by Harry Levin
Oxford, 359 pp., $7.50

Trials of the Word

by R.W.B. Lewis
Yale, 239 pp., $6.50

Writers and Politics

by Conor Cruise O'Brien
Pantheon, 259 pp., $4.95

In two of these recent collections of essays, and very occasionally in the third, we watch their authors performing with impressive learning, at times with elegance and charm, an activity which one is hard pressed to describe or account for. One knows of course what it is called: for one reads it, one reviews it, and alas one writes it. It is called literary criticism. But literary criticism used to be supposed to serve the humble purpose of helping people to read with greater understanding the sort of writing which used to be called “creative.” Most of what today is still called literary criticism should be given another name. Literification? Literatics? Or, better perhaps, literastics? It is an activity in which, with the help of reading, without too much bleeding and sweating, the critic constructs sets of variations on themes which he draws or claims to draw from a poem or a novel, or from some other critic. The activity is rapidly approaching the condition of absolute autonomy. The erstwhile mediators, in their overwhelming respect for literature (make it hard!), have achieved something quite remarkable. They have made themselves indispensable. They are on the way to making literature dispensable. As a pupil of mine, by no means abnormally lazy, corrupt, intelligent, or witty, said recently: “I have followed your lectures on Macbeth and I have read the criticism. Do I have to read the play as well?”

The proliferation of universities, the proliferation of academics, the proliferation of career-enhancing literary criticism…Transfigurations, metamorphoses, epiphanies, unveilings and ever-fertile ambiguities…The story needs no gloss, though one may wonder sadly whether one’s colleagues on the science side, in their pursuit of a doctor’s degree or of tenure, are expected to discover a new law of nature every semester or so. “I digress,” writes R.W.B. Lewis, “to wonder with a certain anxiety how long the relatively small store of American literature is going to survive the writing about it, and especially the writing about the whole of it.” Harry Levin has found a good answer—peace of mind in his time at least: comparative literature. Comparative literature isn’t going to be used up so soon: there is a lot of it. And the East has caught on quickly, as witness such research projects as “The Kabuki Theater and the Elizabethan Stage” or “The Icelandic Saga and the Malay Folk-tale,” put forward by young people to whom, if I were convinced that they had ever been really moved by a single line of poetry in whatever tongue, I would gladly award a dukedom, were it in my power.

“THE DISCIPLINE of comparative literature…has tended to focus its interest on interrelationships—traditions and movements, the intellectual forces that find their logical termination in-ism—rather than on the contemplation of individual masterpieces.” This is Mr. Levin, who is a great one for interrelationships, but at least, as his pun suggests, interested in words as well. The “special illumination” provided by the discipline of comparative literature derives from “its way of…

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