by Keith Sagar
The most abiding memory of the conference will be of the unflappable efficiency,
geniality and generosity of the organizers and hosts, Adolphe Haberer and
Joanny Moulin, for whom nothing was too much trouble.
The conference was attended by almost a hundred people of many nationalities and ages. There was also a whole spectrum of levels of interest in Hughes, from professional Hughes critics and scholars, through teachers and students, to non-academic readers and enthusiasts.
Despite the efforts of the chairman to involve the non-specialists, the questions and comments tended to come from the specialists, who perhaps did not make enough effort to stay within hearing of the non-specialists. Indeed, some of them barely stayed within hearing of each other, such were the cultural divides. With the exception of Claas Kazzer, the speakers were American, French or British in approximately equal numbers. National stereotypes were much in evidence. The American stereotype is an inability to discuss Hughes other than in terms of Plath. The French stereotype is an inability to discuss him other than in terms of Lacan. At one extreme we had almost a caricature of the French stereotype, where the sole purpose of Hughes' poems (presumably of any poems) seemed to be to provide material upon which the critic could demonstrate his mastery of the jargon of Lacanian psycho-linguistics. Fortunately other speakers completely transcended their national stereotypes.
What is the stereotype of the British Hughes critic? I am too close to perceive it. I assume that we must seem to the French to be lacking in intellectual rigour, and to the Americans to be lacking in political correctness. Guilty on both counts. But our lack of intellectual rigour is not (or not entirely) a matter of laziness. Some of us believe that criticism should not be primarily - certainly not exclusively - an intellectual activity. The poet awakens the imagination of the reader, who is then empowered to respond to imagination with imagination, with, that is, the whole self. Also we believe that language is, in the words of F.R.Leavis, »more than a means of expression; it is the heuristic conquest won out of representative experience, the upshot or precipitate of immemorial human living, and embodies values, distinctions, identifications, conclusions, promptings, cartographical hints and tested potentialities. It exemplifies the truth that life is growth and growth change, and the condition of these is continuity. It takes the individual being, the particularizing actuality of life, back to the dawn of human consciousness«. And this is particularly true of the language as used by Hughes.
America, especially American academia, is greatly in need of Ted Hughes. I believe with Melville, that a major function of creative writers is to be as subversive as possible; to say »No! in thunder« to the most cherished and widely held beliefs, values, orthodoxies, of their culture. Though most of the elements of political correctness started out in just such a revolutionary spirit, it has now become in American academia (and, in somewhat different terms, in French) a stifling institutionalized orthodoxy - just the sort of shibboleth that creative writing exists to subvert. If Hughes is anathema to the MLA, the tenure committees, the setters of syllabuses, so much the worse for them, and for the students suffering under their stifling regime.
In Lyon our common perception of the greatness of Hughes threw a few ropes over these divides. Hughes conferences hitherto have been at ten-year intervals. There was general agreement that we cannot wait ten years for the next. Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia (where most of Hughes' manuscripts are now located) was canvassed as a possible location for the next conference. That assumes that the US authorities will grant visas to Hughes enthusiasts. When a famous English television personality called Gilbert Harding made his first visit to the US in the fifties, he was required to complete a form, on which one question was: »Do you intend to engage in any activities which might undermine the American government and constitution?« Against this he wrote: »Sole purpose of visit«.
by Joanny Moulin
In a recently published note, Keith Sagar may have given the impression
that the Ted Hughes conference of Lyon was a heteroclite reunion on »specialists« and »non-specialists« who
have obdurately failed to understand one another. Well, I have to speak up
and say that this is totally untrue. On the contrary, all other participants
have insisted that we have had two days of very lively, although very polite,
Keith Sagar is really developing a remark which I have made in Lyon, in an attempt to explain what my purpose had been in convening precisely such a selection of Hughes scholars. For we have had what I would not call stereotypes - for this is the entrenched vocabulary of sterile antagonism - but various contributions, some of which were indeed very representative of different schools of thinking. What Keith Sagar calls »the American stereotype« and »the French stereotype« are in fact those approaches which had been barred access to the previous Hughes conferences in Manchester.
To the question »What is the stereotype of the British Hughes critic?« Keith Sagar eludes the answer, but does perceive that he is »too close to perceive it.« The first answer which must be made is that there is no such thing as »stereotype of the British Hughes critic,« as I had already tried to demonstrate by including Anthony Easthope among the fifteen authors of the recent, bilingual collection of essays, Lire Ted Hughes (Paris: Editions du Temps). The second answer to be made is a radical denial of Keith's assumption that »we must seem to the French to be lacking in intellectual rigour.« This is certainly not true, least of all if we are speaking of those French academics who call themselves anglicistes and have dedicated their careers to a studious admiration of English literature and criticism.
It is only natural that Keith Sagar should have felt challenged, for one of the main purposes of this conference was also to challenge the received reading of Ted Hughes that he has so brilliantly championed for so many years. If this deserved to be called a stereotype, it would have to be thought of not as a British, but rather a Leavisite stereotype. For the conception of language which Keith Sagar quotes as a standard, »in the words of F.R. Leavis,« happens to have had a rather bad time in the last decades of the 20th century, along with the idea of literature which it used to foster. Whether we like it or not, the New Criticism, language theories, Lacanian psychoanalysis and Derrida's deconstruction as a more recent chapter among others of the same story have irrecoverably changed the critical landscape. And I have the conviction that it would have meant doing the poetry of Ted Hughes a very bad turn to go on withholding it from the scrutiny of the more ›continental‹ theories of both Europe and America.
A literary criticism which too closely adheres to the ideological tenets of its object is hardly literary criticism at all. The net result of a too nervous approach to the poetry of Ted Hughes has been that it is barely taught at all in the United States, and that up to a very recent date it has been almost impossible to publish a decent French translation, simply because this seemed not at all the kind of poetry anyone would like to read in France today. If Ted Hughes's poetry cannot stand these tests, well it does not deserve to live. I am personally convinced that it can, and does, and with a vengeance. That is the reason why I have made it one of my fights over the last ten years to try and make French readers change their minds about this.
The ternary basis of the Lyon conference, which brought together Hughes scholars from England, Continental Europe and the United States, has reached its implicit target, which was to jolt the Hughes studies, of which Keith Sagar remains the beloved Founding Father, towards the fresh fields and pastures new that this powerful poetry still offers for research. But also, it has been clear enough that the American and the French contributors as well as the English have been insistently startled, and yes, slightly flabbergasted at the very first, by a conference that would run contrary to their own expectations. As a result, we should congratulate ourselves at least, if for nothing else, for having achieved (in Viktor Schklovsky's word) an ostranenie, a defamiliarisation, a »making strange« of Ted Hughes. We were all brought to see our familiar poet through the eyes of foreigners, far above any mean camp fisticuffs à la Plath vs. Hughes, or Leavis vs. Lacan, or whatever.
And I am very glad to see that we are asking for more, and that there is a hope that we will not have to wait another ten years for the next Ted Hughes conference. That the University of Emory, in Atlanta, has become the sanctuary of the Hughes archives is no doubt a very good omen for an ultimate victory of the republic of letters over trench warfare. Let us look forward to the Americanization of Ted Hughes.
I tried to keep the tone of my original comments on the Lyon conference
fairly light, not wanting to turn the web-site into a battleground; but it
seems that Joanny wants to discuss larger matters with more fervour. He deserves
a much longer answer than would be appropriate here. At the risk of oversimplification
and exaggeration I shall try to be brief.
Indeed we had »two days of very lively, although very polite, debating«. I simply wondered how much of it was understood by or met the needs of the students and non-academics present. If the feedback Joanny received suggested that most of it did, then my doubts were groundless.
I did not intend the word ›stereotype‹ to be antagonistic, simply a shorthand way of saying exactly what Joanny says: »contributions very representative of different schools of thinking«. And Joanny seems not to have noticed my statement that most speakers, I any case, »completely transcended their national stereotypes«.
It is certainly a laudable objective in the convenors of a conference to try to make sure that the whole spread of current approaches is covered. No-one was »barred access« to the previous Hughes conferences. They were open to anyone who chose to enrol, and, as far as I can remember, no-one who asked to give a paper did not do so. They were, of course, much smaller conferences, partly because Hughes studies have grown since then, and partly because we were not able to advertise them on the internet.
But an inevitable corollary of such a diversity of approach is that, although there will be creative interchange across most of the spectrum, as indeed there was in Lyon, there are bound to be irreconcilable extremes. Within the context of the conference these need not lead to any impoliteness, let lone »fisticuffs«, and of course there was nothing of the sort in Lyon. But once a conference is over, it needs to be seen in a larger context, the context of Hughes studies, which are in the context of literary studies in the universities, which are in the context of the cultural disaster of the last twenty years or so.
If there is such a thing as a »received reading« of Hughes, I am surprised to hear it called »Leavisite«. I had already moved away from Leavis before beginning to work on Hughes, and have since moved further away. I don't refer to him at all in The Laughter of Foxes, nor do Ann Skea and Nicholas Bishop in their books on Hughes. Nor can I remember any references in Scigaj or Gifford and Roberts. It must be decades since I last quoted Leavis anywhere, but I just remembered that particular formulation of his about language, which seemed to me to embody the irreducible truths about language without which poetry could not do what it is written to do, and all the great poets have wasted their lifetimes, and I have been wasting mine. To deny the truth of Leavis' words on the nature of language is to deny the nose on your face.
What is being challenged here is much more than a »received reading« of Hughes. Literature has given me a great deal. This is not an opinion, it is something I know from experience. All my working life I have tried through my teaching and writing to help others to gain access to this bottomless store of gifts. Now I am told that I must stop doing this because it has been proved theoretically that the gifts don't really exist: I have only imagined, foolishly, that the arts can be a source of fertility, health and wholeness and wisdom.
Thus I am put in a position similar to Brecht's Galileo asking the papal astronomers to look through his telescope at the moons of Jupiter only to be told that there was no point in looking, since they could prove by disputation and appeal to authority that the moons could not exist. A reader's report on an apparently unpublishable book of mine called Literature and the Crime against Nature says »Surely Dr. Sagar is aware that critical theory long ago demonstrated that there is no such thing as nature«. A reader's report on The Laughter of Foxes stated that although it was »a scholarly book written with an extremely high level of engagement« and contained useful information and explications, it should not be published because »it is not written in the language of literary criticism« and also because Jacqueline Rose wouldn't like it.
It is no longer, as it used to be, that a few scattered critics find the work of a few other scattered critics to be misconceived or sterile. That was inevitable and no great matter. But now those who think they have ›irrecoverably changed the critical landscape' have got themselves into positions of such power within the academy that they constitute a kind of Holy Office or thought-police. They are able to make life very difficult for those who do not toe the party line, to force them out of their jobs, to prevent them getting tenure or promotion, to prevent the publication of their work, and to prevent them teaching what they want to teach. Students entering English departments because they have a love of literature which they expect to be fostered and nourished are in for a rude surprise. Reading is no longer the exposure of the whole self to the imaginative world of the writer through the sensitive response of both writer and reader to their common language; it is the application to texts of a system of analysis prescribed by whichever gurus happen to be currently fashionable. Some of those present at the conference have had direct personal experience of all these things.
Far from having »irrecoverably changed the critical landscape«, the exaltation of such idiot-savants as Lacan and Derrida as the fount of all wisdom is symptomatic of a fin-de-siécle decadence, of the very disease, the sterility, which literature exists to cure. It has led literary studies up a cul-de-sac, made them the laughing-stock of other disciplines, disciplines which are now coming together to try belatedly to move mankind towards a saner, less hubristic relationship with »great creating Nature«.
So I'm afraid, Joanny, that I cannot see it as a matter for polite debate between complementary approaches towards a common end within the republic of letters. Much bigger issues are at stake than not rocking the boat, issues such as academic freedom, the life or death of the human spirit, and the survival of life on earth.
I have just had the opportunity to read the Ted Hughes conference page
and am intrigued, and amused, to discover that political and ideological
issues have made their way into the criticism of Hughes's work in ways that
are not surprising but unsettling. I am not employed by any academic institution
and so do not have to watch my words quite as much as I might have to were
I in line for a trip up the celestial ladder of literary critical stardom.
My opinion does not rank with those of Keith Sagar or Joanny Moulin because
I am a writer and so sit on the fence surrounding the battleground, as it
were, and observe the eternal struggle of academic ambition against cultural
assertion as one might watch two gladiators fighting for different prizes.
One is prompted to ask why they bother to do battle at all, as the two sides
seem to have very little in common, besides a mutual facility for critical
eloquence and an aptitude for manipulating poetic truth. The prize seems
relative to the matter at hand and the poetry recedes in a fog of rhetoric
and obsequiousness that has no place among the intentions of anyone held
up to students of literature as a creative entity, a wordcrafter, a poet.
Much of what Keith Sagar has to say is not only reasonable, but true. Accusations of »Leavisite« sympathies are not sufficient (and never have been) to dispel the ominous warning that he has to deliver concerning the powers that be and their desire to mould both new students and aspiring scholars to the ambitions of a ruling ideology and its ultimate intention to put opinion before the naked reality of the human soul.
Politeness in critical debates is often a mask for fear. »Engagement« with »issues« is often accomplished by combatants clad in full armour and equipped with plastic swords. No one wants to draw any kind of fluid. This is the twenty-first century and we have somehow miraculously graduated from snarling beasts to upmarket purveyors of the culture-stuff in the twinkling of a new-age eye. Many critics and teachers have failed to place students within the vortex of the storm Hughes so brilliantly depicted and so compassionately called to order. No reader of Hughes's work should ever pass by the delicate harebell without noting also the accompanying dark rock. No Hughes critic should ever cry »violence« without whispering directly afterward »redemption, grace«. Things tend to bump up against one another in Hughes's world and when they do politeness is the least likely outcome. Why, then, do critics of this poet's work find themselves bound by self-imposed etiquette and ruled by fear of upsetting some preordained socio-political balancing act?
Keith Sagar's warning of pressure to conform is real and already firmly entrenched in academic institutions across the globe. His claim that »Much bigger issues are at stake than not rocking the boat, issues such as academic freedom, the life or death of the human spirit, and the survival of life on earth« is not the opinion of an outgoing generation, piqued at a new world view. It is the warning implicit in Ted Hughes's poetry; these are the issues that Hughes's poetry confronts directly. If poetry is worthy of critical debate, then those who attend conferences will know that no matter what race or creed the reader, there is no easy way round the issues that torment the human mind and scar the human soul to its deepest levels. Politeness is a civilized response to the opinion and presence of differing others; political correctness is the civilized response turned upon itself, the plastic sword drawn in mock defence, the armour too heavy for the wearer.
When Hughes's Knight goes out in battle he does so with the unswerving belief that Nature will reclaim him, whether he is victorious or otherwise. His sword is the lily, his heart is the floor of a dungeon crowded with the unborn, his body is the doorway of death. Perhaps critics of Hughes's work will, in time, find themselves drawn into the centre of the storm, taste the blood of enemies, look into the heart of human violence and survive beyond the terror and the gore to find the lost fragment of immeasurable worth that presents itself to the survivor as nothing more than the broken off pieces of the self. Perhaps, when we no longer feel obliged to feel obliged, we may discover the beauty of this man's words in the simple shapes and forms, the animals and the birds and the human visitors of a planet that belongs to the forces of creation and, because writing poetry and reading poetry are creative acts, to those who feel, fleetingly and without need for explanation or regret, the touch of wings.
No matter who we are, or where we come from, to manipulate the meaning of poetry is to manipulate our experience of humanity. To come together and debate the value of poetry in terms of our humanity is the crowning achievement of any kind of conference. If this goal is reached, then who cares what the English think the French think the Japanese are thinking? What matters is the effect of Hughes's words on our universal passion to understand that which makes us creative, destructive, generous, compassionate, violent, intolerant or free.
As an Englishman who has chosen to live and work in France may I intervene
in the debate between Keith Sagar and Joanny Moulin? Since I agree with Joanny,
particularly in his hope that Hughes will be Americanized (and Chuvashized
and Tamilized...) - I would like to concentrate mainly on Keith Sagar's second
letter but before doing so I would like to pick up something in the first.
Keith there wrote »National stereotypes were much in evidence«.
Could I gently remind Keith of a standard dictionary definition of the word ›stereotype‹ as
being »something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; esp: a standardized
mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents
an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgement«?
Though I think what he means is »prototypes« or »types« (a »stereotype« is - it
seems - especially in the eye of the beholder), I would say that the lexical
choice is revealing in that I feel that both of his letters manifest stereotyping
(»an oversimplified opinion«). To begin with I am not convinced
that a majority of Americans in Lyon were concerned exclusively with Plath
(Carole Bere? Stephen Enniss?? Diane Middlebrook???). Moreover, had they
all been concerned with Plath would this be such a sin - given that Hughes
himself, as Birthday Letters shows, was intimately concerned with the significance
of this relationship and the dialogue between their works. But, closer to »home«,
not all French academics are Lacanians (as our colleagues from Lyon well
know) and British critics are not all »guilty« of »lacking
in intellectual rigour« (Neil Roberts, for example, was, in my eyes,
quite as theoretically sophisticated as any of the French participants in
the conference). More particularly I do not share any of Keith Sagar's theoretical
presuppositions. For example, as a linguist, I think it is alas not true
that language »takes the individual being, the particularizing actuality
of life, back to the dawn of human consciousness«, that contemporary
English, for example, contains a short cut into the zeitgeist of the Ur-Sprache
(whatever that was) before Sanskrit (am I hence denying the nose on my face?).
I am thus more than reticent about Keith's use of »we« (as in »we
(?) must seem to the French« or »our (?) lack of intellectual
rigour« or »we (?) believe that language is...«) for the
British. That is to say I, who am a holder of a United Kingdom passport,
feel more than uneasy about being conscripted into Keith's rather beleaguered
army, just as I would refuse to show allegiance to my French passport (and,
to their credit, my colleagues in Lyon - whatever their misgivings about
my theoretical presuppositions - have never asked me) by becoming a Lacanian.
But it is the second letter that worries me most. In it Keith seems (one hopes - but doubts - that he is writing ironically) to be parodying the voice of the »Hawk Roosting« or »The Retired Colonel« (the Gilbert Harding of his letter), arguing in a manner which I find not merely impolite to his hosts and colleagues, but, above all, problematic intellectually. For there are indeed basic issues at stake in his letters and it is with these I would like to engage. The major issue is - precisely - that of toleration of other people's discourse in a University context (an argument he uses to defend his own stance against others within the British (publishing and academic) context only to discard when diversity is manifested internationally). The true test of »academic freedom« is surely an ability to accept - indeed to welcome though not necessarily to take on - »alien« discourse. As an example of what I see as Keith's inability to come to terms with »alien« discourses I would quote his »the exaltation of such idiot-savants as Lacan and Derrida as the fount of all wisdom is symptomatic of a fin-de-siécle decadence, of the very disease, the sterility, which literature exists to cure«. To be brief, if Ted Hughes is really a poet who can only be read »fruitfully and healthily« by a handful (the last square) of »British« (by which I think Keith Sagar really means English) critics, then he is a provincial poet. If, as I think, he is a major and thus universal poet, he is going to be and has to be confronted with different readings and reading traditions and that over many years. It is manifest that there are good, bad and indifferent readings of Hughes, and all of us will have found certain of the papers read in Lyon more or less stimulating and useful, but I would doubt that any paper produced a consensus one way or the other. The history of literary criticism is, alas, littered with critics who thought they had discovered the ultimate critical »key« (»irreducible truths« in Keith Sagar's words) only - as a Surrealist poet suggested - to transform the object of their study (poems) into a »lock«. The history of criticism is littered with rusting conceptual tools and readings (look at so many of the Freudian readings of the fifties, Marxist readings of the sixties, Structuralist readings of the seventies, Feminist readings of the eighties or the philological readings of the nineteenth century...) though the »locks« (the poems) have survived. But this is also true - I feel - of the type of reading that Keith champions. His type of priority, the type that reads texts, he says, to show how they are a source of »fertility, health and wholeness and wisdom« was a type I personally felt very uneasy about as a schoolboy and an undergraduate and was one of the reasons that made me want to move to France. For it too (no more, no less) produced catastrophes in great numbers, readings that transformed texts into pamphlets, poems into catechisms and poets and novelists into latter-day prophets. Well (in a manner of speaking) do I remember »Leavisite« teachers saying to me that the only serious approach to literature was to assess works according to the author's moral position (»health and wholeness« etc...), that it was only moral awareness that provided a ground for objective evaluation, explaining to us that in a world without religion, literature offered moral answers for every situation convinced that through literature the reader could have unmediated access to »the life or death of the human spirit« (Lady Chatterley, Camus, Malraux, Beauvoir, Blake what crimes were committed in your names in English Universities). But Keith Sagar's conceptual framework - like those of the Marxists, structuralists, feminists and philologists - has also, and therein lies the paradox, produced exciting work - criticism that opened doors into the scope and the detail of texts and their contexts - including Keith's own fine work on Hughes - work to which I personally owe a great deal.
This suggests that as critics we know that the texts will always »survive« our readings and theoretical a priori, that Hughes poems are not »slighted« by »bad readings« (any more than Lear is »soiled« by a »bad production«), that the poems we study will be read in hundreds of years time at a time when - for all we know - there will be no Universities as we understand them and the conceptual framework will be light years from our own. We (or most of us) also know that very few of our readings will survive except as obscure notes in very erudite academic work, that no theoretical presupposition guarantees a »good« reading (or a »bad« one), that no »national culture« gives one easy access to text. If Lacanian theory and political correctness are to die, it will happen. Cannot those, like Keith, who wish to see them die show a little patience? Given this, would it not be wise to pour a little oil on this troubled water, and work out a code of conduct that excludes stereotyping of the type we find in Keith Sagar's letters, if only because History has proved (again and again) that stereotyping and anger hinder understanding, armour us against self-doubt and blind us to originality?
I was not at the Lyon conference, so I cannot comment on the papers, or
how the various approaches to Hughes's work came across there. However, reading
the various comments posted on this site, the responses and the responses
to responses, I did begin to wonder what Ted would have made of it all. If
that seems a bit trite and fatuous, it's not meant to be. The point is that
the contributions to the debate are centrally concerned with the value and
validity of that variety of approaches - and Hughes's work is itself an exploration
of freedom of the spirit, including freedom of expression.
If there's anything of substance in this correlation, it might be interesting to read the various contributions to the debate against the backdrop of the first and last poems in Hughes's New Selected Poems (his poems were always strategically placed). Both are celebrations of the spirit and free expression. »The Thought Fox« was, among other things, a reaction against the intellectual oppression Hughes encountered in the teaching of English Literature at Cambridge, where he found lecturers more interested in promoting their own intellectual pyrotechnics, than responding to the energy and spirit of the creative writing they taught. And the final poem, »A Dove« is a celebration of the spirit and language which can be read - among other things - against the backdrop of his hatred of the political, religious and cultural oppression exerted by Fascism, and the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
Both poems, through their movement and rhythm, celebrate free expression, celebrate language and celebrate poetry. Hughes himself said there was no single interpretation of his poems - he once said his own interpretation was no more valid than anyone else's. One can imagine Hughes welcoming a variety of approaches to his poetry. And it seems to me inevitable that those readings will be coloured by cultural, political and literary influences - just as Hughes was influenced by his roots and his early reading of Jung \ Lawrence \ Dostoevsky for example, just as Lacan was influenced , and so on.
One imagines that the only readings Hughes would reject were those which sought to corral his work in support of, or to justify a particular ideology by twisting or deliberately misreading. This is one reason, perhaps, why he was at pains to dispel misconceptions about the »violence« in his poetry in that essay in Winter Pollen.
I am not competent to take sides in this debate. Neither do I want to. The poems stand: to be found, to be read, and to be discussed with the generosity of spirit which they themselves exude.
Paul Volsik seems not to have read my letters very carefully. Surely he
will accept that there is such a thing as a stereotypical (strictly) American
approach to Hughes through Plath. One only has to look at the contributions
at MLA conventions. The formula is very simple. Here is a dog called Hughes.
Here is a stick called Plath. Now beat the dog. Did I say that all the Americans
at Lyon answered to this stereotype? On the contrary, I said that many of
them »completely transcended« it. It was more ›in evidence'
in conversations than in the lectures, with the Americans participants themselves
being particularly concerned by it.
I hardly recognize my own position in Paul's description of it. For the most part I will leave it to the reader to judge. But I do want to make a couple of points. I have never offered any keys or exclusively right readings of Hughes. Nor do I believe in such things. But I do believe that some readings are better than others, and that most if not all theoretically prescribed critical approaches are likely to produce bad readings.
I object to the turning of the work of any thinker or group of thinkers into Holy Writ. This applies to Leavis just as much as to Lacan or Derrida. A Leavisite critic once told me that there was no point in writing anything on Lawrence's »The Fox« because Leavis had already written on it. But that is beside the point since the voice of Leavis is no longer allowed to be heard at all.
The term ›idiot-savant‹ has a very specific and very apposite meaning. The idiot-savant is the opposite of and forms a pair with the wise fool. Both are very common in folklore and literature. The wise fool is better known, because it is more positive and fruitful, and because Christ himself is traditionally regarded as a type of the wise fool. The wise fool is a figure who in the eyes of the world is a fool, since he is unable to live in terms of its values. But beneath his or her apparent folly lie deep and necessary truths unattainable by the forms of thinking society understands and approves. His thinking is so remote from what passes for wisdom that it can be seen only as folly or insanity. He is at best ignored, at worst persecuted. There are many such figures in literature: both Mad Tom and Cordelia in King Lear, Blake's »Little Boy Lost«, the Ancient Mariner, Pip in Moby Dick, Yeats' Crazy Jane, Simon in Lord of the Flies, Hughes' wodwo, the Lumb of the Gaudete epilogue poems, the protagonist of Cave Birds,
The idiot-savant is in the eyes of the world a wise man, an intellectual giant, but his impressive mental achievements are built on sand, for there are radical defects in perception or humanity in the basic assumptions. His apparent wisdom conceals dangerous folly or madness. Very few see this. He is lauded and rewarded and attracts many followers or admirers. There are a great many idiot-savants in the history of Western thought, from Socrates to Stephen Hawking. They bear a considerable responsibility for our present plight. Blake singled out Newton and Locke for particular blame. In literature the most obvious examples are Doctors Faustus and Frankenstein. Coleridge, horrified but helpless, saw himself turning into an idiot-savant:
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man.
In Hughes we have »Egghead«, The Master in »The Tiger's Bones«, Sartre and Einstein in »Wings«, and St. George in »Crow's Account of St. George«. It is of course possible, both in life and literature, for the idiot-savant to see the light and become a wise fool.
Paul states that he does not share any of my beliefs about language or literature, but does not say what he does believe that makes them important to him. If myth and folklore and imaginative literature are not part of man's continuing effort to understand himself and his relationship to the rest of life, and to cure whatever psychic disorders he suffers from, what are they for? Are poems merely word-games? In which case why should anyone be motivated to devote a life to the production of poems or the study of them?
It is a strange argument that because the poems will still be around in a hundred years and the criticism will be forgotten, it doesn't matter whether our reading of the poems is good or bad. It is good to think that in a hundred years my descendants will be reading the poems of Ted Hughes. But what is rather more important is whether the ecosystem can maintain itself that long; whether my descendants will have eatable food, drinkable water, breathable air; whether there will be any unspoiled places; whether there will be salmon and whales and foxes and wolves and tigers and white rhinos sharing the world with them. And whether these things are still there will depend on changes in human consciousness and values to which imaginative literature, in alliance with many other disciplines, can contribute. In this context I think it does make a difference whether we read it well or badly, whether we take it seriously enough to bother.