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Introduction Literary criticism not long ago offered itself the cheering thought that it might stop chasing symptoms and “just read,” that it might attend to what books know and advertently say rather than poke at what they inadvertently disclose.1 These impulses arrive from time to time; a generation ago, Paul de Man suggested that we might try “mere” reading;2 and cultural studies in its dogmatic moods preferred surface to depth.3 But the trenchancy, good faith, and fresh intelligence of this instance was liberating , and the field responded.4 “Just reading” proposed a return to literature ’s “surface,” and so, despite its different program, it was welcomed by those who hope for a return to the literary—to what once was disparaged, and now is celebrated, as “form.”5 Both the disparagement and the recelebration were understandable.6 From the 1930s to the 1980s, from new criticism to deconstruction, pretty much everyone claimed that literature mediated not the world but (at most) itself—its desires, its logic and machinery , its conditions of possibility, and its limits—and that this reflexiveness was its special excellence and that of its practitioners. But giving literature a mastery so minuscule and absolute had trivialized it, sealed it from the world. In such airless weather, the return of “history,” back in the 1980s and 1990s, stirred a breeze. A new historicism brought the chance to study literature’s complicities and accidents, to treat it as the correlative, and sometimes the plaything, of power. This paradoxically revived it, gave it the world back again. But its successes were guaranteed in advance; it could not remain intriguing for long or long hold off the drift to “symptomatic reading.”7 For reasons I will sketch later, the search 2 Introduction for symptoms is one ideal type of reading, and the point of gravity to which anything resembling it naturally drifts. Its constitutional earnestness is such that it can always find a symptom. Even the absence of symptoms can be symptomatic. (There seems to be nothing there? Of course there does!) These new historicisms worked to feel surprise at discovering the secrets books kept, even though they habitually discovered the same secrets. Looking back, one feels it must have taken some imaginative discipline to be surprised at literature’s concealments, not only because they varied so little, but because concealment—hiding complexities behind the pose of simplicity, pointing in directions it pretends not to look—is what literature is best at. A work well made knows how to allow the pleasures of discovery; that is a part of its art. Symptomatic reading was bound to grow tedious: there is scant grace and scant satisfaction in snatching away what it is busy offering; scant satisfaction, too, in achieving what can always and by stipulation be achieved. So it is easy to understand the relief that criticism felt when it told itself it could stop. • All to the good. But then you find yourself reading (“just reading”) a work that seems so absorbed in what it wants not to say that its very syntax twitches and snaps under the effort of control: But the king, unknown to me before this in his power, and his laws—from here on I feared him, and took the bit through my jaws.8 This is Adam Usk writing in 1401: a civil lawyer, once an academic, now advisor to Henry IV; then, shortly after writing these words, a papal bureaucrat and episcopal aspirant; and then a vagrant, schismatic, traitor, double agent, and improbable repatriate. (His life will be sketched in Chapter 1.) This sentence concludes a recollection of his Oxford days, when he led southern and western students in bloody conflict with the Introduction 3 northerners. In the sentence preceding, he has stepped boldly into a public role (as “the principal leader and patron of the Welsh faction”), encountered retaliation (“we could not be stopped until many of our number had been indicted for treasonable insurrection”), and collapsed submissive (“we barely managed to gain our liberty from a jury before a king’s justice”). In this one, he treats his belated recognition that punishment hurts as the achievement of adult political wisdom, and declares that in this new and chastened maturity he assumed an abject and painful discipline of silence. (Both the silence and the pain are suggested by the “bit” in his jaws.9 ) But even his silence proves inept: the sentence goes haywire, loses track of its grammatical object, and...


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