Review of Philosophy of Literature: An Introduction
Christopher New, Philosophy of Literature: An Introduction (Routledge, 1999)
Reviewed by Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza
Come live with me, and be my love, And we will some new pleasures prove Of golden sands, and crystal brooks, With silken lines, and silver hooks. John Donne
John Donne, whom Christopher New himself is fond of citing, and his poem The Bait, will be our occasional companion in this review of New’s Philosophy of Literature: An Introduction (with some sporadic and additional cameos). To what end, and if an amenable escort the reader will determine by the end of this review. For now allow me to very freely adapt part of Donne’s poem opening stanza: “Of golden pages, and crystal books/With silken lines, and silver hooks” (46). This is the perspective from which I will primarily evaluate Philosophy of Literature, and which contains some implicit critical criteria. To spell these out metaphorically: Are the book’s pages treasure laden with little gold nuggets of truth we can keep on the mantle-piece for ever, as Woolf might say? Is the piece a transparent crystal through which to understand the philosophy of literature? Do its carefully worded lines act as hooks for the reader’s intellectual appetite? Will the book show the way to philosophical wisdom about literary matters while proving new pleasures? In other (more literal) words, my concern will be with the ability of New’s text to act as an introduction that furbishes both neophyte and experienced reader with a clear view of the main issues in the philosophy of literature, and which moreover entices them to examine in greater depth the issues contained or suggested within its covers. I will also assess its suitability as a pedagogical tool in the classroom, since many of its potential readers will be found on graduate and undergraduate seats, or behind actual or virtual lecterns.
This book is organized in a way that helps readers steer the right course. Its nine chapters focus on relevant and central aspects in the philosophy of literature, such as fiction, metaphor, interpretation and intention, and the definition of literature. Each chapter begins with a prologue that attempts to entice its audience with interesting questions or cases that help present the forthcoming material. Most of them are successful, but the prologues to chapter one “What is Literature?” and chapter four on our “Psychological Reactions to Fiction” stand out above the rest. On the other hand the pithy prologue to chapter five on “Imagination” leaves too much for our minds to envisage. The body of the pertinent discussion follows these prologues, divided up into logical units that highlight those central ideas that act as the backbone of the discussion. Readers will often find something surprising, revealing, or interesting therein. Every chapter is brought to a close with a succinct, condensed conclusion, perhaps too much so at times, which usually summarizes the main points New has just argued for while leading into the next line of inquiry. New’s prose is terse and clear, his arguments tight and concise. However, for all its structural soundness and careful demeanor the book exudes a misleading simplicity of style that soon becomes complex in content. Formally, this work resonates with Platonic or even Augustinian overtones as New takes his readers up an ascending staircase of philosophical disquisition while he concurrently reveals his own theory. For some, this may be instead a descent into a Dantesque inferno.
Philosophy of Literature is presented “as loosely analytic” in the preface, a fitting description of the methodology that New so adroitly handles (vii). With regard to current theoretical work being done in a postmodernist or loosely continental vein, New looks at (with) the luminous beam provided by philosophical analysis and determines that “if myself have leave to see, I need nor their light, having thee” (Donne, 46). Accordingly, this is not a book for those readers whose inclinations lie in, or at least are open to, the murkier waters of baroque discourse furbished by continental discourses-much less if they expect a fair and comprehensive engagement with them. Likewise this is not a piece for readers who are looking for a text that will not only interact with the philosophy of literature, but that will also explore the rich connections between literature and philosophy (e.g., an inquiry into how philosophical themes are developed in literature). For those who are comfortable swimming in New’s methodological waters, where analytical disquisition of an introductory but not superficial kind reigns, this is what they can expect.
The book begins promisingly with an informative discussion in the first two chapters on what literature is and what is to count as such. Following some interesting digressions on oral literature and identity criteria for works, planned to get him where he needs to, New takes as his initial insight that literature is a linguistic affair, a matter of linguistic compositions best understood in terms of ‘writing’ (on which he will build his unified approach to solving the problems to be encountered along the route). As Guildenstern would put it, agreeing with New, “Words, words. They are all we have to go on”(Stoppard, 41). After criticizing a good number of alternative views that include structuralist, formalist, and institutional ones, he opts for a family resemblance approach (34ff.). The candor he uses in his evaluation of other positions is missed on this instance. New centers his stance around an intricate speech act theory that operates as the hub that grounds the unstable rim of literature into a workable wheel, the workings of which he develops in chapter three especially, where he discusses fiction. This adapted speech act theory is clearly presented and extremely useful for New, but it seems that if this text did not rely so heavily on his views much of what he says here would be better placed in an endnote. New frankly states early on that despite the introductory nature of the book “I have not hesitated to argue for my own views where I thought that other views, even widely accepted ones, were mistaken” (vii). As it turns out the text is as much an introduction as a showcase for his views (he uses the latter to solve the problems that the former presents us with). After the discussion on fiction chapter four segues with a consideration of our psychological reactions to fiction, which New explains, are real and rational, and resorts to imagination and Walton’s seminal notion of make-believe (duly modified). Imagination is elucidated in the following chapter as, among other things, nondeceptive pretence that will instrumentally unlock the workings of irony and even metaphor.
New ably divides complex issues into more manageable problems that are handled with ease by his apparatus. The seventh chapter provides an elegant (but questionable) solution to the debate on authorial intention and its relevance to the meaning of the text, adjudicated by distinguishing between the best interpretation of a work and the author’s own interpretation that is then taken into the illocutionary (sentence based) and the supraessential (whole work) levels. But the affair can become dizzying. For instance, when the discussion in chapter six focuses on metaphor his method calls for a multileveled scaffold that will cause vertigo to some. There he appeals to speech act theory in all its complexity, first modifying the illocutionary level, and then climbing up (descending down?) the different strata. To wit, in a metaphor “the act the utterer does perform is the para-illocutionary one of nondeceptively pretending to perform an illocutionary act in which a is represented as, or as not, b, with the perlocutionary aim of getting the audience to recognise similarities or dissimilarities between them” (94). Yet he also provides fairly plain solutions, by New’s own cognizance, to prickly quandaries such as the difficult relationship between fiction and morality (108). The relationship is reconciled in chapter eight by pointing out that it is people and not books that can be dubbed immoral, since it only makes sense to ascribe moral predicates to agents, not sentences (121f.).
“Let coarse bold hands, from slimy nest/The bedded fish in banks out-wrest, /Of curious traitors, slave silk flies/Bewitch poor fishes wandering eyes”(Donne, 47). While New is not deceptive in the insidious way Donne evokes, he does fish in waters that are misleadingly shallow, and whose actual depth may prove to be intimidating. Scrupulous arguments and Salomonic judgments as we find in this piece would work great in a text that sought to advance New’s sophisticated and well-developed views on the subject. It would be able to stand on its own as a scholarly contribution to the literature on the subject. However, this very feature is also its downfall, for it is not rare for the disquisitions to become difficult to follow in their painstaking hair-splitting analysis, particularly from the vantage point of a novice to the field. Jeannette Winterson says that Woolf’s The Waves “lifts up the veil of words that filmy or thick hide myself from the moment”(my italics, 94-95). It seems that for many a reader New may actually weave a veil of philosophical dissection, and thereby fail to show the semblance of literature as it looks at itself in the mirror of philosophy. Some readers, particularly undergraduate students, of adequate philosophical endowments but with little training or inclination for the kind of careful analysis displayed in Philosophy of Literature may feel like Rosencrantz trying to follow the Player’s diagnosis of Hamlet’s malady in Stoppard’s philosophically genial play: “Good God, we are out of our depth here!”(68). Of course, this gives the opportunity for many an instructor to shine, but it seems that those teaching undergraduate courses seek introductory books that help illuminate the issues rather than blind with their very brilliance.
To expand on that last comment, and from an editorial standpoint, a last chapter or postscript, however brief, that tied the project together, would have been a welcome addition. He mentions that one of his goals is to provide a unified theory, which we “begin to discern” at the end of chapter five on imagination, but he never spells it out explicitly (80). The book simply ends with a concise conclusion to his query on literary appraisals. Reviewing the main issues and questions central to the discipline and displaying the key claims of his unified position to show readers where they have been to and where they may possibly go now would allow New’s introductory text to better fulfill its guiding role. In literature good writers may have the license to make readers work hard, philosophers pushing our conceptual frontiers probably have no other choice, and genuine philosophical inquiry is never superficial or easy; however those writing books whose aim is to act as beacons to newcomers must go out of their way to show the way in as clear a fashion as possible. It is from this stance that the demand for less intricacy and such a chapter is made.
A book on the philosophy of literature at the introductory level is a welcome and gratifying novelty, given the scarcity of such finds these days, and both publisher and writer need to be congratulated on this count. Christopher New’s text does have a niche, albeit a more specialized one that one might ascertain from the title, preface, or endorsements. It may ensnare those who are analytically minded and have a penchant for careful, if too scrupulous at times, analysis, but as a tool in the classroom, it will test the savoir faire of more than one pedagogue.
“For thee, thou needst no such deceit,/For thou thyself art thine own bait” (Donne, 47). In the eyes of this reviewer-perhaps I should say mouth-News’ introductory work may not be its own bait as it stands or by itself. Thorough, yet less dense or punctilious, explanations and a bit of “trickery” in the way of creative diversions would be needed before Philosophy of Literature: An Introduction proves to be able to lure more (kinds of) readers into the seductive charms that dangle from philosophy of literature’s angling reed. Then again some other reader may find it otherwise, and determine that, to say it with the last line of The Bait, in the end if I am “not catched thereby, Alas, [New] is wiser far than I”(Donne, 47).
Donne, John, “The Bait” in Poems of John Donne. Vol I. Ed. Hertbert J. Grierson. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Stoppard, Tom Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Winterson, Jeannette, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. New York: Vintage International, 1997.
2001 © Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza