- A Literary Common Ground
Let me make note of a few things that have occurred to me during this conference. Some of these will be observations; some will be practical inferences. One of them, though, involves the crossing of an expectation, or maybe a fear, I had brought with me to Minneapolis. Since this has to do with the whole tone of the conference, we might as well begin with it.
It, of course, was the question of the polemical nature of this gathering. Would this conference be diagnostic and denunciatory in nature, or would it seek to start something truly new? Certainly we all feel the need of something new—not new, either, in the sense that movements or ideological positions claim to be new, but in the sense of a fresh gathering of common attention in the place where literature is, the place where each of us who loves literature already goes alone. This would be a possibility for something original rather than just another novelty—which makes the question of polemics all the more urgent. An association that founded itself in complaint would be only one more identity-group making a virtue out of its grudge. And the grudge, in that case, would have been a sad reflex of feeling superseded and powerless.
But where have the polemics against current orthodoxies been? I am delighted not to have heard them in any strenuous capacity. Even their relative absence hasn’t commanded any extended attention, and that may be an even more telling point. I take this to be partly the result of foresight and good sense. But the clean air here has been more than a reward for our mutual constraint. Instead, it seems evidence of the fact [End Page 193] that, when literature occupies our attention, there is no need for self-defense. Justice, or justification, happens by itself when we “do our own work,” as Socrates recommended.
What is our own work, then? This association has made a point, it seems, of declining to prescribe what it should be. The only thing we are absolutely sure of is that its subject is literature, and that its standards and rewards should be of a literary nature. From there the field opens up—and this conference has succeeded in keeping it open in some very concrete ways.
Let’s think briefly about the two panels we attended yesterday. The morning panel on “Intellectual Craftsmanship” seemed unified in its concern with the disciplined ways by which we commit ourselves to literary experience. Literature itself, as well as what we do with it, teaches us this discipline, which is “aesthetic” in every sense of that word. Roger Shattuck set the tone when he described the discipline of reading as an issue of preparation and assimilation on the one hand, and as a kind of complete perceptual openness on the other. Such openness, in our normal experience, allows us to be surprised, to see actual things, perhaps, instead of their institutional categories. But literature also requires that we craft our receptivity. The surprises we prepare ourselves to undergo are achieved breakthroughs, which makes them no less unpredictable but all the more deeply affecting.
Criticism cultivates such surprising experience. (I think experience is the crucial word, by the way, since everyone on that first panel seemed to be devoted to a kind of free empiricism.) The spectacular moments of visionary power that Robert Alter isolated in Dickens are places that startle and disturb us—and we track our own surprise, and intensify it, when we look closely at how those dark places of power emerge from Dickens’s refiguring of a world where darkness otherwise tends toward an entirely unredeemable opacity. We have to read “synesthetically,” as Shattuck says, “with both eyes open,” to let ourselves be for a moment blinded by such literary places.
Once again, the discipline of reading—devotedly and resistantly—frees us for the achieved experience. Slowing down, in Sven Birkerts’s sense of “retardation and deceleration,” is precisely a matter of stepping into a field of experience shaped (or, in an auditory sense, fostered and conserved) by the special demands of literature. It...