No one minds lending a friend an egg-whisk, but that’s my book, many people insidiously feel, when someone borrows a well-thumbed text (a text in which the reader has palpably invested their emotions), marks it, and makes it their own.

Whatever the psychodynamics, Cunningham should have got to grips with this physical tactility. Perhaps he felt put off by the fact that the best work on bibliographical coding, on manuscript, print and mise-en-page (by Jerome McGann and others) has a theoretical cast. The deficiency is only too clear in his account of ‘This Living Hand’, a poem which is fully expressive only when read as a manuscript text. Many poems survive in holograph, but few are so concerned with the relationship between the author, the ‘living hand’ that writes and the ‘hand’ (i.e. the script) that is written and read. Moreover, this conflicted poem, which may have got past self-censorship only because of the privacy and provisionality of manuscript, was not printed during Keats’s lifetime, nor even during that of Fanny Brawne, but stayed under wraps until 1898. Unusual for its period in being most fully realised as a manuscript poem, it was also ahead of its bibliographical moment. It anticipated the technological developments that now allow it to be reproduced as readily in facsimile as a poem by a typographically self-conscious author can be edited in print.

In manuscript the double meaning of ‘hand’ is not a superficial pun but an index of the capacity of the medium to represent the live trace of the author. And that trace is marked with tactile indicators of subconscious fears and desires. When Keats wrote the line, ‘That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood’, the word ‘heart’ seems to have been so crucial to him that he took its presence for granted and didn’t actually write it down, then (his mind moving on) inserted it in the wrong place and spelled it ‘heat’: the warmth of the heart contrasted with the coldness of the tomb – evidence, if any were needed, that he thought into as well as through words and read them as portmanteaux of meaning. Again, at the end of the poem, he first wrote ‘– see here it is I’ all in one line, which makes explicit the metonymic standing-in of the poem for the poet, before crossing out the ‘I’ and moving it across the line-break. This was a rhythmically determined adjustment, designed to respect the tact, the ‘musical beat’ in one old meaning of Cunningham’s favourite word, of the pentameter, yet it has the semantic consequence of pulling the ‘I’ more firmly into self-division. One reason we feel that the poet wants us to take his hand (something he nowhere says) is that ‘I hold it towards you’ detaches the ‘it’ from the ‘I’. If I can hold my hand as something distinct from me, you might hold it too.

Though he makes the right noises about ‘close reading’, Cunningham doesn’t discuss ‘This Living Hand’ at anywhere near this level of specificity, apparently because he is more concerned to revive the complicated myth of authorial presence. After talking about ‘This Living Hand’ as a ‘malign proleptic elegy’, he makes way for a 1966 discussion of the poem by Paul de Man. The idea is to show a Theory guru in pre-deconstructive mode using the humanistic idiom that he would later despise, and de Man does not disappoint: ‘Romantic literature, at its highest moments, encompasses the greatest degree of generality in an experience that never loses contact with the individual self in which it originates.’ Of this, and more of the same, Cunningham declares: ‘Keats and Paul de Man are having a meeting of hands; they’re in touch; the engagement is fruitfully tactile, tact-full.’ But it’s hardly an example of hands-on reading: it suffers from precisely the one-size-fits-all approach to the plurality of texts that Cunningham objects to in Theory.

In any case, it misconstrues the poem to speak of Keats and any reader of it ‘having a meeting of hands’. The poet’s hand is always reaching but can never be taken. That the passage stops on a half-line orchestrates this incompleteness, and is part of what makes the untouched hand seem so touchable. Derrida’s paradox is pertinent: ‘To touch, to touch him/it, is possible only by not touching.’ Contrast the grossness of touch claimed by Whitman in Leaves of Grass:

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms –
decease calls me forth.

O how your fingers drowse me,
Your breath falls around me like dew, your
pulse lulls the tympans of my
I feel immerged from head to foot,
Delicious, enough.

Enough already, in fact. In Whitman the insistence on contact becomes a presumptuous cloying conceit, with no power to haunt.

Cunningham rather archaically uses ‘tact’ to mean ‘touch’ because he wants the more usual significance of the word to register. There is a glaring irony here. Cunningham must be one of the least tactful persons on the planet. He calls a book by William A. Cohen ‘by and large appalling tosh’; the critical practice of Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt is, he says, ‘piss-poor’, while the former is so inaccurate (not that Cunningham is without his blunders) that she gives us ‘history as shitty-slop’. Yet he wants readers to be tactful as well as tactile, which means having what Bunyan calls ‘honesty’ and what Iris Murdoch calls ‘love’, respecting the personality of the author and the characters that we find in literary texts. After lashing out like a prizefighter, he comes over all John Bayley.

Another visit to the dictionary shows that ‘tact’ meaning ‘social sensitivity’ was imported from France in the late 18th century. This lexical development may be psychologically apt, because there is a connection between tactile experience in infancy and tactful behaviour in adult life: human infants must be fondled if they are to develop social skills. The changing connotations of the word certainly make historical sense. Tact acquired its modern meaning during a period when the bourgeois order was being consolidated and the niceties needed regulation. People were becoming more selective about when and how they touched each other, in keeping with the belief that privacy was a possession that should be valued.

It is no coincidence that tact was acquiring its social overtones just as the novel form was emerging. The ability of the new genre to produce densely realised social situations, articulated by narrators who were able to signal lapses in tact to readers, made the novel educative as well as entertaining for the insecure bourgeoisie – an attractive form of conduct literature. Now that Tact is for most scholars merely an acronym for Text Analysis Computing Tools, it is probably no bad thing to be urged to get interested in tactfulness, but Cunningham educes the word’s social dimension without exploring its implications for criticism. Being interested in tact would involve more than noticing just how inappropriate Mrs Bennet’s behaviour is in Pride and Prejudice. It would mean thinking about the conventions that shape the interaction between authors, narrators and characters, and deciding how far critics should respect them.

Joyce’s wonderful story ‘Clay’, for instance, deals with a Dublin spinster called Maria who joins a family of friends for a Halloween party. In the course of the evening the company plays a traditional game in which individuals are blindfolded and invited to dip their fingers into saucers which contain such things as water (predicting travel), a ring (marriage), a prayerbook (entering a convent) and, on this occasion, something so inauspicious that it is named only in the title of the story. When her turn comes Maria is tactlessly allowed or even encouraged to touch the clay (which signifies death), and more or less tactful attempts are made to retrieve the situation. The story’s concern with the links between tactility and tact is extrapolated in Joyce’s management of the free indirect style (a perfect instrument for exploring tact and its lapses), which slips in and out of Maria’s perspective, registering her point of view but gently placing it.

‘Clay’ sets up relations between author and subject which demand equivalent tact in the reader. And Joyce’s subtly observed account of small conflicts and kindnesses also suggests further ways in which tact would be a critical virtue. A good reader, especially of prose fiction, needs a saturated but reined-in sense of the linguistic and practical conventions that govern situations. Just as, if you are to retrieve with any grace a real-life encounter that goes wrong, you need a completely internalised sense not just of what is happening but of what should be happening and how, so you should be historically and socially attuned to potential as well as actual events and utterances in a novel.

That sounds handsome enough, but tact also has genteel associations that are worrying and not incidental. Because an understanding of tact can be derived only from immersion in shared values, it is inherently conservative, and in practice it falls to elites to determine what tact is. The lower orders are rarely credited with it, even when they behave with the consideration that is expected of gentlefolk. Hence the higher frequency of the word in the novels of Disraeli than in those of Dickens. Tact is anti-intellectual, a not-rocking-the-boat insiderish business, a way of distinguishing the polite from the oiks. Theory is more democratic. It may be elitist in its difficulty, but it is not in principle exclusive, and by proposing methodologies rather than valuing the insouciantly internalised it puts what cards it has on the table.

Cunningham’s elevation of tact over Theory is unpersuasive. What we mean by the former owes so much to how it is conceived and socially constructed that it cannot stand free of the latter. In any case his account of Theory is excessively backward-looking. Paul de Man is as dead as John Keats, and we scarcely need to be told again about his youthful Fascist fellow-travelling. What Cunningham really needs to explain is why so much recent work, on literature and geopolitics, fascination, mess, simulation, bioethics and the like, seems to owe its conceptual liveliness and innovativeness to the sorts of thinking that the heterodoxies of Theory made possible.

In one respect, however, Cunningham is right to advocate tact. As the heat goes out of the Theory wars, the literary critical mainstream has settled into a historicism that has never properly established which principles of relevance should apply. To cite an old, heroic example from Greenblatt, how useful is it to discuss Henry IV in the light of early modern encounters with the Algonquin Native Americans? Here a set of considerations kick in that can’t be reduced to rules, and the ability to make judgments based on notions of appropriateness – a concept that smacks of tact – might be the best that the critic can hope for. With Keats, for instance, historicists have made much of his medical training, and its relevance is often plain. In ‘This Living Hand’, the thought that made the poet’s hand stumble, about draining the heart of blood to make a dead man’s veins stream with ‘red life’, owes something to the Romantic fashion for vampires but more to Keats’s solid knowledge of blood transfusion. Does it enrich the lines to say this, or dilute their specificity? It depends on how lightly we touch in the contexts.

When the information is more tangential the problems can be as challenging as the critical opportunities are great. One of Keats’s letters to his brother George and his sister-in-law, after their emigration to the United States, can provide an example. Keats says that he has changed: ‘I dare say you have altered also – every man does – Our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-materialed – seven years ago it was not this hand that clench’d itself against Hammond’ (the surgeon to whom Keats was apprenticed). ‘’Tis an uneasy thought,’ he continues, ‘that in seven years the same hands cannot greet each other again. All this may be obviated by a wilful and dramatic exercise of our Minds towards each other.’ This only obliquely relates to ‘This Living Hand’ and you could even argue that, by blurring the distinction between a dead hand and a living one, it weakens the poem to invoke it. Yet, with enough tact, criticism can use the letter to justify what is ‘wilful and dramatic’ in the style of the fragment, and bring out the reader-poet relationship that it encodes by highlighting Keats’s sense of the way minds can be in contact despite mutability.

To establish where tangential matter most vitally touches a text is in every sense a critical task, yet the historicism whose success has made this for many readers the critical task of the moment discourages attention to what this process entails by being so insistently centrifugal. It cannot be said that Reading after Theory unknots the issues tangled up in this, but by pillorying some insensitive historicising it performs a useful function. And Cunningham proves his acumen by making ‘This Living Hand’ a key exhibit, however superficially he responds to it, for the poem now engages us with peculiar force – perhaps more potently than do the great Odes – because it adumbrates the mystery by which a poet is not just a historical but a renewable phenomenon, whose hand can seem the more living because the author is dead.