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From Project Mailer


Beyond a Theory of Literature: Intimations of Apocalypse?

Written by
Ihab Hassan

Begin with an assumption: that literature defines our concepts of criticism or else it defies them, and that life constantly challenges the pieties of both art and thought. What I shall attempt here, then, could not be considered an authoritative review of postwar criticism. It should be understood, rather, as a partial statement on the gathering mood of American criticism, an intimation of a trend which the facts of literary history in the past two decades (colored inevitably by my own sense of fact) may help to clarify.

The admission that I neither hold nor accept a definitive view of criticism should not be too shocking. In England, where the empiric temper prevails in the name of common sense or urbanity, and even in France, where questions of methodology yield to a lively concern with new writing, such an admission would seem fairly innocuous. It is otherwise in America. Among us, the notion that criticism must become a rigorous, quasi-scientific activity in order to justify its name still finds wide support. Not long ago —or is it really ages past?— most students of literature, myself included, recognized the elegance of René Wellek’s formulation of the destiny of criticism: “the interpretation of literature as distinct from other activities of man.”[1] Coming from Professor Wellek, the emphasis on interpretation rather than on literary theory seemed unduly self-effacing. Be that as it may, the formula appealed then to the common rage for order, and seemed also to aver the dignity of the humanities on terms that the age demanded. With the years, however, the formula seems, to me at least, to have lost in elegance as it has gained in naïveté. The breed of technicians it has unwittingly sanctioned may have found a truer consummation of their hopes in the laboratories of Oak Ridge. Literature as a distinct activity of man? Criticism as a distinct response to a distinct activity of man? What is man that we should be so little mindful of him, so arbitrary with the complexities of his mind? From Surrealism to Absurdism, literature itself suggests that a distinct aesthetic response may be defined only at the risk of deadly discrimination.

Yet my object is not to engage in polemics. The point can be stated with some equanimity: a new breed of American critics are anxious to assert them selves against the rigors and pieties they have inherited. Their mood is restless, eclectic, speculative; sometimes, it is even apocalyptic. Those who feel out of sympathy with them may wish to apply different epithets: romantic, primitivist, existential, amateurish, or plain anti-intellectual. (The usefulness of these tags, dispensed usually with contumely, is as doubtful as their accuracy.) Others, however, may recognize the creative possibilities of this new mood, troubled, vague, or disruptive as it may seem.

Evidence of the new mood is various though one senses behind it the enduring search for wholeness and vitality in the literary response. One senses, too, the paradoxical desire to appropriate literature to the dream life of men, and then again to implicate it in the widest sphere of their daily actions. Is not the secret task, for poet and critic alike, to participate in that magic process whereby the word is turned into flesh?

The critic therefore feels the need for commitment; he wants to testify. And what is to prevent him? The encounter with an authentic work of art is a bruising experience, full of strange knowledge and hidden pleasure, of the kind we usually spend a life-time resisting. The critic knows that he himself is on trial, and that the act of literary criticism is above all an act of self-judgement. Since his business is to speak of literature, speech in his case must ultimately take the form of self-revelation. But the need for self-revelation is not only a private or existential need. It is also a social function of the critic. “Is art always an outrage - must it by its very nature be an outrage?" Durrell asks.[2] The question haunts the critic even more than it does the oafish censors of our time. For should the critic insist on his dubious right to privacy or detachment, his deepest knowledge of literature would remain locked, a private outrage, an inner wound. Yet literature, we know, acts through language; it is a communal call, there where words and experience are one, as it is solitary subversion, where words begin to fail. In the act of testimony, therefore, the critic admits the relevance of the buried power of literature; he offers himself to the harsh task of mediating between society and vision, culture and anarchy. Only thus can he give to outrage wider reference, give it a meaning beyond itself. There is the risk of course, that such mediation may rob both culture and outrage of their particular force. Yet from that loss a new life in history may be gained, a new consciousness of self and society may be born. This is precisely the gain, implicit in the discomforts of critical commitment, which Lionel Trilling, in his otherwise subtle essay, “On the Modern Element in Modern Literature,” seems to ignore.[3]

Commitment, however, is but a single impulse of the new critical attitude; it simply prepares the ground for dialogue. Another impulse may be defined as the refusal wholly to objectify the work of literature. The art work, of course, has been long considered as an object, an object for dissection or knowledge, idolatry or classification. Yet the encounter between critic and work is neither entirely objective nor purely aesthetic; it may be a “dialogue” of the kind Martin Buber has proposed. In Buber's sense, the work of art resists identification with insensible It; for the work demands answer and response, and it requires a meeting. Is it then so perverse to ask the critic, whether he subscribes to Buber’s theology or not, that he “turn toward” the work and confess with Buber, “in each instance a word demanding an answer has happened to me” ?[4] Nothing is mystical in this statement, nothing inimical to the spirit of poetry. The statement, in fact, points to some rather mundane questions which Walter J. Ong, theologian of another faith, happily raises. In his original essay, “The Jinnee in the Well-Wrought Urn,” Father Ong states: “Creative activity is often...powered by the drive to accomplish, in terms of the production of an object of art, an adjustment or readjustment in certain obscure relationships with other persons." What does this mean? Quite obviously, it means that behind every work of art lurks and strains a human being; less obviously, perhaps, it means that the voice of the human creator, raging heart and feet of clay, is not entirely silenced in his art. The jinnee cannot be exorcised from the urn it inhabits, however shapely the latter may prove; the artifact still comes to life with voices unknown. And indeed this is what we, as readers, require. Once again, Father Ong sees the point clearly: “as a matter of full, serious, protracted contemplation and love, it is unbearable for a man or woman to be faced with anything less than a person. . . .”[5] This is precisely what critics, compelled by the difficult reciprocities of love, may now want to face: not an object but a presence mediated cunningly, incomprehensibly, by language. Such a presence is not simply human. It is the presence, moving and participating in reality, which Owen Barfield, in Saving the Appearances, has shown us to lie at the heart of the symbolic process. In facing such a presence, critics may hope to recover the primal connection with a universe mediated increasingly by abstractions. But they may also hope to recover something more modest: a spontaneity of judgment which reaches outward, reaches beyond itself. Holden Caulfield, we recall, was moved to call on an author whose work he had much enjoyed. In such naïveté there may be a parable for critics as well as an occasion for derision.

If some postwar critics are loth to consider the literary work merely as an object, they are equally reluctant to believe that contemplation is the sole reaction to it. Beyond testimony, beyond participation or dialogue, the critic now wishes to entertain in the possibility that action maybe a legitimate response to art. By this, of course, I do not mean that he rushes to the barricades after reading The Conquerors, or that he develops tuberculosis after reading The Magic Mountain. I mean that the experience of a literary work does not leave him unchanged. To the extent that he is altered in the recesses of his imagination, indeed of his being, to that extent he must act differently in daily life. For if literature is both cognitive and experiential, as we have been so often told, then how can new knowledge but prompt new action? We may have accepted the Thomist notion of stasis in art much too uncritically. The counter-statement is boldly presented in Sartre's essay, “ Qu’est Ce Que la Littérature? ” “Parler c’est agir:” Sartre claims, “tout chose qu'on nomme n’est déjà plus tout à fait la même, elle a perdu son innocence.” Sartre continues: “L'œuvre d’art est valeur parce qu’elle est appel.”[6] The appeal, above all, is to that act of self-definition which the work persuades its reader to perform, an act of definition and also of freedom. For in a sense, the work itself is “created” by the freedom of the reader to give it a concrete and, ultimately, personal meaning. The work, that is, finally enters the total existence of a man, not simply his dream life or aesthetic consciousness, and in doing so, it becomes subject to the total judgment of human passions. This is precisely what an existential writer of a different breed, Camus, meant when he wrote, “To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing...”[7] But if the writer must create dangerously these days, the critic cannot afford to criticize timorously. Dangerous criticism assumes that final and somewhat frightening responsibility which some critics naturally resist; namely, the willing suspension of aesthetic judgment in the interests of right action.

I quite realize the enormity of this assertion. For one thing, it brings the critic dangerously close to the posture of the censor— the commissar, the propaganda helot, the prurient chief of police—who requires that every work of art display its social credentials or else stand convicted. No doubt, the redemption of man is a more momentous task than the creation of beauty, and virtue and goodness are not to be scoffed at. Yet redemption, one suspects, does not lie in the grasp of regulators; nor does virtue depend on the degradation of art by power. How, then, can the critic hope to transcend the aesthetic domain of literature without seeming to capitulate to dogma or authority, without seeming to endorse a vulgar or repressive utilitarianism?

There are many answers to this question, though all are equally provisional, for in this as in other literary matters, tact not theory comes to our aid. We can begin, however, by making two observations. First, serious literature offers great resistance to political expediency; other forms of propaganda are far more effective. The basic affinity of modern literature particularly is with vision and outrage. By vision, I mean neither doctrine nor even revelation, but simply a concrete projection of the imagination into the conduct of life. Henry Miller has such an idea in mind when he says: “The role which the artist plays in society is to revive the primitive, anarchic instincts which have been sacrificed for the illusion of living in comfort”; or when he says again: “I do not call poets those who make verses, rhymed or unrhymed. I call that man poet who is capable of profoundly altering the world.”[8] Both these statements reveal the artist’s conception of himself as visionary actor; both attest to his hope that prophecy may find its incarnation, beyond language, in action. Emboldened by such statements—and they are by no means restricted to Miller—the critic may feel justified in participating in the action that the work initiates. This is to say that the critic becomes himself part of the devious process by which a writer’s vision penetrates culture. The character of this devious process is closer to the character of pedagogy than of social reform. This leads me to the second observation. Since the process is indeed devious, subject to all the ambiguities of modern culture, the critic cannot really maintain a purely pragmatic, a purely political view of literature. This is salutary for the activist critic who finds in the visionary or subversive power of literature an inner check on his propensity for dogma, his penchant for expediency. This critical ideal is not nearly as pretentious as it may sound, nor does it always require the critic to make his home in the midst of chaos. It may require him, however, to heed certain thematic questions which were once considered beneath notice. A number of critical works of the last decade reflect this emergent concern. In The Tragic Vision, for instance, Murray Krieger pertinently asks, “But how, if we limit ourselves to technical literary definitions, can we find for the tragic any meaning beyond that of Aristotle? The answer is, by moving from formalistic aesthetics to what I would term 'thematics.'” Krieger’s analysis of that term cannot be summarized easily, but the implications of his method are stated succinctly enough. He concludes thus: “All of which is perhaps to say only that a literary theory must be adequate to the literary experiences for which it is to account and that we trust our way of experiencing literature only as it is adequate to the life out there, which cries for a way of being organized literarily that will yet leave it preserved intact.”[9] If the insistence on “the life out there” does not necessarily force the critic into a study of “thematics,” it does persuade him to dwell on precisely those formal matters that invoke the larger aspects of reality and may even engage religious thought. Thus the essays of James E. Miller, Jr., Karl Shapiro, and Bernice Slote, in Start With the Sun, explore the relation of Dionysian poetry to cosmic consciousness, mystery, and apocalypse. Miss Slote ends taking her cue from a noble phrase of Lawrence, “Perhaps then we may be absolved from the poetry of mirrors.[10] Parallel explorations of fiction lead R.W.B. Lewis, in his fine study, The Picaresque Saint, to distinguish between the generation of Proust, Joyce, and Mann, in whose world the aesthetic experience was supreme, and the generation of Silone, Faulkner, Camus, and Greene, in whose world “the chief experience has been the discovery of what it means to be a human being and to be alive.” Lewis continues: “Criticism, examining this world, is drawn to the more radically human considerations of life and death, and of the aspiring, sinful nature of man.”[11]

Perhaps I have spoken long enough of certain interests of postwar criticism, though I feel I have spoken of them only tangentially. If one were to search for the theoretical basis of these interests—a task which I must leave to more philosophical critics one might be inclined to develop a view of literature that does not put the idea of form as its center. By this I do not simply mean a redefinition of the concept of form so that it may account, say, for the plays of Beckett or the novels of Burroughs. I would plead for a more radical view. From Kant to Cassirer, from Coleridge to Croce and down to the New Critics, the idea of organic form has been a touchstone of value and a cornerstone of theory in literary study. We assume, and indeed we believe, that the imagination incarnates itself only as an aesthetic order, and that such an order is available to the analytic mind. We believe more: that aesthetic order defines the deepest pleasures of literature and conveys its enduring attractions. I am not at all secure in these beliefs. Indeed, I am willing to take the devil's part and entertain the notion that “structure” is not always present or explicable in literary works; and that where it reveals itself, it is not always worth the attention we give it. Such works as Hamlet and Don Quixote not diminished by the discovery that their form, whatever it may be, is less organic than we expect the form of great works to be. Even that supreme artifact of our century, that total structure of symbols, puns, and cross-references, that city of words full of secret alleys and connecting catacombs, even Joyce's Ulysses, may prove to the keen, fresh eye of a critic more of a labyrinth, dead ends and ways without issue, than Dublin itself which encloses the nightmare of history. This is precisely what Robert Martin Adams concludes in his fascinating study, Surface and Symbol. Adams inspects minutely the wealth of details in the novel, and finds that many of them serve to blur or confuse rather than to sustain patterns: "The close reading of Ulysses thus reveals that the meaningless is deeply interwoven with the meaningful in the texture of the novel...It is a book and an antibook, a work of art particularly receptive to accident. It builds to acute and poignant states of consciousness, yet its larger ambition seems to be to put aside consciousness as a painful burden."[12]Nothing catastrophic to the future of criticism is presaged by this statement. Quite the contrary: criticism may derive new vitality from some attention to the unstructured and even random element in literature. For is not form, after all, best conceived as a mode of awareness, a function of cognition, a question, that is, of epistemology rather than ontology? Its objective reality is qualified by the overpowering reality of human need. In the end, we perceive what we need to perceive, and our sense of pattern as of relation is conditioned by our deeper sense of relevance. This is why the aesthetic of the future will have to reckon with Freud, Nietzsche, and even Kierkegaard, who have given us, more than Marx himself, compelling economies of human needs.[a]

I could not persist in suggesting the theoretical implications of postwar criticism without falling into the trap which I have myself described. We do not always need a theoretical argument to bring forth a new critical attitude; we only need good critics. But perhaps we need, more than anything else, to regard literature in a more oblique fashion, regard it even in the slanting light of its own absurdity. We might then see that the theoretical solemnity of modern criticism ignore the self-destructive element of literature, its need for self-annulment. What Camus said of his own work applies, in various ways, to all literature: the act of creation is akin to chance and disorder, to which it comes through diversity, and it constantly meets with futility. "Creating or not creating changes nothing, " Camus writes. "The absurd creator does not prize his work. He could repudiate it." And again: "The absurd work illustrates the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. If the world were clear, art would not exist."[13] Perhaps the function of literature, after all, is not to clarify that world but to help create a world in which literature becomes superfluous. And perhaps the function of criticism, as I shall argue later, is to attain to the difficult wisdom of perceiving how literature is finally, and only finally, inconsequential.[b][14]

The foregoing remarks limn certain trends in postwar criticism; they are not intended to define a school or movement. Still, I feel it wise to anticipate some objections before concluding this mock survey.

It may be argued, for instance, that many of the attitudes I have described are not so novel as I make them out to be. Richards' emotive theories, Burke's concept of action, Leavis’ cultural vitalism, Trilling’s depth-view of manners and imagination, Blackmur’s metaphors of silence in literature, and above all, Herbert Read’s sympathy for the anarchic spirit, certainly open the way to the speculations of younger critics. The latter, however, still distinguish themselves by a certain quality of passion, a generosity toward the perversities of spirit, and a sense of crisis in man’s fate. Two recent books of criticism, R. W. B. Lewis’ The American Adam and Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death at the American Novel, seem quite disparate in tone and method; yet both, I think, stand in this respect closer to Lawrence’s seminal work, Studies in Classic American Literature, than to Matthiessen’s American Renaissance.

Then again, it might be argued that my use of the terms, “form” and “theory," appears tendentious; that, ideally speaking, neither of these terms excludes larger commitments; and that, in any case, there are so many concepts of “form” and “structure” in modern criticism as to make a general condemnation of them irresponsible. I should like to think that there are more wicked uses of irresponsibility than in the criticism of criticism. What an ideal formalist theory may contribute to our appreciation of literature is not in dispute; what it has contributed in the past by way of practical criticism is also very considerable. Still, do we not all sense the growing inertness of the Spirit of criticism beneath the weight of the Letter? One sometimes feels that in another decade or two, the task or criticism may be safely performed by some lively computing machine which, blessed with total recall, would never misquote as some critics are reputed to do.

I speak, of course, hyperbolically. Perhaps I can make the point clearer, and sharpen thereby the distinction between two generations of critics, by referring to two eminent theoreticians of literature. Both René Wellek and Northrop Frye are men of vast erudition; both have shaped the course of literary studies in America. This, I think, is entirely as it should be; the timely authority of such works as Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature or Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism deserves nothing less. Yet at the risk of seeming ungracious, it is to their later, and perhaps lesser, works that I wish to refer. After all, the question still remains: what lies beyond formalist theory?

In Concepts of Criticism, Professor Wellek shows himself to be somewhat out of love with the directions of contemporary criticism. “It seems to me that in spite of the basic truth of the insight of organicism, the unity of content and form, we have arrived today at something like a deadend,” he states.[15] His dissatisfaction, however, is of short duration. Professor Wellek sees the way out in the doctrine of “structuralism," evolved by the Prague Linguistic Circle - alas, now defunct! “Such a concept of the literary work of art avoids two pitfalls,” Professor Wellek hopes, “the extreme of organicism which leads to a lumpish totality in which discrimination becomes impossible, and the opposite danger of atomistic fragmentation.”[16] The way out, as it turns out, comes very close to the ancient ideal of the golden mean. This is judicious. But is it really judiciousness which prompts him in two later chapters, “Philosophy and Post- war American Criticism” and “Main Trends of Twentieth-Century Criticism,” to deride all recent criticism? The brilliant and inventive concern with American literature in the last two decades is deplored as an example of “romantic historicism,” and mythic and existential criticism are condemned as an instance of “the irrationalistic philosophies of Europe” adapted to the pragmatic temper of the United States."[17] Professor Wellek sadly concludes: “Only those who adhere to either the German idealist tradition, in the Kantian or Coleridgean version, or those who rediscover Aristotle, still keep a grasp on the nature of art and recognize the necessity of an aesthetic and the ideal of a study of literature as literature.”[18] Having defined literature in formalist terms, it is no wonder that Professor Wellek still believes formalist theory to be the most rewarding view of literature. Thus is the rigor of tautology achieved.

The Well-Tempered Critic, which is not wrought in the massive architectural manner of Professor Frye’s earlier work, is too urbane to be tautological. Its urbanity expresses a fine subtlety of mind in the final chapter of the book, and the subtlety itself disguises a somewhat chilly view of literature. Professor Frye acknowledges the distinction between the classic and romantic tempers in criticism, and proceeds to discover the correlatives of each. The classic temper, he informs us, is aesthetic, the romantic is psychological; the former views art as artifact, the latter as expression; the one derives from Aristotle, the other from Longinus. I do not quarrel with these distinctions, particularly when categorical distinctions make the very basis of the geometric edifices Professor Frye likes to erect. “The first step to take here," he argues, “is to realize that just as a poem implies a distinction between the poet as man and the poet as verbal craftsman, so the response to a poem implies a corresponding distinction in the critic.”[19] For both Northrop Frye and René Wellek, we see, the critical act rests on the separation of certain human faculties from the continuum of felt life. There are few critics willing to speak professionally for the ancient female principle, acceptance and fusion, and the enveloping wholeness of things, few willing to speak for the fourfold vision of Blake. Yet carried far enough, distinctions become the source of the mind’s alienation, the Cartesian madness of the West.

Again, Professor Frye views criticism not as the experience of literature but, more discretely, as an area of knowledge. This leads him to the hard-boiled conclusion, so repugnant to visionary educators, that “the values we want the student to acquire from us cannot be taught: only knowledge of literature can be taught.”[20] Can knowledge be dissociated from value, and criticism forego its aspiration to wisdom? Apparently so. “The fundamental act of criticism is a disinterested response to a work of literature in which all one’s beliefs, engagements, commitments, prejudices, stampedings of pity and terror, are ordered to be quiet,” he continues.[21] Ordered to be quiet! Who listens, then, and who speaks instead? The imagination never demanded such frozen void, nor do the supreme fictions of the mind reject the earth they transmute. We have seen criticism gaze long enough on the world with the quiet eyes of Apollo. Shall we ever see it partake again of the sacred flesh of Dionysus?

I do not wish to suggest that the Dionysiac vision is bound to penetrate literary criticism the world over. I do sense, however, a movement in contemporary letters which must force us to revise our tenets or else accept the charge of theoretical isolationism in America. It is doubtful, for instance, that the plays of Beckett or Genet or Artaud, the novels of William Burroughs, Maurice Blanchot, or Alain Robbe-Grillet, the later stories of Salinger, the poetry of Charles Olson, Blaise Cendrars, or Dylan Thomas—and I cite these names quite at random—can be illuminated brightly by the critical terms of Professors Wellek and Frye. Nathalie Sarraute's latest book, The Golden Fruits, and Marc Saporta’s “shuffle novel,” Number 1, deny the conventional idea of structure. The first is a novel about a novel which cancels itself in the very act of reading; the second is a stratagem which accepts the principle of chance as an integral part of the literary experience. As for Burroughs’ The Soft Machine, it applies— to what extent, no one will know— the “cut up method of Brion Gysin,” a method which combines collage and montage. If these works possess a form, it is probably a “non-telic" form of the kind recently reflected in painting and music."[22] Must we then dismiss such works as faddish freaks, of more interest to literary gossip than literary history?

In France, where criticism has been long associated with the spirit of lucidity, critics take a different stand. A quick look at some of their statements may persuade us that their view of literature is not too far from the view I have proposed. The common theme of Claude Mauriac’s The New Literature is stated thus: “After the silence of Rimbaud, the blank page of Mallarmé, the inarticulate cry of Artaud, a literature finally dissolves in alliteration with Joyce. The author of Finnegans Wake in fact creates out of whole cloth words full of so many diverse overtones that they are eclipsed by them. For Beckett, on the contrary, words all say the same thing."[23] The theme of Roland Barthes' Le Degré Zéro de L‘Ecriture is similar: the avatar of the new literature is absence. Barthes writes: “dans ces écritures neutres, appelées ici ‘le degré zéro de l’écriture,' on peut facilement discerner le mouvement même d’une négation, comme si la Littérature, tendant depuis un siècle à transmuer sa surface dans une forme sans hérédité, ne trouvait plus de pureté que dans l’absence de tout signe, proposant en fin l’accomplissement de ce rêve orphéen: un écrivain sans Littérature."[24] Likewise, for Maurice Blanchot literature is moving toward “l’ère saris parole.” This movement may lead to a form of writing that is incessant sound; or it may lead, as Blanchot states in Le Livre à Venir, quite in the other direction: “la littérature va vers elle-même, vers son essence qui est la disparition.”[25] Both directions, we can surmise, end in the dissolution of significant form, the abdication of language. Is this silence at the heart of modern literature the definition of outrage, a subjective correlative of our terror? Or is the monstrous language of action, which Bachelard [26] believes to be pointing, beyond Lautréamontism, toward “une réintegration de l'humain dans la vie ardente...,” a closer correlative of that terror? We can only observe that from Sade and Lautréamont to Kafka and Beckett, the twin dark streams of poetry, the poetry of action and the poetry of silence, have been flowing toward some unknown sea wherein some figure of apocalypse, man or beast, still lies submerged.

Critics, however, are of many ilks, and for some the mantic role is as foreign as Elijah's. I wish to force no prophecies in the mouths of students of literature. Still, it is not unreasonable to ask that criticism evolve a method which takes deeper cognizance of the evolving character of life as of literature. The point is almost too obvious: contemporary letters can be judged as little by the standards of pure formalism as, let us say, Romantic poetry can we evaluated by the strict conventions of neo-Classicism.

The problem of criticism, however, must not be left to the indolent spirit of literary relativism. Indeed, the problems may not prove to be one of literary method at all. The problem of criticism is always the challenge of awareness, full awareness of human existence in time and in place, but also outside of both, in the dream world which antecedes all responsibilities. In the end, perhaps, the problem of critics and poets alike is one of human destiny. To say less is to confuse cowardice with modesty.

If there is underlying theme in recent American criticism, it is the implicit theme of crisis, a crisis not merely of literary method but of literature itself, which means of culture and consciousness. The crisis, as Nicolas Berdyaev knew, is not the crisis of humanism but of humanity itself. In the past, periods of crisis have often bred visions of apocalypse.[27] Such visions may come our way again. They may even lurk in a critic's perplexity. Here is how Krieger put the question: “Or is it, perhaps, that the Kierkegaardian version is right and that our world has itself become the tragic visionary in its unbelief using self-destructive crises to force itself finally to confront the absurdities of earthly reality...? Which is to ask fearfully and even unwillingly, whether we have not been beguiled by aesthetic satisfactions and whether the utterly striped tragic vision may not after all be less illusory than the fullness which shines through tragedy."[28]

This is no time to sit in judgment on the world or to interpret its modern tragedy. From the Revelation of St. John the Divine to Norman O. Brown’s extraordinary PBK address, entitled "Apocalypse,” men have envisioned the destruction of the world and foreseen its resurrection. “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power...,” St. John says.[29] But we are not at the first resurrection yet; we are not even beyond madness. Thus from Norman O. Brown: “The alternative to mind is certainly madness... Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness: open your eyes and look around you—madness is in the saddle anyhow.”[30] What task will criticism perform, wavering between holy and unholy madness? What bootless task?

Criticism is no country for old men of any age. Criticism, which was born to behold literature, must still do so and look beyond itself. Tack and rigor may attend all our words, but our words, but our words will avail nothing if man prevails not. What lies beyond criticism? D.H. Lawrence knew. This is what he says in his Apocalypse: “O lovely green dragon of the new day, the undawned day, come come in touch, and release us from the horrid grip of the evil-smelling old Logos! Come in silence, and say nothing. Come in touch, in soft new touch like a spring-time, and say nothing.”[31]

This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.


  1. In recent criticism, certain works have already begun to reflect this particular concern. Besides the works by R. W. B. Lewis and Murray Krieger already cited, one might mention Geoffrey Hartman, The Unmediated Vision (New Haven, 1954), Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence (Princeton, 1961), Frederick J. Hoffman, The Mortal No (Princeton, 1964), and Arturo B. Fallico, Art and Existentialism (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1962).
  2. These heretical statements are developed more fully in my essay "The Dismemberment of Orpheus," American Scholar, XXXII.


  1. Wellek 1963, p. 343.
  2. Durrell & Perles 1961, p. 9.
  3. Trilling 1962, p. 267 ff.
  4. Buber 1955, p. 10.
  5. Ong 1962, p. 19, 25.
  6. Sartre 1948, p. 72, 98.
  7. Camus 1961, p. 251.
  8. Miller 1939, p. 156, 38 ff.
  9. Krieger 1960, p. 2, 244.
  10. Miller, Shapiro & Slote 1960, p. 238.
  11. Lewis 1959, p. 9.
  12. Adams 1962, p. 245, 253.
  13. Camus 1959, p. 72 ff.
  14. Hassan 1963, p. 463-484.
  15. Wellek 1963, p. 65.
  16. Wellek 1963, p. 68.
  17. Wellek 1963, p. 333 ff.
  18. Wellek 1963, p. 342.
  19. Frye 1963, p. 123.
  20. Frye 1963, p. 136.
  21. Frye 1963, p. 140.
  22. Meyer 1963, p. 169-186.
  23. Mauriac 1959, p. 12.
  24. Barthes 1959, p. 12.
  25. Blanchot 1959, p. 237.
  26. Bachelard 1963, p. 154.
  27. Rowley nd, p. 150-178.
  28. Krieger 1960, p. 12.
  29. Revelation nd, p. xx.6.
  30. Brown 1961, p. 47.
  31. Lawrence, 1931 & pp. 233 ff.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Robert Martin (1962). Surface and Symbol: The Consistency of James Joyce's Ulysses. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Bachelard, Gaston (1963). Lautréamont. Paris.
  • Barthes, Roland (1959). Le Degré Zéro de L'Ecriture. Paris.
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