Writers are broadly classified as intellectuals, though many poets and novelists feel uncomfortable enough with the title. The split between analysis and imagination, the critical and the creative, is one of the deadliest of Romantic legacies, born of an antagonism to particular forms of bloodless cerebration (Enlightenment rationalism, Utilitarianism) and then recklessly generalised to abstract thought as such. By the mid-19th century in England, poetry had come to figure as the opposite of rational discourse, a move which would have come as a mighty surprise to Samuel Johnson, while the boldest scientific ventures were being jealously denied the epithet 'creative'. Post-Modernism has begun to undo this dichotomy, aware that critical language is itself a form of rhetoric and that the Modernist or Post-Modernist artwork secretes a tacit theoretical critique of itself; but it is still an imprudent theorist who would venture into a coven of poets without leaving a contact number. Literary theory seems something of an oxymoron; how can you theorise a discourse whose whole raison d'Ítre is to defeat the concept? A science of the concrete, as Schopenhauer remarked, is a contradiction in terms; the sensuous particularities of the aesthetic, like the structure of the world for the early Wittgenstein, can be shown but not spoken of.
LRB 21 September 1995 | PDF Download