Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Clive James doesn't make connections

In the ample space of the TLS, Clive James reviews John Bayley's collection of literary essays (I wonder if it includes this one?). The third paragraph begins:

[Bayley] sees no end of connections [between novels], the best thing about which is that they are not theoretical. Apart from his intellectual objections, the main reason Bayley has no time for literary theory is that he is absorbed in literary practice.

Of course, James likes to think he also has no time for such pretension. A lot further on he announces that:

A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist’s attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved.

Who needs theory indeed?


  1. Anonymous6:48 pm

    That may be a generalisation but it's not theory. In fact most readers I know would pretty much agree - that books are there to give some semblance of order to things. It seems intensely practical to me.

    A general rule for sniffing out theory, in the narrow sense of literary theory, is, as you say, where there is 'pretension'. James (as an American magazine would call him) doesn't put it pretentiously and the idea isn't pretentious either.

  2. I'd say he puts it pretentiously.

    And I don't see much difference between "generalisation" and "theory".

  3. Isn't it clear from Clive James's work that he understands theory, but rejects it as a useful tool for dealing with the experience of reading literature? I think the article shows his pleasure in Bayley's undeniably broad range of interest and - as James would see it - his critical acuity. I'd agree with Rory on this.

  4. Isn't rejecting something for not being "a useful tool for dealing with the experience of reading literature" a gesture of theory? I bet the tool you mean can't be got from a garage.

    I have to say that I much prefer Bayley's example to that of any "theorist" but what is theory? Is Blanchot a theorist? But there's no greater writer in the 20th Century. James doesn't define theory yet he indulges in the kind of jargony, generalising sentence that we all (should) hate in "theory".

    I suppose James' pro-war opinions colour my responses to his TLS reviews. Still, I think these aren't too different from those in the reviews. He supports and celebrates liberal notions without recognising the implications. In one case how much rejecting theory depends on a deadening theory itself (see the above link to a blog on Bayley's piece on Heaney), and how supporting the War on Terror can lead to the death of tens of thousands more innocent people. In both cases though - theory and dead bodies - they aren't found in our "broad range of interests".

  5. OK - "tool" was a crass metaphor to use. I meant to suggest that reading through a particular theorised lens doesn't appeal to CJ, though I concede that any reading will have some theoretical construction or assumption about the reading process behind it, even if the reader doesn't articulate it. As for his views on the war, I can't see how we can legitimately allow them to colour our perception of his critical skills.



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