Roger Poole

Polyglot literary theorist
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The Independent Online

Roger Poole, literary theorist: born Cambridge 22 February 1939; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer in English Literature, Nottingham University 1969-89, Reader in Literary Theory 1989-96; married 1969 Bente Knudsen (three sons); died Nottingham 21 November 2003.

Roger Poole was as powerful an individualisation of the great tradition of Anglo-European men of letters as one could find. In a world of intensifying specialisms, his world-wide reputation was of a man not only polyglot in his scholarship, but master in his gallant, generous, and sometimes touchy way of the vast muddy field of modern theory, structuralism, post-modernism and all the rest.

He was born in Cambridge in 1939, and educated at the Perse School, from which he won an exhibition to Trinity College in his home town, following his great fellow alumnus, F.R. Leavis, into the study of English literature.

Always faithful to his master's voice, learning by heart Leavis's exacting principles of high seriousness and ardent sincerity, Poole absolutely refused the dottiness and bigotry which overcame some devout Leavisites, and after his First and his appointment as Senior Scholar at Trinity, he took the best of Leavisian Englishness off to Paris as Lecteur in the Sorbonne during the thrilling years leading up to May 1968.

Poole was, one could say, the first Englishman to feel the force of that marvellous French coinage, "the human sciences", and nobody who heard him tell the story would ever forget the account of Jean Hippolite, mightiest of the Parisian Hegelians, reading aloud from the Phenomenology to a packed amphitheatre in the Sorbonne, and improvising its dazzling application to the tempestuous events outside the high windows.

Poole became the first mediator in English of the daunting maîtres à penser in Paris who have so dominated the human sciences these past 40-odd years. His 1969 introduction to the Penguin edition of Lévi-Strauss's Totemism is a classically lucid exposition of a classically opaque original, and Karl Miller, with his usual acumen, snapped up Poole as house tutor in the difficulties of structuralism for the early and best days of the London Review of Books.

Poole began his career-long association with Nottingham University as Lecturer in 1969, and long before the fatuous exigencies of the Research Assessment Exercise, began to publish the long line of his brilliant short essays, scattered so prodigally through so many hard-to-find periodicals. His first big statement, however, Towards Deep Subjectivity, came out in 1972 and remains one of the boldest and least refutable of the assaults upon the impossible idea of scientific objectivity as the guiding light of human inquiry.

In 1978, he followed this success with his extraordinary and controversial biography The Unknown Virginia Woolf. Perhaps the only person ever to have read all 2,000 pages of Sartre's biography of Flaubert, Poole copied Sartre in identifying the unhealing wound in the very depths of Woolf's psyche, simultaneous site of her anguish and her genius.

It was a recklessly brave book to write as the feminists and Virago books swept all women's writing out of reach of all men. Poole responded to some hard vilification with a kind of calm anger in a duologue for the Edinburgh fringe, happily entitled All Women and Quite a Few Men are Right.

In all his thought, however, in his long and passionate meditation upon body and soul (he was, with Charles Taylor, a first and splendid commentator on Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of the body), upon reason and commitment, criticism and conviction, his true Penelope (as Ezra Pound put it) was always Soren Kierkegaard.

A formidable linguist, he learned Danish to court and marry Bente Knudsen, and then to initiate his strong, decisive and exhausting grapple with Kierkegaard. Everything that was best in Poole's vivid sense of being-in-the-world, of trying to keep French abstractions fully charged with the concrete of experience, and his own thought stripped of the ready-made and the illusory, rose up in recognition of Kierkegaard's similar venture. Something, indeed much of the Dane's desperation, the quickness of a sensibility too quick to miss a slight or ignore an affront, the urgency with which he wanted his beliefs validated, the truthfulness which prevented any such fulfilment, found not merely echo but identity in Poole. So his mighty work of 1993, Kierkegaard: the indirect communication, is a talisman of how to labour and find reward in the human sciences: subject and object, author and authority come together in the settled assurance of a great book.

Poole had been most cordially received as Visiting Fellow at York, Toronto, and twice at Yale; he there befriended the giants of deconstruction, while holding a nice balance between the light-headed delightfulness of Big Theory and the exasperating caution of Little Empiricism. (A loving parody of James Joyce, published in 1983 just after the Falklands skirmish as Argentina / Barthes represents a fine token of that cheerfulness which kept breaking into the Kierkegaardian angst.)

He took very hard, however, all that happened to universities as Thatcherism really bit home. Modularisation, publishing by numbers, recruitment and management were hateful to him. So it was a joyful relief that early retirement in 1996 brought more of the acclaim he so much merited, as Visiting Professor at Sussex, and as Fellow - doyen, rather - at the Soren Kierkegaard Research Centre at Copenhagen University in 2000. After such happy renewal, lymphatic cancer struck as he was appointed in 2001 to a Visiting Fellowship in the Department of Divinity at Cambridge, and he gave a final seminar on Kierkegaard in May of this year.

Fred Inglis