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Symbols and Texts: A Personal Sketch of Literary Criticism Since the Fifties

ISSUE:  Winter 1991

I take as my text for this essay the delicate and powerful Lebanese folk song my mother often sang in Arabic:

The roses are full, full
The roses are always on my mind.
I love the roses only
And, O my soul, the lettuce leaf.

The peasant (and there is, perhaps, a peasant in all of us) has juxtaposed the roses and the lettuce, both deeply important to his psyche. The singer is withdrawn, and often withdraws, from his daily tribulations into a reverie of the beauty of flowers and the vegetable garden. I remember my mother hanging clothes on the clothesline in our garden at the back of our house, singing as she looked out over the vegetables and fruit trees my father so lovingly cultivated. I have no doubt the song meant a great deal to my mother in part because of her belief that there was a sacred connection between the abundant earth and the God who loved, planned, protected, and nurtured, an accessible, understandable Father. The words I use in a memoir to convey this symbolic idea are “veins of lettuce leaf flowing into the heart of the Lord.”

Whether in my prose or in the poetry of the folk-poet, the symbol of the lettuce leaf takes on its symbolic meaning, power, and value in the unique contexts of language and culture from which it comes. The meanings and the values, however, are all accessible from the contexts to the willing student from whatever culture. To attempt to interpret either text from the opposite direction, that is, to impose categorical interpretations of the symbols drawn from ideological paradigms, from archetypal roses or lettuce, is to shred the contexts into a most indigestible salad.

William Wimsatt has been, from the beginning of my own serious study of literature, my favorite theoretician (as his partner and peer, Cleanth Brooks, my favorite critic), and no one has been more acute in the making of precise distinctions (much like his own mentor, Samuel Johnson) between abstractions that work and abstractions that do not:

. . . this . . . shows the abstractionism involved in any attempt to give fixed interpretations to either natural or artificial classes of symbols or to prescribe symbols for given defined meanings. The poet abstracts too in his own way, in his choices and juxtapositions, but he claims for his abstraction only the correctness of his momentary context.

“Two Meanings of Symbolism,” Hateful Contraries, (1965)

“Momentary context”: created by the unique choices and juxtapositions of language and action that constitute the aesthetic text and which generate the moments of unique aesthetic pleasure. The aesthetic moments are accessible only through the accurate understanding of the given context. And if one believes that aesthetic pleasure is a deep and important part of one’s life, then the close study of individual texts becomes a discipline worth giving one’s meditative life to. To quote Wimsatt again: “The verbal object and its analysis constitute the domain of literary criticism” (The Verbal Icon, 1954).

The precise understanding of “symbol,” and “context,” and “literary criticism” that one finds in Wimsatt has often been ignored (to one’s own peril) in the deluge of “literary theory” since the mid-fifties, and I would like to argue in this essay both the value of and a return to the approaches to literary criticism of both Wimsatt and Brooks.


My father always called the wind “khai” or “brother” in Arabic, but so did he call “brother” as well ripe grapes or any one of his three sons, testifying to the right relation between brothers in the Lebanese culture of family. That St. Francis speaks in his “Cantico” of “Frate Vento” and “Sora Acqua” testifies to the strain of universal peasant in both my Father and St. Francis, the radiant core of familialism in both. But we are speaking of somewhat universal sentiments, not a universal language or symbology. The symbols of wind, water, or lettuce leaf are present in most peasant or village tales, but their precise valuations in any specific social (and ultimately linguistic) context are as variable as wind and water themselves and need both precise articulation on the part of the author and accurate response on the part of the reader.

What Erich Fromm does to the Jonah story and its symbols is not literary criticism:

We find a sequence of symbols which follow one another: going into the ship, going into the ship’s belly, falling asleep, being in the ocean, and being in the fish’s belly. All these symbols stand for the same inner experience: for a condition of being protected and isolated, of safe withdrawal from communication with other human beings. They represent what could be represented in another symbol, the fetus in the mother’s womb. Different as the ship’s belly, deep sleep, the ocean, and a fish’s belly are realistically, they are expressive of the same inner experience. . . . (“The Nature of Symbolic Language,” The Forgotten Language, 1951).

No matter that in the story (the “manifest” story) Jonah was first escaping from God, then, when confronted by the sailors, repents and is willing to be cast on the waters, then considers his being swallowed by a whale a miraculous rescue by a merciful God—that is, three very different experiences on Jonah’s part—Fromm would have us see all three episodes, in the ship, on the water, and in the belly of the fish, as “return to the womb” symbols, symbols ultimately of the writer’s neurosis (the true “latent” content), his wish to withdraw. Thus a unique plot is replaced by a repeated platitude, a vivid story by a vague symbology, the author’s apparent meaning by the psychoanalyst’s paradigm.

Fromm’s methodology can stand as representative of a wide spectrum of what is called literary criticism or theory over the past 35 years, which is in fact typified by a relative lack of interest in the specific pleasures of the specific text coupled with a fascination for the paradigms one can impose upon a number of texts considered as a set. The paradigm can be from literary theory, from scientific, linguistic, or philosophic presumptions, or from political or social ideology. Whatever, the specific poem or story is not treated with the respect one ought to accord to another’s home or garden or village, but as an open field for anyone to pick over, strip, scratch, or mine.


I left my family and home and its garden in upstate New York in 1953 for Kenyon College in the middle of Ohio. I knew nothing then about the fame of the college, only that I was told by a high school teacher that it was a good school in chemistry and premedical studies, in which I planned to major, and that this school with Episcopalian connections was willing to give a Lebanese immigrant millworker’s son a free tuition scholarship. I stayed with chemistry and pre-medical studies at Kenyon for four years and finally dropped out of Yale Medical School after a tenure of nine days. But from the first day at Kenyon when the freshmen were addressed by the president responsible for assembling the college’s world-class faculty, Gordon Keith Chalmers, I realized that I was in a magnificent humanistic and scholarly environment of a sort that I had dreamed about as I had read (encouraged by my brother and a few fine teachers) Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare back in the ethnic neighborhood. Denham Sutcliffe, Charles Coffin, and John Crowe Ransom fired my enthusiasm for literature, Phillip Blair Rice, Virgil Aldrich, and Wilfred Desan for philosophy, Richard Salomon and Denis Baly for history, Robert O. Fink for the classics, Bruce Haywood for German literature, Bayes Norton for chemistry, and Otton Martin Nikodym for mathematics. Ransom’s Kenyon Review was of course the intellectual focus of the campus, as it was, in large measure, of the literary world of the forties and fifties. Because of the Review, the campus was always abuzz concerning the current visitor there, Lionel Trilling, Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, etc., to pay homage to Ransom, and perhaps to give a courtesy lecture. And yet I can see Ransom, diminutive and gentlemanly, putting together the Review at his desk in a little cubbyhole of an office, with the help of one part-time secretary, and then treating me, as he did all of his students, in class and afterward, as if my poor writings were the most important thing in his day or week.

I was spending so much time in science laboratories, had so little time for the humanistic studies that I loved or for the conversation that I craved with the humanities majors, that I cultivated a survivalist’s sense for the essential as opposed to the peripheral, the enduring as opposed to the fashionable, the concrete reality as opposed to the abstract and ideological.

Ransom’s poetry delighted me as did the stimulating pages of the Review. Privately, Ransom told me that, if I ever changed my mind about medicine, Yale was the graduate school for the study of literature for me, and Cleanth Brooks the man to study with. And change my mind I did. But before I could apply to Yale, Ransom, Sutcliffe, and Nikodym put forward my name for the Rhodes Scholarship, which then brought me instead to Worcester College, Oxford. There, by another incredible stroke of luck, I was given to a young tutor, Christopher Ricks, who now hardly has a peer in English Studies. Ricks expressed his pleasure at having a graduate of Kenyon and especially a student of Ransom’s as a pupil, and also announced that he was a great admirer of Wimsatt’s The Verbal Icon, which was among the great number of books of literary criticism and theory that I knew I ought to have, but had not yet read.

Our first tutorial was to be in Shakespeare, and, remembering Ransom’s recommendation, I sought out a copy of Cleanth Brooks’s Well Wrought Urn to read the opening chapter on Macbeth. The book was a revelation to me. I could not put the book down till I had read it all one morning, afternoon, and early evening on a lovely day in the Worcester College gardens, It articulated so beautifully so much that I had been fumbling both to think and say about literature. And then after reading Wimsatt and going through some of the works of Shakespeare with the incomparable tutelage of Christopher Ricks, I began in that first trimester at Oxford to believe that I might have something to say in this field someday, when I had the tools to say it.

And yet I still did not end up at Yale for my Ph. D. study, but at Cornell, simply because after seven years away, I could no longer bear the long stretches and distances away from family, home, and neighborhood. And once again, I was very lucky to be put immediately into the hands of Professors Arthur Mizener and M.H. Abrams, one a most distinguished practical, the other a theoretical, critic and both kind and considerate men.

I knew pretty well by then, in 1960, what I considered real criticism to be and also what I would consider a valid use of my time as a would-be critic-to-be. I had always Wimsatt’s formulation in mind: “The verbal object and its analysis constitute the domain of literary criticism,” and, it seemed to me, the literary works that most deserved close analysis would be those that were major achievements and at the same time not yet well analyzed. Professors Mizener, Robert M. Adams, and Stephen Whicher had introduced me for the first time in a rigorous way to the great 20th-century American poets, and I was determined from that time on to explicate with as much precision and accuracy as I could manage the difficult texts of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Ezra Pound, who were at the time, it seemed to me, those least well understood. I was determined too to defend my positions on literary theory (or my distrust of theory) and literary criticism against the encroachments I then was aware of (largely the positions of Northrop Frye and Murray Kreiger). I have been largely at this job of work ever since, though the proliferation of literary theory from the fifties till the present would force anyone but the most specialized scholar to back away from any pretense of a comprehensive overview. I make no such pretense here; I will sketch the scene and the major issues only as they have impinged personally on my own consciousness over the period.


Many things seemed patently obvious to me as a young reader in the fifties (nothing, I have learned since, is obvious in ontology): the literary text embodies the intentions of the author, as he makes those intentions known in the language and action of his text with more or less continuity—the creative act—and the reader responds to this communicative process with greater or less understanding—the critical act— while at the same time the same reader also makes decisions, valuations, of the extent to which the author’s attitudes fit the values and the needs of the reader—the act of metacriticism. Most of what “critics,” including philosophers and theoreticians and various sorts of ideologues, call criticism is in fact metacriticism.

These were the assumptions with which I read literature as a young man at Kenyon College with no time for theory. I had no real idea what critics belonged to what school. I had, in fact, no time for reading any critic thoroughly; either the critic helped me with the literary work I was reading or he did not. He had better help me in his early pages, and he had better not expect me to pick up his book a second time on another-author if he did not help me the first time with the first author. Good criticism was wherever you found it, from anyone who in the given pages of analysis was deeply engaged with the specific text and was struggling for precision and clarity concerning the attitudes and continuities of that text. As soon as the “critic” became more engaged with comparisons between a number of texts or the relationships of the text to ideologies extrinsic to the text, the criticism became metacriticism and of interest only to those who shared the metacritical values of the advocate.

I found great criticism in the pages of the older “Historicist” or “Philological” scholars such as W.P. Ker, F.N. Robinson, E.K. Chambers, or J.R.R. Tolkien, and some weak, imprecise criticism from among those who were supposedly confronting historicism with the “New Criticism,” centered around Ransom and his Review. The forties and fifties were full of debates between historical scholarship or philology and the New Criticism which focused on the integrity and quasi-autonomy of the literary work. It was (and still is) a debate full of red herrings, as have been the subsequent debates between later theoreticians and the by-now-old New Criticism.

It was the worst of red herrings to accuse Cleanth Brooks, the greatest of the New Critics, of being antihistorical or believing that a poem is autonomous, i.e., ontologically self-sufficient, existing wholly in itself without any need for the understanding of its historical context. Brooks was and is a superb historical and textual scholar and never wrote that a literary work is insulated from historical context. And yet Murray Krieger (who taught at Kenyon for a while in the early fifties) builds his remarks about Brooks in his very influential book The New Apologists for Poetry (1956) around this “organicist” thesis:

. . . . the organicist must claim that the completely autonomous poetic context, one whose meaning is unique, sui generis, is also one that is utterly cut off from literary history as well as from literary criticism. . . . It may be tempting to argue that the contextualist does not mean to maintain so extreme, and thus so self-defeating, an organicism. But it is difficult to see how he can qualify it so long as he insists on the poem’s autonomy, so long as he charges any translation, however cautious, of the terms in the context with “the heresy of paraphrase”. . . . Yet this dead end of practical criticism seems hardly to be the aim of the more contextual of modern critics whose work has been distinguished by its painstaking detail of scrupulous verbal analysis. . . . Yet respect for those sound aesthetic objectives that prompt a critic like Brooks does not alter the need to qualify the reckless implications of his theory.

All of these “yets” and “buts” are testimony to Krieger’s respect for Brooks’ gifts as a critic, while Krieger’s desire for total theoretical purity of ontological distinction makes him misrepresent Brooks’ actual positions. The Romantic metaphor of a poem as living organism that can only be murdered by dissection is after all but a metaphor of an emotion, a metaphor which is useful only if not carried too far. While it is perhaps a truism that a complex poem can only be totally understood or explicated in its own words (that is, its context is what it is), one critical analysis can, certainly, as a limit (in the mathematical sense of limit, never reaching, though always getting closer), give a more precise sense of the meaning, or attitudes, of the poem than another. And this is all that criticism (using all the tools at its command, from history, philology, biography, etc.) can or ought to pretend to do: to help the reader to know a text as well as the author would have liked to have it known. To say that the context of a poem, like, say Keats’ Grecian Urn, is unique, unlike any other poem in the language, would also seem to be but a truism, but to say that it is therefore not susceptible to explication, partly through historical and other extrinsic data, is the furthest thing from Brooks’ position, and it is reckless of Krieger to push the organicist metaphor to the extreme that he does. (Krieger admits to some distress in a later essay in The Play and Place of Criticism, 1967, that his remarks, partially quoted above, may have been used by others to distort Brooks’ position!)

I have written elsewhere (The Rape of Cinderella: Essays in Literary Continuity 1970, and Essays: Critical and Metacritical, 1983), of the impact of Northop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957) on the literary world in general and on me at Kenyon in particular, and I will not repeat myself here. In any case, that impact and the limitations of Frye’s positions on literary criticism have found their best assessments in Wimsatt’s Day of the Leopards (1976). Frye’s work is the fountainhead for a great number of “structuralist” approaches to literature. The consuming passion is to find some sort of structure or archetypal pattern which will contain or categorize (pigeonhole?) as large a number of literary works as possible. Comparative myth (as in Frye) or comparative folk tale (as in Stith Thompson) are areas of study that have brought useful results to literary studies, but are tools toward precise criticism of individual works, not ends in themselves. So with “Comparative Literature” in general as a discipline—comparisons are useful, but become odious if they tend toward the obliteration of the ways in which a given work is unique. What one finds in most structuralist writing on literature is a great deal of literary scholarship but not much real literary criticism, a great deal of relating to aspects of a work’s thematics or techniques to those in a gathering of literary works, but not much close analysis of the work on its own terms.

But I want to move on to what I have felt over the past 20 years has become the greatest red herring of all in literary theory: the idea that the various modern encounters with nominalism and nihilism have shown that there is no fixed object of literary study, no text for analysis, at all.

Nihilism, the certainty that there is no “real” or “absolute” or “universal” basis for any belief in any order or direction or meaning in the universe and consequentially for any belief in any values, rights, or purpose in men’s lives, has always been around in intellectual history as the dark side of the chiaroscuro in man’s psyche, but it has gained the status as the dominant tonality in modern thought only in the post-Darwinian period. Nietzsche is the major philosopher of nihilism, but in his writings he always counterbalances his darker vision with the belief that man must have, therefore must create, values to live by. Thus Nietzsche has become the major prophet both for contemporary nihilists (via Sartre) and “fictionalists” (via Vaihinger and Unamuno). What needs to be realized, however, is that either position, or any other metacritical position, can be the basis for a literary work of continuity and coherence (see the “dialogue” between Krieger and Wimsatt in Chapter 14 of The Play and Place of Criticism, and my chapter on “Metacriticism” in The Rape of Cinderella).

A fashionable position of the seventies and eighties has been that since words have no relationship to the things of actuality (“nominalism”), texts, which after all are made up of words, have no intrinsic meaning; texts are not unique entities which can be studied apart from other texts. Thus the “critic” can only funnel a given text through the literary and cultural associations of his own mind to create his own tapestry of language, one more text in the endless profusion of such from all the text-tapestry makers (writers and/or critics).

The position is inimical to precise literary criticism, almost as deadly as the laying on of, say, Freudian or Marxian or other supposedly archetypal patterns over specific literary works. As soon as one gives up the premise that there is a fixed object of study, fixed enough, that is, so that one statement is demonstrably more accurate about the object, than another, then one has given up on the entire enterprise of analysis. There are no better or worse analyses, more or less precise or accurate analyses, and one critic is as good as another. This bogus idea may indeed be the real reason for the position’s being so fashionable. It has seemed to me that at the back of a great deal of “deconstructive” literary theorizing is the recognition by the theorist-critic somewhere along the line that he or she is not particularly gifted or interested in the close analysis of someone else’s work, that what the given theorist-critic really enjoys is the free flow of his own thoughts and associations, in which flow the stubborn literary text stands in the way like a stone. My own position is that ideologues are a dime a dozen and theories always on sale, whereas good criticism of another author’s work cannot be produced, or bought or sold, on the chcap.

Wendell Harris, in his Interpretive Acts (1988), has recently argued persuasively the case for texts sufficiently fixed by the author’s intentions, as he realizes them in the process of countless “speech-acts,” and sufficiently communicated to the receptive reader to make “deconstruction” not only irrelevant but debilitating to literary criticism:

What I wish to emphasize is . . . the contextual dependence of all discourse, and that this dependence cancels the free play of signs assumed for the purposes of deconstruction. . . . Authors expect readers to interpret their works by searching for consonance and readers expect authors to expect them to do so. That consonance is never perfect is no more an argument against its use as a principle of interpretation than would be the contention that maps are pernicious because they can never be totally accurate. . . . Interpretation requires reconstruction of the author’s intention through awareness of the author’s assumptions. Neither assumptions nor intentions change over time (though the difficulty in recovering them may) . . .what we seek is sufficient probability, sufficient unity, sufficient accuracy in interpretation.

Harris uses the word “interpretation” where I use the word “criticism,” but to exactly the same purpose, that is, that, in his words, “an author’s intended meaning can be understood with reasonable probability and accuracy.”

Harris uses writings of J. Hillis Miller and Stanley Fish as representative of American deconstructive positions. He has this to say of Miller:

Miller calls his commentary a “reading” of the poem; the term is a useful one if understood in its most usual contemporary sense as an exercise of the critic’s personal powers of association in the service of an externally derived theory . . .the strategy that produces Miller’s reading is . . .the importation of analogues, parallels, or associations unauthorized by anything in the text, in effect denying that the structure of the text constitutes an internal context that limits possible meanings and relationships.

The emphasis throughout Harris’s important work is properly on the limits of interpretation imposed by context, whereas the deconstructive theory is that the indeterminacy of all language and thought inevitably leads to an indeterminacy of both intention and interpretation, which leads to the by-now inevitable indeterminacy of any given text, which dissolved text then flows into the vast river of intertextuality and ends in the lifeless ocean of the mise en abysme, “the infinite regress of interpretation.”

This gambit of there being no text to analyze is central to the deconstructive game, at least as played in America. I came to Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? (1980) with special interest because the four lectures which end the book were delivered at Kenyon College, about 40 years after the founding of the Review by Ransom. There is very little literary criticism in these lectures; the strategy of argumentation is to demonstrate the wide variability of interpretation to which short sentences or passages are susceptible. It is precisely Wendell Harris’s main point that it is only in extended contexts that the limits of interpretation are provided by which the intended meanings of the author can be elicited:

. . . in the case of a single sentence interpretation involves discovering the consistency of that sentence with the external contextual dimensions, in the case of extended discourse we must seek interpretations that will be consistent as well with the . . .equivalents of these to which the text or utterance gives rise.

The “external contextual dimensions” are all of the elements that make up a “cultural grammar” (the term is Charles Altieri’s), the background information an author could assume would be known by his contemporary readers. The author then proceeds to create a text which gives rise to internal relationships and meanings which limit free interpretation. Articulating these meanings as precisely as possible is what I have always defined as criticism.

Fish would have it that readers; of various metacritical persuasions can read someone else’s text only from their own vantage point:

Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.

Christopher Ricks asks regarding this passage (in the London Review of Books, April 16, 1981), “Where does this leave writers, the original writers? Nowhere.” For Fish, “criticism” inexorably lays bare the intentions and beliefs not of the author but of the critic and those who share his intentions and beliefs. For me, what is often called criticism does just what Fish says it does, but should be called metacriticism, and the term criticism saved for the process Fish seems to feel is impossible, the articulating as precisely as possible the meaning, the intentions and beliefs, of the author.

The “interpretive community” that every author seeks is the sum total of readers of the present and future who are willing to “suspend disbelief” for a while and live in the author’s created world, adopt his “cultural grammar” and his beliefs, strive to understand his intentions and play by his rules. All other “interpretive communities” are not trying to be readers (in the only sense that matters to the author), but metacritics, using the author’s text for their own games, played by their own rules. My view is that there are at any given time many readers of the first sort, and that from among this group come the true critics of a given work. There will always be far fewer true critics than true readers; many will not bother, having other things to do; many will simply not be articulate enough. One can feel the greatness of an author like, say, Cervantes, without having the training and the terms to articulate that sense of greatness.

The deconstructionists’ game is a quite serious one. They are committed in a programmatic way, as Geoffrey Hartman states it, “to expunge divinity” from every sacred text (Easy Pieces, 1985). All God-centered literature must be decentered; there are no universal or absolute truths, and literature that posits absolutes is simply fantasy that cannot, to that extent, be taken seriously. This is a metacritical position, one which would devalue (“transvalue” is the word often used) a great part of the world’s literature, which is the metacritic’s prerogative, but it is not criticism. One is not reading a text by pointing out that since it deals with universals it is false, or that since words are inherently ambiguous, indeterminate in meaning, any given text can be shown to plausibly mean (to really mean?) the opposite of what it says it means. But this is in fact the deconstructive methodology (a variation on the Freudian “latent” vs. “manifest” content gambit); this is what Hartman means by his astounding statement in his Criticism in the Wilderness (1980) that “we have perfected . . .the technique of close reading.” I do not believe it for a moment. There is no theoretical position—including the deconstructive—that is going to guarantee good criticism. Only sensitivity, close scrutiny, and a talent for articulating precisely the central attitudes of a unique context are going to give us good criticism. One cannot will to be a good critic simply by having what one considers the right metaphysic or the right literary theory. The deconstructive reader, like any sort of reader, must still return to the humbling but all-important job of the true critic, and no smoke screen about the indeterminacy of language or the artistic text is going to hide a poor reading of a poorly understood text.

I have had occasion recently to review the late Italo Calvino’s The Uses of Literature (1986). I had already had great respect for his Italian Folktales, and found in this series of essays written between 1966 and 1982 a most interesting shift in Calvino’s thinking, reflecting his growing dissatisfaction with the literary situation of his time. This is Calvino writing in the mid-sixties:

In Literature the writer is now aware of a bookshelf on which pride of place is held by the disciplines capable of breaking down the fact of literature into its primary elements and motivations, the disciplines of analysis and dissection (linguistics, information theory, analytical philosophy, sociology, anthropology, a new use of psychoanalysis, a new use of Marxism). To this library of multiple specializations we tend not so much to add a library shelf as to question its right to be there at all: literature today survives above all by denying itself.

By the mid-seventies, we find a Calvino largely disenchanted with the hopes of the previous decade:

The dismantling of the work of literature might open the way toward a new evaluation and a new structuring. And what came of it? Nothing—or exactly the opposite of what might have been hoped for. . . .

And by 1981, Calvino wonders if the contemporary “critical” movements do not indicate a period of creative malaise:

One might even say that storytelling is at one and the same time reaching the nadir of its eclipse in creative texts and the zenith of critical and analytical interest in it.

In these essays we have the drama of a creative writer who, finally, after a long tour of the European (and, by extension, American) intellectual and critical scene, returns to his real home in his imagination:

Any result attained by literature, as long as it is stringent and rigorous, may be considered firm ground for all practical activities for anyone who aspires to the construction of a mental order solid and complex enough to contain the disorder of the world within itself.

This sounds much like Wallace Stevens, who had indeed emerged as the major intellectual voice among the great 20th-century poets in the years since I had first read him and felt that he was the poet most worthy of, and most in need of, close analysis. The choice Calvino made is really the choice between the deconstructive nihilism grounded in one aspect of Nietzsche’s thought and the philosophy of “As If” grounded in the other. One creates an order in which to live in defense against the disorder of reality because one must, because, as Wallace Stevens says in “Credences of Summer,” “It was difficult to sing in face of the object.” Stevens says in his “To the One of Fictive Music” to his “interior paramour,” she who continues to sing despite the dismalness of objective reality, “Unreal, give back to us what once you gave:/ The imagination that we spurned and crave.”

I would suggest (have suggested in my previous writings) that this is a better line to follow than the deconstructive, nihilistic line. The irrepressible desire for stability of values and the impossibility of any philosophic grounding of such values generates in Stevens and in many other modern thinkers a lauding of the imagination which can create the blessed myths, rituals, traditions, codes, within which a society or an individual might flourish. Though they seem so very different, both the archetypalist and the nihilist would attempt to discredit the value of such local orders, an achieved construct or context in either society or art. The one would tell the writer of Jonah that all enclosures, ship, whale, or water, are really the womb to which he wishes to return. The other would tell my mother that the lettuce leaf ought not to be seen as part of the divine.

We will always need a Wimsatt to tell both the archetypalist and the deconstructionist that the poet claims for a symbol “only the correctness of his momentary context,” where the symbol can be divine or not, as the author wills, or a Wendell Harris to tell them that a symbol “can be recognized only in context,” where it means only what it means in that context.

There will always be “critics” (Harold Bloom comes first to mind) anxious to subsume a given literary text into a larger system, willing to quash the actual tonality of a given work to squash it into the given thesis. But there will always also be the countervailing current, those who respect the unique literary context (Cleanth Brooks, of course, comes first to mind, but also, say, just to run up a list, R.P. Blackmur, Erich Auerbach, Kenneth Burke, Randall Jarrell, Harry Levin, Eric Bentley, Hugh Kenner, M.L. Rosenthal, Frank Kermode, Richard Ellmann, R.W.B. Lewis, Arthur Mizener, and Christopher Ricks) and the unique cultural context from which it comes, be it Dante’s Tuscany, Cervantes’s La Mancha, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, or even a little hill town in Lebanon at the turn of the century, or in upstate New York in the mid-fifties.

My own belief is that it is these latter sorts of critics that deserve the name (call it New, or Contextual, or whatever), that they practice a lesser art which is yet an art, and that their usefulness and pleasure will outlive their generations and be useful and pleasing to generations after them (cf. Rene Wellek’s closing remarks on the New Criticism in Critical Inquiry, Summer 1978). I cannot say the same for the various archetypalists and deconstructionists who have for the last generation been writing so many premature obituaries for the other truer sort of critic.


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