Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory
An Appetite for Poetry
Protocols of Reading
Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions
Critical Writings, 19531978
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. Though unmistakably a historical construct, this critical premise has been so long established and so largely taken for granted that it now seems natural and self-evident. But there may be values in the work, including those of direct, didactic statement, that the artist did not intend for us to overlook, and that the work itself by its structuring requires us to recognize.
Thus the ideals of “art as such” (or “for art’s sake”) and “pure, disinterested contemplation” are revealed as partial and time-bound. Yet from this basic aesthetic position have developed a great number of modern critical notions, mostly formalist in nature, among the most recent of which a wide scattering lay claim to names like “structuralism,” “poststructuralism,” and “deconstruction.” In one of his later essays, “Construing and Deconstructing,” Abrams confronts and directly assesses the latter procedure.
This section of the book invites particular analysis because in it Abrams confronts a skilled and responsible opponent, Professor Hillis Miller, over the interpretation of a well-known and very brief text, Wordsworth’s eight-line elegy known from its first line as “A slumber did my spirit seal.”
A slumber did my spirit seal; I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
An oddity of their discussion is that both readers construe the poem in very much the same way to essentially the same effect. They agree that the poem is the utterance of a single speaker, that it concerns a female (“she”), that she is discussed from two different, successive points of view. In the first stanza she is alive and apparently likely to remain so; thus the speaker’s spirit is sealed (protected) against the basic fact of her mortality by a slumber (including the idea of a delusive dream). In the second stanza she is understood to be dead and incorporated forever in the cycles of the material universe; it is a painful but real change that the speaker is understood to regret. So far the two critics are in agreement, not only with one another, but with just about every common reader of the poem.
But, in addition, Miller undertakes a second-level reading of the poem, which he doesn’t hesitate to call “allegorical.” For this reading he draws on a number of other Wordsworth texts written at different periods of the poet’s life, on details of his biography, and on cosmogonies with which one can only conjecture whether he was sympathetic or even acquainted. Among other things, this second-level reading converts the girl who is the chief focus of the poem into a potential sexual partner, into a surrogate for Wordsworth’s own mother, who died when he was eight, and into a symbol of the rising and setting sun. (Her name, we have come to believe from other poems, was “Lucy,” though Wordsworth does not use that name in this poem. The name “Lucy,” though it could just as well equate with “Lucifer,” is taken to refer to the sun as the source of light, and perhaps through the old sun-Son pun, to the logos.) Thus her loss to the universal fate of mortality can be equated with the poet’s loss of that ground outside the system of language which is always needed but never available. On this reading the poem not only asserts allegorically but enacts (in the death of the logos) its own essential meaninglessness, and leaves us (if I understand the finest of Hillis Miller’s fine points) in the authentic position of shivering in awe over the abyss of the unknowable and unrepresentable.
Abrams is very gentle and permissive in his attitude toward this second-level reading, which even his considerate nature is tested to take seriously. The principle of reading one text in the light of other texts by the same author is an old and established one but its aid has traditionally been to clarify and unify the basic text one is studying. To explode that basic text into a bundle of unrelated and unresolvable contradictions at the expense of its human meaning has generally been recognized as a possibility, and with ingenuity and determination, the operation can be performed on this or any other text. No law of God or man forbids this procedure. But the effect of the two-level reading of Wordsworth’s eight poignant lines is to create two quite different and ultimately unreconcilable texts.
The assured conviction of the pure (or uncanny) deconstructionists that all texts not only can but must be reduced to total indeterminacy (a.k.a meaninglessness) underlies most forms of the deconstruction enterprise; and the root of this compulsion is a conviction about the nature of language. Having construed the text, and then deconstructed that construal, the critic is understood to be freed to exercise his ready wit in full liberty from the constricting and tyrannical intentions of the original author or text; the resulting misreadings, if strong enough, are legitimized as a way of bringing out meanings of an original text to which the language—seen as an organism with a life of its own—was alert, though the original author was not. The text is of interest, in fact, chiefly as an occasion for liberating a more inspiring and important text, that produced by the critic. Indeed, the less the text amounts to (as in analyses of pop culture, soap operas, beer commercials, and television spots), the greater the opportunity for the critic to shine.
It is to this new freedom of the critic from service to the text as given that Abrams most vigorously objects. The alternative, as he repeatedly asserts, is not to suppose that all texts are simple and univocal—speaking with a single voice to a single effect. On the contrary, complex texts are subject to many different interpretations, and different premises will lead to different judgments. But the ideal of reconciling the problems of a text is very different from the ideal of exploding them; and it isn’t always clear which ideal the different people calling themselves deconstructionists, propose to serve. They often find themselves being misunderstood—so often that, given their principles, one can’t help suspecting that some of them welcome the misunderstanding as an occasion for shifting the focus of discussion from the old text to the new. The intrusive critic is easy to resent—which shouldn’t blind one to the fact that widening the scope of critical discussion often serves permanently valuable ends.
Frank Kermode, like Abrams, is an established exponent of the “old” criticism; his new book, An Appetite for Poetry, gathers together ten essays almost equally divided between a critique of deconstructionists, an appreciation of three poets and a critic, and discussions of critical and textual problems, particularly as exemplified in readings of the Bible. Kermode’s interest in Biblical studies goes back a couple of books, and in this field, where enthusiastic amateurs find a happy hunting ground, he dwells, to his credit, among the strict scholars. In general, Kermode is a crisp and forceful writer—the noun is an honorific. Like Abrams, he distinguishes the first level of deconstructionists—Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man specifically—from their less literary and often more schematic epigones.
Without getting overbearingly administrative about it, he deplores the impoverishment of the literary curriculum by making Shakespeare, for example, a set of preachments on the doctrines of modern feminism, or by teaching texts from the subliterature in preference to the “classics,” however they are defined. In only one instance does he scold or hold contemporary practice up to scorn; but in concluding an essay on the common reader, he speaks very generally and very severely of those who, pursuing novelty or popularity, shortchange their students and their readers. It is the universities, he says, and the daily reviewers who come so largely from universities, whose function it is to foster the next generation of common readers: “And every narcissistic, venal, or impudent review, every clever academic stunt, is a dereliction of this duty of continuance and creation.”