How We Write When We Write About Writing
How We Write When We Write About Writing
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter looks at the process of writing about writing. It explains that all forms of writing designate a relationship between writer and public and that style demonstrates both the ability and willingness to comprehend and participate in a worldview that is successive and grounded in history. It also explores the reasons behind the success of the theoretical style of writing.
Near the beginning of Enemies of Promise, that strange alloy of literary criticism and autobiography, Cyril Connolly contends that “it should be possible to learn as much about an author's income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love letters.” Though this is probably more of a conceit than firm conviction (one can barely identify a writer's sex, much less sex life, from what may be a few impersonal sentences), Connolly was expressing a general confidence in style's transparency. “It is most true, stylus virum arguit, our style betrays us,” wrote Robert Burton—a thought later immortalized in Buffon's: “Le style est l'homme même.”
It is, of course, far easier to point out style's effects than to define its essential quality. Connolly proposes that literary style is roughly divisible into the Mandarin and the Vernacular. The former, served up by Sir Thomas Browne, Addison, Dr. Johnson, Gibbon, Ruskin, Pater, Wilde, and Henry James, rejoices in complexity, eloquence, and subtlety, unfurling them in one dependent clause after another. The Vernacular is a less formal affair, whose (p.138) practitioners—Hazlitt, Butler, Shaw, Wells, Gissing, Orwell, and Maugham—draw on patterns of ordinary speech and the brisk rhythms of journalism. The line separating the two styles, however, is a fluid one. There is “a relationship between them,” Connolly observes, “a perpetual action and reaction,” which began with the rise of Fleet Street and the founding of the literary Reviews toward the end of the eighteenth century.
Connolly's own thoughts on style were expressed a few short years before World War II. Since then much has changed in the way literary criticism is regarded and practiced both here and abroad. In fact, the change has been so drastic that Geoffrey Hartman, the Karl Young Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale, is within his rights to subsume the Mandarin and the Vernacular under one rubric, variously called the Familiar-, the Conversational-, or, rather cloyingly, the Friendship-Style. Now competing with the old lettristic style is the theoretical or academic style, defined by Hartman as “prose with a noticeable proportion of technical terms.” Of course, Hartman means much more by this than an infusion of mouthy words, and though there is little that is stylish about theoretical discourse, it is a style, for only as a style can it have the broad and deep cultural implications he ascribes to it.
Hartman, who has written elsewhere on detective fiction and the movies, as well as on subjects befitting his position, has given his book Minor Prophecies the subtitle The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars because, despite its other concerns, this is a book about the tension between the two kinds of critical style. And though Hartman goes out of his way to assure us that this tension, like that between the Mandarin and the Vernacular, is beneficial, and that both styles have their uses, and that the contemporary polemic about the two styles is really “the product of a misunderstanding,” just about everything he says regarding theory's emergence speaks for its superiority.
(p.139) Committed to a point of view, but not to a sustained argument, the book's ten chapters explore differences between Anglo-American and Continental criticism, the origins of the review-essay, the politics of literary restitution, and the place of F. R. Leavis and Paul de Man, among others, in the intellectual pantheon. But because this is first and foremost a book about critical prose and the status of the essay as “a reflective and clarifying genre,” one may perhaps compress and restructure the broken, underlying argument into a three-tiered thesis, although not without the inevitable loss in nuance and complexity: (1) All forms of writing designate a relationship between writer and public; between the written word and the world it signifies. (2) By implication, then, style demonstrates both the ability and willingness to comprehend and participate in a worldview that is successive and grounded in history. (3) And by extension, style embodies the increasing self-consciousness that history has forced upon us—a process, which, if understood, may have both a practical and transcendent dimension.
To put it in even blunter terms: Because the theoretical style has established itself in the world of letters, there must be valid reasons for its success. The generative cause, for Hartman, is to be found in the emotional reaction to World War I. Citing Valéry's comment that “something deeper has been worn away than the renewable parts of the machine … our fears are infinitely more precise than our hopes,” he suggests that the disturbed balance of hope and dread has informed our thinking about the world and the word. How much more this balance was affected by the horrors of the next world war remains, of course, unquantifiable. But this mournful assessment of history is today almost certainly taken for granted. Francis Fukuyama, for example, begins The End of History and the Last Man by claiming: “The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made all of us into deep historical pessimists.”
Such pessimism not only clouds the future but also permeates the physical and philosophical present. A loss of faith in the (p.140) capacity to know either ourselves or nature in any absolute sense distinguishes us from the generations born before 1900. Matter, or the atoms that constitute it, can be neither defined nor measured without allowing for statistical probabilities. And words, as Saussure and his church of latter-day signifiers continue to preach, have no referents. Thinking about thinking has taken a strange, impersonal turn—as has thinking about literature. The analytic displacement of German philosophy and its explicit concern with subjective intentionality (which later turns up in phenomenology and existentialism) by schools of thought that examine the unconscious representations of self and society embodied in our artifacts, especially language, has made, as everyone will agree, a deep impression on literary criticism. Instead of wrestling with manifestations of individual genius or will, theory-minded critics—structuralists, semioticians, and deconstructionists—emphasize the linguistic properties of prose, exposing the unconscious interplay between social and semiotic structures.
In effect, Hartman offers us a historical brief for the critical style that goes by the name of theory. The decorum of the conversational style was fine when we knew less and hoped for more, but it is unrepresentative of the postmodern perspective. Indeed, its civility, wit, temperateness, and unmediated belief in the civilizing influence of art may actually be inappropriate in light of the barbarism that haunts the twentieth century—the barbarism that prompted Adorno's injunction regarding the writing of poetry after Auschwitz.
That a certain ineffectuality exists where belles lettres meets science or politics is, I think, unarguable. But is theoretical criticism any more equal to the task? Hartman believes it to be, but his justification subtly begs the question; one cannot demonstrate an idea's or an event's inalienable rightness by adducing everything that preceded it. History happens and makes things happen, but what conclusions can we draw regarding a thing's historical appositeness? (p.141) Yes, the Great War shocked artists and intellectuals; and yes, Wittgenstein, Saussure, the Vienna Circle, the Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, Heidegger, World War II, structuralism, deconstruction, hermeneutical theory, not to mention the French radicals' demand for a new language to replace the nasty old values implicit in bourgeois discourse, all had their effects on literature. The question that needs asking, however, is whether such effects are significant in any but a temporal sense; how much weight does being representative of the times carry? For Hartman, the issue is plain. Intellectual history has tossed up literary theory, and so, despite the benefits supposedly to be gained from the tension between the theoretical and the conversational style, Hartman has no qualms about declaring that the “gain of literary theory in the 1970s was a gain in thoughtfulness.”
Which brings us to the second point, concerning the intellectual endowment of the two styles. Is there, as Hartman suggests, a sense of things accessible to one style but not to another? Furthermore, should what “is important in art be translatable into terms of colloquial prose, or does the effort coopt the work of genius, repressing its asocial or antisocial component? And, again, does the insistence that criticism imitate the seeming clarity of public speech neglect the creativeness of critical prose itself, both as a technique of discovery and a style developed over time?”
Although such questions suggest a willingness at least to consider the limitations of the theoretical style, only someone who firmly hews to the greater efficacy of the theoretical over the conversational could approve of the following exegetical model:
Or could himself write:
The necessary, originary, and irreducible dissimulation of the meaning of being, its occultation within the very blossoming forth of presence, that retreat without which there would be no history of being which was completely history and history of (p.142) being, Heidegger's insistence on noting that being is produced as history only through the logos, and is nothing outside of it, the difference between being and the entity—all this clearly indicates that fundamentally nothing escapes the movement of the signifier and that, in the last instance, the difference between signified and signifier is nothing. (Derrida, Of Grammatology)
Yet theory too is often associated by us with the contrary of a critical position, with a systematic or ideological closure that appropriates one part of existence, or of language, at the expense of others. Theory is then accused of forgetting its own positivity, that it is not nature, that no neutral totality exists, and that totalization should be in the service of a critical or comparative counter-perspective. Indeed, totalization, and its most obvious figure, prolepsis, cannot be avoided, because we are always situated. The domain of preunderstanding (what we have always already known) coheres us, makes understanding, in all its error, possible, makes dialogue and agreement possible.
A good many readers may be excused for thinking this is all flapdoodle, but it is also necessary to say that many intelligent men and women, mostly academics to be sure, will feel perfectly at home with these sentences. For such readers, the problematic nature of both mind and language requires a style that is emblematic of such difficulty. This being the case, any attempt to review a book of theory in the conversational style may itself be only a futile gesture in translation. Still, one bravely pushes on.
In fact, cautions Hartman, the critic who relies on the conversational style “because of its propriety may actually be doing a disservice to language [so much for his professed acceptance of this style]. However difficult Blackmur, Burke, Heidegger, or Derrida (p.143) may be, there is less entropy in them than in those who translate with the best intentions hazardous ideas or expressions into ordinary speech.” Apparently, hazardous ideas, presumably those we may find disconcerting, lie outside the scope of ordinary, as opposed to theoretical, discourse; and ultimately the deeper meaning of texts can be rendered only in a technical metalanguage. The unstated correlation is with particle physics, which requires a language of symbols and mathematical equations to express newly discovered relations among mass, energy, and the observer.
Some remarks by Paul Ricoeur may prove instructive here. After noting that scientific language, by aspiring to the ideal representation of nature, is contextually neutral (since its truth is already the truth of what is being described), Ricoeur argues that ordinary language “differs from an ideal language in that it has no fixed expressions independent of their contextual uses … the interpretative process as it occurs in the use of ordinary language foreshadows the more difficult, evasive, and complicated interpretation of texts.” In other words, it is precisely because “there is something irreducible in ordinary language” that we are able to communicate and interpret communication legitimately.
To take this further, even theoretical language is, at bottom, ordinaiy. Try as they might, literary theorists cannot earn scientific accreditation; all that the theorist can do is pull and stretch ordinary language to make it accommodate abstruse philosophical concepts. Needless to say, the language of philosophers, with one or two exceptions, has been tough sledding ever since Aristotle decided to get technical; and it is a thorny issue indeed whether its difficulty is essential to, or commensurate with, the difficulty of its ideas. Much the same thing, of course, can be said about literary theory. Are there really thoughts not only too deep for tears but also for the familiar vocabulary?
Difficult to say. Language, after all, not only expresses thoughts but also makes possible thoughts that could not exist (p.144) without it. Just how it accomplishes this or what role esoteric words play are issues still in need of clarification. Nevertheless, an uncomplicated style does not necessarily reduce texts to uncomplicated ideas. But what the conversational style does avoid is the cognitive quagmire that all epistemological questions ultimately sink into. The idea of the duality between subject and object, between the truth of a thing and knowing the thing, puts philosophical language through some amazing loops, circumvolutions that attest to the impossibility of absolute answers.
Hartman is not unmindful of the problem. He mentions repeatedly the “impasse” created by deconstructionist theory and concedes willingly enough the “methodological pathos” at the heart of deconstruction, “a mourning over the self-invalidating nature of all methodologies.” Still, one cannot help feeling that he would rather mourn than not know enough to mourn.
To his credit, he does not condone difficulty for its own sake. He believes that the problematic nature of interpretation and the self-referential process of thinking have fashioned a style whose difficulty is suggestive of the greater problems it deals with. Clarity is hardly the point. And while Hartman would, I think, frown on those who maintain that clarity, being part of a bourgeois value system, is another form of oppression, he might agree that clarity has been overrated—an opinion that unfortunately has found a home in the academy.
Which brings us to Hartman's third point: the place of theory in contemporary culture. It seems that our need for theory is “linked to a change in the environment: the rise of propaganda, organized lying and ideological falsification.” Evidently, it is in theory's power to see through and disclose our spiritual failings. Likening this unmasking capability to Talmudic commentary, Hartman muses that: “We have something to learn from a religious (p.145) culture in which the creative energies went almost totally into commentary, and the same basic method of reading was used for law (halakhah) and lore (aggadah).”
But whatever his hopes for literary theory, Hartman never quite demonstrates just how this interpretative process leads to the realization that a “critical essay, a legal opinion, an interpretation of Scripture, a biography, can be as inspiring and nurturing as poem, novel, or painting.” Rather, it is all too evident that theory's involvement with a text is really a means to get more intimately involved with itself, and to stake out a position independent of literary sources.
Theory reigns. Not in the literary reviews or in the general press, but certainly in the majority of books issuing from university presses and in many graduate schools from Yale to Berkeley. And up to a point, readers who take literature seriously must familiarize themselves with the works of Adorno, Benjamin, Lukács, Barthes, Derrida, Paul de Man, and another half-dozen or so philosopher-critics whose works have affected the way literature is taught.
But such an acknowledgment is a far cry from avowing that the entire panopoly of twentieth-century intellectual thought justifies theory's eminence in contemporary literature departments. There are, after all, less exalted reasons for this phenomenon, including the conspicuous absence in the last quarter century of writers of genius, a fact that may have something to do with how critics regard their own labors. Nor can we dismiss the allure that a professional insularity has for some teachers and critics. Once it became clear that the shift from belles lettres to literary specialization was a going concern, and that a familiarity with what might be considered more analytical disciplines—philosophy, linguistics, anthropology—was essential to advancement, many English professors took to the theoretical style and never looked back. In a word, clarity was no longer a good career move.
Like it or not, one must admit that Hartman argues from (p.146) strength: literary theory has exploded myths and assumptions about meaning and intentionality, rushing past the poetic source to grapple with the mental categories that determine how we create and receive verbal information. And what is implicit in theory's program (a point that Hartman avoids) is its demotion of individual talent. The emphasis on common semiotic structures in all forms of discourse is what, after all, brought about the death of the author and the current skepticism concerning the usefulness of “quality” and “beauty.” Indeed, the technical jargon and impersonal tone of the theoretical style perfectly mirror an age in which individualitv in art is no longer prized.
Will this style prevail? That depends, I think, not so much on historical forces as on a human need for harmony and certitude. “Our language,” remarked Cyril Connolly, “is a sulky and inconstant beauty and at any given moment it is important to know what liberties she will permit.” Few academic critics today seem aware of the existence of the proprieties: the only style that is intellectually appropriate is one that demonstrates just how involuted, uncertain, fragmentary, and perpetually in flux the process of thinking is.
Agreed, there are good reasons not to cease from mental fight. Metaphysical and linguistic questions need to be pondered, however inconclusive our speculations prove to be. But we may also ask ourselves whether such deliberations can be profitably turned to the study of literature. There is something about art that resists theory, just as there is something about existence that defies unbiased or conclusive judgments. To do art, one must cease from philosophizing; to offer criticism of art, one must walk a fine line between art and philosophy, never leaning too far in either direction.
A man who knew something about theory once described philosophy as thinking that reveals that the simple is complicated, that doubts may reside in firmly held convictions, and that even (p.147) the most plausible premises are vulnerable to logical attack. “The net result of these speculations,” added Bertrand Russell, “is to substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.” Without wishing either to detract from speculative thought or insist on a simplistic and apodictic universe, one may choose, where literature is concerned, a little less articulate hesitation, a little more inarticulate certainty. Without this faith in things and words, neither art nor criticism can truly matter to us.