The Skeptic Disposition in Contemporary Criticism, by Eugene Goodheart. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 188 pp. $22.50. ``The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it,'' wrote the 18th-century poet, essayist, scholar, and critic Samuel Johnson.
Our contemporary literary critics, however, have taken issue with that idea, and Eugene Goodheart's welcome new book takes a hard look at the philosophical bent of these critics, now dominant in the universities. Goodheart is professor of humanities at Brandeis University and the author of several books on the radical orientation of modern literary studies. In this book his subjects include, among others, Roland Barthes, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Stanley Fish -- a ll immensely learned scholars, who can be charming in a way.
They can talk like this: ``If there were a definition of difference, it would be precisely the limit, the interruption, the destruction of the Hegelian rel`eve [Aufhebung] wherever it operates.''
They stick to abstractions, quotes from Hegel and Heidegger, the rhetorical figure of apposition, and they use words like ``precisely'' at precisely the moment you had lost your patience with them.
The trouble is that these critics have nothing to say to the general reader.
Readers like stories. The modern critic, in his flight from language as we speak it and life as we live it, has no conception of what makes the new story writers of our time -- we are in the middle of a true renaissance of the short story -- and the general reader so pleased with each other. Anthologies of short stories abound. Open The Graywolf Annual, a very fine one, and read: ``I had not been back in town long. Maybe a month was all.'' You're hooked; you tune in. The success of storytellers li ke Bobbie Ann Mason (see review opposite) tells us something about our times these critics need to attend to.
Today's critics don't listen, rather they unravel or ``deconstruct'' a story or poem to show how the author was a victim of forces and how the text is a symptom of a big problem. Ask them to define the problem, and they will beg off because the question is suspicious. That they have taken over the academic study of literature would be a tragedy if the word ``tragedy'' weren't suspicious, too.
The radical skeptics don't think literature is about anything, except maybe itself, or aspects of language. They are really ideologists intent on demonstrating that every value is tied to something nasty we didn't know about. One of the permanent values -- go ahead, deconstruct me! -- of Goodheart's analysis is his description of modern criticism as a ``disabling suspicion.''
His epigraph from T. S. Eliot sets the scene: ``Skepticism is a highly civilised trait, though, when it declines into pyrrhonism, it is one of which civilisation can die. Where skepticism is strength, pyrrhonism is weakness: for we need not only the strength to defer a decision, but the strength to make one.''
Now listen, if you can -- and it isn't easy -- to these critics. When Paul de Man reads a story (admittedly he's reading a writer as difficult as Proust, but still), he says things like: ``The passage is about the aesthetic superiority of metaphor over metonymy.''
Incredible! One of the many questions that flows from that statement is: Why does he italicize ``about''? Because he's consciously misusing a term of normal discourse, wrenching it into shape for himself.
The late Roland Barthes went further than this sentence does. He created in his writing an aristocratic pleasure garden from which all authors were banished. For Barthes, Goodheart explains, ``the pleasure of the text is in the making of one's own text at the expense of the text of another.''
This can be catching. I once heard a junior faculty member at Berkeley reply to an objection -- backed by a point of fact -- that for him facts (who, what, why, when, where) were irrelevant; what mattered was his presence at the symposium. He very soon got tenure at the university. Imagine, students are now, at this very moment, thinking of taking his course!
Reading the radical critics forces us back to Johnson's conclusion: The meaning of literature is inseparable from the meaning of life. Reject the question of the meaning of life, and you can't answer the question ``What is the meaning of this novel?''
Unfortunately, as ``The Skeptic Disposition'' shows, most of the big critics today have rejected or deferred the question of the meaning of life. Goodheart is much too nice a man to say it in so many words. So he shows it.
He shows it by defining, by sensitive and thorough readings of critical works, the kind of criticism popular in academic circles today.
Anyone concerned with the rise of a criticism that divorces literature from life should read it.
The book isn't all expos'e. It contains some answers. Good-heart's own kind of skepticism is healthy. It goes back to Keats's notion of ``Negative Capability'': the capacity ``of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'' Without that, you can't really enjoy a story. With it, you can enjoy the ``endlessly amusing and deeply serious games'' that the imaginative skepticism of a writer-critic-teacher like the late Vladimir Nabokov continues to provide the general reader who isn't afraid of life, or art.