Whose Trope Is It Anyway?

The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections

by Richard Poirier
Random House, 244 pp., $19.95

The Renewal of Literature is an Emersonian essay in cultural criticism; Emersonian, because many of its concerns—originality, power, genius, language—are Emerson’s, and because Richard Poirier’s procedures, like Emerson’s, are interventions rather than sequences of argument. Indeed, the book may be interpreted as a development of Emerson’s assertion, in “Self-Reliance,” that “power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”

But I must go against the spirit of the book to the extent of describing some of its instants of repose, its resting places.

The first is an attack on “the humanistic intentions and values commonly ascribed to the arts,” the belief that “the writing and reading of literature have a culturally redemptive power.” Poirier argues that “this belief cannot be sustained by the actual operations of language in literary texts.” Literature itself “shows the futility of this quest for truth, values, and exaltations.”

The particular values that Poirier ascribes to humanism are those that endow the human presence in the world with the birthright of selfhood. Humanism encourages us to believe that everyone is, apparently by divine definition, a continuous entity, whether it is called self, as in psychology, or soul, as in morality. Each self acts in the world by virtue of the energy that we call its will: a lapse into passivity marks a crisis in our humanity and, if it persists, a disaster. The reading of literature is supposed to sustain us because it shows the obstacles the will has to surmount and its eventual success in those endeavors.

Poirier is casual in defining the humanistic tradition. Perhaps he thinks it sufficiently described as Arnoldian. But Arnold points in many directions. The humanistic one would be best indicated by a reference to I.A. Richards as marking its culmination, because in Science and Poetry (1926) Richards claimed that “poetry is capable of saving us.” Arnold thought that poetry would save us by enabling us to retain the emotions of spirituality without having to believe in anything. Richards thought it could save us by showing, in achieved poems and fictions, that the inevitable conflicts among our impulses may be resolved. The equilibrium of a central nervous system in good working order is Richards’s model, since it is constantly subject to shocks and constantly recovers itself.

In The Renewal of Literature, as in Poirier’s previous books, when Arnold is arraigned T.S. Eliot isn’t far behind. But Eliot can’t be blamed for humanistic consolations. In “The Humanism of Irving Babbitt” (1928) he attacked humanism as a specious substitute for religious belief. In “Arnold and Pater” (1930) and again in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) he rounded upon Arnold for setting up Culture in the place of Religion, and leaving Religion “to be laid waste by the anarchy of feeling.” Eliot …

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