- A Myth Of Reading
The critics mill about in the welcome break between interminable and terminal conference sessions, eager to see and be seen. William Righter wanders about, listening and telling anyone who stays to listen what he hears, musing all the while on what each of them has done, or tried to do, or failed to do. One hopes for a dénouement—something, perhaps, like the tableau at the end of The Inspector General: critics frozen in typical and typically ludicrous attitudes. Alas, the prospective tone of ironic detachment is not sustained. Righter is too close to his perambulating colleagues; he shares too many of their academic reflexes to keep the requisite distance. If there is a tableau at the end, the reader must imagine it, and place Righter along with the rest, caught in (may we call them?) Gallosaxon attitudes.
It seems to be an important conference. Everyone’s milling about. One wonders, do they have anything else to do? Here’s Derrida, de Man, Barthes, Hillis Miller, Booth, Bersani, Lyotard, Poulet, and Todorov. The remarks of one seem to flow seamlessly into the allegedly counter-claims of the next. It’s all amazingly friendly. Of course there’s that rude fellow Eagleton, who says: “Methodologically speaking, literary criticism is a non-subject. . . . If literary theory is a kind of meta-criticism [End Page 218] , a critical reflection on criticism, then it follows that it too is a non-subject” (p. 210). But don’t mind him. For criticism is about literature and literature exists. So these promenading and posturing critics can’t be mere phantasms of brains fevered by much reading, or anyway by references to many books.
Curious that the first critic available for a chat is Leavis. A bit of nostalgia that. I suppose most English critics of sufficient vintage recall their Leavis-inflicted wounds the way they might reminisce about the bit of shrapnel they got in the way of on Omaha Beach and bear now with pride. But my, how temperate he appears here! How on earth can he come across so bland? Remember him saying: Snow does not begin to exist as a novelist. Now that was Leavis. You may have disagreed with him, you may have thought him silly, but you certainly understood him, as one comprehends a slap in the face. But here: “. . . Leavis takes on vividly and personally the total responsibility of consciousness for a wide area of assumptions that obviously trail their implications behind them” (p. 4). This is an extraordinarily spongy way of saying that Leavis knew he was right, and if you didn’t agree with him, a humiliating place in a cheap and tawdry consumer society awaited you.
Still, it is a lucky thing that Leavis appears first on the scene. As a critic to help frame more exactly the kinds of questions about literary theory and practice Righter wants to ask, Leavis offers an easily recognizable starting point. He somehow manages to take the high moral ground. You want to ask, how is it that Elijah’s mantle descends on him? Does he compel assent only by the stridency of his words, and not by an ostensibly rational way in which his critical judgments hang together?
A pity if this should be so, because the point of Leavisite diatribes, though not their excesses, is close to the hearts of passionate readers. Such readers (ourselves perhaps) read judgmentally. A book bowls us over. Describing the experience we are tempted to draw invidious comparisons to other books, which perhaps move us less, or not at all. We say of minor things that come our way: it’s not Shakespeare (or D. H. Lawrence). If you agree the project comes to an end. If you don’t, you want to know what it is that bowls us over, and why we don’t find those qualities in your favorite author. You want an explanation of a particular kind, not one that adduces new facts, but one that allows us to appreciate how the case at dispute...