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
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
Lodge’s own social background would not seem intensively Irish; but in the ‘educated plain man’ posture of much of his writing he enacts something of the inside/outside ambivalence typical of that situation. It is arguable, however, that with him the impulse to integrate has proved considerably stronger than the drive of critical dissent, while not entirely eradicating the latter. Unlike most other prominent Catholic novelists of the century, Lodge’s religious faith appears in his writing in peculiarly privatized, notional form. He is, in effect, a thoroughly secularized author, whose Catholicism makes little difference to his conventional liberal vision other than providing him with convenient materials for social commentary and comic satire. Unlike a Graham Greene, whose novels continually pose secular and religious experience in complex tension, or an Evelyn Waugh, whose secular world is so remorselessly two-dimensional that God can be sensed as an implied alternative to it, Lodge’s writing is almost wholly unmarked by spiritual passion—a dimension which apparently remains locked within a separate compartment of the self, and which would only disturb the comic equipoise of his fiction. The only novel of his which engages Catholicism as its central theme—How Far Can You Go?—is ethical and sociological rather than
In this sense, then, Lodge is not a Catholic writer at all; instead, his work reflects a necessary marginalization of such exotic metaphysical commitments in the commonsensical world of English middle-class liberalism. The authorial persona which emerges from his fiction is too hopelessly balanced and conventionally-minded to entertain any such absolutist creed, which must then remain a disconnected set of doctrines which for some private reason he happens to hold. It is a little as though one were to discover that Martin Amis is in private life a Seventh Day Adventist, or that Margaret Drabble is a dedicated Satanist. Where Lodge is most typically Roman Catholic is not in the substance of his fiction, but in the running conflict between doctrine and experience, now translated as the fraught encounter between literary theory and liberal humanism. Like literary theory, Roman Catholic dogma is a kind of hermetic game, a shuffling of neo-scholastic categories with little apparent relation to daily life; yet these categories concern the most crucial truths of human existence, solidly ‘realist’ beneath their apparently non-referential significations. What seems at first glance a wholly dissociated discourse in fact rigorously orders one’s routine life, as the apparently ‘unreal’ discourse of romance organizes the minute social details of Lodge’s novel Small World. From the sacramental to the semiotic is a shorter distance than it might seem.