BOOK REVIEW / Isms, schisms, critics and spies: 'Double Agent: The Critic and Society' - Morris Dickstein: OUP, 19.50 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS BOOK consists of articles and lectures in which the author comments on the history of literary debate in America, mostly, but also in Britain. Morris Dickstein believes that a literary text has a meaning which can't be forced or 'ferreted' out by dogmatists. He responds to the kind of critical approach that he thinks 'sinuous', undulating and diverse, dialectical in tendency, tolerant of complexity, aware of the text's formal properties, but also aware of its place in an outside world with a history.

Deconstruction is now over, he believes. He does not like what it was, with its appetite for the self-contradictory and undecidable text, its absence of an outside world. It has been succeeded by the the New Historicism. Is the New Historicism to be seen as Deconstruction with a human face - pledged though it may be to the referential in literature, and anxious though it may be to restore and re-investigate its contexts? This is one of the issues emphasised in the book.

Another is the claim which it presses on behalf of journalistic criticism, a pursuit that lecturers seldom praise. Journalistic criticism is represented as a benign transaction in which an author's experience of life and that of his critic can be thought to meet; no such transaction is possible, Dickstein suggests, in the land of theory or dogma. He likes the kind of critic who stands, in Lionel Trilling's alarming phrase, at the 'dark and bloody crossroads' where literature and politics meet. In a no less racy expression, Dickstein calls such a critic a 'double agent'; this double agent is a writer who combines a feeling for literature with a due sense of its place in society. It seems a pity to addle these good eggs with overtones of duplicity and espionage.

A great deal of what he finds to say seems sensible and wholesome. His book is nevertheless a disappointment. It is fair to wonder whether it is a book. He appears to have wondered about that himself, but friends convinced him that there was a book to be made of his essays and addresses, friends who may have felt that his message should be aired. The trouble is that, as an assembly of separate pieces on much the same subject, the book keeps saying the same things. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling keep gliding by as if on a carousel. A quotation is given from Van Wyck Brooks, who suffers 'the chill of the grave' as he contemplates the 'spiritual history' of the previous 50 years (it takes a writer to write like that, one might think). Then, 20 pages later, we are returned to the tomb with the same quotation.

At one point we are told that at his death in 1972 Edmund Wilson was the reigning man of letters, in America, having undergone some degree of disregard in 'the post-war climate of professionalisation'. Journalistic values had returned to favour, and so had 'the qualities of the old-fashioned man of letters, the generalist - supposedly, according to John Gross, an almost extinct species'. This may mean that Gross supposed that the man of letters rose and then fell. But it is not entirely clear what Dickstein supposes, since we are later told that Mencken, who died about 20 years before this, was 'one of our last true men of letters'.

Is the man of letters rising or falling? Is it 'closing-time in the gardens of the West'? Those were the words, during the Second World War, of a latterday old-fashioned man of letters, Cyril Connolly, and they referred to the end of his world. Here again are words which are very much the words of a writer, of the man of letters who is still, I suppose, around.

One critic praised here is F R Leavis: a currently unfashionable advocacy. Arguing against a contemporary Marxist historicism, Leavis speaks Dickstein's mind when he says: 'Enormously - no one will deny it - as material conditions count, there is a certain measure of spiritual autonomy in human affairs.' And Leavis does so again when he is quoted as saying something compatible but quite different - dialectically different, if you like: 'One cannot seriously be interested in literature and remain purely literary in interests.' Awareness of context is necessary but not sufficient for an understanding of literature: we must allow for a human autonomy - for authors, with the bestowable grace of their elusive meanings.

The book ends well, with what reads like a dialogue between an exasperated version of the author and an alter ego disposed to be indulgent towards the latest thing, New Historicism, and its extinct predecessor, Deconstruction. The alter ego is pleased by the 'general shift from text to context', but his partner thinks that too much is being conceded to the text-based theories of Deconstruction by a new school of thought which is at the same time 'too sweepingly' contextual.

Double Agent devotes much of its attention to a small world of sectarian intransigence in which there is only the one way to read a book - aesthetically, politically, theoretically or historically, as Polonius might put it - and it is all right to throw the chill of death at anyone who reads it wrong. The picture will not appeal to the reader who reads a book all ways or most ways at once, and is unwilling to 'sign on', as Dickstein puts it, among the 'isms'. His book conveys that literature would be done for if such readers were lost.