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SEARCHING FOR HUMANISTIC TRUTH by Alfred Louch These essays of M. H. Abrams, arranged to such tactical advantage by Michael Fischer, present a portrait of a critic who embodies all the Aristotelian virtues. Indeed, at times the portrait seems to confirm the ancient doctrine of the unity of the virtues. Judicious and balanced judgments abound, always reinforced by the evidence of wide reading, and reflection that is both deep and long sustained. Never shrill or dogmatic, Abrams manages to engage with good temper the many critics who tend to be both. He manages to eschew neologisms and all signs of academic pretension. He chides his colleagues, but with an unfailing courtesy that is for that reason all the more deflating to those he chides. So what should a reviewer say, except to recommend these essays as nostrums for digestions soured by over-consumption ofliterary theory? There are minor complaints. Some of the pieces collected here first appeared as responses to other papers or to criticisms of Abrams's own work. They lose something when detached from their incubating contexts . But this is a small matter, and an inevitable consequence of collectingany writer's occasional pieces. More serious is the lack ofexamples illustrating the importance of theory. Bearing in mind that the importance , indeed the indispensability, of theory is the leitmotif of these An essay on Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory, by M. H. Abrams, edited with a foreword by Michael Fischer; xiii & 429 pp. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989, $27.50 cloth. Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 354-363 Alfred Louch355 essays, it would have been helpful to have had some confirmation of this claim by examples showing how theory makes a difference to the reading of a text. One essay, "Five Types of Lycidas," goes some way toward satisfying this curiosity, though I fear the text is something of a pretext (as critics are fond of saying) in this essay, and that its real business is to compare and evaluate the methods and results of several theoretical positions. Another, "On the Political Readings of Lyrical Ballads ," gently reminds Marxist critics that Tintern Abbey speaks of modes of experience that we share with the poet . . . and will continue to share in any predictable future. Should the political and social conditions prophesied by Marx come to pass, it is beyond peradventure that even in a classless society men and women will continue to live a mortal life in time; will suffer, as Wordsworth put it (line 144), "solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief;" will as a result surely become sadder, but may also . . . become more comprehensively and sensitively human. ... (p. 390) This passage, to be sure, is about the poem, and the reader's response to it. I quote it this extensively because it captures better than any paraphrase I might offer the attitude toward the text which lies, in these pages anyway, mostly behind the scene. Up front one reads claims and counterclaims about the value of this or that theory or theoretical perspective, arguments which do not seem to conclude with affirmations of the value, the significance, of Lycidas or Tintern Abbey, but withjudgments about the virtues and limitations of the theories Abrams discusses in the earlier papers in this volume. Theory, of course, is what the book is about. Still, it is about theory in a special way. Abrams does not classify theories merely as an aid to graduate students swotting up their qualifying exams. Classification is meant to bring out strengths and weaknesses in theoretical positions, and to demonstrate how essential theory is to reading and appreciation. The essays on Lycidas and Tintern Abbey, however, leave one with the impression that critics have rather missed the mark; the poems which theory is meant to address and accommodate somehow pass through critical dissection untouched, and require at the end, not theoretical attention particularly, but the response of the ordinary man or woman with a poetry reading habit—the sort ofthing the quotation about Tintern Abbey illustrates. But theory, Abrams says, is indispensable, and given his avowed commitment to the literary canon, one must assume it is indispensable to reading. So illustrations of...


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