THE ART OF CRITICISM: 14 SOLID SENTIMENTALITY
TOM PAULIN'S MASTERCLASS
Sunday 16 April 1995
David Hare: `Cycles of Hope :
A Memoir of Raymond Williams' (1989)
David Hare's memoir of Raymond Williams was delivered as a lecture at a literary festival in Hay-on-Wye in 1989, published in The Guardian, then reprinted in a collection called Writing Left-Handed. This is the perfect genesis for a critical essay - the drama of a performance in front of an audience, then the journalistic intervention, then the reminder two years later in book form. All critical writing aspires to an ideal spoken form that must always have bounce and topicality, like live theatre. And David Hare is a distinguished dramatist, so he knows what he's about. The critical spirit is alive and well in his buoyantly intelligent prose - it's in exasperated conflict with the claggy dreariness of Williams's writing.
Hare was the first left-wing writer to express his frustration with Williams's criticism and the huge respect it has been accorded. Noting that Williams was "the intellectual leader of the academic left", Hare points to two major weaknesses: the indifference to prose style, and the belief that a literary work cannot be good unless "it has a morally good aim". Reading his books, Hare says, is like finding "the world's most exciting ideas somehow trapped under the ice".
In this memoir of Williams, Hare parts company with a whole culture of piety, romantic notions about the working class, and worship of Clause Four. With these old-style values goes a basically utilitarian attitude to art. This comes through - in a blurred and clumsy manner - at the end of Williams's brief study of George Orwell. Conceding that Nineteen Eighty- Four has "a certain bleak honesty", he asserts that it is full of political contradictions which combine with the lack of what he terms "any independent social identity".
This language is so abstract you wonder what he is maundering on about. What is an independent social identity? What is the "genuine terror" which the lack of that vague identity produced? Is this not a displaced religious language which simply says that Orwell was not worthy?
Williams goes on to preach Orwell quietly into the ground. In the closing sentence, he introduces a faintly elegiac cadence - it's too feeble to quote - and suggests that we have to "move on". History did move on. Williams's study was published in 1971; eight years later, the old-style labourism at the work's emotional centre was swept away by Thatcherism. Williams is like a character in a Chekhov play who speaks in anxious clichs in a society sleepwalking towards revolution - Hare cleverly compares him to the self-important professor in Uncle Vanya.
Though he was socially comatose in this work, Williams did insist on placing literary texts in society, and Edward Said and other critics from the Arab world have praised his achievement. But I have never read a page of his prose without being filled with boredom and itchy rage - how dreary! how decent! how morally self-righteous that unemphatic, uninflected manner is. It has no kick and no skip. None at all.
Opening The Country and the City, one of Williams's major works, I find a few dreadfully dull paragraphs on Joyce's Ulysses. That epic work doesn't fit the moral canon which Leavis, Williams and other Cambridge critics designed years back - it rejects that terrible puritanism at the heart of the criticism still written by those who slavishly follow Williams.
Williams was an anti-tank captain in the last war, became an adult education tutor and helped create that brave old world that was Attlee's Britain. For all the reverence we may feel for that heroic social moment, there's no point in trying to hold on to a static version of the values which inspired it. Let us take Clause Four and the collected criticism of Raymond Williams and gently place them in some heritage museum, then appoint Raphael Samuel curator and lock the door. Piety be damned!
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