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Nil: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of Void during the Nineteenth Century

by Robert Martin Adams
Oxford, 249 pp., $6.00

A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature

by Richard Poirier
Oxford, 257 pp., $5.75

In the Human Grain: Technological Culture and Its Effect on Man, Literature and Religion

by Walter J. Ong, by S.J.
Macmillan, 207 pp., $5.95

We are but critics, or but half create,” Yeats wrote in a rueful poem, lamenting the death of the old nonchalance. In the meantime critics have come to wear their rue with a difference. If Swift were now at work on A Tale of a Tub, he might still put the critic under the table, “like a dog at a feast, whose thoughts and stomach are wholly set upon what the guests fling away.” But his victim would continue to smile. It is comfortable nowadays to be the middleman, the retail grocer buying cheap and selling dear. But this, a common figure for many years, is no longer adequate. If you hate critics, there is no point in calling them parasites, because increasingly they depend upon themselves, their own imaginations. Bacon’s figure of the spider is nearer the mark. Critics are now almost poets, planetary poets, making notes toward their supreme fictions. The critic is happy to comment upon literature, but only on the understanding that the interest of the commentary is intrinsic, “self creating, self delighting.” Few critics are content to say helpful things about hard poems. The critical essay, traditionally a modest genre, aspires beyond its old station: it hopes to become a handsome body of knowledge, a rival form of poetry with the advantage of a richer mixture of ideas.

There is an implication abroad that criticism, unlike poetry, gets better and better, a notion clear enough in René Wellek’s History of Modern Criticism. The possibilities of critical growth seem endless. A man starts by writing a Ph.D. thesis on a minor Elizabethan poet; continues with more challenging essays on Poe, Tennyson, Hopkins, Joyce, and Eliot; writes a book called The Mechanical Bride another called The Gutenberg Galaxy, then Understanding Media. And he is still a reasonably young man, on the wing from Toronto to New York and Fordham. A critic who writes a study of Blake and then, extending its implications, writes Anatomy of Criticism is plying a trade in which the possibilities are dazzling. A poet can hardly have the same feeling that the future of his vocation is, as Arnold would have it, immense. But a critic, if he is a good Kantian, has only to be sufficiently inventive, and the dictionary is his oyster.

FOR THE READER, it is exciting to see a great critical balloon rise, floating above the shed of common experience. The balloon cannot be denied, because we see it. And if we are not prepared to love all balloons equally, there is the nasty hope of seeing one or two of them burst and fall; as I await the fall of Norman O. Brown’s latest, Love’s Body. The freedom and gaiety of balloons are functions of our own desire. They lift the mind. Indeed, at a time when philosophy is daunting in its rigor, criticism gives something of the old philosophic satisfaction, the pleasure of seeing a structure of ideas rise off the ground, like a Calder mobile. Some of these structures aim to explain everything. If we are prosaic in our demands we find it bitter to reflect that they explain everything in general at the cost of explaining little in particular. Perhaps they have more to do with Poetry than with poems, more with Life than with lives. Santayana speaks of certain imaginative principles on which the world might have been built, if it had been built differently. A sense of these principles often enlivens the classic occasions of modern criticism. At a first reading, The Gutenberg Galaxy has the effect of transforming the whole world in its own image: in the presence of its ideas other ideas are redundant, like Guinness when one is drinking champagne. Reading The Gutenberg Galaxy or Anatomy of Criticism is not in the least like reading Aristotle’s Poetics, Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, or Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, but it is very like reading James’s The Wings of the Dove or Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. Specific questions remain unanswered, but the reader has had an experience. So we regard these works for the dance of their ideas.

I resort to these giddy thoughts to introduce three notable books of criticism. The critics are inordinately gifted; they direct their intelligence upon certain literatures, mostly of the nineteenth century in Europe and America; they have helpful things to say about hard poems. But their books are unashamedly designed to be attractive, objects of great interest beyond their official duty. Walter Ong, for instance, uses his choice idiom with such rhetorical verve that the effect is poetic. It is difficult to think of his work as a secondary activity. Words like “voice,” “speech,” and “presence” are deployed like crucial images in a poem until the world seems to cry for understanding in their terms. A different terminology means another world. Richard Poirier invokes a “world elsewhere,” a world of forms and rhythms so delicate that to possess them we would be willing to discard our own. The invocation is so eloquent and so poignant that some of his chapters read like pastoral elegies. Robert Martin Adams enters so deeply into the nineteenth-century modes of void that the poor old given world seems to be dispersed before our eyes, a mirage entirely poetic. One is tempted to say that these books are not criticism at all. They do not discriminate between degrees of poetic merit. They are promiscuous in entertainment. Diverse works are brought together for diverse reasons, interesting if the reader is flexible in his interests. The question of intrinsic merit is not allowed to inhibit the discourse. So it might be desirable to call these books meta-criticism, a kind of pure prose; as Santayana, considering the Emersonian imagination, remarked “its power first to make the world, then to understand it, and finally to rise above it.” But this will not answer, because the critical imagination in Father Ong, Mr. Poirier, and Mr. Adams is not, finally, ethereal. It has an object in view. The shed is tangible. So we might advert to the metacritical temptation to remark that in these critics it has been set aside; to remark also, however, that if any particular temptation is present in these critics it is of this enchanting kind.

MR. ADAMS’S CONCERN is, in Gloucester’s phrase from King Lear, “the quality of nothing,” modalities of void in nineteenth-century literature. The chief quality of Nothing is that it releases man from his bondage to things, from the immediacy of experience, from the terror of fact. Void is “an ultimate without responsibilities.” In Les Fenêtres Mallarmé says, “Mais, hélas! Icibas est maître,” pondering ways of escape even at the risk of falling through eternity. So the status of the natural object is diminished. The whole middle range of experience, “ici-bas,” comes to seem a trivial business. And, as Hannah Arendt shows in The Human Condition, we find “an attempt to reduce all experiences to experiences between man and himself.” Mr. Adams examines void as the scene of this reduction. It is interesting that he treats void as a scenic term, an absence in reality; as in William Empson’s poem “Arachne,” man is “a gleaming bubble between void and void.” Perhaps it would be useful to distinguish between void as a scenic term and negation as the corresponding act, between Zero and No! The “Nothung!” of Stephen Dedalus is different in grammar and feeling from Mallarmé’s fall through eternity. Mr. Adams does not make the distinction, and he manages splendidly without it, but it might help to explain a point which he mentions but does not explain: why so many nineteenth-century writers opted, among all the available modes of transcendence, for this one, the void. It is hard to explain this if you take void as a scenic or contextual term; a little easier, perhaps, if, as in Kenneth Burke’s symbolism, you make action your central term and man the animal that denies. No! in thunder.

Mr. Adams features such terms as void, nothing, self, other, alien, ennui, end, infinity, abysm, loneliness, and (of course) death. The terminology is ample for his purposes, and it enables him to give a brilliant account of the curious dialectic by which Nothing, in certain writers who committed themselves to it, yielded Everything. Adding to his cited instances, we think of Timon of Athens, Timon near the end saying.

My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things.

The writers presented in Nil include Senancour, Novalis, De Quincey, Nietzsche, Poe, Gogol, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Stendhal, Melville, Mallarmé, Leopardi, and Huysmans. On the chosen ground, to put the matter briefly, Mr. Adams’s argument is irrefutable. To refute it, one would have to insist upon different ground, deleting these writers and substituting Whitman, Hopkins, Balzac, Tolstoy. Mr. Adams could then point to Buchner, Beddoes, going through the alphabet. Clearly on a count of serious writers in the Age of Fright the “no’s” have it. So we may yield ourselves to Nil, taking it as the remarkable book it is. Every page, throwing the rue away, contemplates the void from a standpoint at once ironic and engaged. Poe’s stories are read as manic prologomena to the void, prepared with exorbitant care to define the quality of a failure already presumed. Novalis is shown living in the world as if his only intent were to die, making death the deadly still center of his life. So the Dance of Death proceeds. But the crucial figure is Mallarmé. Mr. Adams describes how the abstract and intellectual quality of Mallarmé’s verse goes along with a remarkably hard surface and “that special metaphysical energy which comes from superficial harmonies overridden or boldly disregarded.” The unexpectedly literal and physical images represent the tissue of material things “imposing a lattice on a texture of woven abstractions, behind which lies the deeper darkness of void itself.” But Mr. Adams touches nothing that he does not renew. One of the most impressive qualities of his mind is its self-possession. Yeats remarked of writers like Joyce and Pound that they are helpless before the contents of their own minds; an inspired error, happier than many truths. Among contemporary critics Mr. Adams is exceptionally masterful with the contents of his mind. He has read all the dark adepts of nineteenth-century void as he has read their modern pupils, Italo Svevo, Musil, and Beckett, but he is neither abject nor truculent in the presence of this experience.

AT FIRST GLANCE Mr. Poirier’s criticism seems urbane, almost mellifluous. But this is a delusion. He is writing of matters so dangerous in implication that, but for his poise, he would be lost. He aims to show that the American tradition in literature is characterized by resistance, within its pages, to the forces of environment that otherwise dominate the world. American writers tend to substitute themselves and their imaginations for the world and its thrones and powers, so that their books become rival worlds in which the characters can live. Language provides the conditions denied in time and place. A motto is given in a dangerous conversation between Isabel Archer and Madame Merle in James’s Portrait of a Lady, when Isabel says: “Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me.” Mr. Poirier argues that in the American literary tradition style is a mode of freedom, achieved under inordinate pressure of need, the writer’s way of changing the rules so that he and his characters can breathe. The function of the Sacred Book of the Arts is to offer the heroic consciousness a home fit to live in. One thinks of Mallarmé again, with Nil at hand: “L’Oeuvre, le Grand Oeuvre, comme disaient les alchemistes, nos ancêtres.” The verbal home described by Mr. Poirier is a new “environment of nakedness” to replace a deadly “environment of costume.” Costume is society, institutions, conventions, manhood, Emerson’s “buzz and din.” Nakedness is Nature, childhood, wilderness, Emerson’s “dream of the self.” Call nakedness, for the pun, a tropical freedom. Mr. Poirier is tender toward this freedom, but he knows that it is necessarily incomplete, as Valéry knew that the words of a poem cannot, alas, be separated from their daily habits; as James knew and said in his study of Hawthorne that “it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” Indeed, Mr. Poirier concedes that James, Thoreau, and Faulkner “honor something outside of style.” He will not force his thesis. But he shows its bearing upon such writers as Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, James, Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and Scott Fitzgerald.

In a rough paraphrase, Mr. Poirier’s argument sounds like the standard account which says that for various social reasons English fiction is the novel and American fiction is the romance. He endorses this in some respects while denying it as a thesis. He allows that George Eliot could rely upon a society in which “grave and endearing traditions” were still active, while Edith Wharton could only improvise, extemporize, lacking public sustenance for the feelings engaged. But Mr. Poirier goes far beyond the standard version in describing the “world elsewhere.” It is interesting, by the way, that the “world elsewhere” is normally deemed to be “higher” than the daily world, if it is to contain any form of imaginative life. Stevens in his poem to Santayana speaks of “Rome, and the more merciful Rome beyond,” though he thinks of the two as “alike in the make of the mind.” In Mr. Poirier’s image the two are never alike. His more merciful Rome is a secular Heaven called the Book, maintained on poetic lines called Style. If there is a Decalogue, it has to do with literary decorum. Hell, which he does not delineate, would presumably be the lower depths, Mr. Adams’s cellar, the void.

Mr. Poirier’s book is, then, exhilarating in its intelligence, its finesse. I have only one reservation, and that occasional. In some parts of the book I feel that his ideas are entering into such vigorous alliance that they threaten to put the literature under constraint. I do not share his view, for instance, that in James the “world elsewhere” has quite the exorbitant status the critic gives it. The Ambassadors, he says, “offers remarkably beautiful instances of the hero’s effort to transform the things he sees into visions, to detach them from time and from the demands of nature, and to give them the composition of objects d’art.” There is a sense in which this is true. James does not commit himself, as Whitman does, to the idiom of contact. He does not rush to incriminate himself, rejoicing in complicities. It is the price his art pays for the privileges of vision and consciousness, since these require a gap between the perceiver and the thing perceived. The gap is not, however, a guarantee of protection, because vision and consciousness in James are moral risks. It is true that James calls upon Art to supply the most exacting test of life, but he is always deeply concerned that the poor thing will pass with some honor. In The Ambassadors Lambert Strether is tested to acknowledge the spirit in the matter he sees, to respond to it, to the people, the landscape, the scene. Art (the Lambinet landscape painting, for instance) gives the standard by which life is to be judged, as far as the composition is concerned, but only because its standard is available and high.

Indeed, I would argue that what distinguishes James’s central fiction is a remarkably dynamic relation between the admitted claims of the two worlds, this world (often the bench of desolation) and the world elsewhere. This is “the ache of the actual,” the acknowledgement poised against the lovely dream. I would allow, on demand, that the balance teeters toward the end, but my concession would not go further. Mr. Poirier would demand more. His mind revels in the dramatic lucidity of contrast. He makes allowance, but only as a qualification of the contrast, somewhat reluctantly admitted. This is understandable, because his finest criticism comes in this way. He makes a particularly vivid confrontation of Jane Austen and Mark Twain, one scene set off against another, Emma’s insult to Miss Bates, Huck’s insult to Jim. This is the happiest exercise of Mr. Poirier’s mind, one thing seen in relation to another, James and Hawthorne, James and Dreiser. Indeed, it is not fanciful to find in Mr. Poirier’s best criticism the method which Richard Blackmur found, all differences allowed, in the poems of Marianne Moore: “to set things, themselves delicately conceived, in relations so fine and so accurate that their qualities, mutually stirred, will produce a new relation.”

WHEN WE THINK, for a moment, of our three critics in the same context, we see that they share, besides high intelligence, a sense of modern literature as a flight from time. In Father Ong this sense is enlivened and sometimes irritated by his commitment to the present tense. Among scholars and critics he is notable for an especially vivid sense of Now, the convergence of the past upon the present moment. He will “redeem the time” by thought, care, and memory. The new essays range as widely as those in his earlier collection, The Barbarian Within, and they will speak to any reader who is concerned with problems of education, literature, religion, and communications. What holds the essays together is an image of man willingly committed to the present moment, responsible to the future as well as the past. If this image is a poetic conception, it has a rhetorical aim, to persuade by its dignity and composition. Father Ong is concerned to show, in particular, that a Christian may live in the modern world with full commitment to place and time. In two essays on Darwin he recites the familiar lesson that the Darwinian vision is congenial to Christian belief, but he goes beyond the common recital. He argues that Christianity and Darwinian evolutionism are congenial because both think of creation as a process. Both emphasize history, and the convergence of the world upon man. Process, rather than status. Both commit themselves to the irreversibility of history, rejecting cyclic theories of time:

Cyclic theories of time accomplish for the learned what the mythological rituals of the seasons accomplish for the intellectually unsophisticated. Both mitigate the terror of history, in which events, and most of all man’s personal decisions, are set forever in an irreversible pattern. Cyclic theories tend to cushion or distract from time’s impact, dissociating time from unique acts, for in the extreme or pure cyclic view of the universe nothing is unique at all, since even our most personal decisions have been and will be made over and over again.

Father Ong accepts with good grace the probability that the projection of cyclic patterns from the subconscious will continue. Shakespeare was not eccentric in writing the sonnet “That Time of Year thou mayst in me behold” or Henry Adams in saying, “One’s instinct abhors time.” But much of Father Ong’s eloquence is given to endorse a conception of history as a stream of convergence. At certain moments in the book I though he was going to quote from William James’s A Pluralistic Universe to support this image of time. It would have been a nice conjunction. And once or twice I thought of that passage in The Human Condition in which Hannah Arendt says that the only escape from the irreversibility of history is the faculty of forgiveness. It is a beautiful conception, thoroughly at home in Father Ong’s setting. I am surprised that he has not gone further in attacking one version of cyclicism, the “closed system,” selfcontained and self-perpetuating, which is among the most influential diagrams in this century. Its literary force is clear in Susanne Langer’s theory of art, where the poem is deemed to create a virtual world, an illusion. Words are released from their responsibility to things or to nature; their duty is to sustain rhythms, tensions, and resolutions, Poetry is music. In Valéry’s theory there is a corresponding desire to repudiate words as signs, and to regard them solely as materials of composition. The same motive is found, however variously disclosed, in Frazer, Jung, and (among the modern critics) Northrop Frye. Father Ong has a good deal to say of modern literature, often scolding the poets for their sluggishness in bringing the imagination to bear upon the “evolutionary cosmos.” Yeats, Eliot, Lawrence, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Graves, and Durrell are variously called in evidence. I expected to hear Father Ong tackle that passage in “The Dry Salvages” in which Eliot scorns the popular evolutionists, but he comments only on “Burnt Norton.”

THE GENERAL ARGUMENT is that modern poets are cyclicists because the artistic rage for pattern is easily assuaged by the image of an endless circle. Georges Poulet has described the efforts of certain nineteenth-century poets to hold the fort of the instant, to protect the encircled moment from the rush of time and history. Hopkins is exceptional, praised by Father Ong for “The Wreck of the Deutschland” in which God’s grace “rides time like riding a river.” Father Ong knows that poets cannot be commanded, but he would persuade, offering them perhaps an incomplete poetry which they might be pleased to complete in the same spirit. The modern critics, strangely, are not scolded. Strangely, because they have followed the poets in their cyclic images. Father Ong mentions, indeed, that in much of the New Criticism “the poem as ‘object’ is assimilated to a world of vision, which is a timeless world by comparison with that of words and sound.” But he is not unduly severe. It is certainly true that modern critics have visual models in mind when they use such terms as “form,” structure,” “order,” and “unity.” It is also true that distortion is inevitable in this use. But it seems impossible to translate these words into linear or evolutionary terms which would register the rush of time. This is why dramatic criticism is still rather primitive. I see no way of coping with this problem except by grounding one’s entire criticism, as Kenneth Burke does, upon a “philosophy of the act.” The act is open and temporal as the autonomous artifact is not.

It is clear, meanwhile, that many of the most thoughtful essays in modern criticism are attempts to escape from the closed system while retaining the distinctive modern insights. There is a desire, evident in such diverse critics as Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Yvor Winters, Philip Rahv, and William Empson, to restore criticism to discourse, sound, voice, action, time, and history. Father Ong’s essays may be appreciated as theoretical chapters in this enterprise. But it is essential to read his new book beside The Barbarian Within and his Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. Otherwise the present essays will seem rather thin, the proportion of speculation to fact being a little exorbitant. Of the other critics, Mr. Adams finds no difficulty in escaping from the closed system, because he has never locked himself in. The closed system is congenial to Mr. Poirier because he is dealing with American literature, in his own impression a system of refugee values preserved by style. But he does not imply that the gate between word and thing is always or necessarily closed. In the Preface to his book Mr. Poirier quotes from the Opus Posthumous of Wallace Stevens: “What manner of building shall we build?” Modern criticism has asked this question, often in these terms. Perhaps the next job for critics is implied in the question which follows, where Stevens asks: “In this house, what manner of utterance shall there be?”

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