‘Language in modern literature: innovation and experiment’

by Jacob Korg. Harvester/Barnes and Noble, Sussex and New York. 244 pp. £13.50


Victor Sage


Professor Korg has performed an ambitious act of distillation. By concentrating on the problem of language, he has attempted to provide us with a synthetic view of the relations between theory (philosophical and literary) and practice in the early modern period. His selection of Anglo-American writers is narrow, and at first sight contains some curious inclusions, but it does not feel necessarily arbitrary: Hopkins, Gertrude Stein, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, William Carlos Williams and Cummings are his main practical exponents, and Bergson, Hulme, Whitehead, Bradley and Cassirer, his theorists. In the middle, as it were, stand Marinetti and the Futurists, and Breton and the Surrealists.


The fulcrum of the argument is the paradox that language is both a mental and a material phenomenon. Professor Korg begins by identifying in the early stages of experimental writing (so-called) a common set of motives which he terms ‘radical mimesis.’ These amount to the urge to ‘walk barefoot into reality’; to devise methods of bringing language in art into an immediate, revelatory relationship with externals. These methods include, for example, the representational typography of Cummings, collage of various kinds, the Chinese characters of the Cantos, and a range of other graphic devices later to appear most fully in concrete poetry. Having explored to its limit the radically-mimetic ambition, the book proceeds to fold back upon itself and present the paradox, namely that ‘severe doctrines of imitation lead to an emphasis on formal relations and autonomy.’


The phrase ‘lead to’ here is crucially ambiguous; it seems to mean conceptually, aesthetically, and historically. Result: a repeated triumph, on all fronts, for the neo-idealist position. So the ‘thrust toward reality,’ as Professor Korg puts it, ‘is deflected,’ as writer after writer comes to realise, or unwittingly to demonstrate, the truth of the proposition that ‘material reality is forbidden to cognition and that the mind must turn to itself in its search for knowledge.’ ‘Experiment’ itself, it is implied, is essentially a continuance of nineteenth-century empiricism (we are reminded of Claude Bernard, and the original meaning of ‘experiri,’ to test) and its practitioners are the mental victims of a ‘lust for reality’ whose attempts at mimesis are rebuffed by the finally irresolvable paradox of language’s Janus-existence.


Thus Browning and Pound, for example, are said to ‘concur’ (despite themselves) that poetry seeks to imitate not things, but thoughts. Eliot’s borrowings (to borrow from art is largely presented as the same- kind of thing as to borrow from life), far from being symptomatic of an attempt to ‘escape into reality’ seem ‘in the final analysis to be saying, as a friend of Tennyson’s once declared, “The world is one great thought and I am thinking it”.’ Joyce ‘laughs aside the narrow fanatical notion that language is a medium of communication that matches material reality.’ Gertrude Stein is dismissed as a literal-minded Bergsonian (from the point of view of language, it is as self-defeating to imitate thoughts, as things); while William Carlos Williams succeeds in exploiting the linguistic traffic between mind and things; and Cummings, despite the mimetic appearance of his early lower-case experiments, is redeemed by the abstraction of his later work.


The book is a closed system. Professor Korg reveals his strategy quite openly in the introduction. Each of his ‘chosen works and authors,’ he declares with a flourish, ‘is approached repeatedly over different ground, in connection with a different topic, in chapter after chapter; the resulting effect is that of a recursive, but non-repetitive conformation that might be compared with Browning’s The ring and the book or the double helix.’ The book is indeed closely-written and carefully constructed, and the first three chapters (‘Experimental Motives,’ ‘Toward Reality’ and ‘Acts of Mind’) set up the dialectic with clarity and economy. But I feel bound to say that the deliberate limitation and re-use of material does not finally achieve the effect described above; instead, a curious, nagging expectation, not to be removed by the most skilful writing, arises in the reader’s mind at about the half-way stage, that the same names are going to crop up again and again in new permutations, for Professor Korg has tended to compound his method by using his critics over and over again in a similar fashion to his authors. The book cannot help but be repetitive; and once the major protagonists have been introduced and the paradox expounded, the later chapters (‘Form and Language’ and ‘Imagery and Other Resources’ in particular) are noticeably less satisfactory.


The clarity of this attempt to master such diverse and difficult material is admirable. But the central paradox seems at times dangerously close to a Procrustean oversimplification. We are told, for example, that ‘it had been the nineteenth century view that style is no more than an envelope or container that is at its best when least conspicuous.’ Had it, indeed. The problem with this argument is that it tends to caricature mimesis as merely referential or expressive, and writers then easily become ‘penned up’ in their own mimetic acts. But the theory and the practice of mimesis has been more sophisticated than this from Aristotle onwards, and nowhere more so than in the nineteenth century novel. But ‘form,’ we are told, ‘is a mould which reflects the pressure of ideas.’ So—readers please note—Beckett’s dialogue is reductively catalogued (along with Stein’s, Pinter’s, and Ionesco’s) as naive mimesis, because of its formal properties. A particularly brilliant passage of early Bergson where, in a kind of Platonic shadow-play, he makes reference to the verbal illusionism necessary for a novelist who succeeds in rendering our consciousness in language, is butchered to fit the idea of mimesis. And so on. However much one might agree with a version of the general argument, one is not convinced by its presentation here.


Despite its elaborate show of reflexive argument, and its references to Foucault and Derrida, this book is essentially an old-fashioned plea for autonomy in the grand old Anglo-American tradition. (It is significant that the most unconvincing passage of the book is a set of comments on a sophisticatedly mimetic writer: Jane Austen). Language itself is ‘poetic’: it tends, by a mysterious law of ‘design,’ to convert meaning into being. But the price Professor Korg pays for this familiar argument is that language has to become an abstraction: it is, in the end, only Language.