In Hawthorne & History (1991) J. Hillis Miller comments on literary theory and its status in the academy:
I mean by “literary theory” the shift from the hermeneutical process of identifying the meaning of a work of literature to a focus on the question of how that meaning is generated. When there is a general consensus about literary theory, if there ever was such a time (for example in that mythical time at the beginning of the present epoch of literary studies when the “new criticism” was more or less universally accepted in the United States). theory tends to be effaced latent, presupposed. One just goes to work doing or teaching “close reading.” When a multitude of conflicting critical theories call for attention, and when in addition there is confusion over the canons and the curricula of literature, as at the present time, then literary theory, rather than being something that can more or less be taken for granted, becomes overt, exigent, even, some would say, strident. Theory tends to become a primary means of access to the works read.
I agree with those sentences, except the last one, which I would change to read: “Theory tends to become the primary means of postponing, perhaps forever, the labor of reading works of literature; or of ensuring that the reading of a particular work of literature will merely fulfill the theory that precedes it.” Meanwhile concentration on the question of “how that meaning is generated” keeps theorists busy; especially proponents of Marxism, Feminism. Minority Discourse, Cultural Studies, Deconstruction, New Historicism, and other schools of indictment.
I’ll risk distorting the story line of Miller’s career in criticism up to this point by giving a summary account of it. He started his work about thirty-five years ago as a “critic of consciousness.” Much influenced by the “Geneva School” of Georges Poulet, Marcel Raymond, Albert Béguin, Jean Rousset, Jean-Pierre Richard, and Jean Starobinski, he thought that reading a work of literature entailed what he recently called “the happy merger of two minds by way of words that provide transparent cognitive and affective access to the mind of another.”1 Reading Dickens’s novels, for instance, under that blithe illusion is like entering his house as a guest, moving freely from room to room, getting to know the place from within and to be on familiar terms with the household. The guest is then supposedly in a position to give an intimate account of Dickens’s house of fiction, to articulate its forms and ceremonies not as things seen from the street but as values felt and shared. The discrepancy between Dickens and his guest is reduced. The guest’s imagination differs from Dickens’s, it is assumed, only in degree.
Put like that, the criticism of consciousness seems to be a rush of hubris to the head. Tact requires a critic to assume that the mind of a great writer is transparent only up to a point and opaque thereafter. Guests are welcome on the understanding that they respect the host’s privacy and don’t assume that they have the run of the place. However, audacity inspired by the Geneva critics enabled Miller to write several books, including Charles Dickens: The World of his Novels (1958), The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth Century Writers (1963), Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth Century Writers (1965), The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968), and Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (1970). These were written as if Miller were indeed inside the mind of each author in turn, apprehending the images and figures of each work as if he had a proprietary claim on them. Reading such criticism is like going into a hot-house; it’s not so much the heat, it’s the humidity. But the intimacy of Miller’s reading is hard to resist.
It is my understanding that Miller, after the book on Hardy, seceded from the criticism of consciousness. Presumably he felt that his claim to have full access to any household he favored with his presence was vain. Deconstruction was the shortest way out of Geneva. Putting himself to school with Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Miller gradually developed his own nuances of Deconstruction and published them in Fiction and Repetition (1982) and The Linguistic Moment (1985). His break with the Geneva authors has been decisive. In his introduction to Jay Fellows’s Tombs, Despoiled and Haunted (1991) he expresses surprise that Fellows proposed to practice the criticism of consciousness along with Deconstruction:
How could one combine an orientation toward language as the mere register of the complexities of consciousness with an orientation toward the figurative and rhetorical complexities of language itself as the generative source of consciousness?
My short answer is: one couldn’t, shouldn’t even try.
Miller felt no misgiving, apparently, in relegating his criticism of consciousness to a warm past. Maintaining his relation to Deconstruction, he took Derrida and de Man as his peers. But he was not entirely content. Perhaps he took seriously the common opinion that deconstructive critics purvey a dismal mixture of irony, skepticism, and nihilism, finding the same grim pleasure in the same rigmaroles of indeterminacy and undecidability. He remains a paid-up deconstructionist, but he has set about showing that his version of deconstructive practice, which he disarmingly calls “rhetorical criticism,” is formidable not only as a method but as an ethic, a way of being critically honest. He does this by allowing his book to be arduous: no critic would take on such work for fun. In his recent books Miller practices Deconstruction with a difference. In The Ethics of Reading (1987), Tropes, Parables, Performatives (1990), Victorian Subjects (1990), Versions of Pygmalion (1991), and in the two new books, he has taken up the unlikely project of combining Deconstruction with Speech Act theory.
The version of that theory which he resorts to is the one J.L. Austin outlined in How to Do Things with Words (1962). Miller hasn’t been interested, apparently, in the revisions of this theory effected by Austin himself in his Philosophical Papers, by John Searle in Speech Acts (1969) and Expression and Meaning (1979), and by many other philosophers and linguists. Miller, like Emile Benveniste in Problems in General Linguistics, retains Austin’s old distinction between “constative” and “performative” sentences. Constatives (“It is Monday, 10 AM”) describe, disclose, tell, indicate a state of affairs. Performatives (“I now pronounce you husband and wife”) bring into existence the state or relation they denote; a particular marriage, a contract, a promise.
But a combination of Speech Act theory and Deconstruction is difficult to effect. There are serious discrepancies between them. Speech Act theory is predicated on the gregarious and communicative intent of practically any form of speech; it is a branch of sociolinguistics. As such, it emphasizes the speaker’s intentions and the cooperative zeal of speaker and listener. Deconstruction isn’t willing to identify the meaning of a statement with the speaker’s intention. “The presence of a fulfilled and actualized intentionality adequate to itself and to its contents,” as Derrida has remarked, has to be put in question. “What is the unity or identity of the speaker?” he asked, in a challenge to John Searle. Further: Deconstruction doesn’t allow for any stable ground on which a speaker may perform an authentic speech act. Marriage has to exist as an institution before a properly qualified person can validly say to two ardent people: “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Deconstruction doesn’t accept the privileged existence of institutions, speakers, intentions.
Why then does Miller resort to Speech Act theory while remaining a deconstructionist? Because he wants to present both speech and writing as morally responsible. An act of speech, like any other act, presupposes the responsibility the speaker is willing to take for what he says. Speech Act theory assumes that a unified subject is the one who speaks. But Miller needs Deconstruction, too, to give him the bleak assurance that there are no given or stable grounds for a speech act. So he implausibly attaches a few particles of Speech Act theory to a few particles of Deconstruction for a purpose he regards as crucial, to show that performatives can be engaged in without having principled grounds for doing so. Or rather, with the ground he himself establishes by fiat. Since he believes every given or public ground is corrupt, he refuses to stand on it. But he still wants to be a critic, preferring speech to silence. In the two new books he talks himself into this quandary and performs the derring-do of appearing to escape from it.
I can only read Miller’s books by haggling over them, wondering why he wants to make life so hard for his readers and why the only pleasure he allows them is the gratification of fighting a dour fight in a cause he regards as noble. He reminds me of Flaubert in Henry James’s account of him: “He felt of his vocation almost nothing but the difficulty.”
Illustration is a book in two strangely joined parts. The first is “The Work of Cultural Criticism in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” an elaborate afterword to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this part Miller discovers the computer and the fax and thinks that these will produce a new kind of scholar, replacing “the individual I with a new kind of we.” In this context he offers a program for Cultural Studies. Politically holy, he takes the expected stand against “genetic thinking,” essentialism, nationalism, and the “pluralism that leaves the old power structures intact.” Opposed to the pieties of “community,” he thinks of inventing
new forms of consolidation and solidarity, for example among women, or gays or lesbians, or Asian-Americans, forms that will work as means of giving power to such marginalized groups without falling back into some form of thinking in terms of self and other, us and them, or in terms of some pre-existing unity and right to power.
It would be nice, I’m sure, but to carry out these aims Miller can only suggest that cultural critics should engage in “inaugural performatives” “without precedent or ground.” It sounds like Emerson’s self-reliance to me. Everybody wants justice and democratic equity, but Miller wants these not as they are or have been but as he gazes upon them in a future of his desire and dream:
The work of the cultural critic, like the cultural products she or he studies, can and should be performed in the name of a justice and democratic equity that have not yet come into the world and that can now only be indistinctly imagined. Such appeals cannot escape the impasse of seeming to depend on standards or concepts that pre-exist the appeal, here “justice” and “democratic equity,” standards that are part of the contested hegemonic culture. But the work of cultural criticism can transform and then reinscribe these terms in a founding gesture that is without precedent or ground.
This appears to mean: I dream of democratic equity and justice in forms cleansed of historical experience and as they would be if the world were to begin again with me as God. Miller has persuaded himself of this dream, I think, by bringing into his argument several works he deems authoritative. I see there Benjamin’s “The Critique of Violence,” Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading, Derrida’s Limited Inc and Psyché. Nietzsche’s “sovereign individual” from On the Genealogy of Morals is also on hand with his “superiority over all those who lack the right to make promises and stand as their own guarantors.” I see, too, Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” with its claim that “Art is History in the essential sense that it grounds History.” Miller comments on this:
[Heidegger’s] assertion, however, can have two profoundly different meanings. It may mean that art grounds history in the sense of bringing into the light a new revelation of Being. In that case the culture or political state inaugurated and supported by the new work of art would have the authenticity of something with a firm foundation outside itself. On the other hand, Heidegger’s formulation may mean that the work of art is without its own grounds outside itself but nevertheless inaugurates history, culture and the state by a groundless performative fiat, by invention not revelation. In that case the state so founded would be without transcendent grounds and so could be seen as inauthentic, shallow and tyrannical, unless the founders, as I have argued above, are willing to take full responsibility for the new state they inaugurate.
Miller is drawn to the second interpretation. But he is dangerously sanguine about those founders of modern states who take responsibility for their actions. In many cases it doesn’t cost them anything. They have the satisfaction, and their victims pay the price.
But Miller’s immediate authority for the view that statements must be both performative and groundless is Derrida’s essay in Psyché, “Admiration de Nelson Mandela ou Les lois de la réflexion.” Derrida uses Speech Act theory when it suits him. In that essay he ascribes to Mandela “this extraordinary performative by which a signature authorizes itself to sign, in a word legalizes itself on its own responsibility without the guarantee of a preexisting law” (“cet extraordinaire performatif par lequel une signature s’autorise elle-même à signer, en un mot se légalise de son propre chef sans le garant d’une loi préalable“). This seems to me nonsense. Mandela performed his act not on his own responsibility but on the ground of the representative status granted him by his people. Performatives are always acts of authority, but Mandela hasn’t seized power, he acts, or claims to act, in the name of the moral authority his people have given him. Without that, his acts would be void. There is no merit in Miller’s appeal to “the self-constituting we” as if the hands of those who make up that “we” were cleaner than anyone else’s or more entitled to prescribe a hypothetically pure future. The notion of an act without precedent or ground is a narcissistic delusion.
In the second part of Illustration Miller studies certain works “juxtaposing picture and word.” The relation between Victorian novels and their illustrations has been of interest to him for many years, so he returns to Phiz’s illustrations to The Pickwick Papers and extends his commentary to Ruskin on engraving and photography. Heidegger on Van Gogh’s Old Shoes. Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photographs for Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, and Turner’s paintings in relation to their titles. These chapters have all the intelligence and patience we have come to expect of Miller’s writing, as in this passage on Phiz:
If Pickwick’s beaming face and shining spectacles make him, in Dickens’s words, “another sun,” and if he is repeatedly called “the illustrious Pickwick,” Phiz displaces that doubling once more from Pickwick’s round head to his round stomach. In plate after plate Pickwick’s globular white stomach, with the tiny circle of his gold watch on its chain as focus, not only commands the centre of the composition, but functions as a secondary source of illumination. Light seems to radiate in all directions from Pickwick’s stomach to bring into visibility objects and people in what are often dark and enclosed interiors.
Illustration has many passages just as good. But they are often accompanied by a strange prejudice. Miller insists on finding conflict where the evidence suggests mere difference. I agree with him that “a picture and a text juxtaposed will always have different meanings,” but it doesn’t follow that these “will conflict irreconcilably with one another, since they are different signs, just as would two different sentences side by side, or two different pictures.” I don’t see any necessary conflict between two sentences or pictures, or why there must be “warfare between media.” I can’t see why Miller talks so relentlessly of wars, battles, and other occasions of violence when only difference is present. It is alarming to find him so regularly drawing lurid conclusions, as in his assertion that in The “Sun of Venice” Going to Sea Turner is affirming “that whatever the real sun can do, his painting can also do.”
My own prejudice in these matters, I note with pleasure, accords with Henry James’s in regard to Coburn’s illustrations, that they were fine because they didn’t pretend “to keep anything like dramatic step with their suggested matter.” As expressions “of no particular thing in the text, but only the type or idea of this thing or that thing,” they were welcome. Phiz’s illustrations to The Pickwick Papers give his sense of the book, but I don’t see that they “interfere with the text,” as Miller claims, or prevent readers from making their own images of it.
Ariadne’s Thread began in 1976 as an essay on the theory of narrative sequence. In the meantime Miller has been thinking of stories in association with lines, threads, labyrinths, clues, figures, maps, numbers, hieroglyphs, rhombs, webs, mazes, and nets. The present book, the first volume in a large study of narrative, concerns itself with three issues: the question of self, the character of interpersonal relations, and “the role of figurative language in the spinning of any narrative line.” The fictions chosen to illustrate these matters include Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, George Meredith’s The Egoist, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, and Borges’s “Death and the Compass.”
As in Illustration, so in Ariadne’s Thread, “reading is an act, a performative use of language.” So is living. So is meaning:
The meaning of a word is posited by the function of the word, not determined by its true correspondence to something other than itself. Meaning is performative, constitutive, not referential. As a theory of character this means that there is no occult “self” or “consciousness” or “moral character” that manifests itself in face, signature, palm, tea leaves, or whatever. There are only the face, signature, palm, tea leaves, and so on. These constitute that character.
I’m surprised that even the face, signature, palm, and the rest are there, if meaning can’t be referential. Constatives seem to be ruled out, as in de Man’s claim, in Allegories of Reading, that “language is entirely free with regard to referential meaning.” The reason is that Miller is determined to make every act an inaugural performative. The clue is in that word “posited” in the passage just quoted. Miller won’t allow words to refer to anything but themselves. Meaning is not a privileged relation already agreed or accrued by historical and linguistic convention. It must be posited afresh in every use of a word to prevail over custom and usage. Miller is determined that his words will stand self-referentially outside any system or ground of truth. Or even of an apparently prior will. If I think I see in some situation evidence of will and character, I am mistaken: “The will and the character it creates come into existence only in a speech act.”
Gradually it becomes clear that Miller wants to see acts performed without agents, performatives without a performing self and without ground, the computer their emblem. He wants to be free of any obligation already in place, so that he can determine, and ascribe to a prophetic future, the particular obligations he will accept. He wants to start the world over again and to act as if there were only the present tense and a future of his devising. He will act responsibly, we are assured, but not yet. Meanwhile he is prospectively happy; he exerts force and looks to his true happiness in a future he claims to own.
Miller’s theory of fiction serves this dream by removing obstacles to realizing it:
My hypothesis, then: the novel as the perpetual tying and untying of the knot of selfhood for the purpose, in the psychic economy of the individual and of the community, of affirming the fiction of character by putting it fictionally in question and so short-circuiting a doubt which, left free to act in the real social world, might destroy both self and community. Belief in the self, in character, is thereby precariously maintained by the novel over the abyss of its dismantling…. The novel demonstrates, in a safe realm where nothing serious is at stake, the possibility of maintaining the fiction of selfhood in the teeth of a recognition that it is a fictive projection, an interpretation not a fact, and so always open to being dissolved by a contrary interpretation—for example, that of the multiplicity or the nonentity of the ego.
This is not a radical theory: we have been hearing of it from several critics over many years. But Miller’s version of it depends upon his setting up a stereotype of selfhood and then undermining it. He refers to an ideology that assumes, apparently, “that each person, male or female, has, or ought to have, a fixed character.” I don’t know of any such ideology. If it exists, it must have a problem accounting for a person’s changes of heart or mind; when a critic of consciousness, for instance, becomes over a few years a deconstructionist, or Meredith’s Clara changes her life between Chapter Five of The Egoist and the end. In Chapter Five Clara meets Sir Willoughby at Cherriton Grange. In Chapter Forty-eight she says to Vernon Whitford: “I shut my eyes and say Yes.” But Miller has to insist that such an ideology of fixed character once prevailed so that he can claim that several Victorian novelists questioned it and that Meredith undermined it:
Meredith’s goal is to expose and dismantle the phallogocentrism Willoughby embodies in The Egoist…. It is no accident that so many male novelists in the Victorian period, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, or Meredith, project into female protagonists the dramatization of that question fundamental to the novel: can we, or should we, believe that human beings, male or female, have fixed selves? The female protagonist has a lesson to teach us men. The assumption that character is fixed cannot be detached from the presuppositions about gender difference that underlie it. The fixed hieroglyphic of character here plays the role of the logos or phallus, the source and guarantee of all the derivative meanings and configurations of the self: moods, feelings, wiles.
In The Egoist Clara breaks her promise to marry Willoughby and commits herself to Vernon Whitford: her new promise to Vernon, Miller says, “creates its own ground, including the selfhood of the one who promises, in the act of being made.” But this implies that Clara had no reason, no grounds, for marrying Vernon except the determination to complete an inaugural speech act for which she can take full responsibility. The reason the novel gives is that Vernon won’t deprive her of the freedom she has fought hard to gain. There is nothing groundless in her decision to meet him by Lake Constance.
Miller’s reading of The Egoist is engrossing, moment by moment, detail by produced detail, but wrongheaded throughout. It is, finally, reductive. I blame his theory. Enamored of inaugural groundless acts, he insists on finding a novel to fit his prejudice, settles for The Egoist, and reads it invidiously. I can only conclude that an obscure political motive has beguiled him into a reductive mixture of two linguistic practices, mutually incompatible. I wish he would release himself, now and again, from his fidelity to a theory. Admittedly, many of the New Critics constrained their practical readings to fit a theory, but in their best work, such as William Empson’s essays on Donne, Lewis Carroll, and Eliot, they apply their minds to the work of literature directly, without bothering about the fit between their theory and their practice.
Miller’s demanding style indicates that he regards the stakes for his kind of criticism as high. Frederick Crews wouldn’t agree:
Whether on the left or right, literary indoctrination today stops absolutely at the university’s gate. Its field of operation is simply the curriculum and the faculty’s makeup—areas of importance, surely, for students’ sense of cultural inclusion or exclusion, but still Lilliputian terrain compared to the realms of business and popular culture to which those students remain continuously oriented. Except for the tiny minority who themselves seek careers in “English,” under-graduates of the nineties are proving indifferent to their professors’ blandishments, which detain them only insofar as they signal what tone it would be prudent to take in papers and exams.
These sentences refer to the current situation in literary theory as Crews sees it. The situation would be much improved, he thinks, and students much more fruitfully occupied, if critics were to devise theories of real use and value. Meanwhile he thinks that some of the current enthusiasms in the academy—social pluralism, iconoclasm, and antinationalism—derive ultimately from revulsion against America’s role in the Vietnam War:
It is not surprising that the dissensus critics have made their strongest impression thus far through their critique of the “liberal consensus” of the forties and fifties. Growing up a decade later, they were schooled by activists to distrust not only the shibboleths of patriotism and the melting pot but also such honorific terms as “art,” “unity,” and “complexity,”—concepts that figured centrally in their liberal predecessors’ lexicon.
The Critics Bear It Away is a collection of Crews’s recent work, much of it first published in The New York Review, on Mark Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and John Updike. The book also contains Crews’s recantation of the Freudianism of his book on Hawthorne, The Sins of the Fathers (1966). Lively and perceptive, each of these essays, but the main interest of the book is the verve with which Crews takes a position and makes it appear the only honorable one in sight. He claims the tone of the center and is happiest when looking forward to the descent of a plague on all competing houses. He is for democracy, pluralism, liberalism, secular skepticism, “ample social sympathies, and expanded civil liberties.” He is also for orneriness, “singular departures from established belief and practice,” especially in those American writers who are clearly in the major leagues. He attacks poststructuralism for its “deep negativity about the possibilities of both knowledge and social progress—a negativity so unrelenting that it decomposes the individual human ‘subject’ into a helpless vector of forces that typically cannot even be located, much less stemmed.” The creative source of literature, he insists, is to be found in authors and their intentions, and he attacks anyone who denies this:
Once writers have been discounted as the primary shapers of their works, critics are free to “liberate signifiers from the signified”—that is, to make a text mean anything or nothing according to whim. From Roland Barthes through Jacques Derrida to Foucault himself, poststructuralism has conflated such quasi-libidinal linguistic play with political liberty, as if a carnival of unconstrained textuality could somehow serve as a proxy for the actual release of oppressed social groups from neglect and exploitation.
Good polemic, but it hardly even pretends to be fair. It doesn’t do justice to Barthes, Derrida, or Foucault. Nor would it do justice to Miller, who never “makes a text mean anything or nothing according to whim.” What each of these critics does with words is certainly open to debate. But Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault are writers so different from one another that it is unfair to line them up together for attack. Some of Derrida’s books, notably Glas, include high jinks, and I’m inclined to assign such passages to his autobiography, but he is normally a careful, abstemious writer. His methods are diverse, sometimes opportunistic, as in his dealings with Speech Act theory, but I don’t see why they deserve to be rebuked more sharply than those of any other critic. His essay on Joyce’s Ulysses seems daft to me, but I don’t find it a scandal. Besides, I doubt that charges as comprehensive as Crews’s are now worth making. It’s time for analysis of particular essays, paragraph by paragraph.
Crews himself doesn’t go in for much theory. I suppose he would call himself an empiricist, in this passage and elsewhere:
The split in our currently polarized academy, I believe, falls not between “theorists” and “antitheorists” but between apriorists of various kinds and what I would insist on calling empiricists. For apriorists, a theory is worth exercising if it yields results that gratify the critic’s moral or ideological passions; no further demands need be placed on it. To an empiricist, however, the justification for a theory must reside in its combination of logical coherence, epistemic scrupulousness, and capacity to explain relatively undisputed facts at once more parsimoniously and more comprehensively than its rivals do.
This makes a tenable distinction, and I recognize that we have more apriorists than empiricists. Rhetorical criticism is more devoted to its self-fulfilling practices than to the literature it ostensibly serves. But empiricism seems to me the position of a critic who asks readers not to pester him with demands for nicety of definition when it comes to theoretical questions; he has more urgent issues on his mind.
Specifically: there are novels and poems to be read. Crews thinks that criticism, like literature, “is essentially a means of exercising power” and that power is exercised in the university by those who tell students which books to read and how to read them. He is exasperated by the success of the New Americanists, as he calls them—Sacvan Bercovitch, Myra Jehlen, Richard Slotkin, Donald Pease, Jonathan Arac, and other scholars—in kidnapping American literature and setting the terms for its pedagogical release:
What New Americanists discover in a standard work is usually a defect of consciousness that they had posited from the outset—most often some form of compliance with Jacksonian selfishness, racism, sexism, homophobia, or environmental rapacity. The conclusion can prove disappointingly commonplace after the dazzling theoretical moves that have led up to it.
It would be a good sign if the academy were ready to debate these issues, but I can’t see it happening. Critical theory, so far as it bears on the reading of American literature, is busy with its own processes, the usual stuff, moves of power play, patronage, and suppression.
On particular works of literature and criticism, Crews trusts to his possession of decent instincts. Sometimes I myself find him unnecessarily harsh: a reference to “the incurably superficial [Malcolm] Cowley” is unjust to the author of Exile’s Return, an entirely honorable memoir of the 1920s. In the essay on Flannery O’Connor Crews says he intends “to show that we can never recognize the strongest examples of her fiction, or let them work their magic on us, if we keep demanding that they also flatter our opinions,” and he scolds critics who evade or misunderstand her Catholicism. “Where God is, there shall the Lacanian unconscious be,” he writes by way of comment on one critic’s interpretation of her work. This is a most valuable and just essay. But in a review of Roger’s Version Crews doesn’t give Updike the benefit of the same allowance. He doesn’t let Updike have his free say on sex, women, liberalism, and other issues. Without much analysis of the fiction, Crews reports that Updike’s sensibility “has appreciably calcified, leaving him at once morally obtuse, politically inflexible, and crabbedly protective of beliefs that boil down to me-first salvationism.” I thought boiling-down was what critics weren’t supposed to do.
On the major American writers, on Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Crews is unfailingly perceptive. He is particularly good at indicating what the context of opinion is, where the disagreements are especially acute, and why in a given case it matters.
The most personal and therefore the most telling part of Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent is a dialogue at the end. “A” is “about fifty years old, a Left Arnoldian who teaches English at a large state university not far from New York City.” “B” is a bit younger, an associate professor of English at Yale, more respectful than “A” of recent developments in academic criticism. We may as well call “A” Morris Dickstein and think of Double Agent as a defense of his part in the conversation:
For me, I suppose, the golden age came between the twenties and the sixties, a period of great, classically trained European scholars like Spitzer and Auerbach, idiosyncratic writers like Blackmur, Benjamin, and Leavis, and major public critics like Wilson and Trilling. The more recent ferment in criticism has engaged me more as spectacle than for its insight or theoretical progress.
It follows that “the main task for criticism today is to recapture the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century.”
It is no wonder then that Dickstein’s book is a little dispirited. He is dismayed but not surprised by the ease with which questions worth arguing about in the university have been domesticated:
This is finally what I object to most about much of the work done recently on race, class, and gender. Here were subjects that were unfairly neglected, except by the occasional maverick like Leslie Fiedler. Here were outsider groups and new materials that the politics of the sixties put on the cultural agenda. But they’ve been caught up in the iron law of academic routinization and conformity. This was just what happened to the New Criticism twenty or thirty years after its ideas were fresh: they were turned into pedagogic methods. By 1990, race, class, and gender were what irony, paradox, and ambiguity had become by 1960: catchwords, predictable gambits, the academic tombstones of critical originality.
Dickstein blames Deconstruction for many of our illnesses and especially for the removal of literary criticism from public places. Deconstruction, he says, “undermined the communal basis of practical criticism, which is grounded in the possibility of common perception and mutual assent.” Deconstructionists feel, he alleges, “that the moment they’ve opened a slight wedge between the words on the page and the world they describe, they’ve opened up an abyss—between language and its referents, between signs and what they signify.”
So he goes back, with evident relief, to the golden age. He starts with Arnold and the community of interests that led to Leavis, Wilson, and Trilling. There is a good chapter on I. A. Richards and the New Criticism. Of S/Z, Barthes’s study of Balzac’s Sarrasine, Dickstein is surprisingly appreciative:
Barthes,… by grappling with the charms of the readerly, with the monster Balzac at his most lurid and exotic, with bizarre themes of sexual distortion and misplaced passion, undergoes the kind of unsettling confrontation that is the glory of practical criticism.
Equally good are Dickstein’s chapters on reviewers and journalists, Sainte-Beuve, Henry James, Wilson again, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin, in a line of criticism happily not yet finished. There is a fine comparison between F.W. Dupee and V.S. Pritchett, “like Dupee a cultivated comic ironist adventuring among the world’s classics.” Dickstein then comes to detail. Or rather, to a series of studies of the critics he takes most seriously. But this part of the book is weakened by the eccentricity of his choice of books. Trilling is appropriately represented by The Liberal Imagination, but Blackmur by A Primer of Ignorance rather than Language as Gesture, and Frye by The Modern Century, not Anatomy of Criticism. It is no surprise that Dickstein’s accounts of Blackmur and Frye are lightweight and that he is more assured on Trilling:
Trilling’s distinctive style is rarely noticed by commentators who try to give his work a strongly ideological character. When they cut through his rhetoric to the Archimedean point of his belief or commitment, they are cutting away nearly everything we are likely to value about him—not his certitudes, which were few, but his way of arriving at them; not his ideology, but the undulations of mind that ran counter to the fixities of ideology.
Well said, and it lacks only an analysis of the distinctive style it praises.
But Double Agent has the features of an epitaph. Dickstein does well to inform students that criticism was once a public art, reaching beyond the academy. Arnold, Ruskin, Pater, George Eliot, Leslie Stephen, Edmund Gosse, and many other critics wrote for a public, not only for university students. This is the good moral of Dickstein’s story. But he doesn’t explain what precisely has changed, and why. Deconstruction can’t be blamed for everything. Dickstein attacks it, but doesn’t engage with it, except at the safe distance of generalization. It would be more constructive to encounter Deconstruction or “rhetorical criticism” not on the ground of its theories or prophecies but on that of its local interventions; Derrida on Mallarmé, de Man on Rousseau, Miller on Hopkins. It would also be useful, by the way, to publish an anthology of good critics often forgotten: Kenneth Burke, Winters, Ransom, G. Wilson Knight, A.C. Bradley, and D.W. Harding, for a start.
Much of the critical theory I have been glancing at had its origin in France and Germany and came to the United States bearing the names of Heidegger, Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, de Man, Deleuze, Lyotard, Blanchot, and other daunting sages. It is surprising to find American critics so open to it; to see Fredric Jameson explicating Adorno, Bloch, and Habermas, and Richard Rorty annotating Derrida. Have these American philosophers and critics no home to go to, no intellectual tradition of their own? An answer currently in favor is: yes, there is indeed a tradition on our native ground, but we lost sight of it for many years, dazzled as we were by such rhetoricians of Modernism as Eliot and Pound. The tradition is American Pragmatism. During the past several years, Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, Richard Poirier, Harold Bloom, and other writers have been recovering the Pragmatism that may be derived, with a certain amount of accommodation and special pleading, from Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. They have also been offering to show its action in William James’s Pragmatism, Dewey’s Experience and Nature, and many works by C.S. Peirce, G.H. Mead, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, and Kenneth Burke. Giles Gunn’s new book, like his The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture (1987), is an attempt to expound this Pragmatism and to extend the list of its adherents.
Pragmatism holds that the purport of any concept is its conceived bearing upon one’s actions. Knowledge is pursued on the understanding that, as Mead says in Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, “the process of knowing lies inside of the process of conduct.” Pragmatism has given up on the ultimate, it puts in parenthesis the question of first and last things: whereof one may not usefully speak, thereof one should remain decently silent. It might then be more accurate to refer to Pragmatism as a method rather than a philosophy or a metaphysic. It may not even be a theory. Its motto is, simply, one step at a time. Gunn doesn’t press hard on the issue of Pragmatism as a philosophy. He doesn’t contend with Eliot’s objection, for instance, that “the error of Pragmatism has often been to treat certain other concepts, like ‘usefulness’ or ‘success,’ as if they had the absoluteness denied to truth.”2 Nor does Gunn engage Quentin Anderson’s charge, in Making Americans, that the relation between Pragmatism and Individualism is so damaging that Pragmatism “is utterly helpless before the encounter of two or more live persons.” Gunn avoids such issues by treating Pragmatism as a modest program:
Pragmatism does not pretend to be without prejudice; it merely holds that all prejudices are subject to revision if we can learn how to replace the foundationalist “quest for certainty,” whether ontological or ideological, with a more provisional relation to our convictions and a more quizzical attitude toward where they may carry us and what sorts of criticism they can sustain…. Pragmatism is simply one method for advancing the discussion…a discussion that is not restricted to consensus but can sustain real conflicts so long as they remain within the limits of the conversable.
But this notion of the “conversable,” which is taken from Rorty’s idea of cultural life as our finding better ways of conversation, is specious. Gunn well knows that millions of people are excluded from this High Table felicity. He also knows what Jean-François Lyotard had in mind, in “Universal History and Cultural Difference,” by “the insurmountable diversity of cultures.” So it is whistling in the dark to claim that everything will work out right so long as “we” keep on talking. It won’t.
Gunn’s main business is to suggest that the best work of nineteenth-century American thought was a revision of Enlightenment Rationalism and of American religion by the sages of Pragmatism; not only Emerson, William James, and Peirce but three more Jameses, the elder Henry, the younger Henry, and Alice. His method is to argue with Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism and other such works. Omnivorously hospitable to other minds, including minds not self-evidently better than his own, Gunn is often a cheerleader for his peers. I wish he would have his say in his own fine voice. Instead of summarizing Rorty, he could have questioned Rorty’s idea that one can act upon a groundless sense of human solidarity, based on hope rather than knowledge. Miller’s idea of a groundless inaugural performative doesn’t sound plausible to me, but it ought to come into this reckoning.
In Thinking Across the American Grain Gunn hasn’t given himself much space to write about American literature or to indicate what difference a reading of that literature under the auspices of Pragmatism would make. In a few pages on Moby-Dick he interprets the book as showing the transition from Ahab’s mind to Ishmael’s, and he presents Ishmael as a pragmatist, “adopting an attitude that is tentative, experimental, provisional, improvisatory, eclectic, synoptic, changeable, and even contradictory.” But that is hardly news. I miss, too, any clear indication of the bearing of Pragmatism on our current practices in the university. Gunn favors Pragmatism as a method of retaining the best values, as he sees them, of American Protestantism and the Enlightenment, but he hasn’t worked out its implications as a critical theory or established its claim to a larger share of our teaching practice. Pragmatism is one method among many. Should it make a stronger claim for itself and dislodge other theoretical claimants? Gunn doesn’t say.
Instead, he gives us the satisfaction of learning that “we live amidst the predications of more than one ideology at a time.” There is no such thing as a Zeitgeist, thank God. It is still possible to be a pluralist in one’s academic life, choosing interests and actions day by day, writing Whim upon one’s computer. It is hard to know what is going on in classrooms, but my impression of undergraduate courses is that most of them are still based on fairly close reading of texts, mostly fiction, with a certain amount of straightforward historical background. I suspect that a good deal of teaching there quickly becomes a discussion of themes, released from the complication of their formal destiny. Classes are often cabals, fraternities, sororities, that come together for ideological warmth. Graduate courses are probably more of the same. I would be surprised to find much deconstructive practice there, if only because Deconstruction is a function of writing—it can’t easily be spoken. Much of Miller’s writing in Ariadne’s Thread is too difficult to be spoken or indeed to be paraphrased. A few passages of de Man’s work, on Wordsworth and on Yeats, could be negotiated in a classroom, but his essays on Hölderlin, Rilke, Proust, Rousseau, and Nietzsche are made for slow perusal in print.
As for the professors: if you consulted the program for this year’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, you would think they are only interested in sex, with a major in homosexuality. But that impression is probably inaccurate. Only the scare stories get into circulation: in James Atlas’s Battle of the Books, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education. There is much evidence that academic teachers are doing, most of them, what they have been doing for years, writing biographies, pursuing textual and historical scholarship, editing Catullus, translating the Iliad. The critics haven’t entirely borne it away.
March 25, 1993