Voices in the Cave of Being
These notes, as I said in the Preface, were not written in the order in which they appear here. They grew, and they are very largely heuristic, which is to say, acts of discovery. In effect, when taken with the poems themselves, they are almost a small book, or a long odd kind of essay.
I didn’t, for the most part, begin with knowledge that I wished to impart. Rather, I was trying, once I had passed beyond simply clarifying a few references and points of diction, or drawing attention to an occasional felicity, to work out what I myself was sensing or seeing as I made my way from start to finish now through each of the poems. In the process, theoretical questions popped up from time to time, and I talked about them when they did. Occasionally some more personal aspect of a poem’s meaning for me came into my mind and I mentioned that too.
Near the end, when I thought I’d better be a completist and do all the poems, I wondered whether I’d find, on revisiting all the commentaries, that I’d been too self-indulgent. But I concluded that, no, what I’d been doing was loosening up, phenomenologically, the relationship between “reader” and “text,” at least where I myself was concerned.
The utterly wrong aspect of formalized so-called reader-response criticism, so far as my own limited acquaintance with it goes, is the falsity of the paradigms of “the reader” that are constructed, as if you could ever comfortably determine what a hypothesized reader’s responses were like, or even what a “response” was like.
People talk confidently about what the reader of The Rape of the Lock or the spectator of Macbeth in the original Globe Theatre would have been feeling as the work unfolded. And there are sub-sets or mega-sets of hypothesized readers—the eighteenth-century reader, the bourgeois reader, the reader of thrillers, and so on.
So we have a triple layering—the prescient scholar-critic, the postulated reader/spectator, whether “then” or “now,” and, somewhere or other, perhaps, the “author” (snicker!) of the text. And also, no doubt, various complicatings entailed in trying to make all this less mechanical, like the adjustments needed to keep the Ptolomaic cosmology consistent with the growing number of undeniable observed facts.
But if you stop for a moment and try saying something about what the (typical) twentieth-century English woman, or the (average) New Yorker in the 1960’s, or even the (ordinary) American professor of English believed or believes about anything, you know you’re into journalistic cliché-making, But of course one takes short-cuts at times. No doubt I’ve done so here.
Who is actually being referred to? What family of individuals, widely varied individuals, would you be assembling under the rubric of 1960’s New Yorker? Harlem jazz musicians, Irish-American precinct cops, Bryn-Mawr-educated wives of corporation lawyers, SoHo pop artists? 42nd Street sex-workers? etcetera etcetera—and already a new set of clichés is trundling in.
But of course readers have “responded” to works, and we know about them (up to a point), whether we’re reading Samuel Johnson as reported by Boswell, or Katherine Mansfield in her journals, or F.R. Leavis marvelously opening his review-article on The Dunciad with:
Yes, one concedes grudgingly, overcoming the inevitable revulsion, as one turns the pages of this new edition (The ‘Twickenham’), in which the poem trickles thinly through a desert of apparatus, to disappear time and again from sight—yes, there has to be a Dunciad annotated, garnished and be-prosed in this way.
In live criticism, whether written or oral, we’re always conscious of someone else responding, reacting, etc., and indicating what for them the work is like. Or some aspect of the work, perhaps some very small detail in the work.
So I myself have been responding to these thirty-six poems, and talking about the poems and not about my hypothesized self (apart from an occasional excursion into reminiscence). And while doing so I have become more conscious of the complexity of terms like “reading” and “responding.” And also of the term “self.”
I have mostly opted for “you” and “we” over the more formal “one” when talking about feelings. Each term has its logical disadvantages, particularly “we.” Speak for yourself, one wants to say, particularly when we’re being told about errors that “we,” or so it’s claimed, used to make. But the various ways in which we use such terms are usually clear enough in context.
Things can be illogical without being wrong. Decades ago, a substitute teacher at my North London kindergarten told us that we must say “along the road,” not up or down it, since the road outside the school was flat. My father was annoyed by the pedantry.
A good deal of trouble was caused by the insistence of American pedants that it was wrong to say, “If someone doesn’t like it, they can leave,” with the result that “he/ him/ his” came to predominate as the preferred singulars for a while.
The ecstatic welcome given to “Theory” in some American quarters was partly the result of an institutionalized rigidity that required the equivalent of dynamite to loosen it up.
Stupid conservatism produces stupid libertarianism—or a show of libertarianism that soon becomes authoritarian in its own way.