“It was a little intrigue, you understand. They got my poor Mohammed to send for me and then laid that ambush. I see it all in a minute, and I think—this wants a little management.” Stein, an exile from the ranks of the failed 1848 German revolution, is speaking to Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim about the day he added a particularly rare butterfly to his entomology collection. He had just foiled the ambush—first playing possum then killing three assailants—when he spotted and captured a Coleoptera. “Yes, my good friend. On that day I had nothing to desire; I had greatly annoyed my principal enemy; I was young, strong; I had friendship; I had the love’ (he said ‘lof’) of woman, a child I had, to make my heart very full—and even what I had once dreamed in my sleep had come into my hand too!”
Teaching this classic, turn-of-the-century novel a few years ago, I had to pause before going on to the pivotal exchange about Jim’s being, like Stein himself, a “romantic,” and what such a “specimen” could do with his life. A graduate student was dismayed because Stein, on his happy day, had shot three Indonesians (as we may call them: places in the novel are difficult to pin down) and popped an exquisite butterfly into his kill-jar. Another student, who had worked in business before coming to grad school, to my surprise sensibly observed that, since the Indonesians had been trying to kill Stein, his shots were in self-defense. I say “surprise” because I’d expected an anti-colonialist, not to say pacifist, consensus crossing the grain of Conrad’s patent intentions—and here was a note of moral realism. As for the snuffed butterfly, I myself had to put in a word for science.
We then went on to the diagnosis of Jim as a romantic, which Stein declares to be “very bad,” for he’s possessed of a strong sense of honor—a burden insofar as he’s bound to run up against situations where he’ll fail—but also “very good,” for he’ll have a motive to persevere. Persevering is what Stein’s famous prescription for “how to be”—“to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up”—amounts to. The “destructive element” is the “dream” that is life in a dangerous world, which Stein learned about in the Germany of 1848, in the civil wars of the Celebes, and presumably in the trade wars through which he made his little fortune. Living by his romantic ideals, exerting his “hands and feet” to swim in an honorable direction, has enabled him to be the person he’s hoped he’d be.
Jim’s subsequent adventures in Patusan will reinforce that romantic-realistic worldview: his “generous ideas” about evolving democracy, about a stable central government, or about free trade leading to a general prosperity, can be effected not by mere wishing but, when necessary, by forceful action: “a little management.” If that’s the political arc of this story of a white “lord” endeavoring to bring the desiderated government and trade to a backwater on the eastern seaboard, it’s moving because, for Jim, after his shameful abandonment of an apparently sinking boatload of Muslim pilgrims—the focus of the first half of the novel—it’s a precious second chance to do the right thing. I like plots about second chances, and I believe most readers do.
Or would, if spasmodic OMG reactions—the men Stein shot, the poor butterfly, the presumption of a European to sort things out in an Indonesian village, Jim’s disregard for his indigenous mistress when he offers his life as payment for the chieftain’s son, for whose death he blames himself—didn’t get in the way. Of course the list of objectionables could be extended, in Stein’s phrase, “ewig—usque ad finem.” Reading Lord Jim or any canonical work you might happily remember from your own school days has for some decades ceased to be about entertaining, possibly even assimilating, the author’s wisdom. It’s more about asking, from the get-go, “What’s wrong with this text?” And needless to say, what’s wrong will nowadays have to do with how the characters, the author, and the author’s contemporaries were insufficiently “woke” about gender, race, class, sexual preference or “identity,” which more than nine-tenths of literature teachers seem to think they know all about.
Shakespeare’s Othello? I remember when, in Maynard Mack’s seminar at Yale, a black student shook us up by asking whether Venice didn’t need “the Moor” the way Cleveland’s pro football team needed Jim Brown. Yes, race does have a lot to do with the psycho-social tensions of Shakespeare’s play. But if one focuses singly on racial injustice, one can miss the play’s wider concern with Iago’s motivelessly malignant prodding of Othello’s connubial insecurities, and Othello’s insane revenge on what he takes to be his wife Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. The reader’s task is to attend to several things at once, and not presume that one thing—race, in this case—determines all the others.
Mansfield Park? For many generations, informed readers thought this most atypical Jane Austen novel was about the Cinderella-like Fanny Price’s struggle to gain respect within the rich Bertram family—they’ve adopted her as a favor to Lady Bertram’s poor sister—a struggle pitting Fanny’s evangelical piety against the Regency-era worldliness of all the Bertrams except Edmund. Quite serious about taking clerical orders and serving a congregation, Edmund marries Fanny at the end. Maybe it was all too evident, and when Kingsley Amis’s exasperation at the novel’s religiosity had in midcentury played itself out—“Whatever Happened to Jane Austen?”—it needed only Edward Said and his followers to offer a different answer. What had “happened” was the slave trade. Thinking of those who labor on Sir Thomas’s plantation in Antigua, Fanny mentions slavery but once, which is presumptive evidence of an embarrassed cover-up. Then, even deeper in the background, there’s the looting of India. Where if not from the richest part of the Empire did so many of the big house’s furnishings come?
Rather than multiplying instances of such “strong misreadings”—Harold Bloom must have rued the day he introduced that excuse for interpretive speculation—I’d like to register a few personal reminiscences. When I was a student at a small Lutheran-affiliated college in Minnesota—I graduated in the annus horribilis of Tet, political assassinations, and riots around the Democratic Convention—literature was taught in a New Critical fashion. As the movement’s founders, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, had thirty years before insisted, poems, plays, and stories ought to be studied as poems, plays, and stories. Though we readers might well consult biography, history, and philosophy (especially morals), and though we needn’t blush when paraphrasing a work’s plot or argument, the words on the page—the “literary construct” the author had created—was where we began and ended. Brooks and Warren were for pedagogical purposes applying lessons that had been promulgated in the 1920s by I. A. Richards in The Principles of Literary Criticism and Practical Criticism and brilliantly extended, from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, by F. R. Leavis and those who wrote for the quarterly Scrutiny, which he edited.
The keyword for these New Critics was organic: a literary work was “an organic system of relationships,” its literary quality never residing in “one or more factors”—a poem’s diction, meter, or (when appropriate) rhyme, a novel’s characters or plot, the figurative language deployed by the author, etc.—regarded “in isolation.” Analysis, which in Greek means taking something apart for the sake of understanding, would observe how an author used various linguistic “means” to achieve an “end.” If pursued in balance, means and end (form and theme) together kept everyone safe from jejune impressionism (“I like this, I don’t like that”) on the one hand, and off-putting formalism (jargon about spondees, synecdoches, litotes, whatever) on the other.
Fact is, of course, when readers seize on a part of the whole to expatiate on, it’s almost always “theme”—the work’s ideas and emotions, usually embodied in the thought and action of characters—they’re after. And in my college days, when the humanities, envying the success of the natural sciences, began their misguided imitation of the social sciences, we were encouraged to get with various programs. Psychology (Freud, Jung, & Co.), political science (Marx of course, but also a deep bench including Machiavelli, Hobbes, Burke, Mill, and Niebuhr), anthropology (Jessie Weston and other purveyors of ancient myths that appeared to offer substrata for modern works), and ethics (from Aristotle to Rousseau, Kierkegaard to Camus): there were many disciplines to “minor” in. I would explain why, though keenly interested in all these disciplines, I was majoring in literature. Because literature drew on all of them, a student was breezily counseled to “read around.”
Clearly, I was in danger of becoming not just a dilettante but the kind of critic who would use literature to push this or that favored politics, ethics, mythology, or whatever. And so in graduate school, planning to write a dissertation on “the novel,” I gave myself tutorials in its form, concentrating—I warm at the memory—on Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction, E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, which along with Erich Auerbach’s magisterial Mimesis, that Homer-to-Woolf study of “the representation of reality in Western literature,” persuaded me that criticism was worth learning and, if one was any good, practicing.
Taking Dwight Culler’s seminar in Victorian literature, dropping in on Hillis Miller’s disturbingly different one on fiction, writing a dissertation under Miller and Charles Feidelson about the Bildungsroman in English, starting a job at Cornell: I developed by my late twenties a feeling that criticism wasn’t what only yesterday it had been. Of course my intellectual formation wasn’t unique for academics who’d gone to college when I did, and were trying to make sense of each new and generally bogus thing: structuralism (the application of linguistics—how words convey meaning—to literature), deconstruction (the assertion that, well, assertions are finally no-go, for there’s never a one-to-one match between words and things, especially ultimate things like the Good, the True, or the Beautiful), and then, to skip ahead, the weaponizing of criticism in the strife between party A and party B, the party depending on what gender, race, class, or sexual “identity” one in fact or in fancy belonged to.
Jonathan Bishop, one of my wiser Cornell colleagues, an Emerson scholar who became a Catholic theologian, wondered at women’s or blacks’ attachment to a movement (deconstruction) that denied the existence of what disadvantaged people had always wanted to affirm—namely, an individual self. Selfhood, like goodness, truth, and beauty, was, we were to understand, merely a social construct. Demur and (the horror!) you’d be labeled a Platonic-Romantic “essentialist.” No, a person negotiated an agreement about “who he was” in a context of other whos, each conditioned by biosocial categories. Nothing transcendental—transhistorical, transracial, transclass—about it, till we came, decades later, to I guess transsexual, which has received special treatment. What to do? Bishop could advise only patience: “We’ll have to wait till it [the new New Criticism, as we then said, like post-postmodernism] swept over everything for a generation, as Marxism had in the 30s.”
Meanwhile, if we found the whole thing alien not just to what we’d learned in school, but to our cognitive-passional experience of literature and the arts, what was our plan? In Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist, Stephen Dedalus speaks of “silence, exile, and cunning.” As a serious artist, Stephen expects to be part of a minority culture within a mass civilization; he will need “arms” to defend himself. Not all of us, critics and teachers who practiced some species of New Critical close-reading cum Leavisite moral judgment, wanted to keep silent. Silence would however often prove the better part of valor when dealing with colleagues whose mentors had been Miller, Paul de Man, Fredric Jameson, and the rest of them, and who, if they were polite, shrugged off still-young fogies like me not as principled resisters but, damningly, as theoretically naïve. Which meant “not part of the conversation.” By the time I’d moved to Marquette, and relations would have been the same on almost any campus, internal exile—the pandemic phrase is now “social distancing”—had become the norm. There was no place for self-pity, however, since the world is always much larger than a six-by-six academic department. As for cunning, finally, I never found it hard to develop strategies for candor in print or in the classroom. What once would have been called a liberal style of criticism had become, in a definitional shift analogous to what had occurred in American politics (the New Deal progressivism of Jack Kennedy transmogrified into the radicalism of Ted), conservative. The preposition “neo” never trickled down into criticism, though it might have, since there the conservative had to go into smart opposition to the regnant fashions, which had descended from, though were commonly no less vulgar than, the fellow-traveling Marxism of the frostiest Cold War years.
Conservative writing and teaching meant, to come back to Lord Jim, assuming that a literary work was above all literary—a “verbal icon” shaped by a writer’s tools—not a treatise in politics, anthropology, psychology, or ethics. Such considerations, like the writer’s biography or historical context, might well enter the discussion, but in ancillary mode. They wouldn’t be interesting in connection with Lord Jim, Othello, or Mansfield Park if the said work weren’t first an object of aesthetic contemplation. And in such objects the artist, not the audience, is the one privileged—“authorized” would be the word—to indicate what’s important. In the anecdote Stein tells, what’s important is the triumph over his slain enemies and the capture of a rare butterfly, and this with Conrad’s strongly implied endorsement. In the larger story, Jim’s, the important question is what someone who’s failed to live up to his ideal of honor can do to redeem himself. Pacifists, anti-entomologists, and those Falstaffians who regard honor as simply a “word . . . air . . . a mere scutcheon” are reading the wrong book.
Wrong book, right book. How tell the difference? Whenever I put together syllabi I’d certainly foreground what was canonical—books that, because teachers had been presenting them successfully for at least a couple of generations, had passed the test of time. Not Ann Radcliffe, however popular around 1800, but Jane Austen, whose send-up of Radcliffe’s sillinesses had helped to downgrade The Mysteries of Udolpho for what should have been forever. Feminist critics of our day have “recuperated” Radcliffe, since there’s a vindication of the rights of women audible inside the creaking Gothic machinery. Only, well-meant vindications do not, by themselves, make great literature. By analogous criteria, I’d choose not Rider Haggard, whose King Solomon’s Mines or She in the 1880s may have begun to make the liberal case against imperialism, and to have adumbrated archetypes in a way that interested Carl Jung, but Conrad, whose descriptions and psychological notations possess subtleties beyond Haggard’s excited yarn-spinning. A last example: one of my colleagues, in a Renaissance literature class, bypassed Shakespeare (my choice) for the sake of plays by Lady Mary Wroth or Elizabeth Cary, Elizabethan closet dramatists whom you probably haven’t heard of and needn’t bother with till you’ve become inward with that shallowly anathematized Shakespeare. Like Plato and a few other greats anyone might mention, Shakespeare, as a certain professor told his students, is smarter than we are. In the name of diversity, my colleague’s students were being denied the opportunity of finding out just how much smarter.
I obviously lack space to fill out what I mean when I say writers like Shakespeare, Austen, or Conrad have the imaginative energy to find the right words, fitting them together in phrases that propel their sentences, to help us see, hear, feel, and think as their characters do. They depict human experience, in short, and with an intensity and complication that’s sufficiently life-like to require our full attention.
Very well, but for my syllabi I’d also pick books that were about aspects of the human tale that truly matter—by which, as a belated Leavisite, I usually meant morals, and the manners and beliefs that accompany them. In Austen, most delightfully in Pride and Prejudice, most maturely in Emma, it’s the dynamics of love and friendship, courtship and marriage. In D. H. Lawrence, ditto, but with searching views of the family life—husbands and wives, children and grandchildren—that comes after marriage, especially in Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow. In Conrad, the moral center is both personal honor, as in Jim, and political honor, as in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. My goal, simply put, was to help students read organically unified works: the “forms” manifested were indubitably the result of inspired craftsmanship—they were literary—and the “themes” dramatized were key to making our civilization more civil.
In the Victorian high noon, Matthew Arnold earnestly defined great poetry as “a criticism of life”—a judgment Bloomsbury tried to sneer out of existence but couldn’t—and the careers of the twentieth century’s best critics, Leavis, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling demonstrated why Arnold was right. The more common readers cultivate a relation to great poetry, drama, and fiction, which increasingly they, like Wilson, have to do outside the academic vineyard, the more the survivability of what’s greatly been thought and said will be enhanced. The 25 percent decline in literature majors since 2008 may be a healthy sign, given the tendencies in literary studies I’ve sketched here. After all, the vast majority of the classics that make up our literary tradition were created outside of universities. In the future we may well see new writers who will add to that tradition. Hope is a virtue.
Back in the 1990s Irving Kristol said conservatives had to face up to it: the “culture wars” were over and they’d lost. Humanities departments, the media, most of the government agencies, and religious organizations, had swung to the extreme left, and public opinion had largely followed. But there were “opposing selves,” as Trilling would have noted, not least among his friends and former students. Norman Podhoretz, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Cynthia Ozick, Robert Alter and others constituted, from the 70s on, a counter-countercultural movement, notably in Commentary, Hudson Review, and weeklies such as National Review and the late-lamented Weekly Standard. That movement continues, not least in the pages of this journal, and for our children and grandchildren’s sake, we must remember what in dark days Daniel Patrick Moynihan told Podhoretz. Despair is a sin.