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Critics at the Top

Selected Writings 1950-1990

by Irving Howe
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 490 pp., $34.95

Versions of Pygmalion

by J. Hillis Miller
Harvard University Press, 263 pp., $25.00

Near the end of Versions of Pygmalion J. Hillis Miller argues that reading involves two obligations. On the one hand: “to transfer to reading Henry James’s injunction to the observer of life, the novice writer: ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’ ” On the other: “to reduce the inexplicable to the explicable, to find its reason, its law, its ground.” I have never respected this second duty. It seems to me to pretend to knowledge where knowledge is impossible. I would much prefer to be shown that a book or a painting is mysterious than to have someone reduce it to the explicable for my poor benefit. But Miller’s concern is a crucial one, as this passage from his book indicates:

Current criticism tends to propose one or another of the following three grounds on the basis of which the anomalies of narrative may be made lawful: (1) society, or the more or less hidden social and ideological pressures that impose themselves on storytelling and reveal themselves in oddness; (2) individual psychology, or the more or less hidden psychic pressures that impose themselves on storytelling and make it unaccountable; (3) language, or the more or less hidden rhetorical pressures, pressures from some torsion within language itself, that impose themselves on the storyteller and make it impossible for the story to maintain itself as a lucid and reasonable account.

Miller says that each of these axioms is imperialistic: “Each as a mode of explanation demands to exercise sovereign control over the others.” He remarks, too, of these axioms the “strong resistance generated in some of those to whom they are proposed.” He doesn’t say whether, in a particular case, the resistance is justified or not.

I don’t know what readers would make of Irving Howe’s Selected Writings 1950–1990 if they didn’t place a high valuation upon the axiom of society; if they didn’t regard social considerations as of the first importance. It is not to be expected that in a selection of his essays over a period of forty years Howe will always be found enforcing the same emphases, but he has never forgotten the social imperative or its bearing upon literature and criticism. In “Writing and the Holocaust” (1986) he has this paragraph:

Chaim Kaplan’s Warsaw diary, covering a bit less than a year from its opening date of September 1, 1938, is a document still recognizably within the main tradition of Western writing: a man observes crucial events and strives to grasp their significance. Kaplan’s diary shows the discipline of a trained observer; his prose is lucid and restrained; he records the effort of Warsaw Jewry to keep a fragment of its culture alive even as it stumbles into death; and he reveals a torn soul wondering what premises of faith, or delusion, sustain his “need to record.” Barely, precariously, we are still in the world of the human as we have understood it, for nothing can be more human than to keep operating with familiar categories of thought while discovering they will no longer suffice.

Howe would not compare Kaplan’s experience with his own, or claim to possess a torn soul. But many of his books and essays find him, in arduously patient tones, working with familiar categories of thought while discovering they no longer suffice. Or that they are no longer heeded. The idea of society, the sentiment amounting to a conviction that we survive, if we do, as a society: this is Howe’s axiom. During the past forty years he has had many occasions to reflect with dismay upon the fragility, in practice, of this sentiment; and upon the recurring demand to live (as Lionel Trilling phrased it) “beyond culture.” In “Anarchy and Authority in American Literature” (1967) Howe wrote:

There is no other Western culture of the past two centuries in which, to my knowledge, so many demands have been expressed for the “creation of values.” When one comes to think of it, that is really an extraordinary fact. The literatures of Europe either sustain traditional values or enlarge upon revolutionary values; but both are seen as inseparable from the social order in which the writer writes and the reader reads. In our culture we have made the unprecedented demand upon writers that they “create values” quite apart from either tradition or insurgency. What we have often meant is that they establish a realm of values at a distance from the setting of actual life, thereby becoming priests of the possible in a world of shrinking possibilities. We ask them to discover, out of their desperate clarity, a vision we can cherish, and cherish perhaps in direct proportion to our knowledge that we will not—or cannot—live by it.

There is a feasible riposte to this; that while “we” may not undertake to live by the vision we cherish, someone else may, our children may. But I don’t think I could persuade Howe to settle for that. He has lived upon his own vision for so long.

Socialism is his name for it. He refers to “the unity of socialism and democracy,” “the liberal-radical vision of the good society,” a realm of values he associates with individuality and dissent. He finds it hard to understand “why the American working class in the 1880s and 1890s engaged in very militant and even violent strikes yet did not ‘move ahead’ to any large-scale socialist beliefs.” During the years annotated by these essays, Howe has witnessed “the debacle of socialism” to the point at which his readers would be justified in asking him how this will-o’-the-wisp differs from the most outlandish dream offered by Emerson or any other American writer. In “The New York Intellectuals” (1968) Howe refers to the plight of a few intellectuals, including Nicola Chiaromonte, Paul Goodman, and Dwight Macdonald, “who wished to dissociate themselves from the postwar turn to realpolitik but could not find ways of transforming sentiments of rectitude and visions of utopia into a workable politics.” I don’t understand why he did not add his own name to that short list. As editor of Dissent, he’s entitled to that modest reward.

In the same essay Howe writes:

Once it became clear that waiting for the revolution might turn out to be steady work and that the United States would neither veer to fascism nor sink into depression, the intellectuals had little choice but to live within (which didn’t necessarily mean, become partisans of) the existing society.

That, in brief, has remained Howe’s position, and the parenthetical nuance marks his scruple.

But he finds the conditions dismal. In “Reaganism: The Spirit of the Times” (1986) he ponders “the collapse of American liberalism”:

To recall Lionel Trilling’s once-famous remark of the 1950s—that in America liberalism is the only viable political tradition—is to thrust oneself back into another world. In the face of the Reaganite victory, the organizational and ideological collapse of American liberalism has been astonishing. Hardly a politician dares acknowledge himself to be a liberal, the very word itself having come to seem a political handicap.

In such a context it may be deemed vulgar to ask: What bearing has Irving Howe’s social emphasis upon his literary criticism? But a social vision may be an incitement to criticism even when it has no chance of establishing itself in political life. A will-o’-the-wisp, if believed in and pursued over hard ground, may allow a writer to come upon his subject obliquely or desperately, which may be in that case the only way of coming upon it at all. The myth of socialism, like any other myth, enables Howe to imagine what James called “the possible other case,” the case rich and edifying where the producible reality is for the most part sordid.

As a case in point, I am thinking of Howe’s essay on “George Eliot and Radical Evil,” his introduction to Daniel Deronda. Received opinion on that novel, mainly received from Henry James and F. R. Leavis, says that the whole Jewish part of it is dead, but that the other part, the deplorable marriage of Gwendolen and Grandcourt, is George Eliot’s most powerfully imagined work. Howe is forced to agree with this, but since he is loath to see anything Jewish die, he postpones the obsequies with causes and explanations. He tries to explain why George Eliot, having set out to imagine Daniel Deronda and to summon him into particular life, found herself merely assigning to him the civilizing function that Matthew Arnold assigned to the Hellenic element in any of his readers. Howe’s essay is characteristically generous and tactful; notably in its recognition that the relation between Gwendolen and Grandcourt is finally mysterious, and that “George Eliot explores this ‘mystery’ but is too much the novelist simply to clear it up.” It is a mark of Howe’s tact that he does not offer to clear it up for her.

It is hard to say what Geoffrey Hartman’s ruling axiom is. Of Miller’s three, he would choose “Language” but not if it forced him to think reality merely an affair of words. His preoccupation over many years with the Holocaust has preserved him from that idolatry. But he is sympathetic to the language critics, and especially to Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man.

Minor Prophecies is a gathering of Hartman’s recent essays, linked by a concern for the character of the essay itself as a form of intervention. The matters upon which these essays intervene include the theory and practice of reading, methods of interpretation, the question of style, and the various styles of deconstruction. The critics he describes most fully are Leavis and de Man, but there are many vivid pages also on Derrida, T.S. Eliot, Valéry, Virginia Woolf, Habermas, I.A. Richards, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, and Kenneth Burke. Hartman’s strategy is to describe two established forms of style and to try to make peace between their exponents.

The first style is that of the familiar essay. Historically, it issues from the French salons of the seventeenth century and from practices of conversation in France and England: it invokes “the gentle reader,” presumes upon social and moral consensus, and fears enthusiasm. Addison and Steele are among its adepts, Coleridge called it “the middle style,” and in most of its versions it looks back to Horace. It is the style of friendship, “from Dryden to Donoghue,” as Hartman agreeably describes it. The second style is that of Theory; it is “prose with a noticeable proportion of technical terms.” Difficult, experimental, speculative, rabbinic, it is a style of disenchantment, and Hartman values it in that character:

We who are bewitched by capitalism must find a means of disenchantment, of breaking the spell, and from within our historical moment. Otherwise we lapse into a transcendental form of interpretation, whereby thought realizes only itself and does not change anything outside itself.

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