The Times Literary Supplement
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
David Caute's project is an ambitious one which deserves critical respect. He has published three books, each independent in itself but together forming a comprehensive work with the general title The Confrontation. This title, like those of the three separate books, has multiple meanings. Among them: confrontation with society; the writer facing himself as a writer; opposition between generations; left versus right.
The first part of the trilogy is a play, The Demonstration; the second, an essay, The Illusion; the third, a novel, The Occupation. The central character of the play and the novel, as well as the supposed author of the essay, is Steven Bright, an English don….
The trilogy indicates that Bright is Dr Caute's alter ego. This is not a reader's deduction but an explicit suggestion by the author, repeated several times. These may not be autobiographical works but they are certainly confessional ones. The relevance of a confession sometimes needs to be examined apart from its achievement as literature. It needs to be judged by what it reveals about the lived life as distinct from the life of the writing. Seen in this way, the trilogy is both original and courageous. Dr Caute reveals to us the circularity of the academic intellectual's life. There is a continual confusion between theory and reality, political opinions and political effectiveness, the pursuit of knowledge and self-love, self-deprecating modesty and pride of academic position. One emerges from these books removed from reality. Such is the central confession.
In addition to this there are confessions concerning sexual insecurity, emotional disintegration and many forms of conduct which in all established academic circles would be considered ill-becoming. Here perhaps Dr Caute offers us the substantial explanation and vindication of his decision to resign from All Souls. These volumes undermine the very notion of education in a society incapable of offering hope. More than that, they suggest the mechanisms, at this moment of history, by which the life of an academic political intellectual (an apolitical intellectual is a political one is disguise) is likely to disintegrate. One might argue that Dr Caute is an individual and not a typical case. Yet the tensions which he experiences are typical, and the contradictions which he uncovers are ubiquitous. It is in this sense that one can say that nothing which he relates or argues is unfamiliar. And if that makes him sound unoriginal, it was surely one of his purposes to question the exaggerated value placed at this time on so-called originality.
Dr Caute argues for artistic reason as against imagination. He detests the notion that the artist is not in full control of his works and their public effect. It is probably for this reason that he consistently underestimates the contribution of critics like Lukács or Lucien Goldmann. After discussing Goldmann's theory of the non-conscious structures of thought which a writer inherits with the language of his historical milieu, Dr Caute concludes: "If this be so, it is no longer a matter of an author writing a book. He is scarcely less an agent of the writing than his pen. The book is written." It is perhaps the same critical insistence which prevents him from seeing that one of the important contributions of Surrealism was the theory of automatism. In the context of the very various and numerous arguments which he deploys in The Illusion the above points are marginal; but they are worth citing here because they may suggest why the two imaginative books fail, if one applies to them the highest standards (and the frankness of Dr Caute's whole project obliges us to do this) as works of literature.
On several occasions it is said that Steven Bright is a brilliant conversationalist. Maybe the same is true of David Caute. These books are like conversations. This is not to say that they read like recorded speech, but rather that their continuity, rhythm, tone, use of metaphor and references are similar to those used in conversation. Sentences, scenes, appeals—all are characterized by a fluency which engulfs life and gives it a regular, undifferentiated brilliancy. A brilliancy, however, which does not profit from re-examination, a brilliancy which indicates the speed and force of the speaker's words rather than sharply illuminating the point in question….
The conversationalist speaks out of the flow of his own life. The imaginative writer clears a space in order to induce life to enter it. As a confessional conversationalist, David Caute is remarkable.
"Action and the Academic," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3640, December 3, 1971, p. 1496.