There is surely no doubt that Fredric Jameson is not only an eminent critic but a great one, fit to assume his place in a roll-call of illustrious names stretching from Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Burke, F. R. Leavis and Northrop Frye to I. A. Richards, William Empson and Paul de Man. Even this is to limit the judgement to Anglophone colleagues only, whereas the true field of comparison ranges much more widely. No literary scholar today can match Jameson’s versatility, encyclopaedic erudition, imaginative brio or prodigious intellectual energy. In an age when literary criticism, like so much else, has suffered something of a downturn, with forlornly few outstanding figures in the field, Jameson looms like a holdover from a grander cultural epoch altogether, a refugee from the era of Shklovsky and Auerbach, Jakobson and Barthes, who is nonetheless absolutely contemporary.

To mention the name of Barthes, however, is to indicate one way in which Jameson has the edge over almost all of his confrères. For he is surely one of the most superb critical stylists in a largely styleless age. As Perry Anderson has put it, he is quite simply ‘a great writer’.footnote1 Consider, for example, this breathtaking patch of prose from an essay entitled ‘Towards a Libidinal Economy of Three Modern Painters’, to be found in the author’s recently published collection, The Modernist Papers. Jameson is examining what he calls the ‘flat’ in the paintings of De Kooning, by which he means ‘stretches of painted colour across which the eye skids without so much as raising a ripple’:

You have to imagine, I think, a process of effraction that seizes on the line itself, tangling it, as in the charcoal sketches, making it shiver and vibrate, shattering it rhythmically into pencil shadings, like so many overtones. Here some inner compulsion of line, some originary nervousness, makes it want to burst its two-dimensional limits and produce, out of its own inner substance, smears that co-opt and preempt its primal adversary, the brush-stroke itself . . . In De Kooning, line transforms itself, it splays out, fanning into distinct yet parallel ridges and streams of paint, refracting the original substance into strands that have different densities, some mountainous and bristling, others trickling down the canvas in tears that no longer seem the marks and traces of maladresse. Line is now brush-stroke and colour; its new structural opposite, the flat, is something that happens to the latter, rather than a place of freedom and of private, personal expression in its own right.footnote2

Some readers might find this overblown: too flamboyantly ‘writerly’ to have its eye genuinely on the visual object. My own sense is that, as with all Jameson’s finest writing, these lines stay just this side of too portentous an awareness of their own brilliance, unfurling with all the mounting drama and excitement of the great Proustian period yet with something of its tact and finesse as well, if not exactly its air of naturalness or civilized lucidity. One feels, as one does not with Proust, that there is a turbulent linguistic energy at work here which might breed some disturbingly frenetic effects were it to let rip, rather as the De Kooning brush-stroke threatens to burst at the seams and spill its contents all about it. Indeed, I have suggested elsewhere that part of Jameson’s perverse fascination with Wyndham Lewis—‘the brutal and boring Wyndham Lewis’, as Leavis aptly called him—may be that he detects in Lewis’s flailing, agitated prose a kind of savage caricature or nightmarish version of what his own literary style might look like if it were to throw off all decorum.footnote3 In the passage I have just quoted, however, his prose is in sufficiently fine fettle to risk the odd touch of rhetorical inflation without fear of losing either its shapeliness or its momentum. If there is any inflation at work here, it is in the way language strives to project these smears and trickles of paint on to some broader screen of structural meaning, without detriment to their sensuous specificity. Deciphering the relations between daubs of paint is at one with interpreting the relations between certain conflicting forces and ideas.

We shall see later how this stylistic achievement, in which the sensible and intelligible constantly play into one another, is also in Jameson’s view a solution to what he takes to be the central dilemma of modernism. Meanwhile, we can note that this is also a solution of sorts to the conflict between the postmodern culture Jameson feels we have at least to live with, and the high modernist art where a precious part of him is still at home. Modernism, he comments here, is still all about language, whereas postmodernism by and large displaces the sensory focus from the verbal to the visual. By writing in such unabashed high-modernist style about the painterly, then, the author of Marxism and Form and the dazzling film and architectural critic who was to emerge later are shown to be secretly at one.