As we all know, criticism has undergone a crucial transformation since the advent of structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, and post-structuralism. Oddly, although these methodologies might have been expected to reduce criticism to a purely impersonal, even scientific, exercise, they have had the opposite effect of turning a generation of critics into cult figures. The reason is not hard to find. If, as Harold Bloom proudly claims, literary criticism today “has the same status as lyric poetry or narrative writing,” then the critic has the same status as the poet or novelist—at least in the eyes of other critics. For the generation that has followed Bloom’s, such thinking has given rise to a new creature: the critic as hero.
The extent to which this view has taken hold is illustrated by Criticism in Society, a book of interviews with literary critics conducted by Imre Salusinszky, a tutor in English at the University of Melbourne. His subjects include many of the stars of the literary-critical firmament: Jacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, and J. Hillis Miller. Although there is much that is interesting—and horrifying—in the comments of the nine critics interviewed, the true cautionary tale of Criticism in Society is to be found in the questions posed, and not posed, by Salusinszky. For it is the outlook of Salusinszky and his peers, now making their way out of graduate school and onto university faculties, that will set the tone for literary discussion in the years to come.
For the generation that has followed Bloom’s, such thinking has given rise to a new creature: the critic as hero.
In an earlier day, the critic felt it was his responsibility to illuminate the work, and sometimes the life, of the artist, not of himself. Edmund Wilson, among other things a critic with far more lasting significance than most of those now practicing the craft, had a pre-printed postcard declining requests for interviews. Times have clearly changed; now that the critic occupies center stage, the life the critic studies most closely is his own. Salusinszky came of age in this environment, and in his interviews no personal detail is too inconsequential to be discussed. Frank Lentricchia, a critical theorist at Duke University, goes on for pages about how his grandparents’ lives in Southern Italy affect the way he reads literature, while Harold Bloom relates how a mid-life crisis, followed by five years of intermittent analysis, may or may not have helped lay the foundation for The Anxiety of Influence. Barbara Johnson illustrates the relation between Bloom and Paul de Man by telling a story about Bloom’s guess that her dog’s name was “Nietzsche.”
This is not to say that meaningful topics do not crop up in these interviews. When J. Hillis Miller questions what effect teaching literature to Yale undergraduates has on society at large, when Harold Bloom rejects the notion that literature ultimately changes the reader, when Northrop Frye rails against the modern university as a place of “labyrinthine arguments,” one looks for Salusinszky to direct the conversation down these paths. These are, after all, important questions. But substantive discussion does not get far before he returns to the inconsequential, asking his subject to compare himself to another critic, or to speculate on the connections between Ronald Reagan and Emersonian individualism. When Barbara Johnson, positing a “deconstruction of everyday life,” says that the marketing of soft drinks for dieters “certainly seems related to the functioning of blanks, let’s say, in a Mallarmé text,” the hope is for Salusinszky to press this far from obvious point, particularly as it comes from a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard. Instead, Salusinszky asks: “Do you find yourself using very much of what you've learned from Derrida and de Man as you move through the extra-university world?” Jacques Derrida, discussing wider uses of deconstruction in the university, says, “You have to train people to become doctors or engineers or professors, and at the same time to train them in questioning all that—not only in a critical way, but I would say in a deconstructive way.” What is the “that” which is to be questioned, one wants to know, but Salusinszky, like many contemporary critics, does not let poorly defined terms stand in the way of sweeping analysis.
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Despite the book’s title, Salusinszky is far less interested in criticism or society (let alone literature) than in tracing the tangled web of influence which connects the critics he interviews. At the beginning of his talk with Frank Kermode, for example, he offers this bit of analysis:
If I can develop, for a moment, my own fiction—which is that there is some sequence, or relation, or pattern among the critics that I've chosen to interview—let me see if I can begin to fold you into the mix. With Bloom and Hartman, I found that we began by talking a great deal about Northrop Frye. That makes a lot of sense because, in the first place, I completely agree with what Bloom said: that Frye is the major figure in the literary criticism of our century. In the second place, both Bloom and, to a lesser extent, Hartman have had important intellectual struggles with Frye ….
This may very well be the case, but it is frightening to contemplate that such information now constitutes a valuable insight. Later in the interview he refers to T. S. Eliot as “the Jacques Derrida of his time,” to which Kermode replies: “I suppose so, though that’s a rather odd way of putting it.” One suspects—or at least hopes—that it was a sense of politeness which kept Kermode from commenting on the absurdity of the comparison.
Salusinszky speaks in the mature vocabulary of criticism’s new age, where questions are strewn with adjectives like “Fryean/Ro-mantic,” “Bloomian,” “Kermodian,” and interviews are “a set of critical functions, in the sense of ‘social or festive meetings conducted with ceremony.’” In his interview with Bloom, Salusinszky points out “one surely kabbalistic fact,” that Derrida and Bloom were born within four days of each other. He then asks if there is “anything of the kabbalist about Derrida,” so absorbed in Bloom’s jargon that he does not ponder to what extent “kabbalist” can be a truly meaningful description of a twentieth-century secular French philosopher. With a similar lack of critical judgment, he asks a short while later, “Can we imagine such a thing as a gnostic university? Can we imagine gnosticism without the university?” Although “gnosticism” properly refers to a complex group of religious movements in the Greco-Roman world, the critical world has no qualms about applying the term to the modern university, the experience of reading, or even Macbeth: for Bloom, the play makes sense “only as a kind of gnostic universe.”
The vicious circle of critical self-reference which pervades Criticism in Society was encouraged by the strategy of allowing the subject of each interview to read the transcripts of the earlier interviews in the series, so that each critic might be “invited to insert his or her own voice into dialogue with [the others].” The purpose of this, stated on the book’s jacket, is to reveal “criticism with a human face.”
In light of the result, one must ask if it might be better for criticism to be a bit more anonymous. Such a remedy seems unlikely, however, in the face of the celebrity status which critics now enjoy. In his last question to Derrida, Salusinszky asks how Derrida’s “great fame” has affected his work: “I suppose,” Salusinszky says, “this is partly a voyeuristic question, but I ask it on behalf of all those who will read this interview: do you think your work is affected by the reality of going about everywhere and seeing your work, your name, in discussion?” A far more pertinent question is the effect of Derrida’s fame on the work of Salusinszky and his contemporaries, now in their first years in the literary-critical field. Visions of fame were once the luxury of writers and artists—the sort of people critics used to study; now they can be seriously entertained by critics themselves.
One must ask if it might be better for criticism to be a bit more anonymous.
While fame is not possible in every calling, when it does become so, the environment of that pursuit is irrevocably altered. Debates over principles and issues begin giving way to talk of colleagues receiving media coverage; one thinks less about the advancement of ideas than simple advancement. Northrop Frye, commenting on the quality of contemporary critical essays, says, “One feels that the reason for their existence is simply to get [the author] on a dean’s list, and that the notion of the pursuit of a structure, or of knowledge, so that it gets clearer in the mind, is just something you haven’t the time for.” In his reply, Salusinszky lays the blame on society, which “cuts back funding to the universities.” Although it might be more painful, the critical establishment would be better off looking to itself in order to understand how this predicament came about.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 7, on page 69
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