Commentary Magazine

Literary Essays, by David Daiches; More Literary Essays, by David Daiches

Criticism as Performance

Literary Essays.
by David Daiches.
University of Chicago Press. 225 pp. $5.00.

More Literary Essays.
by David Daiches.
University of Chicago Press. 274 pp. $5.00.

There is so much that is good in the critical writing of David Daiches that I find myself wondering why the sum effect of his criticism so often seems less satisfying than it ought to be. As these two volumes of miscellaneous essays (the first a reissue of a 1956 collection) amply illustrate, he brings to bear unusual qualities of mind and resources of learning on the literary texts, figures, and problems that he discusses. He commands a very impressive range of English and American literature, with a minutely-informed sense of its classical and Continental backgrounds, and he uses all this knowledge gracefully, relevantly, without a trace of pedantry. He is capable of astute close reading of texts, yet he preserves at all times a clear overview of larger structural and thematic patterns, and he repeatedly raises in intelligent ways the crucial questions which seek to relate literature to life. Virtually everything he writes is sane, lucid, and tactful, and in an age when the language of most literary people is tainted with learned barbarism or stylistic exhibitionism, he writes an eminently civilized prose that seems effortless in its clarity and directness. Yet with all these virtues, it seems to me that too many of his essays—and his books—in the end disappoint the high expectations one might have of them.


It may be that this frustrating aspect of Daiches's criticism is ultimately the defect of his greatest virtue—his unremitting concern for the general reader. Characteristically, in one of his stronger essays, a polemic against the New Criticism written in 1950, he objects to any critical “puritanism which does violence to the values found in experience,” and he sensibly questions the impatience with the testimony of readers implicit in the New Critics' militant stress on the formal consistency of the literary work. The “general reader” Daiches sometimes refers to would seem to be imagined more or less as a 20th-century equivalent of the “common reader” that Dr. Johnson invoked as the touchstone of his own criticism. Here, I think, is the crux of the difficulty in Daiches's critical enterprise: while Johnson could still conjure up the image of a relatively homogeneous readership—though it was already changing in his day—that shared a community of cultural, social, and literary experience, one of the most basic facts of our own cultural situation, as we are so often reminded, is the stratification of the literate public into specialized readerships with differing vocabularies, education, interests, life-styles. In the teeth of this hard fact of modern life, Daiches has heroically tried to address himself to a latter-day common reader, and while the effort has occasionally led to an essay luminous with the wisdom of an authentic humanism, his argument more often falls short of any proper critical target into an unfortunate middle ground where few of his readers are likely to be standing.

Symptomatically, he calls a book devoted to the general nature of literary values A Study of Literature for Readers and Critics, and after a promising beginning, in which he is at once sufficiently clear for the reader and sophisticated for the critic, he imperceptibly slips into saying what is surely self-evident to critics and of utility only to certain kinds of readers. The pattern of an arresting beginning that falls off into an intelligent rehearsal of the obvious is one which recurs in a number of the essays. Daiches's gift for apt generalization too easily yields to his tendency to “survey” material—quickly summarizing plot or poetic argument, paraphrasing attitudes and moral assumptions—as though he had begun by addressing advanced students and critics and ended by talking to college freshmen or curious businessmen.

Thus, an illuminating general description of Scott's novels, one of the best things anyone has written on Scott, is followed, in the last two thirds of the essay, by a synopsis of the major novels in which the now self-evident formula is applied to each book in turn. Or again, a series of finely observed generalizations on the tragedy of “outraged innocence” in Shakespeare leads to the most conventional account of the late comedies, culminating in characterizations like these of The Tempest:

Miranda is youth and innocence, and her union with Ferdinand has the same symbolic meaning as that of Florizel and Perdita. Trinculo and Stephano represent gross animality, mankind at its lowest. . . . Ariel is the wise man's spirit, representing the scientist's control over nature.

All quite true, of course, but for whom does this need to be said? There are entire essays like this, where one assents to the argument but learns very little from it: “Some Aspects of Milton's Pastoral Imagery” is chiefly a catalogue raisonné of pastoral images and allusions in the early poems. “The Criticism of Fiction” makes the necessary but limited point that critics should not impose an ideal conception of the novel on all the different novels they discuss. The essays on Carlyle, Whitman, Richardson, have the well-balanced, smoothly uninstructive summarizing quality of deftly-written encyclopedia articles. One of Daiches's chief strengths is his common sense, but given the wavering nature of his imagined general reader, common sense is often only a step away from commonplace, with sometimes even a cliché lurking in the background. Thus, in the first chapter of The Novel and the Modern World we are told, a propos of Virginia Woolf, that “Parties bring people together; yet the unity they impose is superficial and in a profound sense we are lonelier than ever in a crowd.” Any reader, I fear, who needs to have the “profundity” of this painfully familiar paradox pointed out to him is not likely to be one who would ever look into Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.


But this is, let me hasten to say, a little unfair; if I have seized Daiches at some of his weakest moments, it is not to suggest that they are typical, only that they sharply reveal a general limitation of his critical orientation which elsewhere one senses vaguely. What needs equal emphasis is that on occasion he shows that he himself is quite conscious of what he is doing, that his repeated attempt to restate imaginative works and to provide appropriate contexts for their appreciation is part of an effort to make criticism work as humane discourse rather than as technical exposition. “Criticism of any work of art,” he observes in his essay on the New Critics, “is a kind of performance, a sort of substitute for performance.” The act of criticizing a work of literature, that is, can be viewed as a sort of discursive extension of the simple act through which we present and interpret the work by reading it out loud. If this may seem too humble a claim to some, it must be admitted that it is refreshingly free of the pretense and elaborate self-deception underlying all the strident modern notions of criticism as a science, criticism as an autonomous art, criticism as the sacred rite of a new secular cult.

And there are moments when Daiches carries out his conception of criticism as performance with high success. Thus, in a poised, perceptive essay on Dylan Thomas, we are offered two pages of commentary on “A Refusal to Mourn” that nicely characterize the imagery and music of the poem and expose something of its peculiar poetic logic—after which Daiches remarks, with admirable candor and accuracy, “I have not given a critical analysis of the poem, but merely suggested a way of looking at it.” Most of his criticism is just this, indicative rather than analytic, intended to point toward salient aspects of the literary achievement so that the reader himself, without the intervention of an exegetical “system,” can see the whole more clearly. Or, to oppose Daiches's work in a different way to analytic criticism, one could say that its central impulse is synthetic, seeking to put together in a coherent totality fragments of knowledge and observation that may be more or less within the possession of most intelligent readers. It is for this reason, I think, that some of his most valuable writing has been on questions of general critical theory. His essay on “Myth, Metaphor, and Poetry,” to cite the most memorable instance in these two volumes, is a model of lucidity and discernment in defining the connections among those three terms whose interrelation has been, in our time, the occasion for some of the wildest orgies of critical obfuscation.


Daiches's impulse to synthesis is both aided by and expressed in the power of apt generalization to which I alluded before. The excellence, for example, of his essay on Marlowe's Tamburlaine is the result of his ability to connect patterns of language and gesture within the play and then to relate these to what he knows of the nature of human experience. Here is one of his summarizing comments on the dramatic implications of Marlowe's soaring rhetoric: “The disparity between desire and achievement is for Marlowe part of the human condition, and, this being so, it is in the expression of the desire rather than in accomplishing the achievement that man reveals his most striking qualities.” The generalization could not have been made without close and responsive attention to the poetry and action of the play, but it also could not have been made without a mature sense of how literature tries to tell us what it is like to be a man. Though there is much one can be impatient with in Daiches, for such moments of fine critical illumination, when they come, any reader must be grateful.

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