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Helen Thaventhiran's Radical Empiricists: Five Modernist Close Readers opens with an interesting proposition: that when we discuss the history of close reading, we cease to be close readers. The five modernist close readers mentioned in Thaventhiran's subtitle—T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, R. P. Blackmur, and Marianne Moore—"transformed the old functions of criticism" by paying "radically close attention" to literature (1). Sadly, we have repaid them by merely squinting at their own prose, in a hurried attempt to extract from it the "ideas and influences" that form the infrastructure of our familiar critical genealogies. Thaventhiran's book reverses this trend: snipping the links that superficially bind modernist practitioners of literary criticism to the midcentury New Critics, she lingers with these early "practical" critics to investigate the "activities of reading that critical history characteristically obscures" (21). Equal parts loyal student and sly insubordinate, Thaventhiran follows what these critics say in order to reveal what they do. Her close readings of close reading leave us with uncertainty about the efficacy of that concept. Incrementally, her chapters erode close reading into many bits, for there are myriad ways, it turns out, that critical prose may get close to its object of study.
The most generative achievement of Radical Empiricists is the recovery of criticism's relationality. The shorthand employed by critical histories has, over the years, left us with a sense that close reading is a "thing"—a well-wrought urn, a verbal icon, the poem itself. Thaventhiran reminds us that criticism is always "about" something: it "lies alongside the forms of its objects, in a relation not quite in-forming" (19). Her analyses zero in on those interpretive spaces between quotation and explication. She aims to expand our vocabularies for the character of this relationship by showing how critical prose may worry at, elucidate, nudge, impersonate, ventriloquize, be flattered by, or misprize its object of study. The book is at its best when it characterizes the ways these critics approach quotation: Eliot becomes more "dogmatic in the environs of quotations, where his language tends to be terse, laconic, even utilitarian"; Richards's approach to quotations feels like a "plummet" from the heights of his grander statements about poetry's value to the messiness of particular findings (48, 59). In his "paraphrastic" approach to quotations, Empson tends to speak in multiple voices—"a more general ventriloquy"—which gives the effect of both populousness and the "careless ease" of an authority who has "disdain for attributing sources"
(143–44). Blackmur becomes maddeningly "circumlocutory" when he doesn't like a poem, and uncharacteristically concise when he does, and Marianne Moore's prose presents "a gentle shield against forms of excess" (explanation being, for Moore, exceedingly excessive) (169, 184).
Modernism, Thaventhiran argues, represented a unique moment in which criticism became conscious and even self-conscious about its "aboutness" in the midst of a broader crisis of meaning. Pointing to the rise of the fields of "significs," of comparative philology, of Oxford lexicography, and to Richards and Ogden's 1923 The Meaning of Meaning (as well as the 1920 symposium from which they drew their title), Thaventhiran establishes that a fascination with the inability to establish any basis for definitive significance was "in the air" in these years. In this moment, literary critics turned philosophers of language, enumerating the multiple senses of terms like "meaning" (remembrance, mention, significance) or "sense" (sensory experience, rational deliberation, moderated judgment) while envisioning all the myriad ways in which such variations might interconnect. Thaventhiran's organizing term for modernist critics' devotion to elucidation under the sign of its unachievability is "radical empiricism." Borrowed from William James, the term signals the anti-positivism of their empiricism and seeks to capture these critics' "double-barrelled" attention to particulars as well as the "complex experience of how these facts connect and can be approached" (4). Thaventhiran studiously avoids using text-centered words like "form"; "radical empiricism" describes a critic-centered ethos but also, I think, suggests how, through these critics' attention to the role...