There is an academic myth (vaguely Victorian in feeling but probably, like most Victorian principles, dating back a half-century earlier) that scholars study facts whereas critics make it all up out of their own heads. It afflicts English studies as it does most others, and had a recent airing in John Carey's inaugural lecture at Oxford which proposed that scholars handle texts whereas critics only vandalise them by reading them. This double and triple illusion usefully affords occasion for simple restatements: that, for instance, to read at all is in itself a creative and interpretative act, an evidence of mind which it dignifies human beings to perform; that scholars and critics alike read inventively, to some extent knowing what they are looking for and to some extent finding it; that there is no such thing as a 'text', and if there were it would degrade literature to be treated as one - and there was probably no such thing as a fact, either, until some human being invented it. The only difference is that some people are much better readers than others, whether of books or of reality, better in the sense of 'truer', more accurate and more revealing: and may well be helped to be so by being rid of the illusion that as 'scholars' they have some easy, advantaged road to the truth.
LRB 19 November 1981 | PDF Download