Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Love, Help & the Performing Self |
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Love, Help & the Performing Self

There’s a monster loose, and its name is English Studies. Will the professor and his beautiful daughter manage to immobilize the beast before it knocks over New York?

English Studies cannot do what it most often does to literary works and pretend that these works still belong unto themselves or to English literature. They belong, all marked up, to English studies.

This key passage occurs early in the second section of Richard Poirier’s The Performing Self — the section which is the book’s real beginning. It sets the tone for a spectacular razor-job on American pedagogy: PhD-mills, symbol-mongering, the lot. This section may be read with great profit. Like Edmund Wilson assessing the outpourings of the MLA, Mr. Poirier is able to point with certainty to various ways in which culture can’t be transmitted. What’s worrying in his case, though, is the conclusion which is made to emerge about how culture can be transmitted. Apparently it can be done by paying the appropriate attention to the Performing Self.

English studies cannot be the body of English literature but it can be at one with its spirit; of struggling, of wrestling with words and meaning. Otherwise English studies may go one of two ways: it can shrink, in a manner possibly as invigorating as that which accompanied the retrenchment of Classics departments; or it can become distended by claims to a relevance merely topical. Alternatively, it can take a positive new step. It can further develop ways of treating all writing and all reading as analogous acts, as simultaneously developing performances, some of which will deaden, some of which will quicken us.

It’s to be the quick and the dead, then. For the rest of the book, which is subtitled ‘Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life’, Mr. Poirier goes on to talk about the Beatles and to anatomize the non-comprehension extended to the young by the entrenched culturalists. Here he is very much on the side of the angels: as he has revealed before in other writings, his appreciation of rock music is passionate, non-trendy and unashamed without being complacent. He is correct in mounting an attack against a hierarchy of creative categories. But it is remarkable how he manages to be almost as dull about these new Performances as the uptight old guard are dull about Eng Lit. Could it be that it was not English Studies, but English Literature itself that failed him, loosing a great deal of hungry love to go searching for an object?

The answer is a qualified Yes, and lies in the first section of the book — a section which Mr. Poirier thinks outlines what has been happening to literature, but which in fact outlines what has been happening to his appreciation of it. Mr. Poirier is intelligent enough to realize what rampant academicism has done to the way we ‘approach’ literature — we approach it over fields of boredom, nattered at from all sides. But somehow he seems to have forgotten that he is in on the act, that as well as being Richard Poirier, Sixth Beatle, he is also Richard Poirier, Professor of English and Chairman of the Federated Departments of English at Rutgers University, contributor to Harvard Studies in English and author of The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of the Early Novels and A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. One of his main subjects, and very rightly, is the place of such ‘studies’ in the nearest garbage bin. But old habits die hard, and we regretfully get the sense that it is the literature which has been discarded, while the attitudes which helped make it a burden have been retained — especially that old itch to explicate.

Mr. Poirier’s first section starts well:

Given the now monumental amount of interpretation lavished on the academically entrenched works of modern literature, it has largely escaped notice that most of these works are self-analytical to a degree that might have warned against further efforts in the same direction.

Just because metropolitan men of letters have been trying to get that news over to academics for decades is no reason to disparage Mr. Poirier for his tardiness in cottoning on: and anyway, it was perhaps to his advantage that these facts largely escaped notice until he had completed his work on Henry James’s comic sense and tracked down Style’s place in American Literature. But Mr. Poirier doesn’t go on to draw the further conclusion that the contemporary literature that really matters might itself be escaping attention through failing to provide academicism with its required stimuli. The further conclusion he does draw is that the contemporary literature that matters is the stuff which concerns itself with parodying all the symbolisms and structures that academicism previously found or claimed to find, in the old masters. Pynchon, Barth, Borges and Mailer’s (apparently much-misunderstood) An American Dream — those are the works to contend with. They are works that in some way have got literature’s number. They reassure you, through parody and conscious excess, that all those formidable-looking old structures the academics used to burble on about were never that serious in the first place.

As the previous chapter suggests, John Barth seems to me a writer of evident genius; I wrote a long and enthusiastic review of Giles Goat-Boy when it came out, and I’d take none of it back now. Even while writing the review, however, I was conscious of forgetting what it had been like at certain moments to read the book, what a confining, prolonged, and even exasperating experience it had sometimes been. Now and again I’d been bored and disengaged, and if I hadn’t promised to review it I might not have finished it at all. To say this isn’t really to disparage Barth or his achievement, surely not to anyone sufficiently honest about his own experience of ‘great’ books. How many would ever have finished Moby-Dick — read all of it, I mean — or Ulysses, not to mention Paradise Lost or other monsters of that kind, if it weren’t for school assignments, the academic equivalent of being asked to write a review?

Now it’s perfectly possible that the majority of intelligent readers are bored and disengaged when reading parts of Ulysses or Paradise Lost, and the reader who has not gone to sleep over some parts of Moby-Dick is not worth listening to when he’s awake. But that isn’t the same as saying that you wouldn’t have finished those books if you hadn’t been paid to. To anyone sufficiently honest about his own experience of these great (no inverted commas) books, doesn’t that experience run roughly thus: that you hit passages in them which give you the excuse to put them down for a while and look around you at life before getting back into them? And that this process of assimilating large and complex works of art into your own mentality at the proper time and at a decent rate is interfered with, not by anything in the works themselves, but by exactly that academic mill which Mr. Poirier is eager to discredit?

Mr. Poirier can’t get the right conclusions from his own discoveries, and to say this really is to disparage his achievement. It’s the academic mill that stops you finishing great books, by making you read them faster than they can be read, or by driving you to the commentaries and explications. But Mr. Poirier doesn’t draw the appropriate conclusions about the state pedagogy has got itself into. He draws tendentious conclusions about the state literature was supposedly in all along. He decides that it is useless to try to recover the capital works of the past by re-creating their historical context; and indeed it is true that if their historical context were the only thing defining them, they would be irrecoverable. But they are alive, and worth having, in themselves — which is the reason why scholarship and criticism in the best sense of those activities have always gone on, and will go on even if their thick, fervent and worthless imitators bring pedagogy to ruin. It is really a bit much that Mr. Poirier, who has been engaged in these activities most of his life, should now want to demote literature along with the parasitism which has accrued to it. Charitably, though, it should be said that Mr. Poirier could scarcely have meant his argument to come out sounding like this: it sounds like this only because he is trying to make a point at the top of his voice. Teaching has gone wrong because its explanatory functions have hypertrophied, but in wanting teaching reformed he has forgotten that there are irreducible explanatory functions which teaching must retain, or else the autodidact will be left prey to the supreme academicism — his own.

This first section of the book would not be so bad if Mr. Poirier did not presume to find the germ of his ‘de-creative’ aesthetic in Eliot and Joyce. The idea starts well enough:

The literary organizations they adumbrate only to mimic, the schematizations they propose only to show the irrelevance of them to actualities of experience — these have been extracted by commentators from the contexts that erode them and have been imposed back on the material in the form of designs or meanings.

A good, if painfully obvious, point to make. And Mr. Poirier is adequate at showing that the main force of Eliot’s criticism was not to reinforce historicism but to undermine it, and so reintroduce the idea of the permanent contemporaneity of past works. He forgets to add, though, that Eliot in a good deal of his creative work (and Joyce in nearly all his creative work) gave academicism the courage to expand — that they invited the emergence of the monster which eventually flopped crushingly on top of them.

It is necessarily an historical contention that there were certain kinds of prestige Eliot was eager to acquire. And some of the strains in Eliot which Mr. Poirier considers parodistic pure and simple were in fact more ambitious than that — it is an elementary logical mistake to assume that artistry reduces forms to structures or themes to material, or the artist to a tactician. The academic industry which has grown up out of Eliot and Joyce has now come to a crisis in which the qualities of those writers can no longer be transmitted. But that does not mean that once the industry collapses their difficulties will be swept away or resolved into a simplistic formula. Eliot, for example, really is both personal and impersonal; his ‘schematizations’ really are relevant to the actualities of experience; and these things are true even though — especially because — the wrong people have been saying so. Mr. Poirier is properly scornful about easy notions of the impersonal artist. But this does not stop Eliot being, at a profound level, the impersonal artist.

Eliot exists for understanding at an impossible remove, perhaps, from the kind of mind, the liberal orthodox, for whom thinking and even suffering consists in the abrasions of one abstraction on another. But anyone of genuinely radical sentiment can find in him an exercise of intelligence and spirit for which to be humanly proud and grateful.

We can imagine what Eliot would have said about ‘genuinely radical sentiment’ and ‘exercise of intelligence’: thanks, but no thanks. In the production and confident employment of terms like those, Eliot might have isolated one of the elements to be incorporated in his own definition of liberal orthodoxy.

Mr. Poirier’s liberal orthodoxy has turned against itself, but has not changed its character. The most vivid part of his book, once the ‘de-creative’ aesthetic has been established and life has been breathed into the notion of the Performing Self, is about rock music. Unfortunately Mr. Poirier has not got the patience to be a true pluralist. It is a work of patience, of taking pains, to attack categories while insisting on values, and there is no valid way of speeding the job up: the hasty man tries to get it done by hitching himself to the bandwagon of history. The old guard incorporates categories into values: Lieder are good because they are Lieder, whereas a Beatles song is just a song. The too-hasty pluralist ditches values along with categories, and usually finds himself being historicist in the pejorative sense: so-and-so’s songs are good because they express this, that and the other about being young today. In spite of his engaging enthusiasm for it, Mr. Poirier shows no evidence of being able to criticize rock music — he merely approves of it, and lavishes on it the explicatory attention he has withdrawn from literature. It largely escapes his notice that most of these works are self-analytical to a degree that might have warned against further efforts in the same direction. His expository prose is numbingly recognizable.

The audience in Albert Hall [sic] — the same as ‘the lovely audience’ in the first song [of Sgt. Pepper] whom the Beatles would like to ‘take home’ with them? — are only so many holes: unfilled and therefore unfertile holes, holes of decomposition, gathered together but separate and therefore countable, inarticulately alone, the epitome of so many ‘assholes’. Is this merely a bit of visionary ghoulishness, something seen on a ‘trip’? No....

Isn’t this merely the kind of numbly clever prose that generations of students have been turning out about Ash Wednesday when they should have been down in the garage doing something more useful, such as building hot-rods or actually reading Ash Wednesday? And does anyone who admires the Beatles’ music really think that they, even when adulation had driven them almost to distraction, ever thought of their audience with quite that contempt? The Beatles have found a rhyme by filling the Albert Hall with pot-holes: a good joke that can’t be soured except by the ponderous attention Mr. Poirier extends to it. And where is all that mistrust of ‘relevance’ now? What happened to all that talk about extracting structures and schemes and reimposing them?

Ringo, helped by the other Beatles, will, as I’ve already mentioned, try not to sing out of ‘key’. He will try, that is, to fit into a style still heard in England although very much out of date.

This marvellous idea is part of Mr. Poirier’s attempt to give Sgt Pepper the kind of schematized unity those silly old academics tried to engineer on to The Waste Land. It takes no account of the fact that Ringo Starr does (or did, before voice lessons and before Phil Spector) sing out of key, needed ‘help’ to fit into the vocal line-up, and that this was part of his appeal (apart from the fundamental appeal of being one of the best rock drummers in the business). Mr. Poirier’s instinct to go to what the song might just conceivably be peripherally about — instead of to what it simply and fundamentally is about — is ineluctable. He’s a metaphysician by nature.

They are a group, and the unmistakable group identity exists almost in spite of sharp individuation, each of them, except the now dead Martin, known to be unique in some shaggy way.

He probably means Epstein, or perhaps Stu Sutcliffe, but it could be more metaphysics: perhaps George Martin is ‘dead’ on the aesthetic plane, an un-person of the new revolution.

The last few chapters of the book are about politics, and they convey a proper anguish about what is happening in the United States. Mr. Poirier is eager not to align himself with cheery youth-worshippers like Roszak and Reich, but can’t help doing it.

And before trying to make my fellow countrymen accept the burden for the pain and suffering they have caused I would want to do something else. I would want to investigate the degree to which, despite any claims to higher culture, most men brutishly do not feel the burdens of complicity and brotherhood. Forced at last by the great mass of mankind now clamouring for our love and help, for our fellowship and charity, for our food, perhaps we shall have to decide that the humane values cultivated from study of the great works of art are values meant to apply only to people like ourselves, that they are wedded at last to privilege, class and race. I make these statements in the spirit not of accusation but of inquiry.

At this point refutation must stop. There is nothing to say except: if you are not serious about the great works of art, get right away from them and leave them to those who are — who are far more likely to be doing the suffering, incidentally, than inflicting it.

(TLS, 1972)


This one was a mistake. Though Richard Poirier might have been unwise to be so beguiled by the idea of the Performing Self, he was perceptive in identifying it and prescient as to the influence it would have. Given the chance to be media stars, the writers jumped at it. Poirier’s only crime was to feel the itch in his own feet. I should have taken a much more respectful tone. Poirier was a respected academic and a valued contributor to the TLS, so its editor Arthur Crook faced a severe test of integrity when I handed in the piece. He passed the test without a tremor. Any editor, when one contributor attacks another, has to print the attack or else give up publishing for public relations. Later on I tried to remember that cruel fact when it was my turn to be worked over, but outrage against the editor wasn’t always easy to suppress, especially if he was a friend. Sometimes, if an editor I respected published an attack on me by a writer I despised, I awarded the editor more lasting blame than the writer. My only excuse for such a reaction is that I have never met a writer who doesn’t react the same way, no matter how stiff his upper lip. Kenneth Tynan, the Observer’s all-time star contributor, found it hard to forgive his own paper for publishing an attack on him by Truman Capote, and one of my fellow contributors to the TLS, legendary for his imperturbability and ability to dish it out, made bitter protests when his own book was adversely reviewed in its pages by someone he judged, rightly in my view, to be a pantaloon. The truth is that the best critics write personally, even when they appear not to. As a consequence they are open to being wounded personally when someone else is critical about them. Poirier was annoyed but got over it. At a later time I might have chosen a different part of his book as a principal target, and hurt him worse. I could have made more of my contention that he had grown tired of literature. Subsequently, when Professors Denis Donoghue and Christopher Ricks both published articles which found Yeats wanting, I realized that Poirier was no isolated instance but the harbinger of a fascinating development in the sociology of academicism. The brightest scholar-critics were inadvertently proving, under laboratory conditions, that literature refuses to be studied beyond a certain point of intensity without activating countermeasures which will scramble the student’s brains.