Lucy and Lucifer

Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory

by M.H. Abrams, edited and with a foreword by Michael Fischer
Norton, 429 pp., $27.50

An Appetite for Poetry

by Frank Kermode
Harvard University Press, 242 pp., $22.50

Protocols of Reading

by Robert Scholes
Yale University Press, 164 pp., $18.95

Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions

by Jonathan Culler
University of Oklahoma Press, 237 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Critical Writings, 1953–1978

by Paul de Man, edited and with an introduction by Lindsay Waters
University of Minnesota Press, 246 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The situation of universities in societies where they’re allowed to have a situation at all (where, in other words, they’re not just part of the bureaucratic apparatus) has always had a monastic coloring. In the castle and on the plain, lord and peasant go about their accustomed pleasures and assigned chores; shopkeepers along the lanes of little towns quietly pursue their little advantages—while within the cloistered halls, doctors and saints carry on their internecine feuds on topics too remote and abstract for the society outside to know or care about. Every now and then a thump, a squeak, and a wail of suppressed agony comes out of the academy; but mostly the odium theologicum expresses itself in the classroom, at the department meeting, and by pointedly ignoring in public the rogues of the opposite party. Occasionally it overflows in print, as reviews, articles, and contributions to little magazines—as well as in books assembled out of these fragments, like those currently under review.

A good deal of the recent feuding has taken place in departments of literature, and most of the banners have been planted around the question of what texts to read and how to read them. A key word with more symbolic than precise denotative meaning is “deconstruction.” All five of the books under review, though they may toy with lighter topics on the way to the major statement, come down in the end with a position on the deconstruction issue. For instance, Professor M.H. Abrams, in his strangely titled Doing Things With Texts, has assembled essays and critiques under four main heads, of which the first two are preparatory to broad assessment of the deconstructive argument, reserved for the last two. Intermingled are some explanatory discussions of the methods of Abrams’s last big book, Natural Supernaturalism, and a couple of reviews—occasional but exemplary—of books by Philip Wheelwright and Northrop Frye.

Readers of Abrams’s previous criticism will not have to be told that his prose is careful and informed, thoughtful, and therefore slow of pace, soft-spoken but firmly argued, and invariably clear. Perhaps Michael Fischer, who assembled the various essays and contributed a foreword, could have done a bit more, i.e., a bit less, to produce an economical and well-tailored book. The essay “From Addison to Kant: Modern Aesthetics and the Exemplary Art,” which directly follows one entitled “Art-as-Such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics,” repeats a good deal of its predecessor’s material. It has much to say, of which critics caught up in today’s catchwords need to be reminded, but once is enough.

The point Abrams makes here is that viewing the art-object—the painting on the wall, the poem on the printed page—as an object-in-itself, to be judged by purely aesthetic standards, is a relatively recent habit of mind. It derives from social circumstances of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and carries on its face traces of specific philosophical and even theological prepossessions …

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Letters

Protocols of Reading May 17, 1990