Introduction

Literary criticism not long ago offered itself the cheering thought that it might stop chasing symptoms and “just read,” that it might attend to what books know and advertently say rather than poke at what they inadvertently disclose.1 These impulses arrive from time to time; a generation ago, Paul de Man suggested that we might try “mere” reading;2 and cultural studies in its dogmatic moods preferred surface to depth.3 But the trenchancy, good faith, and fresh intelligence of this instance was liberating, and the field responded.4 “Just reading” proposed a return to literature’s “surface,” and so, despite its different program, it was welcomed by those who hope for a return to the literary—to what once was disparaged, and now is celebrated, as “form.”5 Both the disparagement and the recelebration were understandable.6 From the 1930s to the 1980s, from new criticism to deconstruction, pretty much everyone claimed that literature mediated not the world but (at most) itself—its desires, its logic and machinery, its conditions of possibility, and its limits—and that this reflexiveness was its special excellence and that of its practitioners. But giving literature a mastery so minuscule and absolute had trivialized it, sealed it from the world. In such airless weather, the return of “history,” back in the 1980s and 1990s, stirred a breeze. A new historicism brought the chance to study literature’s complicities and accidents, to treat it as the correlative, and sometimes the plaything, of power. This paradoxically revived it, gave it the world back again. But its successes were guaranteed in advance; it could not remain intriguing for long or long hold off the drift to “symptomatic reading.”7 For reasons I will sketch later, the search

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Adam Usk's Secret
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - The First Secret 11
  • Chapter 2 - The Story of William Clerk 28
  • Chapter 3 - Fear 39
  • Chapter 4 - Prophecy 53
  • Chapter 5 - Utility 66
  • Chapter 6 - Grief 82
  • Chapter 7 - Theory of History 96
  • Chapter 8 - Adam Usk’s Secret 111
  • Conclusion 132
  • Abbreviations 143
  • Notes 145
  • Bibliography 193
  • Index 207
  • Acknowledgments 213
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