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

Frank Kermode
Frank Kermode; drawing by David Levine

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…

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