Trials of the Word
Writers and Politics
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 looking at all literature as one organic process, a continuous and cumulative whole.” The conception of literature as a continuous and cumulative whole seems to me an intellectual fiction; or, if a truth, then a truth which has no human significance. The pattern—and what, if it is large enough, cannot be supposed to have a pattern?—is perceptible only to God, and God, as we have had good cause to lament, is too busy with other things to take up literary criticism. How can we, conscious of our inadequacy in front of a four-line lyric, imagine that we can talk meaningfully about “a continuous and cumulative whole”? It is not by cumulative wholes that we are moved, even transformed it may be, but by those “isolated products” (as the blurb calls them), the poems and the novels created in sweat and suffering by individual and often isolated writers.
In the event the products of comparative literary criticism are not so unlike the old, gentlemanly “gracious living” sort of writing (and there are worse sorts to be like): an elegant skipping from literature to literature, from language to language, from history to history. “Meanwhile, in an apartment near the Etoile, the self-exiled Irishman Joyce was carefully elaborating the most minute and comprehensive account that any city has ever received from literature….” In the very nature of the undertaking, with so much ground to cover, there is rarely time for more than capsule treatment of the texts adduced. “It may be a coincidence worth noting that, in France and England alike, the most articulate lionesses assumed the name of George.” Comparisons, Mr. Levin proves, need not be odious at all: “We cannot draw any parallel from the circumstance that allotted the roles of Darcy and Heathcliff to the same actor in the film versions of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, given the versatility of Sir Laurence Olivier. Yet….”
I noticed that in reading this book I found myself most impressed when Mr. Levin was talking about subjects I had little knowledge of—which, I must admit, was a fair amount of the time. A Frenchman might have wondered why the common saying, “tout songe est mesonge” has been transformed into the tongue-twister, “tous songes sont mensonges,” and whether La Princess de Clèves was a printer’s slip or a comparative literary aperçu. But Mr. Levin’s breadth of reading and learning cannot be impugned. It is simply that what one misses, and comes before long to miss painfully, is the attention in depth offered by F.R. Leavis, say. And so it would have been more appropriate had Mr. Levin not chosen to disparage Leavis, albeit rather tremulously, as he does in an essay which otherwise contains some amusing and just observations (on, for instance, the fact that whereas literary histories once undertook the exhumation of dead writers, today they are increasingly concerned with the inhumation of living ones). It is not easy, he says, for outsiders to understand what Dr. Leavis represents. “Not that his ideas seem particularly novel, once we have accepted the coalition between Matthew Arnold and D. H. Lawrence.” Other forerunners he invokes are T. S. Eliot and (“before he left the English for the American Cambridge”—an example of comparativist’s tic) I.A. Richards.
THIS IS AN OLD journalistic account of things, and one is surprised to find it trotted out here. Leavis has himself acknowledged his debts. I don’t think one can talk usefully about his “ideas” as such—and perhaps it is this that Mr. Levin resents—but only about his specific dealings with specific literary works. How can it be meaningful to say that Leavis’s “scrutinizing” derives from I. A. Richards, or his ideas from Lawrence or Arnold, when Leavis’s actual work is so different from the work of these other men? Why is it that Revaluation was not written by Richards? Or D. H. Lawrence: Novelist by D. H. Lawrence? It shakes one’s confidence in the comparative method to see this most distinctive of modern critics so casually dismembered and assigned to a cloud of diverse origins! But, as so often, Mr. Levin is in a hurry; he concedes that Leavis’s “year-to-year endeavor…to transpose the critic’s perception into the student’s comprehension can have been no dilettante’s pastime”—as if there were any sort of genuine teaching that could be!—and hastens on to the Pelican Guide to English Literature, to the Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, to Lanson, Thibaudet, Sherer, V. L. Parrington, and so forth.
Many of these essays were originally papers read to professional gatherings, and it must be said that Mr. Levin is a first-class opener of symposia. He writes as to the public manner born. The swiftness of his passage doesn’t preclude the coincidence of justness and wit, as for instance in his comment that “contrivers of shoddy effects, like Edward Albee, have reason to be afraid of Virginia Woolf.” “Notes on Convention” is a nice assemblage of loci and contexts through the centuries and across the languages. The essay on Shakespeare in translation and adaptation goes further than anything else here to justify the ways of comparative scholars to mere men. “Literature and Exile” is an exquisitely bland disquisition, its manner as far-removed as could be from its theme, so remote as to produce an effect of callousness. Mr. Levin is above all elegant, an elegant thinker, an elegant writer. We recall what Lionel Trilling has said about modern criticism, that “attributing to literature virtually angelic powers, it has passed the word to the readers of literature that the one thing you do not do when you meet an angel is wrestle with him.” Mr. Levin shakes hands and chats civilly. We yearn for a real, rough tongue, even that of F.R. Leavis, a voice speaking out of a personal engagement with literature, a hand-to-hand struggle.
GIMMICKINESS IS ALL. Then what is R. W. B. Lewis’s gimmick? “What attracts me, more often than not, is the tug of the transcendent,” he tells us in his Preface, “or, rather, the fertile tug-of-war between the transcendent and the concrete…I tend to focus upon those phases of a work of literature in which what have to be called religious considerations are overtly or secretively paramount.” This focusing—and shouldn’t one try to focus on the whole work in so far as one can? Mr. Lewis seems a little ungenerous, offering phases, where Mr. Levin is all too generous, offering cumulative wholes—leads to some curious high-flown jargonizing. Thus, in connection with The Wings of the Dove (“turn but a stone, and start a wing!”): “If inanimate things are the elements by which James renders what Dante called the tropological or moral meaning of his story; and if the historical or allegorical dimension is revealed in what the conflict of consciousness can do to revitalize institutions historically drained of importance; then Milly’s smile, like that of Beatrice, gives a piercing glimpse of the anagoge.” Mr. Lewis’s abstractions, when once we have realized them, at times seem rather empty. Whitman “was the poet of the self’s motion downward into the abysses of darkness and guilt and pain and isolation, and upward to the creative act in which darkness was transmuted into beauty.” But a good deal in this collection has little to do with the promise or the threat of the Preface. The essay on Whitman is a useful and fairly plain introduction to the poet, and the long concluding essay, “Days of Wrath and Laughter,” is an informative and interesting, if literarily rather uncritical, conspectus of apocalyptic writing from Judaism through Melville up to Catch 22, Dr. Strangelove, and after.
“THIS KIND OF CRITICISM—acute on small matters and absent-minded on very large ones, inventive of divisions, cosmically concerned and terrestrially calm—is important not in itself but as marking a dangerously close intellectual atmosphere.” This is Conor Cruise O’Brien reviewing Mr. Lewis’s earlier book, The Picaresque Saint, and the judgment is true at times of Trials of the Word. Mr. O’Brien has just asserted that “in a political age literary criticism which attempts to leave out politics inevitably becomes detached from reality.” Well, I am all for leaving out politics whenever it is humanly possible to do so. Politics display a strong propensity to universal intrusion, without encouragement: We would do well to keep some small areas free of them. The two addresses delivered by Mr. O’Brien during his brief tenure of office as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, together with his interleaved commentary, have a pathetic air about them—and tend to suggest that where university autonomy and academic freedom are concerned, a degree of intransigence on the academic side is not such a bad thing after all. If you ask for a whole 100 per cent of these commodities, then you may get 50 per cent; if you are ready to let politics in and ask for 50 per cent, you may well have to settle for much less.
But Mr. O’Brien’s gimmick—placing literature alongside life—is more fruitful, more invigorating, than placing one literature alongside another, or a literary work alongside “religious considerations” or “the Word-made-image.” Like Mr. Levin and Mr. Lewis, Mr. O’Brien is widely learned, and he writes concisely, lucidly, and wittily. “For Mr. FitzGibbon, the Reds are under the bed; for Mr. Peter Howard, they are already in it.” He is alluding to the theory which attributes the increase in Western homosexuality to Soviet machinations. If some of these thirty-seven items are doubtfully worth reprinting, pre-eminent among the others are an excellent comparison of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, a very funny review of a book about Schweitzer, a long and elucidatory section on Irish history and Irish writing, and some shrewd comments on cold-war beneficiaries and the rightfully lost causes which anti-communists sometimes find themselves embracing. Most of the pieces are short. No doubt in recent years Mr. O’Brien has been too much taken up with terrestrial concerns to turn his hand to extended and connected literary scrutinies, but at any rate the intellectual atmosphere of Writers and Politics never gets dangerously close.
Comparative Lit. October 6, 1966