Comparative but not superlative

Roy Harris is bemused by a dense, ill-tempered screed on the English language as oppressor

March 20, 2008

The mystery cult of comparative literature still survives in odd corners of higher education. Its original European priesthood was largely drawn from émigré intelligentsia in the first half of the 20th century, who spoke a variety of languages and wanted to establish their own relevance to the culture of their host countries. The claim of comparative literature to constitute an academic field in its own right was based on the specious analogy with comparative philology, which was by then already a moribund discipline.

After the Second World War, practitioners of "Comp Lit" (as it was called in the academic colloquial of the day), fearing the imminent demise of their subject, rashly sought ambitious alliances with currently fashionable trends, ranging from folklore to media studies. But they basically remained what they had always been: polyglot literary historians and critics seeking a plausible rationale for their "comparisons".

The English Question is a last-ditch attempt to reinvent Comp Lit as the discipline devoted to developing intellectual freedom, with the likes of Hegel, Derrida and Bill Readings as its gurus. For readers who enjoy sustained academic ranting, it has a lot going for it. The downside is the writing. "This book, as you know since you have picked it up, is called The English Question; and so it is actually about the relations between knowledge and freedom." It takes a remarkable work to recover from an opening sentence as bad as that. Thomas Docherty, unfortunately, is not in that league as a writer. Most of the time, he sounds like a disgruntled Scottish nationalist just recovering from a severe bout of postmodernism.

English and the English are, of course, the oppressors. The infamous non-Union of England and Scotland signals the beginning of those systematic misconceptions about academic freedom and the English language under which we still suffer. Francis Bacon, that arch-plotter, heaped servile praise on James I in The Advancement of Learning for the King's fluent mastery of English speech. This laid the foundation for all subsequent attempts to identify English with the monarchy in London (as in "the King's English", "the Queen's English"). But what in fact is known about James I's spoken English? Docherty never tells us.

Pearls of Dochertian wisdom include the proposition that poetry engages the "paradoxical but oddly logical impossible possibility (or possible impossibility) of death". In advance of death, Docherty puts himself firmly on the side of the angels by denouncing academic bureaucracies and the Quality Assurance Agency. The QAA is "a cancer that gnaws at the core of knowledge, value and freedom in education" and "an incipiently 'fascist' mechanism". Three cheers for all this, some will say. It is a pity that the temptation to cheer is dulled by having to plough through English prose replete with "revalorisations", "legitimisations" and "prioritisations", not to mention turning several times a page to the back of the book to consult illuminating asides such as "Note that I am not deploying the notion of 'dwelling' here in the sense ascribed to it by Heidegger."

According to Docherty, all literary studies are at bottom "comparative", even if that fact has escaped generations of monoglot readers. Where does this leave "the English question"? The answer comes eventually at the end of chapter seven: "The English question is also, of course, the Scottish question, as it is the Irish or the French and so on." All is (comparatively) clear at last.

Literature and liberty of thought are both important topics. But it is difficult to believe that one can learn much about either from a book that has so little to say about language, languages and levels of literacy.

The English Question or Academic Freedoms

By Thomas Docherty
Sussex Academic Press
160pp
£39.50 and £15.95
ISBN 9781845191320 and 1337
Published 1 February 2008

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