BOOK REVIEW / Ground control to major Donne: Essays on renaissance literature Vol 1: Donne and the New Philosophy by William Empson, CUP pounds 35: William Empson: The Critical Achievement eds Christopher Norris and Nigel Mapp, CUP pounds 35

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM EMPSON saw himself as a rescuer of John Donne from the misrepresentations of neo- Christian apologetics in literary critical form - from latterday worshippers of that religion's odious God the Father. Donne was a cradle Catholic who became a wild young man. To the amorous songs and sonnets, written before his conversion to Anglicanism in 1615, Empson attributes what he takes to be the enlightened and defiant notion that the pairs of lovers in these poems are like one of the perhaps inhabited new worlds in space presented to the imagination by the discoveries of Copernicus. 'Let us possess one world,' says Donne to his woman: 'each hath one, and is one'. 'The slow line tolling out 'one' has the awe of a space-landing,' says Empson.

John Haffenden, who has edited this volume, assists the case by noting the fact that Donne made use of the word 'ecstasy' to mean both the communion of lovers and a cosmic voyage. Empson believed that Donne was seriously interested in the new astronomy, and in its theological and other human implications, and that to believe otherwise is to represent his sexual astronautics as the work of a fribble. It is possible to grant that Donne, though fanciful, was no fribble in these matters, while feeling that Empson overworks this account of a defiance - a flight from religious repression. The reading of the poems in question is nevertheless considerably enriched.

The subversive young man described by Empson became a sanguinary professor of the doctrines of original sin and eternal punishment - doctrines which Empson hated. We are fitted in the womb for 'works of darkness', the regenerate human being was to declare; we may be damned 'though we be never born'. Empson loved to imagine the human stories that lie behind the poems and novels that interested him, but he is reticent about the human implications of Donne's conversion, and about the writings that came after it. He sticks to his subject - to Jack the Lad and his poems about the women with whom he shared a planet.

Both Donne and Empson are fanciful, and Empson's readers have to be prepared to keep track of the flight-paths of his fancy, and to put on their space-suits for some of his leaps and ellipses. He hugely deserves the indulgence he is currently accorded, and it would be grim to witness a reversion to the old practice of deploring his stretches of the imagination and his jokes. One of the hitherto unpublished pieces deals brilliantly with prescient Francis Godwin, author of a 17th-century voyage to the Moon, who patented a sort of remote sensing which Empson calls 'telegraphy by fumbling'.

Christopher Norris, whose first book was an excellent justification of Empson's criticism, has put together a collection of essays on the subject. Some of these - William Righter's, for example - are radical and helpful. Norris's own long introductory essay reaffirms the importance of Empson's criticism. It stresses his conviction that the interpretation of literature requires the same skills that are needed 'for the conduct of our practical, everyday lives', together with his feeling for the stories that are told in literature and for the stories that lie behind it in the lives of its authors, while also stressing the theoretical interest of his work. Empson is being claimed for what has become known as 'theory' - claimed by a writer who would seem to have become rather less of a deconstructor than he once was, and more of an Empsonian rationalist. The claim has to contend with Empson's expressed dislike for the new theory, including the disgusting specimen by 'Jacques Nerrida' sent him by Norris.

A relationship of affinity and difference between Empson and Paul de Man is then explored. Empson is held to have gone in for a proto-deconstructive 'hermeneutics of suspicion' which de Man endorsed. De Man is said to have written against the 'aesthetic ideology' inherent in the 'seductive claims of high Romantic argument', which led to a strain of nationalism hostile to human freedom. The de Man who showed himself complicit, during the war, with the ideology of Nazism must, on this account, be supposed to have changed his spots in later years. According to Norris, Empson can't be thought to have agreed with de Man that textuality constitutes 'the bottom line of critical appeal'; but Norris seeks a resemblance to Empson in Deconstruction's benignly 'prosaic' anti-seductive approach - its well-known demystifications, its refusal to accept that language gives access to revealed truths above and beyond the prosaic requirements of sense-making logical grasp. Elsewhere in the book, too, Deconstruction is thought to be, in this sense, prosaic. Here, perhaps, is its human face, the one Norris now wants to see.

An essay by Neil Hertz examines a poem by the Belgian Hubert Dubois and a review of it by de Man, from 1942, with the intention of searching for evidence concerning de Man's early tribulations and wartime attitudes. The poem has a guilty woman, Rachel (patterned on the Biblical Rachel who grieved for her children, but unrecognised by de Man as Jewish), whose sufferings are related by Hertz to 'the self-indulgence of the pre-war democracies'. Hertz suggests that both the poem and the review may 'testify to a blank disregard for what was happening' to the Jews of Belgium in 1942. A sentence from the review is quoted: 'The man capable of subliming the suffering that daily wrenches humanity at war, capable of seeing, despite an immense pity, that this pain is salutary because it expiates repeated crimes against the human person, exhibits that fundamental superiority of being that is proper to all true artistic talent.' This seems a dubious expiation. The sentence is touched with the rhetoric of German Romanticism at its most seductively mystified and inflated. 'Strength through Joy' can be remotely sensed.

There are essays here in which the prosaic virtues are absent. A jolly, ludic essay by a hermeneutic Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, mentions a snap of Empson and Malcolm Lowry: 'I would like to take this chance encounter between poet and novelist as the sign of a common quest for reality.' Such is the malleability of signs. An essay on Empson's reading of Othello is a tissue of assertions which ends with a twilight of the gods: 'Whatever its detractors may choose to call it, deconstruction is part of the passing of the sublime. Cavell's ordinary, sublime individual sublated Empson's honest individual, but is in turn sublated by the prosaic individual.' Some prosaic individuals may have to look up 'sublate' in one of the dictionaries Empson used to consult while displaying, according to this writer, a 'complete lack of interest' in 'aesthetic and stylistic' aspects of language.

As for the 'social perceptions' embodied in Empson's attentions to sense and story in literature, it seems that there, too, he was deficient. I am not sure that this leaves him with a leg to stand on.

(Photograph omitted)

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