Jottings Logo - John Fraser



Language, Truth, and Consequences

Communication, Communion, Communality

[T]he central moment of Ulysses, the carefully prepared encounter between Bloom and Stephen Dedalus..., indicates, surely, the total impossibility of any contact, of any human communication, even in the most disinterested love.

Paul de Man [1]


When Stephen Dedalus is walking along the shore in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a classmate calls out to him, “Stephanos Dedalos! Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforos!”

[A]t the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood...?

I am curious as to what we have here.


Or what we have when we read at the start of Lawrence’s The Rainbow of the desire of the Brangwyn women that their children may “learn the entry into the finer, more vivid circle of life.”

Or when Eugen Herrigel, in Zen in the Art of Archery, speaks of “that vital loosening and equability of all [the archer’s] powers, that collectedness and presence of mind, without which no right work can be done.”[2]

When we listen to Wilhelm Kempf playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, or watch the figure skating of Torvil and Dean, or engage in some doing of our own in which we feel ourselves momentarily at the full stretch of our being, do we come back always to what Nietzsche calls “the derivation of all affects from the one will to power: the same essence”?[3]


I would prefer to speak, rather, of the will to plenitude.

And in these pages I shall be concerned with the communal aspect of plenitude—with what Heidegger calls “the capacity to extend beyond oneself, as a relation to beings in which beings themselves are experiences as being more fully in being, richer, more perspicuous, more essential.”[4]


We hunger for communion. We live by and through it. As Hegel says, “it is the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds.”[5] And again: “self-consciousness is real only in so far as it recognizes its echo (and its reflection) in another.”[6]

Which is why in Nostromo Conrad’s boulevardier-ironist Decoud is destroyed by his ten days of voiceless isolation on the Great Isabel islet. And why one of the cruellest of punishments, as the nineteenth century discovered, is unrelieved solitary confinement.

The need for a sustaining communality is one of the great modernist themes—of Yeats, and Conrad, and Lawrence; of F.R. Leavis. Even T. S. Eliot, for all his vivid insistencies on our solitariness—

... I have heard the key
Turn in the lock and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison—

craved to be part of communities of discourse, whether theatrical or religious, in which there were predetermined patterns of response and a sharing of perceptions, enjoyments, puzzlements—a working and being together.


But if one is to reach forward toward community and communality, one has to believe that there is something there that can be attained; something in which one can simultaneously be fully oneself and interact with others who are likewise striving for fullness. It is difficult to commit oneself to something—to reach forward into a future—unless one has a sense of a shape there (a publishable poem or article, a motion passed at a meeting) that one has some chance of realizing.

One needs to feel that there are responders ahead; that what one says with full commitment will be understood and appropriated by others.

One needs the glimpsed, forward-drawing possibility of fulfillment, the possibility of bringing something to a successful conclusion—ordering, articulating, making sense to oneself.

One needs to believe that one can transcend the turmoil of one’s conflicting desires and doubts, including doubts as to whether there is a self there, a Gestalt, not a mere disparate bundle of oddments, a mental attic full of other people’s junk.

And in the absence of a forward-reaching and hope-governed momentum, as Lawrence shows us during Siegmund’s wretched homecoming in The Trespasser, the performance of even the simplest daily tasks may become too painful to face.


It is that kind of momentum, with its existential commitment, that nihilist irony seeks to block and break when it intimates that all journeys are essentially the same, that all paths lead to the same goal, and that that goal, what Yeats calls in “Meru” “the desolation of reality,” is already known; that we are all Gatsbys aspiring and striving in the mental service of Daisies about whom we are inevitably going to learn the disillusioning truth.

As Heidegger puts it, “The devaluation of values, hence nihilism, ... consists in the fact that ‘an aim’ is lacking.”[7]

And we know by now a good deal about lost, or blocked, or mistaken aims. Like Hardy, that laureate of thwarted yearnings, we know from Schopenhauer how

All willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering. Fulfilment brings this to an end; yet for one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied.... No attained object of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines; but it is always like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieves him today so that his misery may be prolonged till tomorrow.[8]

We know Gatsby’s grotesque over-idealizing of Daisy, and Jean-Louis Barrault’s hopeless fixation on Arletty in that classic of desire Les Enfants du Paradis.

In À Rebours, after browsing in the English bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli and gorging himself on Englishness in a couple of Paris taverns, Huysmans’ Des Esseintes breaks off his projected trip to England because there is nothing left for him now to find there, and returns to the environment of fictions that he has constructed for himself in his country house at Frontenay.


Moreover, there has been a plethora of challengings and underminings with respect to the “thereness” of the world that we think we inhabit.

As Michael Novak puts it in his book on nihilism, “even the most solid and powerful social institutions, though they may imprison us, impoverish us, or kill us, are fundamentally mythical structures designed to hold chaos and formlessness at bay; they are more like dreams than like reality.”[9]

When Celia Coplestone in Eliot’s The Cocktail Party tells psychiatrist Reilly how people

... make noises, and think they are talking to each other;
They make faces, and think they understand each other,
And I’m sure that they don’t,

she is not simply confessing to a private breakdown in which “I have no delusions–/Except that the world I live in seems all a delusion!”

As we learn in the Penguin volume Modernism, for a number of writers

That which links thought with language, language with the external world, and man with man has disappeared. Like the mock tennis game at the end of Antonioni’s Blow-up, all language games are felt to have become absurd because the ball, that which guarantees communication between subject and object, is lost.[10]

In such a world, as Gerald Graff points out, “thought is an arbitrary exercise, judgment is beset by a hopeless relativism, and intellectual discussion and debate are little more than pointless shadowboxing.”[11]


And the kinds of shakings and underminings that I am talking about are dynamic ones.

When Nick Carraway tells us how Gatsby, with Daisy lost to him,

must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves.... A new world, material without being real...,

we know that nothing very dramatic would have happened had he lived. He would have kept going, though without the momentum of conviction; would have started drinking, put on weight, probably died early of high blood pressure.

But there are perils in the idea of the innate fictiveness and falsity of public roles and performances.


In the characteristic modern dichotomy that contrasts the “real” and voiceless intimacy of bringing someone to orgasm with the empty masks and theatre of public-role performances, both sides of the coin are doomed to be disappointing—the former an endless never-to-be-satisfied desiring; the latter permeated by a consciousness of falsity.

And as Kafka knew all too well, selves that are conscious of their falsity are liable to implosion and collapse.

To be—or believe oneself to be—inauthentic is to be open always to accusation, and to the sense that all accusations will be essentially true since one’s motives are always ignoble.

One moves toward a paranoid clatter of voices in one’s head, such as Beckett presents in Play, in which nothing ever comes to the point where response and refutation are possible:

w1: When I was satisfied it was all over I went to have a gloat. Just a common tart. What he could have found in her when he had me—

w2: When he came again we had it out, I felt like death. He went on about why he had to tell her. Too risky and so on. That meant he had gone back to her. Back to that!

w1: Pudding face, puffy, spots, blubber mouth, jowls, no neck, dugs you could—

w2: He went on and on.[12]

One becomes trapped in the kind of process in which, when writing an article, one starts anticipating questionings of it and seeing points that could or should be followed up, and rewrites it only to see further objections, and finally junks it because what one is trying to say appears so simple-minded as to be not worth saying; all this without having entered into the real circle of dialogue at all.


Ultimately, as R. D. Laing puts it in his classic study of schizophrenia The Divided Self, “The self ... feels crushed and mangled even at the exchanges in an ordinary conversation.”[13]

And one becomes simply an object for dissection by others; a “case”.

In this regard, one of the most significant text-clusters in modern criticism is the no-ghost impugnings of the governess in James’s The Turn of the Screw, in which we are taken further and further away from the particularity, the individuality, of the governess’s own discourse, and are presented with the possibility that someone may be totally wrong about themselves and totally incapable of reading their own situation, despite all the sophistication of their discourse and their own most strenuous concern to arrive at the truth of the matter.


Furthermore, discourse can dwindle to empty power relationships in ways that answer to the crude construing of the Nietzschean will to power—that is, as the will to dominance.

Iris Murdoch suggests that for Sartre “the simple virtues of human intercourse become forms of insincerity. Only reflection and freedom are desired as ends and yet these turn out to be without content.”[14]

And another commentator remarks that “Sartre finds it impossible to think of any system or order in which one is ‘enclosed’ with others except as a power that destroys existence and against which one must defend oneself.”[15]

In such terms, one inhabits an intellectual world of Napoleonic ambitions, a battle-ground of claims to possessing the one right mode of discourse that destabilizes, undercuts, and overrides all others.

We get a foretaste of that world in Paradise Lost, with its thin repertoire of enjoyments and gratifications, its dwindling of types of being and doing to an innocent ignorance on the one hand and authoritarian power-holding and rebellious power-seeking on the other, and its reduction of discourse to the rhetoric of argument and manipulation.


The operations of power-seeking scepticism in the Napoleonic world are nicely described by a commentator on Hegel:

Among the things that come and go, the sceptical consciousness retains its undeviating posture. In the universal flux, it feels its own stability. The restlessness or uncertainty everywhere present reflects the disintegrative might of consciousness. Scepticism, in short, succeeds in dissolving everything but itself..., the sceptic thus resuming the place of master who, by his annihilative intellect, can subjugate everything to his imperious will to disbelieve.[16]

What is sought is not the assent of grateful recognition (“Yes, of course, I simply hadn’t noticed the importance of that line”) but a reluctant acknowledgment of a point scored that negates a whole position.


And in the absence of a happy reality, a fructifying communal reality, the seamy side becomes the “real” side, in keeping with the Naturalist feeling that telling the truth about something means pointing to something nasty.

A dialogue of mutual exploration and discovery between face-to-face individuals becomes impossible.

Argument becomes an affair of allegorical decodings, an engagement not with what someone has said but with what he or she hasn’t said.

So that his or her discourse ceases to be the discourse of an individual to whom attention must be paid, and becomes merely representative and symptomatic.


Down the road, too, lie more literal annihilations.

In If this is a Man, Primo Levi recalls how during the reception process at Auschwitz,

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us; we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.[17]

Behind Nietzsche, as Nietzsche himself obviously knew, looms the challenge of Sade’s view of power relationships, with its foregrounding of the problem of why the powerful should not, in terms of their own pleasure and plenitude, do as they please with regard to the powerless.


Which brings me back to the question of reaching forward to something—to plenitude, to “fullness.”

Living forward—“Le vent se lève! ... Il faut tenter de vivre!” as Valéry says in the penultimate stanza of “Le Cimitière Marin”—entails sensing stretches and forkings ahead, with their various patterns of challenge and satisfaction.

One needs the glimpsed shapes of rewarding sequences of discourse—debate, conversation, monologue, etc. One needs the promise of family conversations that don’t invariably end in bitter quarrels, and discussions at work in which one isn’t always beaten down. One needs the possibility of satisfying roles.

And these things are indeed possible; are “real.”


It is a curious assumption that someone is being less him- or herself (or not being his real self at all) when engaged in a professional performance—the professor conducting a seminar, the bullfighter working a bull, the concert violinist playing Bach.

If doing badly in a role in which one wants to do well can be painful, doing well can be deeply fulfilling.

And to want to do something well—teach, write, bring up children, lead people in battle—is in part to want to be a certain kind of person: to approximate oneself to specific figures whom one has known, or seen, or heard about.

To want to be a philosopher is to want to be like Wittgenstein, or Nietzsche, or Heidegger, or Socrates, or some other hero. Which is to say, in part, to discourse like them, to display certain kinds of aplomb or daring in the handling of problems and opponents.

Just as to be in love is to be in discourse situations with someone else that go along like the dialogues between Birkin and Ursula in Lawrence’s Women in Love, or Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, or whatever one’s favourite paradigms are.


Nor do structured relationships have to be master/slave ones.

Dancing, singing, playing musical instruments together are not master/slave activities. Nor are good convivial occasions, such as the Ramsays’ party in To the Lighthouse or the comfortable good talk among friends described in poems by J.V. Cunningham and Yvor Winters.

Such occasions are permeated by non-dominative affect—the giving of pleasure to others. (As a critic nicely puts it of meals in children’s books, “Food may be, in fact, the sex of children’s literature.”[18])

Nor are recreational games master/slave affairs.

A coerced games-playing (as in the gladiatorial exhibitions of the Roman arena or the parentally dominated sports of children) can indeed be zero-sum. But in principle games are things that people enter into freely, and in which everyone has a chance of winning sometimes.

Implicit in the idea of handicapping, as in golf and horse-racing, is the bringing of all the competitors to as near an equality as possible, so that the outcome will never be a foregone conclusion.

As Dick Francis points out in one of his thrillers, the perfect handicapping of a race (loading the saddles with weights in keeping with past performances) would be one in which all the horses crossed the finishing line at almost the same moment.

Nor are great or good public occasions in the arts ones in which the performers dominate the spectators.

In that marvellous record The Last Night at the Proms, with its good-humoured interplay between conductor and audience and the full-throated collective singing of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Jerusalem,” everyone is obviously enjoying a fullness of being that could come in no other way.


And communication goes on.

Just as the experience of an absence grows out of and depends on the experience of a presence—whether for the child abruptly deprived by death of Grandma (“But where is she?”) or the marooned Decoud stripped of all his customary activities and relationships—so we speak of non-communication because we know what communication feels like.

When we say perplexedly or angrily in the course of a discussion, “I’m afraid we don’t seem to be communicating,” we are implying that we could be communicating. And when we refer in a common-sense and common-experience way to communication and non-communication, we are not doing so in zero-sum terms.

We are not speaking as if the only meaningful advance in a football game is a touchdown, so that all other advances are meaningless.

We are not postulating as communication the kind of Rousseauistic total identity of being wherein another virtually is oneself—feels instantaneously, and without the need for voicing, all that one is feeling and thinking.

When a couple of friends are talking about where to go for dinner, and we tell them we recently had a good meal at a new Italian restaurant, we don’t find ourselves reaching a point where we say desperately, “But I’m still not really conveying to you what the meal was like.”

And if next day they report that they went there and liked it, we’re all satisfied with the transaction.


Non-communication, or insufficient communication, occurs, of course.

In his “Memories of Wittgenstein,” Leavis recalls how on one occasion Wittgenstein asked him who William Empson (then an undergraduate) was and he replied that he had recently read six poems by him and that they were all good.

“What are they like?” asked Wittgenstein. I replied that there was little point in my describing them, since he didn’t know enough about English poetry. “If you like them,” he said, “you can describe them.” So I started: “You know Donne?” No, he didn’t know Donne.... Baulked, I made a few lame observations about the nature of the conceit, and gave up.[19]

If it is frustrating trying to convey to someone who isn’t a movie fan what a movie that one’s excited about was like, describing to one’s satisfaction a vivid dream can be downright impossible.

And for much the same reasons. One is trying to convey not only a sequence of highly individuated images and events but the nature of one’s experiencing of them. One is trying to be Alice narrating her own adventures.

At times, too, one can yearn to be able to bring one’s darkest doings and imaginings into words without appalling one’s interlocutor; or hunger for the kind of dialogue in which one doesn’t simply “communicate” things that one knows already, but says and discovers fresh things as one goes along.


Literature has given us memorable examples of mutual isolation, too.

When Stephen Dedalus is visiting Cork with his robustly nostalgic father—“When you kick out for yourself, Stephen—as I daresay you will one of these days—remember, whatever you do, to mix with gentlemen”—Stephen’s

very brain was sick and powerless. He could scarcely interpret the letters of the signboards of the shops. By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him.

The angers and anguishes of the heroines of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie are simply not there for almost everyone with whom they have dealings.

Verloc and Winnie Verloc lead separate lives with respect to what concerns them most.

And at one point in Heart of Darkness, Marlowe famously breaks out with,

“He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams....”

He was silent for a while.

“... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone....”


But just as an academic who discourses jauntily about the absurdity of language and the arbitrariness of all codes is unlikely to look philosophically on a misplaced decimal point that deflates his pay-cheque, so all of us are only too aware at times of the reality of communication.

When someone is snotty to us at a party or face-to-face furious about the garden depredations of our cat, he or she is communicating and we wish they weren’t.

At times, too, like the accused in the witness-box, people work hard at avoiding communicating what they think and feel and know. If the lady of Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” hungers for communion—

“I am always sure that you understand
My feelings, always sure that you feel,
Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand”—

the narrator is anxious to conceal how unsympathetically he in fact feels toward her.

And when in Conrad’s The Secret Agent the Assistant Commissioner catches sight of Chief Inspector Heat’s contemptuous expression, he reads it correctly and proceeds, to Heat’s chagrin, to “turn him inside out like an old glove.”


And communion occurs; experiencings can be shared.

When two people watch some sporting event on TV together that they both enjoy—the figure skating of Torvil and Dean, say—and comment about it to each other, they are communing.

The two young sea-captains in Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” form, effectively, a community of two, by virtue of their shared experiences.

And when we read the lovely account of the party in the penultimate chapter of Persuasion, we are unlikely to be put in mind of Arnold’s “To Marguerite” and of how—amid the “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea”—”we mortal millions live alone.”

The evening came, the drawing-rooms were lighted up, the company assembled. It was but a card-party, it was but a mixture of those who had never met before, and those who met too often—a commonplace business, too numerous for intimacy, too small for variety; but Anne had never found an evening shorter.... With the Musgroves, there was the happy chat of perfect ease; with Captain Harville, the kind-hearted intercourse of brother and sister; with Lady Russell, attempts at conversation, which a delicious consciousness cut short; with Admiral and Mrs. Croft, everything of peculiar cordiality and fervent interest which the same consciousness sought to conceal;—and with Captain Wentworth, some moments of communication continually occurring, and always the hope of more, and always the knowledge of his being there!

In the beautiful stretch of dialogue immediately after this, in which the two lovers think their way (each with trust in the other) through the earlier attitudes on their part that had delayed their coming together, it is clear why Anne would indeed look forward to “more.”


As Heart of Darkness demonstrates, even intensely individual experiencings can, up to a point, be communicated.

Marlowe may grumble about the impossibility of conveying to his hearers on the Nellie what things were really like for him in the Congo, and the silence after he finishes his narrative may seem to reinforce that judgment.

But in fact he has described his experiences in great detail, so that we feel along with him in the act of recollecting.

And if we aren’t told what has been going on in the minds of his hearers, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of them have simply reduced his narrative to a sailor’s yarn. Certainly the framing narrator of the novel hasn’t.

The novel stands, moreover, with a lot of others whose popularity testifies to the instinctive belief in the possibility of more or less reliable recall: The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Death on the Installment Plan, The Catcher in the Rye, Good Morning, Midnight, Remembrance of Things Past, and so on; and a host of good thrillers.


Nor is it only fictional characters like Marlowe, or Stephen Dedalus, or Lawrence’s Birkin, or a number of Henry James’s protagonists, who work at trying to get across to others what they see, feel, think.

The struggle to render things precisely is part of what made their creators heroic, as it did the Hardy who, in the poems of 1912-13, tried to re-enter and re-speak his relationship with his dead wife.

And central to modern literature is a prodigious expansion of means for conveying how minds in fact work (including the rendering of dream-like experiences).

So is the concern—and not only in the drama of Ibsen, Beckett, and so on—with the act of discoursing.

Hardy’s great love poems are distinguished from Renaissance love poems by the constant sense in them of the presence of the person addressed (“I see what you are doing: you are leading me on...,” “Why do you make me leave the house...?”).

Eliot’s poetry is full of people saying things and being disquietingly present to one another.

And when in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” Yeats speaks of how “We are closed in, and the key is turned / On our uncertainty...,” it is a temporary state that he is describing, not la condition humaine.

Yeats is the modern poet who talks about people talking with each other: “One that is ever kind said yesterday...,” “O but we talked at large before / The sixteen men were shot,” “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning...,” etc.


Moreover, communality does not depend on people “liking” one another.

If we value theatre as we do, it is partly because good theatre, like good tennis and great trials, is a paradigm of the agonistic. Competing individualities thrust against each other, aims and attitudes can be totally irreconcilable, and words have consequences, sometimes tragic or horrible ones.

“Lawsuits,” a professor of law observes, “are frightening: they can be lost even with a sound case, and they are, in folklore and in fact, dangerous places where one incautious word or ventured fact will be seized upon by relentless lawyers on the other side....”[20]

Much the same can be said of what goes on in a good many plays, and in other arenas. Protagoras, Gorgias, and the rest are unpersuaded by Socrates’ arguments, and eventually Socrates dies because of what he has said. Koestler’s Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, having been annihilated intellectually and morally so far as the public world is concerned, is shot through the back of the neck in the prison cellar.


But as theatre also demonstrates, it can be possible to live with these facts without everything blowing apart.

When Prospero abandons the purity of his island and its opportunities for the free creation of fictions, and opts instead for the much more complex interminglings of fictions and physical realities in Milan—the given as well as the made—, he accepts the ongoing-co-existence of very different kinds of persons, some of them dangerous to others and absolutely closed to moral suasion.

But it is not a passive, a merely resigned, acceptance. He recognizes, as does the play as a whole, that power can be contained by power, and that intelligence must always concern itself with the channeling and humanizing of power.


One of the major twentieth-century cultural advances has been the increase in sociological understanding whereby one passes beyond Marlowe’s—and Conrad’s—rather Hollywoodian sense of inexplicable mysteries with respect to “primitive” peoples.

And in the complex and nurturing structures of hunting-gathering communities, one sees patterns of interaction, and of the distribution of power, that help one to get beyond Nietzsche’s reiterations with respect to master and slave mentalities, and his fixation on Imperial Rome as the paradigm of political power.

So do the unwolfish social relationships of wolves as described by ethologists, and the structures of primate communities:

Baboon life ... is an endless series of negotiations. The drama of their lives revolves not around sex or male intimidation but around alliances, around friendships. Baboons have a Japanese complexity of deferences and dominances. They live, it seems to a newcomer, in a constant state of distraction and tension, as if caught in an elastic web of attractions and repulsions, a web constantly in motion, in adjustment of distances.[21]

And the agonistic nature of the great Socratic dialogues has something to say to us about the life of the mind.


It is common these days, when critics want to praise one another and have reservations about being thought mere games-players, to speak of their rigour—the rigour of heroic mountaineers up among the cold white peaks of undeluded intellectuality.

Well, rigour can indeed be desirable.

Ideas have consequences, language, especially figurative language, can blur an understanding of relationships, and in an age of over-abundant information it is easy to read with slackened attention.

As Hans-Georg Gadamer observes, “Among the greatest insights given us by Plato’s account of Socrates is that, contrary to the general opinion, it is more difficult to ask questions than to answer them.”[22]

And a good many of us learned from critics like Leavis and Winters the need to look sceptically on the kind of bland, pseudo-objective account of a work that offers itself as simply The Truth about that work, and the importance of bearing down on individual poems and passages.

Given the approximativeness of received opinion, the crudeness of most terminology, and the aplomb with which critics can say things about a work that are just dead wrong, there is obviously no substitute for reading a work oneself—reading it, where necessary, rigorously.


But normally we do not read thrillers rigorously, or listen to Billie Holiday or the great aria of lament from Gluck’s Orfeo rigorously, or look at Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride rigorously.

We read or look or listen attentively; we concentrate on the works; we seek to allow them into their fullest being, down to the smallest nuances or brush-strokes or phrasing.

And the right kind of rigorousness is likewise a bringing into being.


It begins, in a sense, with oneself.

With Socrates one asks, “Do I understand that assertion? Let me think of an example. Are there any obvious exceptions to it? Is it true? If it were true, would it mean that such-and-such would also be true?”

But the process is also communal, both in the sense that one is mentally asking such questions of the author, and in the sense that one turns to others for corroboration or correction (“Aren’t you puzzled by this? Am I overlooking something?”).

And it is not simply disintegrative, any more than Wittgenstein took language apart like a watch and then walked away and left it.

If one is exasperated by how some kinds of argumentation collapse when one presses on them, it is because others don’t.

And one is always implicitly striving, like Socrates, towards a maximum accommodation of phenomena, of things that are indeed “there” for one.


Implicit in all this, too, is the principle of clarity and clarification. If the great philosophers are difficult, it is not because their language is arcane but because what they say is problematic.

To read philosophers like Plato, or Berkeley, or Wittgenstein, or Nietzsche in extenso is not an anxiety-making experience, or a disintegrative one. The works are communal in a straightforward way: the arguments and counter-arguments, the sense of the possible reactions, the puzzlements and objections, of readers are there in the works.

And there is a good deal to be said for the Chestertonian principle that it should be possible to keep rephrasing and expanding an argument until an intelligent non-specialist is able to understand what is being said.

For it is here that one reaches back out into, and becomes fully a part of, a communal world in which functional, limited closures are possible.


Trials by jury are like that.

There can be no mystifications, no self-privilegings with respect to one’s mode of discourse.

The “expert” witness—as led forward by the defending or prosecuting lawyer—has got to be able to make him- or herself clear to the car salesman and bank-teller in the jury box.

And if the last hundred years has been a century of emblematic trials or quasi-trials—the Wilde trials, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the Moscow trials, the Hiss trial, the Watergate hearings, and so forth—and if the dominant figure of popular fiction has been the detective, this testifies to a significant perception with respect to truth.

Whereas the doings of the scientist in popular fiction are generally harmful, those of the detective are almost invariably benign.

And they testify to the conviction that at times it can indeed be possible not only to demolish a seemingly cast-iron version of “the facts”—the simple and obvious version of who shot the millionaire in his library—but to arrive at a true one.


Real life is less tidy, of course.

As we all know by now, the purpose of a trial is not to reveal the truth, but only to determine limited truths in relation to specific accusations or claims. One is not trying to determine who shot the newspaper tycoon, merely whether his partner—sitting there in the dock—did so.

But the properly conducted trial or quasi-judicial investigative hearing is still one of our major paradigms for the agonistic determination of what happened on this or that occasion.

In it we are engaged, as in other matters, in translating “texts” (“When I looked into the library at 5.30 p.m, the room was empty”) back into terms of a consistent physical reality.

And one works all the time (for there is nothing else one can do) towards the closure of commitment.

One says, finally: “Having considered all the evidence and arguments, I can only say that I am convinced that the partner did not do it. I am certain of that, given the paranoid reconstruction of the world that would be necessary in order to have all those persons at the party mistaken (or lying) about his being there; and virtually certain that it was the secretary who did it.”

Just as one says, in an academic context: “I am now convinced, having considered all the available evidence and arguments, that the poem was written in 1603, not 1600—and that it is not by Shakespeare.”


Language works, the ball is there, games are not absurd—and they can be won.

After reading Chief Inspector Heat’s expression correctly and turning him inside out, the Assistant Commissioner goes on to ascertain who was in fact blown to pieces in Greenwich Park and who was ultimately responsible for it, and obliquely and economically conveys his knowledge to Mr. Vladimir, who reads his message correctly and drives grimly away without a word.

“The Assistant Commissioner himself did not turn into the noble building. It was the Explorers’ Club. The thought passed through his mind that Mr. Vladimir, honorary member, would not be seen very often there in the future.”

If we recoil from flesh-creeping pronouncements about the impossibility of communication, it is not because we are afraid to face how things really are in our human world, it is because, when we aren’t generating postmodernist discourse, we know how they are.


[1] Paul de Man, q. Stanley Corngold, “Error in Paul de Man,” in Jonathan Arac and others, eds., The Yale Critics: Deconstruction in America (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 106.

[2] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, trans. R. F. C. Hull, introd. D.T. Suzuki (N.Y.: Vintage, 1971), p. 65.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, ed. Walter Kaufmann (N.Y.: Vintage, 1968), p. 416.

[4] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche; Vol. 1: The Will to Power as Art, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 100.

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, fore. J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), p. 43.

[6] G. W. F. Hegel, q. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness; an Essay in Phenomenonological Ontology, special abridged edition, trans. and introd. Hazel E. Barnes (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel, 1977), p. 213.

[7] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche; Vol. IV: Nihilism, trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, ed., with analysis by David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 15.

[8] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (N.Y.: Dover, 1969), vol. I, p. 196.

[9] Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 1.

[10] Richard Sheppard, “The Crisis of Language,” in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds., Modernism, 1890-1930 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 328.

[11] Gerald Graff, Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1970), p. 9.

[12] Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber, 1984), p. 150.

[13] R. D. Laing, The Divided Self; An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 163.

[14] Iris Murdoch, q. Roger Kimball, “Sartre resartus,” New Criterion, May 1987, p. 77.

[15] Helmut Thielicke, Nihilism; Its Origin and Nature—with a Christian Answer, trans. John W. Doberstein, introd. Michael Novak (N.Y.: Schocken, 1969), p. 172.

[16] J. Loewenberg, Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology’: Dialogues on The Life of Mind (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1965), pp. 94-5.

[17] Primo Levi, If this is a Man, trans. Stuart Woolf (London: New English Library, 1969), p. 17.

[18] Wendy R. Katz, “Some Uses of Food in Children’s Literature,” Children’s Literature in Education, 11 (Winter 1980), p. 192.

[19] F. R. Leavis, The Critic as Anti-Philosopher; Essays and Papers, ed. G. Singh (London: Chatto and Windus, 1982), p. 144.

[20] Ronald Dworkin, “The Press on Trial,” New York Review of Books, Feb. 26, 1977, p. 28.

[21] Lance Morrow summarizing anthropologist Shirley Strum, “Africa,” Time, Feb. 23, 1987, p. 46.

[22] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translation ed. by Garrett Barden and John Cummings (N.Y.: Seabury, 1975), p. 326.

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