Eliot, Arnold and Reich-Ranicki

In the last post I did a ‘micro-review’ of Philip Henderson’s wonderful little book ‘Literature’ from 1935. Likewise I hinted at plans to do some more micro-reviews of ‘1.50-dollar-books’, all from the February Dutch book-sale in the Heilig-Geist Church House in downtown Copenhagen.

Here we go then.

1. THE LITERARY CRITICS – A STUDY OF ENGLISH DESCRIPTIVE CRITICISM. By George Watson.
Penguin Books, England, 1962, 248p, paper-back in pocket-book format.

Here is another author (an 35-year old australian lecturing in Cambridge) that entices you with his semingly endless stock of knowledge about literature as well as of acute thinking and common sense.

Like nearly always I can only bring a few specimens, that has popped up more or less arbitrarily. From the first page of Chapter 9, ‘The Early Twentieth Century’ – and T.S.Eliot:

‘The question sounds eminently reasonable, but remains unanswerable: what is revolutionary in the criticism of T.S.Eliot? Everyone – except, apparently, Mr Eliot himself – can see that the critical tradition of the whole English-speaking world has been turned upside down by the trickle of articles and lectures – there has never, strictly, been a critical book – issuing from his pen since the First World War.

‘But the nature of Eliot’s influence as a critic has always been felt to be mysterious and indefinable. E.M.W.Tillyard, in his history of the Cambridge English School, has told how the essays in THE SACRED WOOD (1920), when they first appeared, ‘made me uncomfortable, and I knew they could not be ignored’.

‘Disciples – even enemies – have hardly succeded in identifying what is new and special in Eliot’s criticism, though they have been loud in praise and censure. The most discreet of major English critics, he has practised evasion and reticence with determined skill.

‘In his earliest period, positions are tentatively stated and argument disarmed by a certain irony; in his middle years, argument is openly spurned; and in the later years, since the Second World War, he has elaborately pretended never to have been a major critic at all.

‘Altogether, his critical career might have been planned as a vast hoax to tempt the historian into solemnities for the sport of the Philistines.

‘The key to Eliot’s reticence as a critic surely lies in the relationship betwen his criticism and his poetry. In a sence, his criticism is a smoke-screen to the rest of his career.

‘It misleads as much as it reveals about the quality of his poems, and the smoke-screen grows thicker as the years pass. By the 1950s Eliot’s determination to hide himself from the devotees of his poetry by means of critical red-herrings had grown so obvious as to suggest a motive: the intense love of privacy, perhaps, of a fastidious New Englander whose poetry has led him into the indignity of spiritual self-exposure.

‘We fear something of the kind as early as a Harvard lecture of 1932, where he attempted to disarm analysis of ASH-WEDNESDAY (1930), a poem intimately tracking the path of a religious conversion, by suggesting the addition to the poem of a Byronic motto:

“But the fact is that i have nothing planned,
“Except perhaps to be a moment merry…

‘The mask of the sage slips as such moments of embarrassing whimsy, to reveal the face of injured piety.’

From Eliot we move back in time a bit to Matthew Arnold, who has all of Chapter 7 dedicated to him, twenty pages in all. On page 160f we read:

‘A historical estimate of Arnold must always conclude him to have been the most influential force among the Victorian critics. But there seems no good reason now for accepting his claims to greatness as a critic.

‘Those who see civilization as a cause rather than a condition of mind will always be attracted to this most insistent and eloquent of its advocates. But to enjoin and encourage men to be critical is no more like being a good critic oneself than to urge men to be good is to be a serious contributor to the study of ethics.

‘Those who see in Arnold’s essays evidence of a major critical intelligence should set themselves to consider the following objections. Where, first, in the entire corpus of Arnold’s criticism, do we see ‘the great critical effort’ at work upon any English text – upon a single play of Shakespeare or poem of Milton, Wordsworth, or Keats?

‘The admirers of Johnson, Coleridge, even Hazlitt, can point to demonstrations of critical finesse. The admirer of Arnold’s criticism has to accept the word for the deed. Again, to seek out and advocate the best is not only hopelessly question-begging: it is also hopelessly out of key with Arnold’s own achievement.

‘The ESSAYS IN CRITICISM and the Biblical reinterpretations are not even remotely disinterested. They are works of passionate partisanship by a skilful, urbane, not always candid controversialist with a zest for opposition. Their virtues, which are considerable, are essentially polemical.

‘If Arnold had seriously tried to be ‘disinterested’, his career as a critic would not have happened at all. And it is no defence to argue that Arnold’s passionate partisanship is all in favour of such désintéressement.

‘There are Arnoldian values clearly implicit in his preference for French civilization over English, Joubert over Coleridge, Renan over St Paul, Wordsworth over Shelley, and Goethe over both. Those who cannot see such values as especially and distinctively Arnoldian disqualify themselves by their very discipleship from the task of judicious appraisal.

‘More than that, there is no coherent theory of poetry in Arnold’s criticism. This might not matter very much if, as in Johnson, a certain incoherence of ideas were compensated for by vigorous critical demonstration. As it is, Arnold’s notion of a poetry purged, like religion, of fact and dealing in analogical truths is explored in vacuous and tautological language.

‘For a critc who enjoyed the benefits of a public career, and who spent a dozen years in writing essays on religious and social questions, arnold is culpably vague concerning the proper subject of poetry. The 1853 preface is free with advice to poets to be ‘particular, precise, and firm’ – about what?

‘Arnolds own answer, in this first of his critical essays, is as ‘general, indeterminate, and faint’ as could well be. The true subject of poetry, he claims, is ‘an excellent action’ appealing to ‘the great primary human affections’.

‘This account, surprisingly, is never enlarged upon in the religious essays, though an image of perfection emerges in the ‘sweetly reasonable’ Jesus of LITERATURE AND DOGMA (1873), a figure that combines the virtues of a liberal Protestantism with the Hellenist ethos of Rugby School.

‘It may be – and reference to the poems would, on the whole, support this claim – that an action is ‘excellent’ to the extent that it recommends such values as loyalty and openmindedness. But, given Arnold’s generous use of such terms as ‘good’, ‘true’, ‘sound’, and ‘sweet’, it is hardly fairminded of him to leave us so profoundly in the dark concerning the nature of light.

‘The deep voids and gaping incongruities of Arnoldian criticism are so evident that they call for explanation rather than analysis. It is well worth asking how it happened: Arnold remains in most respects the most seductive of the great Victorian pundits, more variously and wittily intelligent than those great juggernauts Ruskin and Carlyle. He is almost never dull. And the vast contradictions that underlie his programme for the poetry and the civilization of England do not in any way dimish its fascination’.

Finally a few samples from

2. ÜBER RUHESTÖRER – JUDEN IN DER DEUTSCHEN LITERATUR. By Marcel Reich-Ranicki. 1973, Piper, München. 103 p., paper-back in pocket-book format.

Firstly a bit about the author (p.99):

‘Marcel Reich-Ranicki wurde am 2. Juni 1920 in Wloclawek an der Weichsel geboren. Sein Vater stammte aus Polen, seine Mutter aus Deutschland. Ab 1929 wohnte die Familie in Berlin. Im Herbst 1938, kurz nach dem Abitur am Berliner Fichte-Gymnasium, wurde Reich-Ranicki nach Polen deportiert. Von 1940 bis 1943 lebte er im Warschauer Getto, spaeter – nach der Flucht aus dem Getto – illegal ebenfals in Warschau.

‘Seine literarische Arbeit begann nach dem Krieg in Polen. Zunaechst als Verlagslektor taetig, war er ab 1951 freier Schriftsteller in Warschau. Anfang 1953 wurde gegen ihn aus politischen Gruenden ein generelles Publikationsverbot erlassen, das bis Mitte 1954 in Kraft blieb….

‘Im Jahre 1958 siedelte Reich-Ranicki nach der Bundesrepublik um. Er wohnt seit 1959 in Hamburg. Nachdem er zuerst fuer die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung und Die Welt gearbeitet hatte, ist er seit 1960 staendiger Literaturkritiker der Wochenzeitung Die Zeit.

‘Ausserdem veroeffentlichte er Essays in den Zeitschiften Neue Rundschau, Der Monat, Merkur und Neue Deutsche Hefte sowie in zahlreichen Sammelbanden. Seine Arbeiten sind auch in englischer, franzoesicher, italienischer, daenischer, japanischer und hebraeischer Uebersetzung erschienen. Er war von 1965 bis 1972 Mitarbeiter der Encyclopaedia Britannica.’

Here are two small specimens from Kapitel 1. ‘AUSSENSEITER UND PROVOKATEURE’ (p.13f/p.15):

‘Von Heine stammt das Bonmot: “Die Juden, wenn sie gut, sind sie besser als die Christen, wenn sie schlecht, sind sie schlimmer -“. Das mag eine hoechst fragfuerdige Verallgemeinerung sein; worauf sie aber letzlich abzielt, ist so abwegig nicht.

‘Denn Heine duerfte nichts anderes gemeint haben als die beruehmte und beruechtigte Intensitaet der juden, ihre bisweilen verblueffende und sogar als erschreckend empfundene Radikalitaet, ihre Neigung zur Kompromisslosigkeit und ihren gelegentlich bewunderten und haeufig missbilligten Hang zum Extremismus. Nur dass alle diese Eigenheiten und Tendenzen wohl eher im Intellektuellen und im Aesthetischen zum Vorschein kamen und kommen als in dem Bereich des Moralischen, auf den Heine offenbar anspielte.’

And from page 21:

“In den Jugendjahren eines jeden deutschen Juden gibt es einen schmerzlichen Augenblick, an den er sich zeitlebens erinnert: wenn im zum ersten Male voll bewusst wird, dass er als Buerger zweiter Klasse in die Welt getreten ist, und dass keine Tuechtigkeit und kein Verdienst ihn aus dieser Lage befreien kann”

‘Auch wenn der deutsche Jude, der diese Worte schrieb, mitnichten ein Buerger zweiter Klasse geblieben ist – es handelt sich um Walther Rathenau, den Reichsaussenminister, der freilich 1922, wenige Monate nach seiner Ernennung, ermordet wurde -, scheint mir seine Aeusserung hoechst aufschlussreich, denn sie akzentuert ohne Umschweife die psychischen Voraussetzungen, die in einem grossen Teil der von Juden stammenden deutschen Literatur ihre direkte und, haeufiger noch, indirekte Widerspiegelung gefunden haben.’

It’s a pleasure to read the crystal clear german of Mr Reich-Ranicki. Only a modern reader might perhaps have wished for a slightly less lopsided treatment of difficulties of the Jews in Europe through the ages; it generally seems that Mr Reich-Ranicki honestly believes these difficulties emanates solely from the Europeans and never from the Jews themselves?

In the next post I’ll endeavour to manage a few more books/booklets acquired at the February-sale.

(12.Mar.2019)

Crossposted on http://www.gamleboeger.dk and https://blocnotesimma.wordpress.com

Tweets on http://www.twitter.com/gamleboeger

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