Edward Clarke on the changing face of academic research and literary criticism

“Things fall apart”, observed Yeats at the beginning of 1919. Nowadays, things are so bad; they are made to fall apart. The very machine on which I type these words has a built in obsolescence. Perhaps even the very words that I type.

The almost obsolete spellchecker on my soon-to-be-obsolete computer failed to recognize the word “obsolescence” from my initial misspelling of it and according to the Oxford English Dictionary it was only first used in 1832. I am not surprised that this word is of our developed industrial age and as such it has obsolescence written all over it, if we could but remember how to spell it.

Whenever I’m about to churn out some academic prose I always recall a young professor of Italian literature confidently proclaiming to me the “short shelf-life” of her soon to be published book as if the outcome of her years of loving research was only a pint of milk or perhaps some butter.

Is academic research always doomed to obsolescence? Is it something designed to fall apart eventually? What about the lasting criticism of Walter Pater? What about Proust’s early work on Ruskin? What about Ruskin? These critics were of course writing about modern literature before it was taught with any seriousness at university. The very success of literary studies, academically speaking, may have led after all to their obsolescence.

We are incapable of any one realization, but so capable of many. Could you write the book that ends the industry of Milton criticism? Surely the review of my monograph on Wallace Stevens should have been the culminating act of the Wallace Stevens Journal. But, no, I failed once again to say it forever in the medium of my parasitical art. And anyway even had I succeeded the critical activity would have to continue because professors have mortgage payments to make, jobs to justify.

When I compare works of literary criticism by academics from the first part of the 20th century with more recent books, I wonder if there has been depreciation in the discipline. If there has been that is probably a metaphysical issue. Our criticism reflects the standards of our age in which meaning is deferred.

Certainly we have become more wary about, even suspicious of, appreciating works of art. The fear is that if word got out that teachers of English literature just spend their time discussing why they like certain books then English Departments will appear to be nothing more than glorified book clubs. I’d better not let on that I spend my working hours within beautiful old rooms elaborating my ambivalence about Coleridge. Anyone could do that, surely?

Immediately after Yeats had observed that ‘Things fall apart”, he diagnosed: “the centre cannot hold”. Attempting to make the study of English literature more like a science and less appreciative of literature itself, English professors have become absurdly specialized: they have become more and more peripheral. But if you do not already think that the making and appreciation of poetry is integral to the future of our society, then your knowledgeable but uninspired English teachers and professors have failed you.