3 APRIL 1964, Page 23

Eng. Lit. Crit.

The Literary Critics : A Study of English De- scriptive Criticism. By George Watson. (Chatto and Windus, 25s.)

MR. KENNER is a Canadian who first made his name in this country with a highly ingenious and, at the time, courageous (if purely literary) defence of Ezra Pound. Since Pound's career was inextricably bound up with such contem- porary figures as P. Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot, studies of. their works followed. James Joyce seemed a logical choice for volume four. But the computer boys had already combed over Ulysses, leaving little to fit in Finnegans Wake but an historical `placing' of the master. Didn't Bouvard et Pecuchet beget Ulysses? Didn't Fin- negans Wake beget Beckett? Comic Stoics all, deriving from Swift, who 'first' recognised the comical hiatus between the spoken and the written or printed word? Well, of course, he wasn't quite the first. The Sumerians, at any rate, who in- vented the literal clichd (a stamped word), must have noticed it.

The Chinese, whose invention of paper had multiplied literacy and dictionaries in the first century AD,' had already philosophically explored that relationship with hilarity. By the eighth cen- tury they had printing, and the Arabs had paper.

By the thirteenth century China had in cheap paperback pocket editions not only all the classics but also encyclopedias, current satire in prose and verse, and pornographic romances. Then, too, were the Arab translations made by Mamoun, son of Haroun al-Rashid, circulated in the `digests' so roundly condemned by Ibn Khaldoun, to bring, in the end, printing to northern Europe. What Mr. Kenner calls `the Gutenberg Revolu- tion' was a mere re-hash.

Civilisation • began with literacy, which is already technologically obsolescent. As in music, the losses when sounds began to be written down were accompanied by immense gains. Itinerant storytellers and performers on the lute or flute yielded to Shakespeare and Bach. There's

no reason why further technological changes shouldn't be similarly stimulating to creative talents. In his arch and tortuous way, Mr. Kenner does appear, in his final paragraph, to recognise this. But he fails to see the essentially quasi-ideographic, pseudo-phonetic nature of. all scripts; and his double subtle ironies don't ex- cuse the wsthetic irrelevance of Mr. Guy Davenport's stoically comic illustrations, intro- duced to eke out the three thin papers in this volume.

Mr: Watson's admirable book has already been pelicanised. Three arbitrarily chosen types of critic are pursued down the ages from Dryden to the day before yesterday. After re-reading this revised edition with care and appreciation, I open at random and light upon two gaffes on ad- jacent pages: P. 22: `Eliot's essays between the wars tells [sic] us practically nothing about Joyce or D. H. Lawrence.' Homework again seems lacking. P. 23: 'It did not matter in the thirties that the novel was a more important form, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than the short poem.' Fill in Our own blanks, boys. And Mr. Watson, like others at Cambridge, has apparently never heard of the Welshman who really started modern art, and contemporary criticism, and the post-Wells novel, in Great Britain. Did Time and Western Man, Tarr, and Percy Wyndham Lewis's other critical and creative writings which were so widely read in the late 1920s in fact exert less in- fluence, or a less salutary influence, than was exercised by Scrutiny?

Pound's definition of literature may be trite, but should not, in this time of living for the expendable, be forgotten : 'Literature is news that stays news.' These two books present fair papers: I fear I can award them no marks at all for their history.