Sunday, January 15, 2012

"It does seem what you need to be told"

Interesting bit of Empsoniana, via pseudopodium: an exchange of letters between E. and Rosemund Tuve, occasioned by a disagreement re George Herbert's "Sacrifice" (readers of 7 types might remember an allusion to this in the preface to the 1949-ish edition). [Grouchy aside: the introduction is awful. Says E. went to Magdalen College, Oxford -- really it was Magdalene, Cambridge -- and astoundingly asserts that "neither [E. nor T.] is noted for style".] The longer letter by Tuve is interesting for its stylistic reasons; it is arch and benignant, and also unaccountably difficult to read. Empson's letters are Empsonian to the point of self-parody -- as so much of his work is -- but I enjoyed this remark (my emphases):
I was rather shocked at your saying that I neednt rewrite my bit posted to you because it is always a nuisance to rewrite. I rewrite everything I print about twelve times, mainly in the interests of intelligibility, and I think you had much better do that too. Checking references always seems to me a trivial duty compared to checking style. I think that your style has greatly improved in your last book but is still very bad, simply from failure of communication. I also think that if you tried to write more clearly you would find your own ideas are a great deal more muddled than you suppose. So I hope very much that you will write another book, but as a labour of love, intended to be agreeable in itself – the distinction between the writer and the reader becomes unreal (because the same thing pleases both) if you take your own style as seriously as you take the style of the authors you are describing. One can imagine this doctrine working out wrong, but it does seem what you need to be told.
Tuve (whom I am more sympathetic to on the merits, and to whom E. is occasionally condescending) also has some good moments in her second letter:
how am I not to snort at you if you plant your feet wide apart and say ‘I refuse to see concordance!’ Then you must not know what you would know if you saw concordance. [...] A scholar isn’t a fetcher and carry-er so that others haven’t to trouble; it wouldn’t even be safe.

I honestly think (or did, and am pretty sure I still would; it’s a long question) that the book gives proper and sufficient data for any claim that is therein made, as far as a quite tender and delicate scholarly conscience can watch such things – there are always ways in which the mind, being fallible, goes astray. But the only way you can be sure whether I have is, is to just go and read what I had.
Another note: Tuve wants to construe Empson as saying that scholarship is of no value to literary critics, which is a straw-man version of Empson's position, but not too much of one. Empson is infuriating about not checking his quotations, etc. As for the broader point about whether relevant scholarship helps one understand texts better -- I suppose some of the New Critics denied this; that this New Critical position was ever respectable now seems mysterious.