Magazine article The Spectator

Thinking for England

Magazine article The Spectator

Thinking for England

Article excerpt

NEVER ONES FOR THEORY?: ENGLAND AND THE WAR OF IDEAS

by George Watson

Lutterworth, L15, pp. 143

George Watson doesn't feature in Noel Annan's The Dons - more's the pity, as he's a classic case of the breed. Now in his seventies and still a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, he taught in the English Faculty for many years and is best known for his useful study, The Literary Critics. When I was an undergraduate, he was a daunting figure. Antipodean in origin, tall and grey-haired, with a stately gait and orotund manner, he was considered over-assiduous in his attentions to the fairer-faced students and contrary in his social and intellectual politics (Liberal in affiliation, but veering towards Peterhouse and the Salisbury Review in their vinegary scepticism.) What made him even more disconcerting was that he seemed to be everywhere all the time - pacing the streets, lurking in corners, observing rather than participating. He briefly supervised a thesis I was writing on Lionel Trilling, but all I remember him imparting on the matter was the totally erroneous information that as a youthful parvenu Trilling had changed his name from Goldfarb.

If such recollections seem excessively ad hominem in the context of a review, I can only retort that Watson's latest book is largely conducted at the same level. It is a patched-up affair, self-indulgent in the way it ambles through difficult territory evading the main issues, but often beguiling and sporadically shrewd. Its sights are set unwarrantably high. Taking arms against Iris Murdoch's remark that `the British were never ones for theory', it purports to be `the first study of English critical theory' - a foolhardy boast in itself - focusing on the morally engaged, Cambridge-dominated line which ran from the modernism of T. S. Eliot and the practical criticism of I. A. Richards through the brilliance of William Empson and the fervour of F. R. Leavis to the socialist agenda of Raymond Williams, before being outpaced in the 1970s by the empty sophistication of the French post-structuralist school, in which (as Watson sharply puts it), `points were scored by appearing to know less and less about more and more'.

That such a tradition exists is hardly news, and we are also familiar with the view that `the theory men of England have been eminently foxy, and know many things'. …

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