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James Walter Caufield, Overcoming Matthew Arnold: Ethics in Culture and Criticism

Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, 235 p. ISBN 978-1409426516
Stéphane Guy
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James Walter Caufield, Overcoming Matthew Arnold: Ethics in Culture and Criticism, Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, 235 p. ISBN 978-1409426516

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1Of all Victorian poets and critics, few have been so diversely interpreted and subject to contradictory readings as Matthew Arnold. In Overcoming Matthew Arnold, James Walter Caufield seeks to come to terms with the multitudinous perceptions of the writer over the years as being in turn politically conservative, passive and self-indulgent, as advocating state authoritarianism, high culture and bourgeois hegemony, or more matter-of-factly, lacking rigour and being unmanly by the Victorian standards of work and will. The reappraisal of Arnoldian thought as well as of its reception is a major study that will undoubtedly benefit researchers working on the author but also more broadly on culture, literature and the history of ideas. Beyond the comprehensive references to his poetry, essays and criticisms, Caufield analyzes the writings on Matthew Arnold and their ideological implications, connecting them with philosophical and ethical traditions.

2Critics engaged in cultural wars have overlooked, Caufield posits, how an ethic of renouncement and a rhetorical strategy drawing upon the tradition of philosophical pessimism underlie Arnold’s works. ‘Conduct’ rather than ‘culture’ is the central feature of his writings, while scholars and thinkers alike have tended to politicize and thus distort this object: Caufield sheds light notably on the commonplace accusation voiced by figures like Henry Sidgwick and the Stephens, of his thought being too unsystematic and loose, as well as too religious. At the same time, Arnold was blamed by others for fostering a diluted, not to say Paganistic, version of Christianity. The interpretations offered, among others, by Eliot and Strachey, or F. R. Leavis and J. M. Robertson are then discussed. Their arguments, according to Caufield, hinge around a number of recurrent oppositions such as theory and experience, thought and feeling, utilitarianism and romanticism. The ideological implications of the debates and controversies about Arnold, acutely examined in Chapter 4, deal notably with the New Left Review turn, whose contributors sought to apply Marxist critical method by deconstructing the tenets of literary socialists in the Arnoldian tradition. The reader is presented with a number of convincing analyses that show how scholars such as Chris Baldick or Terry Eagleton, focusing on what they claim to be his notion of culture, set out to convict Arnold of fostering bourgeois hegemony and of deliberately dismissing politics in order to establish the power of a middle class converted from Philistinism to Hellenism. Caufield dexterously rectifies biased interpretations (although he modestly claims this is not his intention), for instance by putting into perspective the misread precept of Arnold’s, ‘Don’t think; try and be patient’. The structural match between Arnold’s contemporary critics and the modern ones is stressed notably with the controversy that occurred between Stefan Collini and Francis Mulhern in the early 2000s, the former embodying an Arnoldian tradition of detached cultural criticism and the latter a modern version of the Victorian athletes of logic. Another anachronistic distortion of Arnold’s thought is to be found in the postcolonial analyses of his works: the charge of racism brought by scholars like Robert Young, Vincent Pecora or David Lloyd, based on his Study of Celtic Literature (1867), his presumed Eurocentric view of culture or his alleged essentialization of race, collapses if, Caufield argues, one takes account of the ironical stand that Literature and Dogma (1873) takes against Emile Burnouf’s racist theory. Similarly, Arnold’s well-known notions of Hebraism and Hellenism should not be construed as race-biased but considered for their ‘figural force’, serving ‘the telos of Arnold’s argument: “Conduct”’ (121). Such dangers of presentism and systematic thought may be averted, Caufield seeks to demonstrate, through the paradigm of philosophical pessimism. An interesting, though too briefly discussed, point broaches the conditions in which these caricatures may arise, be they ‘the discursive atmosphere of the Victorian literary-critical reviews’ (123) or academic professionalization, all celebrating logic or theory at the expense of intuition or the poetical mind.

3Having dealt with the shortcomings of politicized interpretations, the author moves on to construe the works of Arnold through the lens of philosophical pessimism and renouncement, summoning for Christian thought and Schopenhauer as well as Lévinas or Bernard Williams. Matthew Arnold’s personal pessimism or melancholy, about which most scholars concur in the case of his verse, is deftly linked up with an ethic of selflessness, itself dovetailing, rather than breaking, with his prose of renouncement. The last chapter is precisely devoted to a study of philosophical pessimism in the prose works, still with the accusations of ‘selfish self-development’, moral and intellectual weakness, or austerity and cold detachment serving as a counterpoint to the demonstration. Indeed, Caufield contends, the absence of doctrine in Arnold’s works cannot be severed from his ethic of ‘conduct’ that necessarily prevails over theory. Experience and exemplarity, based on renouncement or ‘impersonality’ are of far greater value than any abstract system or prescriptive programme. Arnold’s subjects can thus be seen as ‘prosopographical mouthpieces for communicating his pessimism’ (195). Although no evidence can be found of the author reading Schopenhauer himself directly, there is ‘a kinship with Arnold’s thought’ (184), the German philosopher and philosophical pessimism being fashionable from the 1870s (perhaps more space might have been devoted to the development of philosophical pessimism in the writer’s thought). From that perspective, Arnold shares with the most virulent of his critics and with public moralists a common value of self-denial.

4Caufield shows extensive knowledge of Matthew Arnold’s writings, of the Arnoldian critical heritage and of cultural criticism, and in many ways succeeds in overcoming the ideological lenses that have led to so many distortions and to underestimating his relevance. The central contention of the book that ‘pessimistic renouncement is the key to Arnold’s entire œuvre’ (200) could however be taken up as being insufficiently substantiated due to the actual method that Caufield opts for, although he makes the best of it within its framework. By claiming that Arnold’s works belong to a tradition, the author may sometimes tend to blot out philosophical thought in its historical context, although specificities are repeatedly stressed. The book presupposes that parallels can be drawn between Arnold and his critics, or again, that the debates raging in Victorian England recur over the decades, however different the wording or notions may seem. Caufield advances, for instance, that views of the contemporary athletes of logic or proponents of muscular Christianity, who fault Arnold for his vagueness and lack of manliness, are echoed by those of Marxist critics who begrudge his detachment from political or partisan debate and his refusal of theory. In the author’s view, the ‘rhetorical positions of [Mulhern and Collini] are structurally equivalent to those occupied by Arnold and his critics’ (54) (although the ‘isomorphism of the nineteenth- and twenty-first-century rhetorical structures’ (104) is qualified, but mainly as regards form or style), or the debate between Leavis and Robertson ‘might be taken broadly as yet another configuration of the utilitarian-versus-romantic (or science-verse-twaddle) divide’ (81). The assumption is, it would seem, that Arnold’s thought, however complex (or ‘nebulous’, to one who cares to use Collini’s term), boils down to rhetoric and that it is possible to identify permanent structures over different ages, regardless of the ideas themselves. Applying the notion of philosophical pessimism to Arnold also begs the question of whether it constitutes a monolithic, consistent or universal idea. If so, the claim that he aims to ‘influence his readers’ conduct, to lead them toward “renouncement”’ (192) could be challenged if one doubts the critic’s ability to account for an author’s intentions: the trap of essentialization, often criticized by Caufield, looms when he advocates ‘focusing on Arnold through his own optic’ (2).

5In short, the book interestingly poses the problem of academic disciplines themselves and of their objects: is it legitimate to apply a philosophical notion such as pessimism to a non-philosophical work? Schopenhauer, as well as the other philosophers whom Caufield draws upon, set forth a ‘philosophical system’, which Arnold declined to do. To what extent can philosophical pessimism and renouncement (or altruism) be construed as part of a ‘rhetorical tactic’ (190)? Though he advocates renouncement in the opening sentence of Culture and Anarchy, does Arnold actually consider it, as Caufield argues, as ‘the ultimate aim of his rhetorical strategy’ (10)? If one can notice in Arnold ‘language that uncannily echoes the German pessimist’s’ (149), what of the thought itself? ‘Conduct’ and ‘example’ may be considered as central in Arnold’s work, yet if he intends to improve the public, they must point to some action or course of action as such and cannot be mere words or rhetorical posture. Building upon Caufield’s thesis, scholars might try to study how Arnold’s resorting to verse or prose does or does not match the development of renouncement in his thought.

6James Walter Caufield’s book is therefore a most valuable work that raises a number of crucial questions, both as regards the legacy of Matthew Arnold and his reception, but also cultural criticism and the politicizing of writers. It undoubtedly opens new perspectives for scholars and will probably contribute actively to reviving Arnoldian studies.

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Stéphane Guy, « James Walter Caufield, Overcoming Matthew Arnold: Ethics in Culture and Criticism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 19 septembre 2019. URL :

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Stéphane Guy

University de Cergy-Pontoise

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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