The Breaker’s Yard (Or Is It The Knacker’s?)

Introductory Note

Mr Maskell’s essay, which appears here by kind permission of the author together with another piece of his, was first published in The Gadfly [1] in response to letters from Mr Jeremy Tambling and Mr J.R. Haddon that appeared in the correspondence columns of that journal. The letters cannot be reproduced for copyright reasons: interested readers can look them up, but the essay is self-explanatory and capable of standing alone. Although written some three decades ago, its relevance is undiminished, as the state of English letters it reveals persists today, in an even more advanced form. The denial of a ‘common experience of literature’ that Mr Maskell cogently opposes is an expression of the pervasive disbelief in ‘the reality of prescriptive values that are the foundation of any worthwhile criticism’ [2] which informs the contemporary literary scene and accounts for its extreme sterility and barrenness.

Richard Stotesbury


                                                                     Duke Maskell


Mr Tambling and Mr Haddon are agreed [3] that what Mr Robinson said of Mr Tambling in a previous issue of The Gadfly, that he wasn’t serious, is true of both Mr Robinson and me; of Mr Robinson because he wouldn’t answer Mr Tambling at all, of me be­cause my answer, being mere ridicule, was unrecognisable as a rebuttal. Mr Haddon didn’t say what stopped my ridicule being a rebuttal (though he did say it was tiresome) but what he would accept as a rebuttal was plain enough from other expressions as­sociated with “rebuttal”—“point by point argument”, “out in the open”, “points” not “being ducked”, “position”, “work it out”, “truly validated”, “elucidation, redefinition”. A rebuttal, that is, is to be found in the discursive, the explicit and the propositional, in “consecutive reasoning”, in, as he says, “point-by-point argument” and a rebuttal is the thing we always want. Now, Mr Haddon might, abiding by his own prin­ciple, have said why, but he didn’t. He made no attempt to argue, point by point, that my ridicule wasn’t (as I thought it was) a point by point rebuttal (presenting, perspicuously, what was ridiculous in Mr Tambling’s original letter), and he made no attempt, either, to argue that if someone wants to contest with you, you must contend or lose. He thought it enough, in respect of this, his widest point, to suggest in a simile (that is, not out in the open) that in not arguing with Mr Tambling, Mr Robinson and I were to him what C. P. Snow was to Leavis (not a kind remark). And he thought his simile argument enough, something which, you’d have thought, he’d think as argument no better than ridicule. Mr Haddon, in fact, doesn’t—rightly doesn’t—practise what he preaches. He knows, apparently, more ways to argue than he can tell. But who would want to convict him of a lack of seriousness? Except, that is, in this one respect, in his telling Mr Robinson and me how to do it, and then doing it differently himself? If someone is as Snow to Leavis here, isn’t it Mr Haddon himself, and Mr Tambling, who found me witty but in my wit nothing to contest, both unable to recognise as argument what isn’t analytical and polite? Unable to recognise as an argument either ridicule or a refusal to argue? And unable to recognise as possibly no argument at all whatever is delivered in the tone of voice of the reasonable man arguing? All the same, one may argue by argument, point by point, and I shall try to now.

Mr Robinson calls literature “irreducible”, and Mr Tambling calls that a mystifcation. I think it would have been truer to the facts if Mr Tambling had said just that he was mystified, because I’m not. The sense in which literature is, and the senses in which it is not, “irreducible”, are plain enough.

Literature is not irreducible in the sense that it is above crit­icism or in the sense that it is indestructible. As to the first, criticism is native to literature and is literature’s natural element. Criticism in literature of men and manners belongs there as something without which literature wouldn’t be itself. As crit­icism of style it is nine-tenths of criticism formally so called. The two best critics of style in the language are Dickens and Shakespeare; Dickens and Shakespeare, that is, are the two best critics in the language. Wordsworth’s best criticism of poetic diction is in his poetry not his “Preface”, Lawrence’s best criticism of Hardy in The Rainbow. Literature is critical not by accident or choice but by nature. “What are things worth? What to live by? How to speak?” are its own questions belong­ing to its own original impulse. An uncritical literature is a contradiction in terms. How then could literature, itself so crit­ical, the best of criticism, be above criticism, too good for it?

As to literature’s being indestructible, how, depending on criticism as it does, could it be? It has to be discovered by crit­icism (it is discovered when criticism recognises itself in it—that’s what it is for literature to be recognised as itself and not another thing). But what is found may be lost. Literature, as real and indubitable as it is, isn’t real as the paper it is printed on is real (it has that in common with money). It exists as literature only for those who are capable of reading it as such. It exists as literature, that is, only for criticism. The idea of something’s being “literature” and to be read as such and not in some other way, comes into existence and passes out of existence with crit­icism. Stories, in prose or verse, without criticism, there may very well be, of course, but not as literature. Literature lasts as long as criticism but not longer.

So, of course, literature is subject to criticism—by the law of its own nature; and of course it may pass away and be lost to us.

And, further, from any other standpoint than that of criticism, literature is only too reducible, nothing but a conjuring trick or the flats of a film-set. Find some other standpoint than that of criticism—Deconstruction? Marxism? Feminism?—and—hey presto!—the living, breathing rabbit becomes a flurry of paper flags. But, for criticism, literature is an indispensable assumption. For although, as an idea it is the creation of criticism, and thus might seem merely criticism’s creature (as easily returned to the top hat as pulled out of it) it is also the source of the standards criticism thinks and judges by. It is the origin and it is the measure of criticism. Where else but in literature does criticism find the measure by which it recognises literature? How does it know the lesser from the greater in literature except by the light literature itself gives it? How does it know itself except by the place it holds within literature? Literature is the body of writing which, as the measure of all writing, makes up the ground of criticism, the ground which, in viewing from, it cannot view, what it cannot see round the back of or through. Criticism sees liter­ature but it cannot doubt what it sees, not without doubting itself. To weigh the earth Archimedes had to have something to stand on. What criticism stands on is literature. Literature is its vantage point, or legs. For criticism to doubt literature—not, of course, for it to doubt merely the claims of some particular piece of writing to be lit­erature but to doubt literature as such, the reality of the idea—is for it to doubt the very ground it stands on. In doubting that it has itself a standard to judge by, it doubts what alone makes itself possible. In thinking that any writing may be got round the back of, seen from behind as a deception, “ideology”, it brings itself into doubt too. In treating meaning as, in principle, some­thing not found in words, by a reader, but projected upon them by an interpreter, it does indeed deconstruct it. Unfortunately for it, it deconstructs itself too. Its own meaning becomes not what it says but what someone else says of it. Meaning, except as symptom, and available for diagnosis, is extinguished every­where, including, of course, here and now, at the moment of saying so, at any moment at which so—or anything else—is said. (And in the general wreck of meaning is lost of course that handy, that indispensable distinction between those words whose mean­ing may be contemplated and those whose meaning may only be diagnosed, words, that is, which, like Mr Tambling’s, it is always permissible and often right to ignore, or ridicule.) In its anxiety not to be duped by the apparent solidity of the ground under its feet, criticism cuts off its own legs. Not to be deceived by mirages, it puts out its own eyes. And then with its tongue cries out that speech is an illusion and that whatever isn’t a deaf, dumb, blind, immobile trunk is in a state of mystification!

Literature and criticism are both irreducible, but only in one another’s eye. Each presupposes the other, each depends on the other. The fate of one is the fate of both. Literature may be reduced, but when it is, when all stories, poems, plays, essays, return to their primal or abstract state of undifferentiated texts, criticism is levelled too. The real mystification is criticism’s dream of self-sufficiency: to imagine that, without literature, it remains in existence itself (as anything but a comfortable, salaried trade practised under the ideology of the civil servant).

And this is Mr Tambling’s delusion, that he may dispense with literature without dispensing with criticism (without litera­ture and criticism alike dispensing with him). How sturdily he refuses to idealise literature, and how he idealises the debate about it!—including both his own letter in which he reports his “candid reaction”, his “comment”, “readings” and “argu­ment” and the “points”, “explanations”, “clarifications” he gets, hopes to get and is disappointed by not getting in reply. He is much too sophisticated and open-minded a man to be taken in by so tendentious, so disputed a term as literature. What he puts his trust in are “studies . . . reviews . . . account . . . lecture . . . discussion . . . awareness . . . positions . . . decision . . . compre­hension . . . serious attention . . . deal with arguments . . . hear out properly . . . lay stress on . . . see that an ideology is involved . . . come to terms with Eagleton’s book . . . Derridean terms . . . Benjamin’s terms . . . what Benjamin does . . . theme . . . subject . . . text . . . the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction . . . ideas . . . and . . . theories”. Not in literature, no, instead, the stale, deracinated, mind-labouring “debate” about it, what is left of criticism after it has dispensed with literature. Mr Tambling has seen through literature, what he hasn’t seen through is the C.N.A.A. working party on it. He doesn’t idealise literature, what he idealises is himself talking about it, after he has lost interest in it as anything but something to talk about.

And this talk of his isn’t criticism either. The literary genre his two letters belong to isn’t criticism but salaried, tertiary-level pedagogy, criticism’s rival.

Criticism, that is, criticism proper, the branch of letters, is an extension—correcting and perfecting—of the criticism we all practise—can’t help practising, well or ill—in daily life. We weigh and judge as a matter of course, as something that couldn’t be more natural to us, as natural to speech as breath to lungs.

Our efforts to make sense of the life we live and our efforts to make sense of the books we read aren’t just continuous with one another; they are one and the same thing. To know someone critically, disinterestedly—oneself, say—is the epitome of crit­icism; to know a book, critically, is to know someone as the author of a book, as he might be the author of any act in his life. To be a good critic—of books or men—to know what things are worth—“to do our Hero-Worshipping aright” in Carlylean phrase—is, as the most worthwhile and the most difficult thing in the world, rare, but it is not to be or to do anything different in kind from what all men are and do (“ . . . these passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men . . . ”). It is to do rarely well what all men do, well or ill. Criticism is a discipline but it is a discipline of living. What could be more democratic, or less egalitarian? Good critics, of books and men, compose a natural aristocracy, an aristocracy open to all, and only doubtfully more open to those with breeding or schooling than to those without. Hamlet is such an aristocrat, and Marlow and Inspector Bucket. These three exemplify what it is to be a critic, showing us what criticism is, but none is paid a salary for doing so. And is someone who is, more likely to do it better than someone who isn’t? Are there more real critics among university and polytechnic lecturers than among detectives, seamen or princes? Does English literature suggest so? Or common sense? Or experience? Lawrence’s answer is final: “a man who is emotionally educated is as rare as a phoenix. The more scholastically educated a man is gen­erally, the more he is an emotional boor.”

In criticism, what one man says, another man, the common reader—or even the common non-reader—may judge. There are established standards of the most public kind for him to judge by. He judges by a standard embodied in a traditional practice—criticism as a branch of letters going back in England at least to Dryden—and (watching over and guiding that) in the universal criticism practised in common speech, what I practise—can’t help practising when I listen, perhaps despite myself, to one man attentively, even submissively, and turn away from another in disgust. Criticism is a part of literature and a part of common life (as structuralism is part of neither). It isn’t an academic activity but it is something the academy can’t do without and it is what university English departments were established for; it was what was established as their business and their virtue.

But Mr Tambling wants to change all that. According to him, literary theory has found out that the authority of literature, which until now seemed absolute, even over theory (especially over theory) is just a conjuror’s—or confidence—trick. Theory has read between the lines of literature and found ideology there, not only, of course, in stories, poems and plays, but in criticism too. Theory has found out that what seemed to be doubly authoritative, as a branch of letters and the perfection of con­versation, no mere type, mode or kind of criticism but the thing itself, is just a type, mode or kind after all, one thing among many, merely, parochially, “the English school”, but with no special authority even in England; not a natural phenomenon and therefore—what else?—ideological, serving someone’s interest, not the English interest though, only an English interest, of a party, partisan—ideological.

But reading between the lines is a game two can play. If ideo­logy is a term capable of knocking literature and criticism off their high horse, it is certainly one that prevents theory mounting it in their place (unless, of course—could it be?—that theory is “scientific”, that is, unavailable for judgement?) What, after all, we may ask, is the ideology of a theory of ideologies? What is the purpose of—I mean whose interest is served by—a “theory” that authority is to be found nowhere but the theories that say so? Who profits?

If Mr Tambling has his way (and could he, we may also ask, if universities and polytechnics didn’t exist as they do at present, if the government did with “English” what it has done with tele­phones?), literary criticism (a phrase in which, really, the ad­jective is redundant) will be replaced by literary theory (a phrase in which it isn’t), the humane study of literature will be ab­sorbed and replaced by structuralism or something like it just as the humane study of language has been absorbed and replaced by linguistics (“There’s a proper discipline for the study of language—it’s called linguistics. Teach your students that” said Mr Christopher Ball, then chairman of a little C.N.A.A. working party, now chairman of the biggest one of all). University Eng­lish will then become what it has never been and was never meant to be, a thorough-going academic specialism, a properly pro­fessional affair (like linguistics), subject to no rule or standard but its own (that is what it is to be professional), the private property of a state-paid few, having in common not qualities of character and intelligence but qualifications, having in common as the main thing in common, the job (and salary). An elite to be sure but no more an aristocracy than the KGB. And thus would be established the New New Criticism, the criticism that can’t be criticised—except from within, by some form of words which is just another form of itself, assuming and confirming its own legitimacy, not criticism at all but state-paid pedagoguery, a new totalitarianism; and practised under whose ideology? The pedagogues’. Thus criticism—that property we have until now held in common, as a branch of letters and the perfection of conversation—would be appropriated, enclosed.

And the probability—amounting to certainty—is that, within the universities and polytechnics at any rate, this new enclosure movement will be as successful as the old: these commons will go too. For, within the universities and polytechnics, colleges of higher education and teacher training, in whose interest is it to protect them? Here, the enclosers are the very people who hold the commons in trust. And, because of a certain peculiarity of employment in the academy, their power over what they hold in trust is absolute. In the academy (it is a necessary condition of there being an academy but, if outsiders knew of it, it would astonish them all the same), it is the employees who decide their most important condition of service (more important even than their pay): what they are paid for. A country makes up its mind to pay such and such a number of people to do “Physics” or “English” and then leaves it to them to decide what “Physics” and “English” are. They agree among themselves, that is, what they’ll do for their pay (in lots of ways, working in the academy isn’t like having a job at all—in other ways, it’s like it only too much). And they are perfectly free, of course, to change their minds. It being the assumption the academy is founded on that only those working within each of its fields are competent to judge what work should be done in it, if they decide to grow, instead of good wheat and barley, the intellect­ual equivalent of dandelion and burdock, there is no one to pre­vent them; and if they proclaim it a great and wonderful revo­lution in farming methods—a “move ahead” as Mr Tambling calls it—there is no one to deny it For it is the great and wonderful assumption of this agricultural system that it is the farmer alone who is competent to judge the worth of his produce. As if you had to be a farmer to have a mouth, taste buds and a digestive system (and then, what have farmers for?)

How can the enclosure fail when the only class of men in a position to prevent it is the very class of men to profit from its success?

What structuralism, and post-structuralism, deconstructionism, Marxism, Feminism—all the -isms in “English” that have it in common that they deny the authority of tradition—mean, as a collective act—in praxis?—their subtext?—is that a body of men which is unfit for what it ought to do, prefers to do what it can, and has the nerve to think itself the sole judge of the worth of what it does. Why does a salaried pedagogue prefer pedagoguery to criticism? Why do haberdashers have broad thumbs, and butchers heavy ones?

Why then does the salaried pedagogue deny that literature speaks to common experience? Because he must. It’s a require­ment of his ideology, that is, of his interest. Does Mr Tambling deny that we have a common experience of literature? Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

But if there really were no common experience to be appealed to—for literature to appeal to and for us to appeal to in speaking of it—as Mr Robinson, in his naiveté, thinks there is—what sense would literature or anything else have? Mr Tambling praises Leavis (praise be he never praises me) for making litera­ture part of his own life, and adds redundantly (but nevertheless as though he were squaring up to someone) “but his own life was a particular thing” (as if the man he’s squaring up to thinks someone else might have lived it for him). Well, yes, it was his—not mine or yours or anyone else’s (not even his wife’s)—but how could it have been without his partaking in ours? How could it have been a human life (how could it have been a monkey life) without it being a shared life? Without sharing ex­perience with the rest of us and the sense to be made of that experience, the sense that makes the experience what it is? Was the language Leavis spoke his own particular thing too? Without having a language in common with Leavis (and, in that way, experience too) how could Mr Tambling know what was and what wasn’t worth admiring in him? The particular thing we each of us are only exists by virtue of the general things we share. It is the common life that makes the individual life—“the particular thing”—possible. Take away common life—take away language and everything that belongs to it, is made possible by it and is kin to it—and you don’t make individual life more distinct and more secure, you obliterate it. It is Bradley’s word that is final here: “the individual apart from the com­munity is an abstraction. It is not anything real . . . .” [4].

Mr Tambling, from anything I can see in his letter—perhaps there is more there than I can see—hasn’t started to think about the question, hasn’t started to think, that is, about the sense his own words make (so, goodness knows why he thinks he’s in a position to tell anyone else what they should be thinking about). He may admire Leavis. I can’t see any sign that he has understood him.

One thing Mr Tambling is right about though—it’s what makes him crow so confidently (he’s got news for us): that that common experience, which is also a tradition of thought and without which a literature and criticism can’t exist at all, can, from now on, be less and less relied on. When he reports that what Mr Robinson calls “common” is something which, in fact, fewer and fewer can any longer, as he puts it, “somehow latch on to” or make sense of, why should anyone doubt it? Who should know better than such as himself? As a kind of rude and stupid fact, that for fewer and fewer people is literature a con­stituent part of themselves, an aspect of their own natures, and for more and more something merely external, to be manipulated this way and that—to theorise over, earn a living or a promotion by—it is no doubt true (though it doesn’t make me want to crow). And Mr Robinson and I know it no less well than Mr Tambling, I think. What, after all, is The Gadfly and was The Human World and The Haltwhistle Quarterly but our effort (with David Sims and Robert Marchant and Brian Lee and others) to master the fact? For either we master it or it masters us.

And so, it seems to us, it has mastered Mr Tambling, mastered him and made him part of itself, absorbed him. That’s what his triumph means: Are university English departments now staffed by people not brought up on something like Cambridge English as it was? Then good! By people who haven’t read their Arnold? Good! Arnold’s authority is gone? Good! Christianity’s is gone? Has literature gone? Has language? Meaning? The community? All gone? The authority gone of everything that we might call, in hendiadys, “Oxford and tra­dition of all that sort”? All gone or going, going, gone for good? (And only theory left behind?) Did you say all? Then Good! Good! Good! Help them on their way!

But, coming, myself, from Wapping (before it filled with emigrants from Hampstead) and from what, derisively, we ourselves called “Bugger’s ’ill” (’igh School, founded 1938, sold to the West Essex League of Muslims 1988) and Room 326, Lipman Building, Newcastle Polytechnic, and having as little in me of Oxford and Cambridge and “tradition of all that sort” as anyone might have who has ever had any hopes at all of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, I, un­like Mr Tambling, can’t rejoice in Oxford’s and Cambridge’s, or the Church of England’s, loss of authority as living centres of civilisation, in the loss of authority of everything Mr Tambling means to represent by those names. Proletarian of the proletariat, I still can’t rejoice in the proletarianising of thought Mr Tamb­ling rejoices in—a queer transformation of thought which, while detaching it from the life of the educated class it originated in, leaves it as remote as ever—more remote than ever—from the life of the proletariat (or of anyone else either). You can see that Leslie Stephen’s criticism or Maitland’s has its roots in, was just a natural part of, a whole way of life. What Deconstruction has its roots in isn’t a way of life but a job and a pay-cheque. And who does Mr Tambling take Mr Eagleton for (who does Mr Eagleton take himself for), Burns? Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Lawrence, Leavis are necessary to Oxford, Cambridge, Arnold and the Church of England (“otherwise culture becomes a form of anarchy”—Brian Crick, South Porcupine, Spring, ’85), but not as destroyers of or gloaters over them: as necessary to them, as belonging to them as parts of themselves, necessary to make them what they might be, their sustaining, correcting, befriend­ing Opposite. And the relation holds good the other way too. What becomes of Wapping—poor Wapping—without Oxford? Taken over by Hampstead, by the Veneerings of intellect and by Bradley Headstone with the animal finally snuffed out of him, a Bradley Headstone who, if he did run away to sea, would be the last man in the ship’s crew: Bradley Headstone tamed, Tambling.


Mr Tambling and Mr Haddon are both sure it must be wrong to dismiss Eagleton without properly hearing him out or to write as if Derrida had never existed. To see them off in dis­cussion is one thing, but to ignore them . . . ! I have not, as far as I know, ever read a word of Derrida’s, Foucault’s, Lacan’s, Benjamin’s or Eagleton’s and, though in the past I have read some Barthes and some more Williams (“ the boring Williams”), I never shall again. And, as sure as Mr Tambling and Mr Haddon are that I must therefore be in the wrong and condemn myself out of my own mouth, so I am just as sure that in the vast majority of anything like similar cases I must be and in these particular cases may be in the right. Without refusing to pay attention to what doesn’t promise to repay attention, thought cannot go ahead, in any sphere of life at all. You can’t give everyone a fair hearing, and it would be wrong to even if you could, for in that case we should all be spending all our time at the hearing—hearing things the vast majority of which are of no use to anybody, and hardly any one of which has anything to do either with one or with one another. Who would ever get any­thing done? The football manager could never get round to managing the team: he’d spend all his time giving the world and his son the trial Mr Tambling thinks he owes them. The whole scientific community would spend its time refereeing non­sense, with the consequence that not only would no science get done but that what science was would be forgotten. Bankers would spend their careers listening to tinkers make wishes and readers their leisure reading the unreadable. In every sphere of life, thought and more than thought would cease. On this matter too the final words have been said, by Michael Polanyi. Velikovsky’s astronomical theories, published in Worlds in Collision, were, he says,

condemned as utter nonsense by distinguished astronomers who frankly said that they had not read his book. He asked to be admitted to a public discussion of his views, and this was refused. He had concluded that the surface of Venus was hot and its atmosphere heavy with hydrocarbons and asked the Harvard Observatory to test this prediction; this was refused.

Even subsequent confirmation of the prediction did not succeed in getting discussion of the theory reopened: “it was rated as a curious coincidence. Authority prevailed against facts.”

But not, in Polanyi’s eyes, wrongly, for

A vital judgement practised in science is the assessment of plausibility. Only plausible ideas are taken up, discussed and tested by scientists . . . . Suppose then that Velikovsky’s claims were as implausible as the parallelism between periods of gestation and the number pi; or as implausible as Lord Rayleigh’s results published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society; or, again, as implausible as the chemical transformation of elements now appears to be—or that they were to appear even more absurd than these claims (all with “evid­ence” adducible in their favour)—then it would certainly correspond to the current custom of science to reject them at a glance unread and to refuse to discuss them publicly with the author. Indeed to drop one’s work in order to test some of Velikovsky’s claims, as requested by him, would appear a culpable waste of time, expense, and effort. . . .

This does not mean, of course, that scientists have always been right in so doing. I have myself suffered from the mis­take of such judgements . . . my theory of adsorption was disregarded for half a century because its presuppositions were contrary to the current views about the nature of inter-molecular forces, even though it has turned out that my theory was right. But I did not complain about this mis­taken exercise of authority. Hard cases make bad law. The kind of discipline which had gone wrong in my case was indispensable. Journals are bombarded with contributions offering fundamental discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology or medicine, most of which are nonsensical. Science cannot survive unless it can keep out such contributions and safeguard the basic soundness of its publications. This may lead to the neglect or even suppression of valuable contri­butions, but I think this risk is unavoidable. If it turned out that scientific discipline was keeping out a large number of important ideas, a relaxation of its severity might become necessary. But if this would lead to the intrusion of a great many bogus contributions, the situation could indeed become desperate. The pursuit of science can go on only so long as scientific judgements of plausibility are not too often badly mistaken. [5]

As it is with science, so it is with football and “English”, so it is with everything. If distinction and coherence are to be kept, in any sphere of life, we positively must not give a fair hearing to all who claim it, or, even, to all who claim it on another’s behalf. The rule is, and must be: Hear only the plausible, i.e. only when it might pay. So when Mr Tambling tells us we “should show some awareness of these contrary positions”, we ask whether he is able to make this judgement of his plausible: Does it look, from what he says about it—or what my Head of School, Head of Subject, Course Leader, External Examiner and External Advisor (we are much organised and leave nothing to chance) can find to say about it, which is much the same thing—that it will be worth our while? We are to doubt that a man is to be found in his own words (or in any other of his acts)? We are to doubt that we find Donne in his? Or Mr Tambling in his? We are to doubt that the words originate from a man at all or are justified, or not, by the man we find in them? We are to doubt that the words mean something definite or something whole (including incoherence and fragmentation, definite and complete)? We are to believe all this an illusion? A mirage? An atmosphere of the occult, the shadow thrown back by the epi­leptic fit to come, in Benjamin’s terms, “an aura”? We are to believe only in what can be “quantified, or explained”. We are to take seriously Mr Tambling’s recommendation of a book of which he goes out of his way to say, “I am making no judge­ment, note.” What does a recommendation that isn’t a judge­ment mean? What is it? How can I take it seriously or at all? How can I take seriously all this talk of “themes” and “studies” and “theories” and “accounts” and “lectures” and all the rest of it, the vade mecums on the one hand and the start-offs on the other, this man telling me that taking Derrida seriously will in­volve me in saying that to decide something is to make a decision—however unconscious? Who is the man in this style, telling me the style’s not the man? He does not wish to sound pedagogic. Who does? I wish not to every time I enter a classroom. But, for all my wishing, I often am. What is Mr Tambling, here, but a pedagogue? (There’s the question: What’s Derrida done for him? I don’t want it done to me. [6])

Of course, Mr Tambling may retort, I may find none of this worth my while, but I am not to him as the whole scientific community was to Velikovsky, not at all; and I am not even as the manager of a football team to a despised would-be scout (unless it be admitted that the team in question is an Accrington Stanley). In fact, it’s all the other way round. What I call cranky is no outsider-opinion—far from it—but a large and growing body of very respectable insider-opinion, world-wide and institutionalised. France helped make it. Yale has taken to it. The C.N.A.A. approves it. Appointments are made in it. The respectable and boring Williams is in it. Eagleton’s up to his eyebrows in it. Tambling touts for it. What more, in point of respectability, could anyone ask of it? M. Der­rida is to Respectable Opinion what Lady Dedlock was to the Fashionable Intelligence. Nothing is more professional than an interest in M. Derrida, nothing more respectable within the pro­fession than professionalism. As a colleague of mine said, “We must have him on our course because other people have him on theirs. It would be not-professional not to.” And, as another said, in tones expressive at once of support of him, opposition to me, and a willingness to sacrifice herself, “Courses aren’t like books.” From the viewpoint of Respectable Opinion it’s not Mr Tamb­ling who’s the crank. For this history has been adopted by both parties. Both read the Bible day and night, but where one reads black the other reads white.

And we, for our part, aren’t unappreciative of the irony that Respectable Opinion turns our argument against us, not in argu­ment but (showing a deeper grasp of our argument than we show ourselves) in practice. We say, “Ignore Derrida and Eagleton—they’re implausible” (and in saying so rather obviously fail to take our own advice; so much so in Eagleton’s case that not only have we not ignored him but, it is our boast, we have taken him more seriously than has anyone else in the world. [7] Respectable Opinion doesn’t waste its breath telling anyone to ignore us (would that it did!) It just ignores us—as implausible.

But (like Velikovsky?) Mr Robinson and I aren’t impressed at all to find a weight of respectable opinion against us. Partly, of course, like Quixote, we can see only what we can see. And all we can see is sheep, and windmills. But Quixote was, in the end, brought to doubt the evidence of his eyes, and, I suppose, so, in the end, could we. No doubt we, too, are capable of being brought to believe in this Dulcinea. But something prevents us. English letters have, unfortunately for the present-day respect­able opinion, a history, as well as a salariat to teach them. And an appeal may always be made from the present—the, as yet, short-lived present, in 1986, scarcely ten or twenty years old—to the past, to a past not less than three hundred years old and with a bit of life in it yet (it’ll see structuralism buried). And what today is respectable, by the standards of yesterday and all prior re­corded time is scandalous. And that gives one no small reason to hope that it may be scandalous again tomorrow. And to appeal from the present to the past is also to appeal, of course, from merely academic letters to English letters at large. Mr Tambling and Mr Eagleton set up for judges of English letters and of their place in English life; and so do Mr Robinson and I—but with an all-important difference—one which might seem to reflect an immodesty on our part but which actually reflects the reverse. Mr Robinson and I aspire to judge our letters from within them, as ourselves part—in our minor way—of them. Johnson and Coleridge are great figures in our letters, Maskell and Robinson are very small ones. But Maskell and Robinson do aspire to excel at what Johnson and Coleridge excelled at. To say so will have, to some eyes, the look of an immodesty, not to say a fantastic and foolish boast. But it is not a boast at all or touched by even the faintest trace of arrogance. On the contrary. To say so is only to claim that we write and think in and under exactly the same conditions that limit or compromise success as they did, that we enjoy no advantage over them of any sort whatsoever, possess no higher ground or vantage point from which to oversee them, than that which they give us. Or: as we judge them so are our strivings in judgement judged by them. Everyone may see then, what Maskell and Robinson are worth—by comparing them with Johnson and Coleridge. Where is the arrogance in that?

No, where the arrogance lies is in our argumentative oppon­ents, who count themselves no part of the letters they aspire to judge: who think, that is, that in writing “theory” not letters they may escape the conditions, history and personality, which simultaneously make thought possible and limit it. “Theory”, they persuade themselves, may judge letters without being judged in return (the cat may not only look at the Queen but depose her!) What a daydream, Envy’s land of Cockaigne! To think that the most ordinary of men, some mere ratiocinateur, paid by the month and with inflation-proof pension, may issue himself a set of steps for seeing over Johnson’s head! Do they think they haven’t been anticipated? Does Mr Tambling think that Eagle­ton, Williams, Benjamin, Derrida-in-translation and the rest—the awful Miss Belsey, for instance, commented on elsewhere in this issue—escape the judgement of our letters, merely by think­ing they do? Does Mr Tambling think Eagleton’s, Williams’s, Belsey’s styles aren’t judged in Dickens, Shakespeare, Jonson? Does he imagine his own style isn’t? Does he think that if he calls what he writes theory, the style in which he writes—he—can’t be judged? Does he think to be invisible to us by saying so? Let him think of those terrible words of Nietzsche’s, “They think they are judges, but they only come later.”

For the moment it remains plausible to call “theory” a branch of letters—the branch that tacitly denies it’s a branch—and to say that letters judges theory, however much theory denies it, to say, that is, that the claims Tambling makes on theory’s behalf are grossly implausible. But that might be so, of course, only for the moment. The present might be the very last moment, or last but one, that it is so. As Professor Polanyi implies—let there be sufficient disagreement among scientists, or readers, about what is and what isn’t plausible and the category of the plausible ceases to exist; what ceases to exist, that is, is that community, of scientists or readers. And that must be faced, the possibility that the collapse of what Leavis used to call “the reading pub­lic” will be followed by a further stage of disintegration, the collapse of the community of readers altogether. What we see in the phenomenon—for such it seems to me—of structuralist-Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist theorisings in the academy is just a stage in that very collapse. Mr Tambling talks about “the crisis in English studies”. Well he might. Along with Eagleton and Belsey and the rest, he’s it. He thinks we want to display our up-to-dateness with Eagleton’s new ideas about the crisis—as if the crisis were one thing and Eagleton’s ideas about it another, as if “the crisis” existed at all aside from the ideas such as Eagleton and himself have about it. Their ideas are what it consists of. They are it. What, on earth, is it but they and others like them, boasting that literature can’t any more be read as it always has been read, and that they themselves are the living proof of it? They can’t read it and they aren’t even much interested in it—except as so much material to theorise over in the spirit of Mr Tambling’s “positions”, “discussions”, “themes”, “lectures”, “theories” and all the rest of it So how could literature be a reality? Or irreducible?

Mr Robinson was right. Mr Tambling’s two letters aren’t serious, not as thought. But they are serious enough all the same, as portents of the final collapse of English literary culture, of the moment when English literature ceases not only to be written but also to be read.


[1] The Gadfly, vol. 8, number 3 February-May 1986.

[2] Richard Stotesbury, Pseuds Corner Revisited,

[3] The Gadfly, ibid.

[4] F.H. Bradley, “My Station and its Duties”, Ethical Studies (Oxford 1935), p. 173.

[5] M. Polyani, Knowing and Being, (Chicago 1969), pp. 75-9.

[6] Anyone who wants to see what Derrida’s done for him (or will do for himself) may do so by comparing an article of his on Gawain in The Haltwhistle Quarterly no. 9, 1981, with his recent letters to The Gadfly.

[7] See, e.g., “False Prophets”, The English Prophets, Ian Robinson, (Brynmill 20001}.