In one of Matthew Arnold’s most celebrated lyrics, ‘Dover Beach’, the speaker projects his state of mind onto the sea, which he perceives as cold, unfeeling and foreign.footnote1 Only at the beginning of the fourth stanza does he find some kind of comfort, in the presence of a beloved. But even this brief glimpse of hope is undercut and quickly gives way to disenchantment:

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Dover Beach’ appeared in Arnold’s last collection of poetry, New Poems (1867), which was a swan-song of sorts: Arnold seems to have felt that poetry was unable to alter human conduct in ways appropriate to modern life. He therefore turned to criticism, in an attempt to craft the conditions that would reinvigorate poetry’s potential to do so. One of his most significant contributions to criticism was, in his preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869), the redefinition of culture as ‘a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. It was through the cultivation of this disposition that men of different classes would be able to meet on equal terms. Shedding light on the darkling plain of the present, culture would abolish the typically English religion of inequality. Born out of his experiences on the Continent, this definition of culture was a controversial one, as it challenged an older and very different idea of culture as a set of customs and traditions: given the weight that patriotism carried in Victorian public discourse, many of Arnold’s fellow citizens would have been reluctant to alienate themselves from this more traditional notion. As a result, the Arnoldian quest for culture became something of a phantom formation, its potential unrealized and its purposiveness elusive. It is this constitutive instability that gave rise to a discourse in which culture began to speak about itself and its conditions of existence.

In an earlier study, Culture/Metaculture (2000), Francis Mulhern charted the course of this discourse in the twentieth century while, from the side-lines, taking aim at many of its practitioners for collapsing the sphere of politics into that of aesthetics. Statements in metacultural discourse, in Mulhern’s analysis, tend to usurp the place of judgements that properly belong to the domain of politics. It is this observation that led Mulhern to posit a hidden continuity between the elitist cultural criticism of the first half of the twentieth century (as practised by such different figures as F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot) and the more popular criticism within the discipline of Cultural Studies of the second half (whose foundational figure is Stuart Hall). Mulhern’s characterization of these two seemingly opposite schools of thought and the implication that they are antagonistic variants of a shared metacultural discourse did not go unchallenged, however. In the pages of this journal, for instance, Stefan Collini’s review sparked a critical exchange. It was from this ‘timely provocation’, as Mulhern describes it, that his new book was born. In Figures of Catastrophe, Mulhern examines how metacultural discourse sustains a current in the twentieth-century novel: not only do these novels suggest the usurpation of the place of politics in metacultural discourse, but they arguably do so in the name of a specific selectivitythe ‘best that has been thought and said’—within the totality of significations that comprise any given culture. Mulhern thus effectively taxes what he calls the ‘condition of culture’ novel with performing a double distortion, masking an order of power as an order of meanings, and doing so in the name of a particular, arbitrary hierarchy of meanings.

One of the fundamental insights of Figures of Catastrophe is the observation that the matter of culture has been dealt with in novels, presumably that most bourgeois of literary forms. For Arnold, after all, it was only in (classical) poetry that an imaginative engagement with the conditions of modernity could be staged. Many later thinkers about culture also favoured the lyric. W. B. Yeats famously lamented that in the present ‘all neglect / monuments of unaging intellect’. T. S. Eliot, too, clothed his critical metier with his authority as a poet. And in ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’, Theodor Adorno declaimed that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. To suggest that the novel has taken part in the development of metacultural discourse is thus not self-evident. Perhaps this built-in lack of affinity partly explains why, as Mulhern shows, the twentieth-century novel proved to be an inhospitable environment for Arnold’s critical enterprise.