St Catherine’s, the college to which I have just migrated, got its name by a mistake.footnote1 The college began life in the nineteenth century as a society for matriculating students too poor to gain entry to the University, which is not least of the reasons why I am honoured to be associated with it. For their social centre, the early students used St Catherine’s dining rooms, so-called because they were situated on Catte Street, and ‘Catte’ was mistakenly thought to be an abbreviation of ‘Catherine’. Hence the name of the modern college. There can’t be many Oxford colleges named after a café, though the name of my old college, Wadham, smacks a little of a department store. There is rich material here for theoretical reflection, on catachresis and the floating signifier; on the mimicry and self-masking of the oppressed; on the parodic process, noted in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, whereby an impoverished present decks itself out in the alluring insignia of a sacred past; on the appropriation of a woman’s name, and the name of a martyr at that, by a group of dispossessed men; and on the Nietzschean notion of genealogy, that
I don’t in fact intend to say much at all about critical theory—the intellectual equivalent of crack, as Geoffrey Elton has called it—since I find myself increasingly restive with a discourse which obtrudes its ungainly bulk between reader and text. You may have noticed that some critical languages do this more than others. Terms such as ‘symbol’, ‘spondee’, ‘organic unity’ and ‘wonderfully tactile’ draw the literary work closer to us, while words like ‘gender’, ‘signifier’, ‘subtext’ and ‘ideology’ simply push it away. It is helpful on the whole to speak of ‘cosmic vision’ but not of ‘colonialism’, of ‘beauty’ but not ‘the bourgeoisie’. We may talk of the oppressiveness of the human condition, but to mention the oppressiveness of any particular group of people within it is to stray out of literature into sociology. ‘Richly metaphorical’ is ordinary language, readily understood from Bali to the Bronx; ‘radically masculinist’ is just the barbarous jargon of those who, unlike C.S. Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard, insist on importing their tiresome ideological preoccupations into properly aesthetic matters. But I will not speak much of theory because it is in any case the mere tip of a much bulkier iceberg, one element of a project which is out to liquidate meaning, destroy standards, replace Beowulf with the Beano Annual and compose a syllabus consisting of nothing but Geordie folk songs and gay graffiti. What is at stake, in other words, is nothing less than a pervasive crisis of Western culture itself; and though this epochal upheaval is not everywhere dramatically apparent, and certainly not in the Oxford Examination Schools, we should remind ourselves of Walter Benjamin’s dictum that the fact that ‘everything just goes on’ is the crisis.
What is the nature of this upheaval? It is surely coupled with a crisis of nationhood, for what after all holds the nation together but culture? Not geography, to be sure: you can be British in Hong Kong or Gibraltar; and not just the political state either, since that somewhat anaemic unity has to be fleshed out in the lived experience of a corporate form of life. But that corporate national identity has now been thrown into question by a number of factors: by the advent of a multinational capitalism which traverses national frontiers as casually as The Waste Land; by the geopolitical transformations through which the advanced nations are now swinging their guns from facing eastwards to train them on the south; by the impact of revolutionary
None of this is irrelevant to the study of English, as Sir Arthur Quiller Couch well knew. ‘Few in this room,’ he remarked in Cambridge in 1916, ‘are old enough to remember the shock of awed surmise which fell on young minds presented, in the late 70s or 80s of the last century, with Freeman’s Norman Conquest or Green’s Short History of the English People, in which, as though parting clouds of darkness, we beheld our ancestry, literary as well as political, radiantly legitimised.’footnote2 The study of English was from the outset all about the legitimacy of national origins, all to do with the unspeakable anxiety that you might turn out as a nation to be something of a bastard. Hitching the study of modern English to the rude manly vigour of the Anglo-Saxons was one way of laying claim to such a suitably authorizing heritage, though it posed a problem too: did we really want to be as rude, hairy and vigorous as all that? As one early opponent of English at Oxford put it: ‘An English school will grow up, nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance.’footnote3 ‘Ethnicity’ was not drafted into English studies by the polytechnics; it was of the essence from the beginning. English first germinates in Victorian England as part of a deeply racialized ethnology, and its immediate forebear is a comparative philology which seeks in language the evolutionary laws of racial or national Geist. If, for Oxford students today, so-called Old English is compulsory but a systematic reflection on what it means to read is not, this is a direct consequence of the racism and chauvinism of our forefathers. ‘I would like to get up a team of a hundred professors,’ commented Oxford’s Sir Walter Raleigh, with the civilized humanism which was to become the hallmark of his subject, ‘and challenge a hundred Boche professors. Their deaths would be a benefit to the human race.’footnote4 And Raleigh was a good deal more liberal-minded than almost any of his colleagues.
Confronted in the early decades of this century by the challenge of a cosmopolitan modernism, English responded with the ersatz internationalism of Empire, at once global in reach and securely nationcentred. The writ of the English language ran all the way from Kerry to Kuala Lumpur; yet this confident hegemony contained the seeds of its own deconstruction. For it was characteristic of the Leavisian ideology of English, at least, to discern a peculiarly intimate relation
Nobody out there beyond academia cares very much whether we talk about signifiers rather than symbols, or codes rather than conventions; it is not for these sorts of reasons that literature has become important, or that there has been so much blood on the Senior Common Room floors. If literature is important today, it is because it is held to incarnate, in peculiarly graphic and sensuous form, the fundamental, universal language of humanity, at a moment when the regimes under which we live have need of that notion but have themselves rendered it profoundly problematical. Literature provides our most intimate, subtly affective acquaintance with that tongue, and so is the concrete correlate of that abstract political unity which we share as formally equal citizens of the state. I should confess in parenthesis here that I too believe in a common humanity, but that as a socialist I regard it less as an intuitive given than as a political task still to be undertaken. But for those who do not hold that view, the current challenge to this particular ideology of literature is understandably alarming. For many of them have long ceased to identify much of value in social life in general; and if the aesthetic cannot articulate that value, then where else, in a progressively degraded society, is there to go? If the materialists can get their grubby paws even on that, then the game is surely up. It is no doubt for this reason that the infighting over something as apparently abstruse as literary theory has been so symptomatically virulent; for what we are really speaking of here is the death of civilization as we know it. What is at stake in these contentions is nothing less than the devastating historical irony by which the advanced capitalist system has come steadily to undermine its own metaphysical rationales. And this is a good deal more serious than the question of whether jouissance or utter tedium is the most appropriate way to describe our response to The Battle of Malden.
Like many human societies to date, capitalist regimes need to