Critical Revolutionaries Brian Dillon

Searching for value in the innovations of five mid-twentieth-century critics.

Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read,
by Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 323 pages, $28

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Perennial inquiry—does literary criticism matter? A variant question, at once urgent and wistful, wants to know if it still matters. On my desk as I’m writing this are fragments of evidence that it mattered a great deal in the middle of the twentieth century: a quartet of bluish paperbacks bought by my father when he studied English literature in Dublin in the 1960s. A terseness of initials—T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and F. R. Leavis—denotes the gravitas with which critics declared themselves; William Empson, the fourth author in the pile, was less given to such formality despite origins in the landed gentry. Add a fifth with Raymond Williams, and you have a canon or coterie that invented, defined, and redefined English as a university subject over fifty years, from the late 1920s onward, and placed its study squarely in the public sphere as a pursuit with political as well as aesthetic stakes. Terry Eagleton’s Critical Revolutionaries is a lively, partisan study of those five critics’ innovative ideas and (in most cases) archaic urges.

One more bibliographic reminiscence: also among my late dad’s books is Slant Manifesto, a left-Catholic publication from 1966, containing an essay by one T. Eagleton, then a doctoral student at Jesus College, Cambridge. Eagleton more than anyone is the inheritor of the lineage his book describes—he was taught by the cultural-studies pioneer Williams—but also its New Left nemesis. In works such as Criticism and Ideology (1976) and Literary Theory (1983), he became the most visible—the latter has sold over 750,000 copies—British opponent of the old humanist approaches, and champion of a materialist criticism derived from the likes of Walter Benjamin, Pierre Macherey, and Louis Althusser. Eagleton’s style has long been polemical, chatty, boisterous, but not very intimate in its readings of texts—though as a reviewer he can deliver precise blows, as in a notorious 2006 London Review of Books piece about atheist irritant Richard Dawkins. But a study of five long-dead white male critics, most of whom taught at Cambridge: this is ancient and recondite history, no? Oddly, not quite.

In the centenary year of The Waste Land, Eagleton reminds us that Eliot’s critical writing could be just as audacious as his poetry. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) advances an idea of literary change (though not progress) that is like something out of Jorge Luis Borges: even a minor novelty reshapes the written past, and the most radical contemporary poet works with the whole of literary history weighing on the page. At the same time, Eliot was a coiner of vacuous and sometimes racist generalizations: “I believe the Chinese mind is very much nearer to the Anglo-Saxon than it is to the Indian.” His antisemitism is well documented, his fondness for the antique white culture of the American South just as suspect as his reverence for fossilized aspects of England, his adoptive home. On the one hand, “tradition” meant a fluxile excitement of competing voices—with, to be sure, the avant-gardist Eliot conducting—and on the other it meant a quite fantastical notion of a good old England, before “dissociation of sensibility” set in, some time in the seventeenth century.

Though Eagleton never quite says it, Critical Revolutionaries is in part a book about England and Englishness—vexed territory these days in light of post-Brexit nationalism, chaotic authoritarianism, vicious class and culture wars. Eliot’s combination of aesthetic radicalism and political conservatism is not exactly a template for the rest of Eagleton’s critical quintet, but all except Williams are blighted in some fashion by ruinous nostalgia or cultural self-involvement. Leavis is the worst: a figure whose influence was once felt across British universities and high schools, and whom various minor British academics have been trying to recuperate for years, though he really doesn’t deserve it. In The Great Tradition (1948) his canon of novelists is pitifully limited: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad—he later admitted Charles Dickens. But the real problem is what Leavis thinks fiction and poetry are for: to express or inculcate a moral and cultural authenticity at odds with urban modernity, popular culture, Europe and its literatures. In private, Leavis referred to James Joyce as a “nasty Irishman.”

A quaint attachment to unmerry old England is there too in Richards and Empson, though much leavened by their cosmopolitanism (both spend periods teaching in China) and, in Empson’s case, certain antic tendencies: boozy, bisexual, partial to opium, he was expelled from his Cambridge college for possessing condoms. Richards is chiefly known for Practical Criticism (1929)—the result of an experiment in which readers (Empson and Leavis among them) were presented with unattributed gobbets of poetry and asked to respond. The results were predictably variable; Eagleton skimps on Richards’s waspish commentary: “The failure to recognize a sonnet we have met before and shall meet again.” When I began an English degree at the end of the 1980s, it was common to speak of the Richards-Empson-Leavis era as one of determined “close reading.” But in truth only one of the three was very committed to it: Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity—surely one of the great book titles—was published when he was twenty-four, and is an intensely perceptive (or is it inventive?) anatomy of poetic meaning.

The great advance of the much younger Williams was to have taken both the attention to literary language practiced or preached by his predecessors, as well as their worrying about literature and nation, and scrutinized all in terms of class and ideology. Williams’s Keywords (1976), a “vocabulary of culture and society,” remains a bravura analysis of what Joyce called “those big words . . . which make us so unhappy.” It is this kind of critical project—unwittingly made possible by earlier and far less radical critics—that Eagleton thinks still worth pursuing, distinct from the now much reduced purview of the average academic critic, with his or her minute “specialism.” It’s a conclusion that feels of our moment, even if the subjects of Critical Revolutionaries seem very far away.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism and Suppose a Sentence are published by New York Review Books. Affinities, a book mostly about photographs, will be published in 2023.

Searching for value in the innovations of five mid-twentieth-century critics.
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