The History of Literary Theory: “Mouse-Eaten Records“ or Acid Test? (2013)

I must have picked it up, when leafing through a magazine or poaching in the lower regions of the ‘good read’. I was out of harness then like a Seeing Eye dog off duty and didn’t care to remember exactly what had come my way. Some wise guy witticism no doubt, insinuating that as dogs must have fleas, professors must have theories. (i) One will brush off such derogatory remarks, of course, but this one stuck like the parasites it was referring to. So we got acquainted and accustomed to each other. What’s so bad about fleas, anyhow? (ii) Apart from their worldwide come-back in institutions of primary and secondary education they have been eternalized by no lesser poet than John Donne. “This flea is you and I,” he reveals to his mistress and it is over the flea’s dead body and its selfless sacrifice that the poem climaxes before the suitor may follow suit:

‘Tis true, then learne, how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld’st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea’s death tooke life from thee.

So fleas won’t dishonour dogs and damsels and theories will do even more and establish the reputation of a scholar. On second thoughts we must concede that theories and fleas, far from being health-risks, are a good sign. A flea-ridden dog is the most robust and resilient animal, probably the leader of the pack, and so is the theory-ridden professor. Or is there anyone in the audience for whom the enormous proliferation of theory during the last decades does not indicate an all-engrossing and ever-increasing vitality of literary and cultural studies?

I have met grumblers and worriers, though, whose rallying call is hypertrophy, a term not only of ecological awareness, but also the diagnostic precursor of more or less incisive countermeasures. In other words, there is a certain limit to the flea and theory population sustainable by a completely fit organism after all, and if the available resources are to be preserved, one has to cut back on consumers. A dog must scratch itself and get rid of a number of fleas; the professorship must reduce their theoretical baggage. And there’s the rub, because none of the paradigms that are being developed and discussed at the cutting edge of the discipline can be sacrificed without endangering the interacting whole and its – relata refero – positive problem shift. The only thing which seems dispensable is yesterday’s brainwork, i.e. the history of literary theory. The mental fleas on display there are supposed to be senile and on their last legs, maybe harbouring a parasite’s parasite by now. What those theories have revealed about literature and art is said to be obsolete; they themselves have long been outdistanced by their up-to-date successors, even anthologists claim. Consequently there is no pre-Eliot or pre-New Criticism criticism in their selections.

But jettisoning the past and its “mouse-eaten records” (Sidney) is always self-defeating and doubly so in literary theory. The main reason for my opposition to throwing out ballast then is a pragmatic one. It will take generations of scholars, once they have been shielded from exposure to non-contemporary theorizing, to relearn what Plato and Horace, Sidney, Dryden, Pope and Young and dozens of their peers could have told them right from the start. Let me try and sum up their message under the following headings:

1. In order to write seminally in the field of poetics and aesthetics, broadmindedness sometimes will not be enough. It helps enormously to be in two minds about literature and art.
2. It’s never too late to revolt against the paradigm one was raised in or rather raised under.
3. If you must pontificate, subvert your dogmatism as you go along.
4. It may come as a bitter disappointment to the academic critic, but the history of literary theory strongly suggests that the undisputed masterpieces have been and will be written not by the specialist and expert, but by men of letters.

There is no doubt that broadmindedness counts among the most desirable intellectual virtues. Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy, was blessed with it, when he warned his listeners in 1786 against “an unfounded distrust of the imagination […] in favour of narrow, partial, confined, argumentative theories.” (iii) And the anti-authoritarian bent of this towering authority in the visual arts made him add:

It is the false system of reasoning grounded on a partial view of things, against which I
would most earnestly guard you. And I do it the rather, because those narrow theories
[are] so coincident with the poorest and most miserable practice. (iv)

But strangely enough, the blinkers of the stickler are as counter-productive as the undiscerning generosity, the laissez passer to be found at the other extreme. Here apathy and unconcern, which have donned the mask of tolerance, defuse all conflict which is what literary theory is all about, because its history can only be read as a series of controversies, or to put it more bluntly, as intellectual warfare. Let’s face the problem. How does a broadminded person, so broadminded indeed, as to have been the uomo universale and polymath of his day, declare war and bring about a mobilization that is still in force after two and a half millennia?

Plato’s solution, and it is Plato, the founding father of literary theory, to whom we are indebted for an answer, was an ingenious one. Why, if your expansive mind is averse to finding fault with what are now the Greek classics, you simply change it. From now on you are in two minds about literature and art without giving in to the siren song of consistency. You write down the pros and cons and hand down this highly explosive mixture to your commentators and to posterity. One of the happy lot, you can depend on it, will provide the spark.

Through his mouthpiece Socrates, Plato both celebrated and condemned art, thus fuelling and launching the exploration programme of literary theory whose researchers seem to have been alternating between fireworks and the funeral pyre ever since. Plato’s celebratory view of his subject precedes his defamatory one by roughly twenty years and was formulated in his dialogue Ion, probably written around 390 BC. Here Socrates meets the eponymous rhapsode, i.e. a professional performer and reciter of epic poetry, who has specialized in Homer and has just returned from the festival of Aesculapius at Epidaurus. Though Ion is a highly accomplished representative of ancient minstrelry and has carried off the first prize in the contest, it turns out that he is completely in the dark about the nature of his artistic calling and has to be enlightened by the philosopher. Socrates suggests that this lack of self-knowledge is not surprising at all, because whenever Ion “sings”, his personal identity, his I, will become the medium or voice-box of a divine message or, as we would put it today, a communication channel for alterity and the Other. According to Plato’s Ion the key to the black box of art is an inspiration which cannot be controlled, but in its turn controls the artist, seeping through and down, as it were, from the metaphysical energy source to the rhapsode’s individual recital:

There is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet […] This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; [but] all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by [conscious] art, but because they are inspired and possessed [and] not in their right mind. (v)

So there is a kind of chain reaction between the divine Muse, the poet, the reciter and the audience and under favourite conditions even the listeners slowly evolving into readers will be transfixed and ready to suspend the reality principle or the pragmatism of their “right” minds “during the hour of perusal” (Poe).

Literary history has canonized poets, Plato doesn’t stop short of beatification. “The poet,” he sums up the argument, “is a light and winged and holy thing”, (vi) and because of his divine aura which a later generation was to identify as the emanation of “fine frenzy”, he is exempt from the standards and requirements of mental stability and equilibrium:

For not by [conscious] art does the poet sing, but by power divine; […] and therefore God takes away reason from poets, and uses them as his ministers. […] For in this way God would seem to demonstrate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, nor the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed. (vii)

No wonder Ion – “your words touch my soul” – is immensely flattered and must have missed the ‘only’ at the end of our quotation, an inconspicuous particle by which the philosopher reasserts his superiority, because though the thinker may not enjoy the special favours of the Olympians, he is at least master of his own intellect.

Two decades later – Plato finished his Politeia or Republic in 373 BC – the “light and winged and holy thing” Ion would have been in for the surprise of his life when entering Plato’s model polis and would have undoubtedly gone crazy without any divine intervention. For the treatment the ex-hagiographer is now advocating for him and his likes looks like this:

Therefore when anyone of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they imitate anything, comes to us and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sacred, marvellous, and delightful being; but we must also inform him that in our state such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. (viii)

In the later Plato the poet has come down from being regal to being illegal and instead of being celebrated he is exiled out of hand though, as we ought to admit, in a gentlemanly fashion: “And so when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland […] upon his head, we shall send him away to another city.” (ix) Or is the political perfectionist not beyond exploiting even his good manners by embalming a fossil and sending it over to the enemy city state as a Trojan horse?

Be that as it may, from the Republican Plato’s point of view the poet is now “thrice removed from the truth,” (x) a truth located in the realm of ideas. The philosopher may grasp these archetypes by anamnesis, but when the common man can lay his hands on them, they have already degenerated and become shifting images of the real thing. The precise and unwavering idea of the bed – this is Plato’s own Procrustean example – thus will be refracted
into the diffuse prism of the countless incorporations and reifications both Greek and barbarian carpenters have manufactured. Painting or describing this elemental piece of furniture means blurring things and increasing the distance from the ideal once again, because after the loss of the philosophical dignity inherent in the pre-pluralistic idea of the bed its painterly or linguistic reproduction as an image of an image now must go even without utility. No use trying to sleep on a vertical coat of paint or between the lines.

Come to think of it, the sub-ideal but all too solid beds may have seduced many a peripatetic philosopher into taking a break and thus come up for exemplary criticism, but this hardly explains why artists receive such harsh treatment in the Platonic commonwealth and why their products formerly on a equal footing with the transcendent and qualified as divine, are now subjected to the following imperatives quoted at random from Book III: “obliterate”, “expunge”, “strike out”, “get rid of”. (xi) This is the idiom of censorship; and repression of the undesirable is exactly what Plato has in mind. After his poetological conversion it has become clear to him that fantasy and fabulation will constantly endanger public order and turn good citizens into escapists. There is a defeatist strain even in Homer for his Hades peopled by lamenting shadows is a singularly unattractive and disheartening abode. Thus literature saps the courage and fighting power of the Greek hoplite who might prefer desertion to a last-ditch fight in order not to arrive in the underworld too soon.

So Plato became the founding father of literary theory not because he took a stand, but because he took two. They mark the extremes of the spectrum the discipline has vacillated between ever since: praising literature to the skies on the one hand and putting her in the ground with or without a salute over the grave on the other. His radical revisionism got copied in England at least twice and in both cases the act of turning coats and defecting to the enemy’s camp had the Platonic effect of increasing the swing of the discussion and of amplifying the debate. Compared to the Greek antinomian his replayers certainly lacked stature, but then the respective refutations their pamphlets provoked were presently recognized as contributions of the first water.

Stephen Gosson (1544-1624) had tried his hand at stage craft when the Elizabethan drama got into its stride. As a “dramatist of some promise” (O.B. Hardison) he wrote plays such as Catiline’s Conspiracy, Captain Mario or Praise at Parting which are not now extant. He survives as more than a rumour though, because for reasons unknown to us he became a conscientious objector to the stage and downed his pen or, to be more precise, sold it to the Puritan faction engaged in a Hundred Years’ War against the theatre and the theatre-goers which culminated in a Pyrrhus victory: the closing down of playhouses after the Civil War in Cromwell’s theocratic republic. Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579) announces itself as “[an] invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters and such like Caterpillers” and provides a manual and catechism for the tight-laced bigot of the day. At the same time it is a spectacular theatrical performance itself, a resounding dramatic monologue, and far from being defunct Gosson’s former self has even smuggled in a peepshow making us eyewitnesses of what is going on on a second, but not necessarily secondary stage, that of the Elizabethan audience:

In our assemblies at playes in London, you shall see suche heauing, and shoouing, suche ytching and shouldring, too sitte by women; Such care for their garments, that they bee not trode on: Such eyes to their lappes, that no chippes light in them: Such pillows to their backes, that they take no hurte: […] Such ticking, such trying, such smiling, such winking, and such manning them home, when the sports are ended, that it is a right Comedie, to marke their behauiour, to watche their conceites, as the Catte for the Mouse. […] For they that lack Customers al the weeke […] flock to Theaters, and there keepe a generall Market of Bawdrie [and] euery wanton and his Paramour, euery man and his Mistresse, euery John and his Joan, euery knaue and his queane, are there first acquainted and cheapen the Merchandise in that place, which they pay for elsewhere as they can agree. (xii)

In a rather ill-advised or haphazard gesture Gosson dedicated his pamphlet to a young and promising courtier, Sir Philip Sidney, who had not been asked permission in the first place and must have been aghast at being co-opted by religious fundamentalism and by what he later called “mysomousoi” or “poet-haters”. To dissociate himself from the dedicator he subsequently wrote one of the masterpieces of English literary theory, his Apology for Poetry, published posthumously in 1595. There is no need to quote more than one sentence to get the gist of his argument and to demonstrate that he and Gosson were worlds apart. “For poetry,” Sidney stresses, “must not be drawn by the ears; it must be gently led, or rather it must lead.” (xiii)

If Gosson’s change of mind faintly echoes Plato’s auto-revisionism, there will even be an echo of the echo more than two hundred years later and the entire constellation of a minor theorist revoking his enthusiasm and thus triggering another major contribution to the discipline will return. This time the agent provocateur is a novelist, satirist and poet whose works have not weathered well, but who was clever enough to embark on a bread-and-butter career with the East India Company in1819. Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) wrote entertainingly and as the Oxford Companion to English Literature has it, in the tradition of the Socratic dialogue, especially perhaps Plato’s Symposium. His forte was a tongue-in-cheek strategy which is also detectable in The Four Ages of Poetry, a literary essay he brought out in 1820. But what had been intended as a spirited exercise in mock cultural pessimism, soon turned into a straightforward farewell to literature, because the author got dazzled by the arguments he had meant to lampoon. Looking back over his shoulder he finds that the origins of poetry have been disreputable:

[In the first age of poetry the successful chief or king wants] an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in the bard who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. [Poets] tell us how many battles such a one has fought, how many helmets he has cleft, how many breastplates he has pierced, how many widows he has made, how much land he has appropriated, how many houses he has demolished for other people, what a large one he has built for himself, how much gold he has stowed away in it, and how liberally and plentifully he pays, feeds, and intoxicates the divine and immortal bards, the sons of Jupiter, but for whose everlasting songs the names of heroes would perish.(xiv)

Looking around him he finds that present-day poetry is no longer even opportunist. In an enlightened and mechanized world it has become downright superfluous, a leftover and atavism disqualifying its retrogressive practitioners. “A poet in our times,” Peacock concludes, “is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. […] The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backwards.” (xv) His friend Percy Bysshe Shelley was not prepared to concede that. His magnificent Defence of Poetry, composed the following year, rehabilitates the poet as “the unacknowledged legislator of the world” (xvi), criticizes the industrial revolution – “our calculations have outrun conception; […] and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself slave” (xvii) – and envisions a poetized world far beyond the reach and extrapolations of “the promoters of utility” (xviii).

To put it succinctly, in poetological discourse as in physics you have to make up your mind, but here there is a make-up even for the Janus-faced who have proved indispensable. No Shelley without a Peacock, no Sidney without a Gosson, no literary theory without Plato. (Self-)contradictors welcome or, slightly to reword one of Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms: “When theorists disagree the artist is in accord with himself.” This is the first lesson to be learned from the history of literary theory. It may help to be in two or more minds about literature, because literature is a shape-shifter itself, a Proteus, if ever there was one. Master theorists will not stop short at inconsistency though, they will refine and sublimate it into paradox and theorize in the literary form most happy with clashes of opinion, namely dialogue. So there are four opinionated participants in John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy of 1668 and two times two in Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” (1889) and “The Critic as Artist” (1890).

If your mindset is less extremist and iconoclast than the Gosson or Peacock variety, however, you can still be of service to the discipline – second reminder of the history of poetics – by simply revolutionizing it, which is quite a different thing from confronting it with a fundamental yes/no-option. Now you work within an explanatory framework which does not contest art’s right to exist, now you argue within a series of paradigms vying for hegemony. And here historical experience will instruct the teachable that it is never too late to deviate from the beaten track, to stop echoing or parotting the orthodoxy of the day, as intimidatingly postmodern and frenchified and delogocentrically deferential – or was it differential – it may be.

Let’s time-travel to another period when French thought had colonized Albion and its disseminators and popularizers such as Thomas Rymer (1641-1713), Charles Gildon (1665-1724) or John Dennis (1657-1734) lorded it over the literary circles. ‘Long live neoclassicism!’ the flags and banners read and this doctrine proved long-winded indeed, as it dominated the Augustan age, its agony not setting in before the second half of the 18th century. Edward Young’s biographical dates, 1683-1765, coincide with the heyday of neoclassicism and though his highly acclaimed Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742-5) established him as one of the leading exponents of the so-called ‘graveyard poetry’, he stuck to the rules – the shibboleth of the neoclassicist lawmakers to literature – till his seventy-sixth year. Only then did Edward Young – nomen est omen – step forward and break with a consensus position which had stipulated that contemporary art and literature must reproduce the ancient models, because the classics marked an all-time high of artistic achievement. Due to an irreversible decline in creative power the most gifted of the moderns could perhaps hope to duplicate what had been done but never to surpass it. It was exactly this discouraging and defeatist undertone of a theory that had put art into the fetters of a more or less servile imitation which shook Young out of the serenity of old age and rejuvenated him into the spokesman of a new challenge-oriented poetics of what we now might call literary self-empowerment.

Throughout his Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) – a tactical title which intentionally downplays the heterodox and dissident nature of what is in reality a manifesto proclaiming the irrepressibility of genius – Young is concerned with the question: “Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die copies?” (xix) The neoclassicist diagnosis that “there is a famine of invention in the land” (xx) is accurate according to Young; but who or what has brought about this cultural dearth? Here the dominant school and its Brahmins are far off the mark. They put the blame on biology or genetics, but as a matter of fact it is the caricature of art and creativity brought into circulation by neoclassicism itself that has been responsible. Contrary to the assertion that history and culture have been in constant decline after the fall of the Roman empire Young insists on an equal opportunities scenario for all periods. In other words, the percentage of gifted and talented persons does not vary from epoch to epoch, but the success rate does and will often fluctuate considerably. So “reasons there are why talents may not appear, none why they may not exist, in one period as [in] another.” (xxi)

The basic co-ordinates he discusses are stimulating versus stifling cultural surroundings, public esteem for literature and the arts versus a climate of distrust or indifference and last but not least the dominant self-image of the artist. The high-quality output in the world of a Maecenas and Augustus, both patronizing the arts, must needs exceed that of a mercantile century in which profit is more important than pleasure, Puritan prejudices still linger and the spirit of imitation reigns supreme, while the artist is theorized into a law-abiding scrupulousness and resignation. For Young the “meddling ape imitation” (xxii) visualizes the self-inflicted curse of a poetological paradigm which undercuts the contemporaneous progress observable in the “mechanic arts” and the natural sciences. Furthermore, a replay culture counteracts nature – another neoclassicist catchword –, a nature programmed to venture forth and seek new frontiers. And finally this fatal doctrine will reward a lack of curiosity as well as the pseudo-industriousness of intellectual sloth instead of placing a premium on aesthetic risk-taking and genuine innovation. In Young’s own words:

The third fault to be found with the spirit of imitation is that with great incongruity it makes us poor, and proud; makes us think little, and write much; gives us huge folios, which are little better than more reputable cushions to promote our repose.(xxiii)

Once again there may be a déjà vu effect, for what he says here about loquacious sterility and a new scholasticism has a topical ring and his gesture of defiance and revolt along with the claim that the work of genius is entitled to our unreserved reverence is re-enacted – to invoke the notion of imitation in this context would definitely be out of order – by George Steiner, another Young-ster and indefatigable critic of the cultural status quo now just turned eighty.

As a model paradigm-shifter Young reminds us of the fact that deconstruction is no recent phenomenon, but a time-honoured strategy of ushering out one’s theoretical precursor. And this is how Young, the votary of the ingenious, takes on Alexander Pope – nomen est omen once again –, the self-appointed pope and pontifex maximus of the religion of rules:

Pope would not hear, pre-engaged with Imitation, which blessed him with all her charms. He chose rather […] to triumph in the old world, than look out for a new. His taste partook the error of his religion; it denied not worship to saints and angels; that is, to writers, who canonized for ages, have received their apotheosis from established and universal fame. True poesy, like true religion, abhors idolatry. (xxiv)

As a youth of twenty-three Pope had catechized neoclassicism into the memorable lines and easy-to-memorize heroic couplets of his Essay on Criticism published in 1711. This versified primer catered to the cultivated but inexpert who wanted to gloss over their ignorance and be able to display an impressive familiarity with the aesthetic issues of the day. This is why the text often reads like a collage of potential quotes or a prompter’s copy and in the years following its publication the coffee-houses must have resounded with papal declarations such as:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft’ was thought but ne’er so well expressed. (ll. 297-8)


Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;
To copy nature is to copy them. (ll. 139-40)

or as a master camouflage for one’s own state of mind:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. (ll. 215-6)

Still, Young’s portrait of Pope as a poetological idolater mentally warped by his catholic upbringing is the product of massive distortion, though Pope learned to live down even more aggressive caricatures like that of his darling enemy John Dennis, who had called him “a hunchbacked toad”. As an epoch of polemics and polemicists the Augustan age accumulated a wealth of these complimentary characterizations whose abrasive shorthand must be filled out and counterpoised. In the case of the Essay on Criticism this means that we have to rediscover the open-minded and probing Pope behind the crammer of the same name. True enough, the youthful poet wanted to establish himself as an authority in the field and to consolidate his market value which eventually would buy him a villa plus grotto and garden at Twickenham and make a fortune for his publisher, but throughout his literary career the ship that came home had also transported cargoes of contraband. Under closer scrutiny it thus turns out that roughly one third of the Essay on Criticism is heterodox. In passage after passage Pope doesn’t foot, but oversteps the party line and in doing so he becomes the perfect embodiment of the third maxim deducible from the history of literary theory: If you must pontificate, subvert your dogmatism as you go along.

Pope has his cake and eats it, too. So the rules are hammered home, but at the same time he opens up whole vistas where they no longer apply because the intuitional strategies required here are too subtle by far for the rather heavy-handed approach of a prescriptive poetics:

Some beauties yet no precept can declare,
For there’s a happiness as well as care. (ll. 141-2)

Art cannot be forced into existence, it will always have the character of a gift to its producer no less than to the public. Apprenticeship is dependent on guidelines and an ever-increasing proficiency in those skills that can and must be learned. But beyond that virtuosity will manifest itself in

[Those] nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach. (ll. 144-5)

To the master artist Pope gives the long rein the Norman poet Tristan Corbière gave to his flea-infested pet in Finistère. The magistrate there had introduced the regulation that all dogs must be leashed. So when walking his cabot Corbière used a fifty yard rope. Likewise, when it comes to remote-controlling the full-fledged writer, Pope will often be extremely lenient and even tolerate violations of the law, because certain irregular effects can be produced in no other way:

Great wits sometimes may gloriously offend,
And rise to faults true critics dare not mend;
From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part,
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
Which, without passing through the judgment, gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains. (ll. 152-7)

There is certainly no unbridgeable gap between the heterodox Pope’s vote of no confidence, when it comes to poetologically policing the arts, and Young’s exemption of genius from what the congenial William Blake was to call the “mind-forged menacles” of know-it-all ideologies. In its subversive passages the Essay on Criticism will set the writer free by slipping him the passe-partout of “some lucky licence” (l. 148), whereas the critic is kept if not under lock and key, then at least under close observation. There is a good reason for this: a bad critic may cause much more harm than a bad author:

‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But of the two, less dang’rous is th’ offence
To tire our patience, then mislead our sense. (ll. 1-4)

In other words, literary incompetence will make the yawning reader put aside a boring book, but the muddle-headed critic will create a muddle-headed audience whose judgement is impaired because their value criteria are all mixed up. “So by false learning is good sense defaced” (l. 25), and instead of being provided with a roadmap, the bewildered newcomer in the world of letters gets lost in “the maze of schools”, i.e. on the ever-changing battleground of neoclassicist sectarianism. The orthodox Pope may have been an unoriginal compiler of hand-me-down theorems; his doppelganger, the schismatic counter-pope, however, was a pioneer and trailblazer, because he was one of the first theoreticians to problematize the supposed innocence of theory and its critical applications. In view of the stifling and paralysing potential of art theory and poetics meaning or having meant well simply is not enough. There should be a built-in alarm system preventing abuse. In 1757 David Hume elaborated on this idea in his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” where he postulated that the most prominent task of literary theory is a negative one, namely to protect the work of art from interpretive infringement by “silenc[ing] the bad critic” (xxv).

Two and a half centuries later this sounds more utopian than ever. We live, as George Steiner once put it in the title of a collection of essays, “after Babel”, in a situation of ever-proliferating tongues, idioms and isms. There have been so many ‘turns’ in the discipline of literary studies that a professional dizziness seems to have become the hallmark of the riders of this academic merry-go-round where everybody clings to their toy dragster or spacecraft and turns a deaf ear to the yells and heurekas of their neighbours. Nobody is trying to silence anyone, quite the contrary, as they pass us with flushed faces they wave enthusiastically and get their sirens going. In spite of the remarkable noise level, however, there is hardly any argumentative exchange between the theoretical schools or paradigms so that excesses like doing away with the author and authoring the orbituary could not be curbed. Thus, the only thing that has been effectively silenced by the theory avant-garde of the last decades is the dialogue with the artists themselves.

Two quotes must be sufficient to demonstrate the scope of an estrangement which is without parallel in the history of Western culture. My first witness is the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman (1905-1970) who had obviously lost all patience with and confidence in the contemporary theoretical discourse when he declared in 1968: “Aesthetics is for me like the study of ornithology must be to the birds. I don’t need it.” The second person I will ask into the witness box is used to this environment because he is one of the pet postmodern novelists supposedly and in an unadulterated fashion exemplifying most of the theorems set up by the specialists in that field. But once again the lines are down. Cooperative interaction is non-existent and Julian Barnes certainly does not mince matters, when it comes to judging the motivational value of contemporary literary theory and its assumed catalyst function within the creative process. The following statement is taken from an interview conducted by the German scholar Rudolf Freiburg in the late nineties. Freiburg refers to a ghostly “concurrence of theory and literature” and wants to know how far and in what respect a novel like Talking it Over might ‘mirror’ Foucault. “Well,” says Julian Barnes and it must have been a drawn-out expletive:

Well – I once got into trouble in Italy where I was at a British Council evening – I don’t know how many years ago but it was certainly after Flaubert’s Parrot, possibly after History of the World – and so the whole question of postmodernism came up, and the question of literary theory. And someone from the audience was asking the question and I said, ‘well actually, you know, I haven’t read any literary theory’, and everyone laughed – because they knew this was the British sense of humour – but then I said, ‘no, actually, I really haven’t, you see’, and they suddenly began to realize that I was serious and a terrible chill fell over the audience because many of them had worked in universities and devoted several years of their life to theory and liked to fit my novels into some constructed grid. But at the risk of offending you in turn, I would say that I have never read any literary theory. I’ve read a few pages of Derrida, I’ve occasionally been sent theses on my work where there would be a paragraph of quotation from me, in which my purposes seemed to me self-evident and self-explanatory; and then two pages of a sort of Derridaish prose which seemed to me to make the whole thing much less clear than in was in the first place [laughs]. To answer your question straightforwardly: in my case there is no continuing dialogue between fiction and theory. I’m deliberately unaware of literary theory. Novels come out of life, not out of theories about either life or literature, it seems to me; I am very English in that respect. I think that when literary theory drives literature, the danger is you get something as fundamentally arid as the noveau roman. (xxvi)

The chilly and frosty atmosphere in which literature and poetics coexist in a state of apartheid and outstanding writers remain “deliberately unaware of literary theory”, because they feel that by exposing themselves to the academic discourse they might jeopardize their genius, is a disquieting and relatively new phenomenon. It goes without saying that the pioneers of the British novel were practioners and theoreticians at the same time developing a multi-facetted genre poetics in their prefaces and letters. And up to T.S. Eliot and other representatives of the New Criticism such as Allen Tate and R.P. Blackmur theory as a no-go area for artists would have been unthinkable. Who or what brought about the change and fortified the demarcation line now so jealously patrolled by both camps?

The answer is not difficult to find, though it can only be formulated – let me invoke Barnes again – at the risk of giving offence. In the second half of the 20th century (literary) theory became the object of institutionalized research and the prerogative of the academic professional, who, as I mentioned at the outset, may swarm with life and pullex irritans, hopefully only in the metaphorical variety, but who labours under the severe disadvantage of being a Cyclops or one-eyed giant. His visual organ may be beyond compare, the discernment and perspicuity of his publications exemplary, yet he will never achieve stereoscopic vision or depth of field. To do that you must be endowed with a pair of eyes and this is the enormous advantage of traditional literary theory over its academic successor. The experts and specialists who have “devoted several years of their lives to theory” and may now have a “grid” at their disposal to fit works of art into will always view literature from the outside. A firsthand knowledge of the inner life and perspective of the performer will never be accessible to them. In the history of literary theory this one- and therefore lopsided approach has always been an anomaly, as nearly all of its masterpieces were authored by those who knew literature inside out. Sidney excelled as a poet before and after his Apology and so did Shelley. Dryden was a dramatist and poet of nationwide renown, Young became a theoretical innovator after he had subverted neoclassical inflexibility and dimmed the splendour of enlightenment optimism as a graveyard poet. The Puritan propagandist and renegade Gosson knew what he was exorcising as intimately as possible, because he had been a playwright before his profitable conversion. Thomas Love Peacock, the advocatus diaboli of 19th century philistinism in The Four Ages of Poetry, survived his own countdown in the best of health stepping up his literary output in order to complete the ten bulky volumes of his Collected Works. And even the odd man out, Plato, is no exception to the rule, if we look twice. First of all his philosophy is cast in the literary mould of dialogue and secondly apocryphal sources maintain that he tried his hand at tragedy before he met Socrates and renounced Melpomene for the goddess of truth. (xxvii)

This is why being in two minds about literature is more than the golden rule we abstracted from a debate that has been going on for ages. In fact, the principle of the binary turns out to be its very basis and prerequisite. What we find is a constant exchange between the realm of literary production and that of theorizing what is going on there, and under the most fortunate circumstances this feedback process will take place in one brain and under the same cranium.
Contemporary literary theory has decided to go solo and do without the direct input of the writer’s experience and self-observation. So the original dialogue has been transformed into an academic debate among theoreticians. Busy and bustling as all those conferences and symposia may be, what we listen to is really one enormous monologue – one more manifestation of the infinite regress and mise en abyme so dear to the soliloquizers – where the writer’s testimony, if offered at all, is not particularly welcome or even rejected out of hand because it is ‘theoretically naïve’. In other words, the state of the art is one in which art no longer has a say in the matter and is defined by experts who are in the know not because of insider information about creativity but because of their academic expertise. A singularly tautological qualification? Quite so. And it shows. Looking back on the theory production of the second half of the 20th century and beyond, our successors will undoubtedly stress its tendencies towards the evangelical and sectarian, the scholastically over-refined, the hermetic and over-the-top. All this is due to the ill-considered abolition of the one essential corrective: the primary experience of the alter deus (Sidney) or originator of a work of art. What is the severest handicap of a research programme? Lack or loss of empirical data, one should say. By misreading Hume and silencing the good author instead of the bad critic literary theory has manoeuvred itself into exactly that position. It has become both speculative and solipsistic, a stumbling block to the artist rather than an incentive.

In order to further elucidate what has gone wrong, let us turn back the clock and watch the system of checks and balances in literary theory when it was still operative and in working condition. Nowadays Professor Pope would slave away at perfecting his prescriptive poetics for most of his academic career and instead of seven hundred lines of verse we would be blessed with a seven hundred-page treatise plus an avalanche of papers read on the theory circuit from Anchorage to Punta Arenas, from Ust-Kamenogorsk to Gießen. Who prevented this spill-over effect in the early 18th century? The poet Pope who did not liked being bossed about by his alter ego, the theorist. What Pope needed most as a writer was elbow room, what neoclassicism had to offer was a straightjacket of rules and the mentality of the second-rate scribbler, who “glows while he reads [the classics], but trembles as he writes” (l. 198). Consequently, the poet neutralized the opinionated theorist who finds himself making far-reaching concessions and is faced with the “nameless graces” introducing a subtext of irreverence and independence. Sir Philip Sidney is recruited into the camp of the “mysomousoi” against his will and could have spent his time fighting a rearguard action and wriggling out of fundamentalist accusations in the apologetic way the title of his book may suggest to the uninformed reader. Once again, it is the poet in him who turns the Defence or Apology into a counter-attack. Without the sonneteer and Arcadian pastoralist backing him up the theorist might have completed phase one and two of his three-step agenda: “Poetry must not be taken by the ears, it must be gently led”, but the announcement of the autonomy of art – “or rather, it must lead” – is the heartfelt postulate of the poet who would have to wait another three hundred years for the theory of l’art pour l’art to finally catch up with him. And even Plato, Gosson and Peacock who – in Peacock’s case only temporarily – said goodbye to their muse and artistic ambitions, have profited immensely from earlier contacts. The liveliness of the Platonic dialogue, the theatricality of Gosson’s School of Abuse, where stagecraft re-enters through the backdoor, and the grand guignol of literature walking the plank in Peacock’s fourth age of poetry, all this would not exist without the tenacious cooperation of the very faculty those three apostates had turned their backs on: artistic introspection. They simply could not shake it off.

Recent literary theory, however, has managed to do just this. It no longer is in two minds about art, it is absolutely single-minded and to the point. Its proponents approach literature from the outside and decree in less than memorable prose that the author is defunct, though as writers they now consider themselves to be on an equal footing with the virtuosos of yesteryear; neither is there any meaning to be found in the written word except in those revelations that state this fact. As the message is gone, literature must be told what it is about – the circulation of cultural capital, fluidity, gender, the never-ending contrition of post-colonialism or the no less permanent fluctuations of the signifiant, whose twin, the signifié, has – for reasons of its own – joined the authors in limbo. And isn’t literary theory entitled to some gratefulness for standing in for a deaf-mute after all?

Let me end on a more conciliatory note, though. If I have had wild thoughts, allow me to substitute some wild or rather Wildean dreams for them. Unless it reopens negotiations with the author it has driven off in the first place, literary theory is bound to waste away and die from either consumption or over-exertion or both at the same time. But though it may prove incorrigible, there is still a chance that literature may take the initiative to overcome the state of apartheid by re-poeticizing poetics and thus reconnecting it to the energy source of the creative imagination. This is exactly what Oscar Wilde managed to do after the proverbial Mrs Grundy had taken over the Victorian discourse on art and her various inhibitions plus an indecently exposed moral self-righteousness had severed all ties with what was going on in the studios and between bookshelves. Wilde pricked the balloon of an inflated self-importance and all the gaseous high seriousness escaped with an unmentionable sound. We are back in the primeval scene of literary theory: that of dialogue. This one is called “The Critic as Artist”, because Wilde is eager to re-establish a symbiotic relationship between the two instead of advocating rivalry and subordination. And he chooses the Platonic medium, because it stimulates what Matthew Arnold had called “the free-play of the mind on all subjects”. Let’s tune in to what Gilbert and Ernest have to say.

Ernest: Well, at least, the critic will be sincere.
Gilbert: A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. The true critic […] will realize himself in many forms, and by a thousand different ways, and will ever be curious of new sensations and fresh points of view. Through constant change, and through constant change alone, he will find his true unity. He will not consent to be the slave of his own opinions. […] You must not be frightened by words, Ernest. What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
Ernest: I’m afraid I have not been fortunate in my suggestions. (xxviii)

Have I been Ernest, have I been too much in earnest throughout this paper? How do my suggestions qualify? Are they helpful or not, fortunate or ill-advised? It is tomorrow’s history of literary theory, this Gargantuan flea circus still dwarfed by the roller coasters of art, we must go to for an answer. My fellow lecturers will take you into this future in the weeks to come and show you round the promised land. The prospects will be breathtaking, no doubt. But so is the heritage we must not forget to take along. He who is alive intellectually will always be able to stop dead in his tracks, turn his head, before it will turn, and “cast one longing, lingering look behind” (Thomas Gray)



(i) Meanwhile, I have succeeded in tracking down author and quote. The original aside is: “A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas” and it was uttered by the Boston bogeyman H.L. Mencken in “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism” (Prejudices. A Selection, ed. James T. Farrell. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP 1996, 3-11; 5).
(ii) I came across another flea-fancier when rereading an interview George Steiner had given to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2003 – and in German:
“ SZ: Die akademische Welt, die Literaturwissenschaft als Fach hat ein gespanntes Verhältnis zu George Steiner. Im günstigsten Fall haben sie einander nichts zu sagen. – Steiner: Die Universität wird mir nie verzeihen, und zwar aus einem prinzipiellen Grund. Seit meiner Jugend sage ich mir dreimal am Tag, mein Lieber, du bist ein Postino, du trägst die Post, das ist sehr wichtig. Du hast das ungeheure Glück, die Briefe zu bekommen, und versuchst, sie in den richtigen Postkasten einzuwerfen. Aber du hast sie nicht geschrieben. Das kommt von Puschkin, der sagt: ‚Danke an meine Übersetzer, danke an die Kritiker, aber ich habe den Brief geschrieben.’ Und da ich das weiß und da ich weiß, daß es Lichtjahre Distanz gibt zwischen dem Schaffenden und den Leuten, die ihn kommentieren, wird mir die Universität nie verzeihen. Das ist das große Tabu: Diese Bonzen nehmen sich so ernst, so ernst und vergessen, daß wir Flöhe sind im Pelz der Löwen“ (Süddeutsche Zeitung , 17/18 May 2003: 16).
(iii) Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992, 342-363, 358.
(iv) Ibid.
(v) Plato, Ion. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992, 11-18, 14.
(vi) Ibid.
(vii) Ibid.
(viii) Plato, Republic. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992, 18-48, 28.
(x) Ibid.: 32.
(xi) Ibid.: 22-23.
(xii) Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, ed. Edward Arber. Westminster: Constable 1895. 35-36.
(xiii) Sir Philip Sidney, The Defense of Poesie (Apology for Poetry). Literary Criticism. Plato to Dryden, ed. Allan H. Gilbert. Detroit: Wayne State UP 1964, 404-461, 447.
(xiv) Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992, 508-514, 509.
(xv) Ibid.: 513.
(xvi) Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992, 515-529, 529.
(xvii) Ibid.: 526.
(xviii) Ibid.: 525.
(xix) Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition. English Critical Essays. XVI – XVIII Centuries, ed. Edmund D. Jones. London Oxford UP 1968, 270-311, 285.
(xxi) Ibid.: 286.
(xxii) Ibid.: 285
(xxiii) Ibid.
(xxiv) Ibid.: 294.
(xxv) David Hume, „Of the Standard of Taste“, Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1992, 301-315, 311.
(xxvi) Rudolf Freiburg, Do you consider yourself a postmodern author? Interviews with contemporary English Writers. Münster: Lit Verlag 1999, 52.
(xxvii) Cf. Hazard Adams, The Offense of Poetry. Seattle: University of Washington UP 2007, 41.
(xxviii) Oscar Wilde, Complete Works, intr. Vivian Holland. London: Collins 1973, 1048.


In: Greta Olson/Ansgar Nünning (Hg.): New Theories, Models and Methods in Literary and Cultural Studies. Trier 2013, S. 21-37.