Literary theory is dying, argues Stephen Logan. It is time for literary criticism to rediscover its traditions and to appreciate 'greatness'
A colleague of mine in another university was recently scolded for revealing too much "genius-worship" in a draft examination paper. He had ventured to suggest, for example, that Caravaggio was a great painter. This, it would seem, was evidence of the critical naivety that results from adherence to an outmoded ideology. I myself recall being present at a meeting where an academic of some repute proclaimed that she didn't know what was meant by calling Milton a "great" poet. The remark was intended to discredit the concept of greatness itself. For many of the scholars with a reputation for being in the vanguard of literary studies have implicitly discountenanced talk of individual genius, and greatness, by such tactics as never using either term except in inverted commas. Meanwhile, the indices of books by radical literary scholars have continued to display a remarkable consistency in the names included (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan), as if they actually thought some writers "better" than others.
To those outside literary studies, these may seem trifling matters. I agree that under the aspect of eternity they are - as, indeed, is the whole of literary scholarship. But what if you don't believe in eternity? What if (unlike Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Bunyan, Johnson, Coleridge, Shelley and T. S. Eliot, for example) you think that material reality is the whole show and that the discursive intellect, operating under the auspices of the natural sciences, is the best means of discovering whatever passes for "truth"? A disagreement among literary scholars might then take on an almost theological grandeur. And, as in the less edifying reaches of theological controversy, opposing schools have tended to misrepresent each other's opinions.
I hope I am not doing that unduly now. My wish is to promote fair discussion by clarifying what I believe to be at the root of the bitter disagreements between literary critics that have characterised the past 20 years. Let me try to summarise the relevant phase in critical history.
It has become customary in academic literary circles to draw a broad distinction between two types of criticism: traditional and post-structuralist. Different names are used for each type, and each type encompasses considerable variety. Nonetheless, there is a perceptible difference in modern academic literary criticism between critics who align themselves with, or against, an intellectual movement that arose in Paris during the 1960s and was imported to Britain and the US in the 1970s and 1980s under the name of "structuralism".
Until the 1980s, academic literary criticism in English was a rich and complex development of a tradition established, at the very latest, around the time of Dryden (1631-1700). There were earlier critics, writing in English, who belonged to the same tradition, whose origins can be traced back to Aristotle, Horace and (later) Longinus. But while there were, of course, strong disagreements among critics about how literary criticism should be done, they were all working within the same basic framework of assumptions: for instance, that literature was a means by which we could enter into the experience of other human beings and thereby hope to refine our perception of reality. Consequently, there was no talk of a rival tradition, because, up to this point, the tradition was considered broad enough to accommodate all possible diversities of opinion. Structuralism and the many forms of criticism that grew out of it, however, seemed to encourage the view that reality is unknowable, our sense of it being only a socially conditioned (and arbitrary) "construct". This led to a bitter and prolonged conflict among literary scholars, who soon became classified as either "traditionalists" (or sometimes "humanists" or "empiricists") or "literary theorists" (or "critical theorists" or "post-structuralists"). Clearly, what was at stake was not just different ways of doing criticism, but different views about the nature of reality, morality and language.
The row has settled down a bit since, though the two main lines of allegiance (traditionalist and post-structuralist) are still generally discernible - newer universities tending to favour the latter, for example. Fortunately, however, the more nonsensical forms of iconoclasm (and the more bigoted forms of resistance to it) have now left a positive residue. "Post-colonial", "feminist" and "psychoanalytical" approaches to literature tend to be, when systematically "applied", rather doctrinaire and monocular. But, considered as a range of adjustable emphases, they have yielded, and continue to yield, insights of permanent value.
Pedagogically, there has been heavy emphasis on the importance for students of learning about the varieties of post-structuralist criticism, many university English departments offering compulsory courses in literary theory that give misleading salience to what non-traditionalists or anti-traditionalists have been up to during the past 30 years. It is, however, at least equally important for students to learn about the orthodox tradition that preceded and (some would say) has now absorbed their challenge. Otherwise, students will continue to imbibe uncritically the values implicit in the more avowedly subversive forms of literary theory and be deprived of any larger historical context in which to assess them. Critics, moreover, will continue to be at cross-purposes, giving allegiance to different philosophical beliefs, to different bodies of knowledge and meeting only for the purpose of a scrap.
In 1804 Coleridge explained that an adequate account of Shakespeare would involve scrupulous study of "the moral or metaphysical inherencies" of his style. Coleridge's remark expresses the view put vividly (albeit hyperbolically) by William Empson: "I should think indeed that a profound enough criticism could extract an entire cultural history from a simple lyric." That these two critics are allied in the philosophical and aesthetic infrastructure of their beliefs makes them, I think, part of the same tradition. For what they are saying implies at least the following. First, that a writer's beliefs about the nature of reality (whether, for example, it has a supernatural dimension and whether right and wrong are absolute or contingent) will be manifest in the tiniest details of their style. Second, that to perceive these beliefs accurately, and so to "appreciate" - another "discredited" word - the writer's work, critics need to be very knowledgeable about, and very finely attuned to, the utmost subtleties of technique used by any writer in their chosen language, and under any cultural conditions. A vast amount of contemporary literary criticism satisfies neither condition, being neither philosophically very subtle, nor stylistically very sensitive. Yet critics continue to have quasi-literary debates about issues that would be fully literary only if they engaged with the precise forms in which thought (in its widest sense) manifests itself in literature. Unless we address this, we can expect only a continuation of the acrimony that has characterised the post-structuralist era.
In 1992 I wrote an article in The Times arguing that literary theory, in its more extreme varieties, was moribund, but that it would take a long time to die. A correspondent in the US wrote to warn me that, whatever the situation might be in the UK, I had underestimated the spread of theory in the US. I think he was right. Nonetheless, I stand by my argument of a decade ago, thinking that one of the clearest signs of retraction is that the stylistic barbarism that was once widely favoured by theorists as a sign of contempt for the belle lettrism of the old guard has now decisively ebbed. Sentences such as the following are no longer so confidently proffered as vouching for superior intelligence: "The parabolic narrative is the fictive mediation between two heterogeneities, one normative or ideal, which would define honnêteté in the sociopolitical field, the other factual and real, which articulates the same field concretely." On the strength, then, of what I consider to be a partially justified former prediction about the development of literary criticism, let me hazard a prediction about the future.
I predict that a period of recuperation will follow in which a concerted attempt is made to recover those traditional forms of knowledge that have been thrown away in the heat of controversy. At the same time, whatever residue of sense there is in literary theory will be subsumed within the old tradition that more militant theorists once sought to displace.
Meanwhile, the moral and metaphysical disputes conducted under the guise of literary criticism will come out into the open - and some of the philosophical competence required to engage in them fruitfully will be regained as part of the process of recuperation. Theory will be shown to have been a muddled expression of philosophical unease that, lacking the means of expressing itself philosophically, got displaced into the field of literary criticism. Trying to address a profound moral disagreement by literary debate is like trying to cure a stomach ache with aspirin.
Stephen Logan is a lecturer in English at Magdalene College, Cambridge.