Navigate the circus of fancy with fact

August 1, 2003

English needs a dose of Gradgrind to release it from the free-for-all of critical 'isms', argues Jonathan Bate.

When I started out as a student of English literature in the 1970s, opinion seemed to matter a great deal more than fact. Schools and universities were still dominated by teachers who had graduated in the age of F. R. Leavis, for whom English was the central discipline in the training of our human sensibilities. Through the art of close reading, we were to learn the skill of sharp discrimination between the great tradition of texts that embodied "felt life" - the perceived authenticity of emotional and intellectual expression - and the trivialising remainder that offered insidious propaganda or, perhaps worse, mere entertainment.

Leavis admired Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times above all others because it starkly dramatised the division between vitality - as embodied by the circus people - and the deadening of the human spirit effected by Thomas Gradgrind's educational theory that only facts matter. Gradgrind's academy sought to extirpate children's capacity for wonder, for poetry and imaginary play, in order to prepare them to become factory hands, mechanical cogs in the wheel of Victorian capitalist production.

Conversely, the aim of literature teachers in the Leavisite tradition was to create beings of strong feeling and powerful will. English was often taught with messianic zeal: the study of literature was to be a life-changing and, potentially, a society-changing experience.

I remember my best teachers for their interest in argument and their gift of unpicking a hidden seam of metaphor or ambiguity that unified a complex poem, novel or play. Judicious quotation was to be the key weapon in the armoury of our writing; we were always to trust the tale rather than the teller. There were tacit assumptions that the discriminating critic was a superior being to the pedantic scholar and that an interest in the facts of an author's life as opposed to the energies of the text was slightly vulgar.

We weren't very scientific in those days. It was quite possible to mount an argument one week to the effect that Percy Shelley was a self-indulgent windbag and to counter the next with a demonstration of the golden thread of imagery and thought that earned him his place in the great tradition.

Subjectivism seemed to be a positive virtue.

Part of the thrill of "theory" in its early days was that it seemed to bring new rigour and objectivity to the subject. We swooned over Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics not only because it was so much more demanding than all those books about the recurring patterns of poetic imagery in Shakespeare but also because it seemed so scientific. Instead of feeling poems on our pulses, we began deploying Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss to reveal how the text replicated the deep structures of language and society.

But just as we were getting the hang of structuralism, we heard about deconstruction. Having learnt that everything was based on the great binary oppositions of nature and culture, male and female, we were thrown into disarray by Jacques Derrida's technique of dismantling them. We had to get our heads around the idea that culture came before nature and writing before speech. Still, there was some comfort: since every text undermined itself, we could go back to our old way of saying whatever we liked. We merely had to adjust our technique: judicious quotation was now used to illustrate the hidden self-subversion of a text instead of its hidden unity.

If fact was secondary to felt judgement in the age of Leavis, it was positively persona non grata in that of Derrida. Because facts could be expressed only in language and every linguistic decoding was another encoding, there was an endless loop of logic whereby we could never gain access to truth. And then came the ideological turn: the fissures and silences in each text were seen to reveal not the Derridean abyss but literature's complicity with past history's abysmal record of oppressive gender, race and class relations. Interestingly, at this moment biography was allowed to be invoked: it helped the ideological argument to know that Geoffrey Chaucer was convicted for rape, Edmund Spenser wrote a treatise recommending the ethnic cleansing of the Irish, and Virginia Woolf was horrible to her servants (although the biographical truth of all these statements is highly questionable).

Throughout the 20th century, the work of literary scholarship - biographical, historical, bibliographic and textual - continued quietly in the background as "theory" of various kinds made all the noise. Our problem in the 21st century is that there is so much theory to cover, so many different modes of reading to teach, that no room is left for some of the basics. A couple of years ago, an eminent English close reader and textual editor, who is now teaching in the US, told me how he was asked to mop up at the tail-end of the first-year English course. After a march from "new criticism" to "new historicism" by way of structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory, there would be a week left at the end for a package described as "biography, editing and all the old verities". Could he contribute a lecture?

Might it be worth doing things the other way round? Would our students be better equipped if we began with historical method, problems in biography and the theory and practice of textual bibliography rather than the standard first-year course that surveys the various critical "isms" of the 20th century? Textual bibliography - the analysis of how literary works pass from author's manuscript to printed book and how a modern edition of, say, a Shakespeare play is something different from the original - is a discipline that uses inference but must always begin with fact. The future health of the subject might depend on a greater degree of respect for facts than has been previously apparent.

Thanks to the distinctly unglamorous work of lexical and statistical analysts, we now have a remarkable body of hard factual evidence about Shakespeare's habits of collaboration. I am acutely aware of this because new research has persuasively demonstrated that large sections of Titus Andronicus were written by George Peele, whereas when I edited the play for the Arden series a decade ago I convinced myself that it was entirely by Shakespeare. The technical minutiae in an area such as this may be dull.

But the consequences for our image of Shakespeare as a team-player rather than a solitary genius are of great interest to students.

Biographical research, too, can change critical perception. In a life of the Northamptonshire "peasant poet" John Clare, to be published in October, I will suggest that information derived from little-known manuscript letters and notes shows that he positively wanted his poems to be improved by his friends and editors. This calls into question the way in which his texts have been edited and his image as presented in the past 30 years, during which Clare has been repeatedly invoked as the working-class "victim" manipulated by his middle-class publishers and aristocratic patrons.

Maybe I'm just growing old. But I've increasingly come to believe that editing and biography are the tools that we must keep sharpest - and that we accordingly have a duty to teach. I was brought up as an anti-Gradgrind.

But what I now think is so thrilling about editing and biography is that you have to get the facts straight. As in science, every proposition you make is falsifiable. It is possible to be proved wrong: that is a real intellectual adventure.

Dickens' starting point for Hard Times was the condition of his England, a sense of anger at the complicity between Gradgrindian educational theory and the degradation forced on the human spirit by mass industrialisation.

He brought the circus to that world to make a place for play, for wonder and for love. In our 21st-century England, conditions are very different.

Coketown stands derelict and we have all become circus artists. Sleary's Horseriding, the Hard Times circus, has moved from the margin to the centre: the realist novel has been replaced by reality TV, in which everyday life is translated into a performance. In academia, we have become accustomed to the circus-ring of the conference. Thus, for your plenary lectures, Miss Josephine Sleary will inaugurate the entertainments with her graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower act and Signor Jupe will elucidate the diverting accomplishments of his performing dog, Merrylegs.

The circus offers a necessary critique of the Gradgrindery that dominates Coketown. So, if I may be allowed to attempt Signor Jupe's feat of throwing 75 hundred-weight in rapid succession backhanded over my head thus forming a fountain of solid iron in mid-air, I would like to flip the proposition and suggest that Gradgrindery offers a necessary critique of the circus that dominates our post-Coketown cultural era.

Or, to put it another way, our students are the inheritors of an educational revolution that was the exact opposite of Gradgrind's. At this point, I put on my Rhodes Boyson whiskers and note that the educational revolution of the 1960s and 1970s - which had at its centre questions about grammar versus free expression in the teaching of English in schools - succeeded in displacing Gradgrindery with the spirit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As once the circus was needed to counterbalance the Gradgrindery, so now Gradgrindery may be what is needed to counterbalance the Rousseauistic free-for-all that our subject has become.

Jonathan Bate is Leverhulme research professor of English literature at the University of Warwick. This article is based on his lecture at the recent English Subject Centre conference "The Condition of the Subject".

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