For the past quarter of a century, literature has played second fiddle to critical theory and cultural history in the Anglophone academy. Countless adepts of exotic philosophies have carved careers out of reducing the novels, plays and poems they teach to illustrations of abstruse creeds.
Their number is surpassed only by those who hitched their stars to historicism and the interdisciplinary imperative, and who spend their time twisting texts into pretexts for the stuff about money, maps or medicine that really interests them. Nor can one blame them, given the premium placed by the research assessment exercise and funding bodies on historical and textual "high scholarship" and the uncritical awe in which archival research is held.
These have been glum times for anyone convinced that there is something special about the creative use of language and form in imaginative writing at its best, which sets it apart from other kinds of discourse and gives us ways of seeing the world no other kind of writing can deliver. That conviction reaches right back to Aristotle, who insisted that poetry is superior to both philosophy and history, and the cost of ditching it has been immense. Not the least consequence has been the neglect of literature's power to expose the limits of theory and to throw what counts as history into question.
But the gloom seems to be lifting of late. Lovers of literature have been coming out of the closet in departments of English and philosophy alike, eager to update the old defences of poetry and even speaking without shame of a "new aestheticism". If they do succeed in restoring literature to its rightful throne, and setting criticism back beside it as "the queen of the sciences" Walter Benjamin held it to be, they will owe no small debt to the trailblazing work of Derek Attridge.
Twenty years ago, when it was an article of faith to dismiss the distinctiveness of literary texts as a delusion, and new historicists and post-structuralists were busy stirring them into a bland discursive stew, Attridge was worrying away at what makes literature different. The result of his reflections was Peculiar Language (1988), a new edition of which has been issued to coincide with his return to the topic in The Singularity of Literature .
Attridge's shrewdest move in both books is to concede the elusiveness of literature as a category and turn its resistance to definition into its greatest strength. In the first half of Peculiar Language he examines three exemplary endeavours, by George Puttenham, William Wordsworth and Ferdinand de Saussure, to draw a clear distinction between "literary" and "ordinary" language. With a little help from Jacques Derrida, he deconstructs their doomed attempts to divorce the language of literature from what Wordsworth called "the real language of men" and privilege one over the other.
The special ways in which words are used in Macbeth, Jerusalem or Bleak House are inextricable from the everyday ways in which they are used in the worlds such works spring from. Literature, Attridge argues, far from being debilitated by this mutual contagion, thrives on it. For the literary text is designed to stage an endless dialogue between the realm of the real and the realm of the written. And, as Attridge demonstrates in the second half of the book, no one has staged a more vital version of that dialogue than James Joyce, whose Finnegans Wake should be regarded not as a linguistic freak, but as the epitome of creative literature.
The Singularity of Literature builds on the basic contentions of its precursor, taking far fewer pages to make much bolder claims. Attridge admits at the outset that his use of "a non-literary discourse" to explain what the discourse of literature alone can articulate may well be "wrong-headed". And at the end of the book he concludes that his "attempt to convey in the language of argument and description the essence of the literary has, of course, failed". But these becoming disclaimers do nothing to dilute the power of the points he makes in the course of his journey between them.
The importance of the book lies in its plea for an approach to works of literature that addresses them on their own terms as unique, original, verbal events rather than as symptoms or instruments of something else. To read a novel through a grid of historical or theoretical preconceptions with an ulterior aim in view is to not really read it at all. For such a reading shirks the work's demand that we respond to it as a singular configuration of words, whose ambition is to confound the assumptions on which we encounter it. Only by suspending our designs on literature as we read, Attridge argues, can we do justice to its intractable otherness and open ourselves to the unpredictable transformations it has in store.
There is no denying that the abstract generalisations to which his argument is prone snare Attridge in more inconsistencies than there is space here to untangle. Time and again he is obliged to revise, if not quite retract, previous assertions. Right at the start, for example, he states that what we apprehend in truly "inventive" literature is "an entity or an idea unthinkable or unimaginable within existing frameworks of understanding and feeling". But that plainly will not do, since, as Attridge himself points out later, absolute alterity "cannot be apprehended at all". So this crucial notion has to be recast along the way to read: "The other can emerge only as a version of the familiar, strangely lit, refracted, self-distanced", which is a different proposition altogether.
Both admirers and antagonists will find holes to pick aplenty in The Singularity of Literature . The objections it elicits are dwarfed, however, by its own singular achievement in pushing the challenge of literature to the top of the agenda and opening the objectives of the discipline to debate.
Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Singularity of Literature
Author - Derek Attridge
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 178
Price - £50.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 415 33592 2 and 33593 0