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Originality matters

Paul Fry interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Paul Fry ponders the use of theory in studying literature. He thinks literary critics like himself were always staple figures of literary ridicule. He is a romantic Romanticist, knows that originality is important, thinks Derrida is having a comeback, Lacan means different things depending on whether you’re thinking literature or thinking film and finds in Empson and Foucault moments of subtle genius. All things considered, this is a very neat jive.

3:AM: Like contemporary philosophers, contemporary literary critics are either ignored or caricatured (often negatively) in the media. So what drew you to become one and how has the landscape changed since you started?

Paul Fry: First as to your first and quite correct comment about ignoring and caricature: Satire about any and all professionals with a special vocabulary has been a staple of fiction and popular ridicule since the 18th century. Doctors (as quacks), lawyers (as peculators), public officials (as Dickens or Kafka nightmares), scholars (as pedantic one-track minds), and critic-theorists perhaps more recently have been the easy targets of upper-middle-brow anti-intellectuals continuously since Fielding and Smollett. Today, the New York Times Book Review is the distillation of that whole tradition. Special vocabulary intimidate and are instantly considered obfuscation. Reactions against them are shamelessly naive, with no consideration of whether the recondite vocabularies may be serving some necessary and constructive purpose.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that all such vocabularies become self-parody in the hands of fools, and I think the tendency of everyone as they get older is to try to avoid coterie expressions as much as possible. The only excuse for them is when having a new idea, and goodness knows new ideas aren’t thick on the ground.

How I became of one those reprobates isn’t at all a complex story. I went to grad school where no theory was being thought about or taught, then took a job at Yale, where I remain, and got into it. The basic change in the landscape since my salad days started with the defensive rediscovery of history and politics by all the theoretically-oriented academics in the late seventies and eighties. Most of us had been sixties radicals, but then along came structuralism, with deconstruction hard on its heels, and those who indulged in such things were accused of having forgotten “history.” Then as the seventies wore on there was a huge guilt-ridden backlash in our own ranks that brought in “history,” etc., etc. The mantra of the new historicists was “we have betrayed ourselves.” Since their emergence, there have been more or less interesting paradigm shifts having mainly to do with Habermas and the increased focus on media studies, but the talismanic word has never ceased to be “history.”

3:AM: I thought it would be interesting to have you talk about another critic and maybe start to glean what kind of things the lit crit community are doing. You wrote in your book Prophet Against Sacrifice of Empson that his purposes were ’ethical from the beginning’ and that his work is continuous – with Milton’s god answering or at least discussing unresolved issues arising in The Structure of Complex Words and ‘giving rise, I turn, to the curiously persistent cosmological concerns of the later books and essays.’ I’d like to start by asking you to say what you take Empson’s project to have been?

PF: You summarize my main thoughts in the book pretty well. Although I had some sympathy with de Man’s championship of Empson as a proto-deconstructionist, I had none at all with all the efforts to commandeer him for the new critics, partly because he had no interest in the new critics’ “unity of the poem” fetish and partly because of his own obsession with what he considered the Pharisaism of Christian-inflected criticism in general as he encountered it on returning from his sojourn in China.

I called Empson “ethical” because all his micro-readings founds ways to unearth strategies for what Wallace Stevens called “how to live, what to do,” and also because he believed passionately that authors and characters are agents intending to say and do things. He inveighed constantly (and with crude inaccuracy, alas) against the Wimsatt and Beardsley “intentional fallacy,” and for this reason openly became in his last two books a “biographical critic.”

3:AM: Empson was (like Bradley and Leavis) at bottom ethical, producing as you put it ‘countless exhibits of human integrity disintegrated’. His target was anti-humanism wasn’t it – the idea that tragic flaws need not be moral but just human limitations. And also his contention that ‘the chief benefit from reading literature is to make you realize that different people have held extremely different moral beliefs.’ This is all pretty attractive isn’t it – and is it a perspective on reading and literature that for some time was lost – especially in the USA?

PF: I think it was lost in the generation of the new critics, the last generation of male WASP hegemony in the academy. Their blindness was, like the blindness of the whole middle class according to Marx, that life as they knew it (with all the Jamesian velleities of difference among people of similar background) was life as everyone everywhere and at all times must know it, or should if they didn’t, hence no cultural differentiation was required. Empson, himself part of the WASP gentry with titles in his family, was immune to all that because of his decades of experience in Japan and China, precipitated by his having been thrown out of Cambridge – where he had been destined to be a Don – because an officious janitor discovered condoms in his room.

On the other hand, though, since the entire emphasis in cultural studies has shifted toward diversity, I’m not sure we need bring in Empson to reinforce that juggernaut!

3:AM: You ask ‘what did Empson think a poem a phenomenon of?’ You have written extensively in defence of poetry , so how would you answer the question you posed about Emerson?

PF: For Empson an utterance was simultaneously an expression of desire and an effort to get some bunched complexity expressed in exactly the right balance. I avoid the word “poem,” because it implies the sort of “unity” I mentioned above, whereas Empson mainly considered local ambiguities and complexities.

I can’t remember where I said what you quote, and won’t bother to look it up, but I can’t have harped on it, because one of the things I liked best about Empson was his lack of interest in the overdetermined concept of the “poem.” I myself always want to talk about “poetry,” not “the poem.”

So to turn instead to “utterance”: although I don’t disagree that utterances express desires and try to make complexities precise, I actually don’t think at all that any of our efforts to speak and mean things are ultimately why we speak. The argument of my Defense of Poetry and my Wordsworth book is that we keep uttering speech in an effort to escape the inevitability that we must mean something. We’re aware that ontologically things just are what they are and “mean” nothing, yet language inescapably confers meaning on everything. We have no choice but to use a semantic medium to evoke the a-semantic, and that’s what a poem tries to do.

3:AM: In your book about Wordsworth you say his poetry ‘discovers the revelation of being itself in that nonhumanity that ‘we’ share with the nonhuman universe, and that this revelation is the hiding place of his power.’ And Wordsworth himself thought that his own power was original and that this originality was what mattered. Can you say something about these claims?

PF: Well, I seem to have gotten ahead of myself in my last response. Useless perhaps to elaborate on that much much here.

Wordsworth, I claim, thought his power original for the reason I specify in your quote. That “originality was what mattered” perhaps carries one, though, into a different terrain, one that I don’t pay much attention to because I’m not only a romanticist but a romantic myself. I take it for granted the originality matters. Both the 18th and the early 20th centuries, however, feature brilliant attacks on originality, and it’s no doubt one of the hallmarks of romanticism to care about originality and suppose with a sometimes naive spontaneity that it’s all that matters.

Wordsworth wanted to be original and believed he was, and I think would have said (he never actually did) that he was the first original poet since Milton. Every original poet has a new insight, or rather introduces a new power, he said. Well, I asked myself in my book, just what is his insight? – the problem being that all the insights attributed to him in previous Wordsworth books aren’t original but belong to a tradition that develops in the period between Milton and Wordsworth.

3:AM: Ted Hughes blames Wordsworth for destroying Coleridge the poet. You use Coleridge as Wordsworth’s foil – can you say something about this relationship and how you use Coleridge to understand Wordsworth better?

PF: Ted Hughes is probably right, but it’s even more to the point to recognize that Coleridge became interested in getting his synthetic grasp of divine, cosmic, and terrestrial things into an “opus maximum” (recently published through scholarly reassembly) that saw poetry as only one expression among many of the creative imagination.

In my book I argue that the minds of Wordsworth and Coleridge were antithetical from the beginning. Coleridge was a believer in what he called the “shaping power” of the imagination and Wordsworth a believer in the imagination as the simple disclosure of the radical, ontological unity of all things (with no implication of “shaping” at all, except when he was hoping to appease Coleridge). I think they understood each other very well, all too well, and that a great deal of Wordsworth can be understood as a refutation of Coleridge. Vice versa, needless to say, I talk about that too; but you asked how I use Coleridge to understand Wordsworth better, and that’s how I do it.

3:AM: You describe your approach as ‘broadly phenomenological.’ Hegel, Freud and Heidegger hover in the background, and Geoffrey Harman’s Wordsworth criticism too, yet you also call yourself ‘a radical empiricist.’ This links you with the ‘Cambridge School’ of Wordsworth criticism and you say the framework running from John Locke to David Hartley is also the framework in which Wordsworth worked. Can you say more about this, and how people like I.A. Richards, Empson and J.H. Prynneinherit this?

PF: The “Cambridge school” is only sometimes Marxist, but it’s always materialist (actually, Simon Jarvis has lately shown signs of rebellion in this regard, but not yet in his Wordsworth book), and this means a constant emphasis on the grounding of all intuitions of transcendence in natural phenomena. Mind you, though, Freud and arguably Heidegger too in your list above fit this tradition as well. (Freud has influenced me elsewhere, by the way, and he’s always a hero in my pantheon. but in contrast with Geoffrey Hartman, for example, I really don’t think Freud much influences my view of Wordsworth.)

My insistence on the material, in keeping with Wordsworth’s unswerving empiricism, is the basic point of disagreement between Geoffrey and me. He has published in Israel a long critique of my book, generous and astute as ever, but insisting as he always has that Wordsworth is an idealist whose commitment to the transcendent is always being compromised and dragged back to earth by his compulsion to embrace “nature.” In contrast, I see his gestures toward the transcendent as a speculative offshoot of his immersion in the real, always (and inescapably) expressed in the imagery of observed phenomena.

3:AM: You point out that your emphasise on the nonhuman, insignificance and the undifferentiated in Wordsworth kind of runs against what many readers might think they find in reading Wordsworth. So they might say he’s a nature poet, for example. How far does it matter whether Wordsworth intended the meanings you find in him? And is he a nature poet?

PF: In my preface I admit that I haven’t really cracked the intention nut (while suggesting that not even philologists and textual scholars have done so either), and leave it at that. I say I naturally believe that he intended what I suppose him to be saying. I beg my reader to consider the “evidence” I provide for my case and perhaps feel persuaded as a result. Beyond that I make no claim. The argument of my fourth chapter is that Wordsworth is indeed a “nature poet,” contrary to the argument of nearly all postwar Wordsworth criticism, but that the claim makes sense only after a dialectical turn or two related to what one might ever actually mean by “nature.”

3:AM: Your Theory of Literature asks what theory is, and you say it resembles philosophy in that it asks fundamental questions and at times builds systems. And you use Tony The Tow Truck for the purpose of introducing questions of applied theory, which is pretty surprising. Can you say more about what you were trying to achieve in this book before we look at some of its content in more detail. And why Tony the Tow Truck and not Lycidas?

PF: I express ambivalence about whether theory can be “applied.” I make a distinction between theory and methodology, the latter being the practical deployment of a premise. Theory on the contrary may well be applied, hence becomes methodology without a hitch, but isn’t necessarily practical at all. I use “Tony” simultaneously to admit that theory can be applied in all sorts of moments, its methodological moments, but at the same time to provide a facetious reminder that theory is taking itself seriously in the wrong way if it exhausts its reason for being merely as a hermeneutic springboard.

Theory is also speculative (I argue that its genius is anti-positivistic), and doesn’t require a payoff in textual interpretation. Solemnly to suppose that the whole purpose of theory is to give us new approaches to “Lycidas” is to confuse theory with methodology. Using “Tony” instead of “Lycidas” simultaneously shows that theory can be practical and – by keeping things light – refuses to concede that it’s always merely a five-finger exercise.

3:AM: You structure the book so we go through three stages of theories: first we have theories saying literature is formed by language; then we move to theories saying literature is formed by the human psyche; and finally we have theories saying literature is formed by social, economic and historical forces. You say that when you started teaching theory this kind of survey approach would have been impossible because ‘you were a feminist or a Marxist or a student of Paul de Man, and if you were going to teach anything like a survey you had to derive the rest of it from your fundamental conviction.’ Was this a destructive attitude or has something been lost in the cooling of conviction pedagogy?

PF: Well, as you know, the answer is in the book. “Both and,” I say. Conviction of course drove the acolytes back in the day, but perhaps more recently there’s an unfortunate idle connoisseurship in withholding conviction. But I have to add that my profession of commitment to a dispassionate survey mentality is a little disingenuous. I find various ways throughout of saying that I don’t actually think theory can move beyond the first proposition (though it constantly seems to be doing so), namely, that “literature is formed by language”; and I reassert that claim in the final two lectures.

3:AM: What does theory add to criticism?

PF: I don’t think theory adds to criticism. (Methodology does, for better or worse.) Theory’s function is to make criticism self-conscious, maybe even a little sheepish, about its ex cathedra pronouncements. Criticism is concerned with evaluation. There may be evaluative principles implicit in this or that form of theory, but theory in and of itself is not prescriptive. (It isn’t necessarily descriptive either, by the way. Poetics is descriptive.)

3:AM: You note Paul Ricoeur’s central place in developing a ‘school of suspicion’ which is important for how you understand theory and the hermeneutical tradition – which is where you want to answer questions about what it is like to be a reader. Can you say why he’s important in this thought?

PF: I don’t know that Ricoeur is all that important to theory, although his indignant recognition that theory is typically negative I certainly follow without being indignant about it. Ricoeur did all sorts of important work, at bottom theological, but the closest he came to being important for theory was in Freud and Philosophy, where he tried to argue that the metaphoric condensation of the dreamwork was simultaneously libidinal and spiritual. The argument is elegant but finally a wishfully sustained rhetorical tour de force.

3:AM: Foucault asks ‘what is an author?’ and he’s in the same tradition of this school of suspicion isn’t he (which includes Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – and possibly Darwin although I think you don’t think he’s been all that influential yet do you?) – worrying that we should resist the idea of an author because we turn them into authorities? But as you yourself point out, you have ‘never met anybody who seemed more like an author than Foucault.’ Can you say something about Foucault’s worry, the seeming contradiction of his proclamations and what has the aftermath of this approach been for literary theory?

PF: ‘What is an Author’ is an astonishingly complex essay, and I admit in an introductory lecture to falling short of doing it justice. But I do identify the escape hatch through which Foucault eludes the charge that he himself is an author/authority, hence a tyrant. He establishes the category of “founder of discursivity” for the authors he likes. Slippery, perhaps, but you can see what he means. Authors we are in danger of accepting as gospel, whereas founders of discursivity provide permeable ideas that we can elaborate upon in a tradition of constructive dialogue.

As to the aftermath of all this, the rhetoric of theory is always in a bind. It pronounces ideas and denounces failures to accept or grasp them while insisting that there are no grounds either for accepting or grasping ideas. It is forced constantly to play cat and mouse with the inevitably propositional nature of sentence structure itself. So that: “I say this, yet there is no ‘I’ to say it and no ‘this’ to say, and it’s not at all clear what it is to ‘say” in any case.”

3:AM: Is Derrida likely to remain as important to literary studies as he has been over the last few decades?

PF: Derrida was diminished in importance by the historicist backlash I began by discussing. But unlike most of his peers he made a comeback in his last years with a number of books that participated in the so-called “ethical turn.” Many people began to see his work as obliquely religious (Susan Handelman made that argument long ago in an important book called The Slayers of Moses, but the argument wasn’t then widely accepted), and his name is now coupled with that of Agamben and with the revival of interest in Levinas.

Hard to know exactly what “literary studies” is, by the way, but it’s questionable whether Derrida has ever in fact been important for practical interpretation. He himself wrote most often about philosophy and tended not to distinguish between literary and non-literary writing. De Man by contrast introduced a method of reading, “rhetorical reading,” that has influenced a number of important readers of literary texts.

3:AM: Talking of superstars, Žižek is a Lacanian superstar – the Elvis of the intellectuals. What’s the force of Lacanian theory for studying literature (and film)? How important is Lacan and Žižek? And how can he be both Lacanian and Marxist?

PF: Žižek is mainly interested in the difference between the accessible objet petit a and the inaccessible Big Other – and also in the “blot” in literary and filmic texts, which corresponds roughly to what Lacan calls the “real” (which in turn is what I sometimes think I mean by the “ontic” in my Defense and Wordsworth books, but have never discussed in those terms).

Lacan for literary people is very different from Lacan for film people. Literary people turn to his appropriation of Freud and Jakobson on condensation/metaphor and displacement/metonymy in relation to the distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic. Film people, following Laura Mulvey, have taken an interest mainly in the mirror stage and his concept of the gaze.

The influence of both Lacan and Žižek would appear to have lessened in literature and film studies over the last decade. Neither are very helpful with media studies, history of the book, and Habermasian studies of the circulation of ideas in this or that public sphere, and those are the ruling paradigms now. Good question how Žižek can be both Lacanian and Marxist. Lacan knew better, as the jokes about dialectical materialism in the first paragraphs of ‘The Instance of the Letter’ make clear.

3:AM: So in an attempt to draw out your own perspective now, can you tell us who would you pick out as being of significance as a contemporary writer and you say what it is you find important and perhaps give an example from their work to illustrate this?

PF: In asking about a “contemporary writer,” you ask me to become a critic, not a theorist, in a period that’s not my own. When I read current books (like Wallace or Eggers or Franzen), I’m a fan or naysayer like everyone else, not an authority of any kind. Perhaps you mean “contemporary theorist”? Well, not even that’s “my world”, and while I can tell you who’s most influential now (Habermas, still Foucault, Badiou and Ranciere for the Marxists), my own investments in any of this are at most lukewarm. The effect of reading literary non-fiction that matters most to me is when the coin drops, and this happens in the company of the great, mercuric, encyclopedic minds: Empson, Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye.

3:AM: And finally, can you recommend five books that would help the literary theorists here at 3:AM get better acquainted with your world?

PF: Not just books: ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’; the section on the hermeneutic circle in Heidegger’s Being and Time; the first and last chapters of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity; Jakobson’s Linguistics and Poetics; de Man’s ‘Semiology and Rhetoric’.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 10th, 2012.