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to have an organic“intrinsic idea of the poem, but cannot altogether
evade the informational“extrinsic dimensions of the text: “If we see that
any item in a poem is to be judged only in terms of the total effect of the
poem, we shall readily grant the importance for criticism of the work of
the linguist and the literary historian.”·
° Byron and Romanticism
In short, the intrinsic and text-centered approaches of the early and
mid twentieth century made certain tactical accommodations and com-
promises in their critical programs and arguments. Indeed, it was pre-
cisely this compromised status of their theory which brought them to ruin
at the hands of their ungrateful children, the deconstructionists. For the
latter had no dif¬culty in showing that New Critical strategies were based
upon an illusory and mysti¬ed form of the very empiricism which those
strategies were consciously designed to displace. The idea of “the poem
itself,” of the stable (if paradoxical) object of critical attention, was swept
away in the aftermath of structuralism. “De-ferral,” “de-stabilization,”
“de-centering,” “de-construction”: the history of the emergence of these
ideas during the ±·°s is well known and needs no rehearsing again here.
Nor will it be necessary to point out what is equally well known, that the
deconstructionist movement was (and of course is) a form of immanent
criticism™s twentieth-century wilderness.
Two important aspects of these late forms of immanent criticism do
need to be attended to, however. The ¬rst is the extremity of their an-
tihistorical position. None of the earlier twentieth-century text-centered
critics ever spoke, as J. Hillis Miller has spoken in one of his most cele-
brated essays, of “the ¬ction of the referential, the illusion that the terms
of the poem refer literally to something that exists.” This bold pro-
nouncement offers a ¬nal solution to the problem of the social actuality
of poetical work, and it is quite typical of (at any rate) the American de-
constructive establishment. The repudiation of referentiality is made, as
Miller says, “according to the logic of a theory of language which bases
meaning on the solid referentiality of literal names for visible physical
object.” Here Miller intends to dispose once and for all of that Great
Satan of so many humanists, “empiricism,” by dismissing at last the
supposed “theory of language” on which it rests.
In making his attack, however, Miller unwittingly exposes another
important aspect of his critical position. That is to say, he reveals his
assent to a particular concept of referentiality. A “solid” correspondence
of “literal names for visible physical objects” is certainly an idea of ref-
erentiality, but it is manifestly an impoverished concept. This idea of
how language “refers” to the actual world where those language forms
called poems operate may re¬‚ect the view which someone (besides Miller)
has held at some time or other. It is not, however, characteristic of the
thought of the great traditional philological and historical critics. When
Miller dismisses this concept of referentiality, then, he is trying to cast
out a mere phantom. His dismissal thus fails to con¬rm his own critical
practice.
°
A point of reference
Of course one can, with some searching, ¬nd other critics besides
deconstructionists like Miller who have subscribed to excessively simple
concepts of referentiality. When Daniel Aaron, for example, says that
“the historian who writes about the past might be likened to a naturalist
as he observes and analyzes specimens in a museum or perhaps animals
caged in a zoo,”±° his words betray a concept of referentiality that is quite
comparable to Miller™s. One is tempted to reply merely that this is not a
persuasive idea, and that it runs counter to the lines of historical thought
which have dominated critical thought for almost three centuries. But one
might do better to quote, for example, Vico™s stronger thought, that
“human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made
the former, but not the latter.”±± Indeed, it is Miller™s sympathy with
Vico™s thought which has helped to set him, along with so many other
recent literary critics, in opposition to “referentiality.”
What is necessary at this juncture, therefore, is not to bracket the ref-
erential dimensions of poetry out of critical consideration on the basis
of an impoverished theory of language and literary reference. Rather,
we should be trying to recover and reformulate the idea of referentiality
which underlies the thought of the great historical critics of the recent
past. Only in this way will the full signi¬cance of Miller™s excellent critical
work “ and the work of many other immanentist critics “ be revealed.
The American line of Derridean thought, in particular, would do well
to recall the following passage from Derrida himself: “A deconstruc-
tive practice which would not bear upon ˜institutional apparatuses and
historical processes™ . . . , which would remain content to operate upon
philosophemes or conceptual signi¬ed[s], or discourses, etc., would not
be deconstructive; whatever its originality, it would but reproduce the
gesture of self criticism in philosophy in its internal tradition.”± When
Miller, in his essay “The Critic as Host,” speaks of “deconstructive strat-
egy” as “going with a given text as far as it will go, to its limits,” he echoes
Derrida, as he does when he goes on to add that all criticism, including
deconstructive criticism, “contains, necessarily, its enemy within itself.”±
But the fact is that American deconstructionism does not go to those lim-
its and does not expose its internal fault lines. On the contrary, it hides
and obscures them at every turn. The enemy which deconstructive crit-
ics like Miller will not face is history, and the fault line of such criticism
appears as its elision of the socio-historical dimensions of literary work.

At the beginning of his ¬rst book, L™´pith`te traditionnelle dans Hom`re (±),
ee e
Milman Parry consciously set his work in the line of the great tradition
of modern historical scholarship.
±° Byron and Romanticism
The literature of every country and of every time is understood as it ought to
be only by the author and his contemporaries . . . The task, therefore, of one
who lives in another age and wants to appreciate that work correctly, consists
precisely in rediscovering the varied information and complexes of ideas which
the author assumed to be the natural property of his audience.±
Parry is quick to observe that this scholarly project of “reconstructing
that [original] community of thought through which the poet made him-
self understood” is a task “so complex as to be impossible of realization in
an entirely satisfactory manner.”±µ Nevertheless, the project must be pur-
sued if we are to hope to have any reliable understanding of the culture of
the past.
The twentieth-century attack upon the historical method in criticism,
initially focused on the so-called intentional fallacy, soon became a
broadly based critique of genetic studies in general. John M. Ellis™s The
Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis (±·) has summarized and
completed this line of critique. His argument is not merely that genetic
studies cannot recover the “original context,” but that the human mean-
ing of literary works does not lie in that context. Rather, it lies in the
context of immediate use: “If we insist on relating the text primarily to
the context of its composition and to the life and social context of its
author, we are cutting it off from that relation to life which is the relevant
one.”± In addition, genetic criticism limits and shrinks the dynamic po-
tential of literary products by reducing their meanings to “static” forms,
and by suggesting that certain “information” can supply “the key to the
text” and its meaning.±· Poststructural critics like Miller would merely
take this (ultimately Nietzschean) line of thought to a more extreme po-
sition. Genetic criticism is the epitome of all critical forms which seek
after the “univocal reading” of a text.± For deconstructionists, it does
not matter whether the ¬nished reading stands as an “originary” form to
which criticism seeks to return, or an accomplished form which criticism
makes in its own rhetorical praxis. All are unstable and operating under
the sign of diff´rance. Thus, “Nihilism is an inalienable alien presence
e
within Occidental metaphysics, both in poems and in the criticism of
poems.”±
Ellis™s view that criticism justi¬es itself in its social praxis is important
and will be reconsidered below. Before taking up that matter, however,
we have to inquire into the idea that genetic criticism offers static and
univocal meanings for literary works. In fact, all the great historicist
critics were well aware that their method could not do this. The ideal
of reconstructing the originary material and ideological context, even if
±±
A point of reference
fully achieved, would provide the later reader only with what “the author
assumed to be the natural property of his audience.” The method does
not offer static and univocal readings, it attempts to specify the concrete
and particular forms in which certain human events constituted them-
selves. The “meanings” of those events, whether for the original persons
involved or for any subsequent persons, are themselves speci¬cally con-
stituted events which can and will be reconstituted in the subsequent
historical passage of the poem. The “reading” and the “criticism” of
poems and the human events they represent set what Blake called a
“bounding line” to human action. In this sense criticism “ and historical
criticism paradigmatically “ does not establish the “meanings” of poems,
it tries to re-present them to us in “minute particulars,” in forms that
recover (as it were) their physique in as complete detail as possible. Thus
Parry says, of the historical reconstruction which his criticism brings
about: “I make for myself a picture of great detail,”° not “I translate for
myself and my world the meaning of the ancient texts.” The originary
“meanings” (Parry™s “complexes of ideas which the author assumed”)
are themselves concrete particulars, not concrete universals; and their
complexity involves diverse and often contradictory lines of relations.
Historical criticism™s great critical advance lay in its ability to recon-
struct, in methodical ways, the differential and contradictory patterns
within which poetical works constitute themselves and are constituted.
Parry and those like him understood very well that texts and the
criticism of texts labored under various destabilizing forces.

If I say that Grote™s account of democracy at Athens is more revealing of the
mind of an English Liberal of the nineteenth century after Christ, than it recalls
what actually took place in Athens in the ¬fth century before Christ, and then
go on to admit that the opinion which I have just expressed about Grote may in
turn reveal even more my own state of mind than it does that of Grote (indeed, I
know that I am expressing this thought here because I came across it about two
weeks ago in one of the essays submitted for the Bowdoin prize essay contest
and it struck me) “ even in that case I am still doing no more than to try to attain
a more perfect method for the historical approach to the thought of the past.±

This is Parry™s version of “the critic as host,” and it explains why he will
state the following basic paradox of historical method: that by it “we
learn to keep ourselves out of the past, or rather we learn to go into it.”
Historical method in criticism clari¬es and de¬nes the differentials in
concrete and speci¬c ways for the originary and the continuing past, as
well as for the immediate present (and the as yet unconstructed future).
± Byron and Romanticism
These passages are taken from Parry™s great essay “The Historical
Method in Literary Criticism” (±), where Parry also expresses “a cer-
tain feeling of fear” that this method will “destroy itself.” His fear
recalls Nietzsche™s critique of philological studies expressed in On the
Advantages and the Disadvantages of History for Life, and anticipates the anti-
historical arguments of the immanentist critical methods which, in the
early ±°s, were just beginning to gain force and prominence. “I have
seen myself, only too often and too clearly, how, because those who teach
and study Greek and Latin literature have lost the sense of its importance
for humanity, the study of those literatures has declined.” What Parry
proposes is that scholars “create their heroic legend” of the importance of
the historicity, not merely of truth, but of the search for truth: “Otherwise
they will be choosing a future in which they must see themselves con¬ned
not by choice, but by compulsion, to be forever ineffective, if they would
not be untruthful.”µ
In fact, however, historical criticism “ at least as it was practiced in the
Western academy “ did not go on to ful¬ll what Parry called for. This
failure occurred, I believe, because historicist criticism always tended to
conceive its terms in a recollective frame. Thus “referentiality,” in this
program, tended to be construed as bearing upon persons and events
which lay behind us, in a completed form of pastness. It is true that
language “refers to” particular actualities. But if no historical critic of
any standing ever understood this referential connection in the simple
empiricist terms laid down by Miller, neither, on the other hand, did they
explore the full theoretical implications of some of their most important
historicist principles.
“I make for myself a picture of great detail.” This is the heart of the
historicist program. But the traditional historicists “ even late ¬gures like
Parry “ tended to “read” this picture with their gaze turned backward.
Parry knew perfectly well that the picture he made for himself contained
historical layers (himself, Grote, ¬fth-century Greece, as well as many
intervenient distances), but when he actually made the picture for his
audience, the layers and intervenient distances tended to disappear into
the outlines of the originary picture. This blurring of the palimpsest seems
most obvious to us, now, in the picture™s avoidance of its projected future
details. These we now call, in general, the “prejudice” (after Gadamer)
or “ideology” (after the Marxist tradition) of the critical account.
Any present deployment of historical criticism will have to renovate
the original program along such lines. The picture which the historical
critic makes is one which includes a future as well as a present and a past,
±
A point of reference
which includes, indeed, many pasts, presents, and futures. Historical
criticism can no longer make any part of that sweeping picture unself-
consciously, or treat any of its details in an untheorized way. The prob-
lem with Parry™s brief anecdote about ¬fth-century Greece, Grote, and
himself is that he was unable to incorporate the shrewd insight of this
anecdote into his explicit programmatic scheme. As a result, the anec-
dote stands apart, an ancillary sketch which would not ¬nd its way into
a single, larger picture of great detail.

In this context we can begin to reconstitute the idea of “referentiality”
and even sketch the outlines of a renovated historical criticism. We begin
with what Parry called the “detail.” For a properly historical criticism “
which is to say, in my view, a dialectical criticism “ those much-maligned
matters of fact are the postulates of a critical discourse. The historical
particularity of a poem by Wordsworth or a novel by Austen have to be
clearly speci¬ed in the act of criticism if that act is to proceed dialectically,
i.e., if that act is not simply to project upon “the work” its own conceptual
interests. Such elementary particulars establish the ground for a whole
system of critical differentials that stretch across the continuing social life
of a literary work from its point of origin to its current operations.
These matters ought to be clear enough. What also needs to be
said, however, is that the “referent” of any discourse “ whether the
“original” creative discourse, the intervening discourses of the work™s re-
ception, or the immediate discourses of current criticism “ cannot be con-
ceived simply as an empirical datum. The matters-of-fact which poems
and criticism embody (or constitute) are not “ to borrow Coleridge™s
phraseology “ “objects as objects”; rather they are objects-as-subjects,
objects which have been (and continue to be) a focus of important human
interests. The poems themselves, because they are “social texts” and
events, are also objects as subjects, but the poems acquire this character
because they “have reference to” the larger (human) world of social inter-
actions. Literary works represent, and are representative of, that larger
world.
All this does not mean, however, that the task of criticism is a historicist
reconstruction or glossing of a particular work™s originary referential
¬eld. The critical ideal must be a totalizing one, for literary “works”·
continue to live and move and have their being. The referential ¬eld of
Byron™s Don Juan is by no means limited to the period ±·“±, though
that is the explicit frame of the poem™s narrativization. Don Juan “has
reference to” a larger share of the past than the period of its immediate
± Byron and Romanticism
focus. Indeed, that focusing period, as reconstituted through Don Juan, is
revealed to be itself a vehicle (or system of mediations) by which history is
rendered up for human use. In the end, what we must see is that works like
Don Juan have reference to “ make use of and assume an interest in “ some
more or less comprehensive aspects of the past, and the present and the
future as well. Because critical activity shares in that work, it too operates
with its own various, and more or less explicit, socio-historical interests.
To recover the concept of referentiality, we might well begin by re-
minding ourselves that “facts” are not mere data, objects, or monads;
they are heuristic isolates which bring into focus some more or less com-

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