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Shrinking Literature

In response to:

Interfering with Literature from the April 10, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

Ordinarily, I would not write to comment on a review of one of my books, particularly so unequivocal a review as R.M. Adams’s of The Dynamics of Literary Response [NYR, April 10]. However, when Dr. Adams objects to “reductive” approaches to literature, he makes an error which is so common and yet so seriously and fundamentally anti-intellectual, that I would like to try, at least, to put it to rest.

Though he happens to be applying the term “reductive” to my psychoanalytic model of literary response, he could equally well apply it to a structuralist, Marxist, Christian, phenomenological, archetypal, or any other theory of literature. All are “reductive,” for that is what we ask of theories: that they reduce or compress variegated data into general principles. By the term “reductive,” Dr. Adams is simply objecting to any kind of systematic or theoretical thinking about literature. In effect, he objects to X-rays because he prefers portraits. In the same vein, he seems to insist that the literary critic or, in my case, the theorist of literature offer “a form of it.” Again, this is simply to commit the old fallacy of thinking or wishing a map were a landscape.

Dr. Adams’s presentation of this obscurantist objection is somewhat further obscured by his stating, as an example of such reduction, that The Dynamics of Literary Response reduces literary works to their unconscious fantasy content. In fact, the whole point of the book is just the opposite: it develops a “notion of literature as a balance of fantasy and management of fantasy” (p. 312). “Literature transforms our primitive wishes and fears into significance and coherence” (p. 30). The Wife of Bath’s Tale ” ‘means’ in that it transforms its unconscious fantasy into social, moral, intellectual, and even mythic terms” (27-28).

Put in its very briefest form, the theory says that literature is an introjected transformation. The literary text provides us with a fantasy which we introject, experiencing it as though it were our own, supplying our own associations to it. The literary work manages this fantasy in two broad ways: by shaping it with formal devices which operate roughly like defenses, by transforming the fantasy toward ego-acceptable meanings—something like sublimation (311).

The model…returns us finally to the very things literary critics have always talked about—though with a difference. Form, language, character, plot, genre, sound—these are all important, but we can only talk intelligently about them if we recognize that they shape and balance a core of fantasy material (316).

Thus, I am puzzled when Dr. Adams instances “reduction” by saying I pay “minimal respects to the power of form in coloring, patterning, inverting, or restructuring the ‘basic’ fantasy.” The book itself says:

Many meanings are possible; many forms are not. To use Twain’s phrase again, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” The reason is that form operates defensively, against the press of the fantasy toward expression. Form must balance that force, and, like any balance, the balance of form and unconscious content must be delicately set (189).

Indeed, the book devotes two chapters to the different ways literary forms transform unconscious fantasy.

I think I see what Dr. Adams’s difficulty was: these two chapters and the other remarks I have quoted occur in the last eleven-and-a-half chapters of the book, which seem to have slipped by him somehow, resulting in a curious reductivism on his part. He could, however, have simply noted the title of the chapter he does quote from: “Literature as Transformation.”

Norman N. Holland

Amherst, N.Y.

Robert M Adams replies:

Perhaps the fact that my review pointed emphatically toward the work of Mr. Kenneth Burke as a model of non-reductive Freudian criticism may help to clear me of the charge of literary know-nothingism. Indeed, it’s precisely because I welcome dialectical interplay between the various critical models and the total response evoked by the work of literary art that I deplore truncation or subordination of the latter in the interests of the former. When Mr. Holland summarizes a major English poet in the single classic sentence, “Hopkins uses religious ideas to transcend his anal images” (p.238), I cannot help feeling that his X-ray eyes are reducing to a mere defensive reflex structures of thought, feeling, and imagery to which I’m prepared to grant considerable independent authority. Those structures are not just ways of managing Hopkins’s anal images (such as they may prove to be); and to propose that they can be properly understood through this single relation is not only reductive but crudely so.

Of course Mr. Holland is perfectly right that any systematical critical approach can be handled reductively. There was no hint in my review that his sin was original; what I registered was a sense of impoverishment which can be had in a great many ways. As for the distribution of my comments, it seemed more economical to probe the sandy foundations of the book than to dissect its creaky superstructure. But I am quite ready to say that I found the last part of the argument just as resistible as the first.

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