Between authorities: Exercises and experiments in literary appreciation
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Literary criticism, of the type that follows in this project, is a series of experiments with and about the matter of authority: about how much authority a critic should want to have or be willing to give up, and how much authority a critic is able to live without. This is not a project that deals in explanations, nor is it a project that feels the need to come to some point. If, at its worst, criticism involves the realization that some walls resist all efforts at removal, that despite the benefit of sunlight and a country to stretch our legs in, we may nevertheless come to declare, along with Dickens’ Miss Wade, ‘I have the misfortune of not being a fool’, then at its best, criticism is the fact of not being trammeled by what we demand of others, and by what we cannot quite bring ourselves to say. It is an acceptance, even, that a fool may be what we really are, that if we cannot absolutely be cured, we might, at least, not be quite so badly off as we might have believed. If stories are what we seem to require, they are also (partly) what we suffer from. What I wanted to find in the course of this project was a way of preventing potentially interesting ideas from settling into a single, definite shape. What I wanted was not so much a new school of criticism (or a new theory about criticism) as a fresh commitment to the value of conversation, even when (perhaps especially when) the conversation we’re having doesn’t seem to make very much sense. This commitment to conversation, even in the face of meaninglessness (or nonsense) puts this project squarely in the spiritual territory of Lewis Carroll. Like the world underground, this project resists dogmatic simplification. In Wonderland, word games coexist with the King of Hearts’ relief that time needn’t be wasted searching for meaning in incomprehensible verses. Sometimes, as Alice discovers in the course of her adventures, judgement is the most nonsensical thing of all.
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