In his new book, Derek Attridge argues that a 'knot of three interwoven characteristics' lies at the core of western aesthetics. Robert Eaglestone tries to untangle this complex theory of literature.
As a student, Derek Attridge was struck by a passage from the critic F. R. Leavis. On coming across a poem by John Donne, Leavis wrote that "we cease reading as students and read on as we read the living". How does a work of literature suddenly become alive? It is a question, raised by this odd but common response to literature, that has been central to Attridge's thought and career ever since. Now he has approached it directly in his eagerly awaited book, The Singularity of Literature . Its publication - described as "a brilliant contribution to the theory of literature" - coincides with that of a new edition of his 1988 book, Peculiar Language , which is seen by many as one of the most important discussions of language in literature of the past two decades, challenging, as it does, traditional notions of literary criticism.
Attridge, a professor at York University and a distinguished visiting professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, originally studied English at the University of Natal in a department that had what he describes as a strong Leavisite "ethical dimension". Taking up a scholarship at Cambridge University in the late 1960s, he worked on Elizabethan poetry and questions of prosody - of metre and form. It was here that he first encountered literary theory: structuralism and stylistics gave him a more effective technical language to describe poetic metre. He is still concerned with prosody not only because it is part of literature's peculiarity, but also because it is so central for talking about and teaching poetry (a textbook on the subject, his second, co-written with the American poet Thomas Carper, was published last year).
In his first job at Southampton University in the mid-1970s, he became fascinated by James Joyce and poststructuralist theory, "thanks partly to younger colleagues", he says. "Joyce's peculiar creative exploitation of literary language and Derrida's understanding and reading of literature - among the most important and valuable work on this subject in the past 30 years - mean these two are natural allies," he says. Attridge's interest in Joyce took him into the maw of the "behemoth" of the Joyce industry, but instead of the opposition to his theoretical approach that he had expected, he found Joyceans receptive and welcoming. He speculates that because Joyce's work "embodies a kind of generosity of spirit and linguistic openness, perhaps, some of that rubs off on those who engage deeply with Joyce". Certainly, he feels that this academic sub-community lacks the "sense of competition, of having to watch your back" so common elsewhere.
In the 1980s and 1990s, while working in the US, Attridge became fascinated by another philosophical-literary pairing: the French Jewish philosopher of ethics Emmanuel Levinas and the recent Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. He found that Coetzee's "immense specificity and power pose, in fictional terms, many of the ethical questions that Levinas and Derrida were posing philosophically". In Coetzee, he says, the "figure of the other, to use that overworked phrase, keeps appearing. What is the responsible way of dealing with the irruption into one's settled universe of that figure?"
Attridge returned from the US with a five-year Leverhulme research professorship and took up a post at York University. Here began a "crystallisation of thoughts and ways of conceptualising the literary that have been brewing in my mind for 30 years or more". For Attridge, the challenge lay in the presentation of these thoughts. Rather than writing a huge book, replete with footnotes and references, he says that he took "the more foolhardy step, perhaps, of saying, well, I'll leave those for readers to deduce and I'll try to write in a way that will engage people". The book ends with an engaging appendix on the source of his thought, but Attridge admits that "many of the sources are hidden to me, too".
Underlying the book is, clearly, his pleasure in literature, but he says the pleasures of literature are "hard to define and often are not dissociable from feelings of dismay, frustration, anger, boredom - it's a very complex notion of pleasure". The book is also an attack on the idea that literature is an instrument. "If it's used as a tool, it ceases to be literature." Attridge argues that this "instrumentalism" underlies a "completely unintentional alliance" between criticism "in which a particular viewpoint is applied to a text, which might be highly laudable, but that takes the literary work simply as grist for its mill", and an attitude in the world at large and in academia, characterised by "specified goals, predictable outcomes, benchmarking and a certain kind of professionalism". Indeed, Attridge argues that Leavis's attack on similar tendencies in the 1960s, though it became "ludicrous" and "obsessive", was "prophetic" and that we "all recognise now the appropriateness of many of his charges".
Attridge does not want to turn the clock back, though. He is at pains to point out that theory has been highly productive in offering major accounts of literature and injecting literature into important political debates.
Instead, he is drawing out threads from literary and theoretical debates that "have never been widely disseminated. Some of these have a much stronger continuity with what went before than the apparently revolutionary anti-humanist elements of theory."
At the core of The Singularity of Literature is Attridge's view that a work of literature, or any art work, is a knot of three interwoven characteristics: innovation, the newness of a great work of literature; the uniqueness of each art work and of each writer's oeuvre; and, finally, the otherness of an art work, the way it bursts into and upsets our world (each of Coetzee's novels, as they came out, "surprised and disturbed me", he says). This knot "lies at the heart of western art as a practice and as an institution" and leads Attridge to two more insights: that works of literature are events that are performed and that they are also involved with ethics.
For Attridge, literature, when read as literature and not as a tool for something else, doesn't offer a vicarious experience. Rather, it "stages the power of language in multiple ways. So a love poem doesn't tell us anything about love, nor does it allow us to live through the experience of love as such - we don't love as we read a love poem - but it allows us to perform, if we read it creatively, the capacity of language to engage with, to promote that experience of love." As language shapes our world, this enlarging use of languages enriches what it is to be in the world. Indeed, this is central to the ethical for Attridge. He argues that when we talk of "doing justice" to a novel, this isn't simply a metaphor. One of our ethical responsibilities is to the richness and diversity of language performances, of literary texts - to what it is to be in the shared world.
"If we stopped keeping these works alive, all our culture would suffer."
This emerges in teaching. Attridge says that one has, of course, to "teach a great deal of factual material, but for a class to be engaged with the literariness of the literary work is for something to happen in that classroom. And it's precisely because we don't know what's going to happen that it is potent. We can never predict the irruption of otherness in the world."
Rather than trying to delimit and define the literary, through accounts of prosody or political or philosophical frameworks, Attridge's career has been about trying to let literature be without bounds. Books written at the peak of careers usually try to encapsulate all that the author knows of their subject: in contrast, The Singularity of Literature tries to make room for precisely what the author doesn't know.
Robert Eaglestone is a lecturer in 20th-century literature in the department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London, and editor of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. The Singularity of Literature is published next month by Routledge, £10.94.