I just picked up Georges Poulet’s classic study The Metamorphoses of the Circle for two friggin’ dollars, courtesy of my university library’s sale rack. As I’m currently plodding toward the conclusion of my dissertation chapter on Henry James, I immediately flipped to Poulet’s chapter on him and found this gem:
James’s consciousness, a surprising fact at the time, turns away from interiority. It is, so to speak, never the center of itself. It remains purely a point of view. A point of view which, most of the time, is that of a character whose investigating look, different from all others, holds the faculty of leaving on the objects which it contemplates, a nuance, a specific coloration, which is the stamp of its contemplative activity, Every look attests the entirely relative way of looking of a definite being. And the novel of which it is the center has as its goal to make this invariable individuality of point of view to appear in the variety of objects on which he exerts it.
Consciousness in James is “never the center of itself”: not bad, Georges Poulet. In a certain sense, he’s simply restating certain things James said about his own work. But there’s something about Poulet’s formulation that skids outside the bounds of paraphrase, a kind virtuosic literary-critical flick-of-the-wrist granting what could otherwise be rote recitation a kind of revelatory quality. This is why I’m always bugged when journalists, students, fellow grad students, even professors deride the practice of “academic” criticism as a whole. Academic criticism encompasses some pretty dreadful stuff, but it also allows for (but doesn’t directly imply) a kind of statement you can’t really make anywhere else.
People also say no one writes like Georges Poulet (or Eric Auerbach or name your preferred graying/dead eminence) in academia anymore. But that’s not to say one can’t, right? I think of Franco Moretti, in particular, who’s someone I used to deride because I was an idiot and didn’t understand what he was trying to say in Graphs Maps Trees and hadn’t read his other books. Moretti is a beautiful, funny, humane writer working in an explicitly academic context. I can think of a few other examples of academic critics who consistently make me admire the beauty of their prose along with the ingenuity of their arguments. Anybody have any favorites?