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Critical Discussions The World, the Text, and the Critic, by Edward Said; vi & 327 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, $20.00. Discussed by A. R. Louch In the first chapter of this book Said aims some well-placed shafts at critical theory, so well-placed indeed that one could suppose die remaining chapters must take on the character of a wake, or a self-congratulatory tea party of the survivors. But then miraculously the corpse rises again, showing not so much as a bruise, and chatting endlessly and gregariously just as before. What is it, I wonder, that impels so many practitioners of the more suspect disciplines — psychology and sociology as well as criticism — to periodic bouts of self-criticism, only to fall back into their old, recently castigated habits? You will not find the answer here, at least not in anything Said intends to say, but you will find in his book a striking example of the practice. First, let's have a look at his self-flagellation. What is wrong with criticism? Said tells us straight away on page two that "it is supposed that literature and die humanities exist generally within the culture ('our1 culture, as it is sometimes known), that the culture is ennobled and validated by them, and yet that in the version of culture inculcated by professional humanists and literary critics, the approved practice of high culture is marginal to the serious political concerns of society." This is, he continues, "the triumph of the ethic of professionalism" (p. 4). The critic's preoccupation with the text-as-object is an evasion of responsibility to the "actualities ofhuman life, politics, societies and events." Power and resistance to it spawn texts and lead readers to them. But critics have sealed themselves off— the hermeneutical seal — from social reality, and so from the substance of literature. Disappointed, bored, or outraged readers of critical theory will applaud. But they will expect more. They will want illustrations of the hermeneutical seal in operation. They will want recipes for a better way to talk about books. They will 271 272Philosophy and Literature be led to believe that the fault is not in a particular mode ofliterary theory but in the idea of critical theory itself, and they will therefore read on in anticipation of the coup de grâce. But alas in vain. Here and there in the remaining essays that, placed end to end, constitute this book, Said complains about the critical theorist's aversion to politics. But his own ventures into critical practice do not show how the critic is to be political or responsive to the class struggle or the demands of power. He talks about Hopkins and Wilde, more extensively about Swift and Conrad, and for several mind-boggling pages he offers comments on the Eighteenth Brumaire as if it were a novel. I was in fact troubled by his comments on most of these authors, as well as his extended reconstruction, or deconstruction, of Renan as the Voice of France, propagandizing a hapless Islam. If I understand him, so much that I had taken for granted as received opinion or the inevitable inference from a modesdy attentive reading was evidently wrong. Fortunately for me, Irvin Ehrenpreis's review in the New York Review of Books (19 January 1984) arrived before I had to decide whether to challenge a critic on his own ground. Ehrenpreis's comments assure me that in those rare moments when the question "is it true?" could be asked about one of Said's sentences, the literary consensus speaks against him. It would be gratifying to be able to say that though he has got his facts wrong, he has at least stated a thesis clearly. But I am afraid tiiat I cannot say this either. He begins with an analogy. Glenn Gould recorded Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and issued it with a companion record, in which in an interview he justified his withdrawal from the concert stage in favor of recorded performances. This, Said says, is a parody of disclosable relations between the world and die text. Why? It turns out tiiat records like texts are definitely...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 271-278
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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