Second Thoughts: Splits that became chasms: Gabriel Josipovici recalls the slow genesis of The World and the Book (Macmillan, pounds 11.95)

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THE first hint of what was eventually to be my first critical book came to me in my third year as an undergraduate at Oxford, after an excited reading of Norman Brown's Life Against Death and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. However, like much else in my intellectual life, its seeds had probably been sown by reading Proust's A la Recherche three years earlier. Proust's extraordinary discussion of Giotto's Virtues and Vices in Padua in the context of the pregnancy of the serving-maid at Combray, and his wonderful evocations of the medieval churches of Normandy and St Mark's in Venice struck a chord in me, for I too had begun to respond to medieval art and to feel that something profound had been lost in the Renaissance which the modern writers I cherished were, in obscure ways, trying to recover. But it was only years later, when I had been reading Dante for some time and been overwhelmed by Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon, that the shape and thrust of my project began to grow clear to me.

Finally, when I hit on the title, I knew I had my book: l would come at my subject by way of the break- up of the medieval world picture (at the centre of which lay the notion of the world conceived as the book of God), and try to show how, for a handful of particularly perceptive writers - Chaucer, Rabelais, Hawthorne, Proust - the sense of the loss of that picture would lead to the elaboration of strategies both for articulating the nature of that loss and for coping with it.

In the Sixties, when I wrote the book, what seemed important was to uncover the hidden assumptions behind the tradition of the classic novel and the current ways of talking about it, though in the penultimate chapter I did explore the ways in which even so perceptive a modern opponent of that tradition as Roland Barthes could so let himself get carried away by his own rhetoric that in the end the view of art he proposed was only a mirror image of what he was attacking. In 1979, when the book was re-issued, the target had changed. A tide of intellectual opinion was building up in both Europe and the United States which saw the strengths of the Barthesian position - that books are only books, made up of words - and quite failed to see its weaknesses.

Of course this did not in the least affect the attitudes of most readers (and reviewers) of fiction, who merrily went on talking about the contents of novels as if the novel were merely a form of journalism, providing insights into African famines or homelessness in Britain. In fact a split had opened up between the academy, where the ideas of Barthes, Foucault, Levi-Strauss and Lacan were rapidly gaining ground, and the general public.

Since then the split has deepened so much that it has become a chasm. Novels still go on being reviewed (and of course written) as if they were a form of our journalism, while the academy has come to be dominated by the movements known as Deconstruction, Feminism and the New Historicism, which all, in their different ways, seek to show that all artefacts are constructs, put together less by the ostensible author than by impersonal forces allied in covert ways to the dominant powers in the culture, which seek always to control and repress. The fervour of much of this new criticism derives from its authors' belief that they are unmasking prejudice - the prejudices of writers previously regarded with awe and respect, and the prejudices of the readers and critics who so regarded them.

But just as the old discussions of fiction foundered on the unspoken assumption that novels mirrored the world, so the new ones founder on the assumption that suspicion is the only attitude for reader or critic to take. What I tried to argue in this book, on the other hand, and what I still believe, is that what the greatest writers - Chaucer, Rabelais and Proust for example - all have in common, is both a profound suspicion of artefacts and an equally profound trust in the world and relish in the act of writing. That is why, somewhat to my surprise, I find that, looking back at The World and the Book after over two decades, I do not feel that its time has been and gone but, on the contrary, that the positions it took up and the causes it espoused are as timely as ever. The implications of my title - which the book merely seeks to draw out - will, I am coming to see, perhaps never be exhausted.