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A Point for American Criticism

by William Carlos Williams

It is regrettable that Rebecca West’s article in The Bookman, New York, for September should have appeared in the United States. It puts both James Joyce and ourselves in a bad light.

It begins with relish — carefully defined to remove false implications. It is Paris, there is a pigeon bridging the rue de l’Odéon, Rebecca West has found two lines of a double quatrain in a book of Joyce’s — Pomes Penyeach — which she has come from purchasing. “Suspicions had been confirmed. What was cloudy was now solid. In those eight lines he had ceased to belong to that vast army of our enemies, the facts we do not comprehend; he had passed over and become one of our friends, one of those who have yielded up na account of their nature, who do not keep back a secret which one day may act like a bomb on each theory of the universe that we have built for our defence.”

“For really, I reflected… Mr. James Joyce is a great man who is entirely without taste.”

She enters then upon a long account of a game of boules played upon a highway in Provence to the constant interruption of passing vehicles, its points like those scored by the sentimental artist. Shock. Finishing with an image of a great umbrella-pine and the statement of the purpose of the non—sentimental artist, as determined and exclusive as the tree’s intention of becoming a tree. Very fine. Examples:

La Princesse de Cleves, Adolphe… She speaks of the bad example of Mr. Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady, of Katherine Mansfield’s weaknesses, the sentimentality of Charles Dickens, implying at the same time the non-sentimental successes of Tchekov. She compares the content ofthe younger American expressionist writers to that of East Lynn.

She states that, “Seduced by the use of a heterodox technique Joyce believes himself to be a wholly emancipated writer”. Quite untrue. This is one of her characteristic pronouncements.

“But the sentimental artist (Joyce) is becoming nothing.” She criticises the drawing of Stephen Dedalus, “He rolls his, eyes, he Wobbles on his base with suffering, like a Guido Reni… a consequence of Mr. Joyce’s sentimental habit of using his writing as a means for gratifying certain compulsions under which he labors, without making the first effort towards lifting them over the threshold that divides life from art”. She objects to his use of obscene words on the same grounds.

“There is working here a narcissism, a compulsion to make a self-image with an eye to the approval of others.”

“This is not to say that he does not write beautiful prose.” She refers to the scene of the young men bathing, in the early part of Ulysses, and to the evocations of Marion Bloom,”the great mother”. “But that does not alter the fact that James Joyce is safe only when he stays within tradition”, a path prepared by Latin Poetry.

Following are detailed descriptions of Joyce’s short stories:

A Sad Case and The Dead, from Dubliners. “These two stories alone should explain why we rank James Joyce as a major writer.” Early work.

Nevertheless, “There are two colossal finger-prints left by literary incompetence on Ulysses“. First, the reasonlessness of the close parallelism between Ulysses and the Odyssey which Rebecca West finds execrable, since the theme of Ulysses is essentially Manichaean and opposed to everything that is Greek. She asks, in effect, what the devil is served by these analogies? But, Bloom being in Ireland a wanderer as Odysseus was a wanderer – she quite forgets that ten lines further on she herself answers herself as to the appropriateness of the parallel: “When one looks at the works of art recovered from the city of Khochu, which are our first intimations of what Manichaeism, functioning as orthodoxy, produced other than what we have gleaned from the report of its enemies, one is amazed by the way that though the externals of Greek are faithfully borrowed and respectfully superimposed on more Oriental forms, the admission that there is a fundamental disharmony in nature causes it to create effects totally different from anything which we could possibly experience on account of Greek Art.” And why not? Could anything be more illuminating than such a contrast? Could Joyce have chosen a better way to say exactly what he means?

The other “colossal finger print” occurs in the scene in the Lying—In Hospital: “The imitations of Bunyan and Sterne, completely disprove all that is alleged concerning the quality of Stephen’s mind… even allowing for the increasing cloudiness of drunkenness.” Possibly. But think of the “colossal” slip of Ibsen in the First Scene, Act Four of Peer Gynt, the Frenchman, the Englishman, the German and the Swede on the Southwest Coast of Morocco, as dull a piece of bullyragging as one could find anywhere in a work of genius. To speak of “colossal incompetence” over lapses of this sort- one need note only the word “colossal”.

Now for line after line she goes on proving that sentences originate before words. It is a pretty exposition. She brings in cats, wild animals and babies. But what in God’s name it has to do with any intention Joyce has-had, not even after three full paragraphs totalling a page of double columns and small print, is she able to make clear; any relation, that is beyond her own, erroneous, intolerant assumption of Joyce`s purpose.

In this way, she makes her points, some of them valid,some not so good. I have not attempted to sum them all. She goes at the work with a will and an enviable ability for exposition, But all she says must be thrown out of account as beside the question.

Here is the very thing most-inimical to all that is forward looking in literature, going to pieces of its own fragility, English criticism in a moment of over-extension come all loose underneath. Here it is proving itself inadequate to hold a really first-rate modern moment, hanging as it must still be with gross imperfections.

I saw Rebecca West straining toward some insistence she could not quitte achieve so that she appeared wholly off balance. The evidences of exaggeration and nervousness are in such things as the exhilaration at the start, the suspiciously lyric dove, the bold but unsupported pronouncements recurring through the text. But especially it appeared in the initialy step of the logic, the stress upon the two lines of the little poem which would cast a searchlight of significance over all that goes before and comes after them. “The most stupendous”, “colossal”, etc., etc. There is the table—pounding of the “right, by Jove” attitude, the ex-cathedra “this is so”. Ending finally in the summary verdict that because of his sentimental defects Joyce must be, is, in fact, debarred from the privilege of launching a technical advance in literary form; that he is great only as a conventional writer in a tradition, that of Latin poetry; the rest gibberish — nonsense.

It means just that Joyce, firing from Paris has outranged English criticism completely and that R- W`., with fair skill, is penning not so much an attack on Joyce — whom she tremendously admires —— but a defense, a defense littered by a dire necessityto save all that she loves and represents, lest what he had done may “one day act like a bomb on each theory of the universe that we have built for our defence”: all accountable to an inadequacy of critical ressource in a respectable orthodoxy.

British criticism, like any other, is built upon the exigencies of the local literary structure and relates primarily thereto. Afterward it may turn to the appraisal of heterodox and foreign works. But if these are in nature disruptive to the first, the criticism will be found to be (first) defensive, to preserve its origins. Only when an acknowledged break has been forced upon it can any criticism mend itself in a way to go up into a more commanding position. Rebecca West is solely defensive in what she says of Joyce. Within the tradition lies “perfection”, the Sacred Grove, a study of Dryden. Outside is imperfection and formative chaos.

It is quite impossible for British critical orthodoxy (R. W. its spokesman) to say that Joyce’s imperfections are of inconsequence, in view of something else larger. For if it (she)does so, it invalidates it’s own major pretence to being an inclusive whole made up of mutually related parts. It can only say this is within, that is outside the pale.

We recognize its inviolable methods. But once having said that, we must step beyond it, to follow Joyce. It is able, it is erudite, it is ill—tempered and correct – due to its limited size and the opportunity offered thereby for measurement and thorough exploration.

Rebecca West cannot take Joyce, as a whole, into the body of English literature for fear of the destructive force of such an act. She must dodge and be clever and find fault and praise. She can only acknowledge genius and defect, she cannot acknowledge an essential relationship between the genius and the defect. She cannot say that on the basis of Joyce’s effort, the defect is a consequence ofthe genius which, to gain way, has superseded the restrictions of the orthodox field. She cannot say that it is the break that has released the genius — and that the defects are stigmata of the break. She cannot link the two as an indissoluble whole — but she must put defect to the right, genius to the left’ British criticism in the center, where it is wholly forced; a thorough imposition.

Joyce does offend in taste. Joyce is sentimental in his handling of his material. He does deform his drawing and allow defective characterizations to creep in. But this does not at all debar him from making valid technical innovations in literary form, as R. W. must say it does. Both are due to the suddenness, the leap of a new force.


It is all to an American just the English viewpoint, an old basis, without further capacity for extension and nearly ready to be discarded forever. Nearly.

Forward is the new. It will not be blamed. It will not force it self into what amounts to paralyzing restrictions. It cannot be correct. It hasn’t time. It has that which is beyond measurement, which renders measurement a falsification, since the energy is showing itself as recrudescent, the measurement being the aftermath of each new outburst.

Joyce has broken through and drags his defects with him, a thing English criticism cannot tolerate. But even so, Rebecca Vlfest does not always play the game, even within her own boundaries, — it is the strain she is under. A descent to Freudian expedients of classification is in a literary discussion a mark of defeat. Here is a mixing of categories, a fault in logic — that is unimaginable in a person of orderly mind.

It has always been apparent to me that references to Freud – except as Freud – are in a literary discussion particularly out of place. But the use of Freudian arguments and classifications as critical staves is really too much. The reasons are simple. Freud like other psychologists uses the same material as literature but in another mode. To use the force of psychology in a category foreign to its devices is to betray the very essence of logic.

It must be patent that in any ofthe Freudian classifications a man may produce good writing. That is, it may be good or bad in any Freudian catagory. Comment if you like on Joyce’s narcissism but what in the world has it to do with him as a writer? Of course it has, as far as prestige is concerned, but not as to writing — a division which R. W. seems anxious to make when she calls him a genius. But the expedient is convenient if we want to gain a spurious (psychologic, not literary) advantage for temporal purposes.

What Joyce is saying is a literary thing. It is a literary value he is forwarding. He is a writer. Will this never be understood? Perhaps he is fixed in his material and cannot change. It is of no consequence. The writing is, however, changing, the writing is active. It is in the writing that the power exists. Joyce is a literary man writing as he may — with as much affection from his material, his Freudian category as — Esop from his hump or Scarron from his nerves. It is stupid, it is narrow British to think to use that against him.

The thing is, they want to stay safe, they do not want to give up something, so thay enlist psychology to save them. But under it they miss the clear, actually the miraculous benefits of literature itself. A silent flower opening out of the dung they dote on. They miss Joyce blossoming pure white above their heads. They are literary critics. That’s what gets me.

Usually something has been disturbed, possibly outraged — so they search around, muck around in psychology for what cause to blame, instead of searching in the Writing, in literature, for the reason. They shut the eyes, do nothing about the fact of the writing or cry “genius” —— and avoid the issue. They forget that literature, like all other effects, by genius transcends the material, no matter what it is. That it, by itself, raises the thing that is to be observed into a rarer field. I don’t give a damn what Joyce happens by the chances of his life to be writing of, any more than I care about the termination of the story of Pantagruel and the Sibyl. Shock there if you wish.

And this is the opportunity of America! to see large, larger than England can.

An appearance of synchroneity between American and English literature has made it seem, especially at certain times,as if English criticism could overlay the American strain as it does the English. This cannot be so. The differences are epochal. Every time American strength goes into a mould modelled after the English, it is wholly wasted. There is an American criticism that applies to American literature — all too unformed to speak of positively. This American thing it is that would better fit the Irish of Joyce.

Their duty is to conserve and explain in relation to established facts — that is all. We Americans ourselves must still rely on English models. But we must not be misled. We have to realize that an English dictum on any work is, for us, only an approximation. It exists only as an analogous appraisal, as far as we are concerned, to fill a lack on our part of actual value.

A faultfinding elucidation of Joyce’s work gives Rebecca West a final satisfaction. This is what is meant by the term “insular”. Surrounded, limited yet intact. It is the exact counterpart of the physical characteristic of England. They have attempted freedom but achieved only extension of insularity, for the central fear remains.

With hieratical assurance Rebecca West lays down her fiats about everything, rising to a transcendental ecstasy at last and the longing for a spiritual triumph and the life onward and upward forever. She is speaking, that is, of a life nearly at its end, just as a younger culture or one at its beginning, in full vigor, wishes for a fusion ofthe spirit with life as it exists here on earth in mud and slime today.

Truly her conception of the Shakespearean fool, to whom she likens Joyce’s mental processes, is cloacal if anything could be so, with his japes and antics which so distress her thought, in that transcendental dream in which the spirit is triumphant – somewhere else. Whereas here is the only place where we know the spirit to exist at all, befouled as it is by lies. Joyce she sees as a “fool” dragging down the great and the good to his own foul level, making the high spirit “prove” its earthy baseness by lowering itself to laugh at low truth. “And that is why James Joyce is treated by this age with a respect which is more than the due of his competence: why Pomes Penyeach had been sold to me in Sylvia Beach’s bookshop as if it had been a saint’s medal on the porch of Westminster Cathedral.”

But the true significance of the fool is to consolidate life, to insist on its lowness, to knit it up, to correct a certain fatuousness in the round table circle. Life is not to run off into dream but to remain one, from low to high. If you care to go so far, the fool is the premonition of the Russian Revolution, to modern revolutions in thought.

Whereas R. W.’s attitude is not noble, “an escape from the underground burrows of lust”, but is bred of a terminal process of life that is ending, since in an old society, as in an old criticism, exhaustion takes place finally. Lear’s fool,however, is far from what R. W. paints his genus to be, but is full of compassion. Joyce, where he stoops low, has in him all the signs of a beginning. It is a new literature, a new world, that he is undertaking.

Rebecca ·West, on the other hand, has no idea at all what literature is about. She speaks of transcendental tosh, of Freud, of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, of anything that comes into her head, but she has not yet learned — though she professes to know the difference between art and life — the sentimental and the nonsentimental — that writing is made of words. And that in just this essential Joyce is making a technical advance which she is afraid to acknowledge — that is actually cutting away all England from under her.

But Joyce knows —— in spite of every barrier — in and out,self and world. And he is purifying- his effort (in a new work) which she calls gibberish.

Joyce is breaking with a culture older than England’s when he goes into his greatest work. It is the spirit liberated to run through everything, that makes him insist on unexpurgated lines and will not brook the limitations which good taste would enforce. It is to break the limitations, not to conform to the taste that his spirit runs.

Naturally they strain to drag him back.

Here it is: he is going somewhere, they are going nowhere. They are still looking back weighing (good enough); he is going on, carrying what he needs and what he can. What good is it, as far as literature is concerned, to have observed, felt the pangs of sorrow that Joyce is recognized, even by R. WV., to feel if he is doing nothing about it — as literature? As literature. He is a writer broken—hearted over the world (stick to literature as his chosen symbol). Broken—hearted people do not bother about the place their tears are falling or the snot of their noses. As literature, Joyce is going on like French painters by painting, to find some way out of his sorrow — by literary means. (Stay within the figure which R. W. cannot do.) As a writer he is trying for new means. He is looking ahead to find if there be a way, a literary way (in his chosen category) to save the world — or call it (as a figure) to save the static, worn out language.

Here Joyce has so far outstripped the criticism of Rebecca West that she seems a pervert. Here is his affinity for slang. Even if he has to lay waste the whole English structure. It is that the older critics smell and — they are afraid.

He is moving on relentlessly in his literary modes to find a way out. This is not an ordered advance of troops. Or it is one place only in the attack. The whole bulk of the antagonist looms above him to make him small, But the effect is tremendous.

To me Rebecca West’s view seems incompatible with American appreciation, and though her observations appear mainly true, they seem narrow, inadequate, even provincial, certainly scared, protestant female — unsatisfactory. A little ill-natured, a little sliding; what might be termed typically British and should be detected as such from the American view, a criticism not quite legitimate, save for England where it may be proper due to national exigencies like the dementia of Wyndham Lewis.


Joyce maims words. Why? Because meanings have been dulled, then lost, then perverted by their connotations (which have grown over them) until their effect on the mind is no longer what it was when they were fresh, but grows rotten as poi – though we may get to like poi.

Meanings are perverted by time and chance — but kept perverted by academic observance and intention. At worst they are inactive and get only the static value of anything, which retains its shape but is dead. All words, all sense of being is gone out of them. Or trained into them by the drill of the deadly minded. Joyce is restoring them.

Reading Joyce last night when my mind was fluid from fatigue, my eyes bulging and painful but my spirit jubilant following a successful termination of a fight between my two boys I had brought to an intelligent end — subverted and used to teach them tolerance — I saw !

Joyce has not changed his words beyond recognition.

They remain to a quick eye the same. But many of the stultifying associations of the brutalized mind (brutalized by modern futility) have been lost in his process.

The words are freed to be understood again in an original, a fresh, delightful sense.

Lucid they do become. Plain, as they have not been for a lifetime, we see them.

In summary: Rebecca West makes (is made by) a mould; English criticism, a product of English literature. She states her case for art. It is an excellent digest but for a world panorama inadequate. She fails to fit Joyce to it. She calls him, therefore, “strange”, not realizing his compulsions which are outside of her sphere. In support of this, she builds a case against him, using Freudian and other non—literary weapons. She is clever, universal in her informational resorts. What is new left over — Joyce’s true significance- his pure literary virtue — is for her “nonsense”. Of literature and its modus showing that she knows nothing. America, offering an undeveloped but wider criticism, will take this opportunity to place an appreciation of Joyce on its proper basis.

in “Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress”


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