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Response to Review of Common Writing: Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate

One reason for accepting the invitation of the editors to respond to Tim Rogan’s review-essay is that it provides me with an opportunity to thank Rogan publicly for an exceptionally attentive, thoughtful discussion of my book. Such care and such engagement are, alas, not at all to be taken for granted in reviews, and so I am all the more grateful to encounter an impressive display of those qualities in this case. Of course, few authors can ever be entirely comfortable with all the details of a reviewer’s characterization of their work, but I do want to begin by acknowledging some of the astute things Rogan says about the essays in Common Writing and indeed about aspects of my work more generally. It is, for example, refreshing to find a critic who recognizes that ‘staying faithful to the particulars’ does not preclude ‘the construction of patterns’, or who identifies what he kindly calls ‘an analytical drive’ in my work, or who spots that, fundamentally, I have greater affinities with a ‘moral realist’ like Lionel Trilling than with the knocking cynicism of the later Kingsley Amis, for all that I sometimes find the style of the former a little portentous and the manner of the latter engagingly unpretentious. A few of Rogan’s other characterizations are harder to recognize: my 50th-anniversary assessment of the achievements of New Left Review, for example, is surely more positive (perhaps even a little awe-struck?) than he suggests, and I cannot see that pointing, in my final essay on social attitudes and inequality, to the ‘individualism’ at the heart of so much contemporary right-wing sermonizing can properly be understood as a ‘reversion to the Diceyean terminology’ of the beginning of the 20th century. But these are, as so often, partly arguable matters of emphasis and selection. In this response I shall leave aside those minor reservations in order to concentrate on the broader question raised by Rogan’s piece about what might be looked for in a collection of essays on literary and intellectual history.

The framework and informing energy of Rogan’s piece derive from the large conceptual constructions of social theory. He begins with Perry Anderson’s celebrated 1968 article about the alleged absence of such constructions in British intellectual life, and he more than once returns to Anderson’s argument in the course of his appraisal of my work. This enables him to claim, centrally, that ‘the major challenge’ is one that ‘goes beyond disproving Anderson’s polemical account’ in order ‘to construct an argument about what the relevant developments [sc. in mid-20th-century British intellectual life] actually were’. I have elsewhere expressed, at some length, both my admiration for, and my reservations about, Anderson’s brilliant essay, so I am not in danger of under-estimating its interest in its own terms. But those terms are not my terms and I am not persuaded that my terms are shown up by the contrast to be somehow less interesting or less important or less valid. I appreciate, of course, that reviewing a collection of essays can be a tricky assignment and that it can sometimes be helpful to import an organizing idea from elsewhere as a way of providing some unifying themes for one’s account. But the architecture of Rogan’s piece is, not unlike Anderson’s original essay, structured around an absence, something that is missing but which should, he constantly implies, be there, and this is where the large questions about what to expect from intellectual history come to the fore.

Underlying his handling of specific or local points is Rogan’s own pre-occupation with something he regards as more fundamental, namely a level of paradigmatic concepts that mould and find expression in the intellectual life of a period. He believes that he can identify the ‘new conceptualisations of the individual’s relationship with society’ that were fundamental in the first half of the 20th century, conceptualisations that operated on the same scale as ‘the conjectures of the great 18th-century political economists’ and that went beyond ‘the utilitarianism of the 19th century’. Staying at this level of generality or abstraction, he insists that we need to find the comparably structuring concepts for the intellectual life of the second half of the century, a task which, despite my apparent qualifications for undertaking it, I fail to complete.

I am not suggesting that there is something inherently illegitimate in looking for such conceptual patterns or that I find them devoid of interest. But I would most strenuously challenge the assumption, clearly evident in Rogan’s discussion, that such an approach to intellectual history has some kind of priority over, or some more fundamental status than, other approaches, and I would similarly challenge the implication that the intellectual or literary historian is in any way obliged to identify or develop a set of concepts operating at a comparable level of abstraction. One give-away term here, it seems to me, occurs when Rogan speaks (in the phrase quoted above) of ‘construct[ing] an argument about what the relevant developments actually were’. ‘Relevant’ to what?, one may ask. Each kind of enquiry generates its own criteria of relevance: in this instance, the relevance seems to be to the attempt to trace the emergence of new ‘fundamental concepts of man and society’. But who says that that is what we must be looking for above all? It strikes me as a rather curious preoccupation to bring to essays on, say, Pound’s poetry, Greene’s novels, Priestley’s social commentary, Pevsner’s architectural history, and Hitchens’s journalism – just to cite a few of the pieces not mentioned by Rogan. Here I am not reproaching him for failing to discuss these or other pieces: as I’ve suggested, the heterogeneity of such a collection defies comprehensive enumeration in a review. But that is not sufficient reason to whistle up Procrustes and his bed to supply a frame. Even if a reviewer wanted to relate this volume to some of my other writings, as Rogan gratifyingly does, we can still ask why one would want to impose that framework on this material.

One of the ways in which I realize my response may seem ungracious is that, in taking these essays so seriously and in looking to me to uncover intellectual patterns which have, it seems, so far eluded everyone else, Rogan may appear to be paying me a considerable compliment. I am, in one sense, flattered by his expectations, but I also feel that he is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. I’ve always liked Bishop Butler’s much-quoted dictum that ‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’. I take Butler to be urging us to recognize and to hold onto the quiddity of distinct phenomena of all kinds, even as we philosophize about them. Intellectual work involves constant re-description as we search for fresh levels of understanding, and that necessarily involves seeing any given ‘thing’ as, for various purposes, an instance of ‘another thing’, sometimes some larger category or generalization. The trick is never to lose sight of the irreducible specificity of whatever phenomena we’re handling even as we use them as building blocks of something larger. A collection of essays on aspects of literary and intellectual life is not an attempt to uncover some fundamental concepts of social theory: it is an attempt, or series of attempts, to capture some of the multifariousness of that life. It does not, and should not, start with the assumption that the ideas of figures such as William James or Graham Wallas about ‘the individual’s relationship with society’ are somehow more important, more fundamental, or more explanatory than the various ideas expressed by the figures whom the essays discuss. The book’s subtitle is ‘Essays on Literary Culture and Public Debate’. That does signal what are, I think, a recurrent set of concerns: a pre-occupation with individual writing ‘voices’ and their relation to various forms of public discussion; an interest in the arsenal of discursive forms deployed by different writers; an attention to those moments when a writer or scholar goes beyond the confines of their specialized audience; and a constant attentiveness to that ‘cool web of language’ that ‘winds us in’, as the epigraph from Robert Graves has it. I certainly acknowledge that readers may find other patterns of significance in these essays, perhaps recurrent themes or tropes that I am only partly aware of. I am not at all resistant to being the object of good criticism of this type, and in some early paragraphs Rogan does just this and does it fairly and well. But such characteristics of my writing as he identifies are then deployed as evidence of my larger failure, the failure to answer the question ‘Were new “fundamental concepts of man and society” forged during this period?’ I don’t so much plead ‘not guilty’ to the implied charge: rather, I dispute the primacy of this conceptual language and the implication that this is what intellectual historians should be trying to uncover.

Having cited a couple of my word-portraits that he particularly appreciated, Rogan ends by saying that

the vividness of these characterizations only sharpened my appetite for an explanation of how and why the sensibility that produced T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ and R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism gave way to the surmise that a habit of ‘wondering what to look for’ and a ‘feeling that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit’ is all that we ever really have in common.

I’m again grateful for the compliment that is lightly bestowed along the way here, but there are several claims condensed in this sentence that seem to me questionable. Having elsewhere written quite a lot about Eliot’s essay and Tawney’s book, I find it hard to see them as the ‘products’ of a single ‘sensibility’, and no way of putting those two interesting but diverse pieces of writing on some kind of equal footing with the sentiments gestured to by the phrases quoted from Larkin and Empson, as well as no reason for claiming that those latter sentiments are ‘all that we ever really have in common’. There may, of course, be interesting things to be said about the contrasts between certain common preoccupations or tones of the 1920s and 1930s and those of the 1950s and 1960s, contrasts that may go beyond emphasizing the distinctiveness of any individual writer. But we should look very quizzically indeed at anything that purports to be an ‘explanation’ of how something treated (against the grain of the evidence, I would say) as a single ‘sensibility’ gives way to a different single sensibility, when each is taken to be somehow the defining spirit of their respective ages. And we should look more quizzically still at the assumption that the ground of this explanation will be found in a set of concepts generated by a particular form of social theorizing. More broadly, I see no reason to accede to the imperialism of Anderson’s notion of a ‘‘strategic band’ of the culture’, and no reason to think that in revisiting the work of a diverse array of writers and commentators in 20th-century Britain one should be looking for evidence of the ‘fundamental concepts of man and society’ which that ‘strategic band’ allegedly supplies. In its address to the past, intellectual history surely has to be more plural than that.