The Secular Scripture
The Uses of Division
The Sovereign Ghost
“This book,” Michel Foucault says at the beginning of The Order of Things, “has its origin in a text by Borges”; and indeed Borges, the author of delicate, lucid, disturbed visions of what used to be an ordered world, has become something like the patron saint of much recent French writing. A character in Borges’s story “Death and the Compass” seems even to anticipate a French connection. An amateur detective in the tradition of Holmes and Dupin, confronted with the flat-footed police inspector so familiar in such fiction, Erik Lönnrot dismisses the inspector’s simple view of a murder as “possible, but not interesting.”
You will reply (the great man continues) that reality is under no obligation to be interesting. I shall reply that reality can get along without that obligation, but a hypothesis can’t.
Later in the story, when Lönnrot has solved a complicated series of crimes more to his intellectual liking, we are told that “the mere circumstances, the reality (names, arrests, faces, judicial and penal arrangements) scarcely interested him now.”
I’m not suggesting that Foucault and Lévi-Strauss, say, are not interested in reality—Foucault is notably interested in judicial and penal arrangements—but I think it is true that they are impatient with mere circumstance undignified by theory. And the reason I mention this is that the Anglo-Saxon prejudice appears to be exactly the reverse. The first step into theory, we feel, is the first step in the rejection of reality, and we may wish to insist that Erik Lönnrot, in Borges’s story, is killed because he wouldn’t listen to the flat-footed inspector. The inspector was right about the murder, and the series of further crimes was a trap laid by a man who knew Lönnrot’s taste for intricacy and used it to lure him to his death.
So they do order these things better in France, as Sterne said, even if the order may seem to come at rather a high price. The contrast is striking in literary criticism. Roland Barthes, for example, who is in his way a practical critic, regularly falls into the waiting arms of theory, while the theories we have, like Empson’s seven types or Bloom’s six ratios, seem to have been knocked together in the critic’s back room, without benefit of tradition. Even Northrop Frye, no doubt the most distinguished literary theorist writing in English in this century, can sound more pragmatic than the toughest of pragmatists. “Whatever is of no practical use to anybody,” he says in his Anatomy of Criticism, “is expendable.” So there.
Frye is an attractive and complex case, though. Anatomy of Criticism (1957) started a vogue for the study of literature as myth, but it also offered, with considerable panache and remarkable good sense, to link up, by means of modes and genres and symbols and archetypes, a number of discrete areas of literary scholarship. “It is better to think,” Frye suggested, “not simply of a sequence …