William Oxley: The Decay of Relativism

If everything is relative, nothing is relative. That is the most fundamental objection to the theory of relativity. It is paradoxical, of course, but the paradoxical always enshrines a deeper truth than the logical. It is a hard point to grasp for the heavily finite mind, just in the way that the notion of infinity -- so crucial an axiom in, say, mathematics -- is hard to grasp. But grasped it must be, if only that it is necessary to have some hold on it in order to understand the limitations of the theory of relativity. In the world governed by time and space, the world of physical reality, relativism is absolute because it can be shown scientifically to be invariably applicable: solids are always relative to each other.

Not so in the mind where there is no time or space, only ideas of time and space. Unlike in the physical world, the mental functions trans-mechanically. And however much science may force the laws of physics upon the human mind, the imagination will always transcend them. Unfortunately, in the last hundred years or so, it has come to be assumed that the laws apparently governing the external world of time and space must necessarily have equal applicability to the mental world. Hence the belief has grown up that the theory of relativity is of truly universal applicability. But it is not so: in the human mind a theory of absolutes takes precedence over what is only a theory strictly localized to and by physical phenomena.

It is because of the primacy of the belief that `everything is relative', even in the mental realms, that literary criticism, literary theory -- with which I am concerned in this article -- has reached its present impasse. The main thrust of literary theory post, say, the American New Criticism, has been steadily towards the displacement of the dominance of the imaginative faculty in literature in favour of the relativistic rational and mechanistic faculty of thought. The elimination of the significance of the author from the text; followed by the deconstruction of the text; is simply designed to remove both the imaginative source and the imaginative product at a stroke. This is achieved by the ingenious argument (which only common sense denies) that language is the creator of all thought and there is no thinker. Common sense knows it is an argument on a par with a life without a body, or a society without people. Hitherto, humankind has assumed that language was an instrument (whether God-given or not is beside the point) used by man to give external expression to thought. But then came modern theorists arguing that man was the instrument used by language -- ie. the cart was put before the horse. And a further refinement was that of the final impersonalism of saying there was only language -- only the cart. Which is where we are at today.

There are several reasons why this situation has come about. At the philosophical level, as I have shown, it became certainly a possibility and, also, an inevitable condition of thought once the universal applicability of the theory of relativity was accepted. When the law of relativity -- which is strictly a law localized and limited to physical phenomena, including that of the mind, then the way was open to the elimination of all valuative judgement. For all judgement, however admittedly provisional, contains the seed of absolutism. And the only way round this is to promote a theory which says everything is relative. Once the theory of relativity is accepted as the only legitimate theory of thought, the result is that all criticism becomes reduced to a variety of approaches, each as valid as the other, and all devoid of that final exactness once termed `rightness'. Hence the fact that in most University English literature departments today criticism is reduced to a study of `critical approaches to...' (R.S.Gwynn, The Advocates of Poetry), and there is no value criticism at all. Equally, and in addition, the avoiding of primary literary texts as far as possible can be justified by a similar line of thought, namely, that such texts themselves (now author-free) are but relativistic documents possessed of no valuative uniqueness that would entitle them to be distinguished from the rest of the crowd of existent texts -- the critical included. As Louis Simpson has said, `Perfecting a theory is all that matters; whether or not it can be applied concerns them [the literary theorists] not at all'. I would suggest it is a consequence, ultimately, of us having now entered relativism's period of decadence.

Louis Simpson has also said, `People with a love of poetry are desperately needed at the present time in departments of English, languages, and comparative literature, for these departments are being taken over by those who have no love of literature'. He speaks, of course, as a poet, and poetry is impossible without love. Harold Bloom, himself one of the best known of these apostles of unlove dominating the academy today, whether because of a change of heart or what I know not, has observed, `What interests me ... is the flight from the aesthetic among so many of my profession, some of whom at least began with the ability to experience aesthetic value'. One wonders if Bloom is speaking of himself too? But, at any rate, what he terms `the flight from the aesthetic' must come about the more that relativistic theory takes a hold simply because `aesthetic value' has a core of absolutism. Why? Because, as I inferred earlier, that which is the product of unalloyed imagination (in contradistinction to either rationalism, or the `fancy' which latter is alloyed imagination) partakes of some irreducible and mysterious element beyond the scope of reason and its instrument language: hence the old-fashioned' application to it of qualitative epithets like, `beauty', `truth', `mystery', `divinity' etc. A mind thoroughly imbued with an absolute belief in relativism (note the contradiction in such a belief) cannot tolerate or cope with such perceptions, depending as they do as much on feeling and intuition as logical reasoning. Hence Bloom's `flight from the aesthetic'.

But there is another causal dimension to this beyond the philosophical, and that is the political. Defining political in the sense of the pursuit of power, no matter in what fields that pursuit takes place. Here, of course, we are talking about the field of literature; and large upon that topography looms the academy -- the universities and schools -- and it has to be pointed out that institutions are amongst the most vital topoi for politicisation of any landscape.

In my youthful sloganizing days, I wrote `Institutionalize poetry and you kill it'. The institutional villains I had in mind at that time were the London Poetry Society and the Arts Council of Great Britain. As proof of the damage that the institutionalization of anything did, I used to cite -- as my favourite myth -- the history of the Christian Church. I was fond of quoting the Shavianism that `the only true Christian died on the Cross', to emphasise the point that once Christianity became an institution it was, sooner or later, doomed. Doomed to lose its pristine vigour, its purity, its honesty, etc. And, certainly, it was not difficult to demonstrate this falling off, as it were, in the quality of Christianity once it had become institutionalized. Likewise with poetry, I tended to quote Ezra Pound who said `The Poetry Society was founded to suppress poetry in these islands', or if not actually to suppress it, misuse it in various ways detrimental to the pure art itself. Equally, I shared Robert Graves' view of arts councils, namely that subsidy and `encouragement' of the arts tends to have the opposite effect for a variety of reasons. For example, if `encouragement' is the main thrust of arts policy then, clearly, it is opposed to the `discouragement' represented by honest criticism. Again, because arts councils are run by bureaucrats the putative grantee (the artist or poet) needs to be as skilful at form-filling and investigating the government's laid-down rules for the arts, as he or she needs to be talented at their particular craft. Which latter means that the majority of arts funding will always go to the career poet, the career artist, and not to the poet for whom the ars poetica is an all-consuming vocation. And there were, and are, many other such objections to both these institutions which loomed so large in the field of poetry, and still do.

It is in the nature of institutions to continue in existence, as legally constituted corporate entities, without regard to whoever may be their members and officers at any particular time in history. The `good' side of properly constituted institutions is that they can perpetuate truths and ideals which might otherwise be forgotten. But the downside of such organisations is that invariably with the passage of time those ideals can become diluted, even perverted. As the great historian J.A.Froude, charting the decline of Christianity in his book The Nemesis of Faith, writing more than a hundred years ago, describes the condition of the Clergy thus: `I cannot understand why, as a body, the Clergy are so fatally uninteresting: they who through all their waking hours ought to have for their one thought, the deepest and most absorbing interests of humanity. It is the curse of making it a profession -- a road to get on upon, to succeed in life upon. The base stain is apparent in their language, too, and an index of what they are. Their `duty' -- what is it? To patter through the two Sunday's services. For a little money one of them will take the other's duty for him. And what do they all aim at? Getting livings! -- not cures of souls, but livings: something which will keep their wrteched bodies living in the comforts they have found indispensable...' -- One need only substitute `Academic' for `Clergy' in this passage for it to be apposite to the current predicament especially of university departments of English literature.

Unfortunately, the dilution of ideals is inevitable with all institutions not because they necessarily fall into the hands of mediocre or bad executives but, quite simply, because the business of group organisation is naturally at variance with individual organization. `Efficiency' is the implicit watchword of any group or organization; whereas `freedom' is the overwhelming precondition of, especially, the poet and the artist. Creative and critical freedom are of supreme importance to the poet; as, of course, in an academic context they are -- or should be -- to the researcher, the lecturer and the scholar.

It is evident that the study and propagation, the teaching of, literature and the allied studies of language have become so much of a career, rather than a vocation, that politics and theory have greatly squeezed out the vocational element. The professional is everywhere in the universities: the true amateur (lover of) is almost nowhere. And the philosophies chosen to underpin these professionals' theories and practice are increasingly chosen not in the interests of the promotion of free enquiry and free thought, but in the interests of career promotion and institutional perpetuation -- in other words, the theories have a strong political taint. The very fact that so-called political correctness is so rife in the universities and institutions of higher education is eloquent witness to the drive for intellectual conformism.

I cannot say, because I have no sufficient experience of them, how far the decadence of relativism and stultifying politicization has gone in other departments of higher education. I do not know how unreal and irrelevant scientific enquiry, psychological investigation, historical or sociological studies are becoming. But if the same trend is under way also in these areas of study then, quite simply, they too will become less and less relevant to the reality of the human condition and an ever more parasitical battening on the life of any nation.

Not, however, wishing to end on an entirely gloomy note, there are three last things to say. The first is that, with regard to the state of critical theory, especially in the English departments of the academy, there is an emerging chorus of protest such as that famously demonstrated in the various writings of Dana Gioia and others of the so-called `New Formalist' movement of America. Then, too, it has always to be remembered that philosophy, like any other discipline, is subject to fashion and, therefore, to change. To be precise, over the centuries philosophers tend to oscillate between the ideal and the empirical: there is never entirely a condition of philosophical stasis. Lastly, the truly creative thinker -- in this context the genuine poet -- is always there in any age, and usually outside academies, existing to provide, both in his or her theory and practice, a supreme antidote to all sick systems, stultifying institutions, fashions and mistaken philosophies. If I may paraphrase the words of George Eliot in another era and another context, `Happily, the constitution of human nature forbids the complete prevalence of such theories' -- be they relativity or any other.