Wayne C(layson) Booth

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Morse Peckham

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Professor Booth has written [Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism] in a relaxed, personal, and occasionally self-indulgent style, and I shall discuss it in the same tone. He concludes his book with "A Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist," which ends with the notion that if the critical community used his "five simple ordinances, we would write and read only about one-fourth as many critical words." I would say about one-tenth. (p. 429)

Briefly in his ordinances and at length in his first chapter, Booth discusses not understanding other critical works adequately, with the result that attacks are constantly being made upon straw men. Quite true, and I should like to glance at what he does to a critic whose work I know quite well, though not as well as I should—myself. "… Bayley, along with Morse Peckham, Paul de Man, and dozens of others, seek disunities…." I have published several times the following statement or its equivalent: "No perceptual field is unified if your criteria are sufficiently stringent: and all are if they are sufficiently loose." I regard discussions of unity as entirely idle. What I have discussed at length in various places, including an entire book, is perceptual-categorial discontinuity, a very different matter. I can think of no reason Booth should know my work at all, let alone well; but should he act as if he did?

The lesson of this is, I think, that it is impossible to discuss any discourse without constructing writers who are more or less straw, as Booth seems to realize in his later chapters. He tried manfully and with great intelligence to understand Crane. Burke, and Abrams, and all three made it clear to him that his success was only partial, very partial, it appears, in the case of Burke. He offers these men as pluralists, each for different reasons. His examination of them is careful and certainly worth reading, if you are interested in theoretical criticism, as I no longer am…. Yet after five chapters, 232 pages, and the acceptance of the book by the publisher, Booth remained unsatisfied. He felt that he had not sufficiently met the challenge of structuralism and deconstructionism, specifically "'Barthes, Derrida, and the American hangers-on like Hillis Miller'" (the expression of a real or imagined colleague, apparently the former). If he himself, he judges with great honesty, is a consistent pluralist, he must try to understand these figures and, if possible, to profit from them, whose practice he calls "overstanding" and by whom, he admits, he is partially defeated. But at any rate, "I now have a right to be radically skeptical about their own dogmatic statements of universal competence or 'totalization.'"

In the last chapter he gives four examples of "Our Many Different Businesses with Art": "The Turn of the Screw," The Citizen of the World. "The Bench of Desolation," and Thaïs. His demonstrations of the inadequacy of those who have approached these works in terms of what Booth calls "critical monism," a term I think to be self-explanatory, are admirable, and his own discussions of these works are even more admirable. In particular I learned why, despite the fact that I once had considerable respect for Anatole France and once enjoyed reading him, I have been twice defeated in attempting to lecture about him. I think that now I can again enjoy reading France, though I shall certainly never again attempt to lecture about him. (pp. 429-30)

The difficulty with Booth's pluralism, I feel, is not that there is anything wrong with it. On the contrary, all intelligent people...

(This entire section contains 756 words.)

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have always read pluralistically. It is only in the last half-century that in the academic world critical monism has become the path to fame and fortune, not the least for those who insist that "Western culture is really a unitary bourgeois monster that has us in its maw."… Nevertheless, Booth has not provided an adequate theoretical basis for pluralism, either because his foundation is moral or because a moral foundation is all he could achieve. No, there is a much simpler way to justify pluralism, one that uses, oddly enough, a principle of the deconstructionists, who have discovered, belatedly, that meaning is not immanent in a text but is the result of the reader's determinations. Unfortunately they have only absurd notions about what to do with that insight. (p. 430)

Morse Peckham, "Book Reviews: 'Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXXIX, No. 3, July, 1980, pp. 429-31.


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