In An Appetite for Poetry, Frank Kermode tells of seeing on the door of a laboratory at UCLA a posted quotation from the Carnets d'un biologiste of Jean Rostand: "Les théories passent. Le grenouille reste." Kermode comments, "There is a risk that in the less severe discipline of criticism the result may turn out to be different; the theories will remain but the frog may disappear." In redefining the study of literature, recent theorists in the traditions of structuralism and post-structuralism have offered sophisticated abstract concepts intended to replace our pre-theoretical commonplace experience of literature. Often self-consciously "scientific," these theories have explicitly questioned the ties of "the text" to any individual human agency. The true agency may be class, or the unconscious, or the nature of language or écriture, or the bipolar structures of the mind, or history at last properly understood, or gender, or genre—anything but this poet, this musician, this painter, creating this particular work of art, realizing specific intentions and purposes. Indeed the very existence of this artist as in any sense responsible for the work of art has been frequently questioned.
Frank Thomas's deeply original book recalls us to the full force of Rostand's observation about those enduring frogs: theories can dazzle us in the ways that obscure the wondrous riches of that frog. Indeed after a while they can lead us to forget all about the very frog that the theory, at least at the outset, was supposed to explain. The theory, after all, has the beauty and power of simplicity and comprehensiveness, the poor frog is covered with warts in unpredictable patterns, and it in itself seems to explain nothing, not even itself. When ravished by the unmistakable appeals of marvelous theory, we need someone like Thomas to come along and repeat over and over until our reverie is broken: "Look at this one frog, and next really look at this surprisingly different one, and then again at this really quite strange one over here in a pond that your theory has totally ignored."
To some readers, that voice, heard in full eloquence in The Writer Writing, will seem like the voice of reality crashing through the fog of controversy; to others it may seem like a philistine intrusion. The point to stress is that Thomas's subject cannot be considered genuinely old-fashioned, for the same reason that frogs can never become old-fashioned to biologists. His subject is human actions, human makings, as the bedrock for the study of literature. It is thus hard to say whether he is conservative or radical when he insists, through example after example, that "People do things. One of the things they do is write."
Indeed careful readers will soon recognize that Thomas is not a pre-structuralist troglodyte concealing a reactionary message with his unusually clear and engaging style. Though fully informed about current theories, he is a reader in love with a grand never-dated conception of literature, passionately engaged with individual works. If, as Thomas Pavel says in Le Mirage Linguistique, "… the fear of singularities … haunts all philosophies inspired by structuralism …," books like The Writer Writing are badly needed. Abandoned is the fashionable hope of knowing in advance of reading that the next work, like the previous one, will necessarily be about power relations, or about problems of gender, or about the infinite deferral of determinate meaning—though for all one knows in advance the next work might be precisely "about" any such matters.
Thus reading this book, after reading in the varieties of contemporary criticism, is a little like moving out of the no-man's-land in some war zone and meeting someone standing in the line of fire who says, "Don't bother to duck; there's no real killing going on here, and the two warring sides do not exist as sides. Now what I'd like to do is introduce you to this fascinating general—she's nineteen and is the agent of God sent to work His will in contemporary politics; and this private, who has discovered the real life of past and present in a biscuit, and this philosopher who has discovered the depth of human folly in a … ."
In lumping many current theories together as what his project must bypass, Thomas might be accused of engaging in the very kind of theoretical violation of individual qualities he deplores. But his lumping of theorists is not based on a claim that they are all identical, in their theoretical aspect, but that their consequences for the practical reader too often are the same. As he says, whenever a critic's theory "resituates agency to impersonal or suprapersonal sites where an individual writer's plans, projects, and purposes are meaningless or irrelevant," the consequences will be similar, regardless of the differences in internal logic or in theoretical or political motivation: the artist's original contribution (if any) will be understated or ignored. Many a theory tells us just what the next work will be doing, and why. In contrast, any reader who follows Thomas will become as open to new and unpredictable experience as are some readers who know no formal criticism: they can just let the powers of that next work determine how to live with it.
Thus the book's success is measured by whether Thomas has been able, with his combination of formal analysis and historical reconstruction, to reveal riches we had previously ignored. And it is here that his work on Shaw and Proust becomes quite wonderfully central. Critics have tended to see writers like these as opposed: Shaw, a writer with professed purposes, creating almost in spite of himself aesthetic objects that could be admired for reasons not his own; Proust the idol,of aesthetic critics for whom pragmatic interests are thought to be corrupting. As he says of Shaw, "Against his vociferous, insistent, unmistakably clear and lifelong objections, they [some prominent critics] have persisted in trying to accommodate his dramatic achievements to their own concepts of art because they cannot deny the quality of his writing but cannot accommodate such quality to a concept of literature that envisions writing as a practical activity, an engagement with life that is meant to affect its course by changing the way people think and act."
By placing Shaw and Proust in juxtaposition and by both revealing the similarities in their contemporaneous pursuit of the uses of art and the radically distinct quality of the purposes each pursued, he in effect, presents us with the lovely gift of two refurbished giants, cleansed of our inherited clichés about them. Those readers who move beyond any anxieties they might have about Thomas's rejection of theory and look again at these two extraordinarily imaginative writers in the way Thomas suggests may well feel as I did that they are, in a sense, encountering these eccentric folk for the first time.
Thomas's act of celebration of the particular is underscored by the quite marvelous range of his explanations of other unique achievements: of why the stained glass at Chartres was organized precisely as it was by its medieval creators (Emile Mâle receives here the kind of homage he deserves); of how and why the organization of Vermeer's interiors is brilliantly original; of just why the the precise organization of Macbeth is both unprecedented and effective. And so on, through many another brief but telling revelation of the distinctive acts performed by genius.
Perhaps the sharpest way to distinguish what Thomas has achieved here from the work of most other intelligent critics on our scene is this: Let us imagine a young reader who, with no experience of criticism or theory, has learned to love a miscellaneous list of art works: novels, plays, poems, and works in other media. This budding art lover has so far read no criticism. Suppose now that I must decide what kind of criticism will be useful to her. I assume that she will believe what she reads, because when you read your first book of criticism you tend to believe it, especially if it is, like this one, elegantly written. Should I send her to someone who will teach her just the one right way of reading and the one agency that all art works are produced by or illustrate? If I do, and if she accepts uncritically what she reads, she will come away from the criticism with no reason whatever for reading another novel or poem or looking at another painting—except perhaps as further illustration of the truth she already has just learned from the critic. Would I not do better to send her to a critic who teaches that you cannot predict, on any grounds whatever, what the next "art work" will do to or for you? Knowing that it is called a novel will not help you; indeed it may render your reading pointless if you try to shoehorn the work into your notion of what a novel is or should be. Knowing that it was written in a given period cannot help you much, and may destroy your reading if you begin with fixed notions of how the period determines what the individual artist is allowed to do. Knowing some theory of language or culture or class or gender or genre will only blind you, if, as will be true if the work is really powerful, it refuses to fit that theory.
After reading Thomas, all that the young reader will know about the next book on the shelf is that it may very well be something marvelously new, and that it will reveal its original qualities only to the reader who slows down and brings her whole soul to the reading moment.
In short, with a few "commonplace" concepts and an unlikely assortment of facts, Thomas engages the actions of writers writing. He has allowed the artists themselves, not a theory that supersedes them, to yield access to diverse experiences that could not have been predicted in advance by even the shrewdest of theorists. No one, certainly not Thomas, needs to be told these days that there are many other ways of reading books. But the "old-fashioned" notion that art works are individual projects of individual artists, inviting us into diverse worlds, in this book feels refreshingly new. Even readers who ultimately choose to turn back from the frogs to the theories should carry with them the kind of respect for specific achievements that alone can protect us from pointless warfare in the clouds.