The ghosts of theorists past

Truth, Fiction and Literature
June 23, 1995

Tune in your satellite and you will soon find Bravo, self styled "time-warp television" in which the weird, the eccentric and especially the old are repackaged and rebroadcast as gems of the bizarre. Now open Peter Lamarque and Stein Olsen's Truth, Fiction and Literature and discover Time Warp theory. Our two heroes boldly enter the twilight zone of criticism in search of the lost model of literature armed with little more than a precious flask of D 'n' A (Descartes and Aristotle). Unfortunately, if you enter the twilight zone you find things are never quite what they seem, for the authors have unwittingly entered a universe identical with, but parallel to our own - only 60 years out of synch. What else can we make of a huge book on literary theory that admits at the outset that it will not deal with contemporary psychoanalysis, cultural materialism, new historicism (let alone history), feminism or any other theory of literature that has emerged in the last half century of thought and discussion about the subject?

The reason for our authors ignoring the warning signs and plunging deeper into the ever gloomier recesses of literary definition is that for them, the theorists of post-structuralism, who include a motley assortment of deconstructionists and Marxists from Paul de Man to Terry Eagleton, have simply ignored the fundamental organising structures behind literature, fiction, narrative and truth. Hence, this book denies it is about literary theory at all. Instead, it attempts a philosophical analysis of the fundamental elements of literary expression using the well-worn and rarely less than obvious methods of linguistics.

The task our intrepid explorers have set themselves is to find a "powerful and coherent framework for explaining . . . the cultural significance of literature" without resorting to a truth-telling model and without either conflating literature with fiction or simplistically evoking the (spurious) argument whereby the discourses of science and fiction are denied their essential difference.

In its contest with post-structural thought, this book tends to wait rather a long time to give us our money's worth. It is not until chapter 11 that the authors clearly state the cultural agenda they support and that we have suspected since page one: that literature (essentially fiction) is about mimesis and "value" and that this makes it about "the human condition" and thus finds its significance in those themes which have continuity throughout Western civilisation and which makes of such fiction a practice at once referential yet self contained, outside and independent of philosophical pondering or scientific narrative. Thus are literature and philosophy disentangled and returned to their proper spheres of interest. So what is literature then? Has the riddle been successfully explained? Unfortunately not, we are merely told after 280 pages that: "'Literature' is an evaluative humanistic concept defined, within an institutional practice, by a creative-imaginative aspect and a mimetic aspect. The mimetic value of a literary work consists in the most general terms in its having a humanly interesting content."

This is hardly sufficient evidence to demolish the Derrida Boys or the Spivak Girls. It is, in a word, a banal conclusion supportive of any argument about the functions of the literary narrative and fiction, let alone such things as reference, correspondence or truth fiction; it is one instance among many others in which a sophisticated argument is brought to bear on material too insignificant to support it with results that are both disappointing and banal.

How poor the authors are as literary critics can be shown again and again throughout the book in their use of literary examples, from comments on Defoe and George Eliot to those on Macbeth which read like an O-level text-book. The constant recourse to the equivalent of the worst kind of linguistic behaviourism ends as one might expect in the tautological or the obvious.

Where the authors finally get to grips with historical evidence, for instance in an otherwise interesting discussion of the function of fiction at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries they actually get their facts wrong about the marketing, distribution and readership of books in the late 19th century, something a little reading into the "unacceptable" realm of the social history of books might have cured.

For those of us who take an interest in such things this book appears little more than an attempt to reconcile I. A. Richards's formalistic concerns about poetry, with F. R. Leavis's moral concerns about fiction using E. M. Forster's categorisation of the parts of the novel and John Middleton Murry's defence of style as mediators - a debate long since over.

Haunted by its ghosts this book, coming as it does so late in the century is truly weird: a substitute for critics who have never seen "time-warp television" nor understood its message. Bravo.

Clive Bloom teaches at Middlesex University.

Truth, Fiction and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective

Author - Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen
ISBN - 0 19 824082 1
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 481

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