There are a few true intellectual avant-gardes around at the moment. By “true intellectual avant-garde” I do not merely mean ‘those who are politically in the right’ about covidolatry, climatology and paraponology (parapono = grievance in Greek, I am told): UnHerdsmen and Spikistas may be allies, but they are not authorities. I mean those who could be involved in trying to think through where the fully mediated and globalised human world is nowadays.
There are probably two such avant-gardes. The first everyone knows about. It is the world of ‘true science’, or, in Eric Weinstein’s terms – Weinstein being one of the leading proponents of it – “great science” as opposed to merely “good science”. Good science is the acceptable side of established science: the science of operating within a given paradigm. (There is a bad side of established science, too, which is pursuing established incentive structures in order to maintain a comfortable existence within the system.) Great science, and this is my definition rather than Weinstein’s, is the science which is not particularly concerned with given paradigms, since it is the more fundamental science of subjecting paradigms to criticism, of breaking through boundaries, of asking the question which one is strictly forbidden to ask. When one exists within an established paradigm one is not meant to ask questions which subvert the paradigm. But there is a higher sort of science which – as everyone has known since Thomas Kuhn gave us the term ‘paradigm’ in the 1960s – realises that any given paradigm (Aristotle’s, Galen’s, Newton’s, Gauss’s, Darwin’s, Maxwell’s, Hilbert’s, Heisenberg’s) is no more than one possible plausible pattern among many.
The second true intellectual avant-garde is in a far worse state than the scientific one. It is in a worse state because the high prestige of science, and the high attainments of some scientists, and the fact that the very greatest scientists exist way beyond our comprehension, preserve science from the lower criticism and from political subversion (to some extent). The second genuine intellectual avant-garde is not to be found in history or philosophy – even though I continue to think that history and philosophy are the two fundamental forms of human understanding. The second genuine intellectual avant-garde – abandoned and neglected and misunderstood though it is – is to be found in criticism, and specifically, literary criticism.
(I am not going to write about Jordan Peterson here since, at the moment, I consider him to be an ‘ally’ rather than an ‘authority’: he is really just an enterprising former scientist of great forensic power, presence of mind and oratorical skill, who has been provoked by Jung into thinking himself into essentially literary or religious categories. I would say that he speaks so well to our age because of his honest amateurism – the term ‘amateur’, I hope, being taken in Chesterton’s good sense, and not the standard derogatory sense.)
I studied history at university. Like most historians, I rather despised ‘English’: then, quite possibly rightly, de facto, given the state of English in the universities, though now, obviously, wrongly, de jure, given what I have learnt since then about our traditions of criticism. At Cambridge I went to a few lectures by English professors. I remember John Lennard having a brisk and breezy style which was unattractive; and I remember the renowned but bizarre poet J.H. Prynne, famous for his black suit and orange tie, speaking about Wordsworth while an open window flapped threateningly (in Coleridge’s sense, imaginatively) while we listened. What I did not know then, but what I know now, is that Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode and others in the 1960s and 1970s had engineered a major substitution by which proper criticism of literature was replaced by pretence and attitude. Pretence and attitude had wings in the 1970s: but by the 1990s the wax had melted, and the fallen infested feathers had smothered ‘English’ into being a sad subspecies of cultural studies. Read most works of literary criticism and you will find pedantry and small observation about small things that were some of the side concerns of Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, William Faulkner etc, decorated with obscure blarney from the likes of Bataille, Bakhtin and Benjamin, Levinas and Lacan – but not Leavis.
Almost everyone by the 1970s in universities was opposed to the ‘great tradition’ of F.R. Leavis. Now, Leavis was a controversial figure: he had a sectarian spirit, and an almost entirely justified sense of conspiracy. I say ‘almost entirely’ because he exaggerated everything and made it personal in a way that confounded his enterprise: but I say ‘entirely justified’ because he was right. There was a conspiracy. By the time he was conscious of the direction of his particular civilisation, in the 1940s and 1950s, he had realised that there was a genuine tradition of criticism which had to be defended, and that it should probably be defended by the modern university, and that though this should happen it was not happening, because the modern university was accepting the emoluments of the state in order to turn criticism into career advancement and a broad and bland genuflective atmosphere of support for the world that was emerging out of the National Health Service, the Arts Council, the Old Vic theatre, Encounter magazine and the BBC. This was a guilty, pompous, rancorous, psychedelic world in which there was no enemy to the soft left.
F.R. Leavis tried to simplify his critical protocols so that they could not be misunderstood. He reduced everything to an ideal exchange, in which Person A would say, ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ and Person B would say, ‘Yes, but’. Now, we may laugh at this, and many did laugh at it, and deride it: but there is no question that it was by this formula that F.R. Leavis hoped to stop the rot of modern civilisation: and stop that rot through critical consideration. He took modern civilisation to be – in an important but also derided phrase – ‘technologico-Benthamite’ civilisation. This meant, simply, that we lived in what Thomas Carlyle had identified as early as 1829 (in his ‘Signs of the Times’) as being a mechanical civilisation, in an age of mechanism. Leavis blamed Jeremy Bentham, and, interestingly, he did so because he found that in the late 1830s John Stuart Mill, who had been raised a Benthamite, had realised that there was now a fundamental rift running through the world which meant that it could not be understood only in Benthamite terms. Bentham was the philosopher of utility, of uses, of instruments, of codification: a remarkably penetrating but limited thinker. He was, in that regard, typically scientific. His entire philosophy was based on models. He was the natural godfather of Neil Ferguson. Mill, who had undergone a ‘mental crisis’ in the late 1820s when he realised that Benthamism was limited, had attempted to supplement his own philosophical impoverishment by reading the poetry of Wordsworth and the writings of Coleridge. His essays on Bentham and Coleridge remain fundamental works for seeing the rift in our civilisation. Leavis saw this in the 1950s – he put together an edition of Mill on Bentham and Coleridge.
Leavis admired Eliot. They both admired Matthew Arnold. Arnold and Mill owed much to Coleridge and Carlyle, among others. Coleridge and Carlyle owed much to the example of Johnson: compiler of the remarkable Dictionary, commentator on Shakespeare, writer of Lives of the Poets. There was, between Johnson in the eighteenth century and Leavis in the twentieth, a genuine intellectual avant-garde, which attempted to think about life in full, about the world in full, by avoiding a retreat to scientific narrowness and exclusion. Science was, and is, based on simplicity, on Ockham’s razor, on limited assumptions, on elegance: in other words, it depends on leaving a great deal out of its philosophy. Coleridge, more than any one else, attempted, in the 1810s and 1820s, to restore everything that was being left out by looking at language and literature.
It is a critical sense of a restored whole world which lies behind some of the most interesting suggestions made by these ancestral critics. We find some embedded in phrases probably only now known to those who study English literature. But phrases like Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’, Keats’s ‘negative capability’, Arnold’s ‘function of criticism’, Johnson’s ‘discordia concors’, Coleridge’s ‘imagination’ – these should be known to everyone. And, despite the dullening Kermodes and Eagletons of the 1970s and the absolutely disastrous Derridas of the 1980s, there were some exceptional scholars in the last half century or so who wrote remarkable literary criticism under the banner of English literature, or sometimes European literature: literary criticism which managed to be subtle but also penetrating: and which, though contributions to mere ‘English’ or mere ‘Literature’ on the face of it, managed to be historically conscious and philosophically adept at the same time.
It is rare for anyone to successfully combine history and philosophy. The people who call themselves historians and philosophers hardly ever succeed. But amongst the critics, there was, for instance, Ian Robinson, who wrote remarkable books about the history and significance of the sentence, as well as the structure of English prosody. Have you ever stopped to consider that all modern prose, especially scientific prose, is written in sentences – and not interminable and often incomprehensible medieval periods? This is not a trivial observation. There was A.D. Nuttall, who wrote about the shift in consciousness which meant that ‘science’ and ‘experience’ had been bitter enemies ever since Hume. Have you ever considered that modern ‘science’ is (as signified by the dread word ‘experiment’) by definition, a delimitation of experience? Then there was Stephen Prickett, who attempted to recover Coleridge’s insistence that our making sense of the world could not be about the impact of the world on a passive mind or the impact of the mind on a passive world, since it was a complicated continual interrelation of active mind and active world. There was Thomas MacFarland, also fascinated by Coleridge, who attempted to get beyond Auerbach’s suggestion that art was about mimesis (the representation of what is there) by suggesting that art was also meontic (the representation of what isn’t there). And, finally, there was Rene Girard, who combined anthropology with literature to suggest that our civilisation was still so disastrously committed to the ritual sacrifice of scapegoats (Israeli, Gazan, etc.) as to suggest that no one had ever understood the significance of Christ on the cross.
This may all sound obscure. It is, at first glance. But I mention these names in order to suggest that between 1950 and 1980 or so there was a genuine intellectual avant-garde which was engaging in real criticism – not the false consciousness criticism of the Marxists who dragged everything into a world of grim incantatory theory. By ‘real criticism’, I mean criticism which operated more clearly than even the greatest scientists were capable of doing on the presuppositions of the scientific paradigm itself: and on the bastard son of the scientific paradigm, the instrumental-technological-utilitarian-statistical paradigm so beloved of both public government and private corporation. Criticism which could then also say: ‘Look! Nothing good can be said using language like this!’
There are not many causes for hope. Historians are narrow and confined. Philosophers are in orbit. Critics are mostly worthless. But there is a tradition of critical thinking, which was recently there, and which is still to be found in the books, which connects us through recent writers to the reflective critics like Eliot and Arnold, to original critics like Coleridge and Johnson, and to poets like Wordsworth, Milton and Shakespeare who thought, no matter what we narrowly think about them, that there was a world to be understood in its entirety, and that mere ‘science’ was not even the beginning of a way to do this.
If you do not believe me, try reading Robinson’s The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Nuttall’s A Common Sky, MacFarland’s Romanticism and Ruin, Prickett’s Narrative, Religion and Science or Girard’s The Scapegoat. This is as grand and fundamental a literature as any we have in our time. And I would take their cumulative critical insight to be that one can tell from one’s language and literature – meaning not only that of the individual author but also that of the entire culture – whether or not we are in possession of wisdom, truth or good order.
It may be that we are not. But the significance of criticism is that as soon as we hear a critic say, ‘We are not’, then this strange and remarkable sound can itself be taken to be evidence that, despite everything, we are.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.