- Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of Modernist Form
This intelligent and high-minded book nobly seeks to prove the unlikely: that reading itself can be an exercise that will strengthen democracy, educate students to live in more open and pluralistic societies, and lead all of us (if we are as fair-minded and intellectually generous as its author) to the privileged station of being "liberal ironists" (where we know everything is groundless yet plunge on with ideals we cannot justify). Professor Armstrong provides close and well-reasoned essays on Henry James, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and James Joyce to show how a critic as intelligent as himself can observe four writers deploying strategies of ambiguity, flexibility, and multifaceted self-awarenessall of which can elicit from their sensitive readers the give-and-take, the shared understanding, the "dance" of reciprocated acknowledgment, and the "consensual relationship of mutuality" on which reading of the best sort depends, the kind of reading that once made Lionel Trilling say: "A real book reads us." But what Professor Armstrong cannot show, because his book is driven not by empirical findings but by abstract speculations of the highest order, is that reading makes, or has made, for better democracies. As he says at the beginning, if this were so, "literature departments at colleges and universities would be less politically self-destructive than they often are." Nor can he show that, absent literary works and the community of readers surrounding them, democratic societies would have turned out to be any less benign, or more malign, than they now are. No student could hope for a more hopeful and tolerant classroom presence than Professor Armstrong, [End Page 521] for he sees what teaching at its very best can be. But no one actually engaged in the gritty work of democratic transformation would want first to turn to literary analysis, even at its most refined levels, as the implement of choice.
William M. Chace is president emeritus of Emory University and former president of Wesleyan University. His books include The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics.