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English Critical Discourse Through the Ages: the Continued Drive to Aphorism

Aspects historiques du discours critique anglais: le constant retour de l’aphorisme.
Michel Morel


Cette étude s’intéresse à l’aphorisme tel que l’ont pratiqué les poètes et critiques anglais à travers les siècles. Dans ses formes versifiées les plus réussies, on peut dire que l’idéal que vise l’aphorisme témoigne de son succès en termes de clarification, en même temps que de l’échec d’une réussite menacée par sa propension idéologique. La pratique limite de Howard Barker a pour intérêt de dénuder ces tensions oxymoriques qui travaillent l’aphorisme et de nous éclairer ainsi sur notre propre emploi de telles formes stylistiques.

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1Critical discourse in general is often found to tend to the aphoristic. This interesting propensity may be deemed worthy of discussion, especially in view of Howard Baker’s very distinctive approach to it in Death, The One, and the Art of Theatre (Barker 2005). A quick survey of this preferential gradient in the discourse of English criticism will provide us with a historical contextualisation and compose an eloquent foil to Barker’s writings. His is a borderline practice, straining, as in many of his plays, genre to its limits and flirting with contradiction: ‘The value of the fence [. . .] the ecstasy of denial [. . .] where all is accessible, the beauty of the ban [. . .] where all is revealed, the secret...’ (Barker 2005, 31). Barker’s critical discourse is sometimes very close to poetry, if not verging on the oracular.

2To assess the concealed and partly ignored generic filiation of such a discourse, nothing more enlightening than a reference to what André Jolles calls the ‘locution’ (Jolles 1972, 121–135), the fifth of the nine ‘simple forms’ he defines and interrogates, and to the ‘mental disposition’ it evinces and illustrates. Even though aphorisms are not in complete equivalence with to the proverbial locution, both types of figure seem to refer to an acquired experience sealed in a self-contained formulation. What they bring to light implies and suggests a sort of regularity or even a rule, and the encouragement, possibly the obligation, to act in the direction such regularity indicates. Both suggest the sudden realisation of a truth long held before, but never expressed in this way. Or in Pope’s words: ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed; [. . .].’ (Pope 1966, 72, v. 298) Consequently, they mark out a state of fact one has to submit to. Most frequently, they tend to the affirmative and the apodeictic: what they proclaim is necessarily true and beyond contradiction. They return the general rule to the particular, and the lesson to be drawn from the pregnant example they refer us to, constitutes their ‘mental gesture’. The increment resulting from a string of ‘locutions’ finally composes the archives of accepted knowledge. While these aspects may not all be actualised in the individual aphorism, and even less in the critical aphorism, such traits define the intellectual domain which this type of writing explicitly or implicitly belongs to. In critical texts, the more refined and delicate contents might make one miss, or mistake, the real generic basis of some of the aphoristic formulations. All the more so in the case of Barker’s radical ways which might seem, at first sight, quite removed from such a disposition. And yet his courted extremity may paradoxically be said to foreground the origins and innate tendencies of critical discourse in general, particularly concerning its ingrained drive to the formula, and, at its most felicitous, to the poetic formula.

1. Centuries of Invariance

3A rapid survey of English critical writings through the centuries immediately shows the stylistic similarity of declarations which resort to shared strategies and unchanging rhetorical means: always, the same assertive position; always, the proclamation of a truth which admits of no discussion; always, a compactness which makes the locution eminently quotable, especially in its curtailed versions. Such a degree of conciseness makes lexicalization inevitable. The original locution becomes a proverbial statement which is supposed, or made, to summarize the critical vision of the writer. Thus transformed and reduced to a kernel of truth, it is ready for any kind of appropriation and misappropriation. As a few examples, mostly from poets’ writings, will easily demonstrate.

4Sir Philip Sidney (‘An Apology for Poetry’): ‘Poetry therefore is [. . .] a speaking picture, with this end to teach and delight’ (Sidney 1966, I/429).

5Alexander Pope (Essay on Criticism): ‘True ease in writing comes from art and not chance, / As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance, / ‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offence, / The sound must seem an echo to the sense’ (Pope 1966, 74, v. 362-5).

6William Wordsworth (‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’): ‘Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [. . .]. [. . .] Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man’; ‘[. . .] poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity; [. . .]’ (Wordsworth 1966, II/ 414, 422 & 424).

7Percy Bysshe Shelley (‘A Defence of Poetry’): ‘Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (Shelley 1966, II/412).

8John Keats (Letter, 22 November 1817): ‘What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, [. . .]’ (Keats 1972, p. 36), or ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’—Keats 1972, 128).

9Dante Gabriel Rossetti (‘The Sonnet’): ‘A sonnet is a moment’s monument/ Memorial from the soul’s eternity / To one dead deathless hour [. . .]’ (Rossetti 1966, II/1323).

10Oscar Wilde (‘The critic as artist’): ‘[. . .] I would call criticism a creation within a creation; [. . .]. All art is immoral. [. . .] emotion for the sake of emotion is the aim of art, [. . .] (Wilde 1978, 25 & 40).

11D. H. Lawrence (Selected Essays)—In ‘Books’: ‘[. . .] a book is an underground hole with two lids to it. A perfect place to tell lies in.’ Or in ‘Whitman’: ‘The essential function of art is moral’ (Lawrence 1968, 44 & 268).

12T. S. Eliot: (‘Tradition and the individual talent’): ‘No poet, no artist, has his complete meaning alone’ [. . .]. ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality’ (Eliot 1963, 23 & 29).

13Seamus Heaney (‘Feeling into Words’): ‘Words themselves are doors; [. . .]’; (‘The Makings of Music’): ‘The creative mind is astraddle silence’ (Heaney 1985, 52 & 78).

14Howard Barker (Arguments for a Theatre), here in the recognizable stance of the mainstream critic: ‘A theatre which honours its audience will demand of its writers that they write at the risk of their consciences, for writers are paid to think dangerously, the audience expects it of them’ (Barker 1990, 45).

  • 1 One notices that the words used to describe them alternately foreground the utterance itself (phras (...)

15The contents and tone may vary and be contradictory, but the general disposition and the style belong to the same family. All these pronouncements tend to the formula. This is the type of expression we underline, remember and treasure up for future use, unless we go the easy way through a dictionary of quotations, phrases and common places, where such formulations are listed. All speak in an a ffirmative way: they proffer timeless nuggets of knowledge by way of terse, pithy, succinct statements; offering us general truths, they tend to the gnomic (all these adjectives and substantives coming from Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory).1 Common to them all is the straining towards a concentration making them incontrovertible, absolutely compelling. Behind the seductive trappings of such dispensations, lies persuasion, as the contradictions between some of the quoted statements clearly demonstrate. Marc Angenot’s Parole pamphlétaire (Angenot 1982) might come in handy here. They are the sites of a constitutive tension, or even a crisis of meaning. In line with the etymology of the words ‘critic’ and ‘criticism’, their aim is to sift and differentiate, to make judgments (and possibly to fault-find), to authenticate, and thus to distance. At the same time they tend to the unquestionable, if not to the dogmatic, as is sometimes the case with Boileau in France, and Pope in England, in correspondence with the normative tenets of their respective periods. Those formulae exude a kind of general wisdom with a utopian dimension since they hold the key to future creations, shaping in advance whole families of texts, as in the case of the definition of tragedy by Aristotle in his Poetics. At best, their verbal density makes them tend to the poetic both in their form and in the fact that they lay bare what had not been seen until they occurred to make it explicit. We may also remember that verse was for a long time coincidental with them, in the case of Boileau, Dryden, Pope, among others, a condition that intensifies even more their original characteristics.

16Be it said to conclude this first point that their fragile effectiveness is born of the contradiction in them between an open and embracing attitude and the danger of dogmatism entailed by their condensed and emblematic form. That is what makes them attractive and dangerously quotable. They operate as a generalizing synecdoche, in which intensely observed details illustrate a common rule, particularly in their reduced and condensed versions; which may explain the readers’ self-congratulatory pleasure when they finds themselves in the position of recognizing ‘objective correlatives’, ‘mise-en-abymes’, and most satisfactorily of all, ‘distanciations’. With the passing of years such expressions come to acquire a quasi-automatic perlocutionary validity. Consequently, they tend to support a persuasive operation that contradicts their former ‘critical’ status, and actually prevents one from discriminating. In reality, they originally had it in them to lean to the circular and the repetitive. This is precisely what Howard Barker’s tentative and sometimes irritatingly obscure ways lay bare, and in so doing, anatomise.

2. Barker’s Critical Borderland

17In the same way as Arguments for a Theatre was meant to define Howard Barker’s ‘theatre of catastrophe’, Death, The One, and the Art of Theatre is a metacritical commentary on the author’s practice as a playwright, more precisely as a writer of tragedies. It is a hybrid text mingling investigative criticism and a type of utterance coming very close to what finds both in his later plays and in his poems, witnessing to the same quest for a core of unattainable knowledge. Structurally speaking, these characteristics bring the whole fragmented composition close to the centripetal and centrifugal progress of a Pascal in his Pensées, or a Valéry in his Rhumbs.

18The thematic focal point of this often cryptically short treatise is the un- knowledge of death, our knowing that we don’t know, our repression of such a conviction, and the fact that the author’s version of tragedy is entirely dedicated to the ‘ordeal of unknowing’ (Barker 2005, 11). Hence the paradox: to reach such a negative enlightenment we must renounce ‘a reckless, blind and alcoholic rationalism...’ (op. cit., 18). To quote again: ‘To stage death we must—let us admit it, and affirm it—abolish the critical regarda regard so fissured and cataracted as to have become in any case a condition of the blind…’ (Barker 2005, 54). Criticism is thus denied its very operating ground in what amounts to the disclaiming of its aims: all it can hope to achieve is to clarify a tantalizing, terrifying opacity which it may only shadow forth indirectly. One is tempted to think of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Whitman’ and his surprising ‘Pisgah. Pisgah sights. And Death. Whitman [or Barker] like a strange modern [. . .] Moses’ (Lawrence 1968, 268), this in reference to the mountain from which Moses was shown, before his death, a Promised Land that he would never actually come to: ‘And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho’ (Deuteronomy 34:1, 167). Critical Pisgah sights, I would say. Hence the common dimension between, first, the author’s self-denying practice of criticism, second, the prevalence of aposiopesis in his later plays, and third, the fragmentariness of the syntax in his verse. Hence too, the agonistic nature of the text, even if this aspect does not immediately strike the reader. Its whole movement is that of a massive and terminal opposition between theatre and the art of theatre (the italics foregrounding the generic dimension): ‘There is the theatre and there is the art of theatre,’ the first page proclaims in its second instalment. Under ‘the theatre’ we are made to understand every stage production that resorts to imitation (‘the addiction to the mirror’ [Barker 2005, 85]), evidence, recognition, identification, pleasing the spectator, accepting the judgments of the ‘foyer’ (‘opinion is the enemy of tragedy’ [Barker 2005, 94]), didacticism and rationalism, and more generally, serving a purpose, be it realistic, social and worst of all political; in other words, any type of theatre that does not know itself (Barker 2005, 104), that ‘is afraid to quit the moral perimeters of the domestic’ (Barker 2005, 104).

19Such an unconditionally dualistic procedure might be taken to foreclose in its very finality the soundness of the demonstration; which is not the case, according to me. The negative backgrounding of ordinary theatre only serves to delineate an area of doubt that does not stand on the same ground at all. At best, this approach could be called oxymoronic since it enacts again and again the double-bind which energizes this rhetorical figure, a double-bind between the pressing evidences of life and the guessed at intuition of another type of impossible knowledge, the silent knowledge of the dead on the other bank of the Styx whose image keeps recurring in the text. Oxymoron is indeed what unites many of these progressively accreted formulations which amount to implicit zeugmas: ‘Tragedy is the labour of death’ (to be understood as in ‘labour of birth’; a conflation which abuts on an impassable crux of contradiction). The same with, ‘the throes of death’ shatteringly enlightened by ‘the throes of birth’ (Barker 2005, 70); elsewhere we come across ‘Death is health to society’ (Barker 2005, 54), etc. The forbidding logic of oxymoron is exactly fitted to tackle the contradictoriness of this known unknown: ‘A proposition—nothing in death is not already known’ (Barker 2005, 68). Such is the puzzling method the text resorts to in its effort to say what cannot be said. In its early pages we come across a fragment that might serve as a meta-discursive epigraph to the whole enterprise: ‘I come close. I tell everything. But only in such a way that the listener wonders if what he has heard was imagined’ (Barker 2005, 5), which obviously refers to the author’s plays, but might also apply to this very treatise.

20Such an approach induces one to concentrate on the procedures and the strategies adopted to define a quest that the author calls ‘sinking beneath’, ‘tunnelling’ (Barker 2005, 28). One first notices that due to its polemical impetus, the whole looks like a sort of pamphlet or a least a defence and an apology. And yet it is also an essay, turning into a book of aphorisms, occasionally passing into something like poetry. The meeting of all these characteristics might be said to anatomize the possibilities open to English contemporary criticism. The drive to aphorism takes the shape of a sometimes assertive and apodeictic stance, suggesting that the text is actually intent on persuasion, with italics, underlined italics, suspension points, rhetorical questions, interrupted sentences. It resorts to distorted symmetry, for instance through what might suggest a kind of homonymy as in ‘Surgery v. tragedy’ (Barker 2005, 79), as in ‘death is health’ quoted above, to anaphora and epiphora (or the use of an echoing formula to begin or end a sentence) and other burden-like processes. The method is rather paradoxical since the author is actually discovered to contest didacticism in terms that indirectly suggest a didactic enterprise; he mocks the metaphorist (Barker 2005, 30), but resorts to comparisons (the dropped handkerchief—Barker 2005, 8; the photographic paper—Barker 2005, 12). In itself such a style embodies the ingrained ambivalence of the formula or aphorism in matters of criticism, depending as it does on a successful use of language whose very effectiveness exposes it to misinterpretation: ‘The word. This word, which is only this word and not another. There is an ocean of vocabulary and in it shoals of approximations but only this word has the power to annihilate all others’ (Barker 2005, 15).

21The second and most striking stylistic feature is the general rhythm imparted by the cumulative pressing on of fragment after fragment, a kind of musical tempo marked by the return of the refrain-like affirmation or warning: ‘All I describe is theatre even when theatre is not the subject’. This wave-like effect links up the successive utterances in a to-and-fro movement away from, and each time a little closer to the topic being addressed. The binary or ternary iterations overlap in their concentric approach to the hub of the unspeakable, alternating from the broken sentence to the fully developed paragraph and conversely. At the centre is the aphorism, both fragment and whole (Omhovère 1999), in its obscure clarity, at once sententious and cryptic: ‘To tell the truth sincerely is the pitiful pretension of the theatre. To lie sincerely is the euphoria of the art of theatre’ (Barker 2005, 4); ‘What was, and is, and forever must be, cannot be depressing’ (Barker 2005, 81). And the nearly final one, approximating to the poetic: ‘To die [. . .] to go into the darkness [. . .] if it is darkness [. . .] to go to the river [. . .] if it is a river [. . .] but alone and without the illusion of love [. . .] naked and disastrously free [. . .] this is the condition of the tragic character...’ (Barker 2005, 105–5).

3. Aphorism and Distance

22Howard’s Barker’s double practice affords one an interesting view concerning the predisposition of critical writings to aphorism. Some critics have noticed the rather imperative tone of the proclamations that abound in his Arguments for a Theatre. At the same time one discovers that the author’s tentative ways in Death, The One and the Art of Theatre seem to run in a contrary direction and deconstruct the classical and historical approach to criticism. What he apparently fights against, and distances himself from, is the natural tendency of such discourse to the constative and the affirmative, most of the time indicating the presence a subjacent imperative. In other words, he pits himself against the resilience of rhetoric whose basic mechanisms have survived unchanged through the ages, as is shown by the existence of dictionaries of rhetoric, or the extraordinary variety of terms and practices born of the drive to the concise: adage, aphorism, apophthegm, byword, catchline, catchphrase, cliché, commonplace, device, dictum, formula, locution, maxim, motto, one-liner, phrase, proverb, refrain, saw, saying, tag, topos, utterance, watchword, etc.

23In reality his strategy is perfectly in keeping with the twofold poetic nature of critical writings. To come back to Sidney’s formulations in Apology for Poetry, or Shelley’s in Defence of Poetry, or again Heaney’s in Preoccupations, we do recognize in them a discursive tension between the two poles of linguistic felicity and analysis, each formulation seeming to aim at catching the essential and what is centrally crucial, and give it a compelling form whose density puts it, as the phrase goes, in a nutshell. In the poets’ uses of the figure, the aphorism is in itself a poetic gesture: indeed, in its double drive towards a felicitous formulation and critical distance, it can be said to be at one with poetry. These sometimes enigmatic formulae evince in their very success the constant straining between reconstitution and distance that sustains and energize both poetry and critical discourse, reconstitution coming first in the former, and distance, in the latter. To read essays like ‘The Music of Poetry’ by T.S. Eliot is to come repeatedly upon expressions and formulations which as in Gray’s ‘An Elegy written in a Country Church-yard’ strike and remain in our memory. The same is true of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria or of Milton’s Areopagitica; and of all great critical texts, such stylistic achievements being the very proof of their greatness, the one element in them through which allows them to endure and confront us with their dated but also transhistorical validity. In reference to Howard Barker’s kind of deconstruction, we now recognize that the problem is that the critical aphorism adds the unavoidable dimension of the hortatory. At its best, it is poetic and distancing, but it retains all the characteristics of a dictum. It enounces a rule; it is the emerging part of a whole poetics, and behind it of a whole ideology; which accounts for the tension in it (a tension at work in poetry itself) between an analytical estrangement and the contrary predisposition to persuasion and eventually befuddlement. Critical aphorisms seem to be in themselves the site of a complementary double-bind. The first imperative they obey is clarity, but clarity is more naturally faithful to systematic thinking than to the rendering of the fitful, the elusive and the uncertain; which explains the contrary drive, evidenced by Howard Barker’s uncertain sayings, to the obscure, the enigmatic, and even the cryptic, as a protection against the dangers of clearness. The remark could apply to George Meredith too, whose novels often choose the ways of ambiguity as a detour to catch and formulate indirectly the inexpressible modulations in lived feelings. Such a double-bind is what Howard Barker’s twofold critical posture seems to concern itself with and bring to the fore. On one side the language of the truth-teller: to pick up only one example in Arguments for a Theatre, one that could be disputed, if only because of what it implies about the relation between the socio-cultural and the artistic: ‘The play for an age of fracture is itself fractured [. . .]’ (Barker 1990, 36); on the other side, in Death, The One and the Art of Theatre, the adumbration of an abstract level of interpretation that can only be surmised: ‘The art of theatre is a darkness, because it speaks to a darkness’ (Barker 2005, 49): this formulation retaining the clarity and the density of the former aphorism, a self-defeating clarity (the double- bind) which opens out onto what is by definition terminally obscure. In so far as it enacts this impassable and constitutive contradiction, such a stylistic approach exemplifies both the strength of the aphorism and the vanity of such strength, if not the danger of its apparent certitudes for he or she who wants to remain and keep true to the mystery of human experience. The implicit lesson is that such a double- bind is in reality inherent in any critical discourse, but is usually done away with, ignored and laid as one lays a ghost.

24The appeal of Howard Barker’s ambivalent scriptural ways implying double, but conflicting allegiances, is to suggest the possibility, perhaps the necessity, of a new conception of critical writing. At the very least, it prevents us from forgetting the paradoxical nature of the critic’s work, torn as it necessarily is between enlightenment and the fidelity to that which cannot really be enlightened. Barker’s revision of the drive to aphorism, his scary and deliberately conflicted approach to it can stand us in good stead. It shows the way to a self-reflexive approach, in view of an always needed, and always to be renewed anatomy of criticism, of its discourses, and of discourse in general.

25Barker’s method and style seem, in their sometimes blatant, sometimes diffident use of aphorismand occasionally the two at once, to embody but also to put at a distance, the problematic success of the language of criticism, its suspended and doubtful relevance. His own position as creator and critic illustrates the fact that any critical formulation fails in the very measure of its felicity since such felicity convinces one that one not only understands but masters the idea at stake; which could be said to be an infirmity and a flaw, and may explain why T.S. Eliot felt it necessary to disclaim some of his too famously coined expressions, like the ‘dissociation of sensibility’. The extraordinary in Barker’s latest critical production is that it strives again and again at truthfully rendering what cannot be expressed. One may thus forgive its author for the somehow imperious pronouncements into which his adventurous project lures him. In his very ambiguity, he seems to try to propound a more legitimate critical tongue that would best approximate the double capacity of poetry, the creation of a language making one see. Exploding as he partly does the aphoristic leanings and temptations of criticism, exploring the linguistic ridge between semantic success and failure, Barker embodies the artist as risky critic. No better guidance, and warning, for us in our own critical ways and means.

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Baker, Howard, A rguments for a Theatre, London: John Calder, 1990 (1989).

Baker, Howard, Death, The One, and the Art of Theatre, London: Routledge, 2005.

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Pope, Alexander, ‘Essay on Criticism’, in Poetical Works edited by Herbert Davis, Oxford: O.U.P., 1966.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriele, ‘The Sonnet’, in The Literature of England by G.K. Anderson and W.E. Buckler, Glenview, Illinois, 1966.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in The Literature of England by G.K. Anderson and W.E. Buckler, Glenview, Illinois, 1966.

Wilde, Oscar, ‘The Critic as Artist’, in Plays, Prose Writings and Poems, London: Dent, 1978.

Wordsworth, William, ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, in The Literature of England by G.K. Anderson and W.E. Buckler, Glenview, Illinois, 1966.

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1 One notices that the words used to describe them alternately foreground the utterance itself (phrase, apophthegm, maxim, motto), the message (aphorism) and its reception (sententia).

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Michel Morel, « English Critical Discourse Through the Ages: the Continued Drive to Aphorism »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 33 | 2008, mis en ligne le 21 juillet 2020, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Michel Morel

Université Nancy 2

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