The poverty of literary theory

ALMOST THIRTY-FOUR YEARS ago, in May 1962, the Times Literary Supplement published a front-page article, ‘The Myth of Clarity’ which contained a savage attack on the quality of French intellectual life. The article caused a considerable stir in England, while from accross the Channel there were even murmurs that the Entente Cordiale had been infringed.  According to the article’s anonymous author a new passion for obscurity was in the process of rendering obsolete the traditional virtue of French language and thought – la clarté. ‘Everywhere,’ he wrote, ‘private symbols and half formulated intuitions pose as proofs and profundities. Everywhere the functions of prose and poetry are confused in maelstroms of ambiguity . . . It seems that a French worker expresses himself more clearly and more genuinely than an intellectual.  At any rate he is not constantly in danger of groping for a substance behind every substantive.’  While the French intellectual establishment had devoted a great deal of energy to preserving the purity of the French language, it had, so the argument ran, neglected the issue of meaning.  The Times Literary Supplement contributor went on to quote what he described as ‘an example of a series of grammatically correct but strictly meaningless sentences such as are taken seriously by groups of the French intelligentsia today.’  The passage he quoted was by a psychoanalyst who at that time was only just beginning to emerge from obscurity – Jacques Lacan.

Looking back on that Times Literary Supplement article from the vantage-point of the present, it is difficult not to credit its author with a certain prophetic insight.  We have only to open almost any book of criticism by a contemporary French literary theorist to find confirmation that la clarté has now been dethroned from the position it formerly held in French intellectual life.  In some quarters, one thinks in particular of Lacanian psychoanalysis, it may even be the case that lucidity of expression is regarded as a positive vice, a sign both of intellectual shallowness and complicity with the bourgeoisie who, it is sometimes claimed, have exploited la clarté as a virtue appropriate to ‘the discourse of persuasion and autocracy.’  The situation is one that many continue to find alarming.  Although it is now far too late to do as the Times Literary Supplement contributor suggested and enlist in the armies of clarity in order to repel the invading structuralist hordes, some literary critics still see it as their primary duty to fight a rearguard action on behalf of clarity.

I believe that this is to approach the problem in the wrong way.  For while ‘The Myth of Clarity’ remains in many ways a brilliant piece of polemic, the position adopted by its English author has about it an unmistakable air of diversionary xenophobia; by dramatising the threat from without – in this case from France – it succeeded in making Anglo-American intellectual culture seem a much more solid and hopeful affair than it might otherwise have appeared.  The threat from abroad could be made into an excuse for complacency at home and we in England and America could blind ourselves to our own lack of virtue by gloating over the vices of our French neighbours.

But there is another yet more serious reason for resisting recruitment to the cause of clarity.  In some contexts it may well be that clarity is desirable and in other contexts it may be a necessity.  But it is not in this way that la clarté has traditionally been regarded in French culture.  It has been regarded as a virtue in which some absolute value resides.  For la clarté signifies not only lucidity of expression but also precision and a certain economy or purity of style.  French culture has been by no means unique in the way it has sometimes succumbed to the idolatrous worship of these qualities.  The clarity which results is, as many literary theorists have pointed out, potentially treacherous.  Clarity becomes, as the English literary critic John Sturrock has put it, ‘a fetish, a fine example of a cultural value masquerading as a natural one (Structuralism and Since ed John Sturrock, OUP, 1979).  What is tacitly promoted is the myth that we remain in control of a social and economic process whose complexities, internal contradictions and injustices vanish away as reality is reduced to the hard, clear outlines demanded by conventional philosophic expression.  The process by which we purport to be clarifying our relationship to the world thus becomes a potent act of mystification; the philosopher obscures the very reality he claims to reveal.

This argument must, I believe, be taken a stage further, for the ideals which are adopted by national cultures do not spring into being without an history and without a context.  The idea of la clarté is no exception to this rule. Indeed, as has already been suggested, it would be wrong to regard it as an exclusively French preoccupation.  In the most general terms our love of clarity cannot be dissociated from the cultural ideal of purity. ‘Am I speaking of dirty things?’ Nietzsche writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra. ‘That does not seem to me the worst thing I could do.  Not when truth is dirty but when it is shallow does the enlightened man dislike to wade into its waters.’  The aphorism is one that strikes at the very roots of our culture and runs counter to one of its most powerful tendencies.  For we have inherited both from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and from Plato an aspiration towards purity and a tendency to equate purity with truth which has become deeply embedded into our very cultural identity (see ‘God, Physics and Darwin: why scientists aren’t sceptical). 

Within this broad cultural context there have, of course, been many more specific influences which have helped to shape our modern notion of clarity.  One of the most significant stages in the development of this notion coincided with the rise of experimental science in seventeenth century Europe.  The publication of results brought with it a need not only for standardised mathematical notations, but also for economy and precision in the use of language.  The linguistic ideal promoted by the Royal Society was, in keeping with the Puritan affiliations of its members, one of almost ascetic bareness.  Members were extolled to present their findings ‘without amplifications, digressions and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words.’  The idea which was set before members was that of ‘bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can.’

That mathematics should be offered as a model for linguistic expression is in itself highly significant and may in turn be related back to the more general ideal of purity.  For in many ways it is in the discipline of mathematics that our cultural aspirations towards clarity and purity have found their most intense expression.  When Bertrand Russell claimed that mathematics was one of the elements in human life which merited a place in heaven, he derived the view from Plato.  Mathematics, in Russell’s intensely religious view, is ‘remote from human passions, remote even from the pitiful facts of  nature’; it makes up an ‘ordered cosmos’ and has a supreme and orderly beauty which is ‘sublimely pure’.  (Mysticism and Logic)  With these words and their ascetic stress on the notion of purity we might well compare Einstein’s recollection of how, confronted for the first time by the proofs of Euclidean geometry, ‘this clarity and certainty made an indescribable impression on me.’  He goes on to write that it is marvellous that man is able, by thought alone, to reach such a degree of certainty and purity as the Greeks showed us for the first time to be possible in geometry.’ 

This love of conceptual rigour and lucidity is, of course, entirely appropriate to an abstract discipline like mathematics, or even to physics, a discipline which eschews the study of complex organisms in favour of studying the relatively simple structure of matter,  However, any attempt to transfer to the study of literature or human nature the love of precision and intolerance of ambiguity which are necessary attributes of the mathematician brings with it the risk – one might better say the certainty – that these attributes will become part of an ideology of domination.  For it is almost a truism to observe that if we are intolerant of complex ambiguity we are likely to be intolerant of human nature – our own and that of others.  It is perhaps some of the observations made by Artaud about the nature of cruelty which capture most succinctly and most chillingly the extent to which violence is locked into what we sometimes consider merely intellectual qualities: ‘From the point of view of the mind,’ writes Artaud, ‘cruelty signifies rigour, implacable intention and decision . . . Cruelty is above all lucid . . . ’  When the problem is viewed in this perspective we may well understand why the rebellion against la clarté which, according to many proponents of modern literary theory, was mounted by Lacan, Derrida and others, should have been interpreted as a contribution to the politics of liberation.

It is just here, however, that it becomes impossible to take the same line of argument any further.  Indeed I would suggest that, although apologists for modern literary theory are adept at decrying the mystifications of others, they are often themselves masters of the art of mystification.  The idea that that the post-Saussurean thinkers on which so much modern literary theory is based succesfully mounted a radical revolt against the repressive notion of la clarté is perhaps the most brilliantly false of all the arguments by which modern literary theorists have sought to maintain their political credibility.  For while it is ceratinly true that a lot of post-Saussurean criticism is obscure, beneath its convoluted surface we encounter a sensibility which is quite different from that which its apologists usually lay claim to.  For in the whole history of our culture there has perhaps never been an intellectual movement in the humanities which has carried the cult of precision and purity to such an improbably cruel extreme as did the original structuralist thinkers who laid the foundations of modern literary theory in the 1950s and the 1960s.

At the heart of this intellectual movement there lies the attempt of modern linguistics to create a scientific understanding of language.  The at times equivocal tendency of Saussure himself to think of language as a self-contained system, independent of intentions, needs and desires of the men and women who use it has been exaggerated and extended by many of the theorists who invoked Saussure’s authority.  Saussure’s own tendency to abstract language in this way was carried much further by Roman Jakobson.  To understand how this came about we need to appreciate the extent to which, unconsciously, and to some extent consciously as well, structural linguistics tended to model itself on the programme of the physical sciences, and in particular atomic physics.  One of the premises on which the whole of modern physics rests is that matter is made up out of particles and that if the structure of these particles can be established our knowledge of the natural world will be enhanced.  The dream of atomic physics was always to isolate the smallest particle of matter and then to go further and split that particle into yet smaller components.  Modern linguists have never been so crude as to emulate this project directly and they frequently decry ‘linguistic atomism’. In spite of this, however, the notion that it is helpful to talk about language as if it is made up of small units has played an extraordinarily influential role in linguistic theory.  Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the amount of attention which has been given to the phoneme concept.

The problem which is raised by any attempt to talk of phonemes as if they were the  basic units of something called ‘language’ may be stated simply: language is neither a substance not a self-contained system.  It is, rather, an aspect of human behaviour – an animal capacity which is saturated in intention, in affectivity, in referentiality and in expressiveness. Since language is but a dimension of social behaviour it cannot be isolated or broken down into particles and the reason for this has nowhere been expressed more powerfully than in the lines of Yeats:

O chestnut-tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

What Yeats expresses is not simply an ecstatic or poetic axiom but a logical one as well.  To treat language as if it were a substance or a self-contained system is to commit what Whitehead called ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’.  Modern linguistic theorists disguise this problem partly by invoking the logically equivocal notion of ‘relative autonomy’ and partly by using the distinction between langue and parole to arbitrarily re-define language.  The language which they analyse is not what is ordinarily understood by the word but that which is left when almost all that is distinctively human has been subtracted from the noises we use to communicate.  The emotions which are expressed in those noises are disregarded.  At the same time they are sanitised of all violence and obscenity.  Indeed, before they are submitted to final analysis, they are even delivered provisionally from all connection with meaning.

The ‘structure’ of language can now be uncovered.  One key notion in this process of putative discovery is that of the phoneme, regarded as ‘a unit of sound functionally contrasting with another unit’.  The concept of the phoneme was already formulated in the nineteenth century, but the reformulation of the concept by the Prague School and in particular by Roman Jakobson was crucial to the entire evolution of structuralism and, thereby, of modern literary theory itself.  What Jakobson proposed, of course, was that phonemes are not, as had been assumed, undecomposable entities.  In the words of his closest collaborator Morris Halle, he proposes instead that ‘phonemes are nothing but complexes of features, much as chemical atoms are now seen as specific configurations of protons, electrons, etc.’ (Roman Jakobson, ed. Daniel Armstrong)  These features are, according to Jakobson, drawn from a pool of twelve universal ‘distinctive features’ each of which comprises a pair of logically opposed elements: oral or nasal, strident or mellow, consonantal or non-consonantal, and so on.

The exact status of this form of phonological analysis in Jakobson’s own thought remains a matter of debate, with Halle suggesting at one point that the binary basis of phonological classifications was simply a methodological device.  The most radical and extraordinary conclusion which has been drawn from Jakobson’s work, however, is that it reveals the underlying structure both of language and of the mind itself as binary; binary oppositions are discovered not only at the level of phonology, but also at the level of words and sentences.  Although Jakobson’s analysis is supposedly functional, the binary relationships he pointed to were treated by some, especially by Jakobson’s disciple Lévi-Strauss, as if they constituted a kind of secret inner reality of language.

In order to place such reactions in perspective we should bear in mind that the real object of Jakobson’s analysis is not language, but a mechanically synthesisable sound-system which is associated with many but by no means all examples of linguistic behaviour.  What his phonological theories analyse is neither the blossom nor the bole, neither the dancer nor the dance, but certain features which have been artificially abstracted from language.  Yet in spite of all the numerous grounds for scepticism, refutation, or even simple indifference, Jakobson’s binary analysis of ‘distinctive features’ would eventually come to exercise a huge influence both inside and outside the discipline of linguistics. 

The seemingly irrational fervour with which disciples like Lévi-Strauss adopted these theories and made them into keystones of their own thinking would suggest that, for all their scientific appearances, Jakobson’s theories owed their appeal to some other dimension secreted within them.  I would suggest that their appeal can only be understood if we bear in mind the extent to which our modern intellectual culture has grown directly out of a more ancient religious tradition.  For it would seem that the appeal of Jakobson’s theory is of a fundamentally religious nature, and that, under the pretext of scientifically isolating the smallest particles of language, what structural phonology actually does is to transcendentally purify language of the pollution of the human.  By presenting an animal capacity rooted in the culturally and biologically determined complexities of human nature as though it resembled an ordered mathematical grid it conforms to one of the oldest and most repressive patterns of Judaeo-Christian religion – that which, in a compulsive quest for purity, repudiates the body and its appetites together with all that might have contracted the contagion of the human.

This account of the appeal of structural phonology seems to be borne out if we consider the theories of the thinker who is without doubt the central figure in the whole of the structuralist movement – Claude Lévi-Strauss.  One of the most constant elements in our cultural compulsion towards purity has always been our anxiety that the rational purity of the soul might be defiled by contact with emotions.  In the remorselessly rational world of structural anthropology this anxiety becomes acute.  Russell, as we have seen, saw mathematics as being ‘remote from human passions’.  Its orderly beauty had a sublime purity  which was ‘without appeal to any part of our weaker nature’.  It is to a condition of just such passionless purity that Lévi-Strauss seeks to reduce the human mind.  In his view the unconscious is not, as Freud implied, a seething mass of unclean impulses and sexual desires.  On the contrary its operations resemble clean calculations of symbolic logic; as Edmund Leach puts it in his study of Lévi-Strauss, the object of analysis is conceived as ‘a kind of algebraic matrix of possible permutations and combinations . . .’ (Lévi-Strauss, Fonatana, 1970)  This algebraic matrix is, in Lévi-Strauss’s view, nothing other than the inner reality of the mind of which the world of myths, classifications and kinship rules is but an imperfect and unreliable extrusion.

The abstractionist project which lies at the heart of Lévi-Strauss’s thought is carried furthest in his ambitious study of myth.  His approach to myth derives directly from the kind of phonological analysis pioneered by Jakobson.  In the work which results we encounter not particle physics, not particle linguistics but particle anthropology.  For just as structural linguistics treats phonemes as though they were the smallest components of an autonomous entity called language, so Lévi-Strauss breaks down myths into something he calls at one point ‘mythemes’ and which are held to be the smallest component of an occult entity called ‘mind‘ – ‘l’esprit humain’.  As structural linguistics disregards the affective and semamtic content of language, so Lévi-Strauss disregards entirely the affective content of myths, together with their surface meaning.  Following Jakobson he maintains that myths are made up of elements which are related by a process of binary logic, opposing pairs of concepts such as culture and nature, the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the rotten, honey and ashes.

These binary oppositions have nothing whatsoever to do with the ancient, value-loaded dualisms of our culture as we have traditionally understood them – the dualism of body and mind, flesh and spirit, good and evil, pure and impure.  They are rather as Edmund Leach’s words suggest, the kind of logical oppositions employed by the electronic circuitry of computers.  The outcome of this style of analysis is that, when Lévi-Strauss has surveyed the whole rich realm of myth, with its tales of passion and pride, of parents and children, incest and worship, all myths are reduced to this:

Fx (a) : Fy (b) : : Fx (b) : Fa-1 (y)

Although this equation has sometimes been met with incredulity we should have no doubt at all that Lévi-Strauss does mean what he says and that his entire intellectual system is designed so that it is consonant with just the kind of pseudo-mathematical equation which is in question here.

Placed alongside this equation the proposition that post-Saussurean structuralism has radically rebelled against the ideal of la clarté rings hollow indeed.  For in the work of Lévi-Strauss at least this ideal has actually been invested with a degree of rigidity which is without precedent.  He himself treats la clarté not as an intellectual means but as a fetishistic end.  As Simon Clarke has written in his critique of Lévi-Strauss, ‘the task of the [structrualist] scientist is to purify the logic of the theory, to formalize and axiomatize it, to create a closed logical theory of an ideal object and not to worry about the correspondence between this object and a mythical reality.  A theory which is adequate is one which can provide a coherent and logical framework for discourse.  The task if science is not to create a view of the world which is true, it is to create a view of the world which is without contradiction’ (The Foundations of Structuralism).

If we are to carry further the quest for that thoroughgoing rebellion against la clarté which the proponents of structuralism have sometimes announced then we should perhaps turn from the work of Lévi-Strauss to look at the contribution made by Jacques Lacan, universally agreed to be the most obscure of all post-Saussurean theorists.

Lacan’s declared aim is to restore to psychoanalysis the respect for speech and language which, in his view, was central to Freud’s writings and his therapeutic technique. Significantly, this ‘restoration’ involves a considerable degree of innovation. For just as Lévi-Strauss has sought to make anthropology into ‘a branch of semiology’ so Lacan has attempted to reduce psychoanalysis to the categories of modern linguistics. His version of psychoanalysis thus relies heavily on the theories of Jakobson, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss himself.

‘Everything’, writes Lacan, meaning every word that he says, ‘emerges from the structure of the signifier .’ His most celebrated pronouncement is that the unconscious itself is structured like a language.

Although Lacan created a version of psychoanalysis which supposedly turned on a profound analysis of the structure of the signifier, one of the enduring mysteries of the twentieth century was (and is likely to remain) the meaning of the words which Lacan himself uttered both in his Paris seminars and in his published writings. The opacity of his seminars has frequently been explained by the claim that, for the purposes of intellectual discourse, he talked not in ordinary language but in ‘the language of the unconscious’.

Sometimes this language sounds remarkably conscious, not to say contrived. It ranges from quasi-scatological invective, as when Lacan describes psychoanalysts as ‘slag’, to bizarre, scientific-sounding descriptions of inner drives and linguistic processes. It is not only Lacan himself who speaks in this manner, but also those students who are occasionally given the opportunity to ask questions:

TORT: Could you say more about the relation you posited between gesture and the moment of seeing?

LACAN: What is a gesture? A threatening gesture for example? It is not a blow that is inter- rupted. It is certainly something that is done in order to be arrested and suspended … It is this very special temporality, which I have defined by the term arrest and which creates its signification behind it. that makes the distinction between the gesture and the act.

[Lacan ‘s answer goes on to deal at some length with threatening gestures made by members of the Peking Opera and by American marines fighting the Japanese. There then follows a scatological account of painting in which Lacan tells us that ‘we have to get our colours where they’re found, that is to say, in the shit.’ Lacan goes on to put forward a view of the painter as the creator of a ‘mall dirty deposit’]

LACAN: Does this explanation satisfy you? Was that the question you asked me?

TORT: No, I wanted you to say more about that temporality to which you already referred once, and which presupposes, it seems to me, references that you have made elsewhere to logical time.

LACAN: Look, what I noticed there was the suture, the pseudo-identification, that exists between what I called the time of terminal arrest of the gesture and what, in another dialectic that I called the dialectic of identificatory haste, I put as the first item, namely the moment of seeing …(The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Penguin, 1979, pp.116-7)

Speaking the language of the unconscious, however, does not stop Lacan from aspiring constantly towards rigorously scientific formulations. Lacan’s starting point is the ‘algorithm’  by which Saussure represented the relationship between the signifier and the signified:

s
S

With characteristic fussiness Lacan inverts this in order to arrive at:

         S
         s

It is upon the foundation of this formula that the whole of Lacan’s sprawling intellectual edifice rests, like an infinite world balanced upon a pea. Each aspect of the formula, including the line which separates the signifier from the signified, is invested with magical significance. One of Saussure’s illustrations is of the sign for ‘arbre’. Lacan mystically notes that this is an anagram of – ‘barre’, the stroke or line in the formula. Because of this he sees a special value in the illustration.

With remorseless rigidity of mind Lacan proceeds to derive from this original formula a series of formulae representing everything from metaphors to the Oedipus complex. One formula for metaphor is as follows:

          S   .  $´    è      S   [ 1 ]
          
     x                    [  s ]  

Here it would appear that x stands for the variable, the signifier ‘Phallus’ as a sign for the ‘signifier’s passion’.

In recent years one of the main aims of the Lacanian movement has been the reduction of psychoanalytic truths to such mathematical formulae or ‘mathemes’. One of Lacan’s older preoccupations is with what he calls the ‘topology of the psyche’ which he has constantly sought to represent in either in geometrical terms or by topological models derived from the structure of complex knots.

Beneath the obscure surface of Lacan’s prose we thus encounter a project whose reductive audacity is no less extreme than that of structural anthropology, for ultimately Lacan believes that psychological truths can only be properly formulated in mathematical terms, or according to the model offered by the physical sciences.  Lacan’s complex rhetoric thus conceals a deep commitment to conceptual clarity which leads him, in his attempt to emulate the conceptual rigour of the physical scientist, to reduce the complexity of human nature to formulations appropriate only to the simplicity of matter.  What appears at first to be a thoroughgoing rebellion against the repressive ideal of la clarté reveals itself to be, on closer inspection, a disguised act of intellectual homage to that very ideal.

Forty years ago the theoretical vagaries of linguistics, anthropology and psychoanalysis would have had very little relevance to the practice or even the theory of literary criticism.  Today, however, such matters are directly relevant, not least because modern literary theory has grown out of just the kind of intellectual developments I have tried to examine here.  My aim in offering this sceptical perspective on some of the intellectual roots of modern literary theory is to attempt to characterise accurately, from the point of view of our cultural history, the kind of ‘theory’ from which modern literary theory has developed.

Historically speaking there have been two essentially different and indeed opposed roles which have been played by theory in our intellectual culture.  By far the most powerful role ascribed to theory, one endorsed both by philosophers from Plato to Descartes and by the Judaeo-Christian tradition itself, has been that of rising transcendentally above the embarrassing, supposedly degrading, sexual, sensual, emotionally laden facts of human existence into a purely intellectual realm.  In earlier centuries one of the central purposes of the entire intellectual enterprise was always to escape upwards from this Satan-ridden and polluted earth into the divine empyrean.  At the same time the apocalyptic ideal held out in the millennial dreams of Christianity has always consisted in a fantasy of world-purification – a dream in which the ordinary world would be cleansed of carnality and transformed into a spiritual world.  For most of our intellectual history the role of theory has been determined by just such religious dreams of purity.  Theory has been, above all else, a way of glimpsing, or even seeking to realise, an ideal transcendental world of order and purity. 

Only in the last three centuries, and above all in the century since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, has our scientific culture begun to develop an alternative conception of theory, according to which its true function is not to approach the ideal, but to explain the real.

There can, I believe, be no real doubt as to which tradition most modern literary theory derives from.  For behind the extraordinary complexities of post-structuralism there lies the concealed rigour of structuralism itself and the secret project which is to be found at its heart – the project not of explaining the real but of rising above it in order to embrace the ideal. 

When Lévi-Strauss reproaches other anthropologists for ‘falling into a confusion resulting from too much acquaintance . . . with concrete and empirical data’ (Structural Anthropology, 1963. p. 70), the true nature of his theoretical enterprise is declared almost openly.  The essentially religious transcendentalism which lies at the heart of structural anthropology is conveyed even more clearly in some words of Edmund Leach:  ‘By translating anthropological facts in mathematical language,’ he writes, ‘. . . we can get away from excessive entanglement in empirical facts and value loaded concepts’ (Rethinking Anthropology, 1959).

Precisely because transcendental quests for purity are no longer intellectually respectable in our intellectual culture the proponents of modern literary theory have tended to represent their intellectual enterprise both to themselves and to others as being in some way radically subversive of our central intellectual orthodoxies.  Partly in an unconscious attempt to obscure the central underlying commitment to rationalism and to la clarté, they, like Lacan, have multiplied complexity and obscurity, and have sometimes done so quite gratuitously.  Many have been taken in by purely rhetorical gestures towards sensual or sexual liberation, or by the faked orgasms of structuralist jouissance.  But behind the facade of liberation and subversion the intellectual project of post-Saussurean literary theory remains deeply orthodox and deeply repressive.  And above all it remains committed to a theory which denies the very possibility of using language to understand either the nature of literature, or, indeed, our own nature.  As Brian Vickers observes: ‘Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, all denied that language could refer to a reality constituted of other people, or to the natural world, human artefacts or mental processes’ (Brian Vickers’s Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels, Yale University Press, 1994, p. 61).

Does all this matter?   I believe that it does matter.  I believe that it matters above all because our literary tradition – the tradition of Shakespeare and Donne, Swift and Pope, Dickens and Blake, Hardy and Lawrence, Plath and Hughes, Mailer and Roth – contains an immense wealth.  What is in question is not simply a literary wealth but a human wealth.  For, partly because of the rule of rationalism and puritanism over our public life in the last three or four centuries, much of our emotional, and indeed our sexual wealth, has been secreted in the relatively private imaginative world of literature.  For this and for many other reasons our literature contains psychological riches and a wealth of insights into human behaviour which Freud, in his proud rationalism, did not even glimpse.

This wealth is something that our imaginatively impoverished and straitened intellectual culture stands in acute need of.   We should not deceive ourselves that we may dispense with the power of theory altogether.  As critics we need a theoretical understanding of literature and of language not as objects in themselves – for they have never been and never will be such objects – but as aspects of human behaviour.  Such an understanding would help us to mine out the emotional and imaginative riches which have been locked up in the realm of literature and to use them for their proper purpose which is to enrich our common wealth.

Our tragedy is that the theories which have increasingly come to dominate literary criticism seem to have the unconscious aim of renouncing the wealth which is contained in our literature.  The poverty of contemporary literary theory is pervasive, and appears to be strangely attractive to modern intellectuals.  I do not believe that we can afford it.

 Based on a paper given to the English faculty at the University of Tunis, April 1996.

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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