The success of the ‘campus’ novel in England is not hard to account for. Ever since Burke and Coleridge’s testy polemics against the Jacobins, the English attitude to the intelligentsia has been one of profound ambivalence. Intellectuals are seen as faintly sinister figures, bohemian and nonconformist, treasonable clerks whose heartless celebrations pose a threat to the unreflective pieties of ordinary life. But they are also pathetically ineffectual characters—crumpled figures of fun pursuing their ludicrous abstractions at a remote distance from the bustle of daily life. The anxiety and resentment they inspire can thus be conveniently defused by a sense of their farcical irrelevance; and Napoleon’s dismissal of the Enlightenment ideologues as at once subversive and superfluous captures this ambivalence exactly. The intellectual combines the fascination of the offbeat with the comic relief of the harmless eccentric, and is thus fit meat for a kind of fiction which equivocates between a satiric criticism of everyday middle-class life and an unshaken commitment to its fundamental values. Something of the same ambiguity can be traced in the relation of the university to society as a whole. As a place set somewhat apart, the university has the glamour of the deviant and untypical, providing the novelist with a conveniently closed worlds marked by intellectual wrangling, political infighting and sexual intrigue. Yet in its bureaucratic routines and down-at-heel dreariness it is also sufficiently continuous with the wider society to act as a microcosm of middle-class mores. It is neither too hermetically sealed from the social order to be of merely specialist interest, nor too commonplace to be merely tedious. The ‘campus’ novel thus provides one kind of solution to a problem which has never ceased to dog the modern English novel, and which is nothing less than how ordinary social experience is to offer a fertile soil for fictional creation. The striking number of contemporary novels written in England but set in some non-English locale seems to testify to a genuine difficulty here—to a sense that from the viewpoint of ‘creative’ writing there is something peculiarly unpropitious about the typical social experience of an industrially declining, culturally parochial, post-imperial nation. English literature’s traditional solution to this dilemma has been to import the exotic, estranging perspectives it lacks: hence the entry into the indigenous canon of the emigrés and expatriates (James, Conrad, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett), writers who brought with them a modernist or avant-garde bravura at odds with the realist, empiricist cast of the native culture, but to which that culture could for a brief historical moment play host. In writers like E.M. Forster or Graham Greene, who export their experience to the colonial world, this movement is clearly reversible. The academic novel can offer here a characteristically English compromise, anchored as it is in the idiosyncrasies of middle-class life, yet sufficiently askew, unconventional and (given the global reach of academia) internationalist, to call that familiar existence into satiric question.

The two leading comic academic novelists of contemporary England—David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury—are both literary theorists as well as imaginative writers, a fact which is surely significant. It has always been superficially puzzling why a subject as specialist and esoteric as literary theory should have given rise in Britain to such apparently disproportionate ideological wranglings, epitomized in recent years by the extraordinarily excited attention lavished by the media on the refusal of Cambridge University to promote a post-structuralist critic. Why should a discourse of metaphor and metonymy, of signifiers and subject positions, provoke such passions and polemics? The answer, surely, lies not in the field of literary studies as such, but in its intersection with a wider ideological formation. It is a familiar left case, recurrently argued in the pages of this journal, that British bourgeois society is marked by a conflict between a pervasive cultural traditionalism and the modernizing imperatives of contemporary capitalism. In that process of capitalist modernization, the traditional humanities are by no means struck redundant; on the contrary, they continue to encode values and pieties which are ideologically essential. Yet they are also rendered progressively marginal, abstract and ineffectual by the dynamic of capitalist development itself. Liberal humanism continues to enshrine certain central moral imperatives, which late bourgeois society can on no account simply leave behind; but it also appears increasingly as a residual ideological hangover from an earlier phase of capitalist development, out of step with some of the later requirements and life-styles of the same system.

For historical reasons, British society provides a peculiarly apt microcosm of this contradiction; and it is because the contentions between literary theory and literary humanism are in turn microcosmic of this condition that they have had such far-reaching reverberations. The conflict between theory and humanism in the literary academy touches indirectly on this structural lag or hiatus at the heart of the British social formation. Structuralism is more than an analytic procedure: it is badge and code-word for a form of intellectual technocracy—alien, professionalized, European—which in its anti-humanist austerity strikes at the roots of English empiricist humanism, and so rehearses once more (though this time, some might argue, as farce) the quarrel between the pious Coleridge and the clinical Jacobins. The battle between the contradictory English perceptions of the intellectual, as at once sinister and shambolic, dangerously dissident and innocuously eccentric, becomes metonymic of the ideological dilemma of Britain as a whole, torn between a cherished but threadbare amateur humanism and an efficient but alienating professionalism. It is not surprising that this issue should come to a head in the field of literary criticism, which has always displayed an embarrassing tension between its specialist procedures and the ‘human universals’ of its content. Literary studies are the flagship of the humanities; but with the advent of literary theory the unthinkable has occurred, as the jargon of technological specialism now penetrates the very bastion of humane values. Even literature, the last refuge of the genteel amateur, is now perilously infected with its scientistic other; and it is no doubt for this reason that what might seem a mere parochial skirmish within English studies has come to assume such ominous ideological proportions.

The politics of this situation are notably ambiguous. For structuralism at once mimes the technocratic procedures of late capitalism, and threatens to undermine its protective humanist ideologies. It turns the former against the latter, installing itself in the lag between base and superstructure so as to discredit the humanist assumptions of bourgeois society with a theoretical version of its own reifying social practices. But if a traditional liberal humanism thus appears increasingly tarnished and shopsoiled, it remains for such liberal bourgeois ideologues as Lodge and Bradbury the only available source of social critique and fundamental value. This is so because the political—an alternative resolution of this dilemma which would seek out its very material conditions—is for them part of the problem rather than the solution. Marxism and feminism are yet more instances of theoreticist Eurospeak, to be blandly satirized along with floating signifiers and intertextuality. They are simply moves within the semiotic game—whereas the beauty of liberal humanism is that it is at once a move within the game and a move outside it, to those intuitive decencies beyond the long arm of politics or theory.

In the case of David Lodge, the ambivalences discussed so far are interestingly overdetermined by his Roman Catholicism. For the Roman Catholic church contains two major currents which are not always easy to square: a lineage of rigorous doctrinal thought, and a tradition of ethical and social concern. The former pulls towards a tenacious Thomistic intellectualism; the latter towards a pastoral or evangelical preoccupation with the common life of society. At the worst, these twin currents combine to deliver a callous pedantry in such matters as abortion and contraception. At the best, they can blend to incline those brought up within them to the political left. For the typical Roman Catholic receives an early training in the habits of systematic analysis which sits more comfortably with structural enquiry and holistic social theory than with liberal empiricism. Instinctively hostile to the spirit of Anglican compromise, the Catholic inherits along with this respect for strenuous thought an essentially collective theology, wary of individualism and the inner light. Values and ideas are grasped from the outset in institutional terms, as questions of common religious practice rather than private conscience. The heritage of ‘social Catholicism’, notably vigorous in Britain, can translate itself under propitious conditions into radical political terms. Moreover, this whole ideological formation, in Britain at least, is the product of a semi-ghettoized immigrant culture. Apart from a recusant rump, the British Roman Catholic is likely to be of working-class Irish immigrant provenance, conscious of his or her faith as a badge of difference and subalternity within the dominant social order. Even where this upbringing does not include a certain spontaneous sympathy for Irish republicanism, it is likely to be shaped by the political sensibility of a society which did not produce an indigenous bourgeoisie until this century. As in many such ghettoized environments, however, a younger generation is encouraged by its educationally deprived elders to succeed in the broader culture—to integrate and conform, while privately preserving the faith. The Roman Catholic in Britain is the classic ‘scholarship child’, urged on to intellectual achievement by a culture which has traditionally placed high value on learning and literature, but socially displaced and psychologically estranged. That these tensions can then resolve themselves in left political terms is evident enough in the relatively high number of former Roman Catholics within the British left.