Confessions of a reluctant critic or, the resistance to literature.
Let the irony of timing pass; in our postmodern clime, we all take irony in our stride. But here was something else, something real: an allusion to mortality. Bataille saw death as the ultimate transgression. I know it only as a compulsive scourer, leaving no rust or dust of falsehood around. I know it also as the Muses' muse, inspiring all their fictions, arts.
In this mortal condition my theme lies, there where artifice and duplicity meet, there, also, where literature meets all its others - theory, ideology, criticism, scholarship - however deeply its others may within it hide.
I did not think of death when I first came to literature, nor of criticism. I thought of Beauty and Truth, and came upon them, as others have, in wayward places - attic boxes, books forgotten on a park bench, street stalls piled high with yellowing tomes. To what "interpretive community" did I then belong? Literature was my secret; it became addiction; I began to travel the "realms of gold." Is literature the wider form of our self-love?
No doubt, I read then, as we do in youth, naively. But what does naive mean? That I read, ignorant of other readings, in the hot glow of my own needs? True enough. Yet those same needs first brought me to literature, and still speak in primal sympathy with the best I read. This is not to deny the discipline of the years. Call it the discipline of disappointment, call it Emersonian experience, "the clangor and jangle of contrary tendencies." Inevitably, we read otherwise as we grow older, and are not wholly impoverished by such readings.
Is that "professionalism"? Not if it assumes either aloofness or tergiversation. Is it "theory", "ideology"? Not if it entails rebarbative jargon and Orwellian ideospeak. Is it "scholarship"? Sometimes. The truth is, I hardly know any longer how I read, except as books move me and I expect they move other readers, except as I experience them and I imagine life experiences me. In any case, I try to read them wakefully, with ardor, memory, attention, read courteously, and in the spirit that first brought me to literature, though mindful of contingency and the bristling years.
The question returns, stubborn, hidden in all our exactions: what precisely did I, does anyone, expect to find in literature? Beauty and Truth, really? The spoor of power? Some perverse pleasure of the text? Balm for loneliness, for loss? An endless vision going endlessly awry? The wordy glory of civilization? Occult knowledge? The redemption of reality? A mirror in the roadway, a pie in the sky? All these and none: simply a way to make a living?
On some days - they are rare - I suspect that literature touches the mysterium tremendum et fascinans ("fearful and fascinating mystery"; Rudolf Otto). American academics consider such intimations mystical, unprofessional; European scholars tolerantly shrug. Why unprofessional? We chunter continually about the uncanny, about the sublime, but become surly before those incandescent moments which pervade literature. We have no will, certainly no idiom, to attest sudden, radical breaks with the ordinary world. How understand Rumi when he says: "The astrolabe of the mysteries of God is love"? How take Traherne: "secretly Nature seeks and hunts and tries to ferret out the track in which God may be found"? What did Pip feel when he "saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom"? What force suddenly struck Ivan Ilych on his deathbed, "making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light"?
I do not wish to bring the ineffable to boorish account. I wonder only what brings us to literature, what returns us continually to it, if we return at all, and what finally remains with us - in short, I wonder how and why we read. More particularly still, I wonder if those instants of literary elation have some pedagogical correlative, if they prompt us to know existence with quickened gaiety and dread. Or must they remain entirely private, hermetic? "Knowledge is a function of being," Aldous Huxley says in The Perennial Philosophy. "When there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing." Thus may literature alter being, as it has altered mine so that I became unrecognizable to my parents, and in doing so reveal new knowledge.
Alter being? Is that not reason enough to resist reading, refuse literature?
Readers, we know, are sub rosa writers; reading, they also aspire to render, indeed impose, their versions of reality. I was no exception. I read first, to read; I read thereafter to write. That, you may think, is a critic's task. But I started out with another task.
It all began at the University of Pennsylvania, then a good, grey place. I quote at some length from an autobiographical essay in Contemporary Authors (1990):
I found some inspiriting teachers at the university, and others whose meticulous scholarship proved exemplary to their students through the years. But of intellectual passion, of mind as a place of high debate and imagination as a deeper, more vehement life, the university was singularly spare. Sartre and Camus? Passing fashions. Heidegger? Unknown. Marx, Freud, Kierkegaard? Irrelevant to literature. The New Criticism (then at its apogee)? Young man, stop reading the Kenyon and Sewanee; read Modern Philology, Speculum, PMLA....
It came to me as a shock: few academics were intellectual. Fewer still encouraged their graduate students to write fiction or poetry. I could honor the conviction of certain professors that the Muse of Scholarship brooks no sublunary rivals. But I could not concede their innate hostility to the creative act, to literature itself. What impotence there, I wondered uncharitably, turns so much knowledge into refined spite? What fear shapes academic lives into learned parodies of desire? I encountered at Pennsylvania no Faust....
There was irony in all this: my own desk drawers filled with rejected stories and poems, my wastebasket overflowed. Decidedly, the writing was not going well. Then, one day, I sent out a seminar paper called "Toward a Method in Myth." It was accepted by a scholarly journal. I submitted another, on Baudelaire, and it was accepted too.... Could I make of teaching a career? I went to consult the Chairman of the English Department, Professor Alfred C. Baugh.
He said: "Your creative writing is not pertinent to an academic career."
He said: "There are still nonstandard elements in your speech. It will be difficult to secure a teaching appointment in America."
He said: "Though your record is excellent, we ourselves couldn't give you an instructorship here. Not even an assistantship. We have already given you all the fellowships and scholarships we can."
At last, he leaned back. "Why don't you try to combine your English and Engineering training? Technical writers are now much in demand."
I left with visions of myself writing manuals for circuit-breakers and advertising copy for eggbeaters till I died in some decently modest house in Germantown. Better, I consoled myself, than a landlord in Egypt. It never occurred to me to blame my setbacks on chauvinism, racism, "the system."
Resentment, blame: how do they become literary categories?
Then, as now, now more than ever, I assume that in some radical sense literature - no quotes needed - lies beyond good and evil, beyond private need and public virtue. Something in the masterpieces - those strange, untamable, works that we now fashionably discount - remains finally unintelligible to us, as love or death, as life itself, remains. How absurd to read certain works, from Gilgamesh to The Castle, neat grid in hand, banausic ideology at the ready. How pathetic to believe that reality must serve obediently our logic or insecurities. As in all great art, the rogue power of literature is its deeper wisdom, its multivocal mystery. As in all great art, literature itself deconstructs its others as Plato, geometer of the Absolute, signally feared.
Temperament, you say: that view of literature is but prejudice. Yes, I concur with our transcendental pragmatist, Emerson, that "temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung"; concur with another, William James, that our "willing nature" serves in some options as "an inevitable and as a lawful determinant of our choice." Still, in this confession, I try to perceive in the warped glass of autobiography something of our critical discontents, rifts and cracks in our professed lives.
Perhaps the miseries begin with literature itself. As Richard Poirier, still another Emersonian pragmatist, astutely remarks, literature is "troubled within," and shows repeatedly the futility of quests "for truth, values, and exaltations." That "trouble" may indeed account for the luxuriance in our literary theories, ideologies, critical practices, as we rush about trying to master literature, explain the illusion of its infinite "resourcefulness" to ourselves. No doubt, astronomers, biologists, economists, even historians or philosophers, may assume a more stable consensus in their disciplines. Yet that very instability, some would say, gives literary studies their interest, their teetering vitality.
Vitality, though, must create its own forms of trust. Does anything go if I call it "rhetoric"? When is "theory" theory, when not? What is the obligation of an "ideology" to its others, to commitments or desires other than its own? Which limits can I accept on my speech, which rights must I accord to another's? Must the First Amendment yield always to the emendations of "sensitivity," and free speech reside always in the ear of the listener?
Something mean has entered our debates. You can feel it in graduate seminars, scholarly journals, critical conferences, the corridors of academic power. We lack the "nearly disreputable amiability" (Elizabeth Hardwick), of, say, William James. We lack his superb manners in disagreement, which Trilling mootly attributes to "a certain innocence, now lost from American life, a certain respect ... that transcends any question of mere status or prestige." Instead, we insult, imprecate, incriminate, exprobate; we even threaten death, as a student once threatened me in class because I could not accede to a particular claim - this in the late eighties!
In the language of our desires, the alphabet often spells hidden hurts and apostasies of childhood. We all suffer our violations, in their degrees, as best we can. But must rancor be the only accent ideas take?
In a masterful essay, "The Cleric of Treason," on the English "mole" Anthony Blunt, George Steiner illumines some gloomy chambers of the scholarly mind. He finds there subtle forms of cruelty and self-loathing. Poets like Pope and Browning had "caught the whiff of sadism in academe" before. Steiner reflects further on the "soft betrayals" of the intellectual aesthete, the "arsenic of ... [an academic] footnote" and "the scorpion's round of a committee on tenure" - the festering fantasies of actions never performed.
Obliquely, Steiner really reflects on an essential tension in our lives - perhaps even in the lives of the great poet critics, from Horace to Eliot - between poesis and analysis, between literature as ineluctable deed and writing as a restiveness of mind. This is an ancient, shifting tension which I, too, experienced, in slacker and more haphazard ways, when I first began to write. And now I feel it return to vex our ideological debates, even after poststructuralist thinkers tried to ease, indeed void, the tension in vain. So much for all our "beautiful theories."
When I began to write about literature, I sought the New - young writers, avant-garde movements, cultural novations - and have remained long after an amateur of change. The classics seemed to me huge; they left no elbow room. I believed, before ever reading Roland Barthes, that the "New is not a fashion, it is a value, upon which is founded all criticism."
The New entails risks, skirmishes with folly from which even Barthes did not escape unscathed. And beyond folly: isolation, crabbiness, self-doubt, sometimes contortions of the spirit, recalling those sweet, crabby apples Sherwood Anderson described in "The Book of the Grotesque." But risk, of course, is also zest, freedom, a breach on the unknown.
Looking back on my works, without authorial privilege, I think of moments in which I have taken a chance: in Radical Innocence (1961) on the postwar American fiction; in The Literature of Silence (1967) on strategies of decreation in literature - these expanded in The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1971, 1982); in Paracriticisms (1975) and The Right Promethean Fire (1980) on postmodern theory and paracritical discourse; in Selves at Risk (1990) on a literature of travel and quest that defied pieties of the hour. The risks were partial, the success arguable - the success wider, I think, the lesser the risk. Now most of these subjects seem tame.
My writing offended most when it addressed postmodernism in paracritical form, as in "POSTmodernISM," which Ralph Cohen genially published in New Literary History (Fall 1971). Certainly the paracritical mode was fallible, at its worst otiose, at its best a timely affront to orthodoxy; in any case, it was unrepeatable. Still, I wondered why critics who spoke of "decenterment" did little to decenter their discourse. I wondered why reviewers, intimate with every cultural vagary, tolerated no experiment in critical style. I wondered why so many radical ideas, meant to revolutionize consciousness and change the world, found only banal and clumsy expression. In the end, the issue was not criticism imitating art; it was critics seeking the full resonance of their voices, the scope of their languages and lives.
Criticism, I thought, should assay larger questions, mystical or philosophic, social, ethical, or political. It has refused the first, gorged on the last, and engaged other topics with finesse, sometimes casuistry. But what of science, prime agent of our time? Has it not changed irrevocably our world, making it noetic and abstract? Semiotic systems, codes and simulacra, numbers Pythagorean or fractal, mental constructs of every kind, have substituted themselves for nature, culture, even art.
Teilhard de Chardin had predicted a "noosphere" would someday envelop the earth. I explored this "new gnosticism" in The Right Promethean Fire (as would O. B. Hardison explore it, a decade later, in his polymathic Disappearing Through the Skylight). I sought in the fire of a gnostic Prometheus new light on imagination, science, cultural change. But that was no ordinary fire Biron evoked when, in sage dalliance, he spoke of women's eyes: "They sparkle still the right Promethean fire," founding "the books, the arts, the academes" that "nourish all the world." My concern, then, was not only science, crucial as that was; my concern was emergent occasions of the human. Bound to its rock, and self-tormenting as always, humanity was also freer, improvising its destiny better, than any vulture.
In the late sixties and seventies, the clues to a new cultural vision were evident everywhere. I did not look for them always, as others did, in Continental philosophy. I looked for them, closer to home, in American pragmatism, and even closer, I looked in autobiography, time's rubble, for a way out of critical reluctance. But who looked? I could no more accept the obsolescence of the self than its transparent unity. I needed no ontological self; the lived, pragmatic self, thick with existential pathos, sufficed. In Out of Egypt: Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography (1986), I wrote:
Home, they say, is where the heart is. But three hearts beat in me. One existential, a little Faustian: one utopian though politic; one Orphic, not quite mystic. Those three hearts, I suspect, beat in us all, pumping blood into the near, the middle, and the far distance, farther than any receding star. And when one of these hearts falters or fails, we shrivel a little in our humanity.
My trouble has always been the middle distance - knick-knacks; bricolages; family relations; social interactions - where mind remains captive to nature as well as to history.
My trouble as writer was germane. In all those displacements - from Egypt to America, from electrical engineering to literature, from criticism to paracriticism then back - I may have "misplaced" that distinctive idiom a writer needs fully to possess. Once - it now seems in an earlier, gaudier incarnation - once I had argued for the critic as innovator, quoting Wilde who declared the antithesis between the creative and critical faculties "entirely arbitrary" and proclaimed Criticism (capitalized) "itself an art." That may be so on certain shadowy margins of discourse for those, like Wilde, abundantly gifted in letters. In my case, as I wrote book after book, I came to recognize in myself certain traits: impatience with narrative - I botch nearly every joke; intolerance with quotidian details - Tate's "angelic imagination"; disinterest, beyond a certain point, in the quiddities of the human comedy - no Balzacs here. Such traits make for an encapsulated existence, however peregrine; they did not make for literature.
The essential tension between literature - Milton once called it "the image of God, as it were, in the eye" - and its others: when the tension snaps we become merely ideologues. Hence the din of GRIM (the Great Rumbling Ideological Machine). Whence all that din? We have, of course, become more professionally captious, clamorous. But there are other answers, and these betray other resistances to literature.
For some decades now, theory has often - and often rightly - dazzled, putting literature in the shadows. Students turn to theory like moths, their appetite for flames far greater than their appetite for poetry. Does this conceal, as Frank Kermode says, an "indifference to, and even a hostility toward, |literature?'" (Nota bene: Kermode does not deplore "theory as such," any more than I would; he means only to challenge some of its claims.) Others have remarked that same "hostility" or "indifference," including outsiders to the profession like Page Smith, a historian, and John Searle, a philosopher. How account for that phenomenon?
We may recall that, even before the advent of Continental theory, American society had begun to crack open in the sixties. It became more hybrid, pluralist, decentered, fragmentary, and conflictual, became "indetermanent," full of new indeterminacies and immanences - in short, it became postmodern. This made for an exacerbation of politics in the university, and for a sense of aesthetic "irrelevance," which evoked in me memories of the great, erratic student riots of my youth in Egypt. The memories no doubt insinuated themselves, four decades later, in this passage from The Postmodern Turn (1987):
I confess to some distaste for ideological rage (the worst are now full of passionate intensity and lack all conviction) and for the hectoring of both religious and secular dogmatists. I admit to a certain ambivalence toward politics, which can overcrowd our responses to both art and life. For what is politics? Simply, the right action when ripeness calls. But what is politics again? An excuse to bully or shout in public, vengeance vindicating itself as justice and might pretending to be right, a passion for self-avoidance, immanent mendacity, the rule of habit, the place where history rehearses its nightmares, the dur desir de durer, a deadly banality of being. Yet we must all heed politics because it structures our theoretical consents, literary evasions, critical recusancies....
Politics is but a word, its meanings myriad, its practices malign or benign, antic or demonic. In the end, of course, we privilege our own politics, though as teachers, critics, intellectuals, we may be expected to show some trace of "negative capability." In American universities, the most visible, most audible politics remains leftist, often "Marxian," notwithstanding The Closing of the American Mind, The Dartmouth Review, Accuracy in Academe. I need not adduce the enrages of Stanford, Duke, Dartmouth, or Hampshire; my own university attests sufficiently the point. I mean: Habermas ad nauseam but never Leszek Kolakowski; teams of southpaw ideologues pitching on the playing fields of every conference; gauche political harrassment of students, as insistent as anything sexual - in short, the ship of humanists listing eerily to port.
It is not only the Allan Blooms and William Bennetts who cry foul, though it may soothe us to dismiss all critics of the university as reactionary. Recent books, attacking, defending, evaluating the university include, pell-mell, Derek Bok's Universities and the Future of America, Henry Rosovsky's The University: An Owner's Manual, John Silber's Straight Shooting, Peter Shaw's The War Against the Intellect, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, Page Smith's Killing the Spirit, Charles Sykes's The Hollow Men, Michael Oakeshott's The Voice of Liberal Learning, which address our teaching, our research, our politics, our curriculum, our funding, our posturing.... Clearly, the issues are far larger than "political correctness"; they concern the changing character of American society, the nature of the university, the uses of mind, the scope of free speech, issues seldom genuinely debated, except as they become grist for the political mills of the right and of the left.
Meanwhile, the contortions of logic and rhetoric, by no means confined to left chambers of the brain, end always where they began. The preemptive nature of ideological discourse reduces any challenge to the terms of the ideology itself - no "exteriority" (Levinas), no otherness, is possible. The end is power, the means a pretence of the higher moral ground.
At times, though, political discourse in the university shows more texture and nuance. Some arguments seem, in theory at least, well spun until they suddenly shred like that miraculously spurious cloth in the film The Man in the White Suit. Two instances may suffice.
One argument claims that language thrusts political assumptions on us always, as does literature. Why, then, in a class on the novel, say, is criticizing the status quo deemed political while accepting it tacitly is deemed not?
The logic is abstract. In practice, there are different kinds of texts, different in the ways they may be considered political, different in their politics too. Moreover, most books can be read in a variety of ways, political and unpolitical; they can be read politically with crudeness or subtlety, insistence or tact; and there may be days when both pedagogy and the fullest civility of mind require us to read a book without reference to politics. (How pallid a sociopolitical analysis seems, how really vapid, of a novel I have just happened recently to read, Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child.) Why, then, accord politics absolute priority? Why assume that the politics of the teacher is the only valid politics? Above all, why make the classroom the place where a teacher's politics must express itself, day after day, book after book, to reach the same predestined conclusion about social reality?
Another argument pretends that pluralism in the academy has become perfunctory. Pluralism insulates various perspectives instead of foregrounding or dramatizing their conflicts in class. Such conflicts should become themselves the object of our studies, the argument runs.
Well and good. But the idea of conflict here is itself bromidic. Does conflict assume a kind of chatty Rortian "conversation," or does it include, say, throwing blood on a lecturer whose politics we disapprove? And doesn't "conflict" in the university function within an institutional frame that organizes - selects, permits, inhibits, modifies - certain views, a frame finally that represents these views? In or out of the university, conflicting views require criticism from a vantage that the particular conflict itself does not subsume. Can a teacher who repugns on principle the ethic of dispassion offer such a vantage? Or should we require every class to display several teachers of diverse political views? And assuming we could afford such exorbitant sessions, where, where in the culture of the humanities today, may we find the requisite diversity of political views?
Perhaps there is an element of fantasy, something unconditioned and unconditional, in our academic lives. Perhaps, at bottom, we do not feel wholly accountable to reality, to discourses other than our own. Perhaps, after all, that is what we mean by theory, ideology, academic freedom. In any case, we rarely test in our lives "radical" ideas that we mean to impose on others. Locked into an oppositional stance, we may also find ourselves speaking, in reaction to some allegorical "Amerika," as quasi apologists for Mao, Castro, or Galtieri, Gaddafi, Khomeini, or Saddam. Thus opposition, in us, becomes less conscious act than behavioral response, less choice of affiliation than rejection of filiation. Once again, the iron wire of temperament tightens, the inner puppets dance on their strings.
How can we avoid detesting literature, which snaps wire and string, and sets us pitilessly adrift on reality?
I, too, have my wires and strings; I hope they are not steel.
Politics in the university may be a form of resistance to literature, but what prompts my own resistance to politics? An inordinate taste for solitude? Distaste for the Brownian motion of groups? Or is it simply a warp of character, an accident of genes, the ill or good fortune of an only child?
Whatever its cause, this resistance to politics, I like to believe, loosens the grip of instinct, the adhesiveness of the tribe, as humanity journeys painfully from the "morality of obligation" toward a "morality of aspiration" (Bergson). Journeys finally toward self-heedlessness? "Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique," Peguy said. The reverse may be no less true.
Would literature, would culture, benefit from independent critics? Anthologies of criticism seem hospitable only to "isms." A school, ideology, or trend fits easily in their modular, prefabricated history of the moment. In vain, therefore, may we seek in those thick-spined books the names of Denis Donoghue, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Hugh Kenner, Richard Poirier, Roger Shattuck, Susan Sontag, George Steiner....
But what can independent mean in a transactive, semiotic, cybernetic age, rife with conflicts, rich with healthful contaminations? In Selves at Risk, I remarked:
It does not mean, in any case, "robust" nineteenth-century individualism, from Andrew Carnegie to Dale Carnegie. It means, rather, a tough-minded, Emersonian "whim...." It means resistance to one's own immediate community, not only to the Kremlin or the White House, the KGB or the CIA, but also to "the herds of independent minds" (Harold Rosenberg) that surround us. It means a certain agility, mobility, nimbleness of spirit, what Lyotard calls "sveltesse," with regard to all systems. It means less a position than a process, a continual struggle among perspectives. It means a recognition of difference, heterogeneity, a way to inhabit the space of otherness. It means an acceptance of marginality, knowing how to skate on edges. It means a cheerful skepticism of solidarity, of the raised voice, pointed finger, clenched fist. It means a distinctive style, in writing, thinking, acting, in being in the world.
Independence, a distinctive style - where in academe? With few exceptions, the prose conforms, repels. No ear to rhythm, no eye to image or variegated sight. And rarely, how rarely, is a conference paper ever praised or blamed for its style, the tone, tenor, texture of its mind. Only its "position," its rehearsed response, counts. Here, again, is resistance, resistance not only to style, literature incarnate, but also to the world's body, which our senses seek as if in love.
"Love calls us to things of this world," Richard Wilbur says, but what world is this we inhabit? What is love to it? What literature or criticism so that the world should mind? I read the glowering headlines of war, and recall strangely where I was born. I think: the desert thirsts for a little happiness, the earth yearns for rest - rest from us.
Planetized and tribalized, globalized and localized, the world shudders as it spins; its modern and medieval fragments collide. The busts of Lenin topple in the squares of Eastern Europe; the Berlin Wall crumbles into souvenirs; the Statue of Liberty raises her torch in Tiananmen Square; the President of the Soviet Union receives the Nobel Prize for Peace then sends armies to keep the Union from ripping at the seams; and a grotesque tyrant ravages a neighboring nation, its environment, his own tortured people, as the media broadcast gleefully his trumperies to the world. A hybrid, mutant moment, maps of hatred across the earth, the globe a gallimaufry of terror, kitsch, and cargo cults. How, in this ramshackle geopolitical space, situate a theory, an ideology, a critical discourse, adequate to all its weird formations and shards?
In the "secondary city" (Steiner) of criticism, there may be many mansions, but no street connects them all. Perhaps only literature, as a "project for the sun" (Stevens), could connect all mansions, all rooms. Literature and, yes, music. At least, that is what I thought as I wandered between cultures, happy in errancy, waiting upon a terrestrial civilization which could maintain the miracle of variousness within its universals. So I had also thought when I sailed from Port Said, on a rusty Liberty Ship called the Abraham Lincoln, on a hot August afternoon in 1946.
We, of course, bridle now at universals. Not V. S. Naipaul, lucid nomad, tempered by migrancy and genius. In an essay of extraordinary acumen and subtlety, "Our World Civilization" (New York Review of Books, January 31, 1991), Naipaul commences by saying that for him "situations and people are always specific, always of themselves." He then proceeds to meditate on the general conditions that sustain a writer, sustain a vital, literary tradition, conditions that seem to obtain only in certain societies of the world. Such societies, Naipaul argues, possess a degree of commercial organization, active and diverse cultural needs, a critical spirit; they are dynamic, innovative societies, assured in their historical identity, yet expansive in their horizons. They allow a writer, Naipaul says, to "carry four or five or six different cultural ideas" in his head; no "philosophical hysteria," no verbal hallucination in them, would thwart the full uses of the imagination. This leads him finally to reflect on the European "universal civilization" that grew over the last three or four centuries, flawed, tentative at first, "racialist" often, and sometimes lethal.
This is the civilization we designate as "Western." It impresses Naipaul now by its attempts "to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world's thought." It impresses him by its present "philosophical diffidence." It impresses him, above all, by certain ideas, deeply felt, that have enabled his entire existence, man and artist. One of these ideas is the Christian precept, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Another is the "pursuit of happiness" which explains the attractiveness of Western civilization to so many outside it. Here Naipaul grazes the lyrical:
I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
Born in Egypt, to which I have never returned, I feel the statement - though its Christian precept has been honored more in the breach - feel it to the marrow bone. I feel, too, the empowering context of "our universal civilization," its call to self-creation, and its promise of a culture, Nietzsche said, "as a new and finer nature ... a unity of thought and will." Is not that precisely the burden of literature, which criticism, at best, can only help to lighten? Is not that the task of a Naipaul, to make for us, out of art, awareness, pain, "a new and finer nature"? Or am I burdening literature again, charging it with what it cannot do?
Reluctantly, I have practiced criticism, and contributed my share of blatter to the world. I say this to disparage neither the profession nor myself. Why disparage? Literary theory has now become a cynosure of the humanities; criticism has become a paradigm of the intellectual life. We claim high seriousness and earnestly want to deliver on our claims. How repine? Still, I want to resist some resistances of our moment, resist particularly the resistance to literature, that gesture emblematic of our current spite and hope.
Certainly literature enjoys no ontological privilege. Its boundaries, like the "numberless wonders" of Sophocles's world or of our own transhumanized earth, dissolve repeatedly before the critical gaze. But literature, however unmargined, still grips our passional, our imaginative life. For some, it remains an existential imperative, an injunction even, like Rilke's "Du musst dein Leben andern" (you must change your life), and this imperative touches the heart of our profession: its power as paideia (education).
Critics, before and after Northrop Frye, have distinguished between literature as experience and literature as knowledge. The distinction, though plausible in some theoretical contexts, blurs nearly every day, in nearly, every classroom. I am content that it blurs. Unlike physicists, who teach not nature but physics, we teach both literature (how it feels, how it thinks, to have read a literary work) and the rules and facts about reading literature. As Gertrude Stein once said to an obtuse interviewer: "But after all you must enjoy my writing and if you enjoy it you understand it. If you did not enjoy it why do you make a fuss about it?" That is why I finally became a teacher of literature, to live in the vicinity of that joy.
In the end, each moment labors with its exigencies. William James thought that "great periods of revival, of expansion of the human mind, display in common ... simply this: that each and all of them have said to the human being: |The inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.'" Are our powers "congenial" now to "the reality"? I cannot say. But I decline Heidegger's gloomy vision, that "the world is darkening," that the gods flee and the earth becomes ingenerate. We have all heard these prophecies, countless times in countless epochs.
I am of my time. On some days, I find even the angry hum of axes, honed sharply on their grindstones, congenial. But I find in literature pragmatic powers and congenialities more attuned to "the reality," as I perceive it.
I am of my time. We live our lives, some sixty or seventy years, and die knowing as little about ultimate things as we did when we were six or seven, perhaps less, as we lose the child's dazzled intuitions. But like Basho's "travelers of eternity," we end always on some road, tempted by "the cloud-moving wind," and find, most of us, the journey good. Criticism is a road I stumbled on; there are other roads. And though some may think confession an unnatural act - all this reflexive attentiveness tastes acrid, like a schizophrenic's mouth - autobiography is no less inquiry than brooding, as I hope this essay may hint.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1993|
|Previous Article:||Human conduct, history, and social science in the works of R.G. Collingwood and Michael Oakeshott.|