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Four Themes of Modern Criticism and How the Poets Got There First

And so literary theory and criticism at some point in the mid-1970s set itself up as a discipline that enjoyed equal standing with "literature." Graduate education came to focus more and more on knowledge of literary theory and less and less on an acquaintance with a standard body of literary texts. The common joke as the trend increasingly took hold was that graduate schools were turning out an entire generation of literary scholars who could discuss dozens of critics, social scientists, and contemporary philosophers but who didn't know what century Balzac lived in.

As it happens, the view that criticism is entitled to the same kind of respect as literature was given explicit formulation by the critic who more than anyone else in the United States embodied the principles of the era I've been characterizing: Paul de Man. In an essay written in the late 1960s and published in the collection Blindness and Insight, de Man at one point says, "The relationship between author and critic does not designate a difference in the type of activity involved, since no fundamental discontinuity exists between two acts that both aim at full understanding; the difference is primarily temporal in kind. Poetry is the foreknowledge of criticism. Far from changing or distorting it, criticism merely discloses poetry for what it is."[1]

This may sound like an arrogant and arbitrary appropriation of power by a practitioner of a discipline that always has been, and always should be, a subservient one. After all (we're tempted to think), the literary theorist or critic needs literature to theorize about or criticize, whereas the literary artist can get along just fine without any help from


the critic. This, in fact, may be what de Man means when he says that the difference between the two activities is "primarily temporal in kind": poetry comes first. But, he'd like to add, that doesn't make it primary in any other sense.

We can accept this view or reject it. What is important in the passage is something that de Man may not realize he's saying, and if he does, it's certainly not what he means to emphasize in a context heavily laden with terms and concepts from Martin Heidegger. "Poetry is the foreknowledge of criticism" actually has a much more ordinary meaning, even and especially for de Man himself, than the Heideggerian context suggests, and that meaning is that de Man learned many of the fundamental principles of his own criticism, above all the idea that theory and poetry are equal (if not equivalent), from poets (something Heidegger would have approved of, by the way), from the very poetry to which he was most fond of applying his own critical principles. Mallarmé figures heavily in the writing of de Man, for example, and so does Rilke. In fact, as I'll show at the end of this book, Rilke is the subject of a whole circular chain of reasoning in de Man that starts from the poet and then uses the poet's work as an example of principles that have their source precisely in that work.

This book is not about the new styles of criticism. Too many other books have been written about that (no surprise, since one of the chief characteristics of criticism in the last few decades is its concern with criticism). This book is about the intellectual origins of the new styles in criticism, and by "the new styles in criticism" I mean those of the 1960s and early 1970s, when theory and criticism established themselves firmly in our universities. I am not talking about the latest styles of the 1980s, especially the various types of "leftist" criticism that have attracted attention in the last few years. Criticism of this son has been around for a long time, but I am not persuaded that it has really come into its own in this country until recently. Even Duke University professor Frank Lentricchia, one of the most visible representatives of this movement, thinks that the writers usually identified as the forebears of his style of criticism were not "shaping influences" in American criticism through the 1970s.[2] But the 1960s and 1970s were when the generation of scholars and teachers that have now begun to fill senior positions in institutions of higher learning, members of the new "establishment" (including, incidentally, many practitioners of contemporary political criticism), was being trained in graduate school. We usually refer to this era as the era of structuralism and poststructuralism, a time in which


French names—like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida—figured so prominently that many academics in this country complained of the "colonization" of the American humanities department. In an era when the most influential humanities faculty in the country, the one at Yale University, was archly called an outpost of Paris's Left Bank, it began to look as though you could locate the origin of every trend in the United States by simply looking at what had happened in France five years earlier. If you were interested in knowing where the French fashions came from (and there's a good chance you weren't, because it wasn't important), then a shadowy collection of figures—many of them German, like Heidegger, Husserl, and Nietzsche—would present itself. A few of the braver literary types in the 1970s actually wrote about these thinkers (another instance of the flight of literary criticism into more sophisticated and respectable fields). But to most it seemed that if it was possible to speak of a "modern consciousness" in literary criticism and theory, that consciousness had sprung forth fully armed from the head of Jacques Derrida (or Roland Barthes, or some other contemporary French thinker).

I believe we have to look back farther than that. If it is legitimate to speak of a modern consciousness at all, then I think we need to talk about the one that's been around for the last hundred years or so, and not only in France, If we are interested in the origins of that consciousness, we will find it not in writers who were primarily professional critics and philosophers but in those who were known first as poets and novelists. That's where we first see the combination of interests that motivated contemporary criticism and theory in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and that's undoubtedly why critics of that recent era were so often drawn to these poets. The period of origins lasts from about 1885 to about 1920.

What is this modern consciousness that has found its way into literary criticism? From the chaos of methods, systems, and forbidding terms that we encounter in criticism of this era there emerge four basic, often overlapping themes: (1) the idea of language as an object of interest in its own right; (2) an approach to literary texts that is theological in style; (3) a belief that works of art are relational systems; and (4) the idea of being . Hence I've divided this book into four parts, called "Language," "Theology," "Relationalism," and "Ontology." Each of these four themes holds out to the early modern poet and the modern critic the promise of an irreducible essence at its center, a myth, something whose existence can be accepted only after a mystical leap of faith. But the


early modern poet and the modern critic characteristically confront this mystical essence with an attitude of neurotic ambivalence. It is always there as a fundamental principle, and yet poet and critic bend their energies to escaping it. The flight from Eden curiously follows a path that is circular, but some who travel it don't know this. "You can't do without Eden," said Mallarmé. For a poet so dedicated to the flight into the airy reaches of abstraction and impersonal nothingness, these are profound words indeed. As one of Mallarmé's modern-day commentators sees it, these words show Mallarmé's ultimate commitment to belief in a world (including his own poetic world) increasingly threatened and characterized by the forces of skepticism.[3] As I see it, they show that the path from Eden is circular.


In the 1970s it became almost routine in American criticism to analyze the style of a particular writer and then arrive at the conclusion that, when it came right down to it, the writer's work was really about language. Everything was "text," "discourse," "code." Critics were fond of talking about language, and they came to think that the poets they analyzed felt the same way. A perfect example is Paul de Man. Blindness and Insight, which came out in 1971, was a collection of essays that were meant to demonstrate that literary critics owe their greatest insights precisely to the areas where they are most "blind." I'm not sure this is what the book really proves, and I'm not sure de Man knew it was going to prove this when he originally wrote the various essays that are collected in it. If there is a theme in Blindness and Insight, however, it is that everything in a text always comes back to language and that language is indeterminate. "If we no longer take for granted that a literary text can be reduced to a finite meaning or set of meanings," he says in the foreword, "but see the act of reading as an endless process in which truth and falsehood are inextricably intertwined, then the prevailing schemes used in literary history . . . are no longer applicable (p. ix). And in an essay in the book called "Criticism and Crisis" we read this: "It is the distinctive privilege of language to be able to hide meaning behind a misleading sign, as when we hide rage or hatred behind a smile. But it is the distinctive curse of all language, as soon as any kind of interpersonal relation is involved, that it is forced to act this way. The simplest of wishes cannot express itself without hiding behind a screen of language that constitutes a world of intricate intersubjective relationships,


all of them potentially inauthentic" (p. 11). De Man sees his own lonely theory of language everywhere. It is in Rousseau's Essay on the Origin of Languages, in which, de Man thinks, "what stands under indictment is language itself" (p. 140). It is in Rilke's poetry, which de Man discusses in his later book Allegories of Reading (1979). In another passage he abruptly announces that a certain line of verse in Rilke "designates the impossibility for the language of poetry to appropriate anything, be it as consciousness, as object, or as a synthesis of both."[4] It is there even in Oedipus. Everyone is familiar with the end of the Oedipus myth, and most people probably assume Oedipus's blinding himself had something to do with the guilt he learned of after performing the actions that made him guilty. But for de Man, incredibly, the meaning of Oedipus's blindness at Colonus is that he "has learned that it is not in his power to solve the enigma of language."[5]

Many critics were not content just to write about language and say that the poets they wrote about were also writing about language. Critics are not linguists, and when they write about language, they usually write about a certain kind of language—not "ordinary" language, but the language we find in poems and other kinds of "literature." And so they have to try to account for the specific, distinctive qualities of that language, which means trying to account for the difference between poetic or literary texts and other forms of writing. In the past the issue has generally been formulated as a distinction between the language of poetry and the language of prose. No one seems to escape the belief that the difference lies somehow in language itself, that if you want to isolate what distinguishes a sonnet from a grocery list, you should look at the language, where you are sure to discover some essential, inherent quality. You are also likely to decide that the inherent quality is the way the language of the sonnet calls attention to itself as language. You then use a term like "poeticity" or "literarity" for that quality. Even de Man, with all his talk of the indeterminacy of language (language in general), is incapable of abandoning the ancient myth that poetic language (he calls it literary language) is inherently different from other kinds. The only difference between de Man's version and the older versions of this myth is that de Man has updated the terminology. In a passage from Blindness and Insight that he hoped would be safely ambiguous, he defines the quality of the literary by saying that it refers to "any text that implicitly or explicitly signifies its own rhetorical mode and prefigures its own misunderstanding as the correlative of its rhetorical nature; that is, of its 'rhetoricity.'" Then in a footnote to this passage he


attempts to clarify his statement: "The criterion of literary specificity does not depend on the greater or lesser discursiveness of the mode but on the degree of consistent 'rhetoricity' of the language" (pp. 136–37). "Rhetoric" is a key term for de Man, for reasons I don't need to go into here. Apart from the density of de Man's style and his use of the word rhetoricity, this passage is not substantially different from a great many other accounts of the specificity of poetic or literary language. In the area of language the specificity of poetic or literary language is the Eden to which modern criticism always returns. In Part I, I will show how modern critical attitudes toward language—like de Man's—were formed at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.


The poetry-prose distinction is only one example of a mystification that operates in modern criticism. But virtually every school of criticism rests on a principle or set of principles that must be accepted simply on faith in order for the entire system to stand. The English Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has cleverly demonstrated this point in an introductory book on literary theory.[6] In many systems of criticism, Eagleton maintains, the critic speaks by authoritarian pronouncement instead of logically proving the truth of an argument.

The idea we get from Eagleton's account, even though he doesn't express it quite like this, is that the very style of thinking in most modern criticism is theological. For instance, it was part of the faith of American New Criticism in the generation before the 1960s and 1970s that a literary text was a sacred and hermetic object to be worshiped like an idol. Two of the most famous books in this school have titles that show what I mean: The Well Wrought Urn, by Cleanth Brooks, and The Verbal Icon, by W. K. Wimsatt. Even de Man, the chief skeptic of the post—New Critical era, speaks with the voice of a religious visionary. Eagleton doesn't spend much time on de Man, but Frank Lentricchia, in a book on American criticism between 1957 and 1977, devotes an entire chapter to showing that the principle of authority plays the central role in de Man's criticism. De Man "does not argue in any formal sense for the logic and truth of his position," Lentricchia says. Instead, he engages in clever rhetorical strategies designed to take the reader into his confidence, mystify the reader, and thus silence any opposing argument.[7] When we look closely at the early modern poets, we find that their


thinking about literature was often driven by theological ideas, that in fact their theories are often a form of theology thinly disguised. This is particularly true of Russian thinkers, who never seem to escape the patterns of theological thought that have remained so tenacious in their culture over the centuries. They will elaborate a view of the artwork that is founded on principles borrowed from the Russian Orthodox theology of icons. And French poets like Mallarmé seem perpetually engaged in a delicate minuet with the Catholic theology they have been brought up on and seek to escape from. This theology impels them, like their Russian contemporaries, to adopt religious objects and practices as models for literary artworks. There is thus a fair amount of evidence to suggest that much of modern criticism is theological not only in its character but in its origin, too. This is the subject of Part II.


The term relationalism applies to structuralism more than to anything else. Consider a book by French structuralist critic Claude Bremond called Logique du récit (The logic of narrative).[8] Bremond's purpose is to analyze stories into a determinate number of "functions," that is, roles played by the characters in stories. The idea is that an overarching logic governs the events of all stories and that the critic with sufficient scientific acumen can find it and thus show its universality. So Bremond spends most of his book listing the different roles and the various directions that the action of a story can take. There are beneficiary and victim, voluntary agent and involuntary agent, informer and dissimulator, seducer and intimidator, obligator and interdictor, improver and worsener, and so on. To get a sense of where all this goes, take a look at one of Bremond's many diagrams (see page 13). He is talking about the "frustrator," and the diagram he offers us is meant to show the relations between this and other roles. Criticism for this school often becomes something like an exercise in algebra, and that's not surprising since algebra is one source of structuralist thought. Some of the books and essays produced in this movement look like something out of a mathematics or logic textbook, filled as they are with symbols and arrows and plus signs and minus signs. The diagram is the structuralist's favorite tool because it conveniently reduces the object (a novel, a story, a poem) to a visual network, far removed from the literary work it started out as.

But isn't this just another form of mystical essentialism in a secular-


From Claude Bremond,  Logique du récit  (Paris: Seuil, 1973), p. 292.

ized form? The structuralist retrieves abstract, networks of relations in literary texts, with the result that the text is often reduced to a relational structure, as the name structuralism suggests. The characteristic mode of reading is thus one that involves a mystical penetration behind the "text" to something insubstantial, invisible, or abstract, like the essence that hides in a sacred object. When we look back at the turn of the century and right afterward, we see that much of this thinking is prefigured in the poets I'll be discussing. We also find an important link between overtly theological thought and modern relationalism in the figure of Roman Jakobson. He will provide the transition between Part II and Part III, and relationalism will be the subject of Part III.


"What is a text?" we asked ourselves in the first graduate seminar I ever attended. We weren't the first to pose the question. Lots of critics and philosophers had wondered about it—not only how you tell a literary text apart from an "ordinary" one, but just exactly what the thing


is, where it exists, what the nature of its being is. The study of being is called ontology, and in the twentieth century there came to be an ontology of artworks, in which the ontology of literary artworks had its own niche. Criticism of the last few decades has grown tired of asking this question explicitly, but it is implicitly posed in the inquiries into language I've mentioned. When language continues to call attention to itself as such, it can't help focusing our attention on the question of what it is. And when what it is is something as indeterminate and untrustworthy as what so many modern critics make it out to be, then it has a way of reducing itself to an opaque substance, the way words do if you repeat them over and over again. The whole New Critical attention to texts and the close scrutiny of them was, in a sense, a way of ontologically isolating them. The following generation continued the trend.

There are other questions of ontology, too. The 1987 best-seller by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, was a sweeping indictment of higher education in this country, and one of the author's favorite ideas was that the ugly moral wasteland of the contemporary American university has its origin in German thought, starting with Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. The worst culprit in the twentieth century, Bloom thinks, is Heidegger. In one of his less measured statements Bloom asserts that the entire field of comparative literature today has "fallen largely into the hands of a group or professors who are influenced by the post-Sartrean generation of Parisian Heideggerians, in particular Derrida, Foucault and Barthes. The school is called Deconstructionism, and it is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy."[9] I don't think I'd describe Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes as "Parisian Heideggerians," nor do I think the Heideggerian strain in modern criticism is quite the all-determining force that Bloom suggests. Still, there is no doubt that Heidegger's presence in modern criticism is pronounced. Heidegger's chief philosophical purpose was to investigate the nature of being, particularly human being. For him, poetry raised ontological questions with peculiar force since, as he saw it, language is the "house of Being."[10] Bloom is right to mention the French "deconstructionist" philosopher Jacques Derrida when he speaks of Heidegger's influence on recent French literary theory. Heidegger's legacy in modern criticism is the critique of language that we find not only in Derrida but in Paul de Man, too. For Derrida, the big issue is what he calls the metaphysics of presence, the notion in Western thought that


oral language enjoys a kind of priority over written language because it makes things present. Derrida thinks this is wrong since language never makes anything present but only "defers" meaning endlessly beyond the horizon. De Man has basically the same notion, although he expresses it slightly differently. Both owe their idea to something in Heidegger called the hermeneutic circle, which has to do with the way we can never interpret anything without already having understood it, which implies already having interpreted it, which implies already having understood it, and so on. The question is profoundly ontological in Heidegger because it involves the notion of human existence in a human world. It is ontological in Derrida and his American disciples because it involves the notion of making present. One of the biggest ideas among literary scholars in the 1970s was Derrida's conquest of Western metaphysics, which left everything in a state of indeterminacy and ambiguity. It's the very thing Bloom decried in The Closing of the American Mind, and it, too, was anticipated by our turn-of-the-century poets.

One of Heidegger's best-known commentators, the Anglican theologian and translator of Being and Time John Macquarrie, believes that Heidegger's thought is a form of theology, in which "Being" is virtually synonymous with "God."[11] There's a lot of truth to this notion, although doctrinaire Heideggerians would disagree. In fact, it is easy to see ontology as yet another quest for mystical essence, for Eden. This time instead of being called God, or a network of relations, or poeticity, the indwelling essence is called Being.

These are the ideas that directed the study of literature in many of our prestigious institutions of higher learning in the late 1960s and the 1970s, especially at the graduate level. And since the graduate students of those years are professors today, these ideas to a considerable extent still direct the teaching of books at the university. This is not to suggest that every professor of literature is some sort of wind-up toy, blindly acting out the patterns that were laid down by demonic, all-controlling professors from his or her graduate-school days. It just means that these ideas are bound to be prevalent. Nor does it mean that professors do not change their views and teaching methods during their teaching careers. They do, and that is how the latest generation of leftist scholars has come to integrate a politically oriented criticism into its teaching even though few of its members were formally schooled in anything like political criticism.

But even where such changes have taken place, certain beliefs seem to subsist among the scholars who teach in the universities, and so our


students continue, in one way or another, to be indoctrinated in these beliefs even when they are at the same time being indoctrinated in an overtly political system of thought. To begin with, our students have been taught that literary criticism and theory is an independent field with its own cast of star characters. They have been taught to focus their attention on language and, in many cases, to abandon their childish trust in its ability to communicate concrete meanings. They have been taught that books and poems can be quantified, measured, diagramed, and reduced to airy structures of pluses and minuses. They have been taught to reflect on issues of being, presence, and absence, in a way that often leads to the same lonely worldview as their reflections on language. But at the same time they have been taught, even by the most cynical and sacrilegious enemies of meaning and morals, to approach their books and poems unquestioningly as objects of value that contain inherent, distinctive essences. They have been taught, often unwittingly, that "you can't do without Eden," that all paths return to it.

Of course, not every single one of these ideas by itself was brand-new either for modern critics or for the poets who preceded them. It's the conjunction that makes this "modern consciousness" what it is. And this modern consciousness was already present in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the poets.

The Cast of Characters and What's Not Here

The cast of characters: the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842—1898) and his disciple Paul Valéry (1871–1945); the Czech-born Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926); the Russian symbolist poet Andrei Bely (1880–1934); and the Russian avant-garde poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922). There are others, too. Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), probably the most renowned linguist of the century, figures as an important historical link between the early twentieth century and more recent literary criticism and theory in Western Europe and the United States, though he is not a poet. Writers and thinkers of an earlier era put in an appearance, including philosophers, linguists, and theologians. Two names come up more often than others: Mallarmé and Bely. They had nothing to do with each other, and Bely has remained a relatively obscure figure both in his native country and outside. To show Bely's "influence" on succeeding generations of literary critics would be tricky, especially because almost no one has acknowledged


any sort of intellectual debt to him. But in chapter 6, when I come to talk about the pivotal role Jakobson played in exporting theology from Russia to the West, I will show that Bely did play a role of the sort that can be characterized as "having an influence."

Mallarmé's "influence" is another story, at least according to some observers. In a taped conversation with English critic Stephen Heath in 1970, Roland Barthes said that "in France there is a certain way in which since Mallarmé everything is repetition. Since Mallarmé there have been no new mutatory texts in French literature [texts, that is, that produce lasting changes in history]. We in France have invented nothing since Mallarmé, and it is very fortunate too when it is Mallarmé we repeat!"[12] Barthes uses the word literature, but it is clear from the context (he mentions Marx as the author of a mutatory text) that he is speaking of a historical process that embraces more than just "literary" texts. Barthes is speaking at a time when French imperial control of American humanities departments had almost reached its height (with Barthes and others like him as colonial viceroys in absentia), so to say that everything in France since Mallarmé is a repetition of Mallarmé is effectively to say that everything in American criticism since the late 1960s is a repetition of Mallarmé. In fact, all we need to do is show that Mallarmé was a shaping force in the thought of Derrida, as a number of writers have done, and we will already have shown his importance for modern American criticism.[13]

This book is not an influence study in the simple sense of the term influence . I have not set out to show that the poets I discuss from the early modern era directly "caused" the critics of more recent times. Something like this happened in certain cases, it is true. For example, Mallarmé's ideas on language had an impact on later thinkers, and it is part of the reason those thinkers use Mallarmé as an example of theories they propose as their own. There are connections and exportations, but no individual figure I talk about can be identified as personally and directly responsible for a whole range of things that happened later.

That's not really the purpose of my book, anyway. Rather, it is to show that the same basic set of assumptions and beliefs that have informed recent criticism in the United States, and that have thus helped to shape the way we teach and read in higher education, were already there in the early modern era. Bely is a dominating figure because, more than almost anyone else, he combines the issues of modernism in one consciousness. Did he "give" us modern criticism all by himself? I doubt


it. Instead, he represented a style of thinking of an entire era that has been passed on to succeeding generations in a way that probably can't be scientifically described.

Since I was not attempting to establish a complete list of the "sources" of modern literary criticism, I did not feel compelled to speak of every figure that might be relevant to a subject like this. I thought it would be much better to choose a limited number of figures that were truly representative and to focus on them—again and again. With the notable exception of Rilke, whom I mention at the end of the book, they are mostly French and Russian. Naturally, my selective method means that certain persons—in fact, a great many—are not here at all.

I said that my four themes overlap. This overlapping has the effect of making my book into something like the relational structures I'll be talking about in Part III since members of the cast return at various moments in contexts that are sometimes only slightly different from the ones in which they previously appeared. Different scenes thus evoke other scenes and subvert the narrative progression of my "text." And, of course, like the path from Eden, the end brings us back to the beginning.


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