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F O MATTHIESSEN - a distinguished American critic of the 1930s and 40s - is fascinated by that strange, suggestive phrase "soiled fish of the sea" in Herman Melville's novel White-Jacket. He is so taken with the phrase that he cannot follow his i ntuition and hear a sceptical inner voice telling him that the Pacific Ocean wasn't polluted in those days and that therefore there must be some mistake. After all, Melville, the epic novelist and prophetic chronicler of the soul of the new American repu blic, deserves this kind of enthusiastic interpretation. And perhaps there was something in Matthiessen which felt that nature and the body were somehow filthy. He wrote an early study of T S Eliot who looked on ordinary life as "dung and death".

The craggy textual scholar Fredson Bowers was dismayed by the vulnerability of Matthiessen's judgement, though in fairness he includes a remark by one John W Nichol, who said that the "change" - "mistake" he means - does not invalidate Matthiessen's gen e ral critical position: "It merely weakens his specific example." Nevertheless, Nichol adds that such a "textual slip" could in the proper context have offered "an entirely false conception".

Is Nichol trying to argue that textual accuracy doesn't matter too much? Bowers insists that it matters absolutely, and he goes on to call William Empson a "frequent offender" because of his "careless use of imperfect texts, complicated by a more than ordinary inaccuracy of quotation". Empson, for example, mispunctuates an Eliot poem in order to praise its syntactic ambiguity, when he should have checked his quotation before hazarding an interpretation.

For the critic who went, or would go, to school with Empson, this is a salutary criticism. To adapt Baden-Powell on personal hygiene, the good critic checks his or her references and quotations not once, but several times. And the critic, like a true swell, stays in the best hotels where the finest editions are available from room service.

But supposing time and money are short? Or supposing you are stranded, like the revered German scholar Erich Auerbach in a foreign country in wartime with only a few books and an inadequate library? The possibilities for special pleading are endless, so perhaps the only thing to do is to admit it's a fair cop, guv, to whatever forensic Bowersite convicts you of error, and then try to do better. The history of criticism is littered with tiny errors, huge faux pas and comic misquotations. Wha t critic worth their salt has a clear conscience on this matter?

There is another argument, which wasn't available to John W Nichol back in 1949 when he commented on Matthiessen's boo-boo, and that is to argue for the ludic or what has been termed "the free play of critical discourse". This displaces Bowers's judicia l authority (well, let's pretend it does) and allows for what another American critic, Harold Bloom, terms "creative misprision". It's a slightly daunting, pseudo-technical term which states that all readings of literary texts - es-pecially those made byother creative writers - are always misreadings or acts of "creative correction" which empower new works of art. Thus D H Lawrence, writing an essay on Melville, is really following a spoor that will lead him to a new poem, novel or story, maybe even a play (Lawrence's paintings, too, are linked to his admiration for that great primitivist).

The problem for the critic is that there is no work of art which lies beyond their critical argument - Matthiessen wasn't preparing the ground for his own novel, he was simply writing criticism. But Harold Bloom isn't impressed by this, arguing that mostso-called "accurate" readings are worse than mistakes, and that "perhaps there are only more or less creative or interesting mis-readings". He makes this suggestion because he wants to restore the link between creative and critical writing.

It wasn't until early in the last century that a major critic emerged who wasn't also a major writer. Until William Hazlitt began to publish his essays and reviews, the significant critics had also been important writers. Dryden and Samuel Johnson wrote poems and plays as well as literary criticism, and so did Coleridge. And although Bloom has published a novel, he made his reputation as a critic and will always be regarded as one tout court. But he very properly insists that the act of interpretation is creative. What he is saying is: don't play safe as a critic. Don't be obvious, don't be boring, don't offer plodding descriptive explications of whatever text you happen to be trying to interest your audience in. Launch yourself out into space and don't heed the consequences. As the wise butterfly collector Stein tells another seafaring character - Conrad's Lord Jim - "to the destructive element submit yourself and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep youup". The critic is a daredevil, an existentialist, a ri s k-taker. If the artist in Joyce's famous symbol is Daedalus, the patient craftsman, the critic is Icarus, the impatient son who condemns himself to fly eternally into the sun and fall back among the soiled fish of the sea.

Next week: Camp Herman Melville is describing his fall into the sea from the yard-arm of the U.S. frigate Neversink ... as he floats under water in an almost trancelike state: "I wondered whether I was yet dead or still dying. But of a sudden some fashionless form brushed my side - some inert, soiled fish of the sea; the thrill of being alive again tingled in my nerves, and the strong shunning of death shocked me through."

Commenting on these lines F O Matthiessen writes: "But then this second trance is shattered by a twist of imagery of the sort that was to become peculiarly Melville's. He is startled back into the sense of being alive by grazing an inert form; hardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some `soiled fish of the sea.' The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical."

The only difficulty with this criticalfrisson about Melville's imagination, and undemonstrable generalisations such as `nobody but Melville could have created the shudder', and so on, is the cruel fact that an unimaginative typesetter inadvertently created it, not Melville; for what Melville wrote, as is demonstrated in both the English and American first editions, was coiled fish of the sea. It is disheartening to find the enthusiasm of critics so easily betrayed... Fredson Bowers: `Textual and Literary Criticism' (1959)