Beastliness

John Mullan

  • If Not Critical by Eric Griffiths, edited by Freya Johnston
    Oxford, 248 pp, £25.00, March 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 880529 8
  • The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry by Eric Griffiths
    Oxford, 351 pp, £55.00, July 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 882701 6

Quite a few academics in British universities are still called ‘lecturers’ even if plenty of humanities students seem to think lecturing is unnecessary. They can see the point of seminars or tutorials, at which in theory they can contribute, but why go to a lecture when you can get all the information online? Isn’t lecturing a relic of a bygone age? Doesn’t it seem a bit authoritarian? The student suspicion of lectures might be one reason universities are increasingly keen to get rid of the job title ‘lecturer’, and make everyone some kind of (assistant, associate) ‘professor’. Until a stroke forced him to retire at the age of 57, Eric Griffiths was a lecturer in English at Cambridge. For him, literary criticism was a form of performance art and his lectures were celebrated for their verbal wit, fierce cleverness and frequent indiscretion. His habit of sipping a mysterious liquid (whisky? milk?) from a plastic container throughout was also admired by his student audience. When he died last year, aged 65, the obituaries in the Times and the Telegraph claimed that his lectures had once featured in the entertainment listings of a student newspaper. In the 1980s, I was first a graduate student, then a junior academic, in the Cambridge English faculty. There were one or two other star lecturers, but Griffiths was the top performer. (He was also renowned for his inspiring or scornful supervision of students, his brilliant, booze-fuelled talk, his satirical rudeness, his ability to win disciples and his bad behaviour.) It wasn’t uncommon for student attendance at lectures to be in single figures when Griffiths started out (English students have always found reasons not to attend lectures) – but when he trod the boards, the room was packed out. There was kudos attached to this. Everyone in Cambridge knew that when I.A. Richards gave the lectures that became his book Practical Criticism he attracted audiences so large they couldn’t fit into the lecture hall.

In the course of a career that allowed him plenty of time for reading and writing – he wasn’t one to be corralled into administrative duties – Griffiths published only a monograph about Victorian poetry and, in collaboration with Matthew Reynolds, an anthology of English translations of Dante. This was not an output to impress today’s REF bureaucrats. His thinking, and his efforts to describe the intricate working of literary texts, was largely contained in his lectures. Now Freya Johnston, one of his former students, has edited a collection of ten of them, selected from ‘hundreds’. As she explains in her introduction, this was possible because Griffiths, unlike many lecturers, never extemporised, but scripted every word of his lectures.

The published texts follow the form of these scripts: closely printed pages without a single indentation or paragraph break. In ‘French as a Literary Medium’, Griffiths informs his audience that, if they could see his script, they would not see any indication of ‘my accent or other tricks of my voice’. Such tricks included mimicry, funny accents, whispered passages and sudden bursts of noise. Griffiths rehearsed his performances, reading out loud and revising his text so that he would be able to make it come alive on stage. But he was still often nervy, fidgety, chain-smoking, before he made his entrance.

Johnston, who as an undergraduate attended many of Griffiths’s lectures, recalls that ‘his public voice was fast, sardonic, protesting and exact.’ He didn’t lecture for the note-taker. He operated mostly in a pre-Powerpoint age, but he would never have used it. There are no bullet points, no downloadable recapitulation of his main points, no reading lists. Often, he begins with a tug on the listener’s attention: ‘Let me tell you a joke’; ‘When is it chic to be antique?’; ‘Nietzsche and his mind parted company in January 1889 on the via Po.’ Griffiths was taken with J.L. Austin’s notion of the ‘illocutionary force’ of speech: the ways speech can do something – inquire, persuade, warn – as well as say something. In his lecture on Hamlet, he tells his audience that Shakespeare’s speciality was ‘the things that people do with words’ (echoing the title of Austin’s famous book How to Do Things with Words). Iago’s ‘illocutionary’ use of words (‘Honest, my lord?’) fascinated Griffiths; Johnston’s title for this collection comes from Iago’s half-jesting comment to Desdemona, after she presses him to think of something nice to say about her: ‘O gentle lady, do not put me to’t,/For I am nothing if not critical.’ For all its forbidding pauselessness on the page, If Not Critical catches something of the movement of a speaking voice and the demands it makes on the listener. It is literary criticism ‘to the moment’.

Like his PhD supervisor, Christopher Ricks, Griffiths is above all an apostle of close reading. He treats the passages he discusses as morally and psychologically instructive as well as semantically subtle. He attends to small details of syntax or diction, but he is also concerned with the big questions: mortality, morality, why we laugh at things. (He is particularly good on the last of these. His lecture on ‘Beasts’ explores why we often laugh at what frightens us, so that ‘the recognition of a monster as amusingly grotesque rather than truly threatening is part of the comedy of humanity’s notion of itself as progressively enlightened.’) In the Leavisite manner, he talks as if the best writing were a test of the reader, but unlike Leavis he loves the energy of talk. These lectures are most enjoyable for their unashamed, occasionally shameless, exploitation of colloquial affects. They are rich in clichés and idioms, gleefully twisted or misapplied. Giving examples of the ‘ethical transparency’ of characters’ names in Elizabethan revenge tragedies – Ambitioso, Supervacuo and so on – Griffiths calls them ‘fine flowers of the bleeding obvious’ (‘bleeding’ is good). Nailing ‘a grave elderly Lady’ in a Swift satire, whose ‘modesty’ conceals lustful thoughts, he calls her ‘not so much a shrinking violet, as a Venus fly-trap’. He tells his students that Thérèse Du Parc, the actress who first played the tragic protagonist in Racine’s Andromaque, was not only the dramatist’s mistress, but a former acrobat who had danced before Louis XIV. So, the play’s original audience knew that the woman acting ‘the pious widow’ was ‘also a hoofer, always happy to show a king a bit of leg’.

Incongruity and bracing anachronism are Griffiths’s favourite tricks. Shakespeare’s antique-seeming language in Troilus and Cressida is like our manufacture of ‘distressed pine’ or ‘stone-washed jeans’. When Thersites uses culinary metaphors to describe the canoodling of Diomedes and Cressida (‘frye lechery, frye’), it is as if he sees ‘the whole business of love and procreation as a steakhouse chain, endlessly serving up the same, mass-produced, finally tasteless dishes’. ‘Hamlet stands to “revenge tragedy”,’ he writes elsewhere, ‘as The Royle Family stands to soap opera or Little Britain to a tourist-board video; it is a derisive instance of a rule.’ In another lecture, the scabrous delights of Rabelais are clarified with reference to the rhetorical tricks of Dame Edna Everage.

Griffiths had a reputation for enjoying popular culture. He once made a TV programme celebrating the work of David Byrne of Talking Heads. In 2008, it was reported in the nationals that he’d set an exam question asking for Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love Is a Losing Game’ to be compared with a ballad by Walter Raleigh. Here, in a lecture on comic timing, Griffiths reads a passage from Swift’s True and Faithful Narrative of What Passed in London alongside an article from the Evening Standard. Swift’s satire imagines the behaviour of various inhabitants of Georgian London who have been instructed by a charismatic preacher that the world will end on the following Friday. The Evening Standard article reports on a noise abatement order issued by Lewisham Council to an elderly resident who had been preaching to passers-by from his window. ‘It’s like the Sermon on the Mount every night,’ his neighbour said.

‘Literaturists’ (those ‘who exist on a diet of literature alone’) get plenty of scorn. It is presumed that a good literary critic will consider the way ordinary language works. Every lecture contains digs at the assumptions of those who have been educated in literary appreciation: ‘Students of imaginative literature are prone to be unimaginative about any writing which isn’t imaginative literature.’ His lecture on ‘Lists’ delights in the subtleties of a habit often overlooked by critics. In Empsonian fashion, he advises his listeners to favour ‘observational patience and careful statement’ over ‘verbal posturing which has only its own lexical flounces to support it’.

While Griffiths’s lectures can be chatty, they are also uncompromisingly erudite. Moving between European languages was one of his specialities; like T.S. Eliot, whom he often quotes admiringly, he assumes all European literature of the last seven centuries is accessible to his audience. This makes the lectures challenging, but it also flattered the intellect of his listeners. Five of the ten lectures collected here are concerned with non-English writers (Rabelais, Dante, Racine, Kafka and Levi), each of them quoted extensively in their original language (though Griffiths provided his own translations). He does close readings of lines from Racine and Corneille, and confidently analyses Proust’s diction. In a conventional academic book, this might feel presumptuous. In a lecture, where everything is about holding one example up to the light, and flitting to the next example, it feels generous and exhilarating. The undergraduate audience is prodded and teased as well as flattered. Griffiths loves parodying ‘modern’ views of the past, including, implicitly, the assumptions of some of his own listeners. ‘Detecting sexism in the writers of the past,’ he writes, ‘forms a major part of the literary-critical endeavour nowadays.’ Above all, he ridicules ‘that sad tendency people have to want to believe that in the past everybody thought just one thing until, by a wholly inexplicable process, they suddenly all changed their minds and ways of thinking and started thinking and doing something wholly different’.

The possibility of giving offence was always present. Johnston admires Griffiths, and this book is a labour of intellectual devotion, but she concedes that there are ‘plenty of things to object to’ in his work. ‘The writing can be scornful, rude and slangy; it includes glancing references to soap operas, jibes at other critics and disdain for politicians.’ I don’t share those particular objections. The scorn, the rudeness and the slanginess are enlivening. Johnston recalls the ‘joyous digs and swipes’ at ‘his school, friends, family, cats, students, college, faculty and colleagues’. Disappointingly few of these appear here. (One suspects that she tactfully removed some of them.) Griffiths was renowned as the only lecturer in the Cambridge English Faculty who would make fun of colleagues who had not yet retired or died. He admits to ‘the pleasure to be derived from slagging off fellow critics’. It was a mark of status to be the butt of one of his pedagogic jokes or to be held up as an example of how not to do literary criticism. He usually picked on a big beast – big, that is, in the little world of Oxbridge English. John Carey, for instance, is lampooned for his ‘naivety’ in taking Shakespeare’s plays as ‘a good sample of how vivacious the English language was in the playwright’s day’. (This is really just an excuse for Griffiths to perform an imagined dialogue from a pub in ‘Jacobean Walford’ in cod Shakespeare.)

In the 1980s, Griffiths was a devoted satirist of literary theory, but only a little of that antagonism is evident here. He grapples briefly with Foucault (‘an excitable reader and an even more excitable writer’). There must have been a frisson in the lecture hall when he found in ‘the profundity and vehemence of Hitler’s contempt for humanistic ethics’ a ‘striking resemblance to some recent idols of advanced thought, Michel Foucault, for instance’. More bracing, more fun – and much more thorough – is his debunking of Bakhtin’s ‘monstrously influential’ account of Rabelais in his brilliant lecture on humour and ‘beastliness’ .

*

Griffiths published his only critical book, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry, in 1989. It was never paperbacked, and became very difficult to obtain. The cheapest copy on AbeBooks recently was £200. The copy in my own university library was long ago purloined. Now Oxford has published a new edition. The book takes its title from a line in Browning’s The Ring and the Book; its thesis, tested on the poetry of the Brownings, Tennyson, Hardy and Hopkins, is that poetry (in particular, Victorian poetry) can make much of a reader’s uncertainty about how to speak it. The ambiguity in the intonation of a text may create a mute polyphony through which we see rather than hear alternative ways of voicing the written words, and are led to reflect on the interplay of those possible voicings.

Griffiths was hardly the first critic to admire poetry that ‘envisages and reaches towards a rediscovery of some characters of speech’. His innovation was to show, in a series of case studies, how certain poets contrive lines that cannot be voiced in a satisfactory way. Take, for example, Hardy’s ‘After a Journey’, in which the grieving widower revisits the place where he and his wife, now ‘a voiceless ghost’, once courted:

What have you now found to say of our past
Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you? …
I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,

‘What have you now found to say of our past?’ might express an ‘openness to listen’, but it could equally be read as a vexed exclamation: ‘What is it now?’ Griffiths writes that ‘you are leading me on’, appearing at the end of a line, ‘briefly worries at the deceit there may be in her guidance, before agreeing to be taken on, and perhaps in … The visible simultaneity of the guarded and the welcoming tones corresponds to what… we should feel about a ghost doing this sort of thing, even the ghost of someone we have reason to trust.’

The exemplary readings in which this book abounds are absorbing, even if rarely possessing the wit and surprise of the lectures. The long chapter on Tennyson now seems solemnly admiring, under the spell of Ricks’s book on the poet. Fresh from reading the lectures, I hankered for the incongruous comparisons, the repurposed colloquialisms, the jokes that – Dickens-style – become irresistible when the subject matter is at its most sombre. (Almost alone among 19th-century novelists, Dickens is quoted with admiration by this novel-averse critic.) The much shorter sections on Browning, in contrast, have some of the verve of the lectures, as Griffiths sets out to show how Browning teases his readers ‘by tasking us to speak the poems aloud, and to see when and why we cannot quite do that’. This part of the book ends with a brilliant treatment of ‘Andrea del Sarto’, the dramatic monologue of a disappointed artist that appeals, like much of Browning’s work, to Griffiths’s amateur dramatic spirit.

Apart from Tennyson, the poet dealt with at greatest length is Gerard Manley Hopkins who, like Griffiths himself, was an agonised convert to Catholicism. Griffiths traces the ‘exultant agility’ of a poem like ‘God’s Grandeur’, paying close attention to patterns of sound and the implications of possible stresses. He is always looking for evidence of the pressure that Hopkins’s religious beliefs put on his language. Over and over again, he discovers in Hopkins’s repetitions and exclamations ‘a double aspect, at once of baffled and of heightened fluency’. In his surprising uses of colloquial phrases – ‘in truth’, ‘God knows’, ‘for all this’ – Griffiths finds the presence of both a despondent shrug and a grave recognition, a simultaneity that cannot be voiced when reading aloud.

‘Astonishing’, ‘magnificent’, ‘wonderful’, ‘greatness’, ‘genius’, ‘masterpiece’: unstinting with his superlatives, Griffiths seems rapt before Hopkins’s poetry, just as the poet himself is rapt before God. He is heavy on the theology in this chapter, but no other critic has done such justice to those Hopkins sequences that are a ‘mouthful of quandary, brain-teaser and tongue-twister’ – perhaps you have to be very keen on the religion to go all the way on the close reading. Despite his religious convictions, Griffiths is often best on writers who have been abandoned by God: he begins the final lecture in If Not Critical, ‘Godforsakenness’, with an analysis of the dialogue in Endgame when the characters try addressing God: ‘The bastard! He doesn’t exist!’ This leads to a lengthy rumination on Christ’s last words on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ Passages from Sophocles, George Herbert and T.S. Eliot are woven into something like a very erudite sermon on ‘the mystery of the Incarnation’. The section of The Printed Voice devoted to Hardy’s haunted, mournful poems about the ageing or loss of love is unhampered by any need to justify Hardy’s beliefs to an unbelieving age.

New interest in The Printed Voice will have been stirred by the publication of the lectures. And perhaps Oxford will now think it worthwhile to publish more of them. Griffiths’s precise and sardonic voice was stopped prematurely by his stroke, but he did play some part in the selection of the lectures in this volume and saw them published shortly before his death last September. I hope he got some satisfaction from knowing that his voice comes alive on the page. Very few lecturers could claim as much.