Literary Criticism

Murry and Orage: Editors and sages

If Woolf’s criticism was Paterian in its vision of the relationship between reader and text, then that of Murry, and his fellow editor A. R. Orage, was firmly Arnoldian. Both saw literature as essential to the upholding of a certain set of values, generally characterised in terms of an appeal to ‘truths’ that could rescue the age from the social and spiritual prob- lems it faced. Indeed, Orage chose an explicitly Arnoldian formulation in describing culture as ‘the disinterested pursuit of human perfection’, with literature – a ‘valuable instrument of truth’ – being uniquely able to make this ‘truth’ part of humanity’s common experience.79 For Murry, literature could fulfil spiritual and emotional needs that were no longer assuaged by ‘social or religious security’: in The Problem of Style, he described a respect for Thomas Hardy as evidence of ‘a hunger, if not for religion, for the peace of an attitude of mind which might with some truth be called religious’.80 This Arnoldian vision of the redemptive power of criticism had obvious consequences for the critic’s role. While Murry believed that every reader had the potential to be a critic, he also insisted that the critic possessed a set of skills that elevated him above the ordinary reader. On one level, these skills consisted of the capacity to act as a mediator in performing an explication of the text, helping the reader to understand ‘the unique and essential quality of his author’ by removing ‘some of the obstacles that stand in the way of an immediate contact between this quality and the reader’s mind’ and offering a privileged insight into the ‘truth’ contained within the text.81 In addition, the critic also acted as an evaluator. The lectures that make up The Problem of Style are peppered with terms that attest to this role: authors are seen in terms of their ‘vitality’, ‘perfection’ or ‘triviality’; novels are divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’; a passage of Arnold Bennett displays ‘downright wickedness’.82 In a similar way, Orage saw ‘truth’ as linked inextricably to the concept of ‘common sense’, being something that ‘everybody knows but needs to be reminded that he knows’.83 These ‘reminders’ needed to be issued by critics able to recognise and communicate this truth, people who were both part of the common domain of humanity yet also set apart from it by their possession of a superior kind of knowledge. In turn, this knowledge had to be communicated in a manner that was ‘capable of being understood by the jury of mankind’: the images of judge and jury that pervade his critical writing reflect the seriousness with which he saw literary criticism, a process vital to the health of society.84 Both Murry and Orage, then, elevated the critic above Woolf’s ‘common reader’ and gave him the role of sage, a figure endowed not just with knowledge, but also with wisdom. Significantly, this was a role they also claimed for themselves. They did this partly through their criticism, but also – perhaps more crucially – through their work as editors, a task which gave their critical work a more specific context and direction. It is important to note that the journals Murry and Orage edited were not exclusively literary, but contained articles on a range of topics felt to be relevant to the issue of culture and society. Orage, whose weekly magazine The New Age has been described by Wallace Martin as ‘an unparalleled arena of cultural and political debate’,85 was vehemently anti-specialist, criticising both the narrow-mindedness of ‘aesthetic fastidiousness’ and the ‘dull’ outlook that resulted from an overemphasis of ‘history, foreign affairs, [and] economics’.86 During his editorship of The New Age, which lasted from 1907 to 1922, Orage aimed to bring together politics, literature and the arts in an attempt to address the social, cultural and economic problems of the time through a coherent philosophy of life rather than in empirical terms. In doing this, he also hoped to counter the fragmentation that had been brought about by the specialisation of academic disciplines and the diversification of the arts. Consequently, The New Age was intended to appeal to a broad social spectrum: both the new thinkers and readers created by the growth of secondary and higher education, and the old audiences of the Victorian periodicals, dissatisfied by the way that these journals had modified their content to keep up with the demands of the mass market.87 This non- specialist aim was shared by Murry in his editorship of the Adelphi, a journal that consciously played on its audience’s sense of urgency at the supposed breakdown of an educated reading public and the displace- ment of criticism into academic analysis. Even when Murry resigned as editor, it is significant that his successors, Max Plowman and Richard Rees, were keen to advertise their desire to carry on his work rather than creating a break with his aims, presenting the Adelphi as part of a humanist attempt to seek ‘a sense of values commensurate with the glory of life and the majesty of death’ in a battle against ‘cynical indifference, super- ficial wit, [and] otiose amiability’.88 Such sentiments are clearly part of what Stefan Collini has described as an early twentieth-century nostalgia for the ideal of the coherent Victorian reading public, an important strand of which was an insist- ence on the ‘debased’ nature of the contemporary media and the lack of seriousness engendered by the popular press and its focus on leisure and amusement.89 It is therefore all the more significant that Murry’s criticism and presence continued to dominate the Adelphi even after his editorship ceased. In the year after Murry’s resignation, the Adelphi contained essays by Murry on the influence of Lord Northcliffe and on modern religion, as well as a series of reminiscences of D. H. Lawrence; he was to contribute more articles and reviews in the future. In addition, Plowman and Rees did their best to consolidate Murry in the role of sage. Their first editorial described his resignation as a release from ‘humbler duties’, allowing him to devote his time to the more important tasks of literary and cultural criticism.90 In a review of Murry’s Discoveries and Studies in Keats, Plowman described him in terms that fore- ground his humane qualities rather than any academic achievements, seeing his ‘simple sincerity’, ‘reverence for common things’ and ‘quiet depth of feeling’ as revealing a truth whose value was, implicitly, much more substantial.91 According to Plowman, Discoveries contained  the sober evaluations of a widely informed, even learned mind. It is beautifully written, in that it is ‘the complete and coherent utterance of a man who feels and sees and thinks clearly and is convinced that his feeling and vision and thought is worth utterance’. Each essay fulfils the author’s intent in being ‘the adventures of a man’s soul among books’, and surpasses that intention by adventuring deeply into the souls of those who wrote the books. The discoveries are not the usual discoveries of the modern essayist – of mare’s nests facetiously disguised – but are genuine and personal discoveries, of purpose, felicity and meaning, which reveal different aspects of truth as it appears in great work.92

In Studies in Keats, meanwhile, Keats was ‘not disintegrated by analysis, nor intellectualised into a poetic cypher, but better known both in his likeness and in his unlikeness to ourselves’.93 Such statements posit an opposition between academic analysis and the more spiritual (and, implicitly, more far-reaching) criticism of those who were prepared to meet literature on its own terms, making themselves humble before the ‘greatness’ of the text. In contrast to the analytical techniques associ- ated with academic criticism, Murry’s work was ‘an adventure of the soul, a delivery of himself up to the test all great literature makes of those capable of its appreciation’.94 It is clear from such statements that the authority Plowman claimed for Murry was grounded in non-specialist skills and values. Murry himself saw the source of critical authority as an important topic and was frequently scathing about the value of scholarship, emphasising instead a form of knowledge that could not be generated by academic analysis. In a review of The Wheel of Fire, Murry criticised the Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight for wanting ‘to prove too much, to delve too deep’, and commented that ‘he does not deepen, but does violence to our imme- diate impression of Shakespeare’s plays’. Furthermore, he claimed that Shakespeare ‘is to Mr. Wilson Knight different from what he is to me. I can scarcely recognise some of the plays after they have passed through the process of “interpretation” to which he submits them.’95 What Murry considered important was not the professional validity of Wilson Knight’s work, but the protection of Shakespeare’s integrity: the critic must be careful to restrict his or her work to an investigation of the humane elements of literature, balancing the desire for knowledge against the need to produce interpretations that will sustain and give hope. Orage was also keen to reject the notion that literary analysis had to be scholarly. In an article in the New English Weekly in 1932, he dismissed an argument put forward by Sir Josiah Stamp (then Governor of the Bank of England) that called for the revival of a form of intelli- gence defined by ‘the application of scientific methods to a continually widening area of human experience’, stating that scientific reason was only one form of reason.96 This drew on his earlier desire to use The New Age to advance the idea that reason itself was only one faculty among many, none of which should be ignored. In 1917, he had urged readers of The New Age to ‘suspend final judgment until complete harmony has been established, until, in short, the brain and the heart are of one mind’.97 In emphasising the role of the heart as well as that of the brain, Orage was able to ground criticism in qualities that were easily rendered mysterious, stating that the ‘message’ of the greatest books could only be grasped intuitively. In an editorial written in 1919, he claimed that ‘the “subconscious” of every great book […] is vastly greater than its conscious element [. . .] We may be unable indeed to put into words any of the ideas we have gathered.’98 If one conse- quence of academic professionalisation was to make disciplines more conscious of the methods and procedures they adopted, then Orage was taking criticism in quite the opposite direction: his insistence that it rested on processes that could not be articulated meant that it was not available for further analysis, placing it beyond the scope of academic enquiry. The mysteriousness with which Orage surrounded the act of criticism can be interpreted as a response to a dilemma that Guy and Small have detected in the work of both Orage and Murry, namely that while both critics attempt to authorise their judgements through an appeal to com- mon values and experience, they also had to claim for themselves the privileged insight that would justify and protect their role.99 Both Orage and Murry stated that everyone had the potential to be a critic, with the ‘common sense’ upon which criticism rested being latent in the minds of everyone. In 1918, Orage wrote that right judgement was never purely personal: ‘Its essential character […] is simply that it is right; right how- ever arrived at, and right whoever arrives at it.’100 But if everyone could act as their own critic, then the status of the sage would be undermined. As we have seen, one potential solution was to invest this role with a set of skills that would separate it from the lesser capacities of the leisured reader. However, attempts to carry this out often led to further contradic- tions. While Orage, for instance, claimed that ‘the best judgements commend themselves to the common sense of even the average jury’, that ‘any average body of readers could be brought to appreciate the justness of every sound literary judgment’, he also dismissed the idea that ‘Tom,

Dick and Harry’ should be invited to ‘offer their opinions as of equal value with the opinions of the cultivated’.101 There is a certain slippage between these two positions: the former elevates the ‘mass’ of ordinary readers, while the latter (influenced perhaps by Orage’s distaste for the very real phenomenon of the mass market) dismisses the ordinary reader’s capacity to make critical judgements.102 The situation that results from this is highly problematic: while the average reader is unable to produce the kind of judgements made by the cultivated critic, these judgements needed to be secured by the assent of the average reader in order to have any kind of validity. This dilemma over the status of the critic often leads to a particular self-consciousness about language and method. In Murry’s The Problem of Style, this self-consciousness takes the form of an attempt to find a precise language in which to define the critic’s role. Murry’s initial statements about criticism appear as a celebration of its vagueness, which is presented as a positive alternative to the ‘ideal of definition’ by which the critic is often preoccupied:
The critic becomes dissatisfied with the vagueness of his activity, or his art; and he will indulge the fantastic dream that it might be reduced to the firm precision of a science. He may even, during this period of dissatisfaction, forget that half the fascination of his task lies in the fact that the terms he uses are fluid and uncertain, and that his success depends upon the compulsive vigour with which he impresses upon them a meaning which shall be exactly fitted to his own invention and unmistakable by his audience.103
On one level, this definition of criticism acts as a justification of Murry’s right to define ‘style’ on his own terms: as a non-academic critic speaking in an academic setting, he speaks out on behalf of the authority of the individual. This can, in turn, be read as a vindication of Murry’s right to be taken seriously. If critical authority rests on individ- ual skill rather than the fact of institutional employment, then the amateur critic still has a role to play. Yet elsewhere in these lectures, Murry’s celebration of the ‘fluidity and uncertainty’ of critical expres- sion is replaced by an attempt to isolate a more precise kind of language in which critical judgements can be uttered. The need for this precision is hinted at early on, in Murry’s definition of the critic’s task as ‘to recreate in his reader the peculiar emotion aroused in him by a work of literature’104 – to convey, as precisely as possible, the effect of reading a particular text. And as Murry goes on, his search for this method of

‘precise communication’ involves the use of algebraic formulae, as he strives to articulate the difficulty of achieving such a form:
To [communicate an emotion], I have to find some symbol which will evoke in [the reader] an emotional reaction as nearly as possible identical with the emotion I am feeling. Do not mistake me when I say symbol; I use the word because I cannot think of a better at the moment; I mean to include in it any device of expression which is not merely descriptive […] But on both sides there is unfortunately an unknown quantity: my temperament is an x, my reader’s is a y. The product that results from the combination of those given circum- stances with x may be, probably will be, very different from their combination with y.105
Murry’s initial rejection of ‘the firm precision of a science’ is there- fore replaced by a sense that the conventional vocabulary of literary criticism lacks the precision that is required for such complex definitions: the essential problem facing Murry is the problem of style itself. In turn, it seems that Murry’s attempt to explain this problem becomes a further way of securing his authority. In working at this metacritical level, Murry suggests that he has a wider grasp of what the critic’s role involves that allows him to move from the particular to the general, making oracular statements about the task of both the critic and the creative artist. And in addition, the task of criticism is given a status that takes it beyond mere impressionism: when we analyse style, ‘we are making not so much a literary as a scientific or even an ethical judgement’.106 Murry’s rhetoric therefore helps to consolidate his authority by drawing attention to his own perception of the task in which he is engaged: his audience is kept constantly aware of both the importance of this task and the difficulty of performing it correctly.
In spite of the diversity of their practices and beliefs, what links the criticism of Woolf, Murry and Orage is a shared emphasis on knowledge and processes that remained intangible. Woolf’s impressionism and the focus on judgement shared by Orage and Murry both located the import- ance of the text in its effect on a particular kind of reader, positioned between the scholars and the masses: either as part of a pleasurable yet rigorous experience or within a project of cultural renewal. Their own critical pronouncements rested, moreover, on forms of authority that were personal rather than professional, underpinned by rhetoric and by an appeal to a kind of knowledge that was shrouded in mystique. As a result, none of these writers produced a model of literary criticism that was teachable. Instead, they occupied a varied range of positions in which literary criticism was neither an academic discipline nor a form of leisure: it was too important to leave either to the whims of the masses or to the misdirected pedantry of scholarship.

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