Sunday 7 March 2021

Fun with Ricks

 It must be 20 years (exactly that if a Greek bank slip, used as a bookmark, is to be believed) since I read Christopher Ricks's Beckett's Dying Words. My memory being what it is, I could remember only that I enjoyed it at the time. And now I am enjoying it all over again, enjoying it hugely. Like Ricks's Keats and Embarrassment, Beckett's Dying Words is a reminder of how much sheer fun good, sharp, closely attentive literary criticism can be in the right hands. And, indirectly, it is a reminder of what a dismal, impoverished wasteland much of what passes today for literary criticism can be. In defence of Samuel Beckett's greatness, Ricks takes a swipe or two at some recent academic criticism of the late works –  

'... his late fiction is often all-too-accommodatingly spoken of as if it were abstracted, not to death, but to that impercipient living death which constitutes one of the present fashions in literary studies: the flaccid assurance that everything is fictive and verbal, and that the real has finally been shown the door. Things shown the door have a way of coming back in through the window, and the insistent rhetoric of in fact is much deployed by those who deny the existence of facts, or who don the rubber gloves of inverted commas – 'the facts' – except when it is their own fact-finding that is promulgated. 
   Opposition to this glee at the irreal can fasten upon its self-contradiction (if all is fictive, against what does the fictive define itself?) and can diagnose galloping logomania. But it is art, not argumentation, which constitutes the best, the most enduring opposition to such airiness.'

Indeed it is, and to read Beckett's late fiction is to expose such talk for the inattentive, self-serving nonsense it is. Ricks comes up with a string of quotations that do just that, and demolishes more cases of what he rightly diagnoses as the critics' 'intellectual abdication masquerading as majesty'. Anatomising one such passage (from a volume called Beckett Translating / Translating Beckett), he writes:

'The tawdry casualness of phrasing ('undermining' is overdue for burial) fits happily with the philosophical presumption ('the referential function of language has been exposed as a sham') – and with the gaping holes in the argument ('oddly free'? 'by definition'?). It is wisely unfathomable what it could be to find language 'the source of its own meaning', but it can be understood all too clearly that the easy invoking of 'at least a linguistic significance' is merely the usual gesture. Meanwhile, reality – which is haled in as just another of those shams – is given the usual treatment, the infected hygiene, iatrogenic, of inverted commas: external 'reality'
   And all this is bent upon a writer who has shown us, through his words, how much more there is to his art than words, how unforgettable his apprehension of suffering, though not only of that...'

Ah, if only there were more critics like Ricks – but it seems wildly unlikely that today's academe, obsessed with political issues and Critical Theory, will produce them. 

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