I’ve mentioned this before, but academically speaking, I’m something of a dinosaur. A leading figure in my field read my dissertation in 2002, and said that it would have been state-of-the-art forty years earlier. She didn’t mean it as an insult (and indeed, I took it as a compliment — when I’m discussing works and ideas that are 400+ years old, what’s 40 years or so of critical attitude?), but simply that I approached my subject in a manner that was then (and remains) unfashionable. Likewise, one of the members of my dissertation committee referred to me as “the last of the New Critics.” (As it happens, I see myself as more of a Frygean, but YMMV.)
As part of the Ph.D., I had to take a couple of classes on literary theory. The set-up was rather lopsided: the first semester basically covered Aristotle to Frye. The second semester covered trends from the mid-1960s and after, and was, as the prof put it, “where bad Continental philosophy goes to die.” I enjoyed both courses, and did well enough. But on the final exam for the first semester’s course, an essay prompt mentioned the recent death of the editor of the anthology of criticism we had used. Was Bate’s rather humanistic approach to literature and criticism equally moribund? You won’t be surprised to learn that I attempted to refute that hypothesis, and suggested that some of my peers and I might carry the idea of Bate and his ilk at least a little farther, even if only at the Mondovilles of the world. And I think I’ve done — and am doing — my part.
But where I’m going with all this is that we recently lost another important, if unfashionable, critic in the person of Denis Donoghue, who died on 6 April at the age of 92. At The New Criterion, Adam Kirsch looks back on Donoghue’s career, and there were several bits in it that rang true to me.
Take the essay “Beyond Culture,” in his 1994 book The Old Moderns. Here Donoghue examines what he calls “the refusing will” as a theme in modern literature—the sense that life in society offers no worthy objects for the spirit, so that there is no choice left for the sensitive individual but withdrawal.
[…] The refusing will is a literary idea, but Donoghue knows that it has profound social and political implications. […]What is apolitical isn’t Donoghue’s mind, but his conclusion: that withdrawal from society is a valid human and literary stance. Aestheticism has its own morality, which—like religion—assigns a higher value to the inner life than to social and political life.
But the refusing will is unacceptable to Marxist-inspired critics—Donoghue’s example is Frederic Jameson—who believe that literature must always be engaged with and against society. “Jameson attacks any literature or art that practices Impressionism, subjectivity, Symbolism, metaphor, aesthetics, unity of tone, the autonomy of individual life and individual consciousness. They are in collusion with the enemy,” Donoghue observes.
Marxism makes a political demand on literature; so, in their different ways, do deconstruction and criticism focused on race and gender. These critical approaches, which have dominated English departments for the last half-century, do what Donoghue warns against in “The Political Turn in Criticism”: “they compromise the literature they read by subjecting it to a test of good behavior. They defeat the literature in advance.” The critic who approaches a text with a moral-political yardstick makes clear that he doesn’t intend to learn from it or be changed by it.
Kirsch also makes what I think is an interesting response to those who would denigrate the refusing will as a benefit of privilege:
[I]t’s worth remembering that Donoghue was the son of a Catholic policeman in Protestant Northern Ireland, born a long way from the mandarinate. The same is true of Leavis, whose father was a Cambridge shopkeeper, and Trilling, the son of an immigrant tailor in New York. All were outsiders to the academic-literary establishment. That may be why they were so serious about literature, which for them wasn’t an heirloom or pastime but a deeply democratic experience of beauty and truth.
I will not delude myself by ranking myself in such rarefied company. But like them, I was not to the academic manor born, and in my dinosaurish way, I think I try to carry on the passionate devotion to literature that Kirsch describes. I have been faithful to literature, Cynara! In my own fashion. And I hope Prof. Donoghue would have approved.