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Double Agent: The Critic and Society.

Morris Dickstein, the author of a brilliant book on the cultural climate of the 1960s entitled Gates of Eden, is always provocative, sane, and forceful. In his new book he offers an analysis of "the critic and society." His preface raises the central point. He asks, in effect, whether or not it is possible to write "meaningful criticism" now - criticism which can teach us how to achieve better, more interesting lives. His book raises this.important question: "The question it raises is how a strong sense of the place of literature in itself can be reconciled with an equally strong sense of the place of literature in the course of history and the lives of men and women." Dickstein is obviously close to the critical tasks of Trilling, Kazin, and Wilson. Although he recognizes their strengths (and weaknesses), he believes that they, like Arnold, continually regarded their work as "usable knowledge, knowledge that could take on flesh and blood and make a difference, knowledge that was also poetry." Dickstein dislikes our current concern with theory, with our attempts to question the foundations of history, society, language itself He asserts that criticism at this time is obscure, sterile, "professional."

Although I also dislike the repeated references to Derrida, Barthes, Bakhtin in our critical discourse - the obsessive, hermetic loyalties to European theorists - I must admit that I disagree with Dickstein's positions. I don't know the meanings of "society," "culture," "useful knowledge." I dislike such phrases as "knowledge that was also poetry." I believe that "texts" - Dickstein hates the word! - are more secretive and paradoxical than they seem. I admire such works as Pale Fire and Locos because they fuse genres; they question the very notion that "knowledge" can ever be social, clear, useful. These works are duplicitous; they suggest that "human nature" - whatever this phrase means! - may be only a needless abstraction.

Although I disagree with Dickstein's position, I admire his fondness for those critics who have distinctive styles. I like Burke, Fiedler, Empson - these critics recognize the complexities of language as play; they are "double agents" because they refuse to obey sterile definitions. They are subversive; they transgress the accepted manners of Partisan Review and Critical Inquiry.
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Author:Malin, Irving
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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