Skip to content

Duties of care in the study of literature.

By ALEX WONG.

pepyslibTHE WORDS ‘CLASSIC’ AND ‘CANON’ tend to arouse great suspicion in the universities at present—in the disciplines still sometimes known as the ‘Arts and Humanities’. Canonicity is now a very unpopular idea. But it is important to know what is really meant, and (for those of us who must take a position) how radical our positions really are.

Why should we want to reject out of hand the critical legacy of preceding generations, as though they were dictating oppressive terms, holding us under a spell?

Useful doubt is one thing, and there is no reason why it should not be constructive. Another thing is the pointed rhetoric one often hears in discussions of this subject. Why—if this is what anyone truly means—should we want to reject out of hand the critical legacy of preceding generations, as though they were dictating oppressive terms, holding us under a spell? We do not have to agree with any particular predecessors: they are not near at hand to coerce us. The strongest coercive forces operating in literary and academic culture at present are of an altogether different kind.

There is no reason why modern scholars and readers ought to agree with their recent forebears—say, F. R. Leavis, or William Empson—any more than with Dr Johnson, or Matthew Arnold, or Dryden, or anyone else. But neither should we feel especially predisposed to disagree with them, simply because they seem less distant than those others. They are all useful, the near and the distant; their diversity is useful, maybe the most useful thing of all. If we can see through their eyes for a moment or two, it may be a valuable experience—even if we find ourselves unable to sustain their point of view for more than those few moments. If we do not agree, we ought at least to be able to see, or wonder, how we might agree; what circumstances would have to be altered for this to happen. And a clear answer to this question could be very telling.

When, from the diversity of critical tradition, patterns of agreement are seen to emerge, this also should be useful. Anyway, too much to ignore or devalue the opinion of previous criticism is a failure of historical understanding and interest, which at its extreme is a form of bigotry. What I feel inclined to argue—and this should be taken in the spirit of the ‘essay’, rather than as a declaration—is that the critical writing of the past, and the idea of the canon, ought to be approached with generosity, with warmth, and above all with the inclination towards expansion rather than destruction. Generosity and discrimination are not irreconcilable. Why not add rather than substitute?

What we call, rather imprecisely, ‘high art’ will always be what we call ‘elitist’, if only because many people will never take much of an interest in it.

It is often said that ‘high art’, indeed the very idea of such a category, is elitist. This is problematic. But there is a sense in which it must be understood as inevitable. What we call, rather imprecisely, ‘high art’ will always be what we call, with even less precision, ‘elitist’, if only because many people will never take much of an interest in it—or at least not a formal, sustained, organised interest. This will be true of a considerable proportion of most demographic groups, no matter how they are educated, and no matter how ‘accessible’ the products of art are made from the practical point of view. To ‘level the playing-field’ must be the objective, but we should not pretend that this will also equalise temperament.

Nor should it. Nor does one even need, necessarily, a strong interest in artistic culture in order to get some benefit from it. Most people take some pleasure in this and that art-form, without becoming devotees; and even if one’s grasp of the subtleties is very imperfect, one surely gets something of higher worth from a sophisticated, intelligent work of art, than one would get from something second-rate or worse. Flourishing artistic culture is, in any case, good for society in general, even if its direct benefits pass by the individual. As for the doling out of direct benefits, by the authorities, for the good of a public who might be interested—this is a difficult problem, and I see little or no evidence that it has ever been satisfactorily solved.

It is necessary to pursue this seeming digression a little further. Even in some politically ideal world, imagine, people of strong artistic interests will surely remain a self-selecting minority, with component groups of that minority apportioned to their various enthusiasms (the various forms, and kinds, of art). And, in the ideal world, every person should have the freedom and opportunity so to select themselves. To ask for more is to ask for trouble. A ‘lowering’ of the subtlest and most highly developed art, so as to gratify inclinations towards satisfactions which, although perhaps equally valid, are not really artistic at all, would be utterly pointless,—because there are plenty of other things to gratify other inclinations, and each art or cultural form must see to its own peculiar satisfactions. To ‘lower’ art, without intending to turn it into something else entirely, must mean the retaining of the aura of ‘Art’, while rejecting its finenesses—in the name, that is, of more superficial ‘relevance’ to a majority whose interests and affinities will always be much more varied than may be so confidently presumed. Something that postures as ‘Art’ whilst focussing all its powers upon ingratiation is no more likely to win admiration or curiosity than a real work of art—unhindered by phony sentiment or the need for easy legibility—whose powers are directed to subtler ends.

IT IS NOT a matter of particular conventions or traditions; apparently any medium, any style can become highly developed (a process which, at some stage, entails the formation of what one might call a ‘classical tradition’). Criticism must watch for this. But I mean to talk primarily about literature, and specifically about the kinds of literature studied in universities. In the context of my present argument, ‘high art’, so called, may as well be taken to refer to literary culture as represented by the ‘canon’ and its putative arbitrators. And the point to be made is this: that throwing out the canon and its accumulated critical wisdom will certainly not solve the problem of ‘elitism’, or what is usually meant by this word (genuine elitism being a different and more pressing problem, calling for different solutions). It would be more likely to muddy the waters.

There is no point in expanding the canon if the individual’s experience of it is narrowed, forced out towards the edges.

But expansion of the canon, desirable anyway, might well be a help in this regard, so long as a generous and respectful interest extending all the way across the broad ranges of literary history remains an ideal to be observed. There is no point in expanding the canon if the individual’s experience of it is narrowed, forced out towards the edges. Obviously an enlarged canon invites or requires more work on the part of anyone who wishes to comprehend it, and an ever-expanding canon calls for ever-expanding and ever-renewed reading—a logical impossibility. But ‘the canon’, in all the forms it has ever taken for any reader, has always been too big, and it is in the nature of a personal canon that its horizons recede as one approaches. And therefore, as ever, we must do what we can, allowing things to fall by the wayside, but without forgetting to keep an eye on the side of the way, and to give some thought to the patterns of its accumulations. It seems reasonable, however, that a person who wishes to effect a substantial change of emphasis, or to add a new point of emphasis, in a shared canon, should be prepared to do extra work; because an addition will only be convincingly legitimate if a familiarity with the context is in evidence.

I suppose all critics and scholars of literature must feel the need to promote and to preserve; and acts of cultural recovery or rehabilitation, even when they are prosecuted in deliberate denial of the notion of the canon, nevertheless spring from this same impulse, if they are worth anything at all. In this sense they constitute a game played with canonicity. To add to the ready store of ‘important’ literary things—a putative, communal canon of any kind—is to add to the breadth of human phenomena which we aspire to understand. That is why adding, expanding, is better than replacing, reducing. Efforts of critical preservation, especially where they have met with consent and success, should not be too readily or too merrily dismissed.

I HOPE I need hardly say that the recovery of forgotten authors is extremely important. It is an activity often carried out by those who feel genuine admiration for the artistic merits of the work in question, and wish to share it; and this is certainly for the best. But recoveries or ‘corrections’ to the canon which are motivated instead by political agenda or purely historical curiosity, whilst perfectly permissible and often very important, should not be, nor should they need to be, disguised as critical celebration. The confusion of critical and historical values in ‘English Studies’ is something we would do well to get past. Some consider this distinction irrelevant, but I find it hard to believe that any real critical (or artistic) work can take place without a belief, at least an intuitive belief, in Good Art and Bad Art. Both art and criticism need some kind of chivalry to nourish and sustain them;—an aesthetic morality, if I may put it that way, is the base pre-requisite, even where morality in the fuller and more familiar sense is left out of the question.

vpagetleejssOn the other hand, it is an even greater pity when the recovery, or (as we say, patronisingly) ‘rehabilitation’ of a really estimable author—a worthwhile writer by normal standards—is justified on essentially unartistic grounds. Vernon Lee (née Violet Paget, 1856-1935) has seen some renewed interest from academics in recent years; but, encountering this scholarly work on paper or at conferences, one seldom (if ever) receives the impression of authentic admiration for her creative powers. I sense rather too little love for Lee among her new champions. Instead I sense that she has come into fashion again largely on account of biographical and historical circumstances: her gender, her homosexuality, her position between the Victorians and the Modernists, and so on. Her brilliance as an essayist, and her position among the subtlest ironists of the age, do not attract proper attention. Instead we hear how she was ‘ahead of her time’, and yet also behind the times; an outsider; a curiosity…It matters more that she held unusual opinions than that she wrote intelligently and stylishly, and with (as she would say) ‘humanity’. But I do not think the great Vernon Lee—a doctor of my Church—would wish to be ‘rescued’ from the margins for any reason other than her talent and her understanding.

A person reading for more than pleasure (that is, for pleasure and more) will presumably aim for breadth in preference to narrowness. One cannot read everything, so one must be content to read representatively, and usually one will have to start with some limits: it is reasonable to aim for most breadth of reading within one’s own native language, in the first place, along with a more selectively representative sample of the literatures of other languages. But without prior knowledge, how can anyone choose, except at random, what to take for representative? The judgement, the recommendations, the selectiveness of past readers can become, in this matter, a practical aid; ‘can become’, and in reality always do, like it or not. We might as well like it. In charting a course of reading (I mean to take this metaphor from navigation, not from antibiotics), one works out—by conscience and by tact—a compromise between various critical authorities and conventions, and one’s own sense of scope, making all the corrections and supplements felt to be necessary to present circumstances. In other words, one uses the canon, or various ‘traditional’ conceptions of various canons, with careful attention in determining one’s own canon, always provisional, for practical purposes.

The important point about the ‘canon’ is that, like the related concept of ‘humanism’, it does not have to be monolithic; in both of these controversial notions there should be room for movement and variance. Abandoning the idea of the canon altogether means a renunciation of the idea of good and bad writing, and therefore of the concept of literary art: because then all texts are to be treated equally—as evidence, symptoms, curiosities.

IN PRACTICE, HOWEVER, the aim of most anti-canonical critics is not really to destroy the idea at all, but rather to redistribute attention, to the benefit of marginal authors and marginal texts. Yet why should this positive action be bound up with a negative agenda? This way of thinking about literature seems frequently to entail a cynical, diagnostic form of analysis which seems in some fundamental way——what, inhumane? This thought merely brings one face to face with that other obstacle, because (as we all know) ‘humanism’ is silly. It has been silly since about the 1970s.

We need not assent to the idea that the humanities are the ‘best’, the most ‘elevated’, or the ‘necessary’ accomplishments of the well-rounded citizen.

In the days before it seemed so silly—and 1816 seems as good a year as any other—a philologist could explain ‘humaneness’ as follows:

‘He who is not human is divested of the first and distinguishing characteristics of his kind; he who is not humane, of the most important and elevated characteristics that belongs to his nature.’

This is from Crabb’s English Synonymes. The battle is to be fought, of course, over the precise characteristics assumed to be ‘the most important and elevated’. And the humanist defending the humane in terms similar to these has given some very important (and elevated) hostages to the enemy. But, if I may be so naive as to make this suggestion, might not the battle be averted, or in some degree abated, if the terms were changed: if the humane were conceived primarily as a wideness of sympathy and intelligence in respect of human experience and achievements; the humanist only a proponent of such understanding and such breadth; the humanities only, or chiefly, the means to such an end—means which, being what they are, and the ultimate end being only an impossible ideal, practically encompass, in a provisional way, the aims towards which they are the never-finished tracks? That is to say, we need not assent to the idea that the humanities are the ‘best’, the most ‘elevated’, or the ‘necessary’ accomplishments of the well-rounded citizen; our systems of education no longer really allow us to share the cultural ambitions of a Cicero, even if we wished to share them; nor need we even take the stance adopted—in those cases in which stereotypes were nearest the mark—by American ‘liberal arts’ colleges in the middle of the last century, where the most closely analogous ambitions were last seen thriving in the Anglophone world. The ideas are far from stupid, but so are the objections. The prescription of certain ‘humane arts’ is inherently dogmatic. On the other hand, the Ciceronian ‘humanities’ are perhaps better, as a cultural aspiration, than our modern ‘transferable skills’, their equivalent, which also manifest ideology.

The main objection to humanism, put simply, is that it is singular; that it is conservative; and that its values are arbitrary, narrow, or out of date—and if all human values are arbitrary, then let us at least have new ones, of our choosing, which fit the kinds of life we have come to know, or to establish for ourselves. This is a cogent argument if one accepts the implied definition of terms; my own argument is also for breadth (I hope I will be understood as advocating a ‘broad church’), but I do not see why this must entail a vilification of ‘humanism’, a rejection which brings with it other habits of outlook simply because of the ambiguity and aura of the term so polemically dismissed. If our educational ‘humanities’, from which a great deal has already been gradually left behind, by a natural-cultural process, over many centuries, are today too narrow for the needs we feel, then we can attempt to widen them without sudden jettison of large portions: sudden jettison is more reckless, and less justifiable, than slow decline in tides of usage; and that recklessness itself betokens a narrowness of intent and scope.

The argument against humanism seems frequently to depend not only on particular inclinations in the implied definition of terms, but also on a confusion of some of the most important terms.

BUT THE ARGUMENT against humanism seems frequently to depend not only on particular inclinations in the implied definition of terms, but also on a confusion of some of the most important terms. This conservation from which forms, manners, traditions and arts emerge, the ‘humanities’ among them as select educational values, is a natural process (in so far as culture is ‘naturally’ developed) over which we have some discriminating control, and which we can value or devalue at will, choosing to have a care for what comes to us, or deciding (not always unwisely, perhaps) that some things are not worth the cost of keeping. By its nature it is not static. It is, therefore, not the same as conservatism, a principle of action or reaction; and still less should it be seen as coincident with the modern, familiar forms of political Conservatism. And, even when those distinctions are admitted, it should be recognised that this conserving function, treated respectfully, is not mutually exlusive with innovation, still less with expansion (which is, for the most part, what innovation really is when it is not narrow or exclusive): except in the zealot, the instincts to conserve and to widen knowledge are not dissimilar.

If what is ‘human’, let alone the ‘humane’, is (as we still tend to say) some alloy of ‘nature and culture’, it must be conceded that no notion of it can be attained without due regard to what is conserved; ‘human nature’, however diverse, is presumably, by definition, relatively stable from the temporal perspective; and human culture, however plural, is an accretion over time, cumulative: no innovation occurs without tradition, and all invention, however revolutionary, requires a base of prior knowledge. If some academics must persist in feeling that this kind of ‘conservation’, this respect for tradition—not deference, but merely a due attention—must be coincident with social or economic ‘conservatism’ in politics, and dismiss it for that reason, then that is their loss, in the first place. But it is also a potential and, it seems, a real loss to the larger community of those interested in the cultures of art and learning: a community fanned out widely over the spectrum of available politics, though they might be connected through their cultural interests—devotion to certain cultural forms over whose putative values they might still disagree—just for so long as addled prejudices and sloppy elisions of terminology are kept from severing the connection altogether.

As, on the whole, most interested parties seem ultimately inclined to concede when directly asked, it is a mistake (or, at any rate, a Bad Thing) to assume, even subliminally, that one of the major consequences of intellectual analysis is, or should be, disenchantment. Deconstructionists do not always make this mistake; but, as ever, the trouble comes with the dilution of ideas as they slowly—or rapidly—become commonplace. Casual post-structuralist and deconstructionist tendencies, which have spread into ‘historicism’ too, have tended to promote a debunking attitude. ‘Suspicion’ has been praised as a literary-critical strategy. In most cases, even critical ‘Theory’ of the most abstract and seemingly impalpable kind appears at bottom to be based on a materialist idea of the ‘text’, its content, its functions, even its form. The materialist attitude, which is worth a good deal if it makes, as they say, ‘part of a balanced diet’, becomes the more cynical and unsatisfying the more sternly it excludes or ignores the artistic qualities of art—including, but not limited to, its aesthetic dimensions, upon which so much may be built.

What should be remembered—or insisted upon—is that a belief in ‘art’ does not necessarily entail a naive acceptance of a single, romantic, ‘humanistic’ ideology…

Most people do really believe in these qualities, these dimensions, even if they feel obliged to pretend they do not. What should be remembered—or insisted upon—is that a belief in ‘art’ does not necessarily entail a naive acceptance of a single, romantic, ‘humanistic’ ideology, imagined as a great monumental illusion by which everyone is too ready to be duped. In fact, if one selects one’s own special canon based solely or primarily on works and authors whose ideas or experience seem to agree most closely with one’s own, or with the kinds of person one values most, then one is surely in much more danger of becoming fixed inside a singular ideological system. A small monolith is still a monolith, alterity and novelty, as the case may be, notwithstanding.

And even if the whole history of art were based on rigid values, and those values were illusory or ideologically constrictive, still the band of heroic characters who might charge in to intervene and show us our mistake would only be forgivable or sympathetic if they were either, on the one hand, lofty idealists; or, on the other, melancholy misanthropes, victims of human disappointments. In general, because of the ways in which theoretical ideas become automatic instincts—little more than a form of good manners—the debunker and veil-render of literary studies tends to be markedly unheroic . . . because casual cynicism garbed as common sense, and pursued without fire or reflection, is never desperately appealing. It is much more likely to be simply annoying. It plays at changing the world, but in fact is deeply founded in the prevailing orthodoxy. It hides under the smoke and mirrors of indignation.

‘Cultural materialism’, which goes by many names, underlies most literary study at the moment. It is suspicious of the idea of the ‘work of art’, to be treated as an integral whole with carefully crafted aesthetic qualities. But if, as cultural materialists, we cannot account for the difference between art and non-art, good art and bad art, then we are waiving our ‘right’ (do we need a right?) to think critically about an important part of our experience. And the less we think about it, the less finely attuned to such experience we are likely to be; if our valuation of it dwindles, the experience itself is likely to dwindle too. Does it really matter so much if it is ‘subjective’?

LOOK AT THESE extraordinary lines from William Morris’s long poem ‘The Defence of Guenevere’ (1858):

I was half mad with beauty on that day,
And went without my ladies all alone,
In a quiet garden walled round every way;

I was right joyful of that wall of stone,
That shut the flowers and trees up with the sky,
And trebled all the beauty: to the bone,

Yea right through to my heart, grown very shy
With weary thoughts, it pierced, and made me glad;
Exceedingly glad, and I knew verily,

A little thing just then had made me mad;
I dared not think, as I was wont to do,
Sometimes, upon my beauty; if I had

Held out my long hand up against the blue,
And, looking on the tenderly darken’d fingers,
Thought that by rights one ought to see quite through,

There, see you, where the soft still light yet lingers,
Round by the edges; what should I have done,
If this had joined with yellow spotted singers,

And startling green drawn upward by the sun?

strawberry-thiefWhat questions are modern academics most likely to ask about this passage? They might ask about gender politics, about the iconographic significance of the walled garden, and about the degree in which Morris either enters into a pseudo-medieval ethos, or else ‘critiques’ it. They might examine, in terms of Victorian scientific writing, the ways in which feeling and sense-impressions are registered, and the extent to which this too is related to the gender of the speaker. Again, they might wish to subject the word ‘beauty’ to some analytic pressure, placing this in the context of the nascent Aesthetic Movement and its various theoretical positions. Or they might wish to think about ‘materiality’ (the magic word of the moment); and I can imagine an article in which the ‘yellow-spotted singer’ was submitted to ornithological scrunity, and compared with the stylized birds that appear in the Morris & Co. ‘Strawberry Thief’ pattern…

Some of these questions are, without doubt, extremely important; many would yield interesting and suggestive answers; all, perhaps, are worthy of critical effort, if the effort is well-directed. I say this entirely without irony, and fully mean it. But there are other questions which very few contemporary scholars will be inclined to ask, and which to sensitive and enthusiastic readers, as they experience the poem in the first instance, should be among the first questions formulated. For example: How is the terza rima handled—so that it has a motion and compulsion better (yes! better!) than almost any other use of this scheme in English, apart from in Shelley, where the effect is so different? That, as a beginning, will lead to very many more questions about the syntax, the rhythm, the rhyme, the sense of voice, the influence of earlier poets, and so on. And now imagine that, in place of the final four lines, the following were substituted:

Look! do you see how at their edges lingers
The sunlight? Who knows what I would have done
If that had combined with my sight of gold-patched songbirds,

And vivid trees rising towards the light?

If we lack the ability, the warrant and the will to make at least an attempt to explain, except by reference to contingent ‘ideological’ considerations, why the first version really is better than the second, then we may as well give up on the idea of ‘culture’ altogether, and talk only about ‘society’—or so one might say, if one were inclined to histrionics.

WE CAN TAKE IT that the critic’s job is to be discerning, and therefore never platitudinous. But shouldn’t literature and literary culture be pursued with good faith—at least in part? Clear-sighted interpretation of the intellectual and ideological forces behind a work of art may tell us many important things about intellectual history and, surely, also about the work of art itself; but if it also prevents us from appreciating art as art, from experiencing the work in the way we feel the work wants us to experience it, then that is not only a terrible shame but a sure sign of disaster in the future. If the people whose profession it is to think and write about art are educated so as to undervalue and ignore the experience of art except from a ‘suspicious’, historicizing point of view, then they will eventually end up with no real understanding whatsoever of the special province they claim to be explaining. Their specialisation will then be indefensible and nonsensical.

The notion that left-leaning workers in the academic humanities ought to be sardonic iconoclasts is an unfortunate fallacy…

In any case, it would be wrong to say that the sense of ideological motives belonged strictly outside the realm of ‘appreciation’. It is a part of reading, and in many cases the author knows it. If we form an impression of the ways in which a work might ‘want’ us to respond, we are not obliged to put up a fight (however revolutionary we may think ourselves): rather, we might try to experience the experience, and see it properly from the inside as well as from the outside. That is a better basis for tolerance and historical understanding, and it is perhaps the only basis for artistic appreciation. And it has absolutely no essential connection with the political spectrum. The semi-conscious but seemingly widespread notion that left-leaning workers in the academic humanities ought to be sardonic iconoclasts, even if they would not choose the describe themselves in such terms, is an unfortunate fallacy—which, by the way, fails to profit from the best English tradition of socialistic writing in its now-past heroic age. Paying good attention to the largest possible sample of the products of culture which have been considered most important by various factions in the past, and duly adding whatever else appears similarly important to oneself, must be a better starting point for an informed ‘pluralistic’ outlook, an amplitude of sympathetic understanding, than could be found in a jauntily pruned or tilted canon based only on transient, partial and fashionable consensus, which ignores the things one happens not to agree with, or not to like—and may, in truth, rather enjoy the racy sensation of wilfulness, or waywardness, somewhat (I don’t say wholly) for its own sake.

Cynicism, then, cannot be the best foundation or predisposition for literary-historical enquiry. The impulse to explain away, to strip down, to dispel, or to uncover latent ideologies, need not be the major force in such study; and in any case ought not to be done in mean spirit, nor to applaud its own ingenuity or supposed ‘objectivity’. At worst, it is patronising towards the work and thought of the past. As Lytton Strachey, by no means a pious or po-faced venerator of the Old Days, wrote in the preface to his most famous biographical work, ‘human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past’. The same can be said of their literary legacies.

Supposing we also paused before pronouncing upon a work, to ask ourselves, conscientiously, whether in the particular case in hand we were really the right kind of instrument to register the full effects of subtlety and nuance. And suppose we are not: then, perhaps, attempts should be made to correct the tuning, or heighten sensitivity, even if only for experimentation’s sake. I am thinking particularly of the impediments to be found in books written during historical periods with which we might not be on familiar terms. On the other hand, anachronistic readings are permissible (aren’t they?) if they are clearly and candidly anachronistic—especially if they express, or mean to inspire, pleasure and sensitivity. They may not belong within scholarship; but I sincerely hope nobody in the academy wants the whole world to be like the academy. As for myself, surveying the present state of things, I am not even quite sure I want the academy to be like the academy.

The following salutary reflection, like a memento mori, may possibly be worthwhile nevertheless: any reading which we feel may have sprung from an assertive or militant sense of our own individuality should be treated cautiously. A misreading owing to egotism (as distinct from sympathy or empathy) is worse than one arising from ignorance or doubt, and one should not read works of literature purely as extensions of oneself. Still less readily should we dismiss a work which fails, as we think, to correspond with our own prior ideas about ourselves. The critic, like the poet, needs an ‘inner standing-point’, but this is attained by thinking and feeling one’s way into the work, not by expecting the work to think or feel its way into oneself. In other words, I should empathise with the work, rather than require it to sympathise with me. If only this were easier to remember…

And I would venture a more contentious point. The work should be appraised as a self-complete thing, whose integrity we value, even when the impression is fragmentary or disunified. Without integrity and wholeness, a work cannot really be called ‘art’. Without respecting this integrity, we cannot be said to be apprehending art, but only evidence.

And yet even mere evidence should be treated with respect for its objectivity.

The monolithic humanist presumed to be lurking in the background is not much more than a bogey-man.

‘LIBERAL HUMANIST’: THIS HAS become a term of abuse in most of the places where, in their working lives, literary scholars tend to find themselves. The fact arises from a good deal of misrepresentation. As the sharp ideological challenges of the later twentieth century continue to be half entertained, often with insufficient reflection and too much simplification, by those who in no way mean to be extreme, these stereotypes are casually perpetuated. The casualness is the problem. But the monolithic humanist presumed to be lurking in the background is not much more than a bogey-man. This imaginary figure who takes the name of ‘humanist’ is the stupidest and most inflexible kind of humanist one could dream up. Intelligent, flexible humanism (if the loose thing we usually intend even needs to be called by this term, the special history and meanings of which are almost always forgotten, and the employment of which already makes the loose notion seem so much more rigid that it is) ought not to be tarred with the same brush. In order for the distinction to be made, however, the symptoms need to be disentangled.

‘Close reading’ is often maligned. But when this happens, it usually seems to be the case that ‘close reading’ is really confused with ‘reading’—just careful and conscientious reading. People who study literature need to try as hard as possible to understand, precisely, each word, phrase, image and idea, and the ‘form’ in every sense, syntactical, sensuous, and prosodic. That is not close reading; it is simply reading properly, with due diligence and real interest. It is a pity when people, reacting notionally against ‘close reading’, actually end up justifying (as they think) the fact they are not really ‘reading’ the texts at all.

To read properly is to understand as well as one can, and find means to compensate for any deficiencies.

To read properly is to understand as well as one can, and find means to compensate for any deficiencies. Close reading merely takes this understanding a step further towards analysis; it asks how the meaning is conveyed; it wants to see the method as clearly as the effect. Some texts, notably certain strands of poetry since Modernism, are designed to be read, even in the first instance, in a way similar to ‘close’ critical reading. But in such cases the reader is doing no more than complying with the conditions set by the work, and it is still at the outset a matter of reading, not close reading. Analysis, or further analysis, can follow. Attentive and sensitive reading may not necessarily be a part of the finished product of literary scholarship—where, for example, the focus is wholly or primarily historical. But I fail to see why it should not always be a part of the process, and the basis of all actually ‘critical’ activity. It is the critic’s most fundamental guarantee.

‘Close reading’, for people who consider it an outmoded practice, is often classed as the sort of thing likely to be committed by so-called ‘humanists’— unreconstructed ‘New Critics’, ‘Leavisites’, etc. Who are they, and why can they be safely left behind? They are, it appears, canon-formers and canon-protecters; cultural conservatives and elitists with retrogressive ideas about human ‘values’, and the status of the ‘work of art’. Such extremists do exist (and, be it remembered, even they do not always sit to the political right); but nowadays they are far less numerous than their opposites and antagonists, the extremists of anti-humanism (who do not always sit to the true political left, though most of them may think they do).

These latter are the anti-canonists whose theoretical doctrines celebrating the marginal have now, somewhat diluted, become general orthodoxies. And the greater problem is that this party, who have contributed importantly to the culture, now seem to have most of the middle-ground, most of the critics and scholars who consider their positions to be moderate and have no real axes to grind, notionally on their side.

OF COURSE, THE insistent focus on the margins, where it means to be a substitution rather than an addition to other, inherited areas of focus, is, like ‘elitism’, just one more principle for exclusion—and equally tinged by ideological assumptions. The emergence of this position on one end of the methodological spectrum is not, in itself, a bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing: debate is always healthy, movement is usually good, and we want to be reminded what is in the margins. Some of it might not belong there; and even if something does belong there, it doesn’t mean that we need to ignore it: there is a difference between valuing minor authors and pretending they are not minor. In these matters of critical theory, the extreme position is never, in itself, the problem. The problem is in the middle-ground (where I suppose myself to be). It lies in the ways in which certain ideas have become commonplace.

A principled distaste for close reading, specifically, seems to me an absurd position for any student of literature who does not wish rather to be an historian or social scientist.

A principled distaste for close reading, specifically, seems to me an absurd position for any student of literature who does not wish rather to be an historian or social scientist. But even social scientists and historians need to pay conscientious heed to details and subtleties, and should respect the complexities of their materials. And even more so, to the extent that they are dealing with materials in which details and subtleties are intended to be given greater than usual attention; that is, above all, in artistic work.

One problem to be overcome is the habitual identification of ‘close reading’ with ‘Practical Criticism’, the training in close reading developed and popularized by the likes of I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis at the University of Cambridge between the wars, and still, in a different way, taught there. This identification is erroneous. ‘Prac Crit’ is only an exercise to attune readers, and to make the students analyse the text in front of them with little or no other information (except their entire literary education to date!)—and the important word here is exercise. It is not a way to go about actual, publishable criticism; it is simply a means to an end. Close reading, on the other hand, implies more than just the equipment gained through Prac Crit: it demands historical understanding and sound awareness of contexts. It can be combined with, or made to serve, any sort of literary or literary-historical enquiry. It discounts nothing. Its one basic, implicit premise is that in the study of literature all things, all details, are potentially interesting unless proven dull—at which point, when it comes about, the historical approach, with its principle that all things are at least evidentially illuminating, can usefully take over. (Again, however, diligent reading is still requisite, even when the need for ‘close’ reading—the close analysis of artfulness—may have been dismissed.)

iarichardsOnce again, in the debate surrounding ‘close reading’ and the ‘New Criticism’ (for which we will soon have to find a different name), the impulse to react against the ‘reactionary’, and to leave behind old modes, has necessitated the erection of straw men, and the conjuring of bogey-men. Even today, I read that the New Critical movement, said to have been based on I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism, ‘advocated the study of poems as self-contained aesthetic objects’—a broad generalisation which has come to seem acceptable. But readers of Richards, especially of his Principles of Literary Criticism, and, even more particularly, the chapter entitled ‘The Phantom Aesthetic State’, have good reason to suspect that Richards himself would have rejected very forcefully the characterisation given of a method supposedly fostered by him. He—along with many other ‘New Critics’—might well answer, given the chance, that poems are ‘aesthetic’ objects, but not only aesthetic; and that they are self-contained, but not only self-contained.

In other places, other terms can be found for the kind of autotelic, decontextualised reading experience said to be the orthodoxy of New Criticism. I think this is essentially what is meant by ‘present-tense’ reading, a phrase I have recently been hearing. To throw in the word ‘aesthetic’ makes the whole enterprise seem even more dubious, allowing us to infer the exclusion of considerations other than the ‘aesthetic’. The basic assumption is already in the air, and to support it requires almost no thought at all: many scholars and students are all too ready to believe that an attention to aesthetic or formal subtlety somehow has to go hand in hand with an unhistorical, purely ‘personal’ consumption of the text, and that aesthetic qualities are only, or mainly, of interest for socio-historical reasons.

The study of poems as self-contained aesthetic objects.’ The article, by Pamela Clemit, in which I find this passing summary of the defunct ‘movement’ is not overtly polemical; a fresher recollection of Richards’ books might have resulted in a slight but significant change to the wording. Small imprecisions of this kind are easy to make. But it is just this ease which yields the result: a commonplace idea, however simplified, which presupposes and indeed creates an apparent consensus. Misrepresentation is an easy thing, when it is, at best, scarcely conscious.

IN PARIS IN 1862, Charles Dickens attended a production of Orphée, the new version, re-arranged by Berlioz, of a ‘tragédie lyrique’ of a hundred years earlier, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice. He was so intensely moved by the experience that he was in tears, after the curtain, when he was taken backstage to meet the leading lady. He is said to have been introduced with the words, ‘Madame, je vous présente une fontaine.’

This anecdote is intended as emblematic. Gluck’s opera would not be likely to strike the majority of modern listeners as particularly emotive—or, given the great opportunities for pathos, as even the slightest bit emotive—in its treatment of a potentially or inherently moving narrative; at least, not likely to bring one to tears in a crowded theatre. The most poignant music in the whole opera (‘Oui, je te suis, tendre objet de ma foi’) is gone almost before it has begun. The greater part of the aria ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’, the emotive climax of the drama, is presented in a style which to us may sound, at first, almost jolly. And it must be remembered that this was not Dickens’ idiom, either. The intensity of his response must have had to do with the surprise of his being invited, in an unfamiliar way, into a moment of feeling;—a poignancy expressed with a graceful, dignified restraint quite different from what, in ordinary circumstances, in the year 1862, he might have been predisposed to expect.

The experience of being moved by an encounter with literature is in some ways a moral phenomenon.

Emotionality being closely allied to morality, or at least to moral instincts, the experience of being moved by an encounter with literature is in some ways a moral phenomenon. Yet in most cases we should not be hammering our ethical causes into the works under our consideration: after all, the text is under no obligation to comply. This principle should be the more obvious when literary culture, and specifically the study of literature, is taken to derive value precisely from its capacity by aesthetic means to widen emotional and moral range in the individual, and—by the addition of individuals—in the culture as a hypothetical whole.

TO BE ABLE TO enter into an emotional and ideological world not one’s own, and then to be moved by it, to come to respect it, to empathize with that mode of thought and feeling—whether aesthetic, sentimental or moral—must be, I take it, one of the most important processes involved in the study of old books. It is especially important when the book in question at first seems particularly alien. What I am talking about (knowing that I am saying nothing new) might be described as an engaged, humane, historical awareness, the goal being an expansion of sensibility in which process those foreign things (the works of art) are assimilated. If they are taken without cynicism, they often come with experiential reward: poignancy, pleasure, admiration, surprise . . . It feels ridiculous to have to say this, since it is only an interpretation of something all readers of books experience. But in the academy a disconcerting number of people speak as though it were at best irrelevant, and at worst embarrassing.

The study of the literature of the past, like the study of the diverse traditions of the present, encourages an enlargement of cultural understanding, even tolerance.

Adequately pursued, this expanding historical awareness is nearly as much a moral victory as the ability, which we more commonly feel as a duty, to empathize with other people, other cultures, other subcultures, in our own time. In fact, isn’t it part of the same duty? In this way, the study of the literature of the past, like the study of the diverse traditions of the present, encourages an enlargement of cultural understanding, even tolerance. This is not the sole ‘humanistic’ value of literary study, but it is, to my mind, the most basic. It does not, as some anti-humanists have it, suppose a single fallacious idea of the ‘human’ or the ‘humane’; its value is in its making us see how diverse human experience and humane values can be, and have been. If each reader’s notion of humanity is single, why fracture it? Why not just let it expand?

For this reason, it seems desirable that students of literature should be ready—indeed, required—to engage with the literature of as many ages and as many styles as possible, especially those which seem to them least appealing, rather than that they should be allowed to pick and choose objects of study from their own pre-existing interests. This is not only for the sake of wider knowledge, but of a broader sensibility—or broader understanding (which may be a better way of putting it). Taste will and must remain individual: perhaps the important thing is that it grows larger at the same time as it grows more discerning.

Unfortunately, most departments of ‘English’ in most universities in the Anglophone world seem to be hurrying in the opposite direction. Instead of range, students are being given a range of options.

In truth, the legitimate contention is, not of one age or school of literary art against another, but of all successive schools alike, against the stupidity which is dead to the substance, and the vulgarity which is dead to form’

Appreciations, 1889

It may no longer be our idiom, but the intelligence of this sentence, it seems to me, is unlikely to become irrelevant. In ending with Walter Pater, I am not simply being perverse.


Alex Wong is a literary scholar at the University of Cambridge. His edition of Selected Verse of A. C. Swinburne has been published by Carcanet (July 2015).

Note: Minor editorial changes made to this article (8 October 2017).

2 Comments

  1. George T. Karnezis wrote:

    I applaud the notion that the New Criticism has been all too often caricatured and therefore easily dismissed. Decades ago in doing research for my dissertation, I argued that much modern lit crit often had not only pedagogical implications, but that it also was useful to see a movement like the New Criticism as sourced in dissatisfaction with how literature was being taught. If you examine some early defenders of a more aesthetic (or a less anaesthetic) reading, you’ll find not only teachers but also advanced grad students offering nicely articulated frustration with the habit of treating literary works not as literary, but as historical or documentary. Somehow, a work’s literary or aesthetic value and power was either ignored or muted. Teachers and students complained that a work was being smothered by “context.” Close reading was really, as Wong says, reading more comprehensively so that the aesthetic reasons for paying attention to a given work could be foregrounded and honored and a given work’s staying power (dare I say it’s canonic its canonicity?) could be more fully respected. (Think, for instance, of Arnold’s 3 reasons for being interested in or paying attention to a work: historical, personal, and “real” interest.)

    I would also note that the New Criticism had a democratic quality hardly characteristic of the inaccessible tortured and clogged prose of some subsequent “movements”. Its teaching materials and textbooks sought to alert the general reader to how language can perform. It believed that readers could be educated into noticing and appreciating the variety of these performances and why they continue to be worth attending. Compare that aim with much Pomo Crit which seems to build walls around rather than bridges to
    literature. Much of it is adept at a hermeneutics of suspicion, training students to congratulate themselves for being able to “unpack” all those contradictions and unenlightened prejudices that an author was unaware of.

    Tuesday, 3 November 2015 at 09:40 | Permalink
  2. Joseph O'Leary wrote:

    An admirable, luminous essay, standing against the sloth, mediocrity, and conformism that have pervaded the study of literature for the last three decades or so.

    Wednesday, 4 November 2015 at 04:09 | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.