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Imagining the Real: Essays on Politics, Ideology and Literature
Robert Grant
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave, 2003.
£52.50, 272 pages, ISBN 0333973712.

Marjorie Vanbaelinghem
Université de Poitiers


It is somewhat hard not to be diffident toward those books which seem nothing but a "collection of essays," that is to say, a book that one publishes as soon as one has got the necessary amount of scholarly work completed (work that was primarily done for journals or conferences). This is, I am afraid, what one cannot help but feel about Robert Grant's Imagining the Real. The author teaches English Literature at the University of Glasglow, and has recently had another book, The Politics of Sex, also published by Palgrave.

In the Introduction, Robert Grant takes time to expose a line of thought which aims at connecting the different essays, and he introduces them one by one. He does so rather convincingly. By "Imagining the Real," Grant means "structuring" the real, "theorizing" on it, or even "taming" it—his object is all the ways in which we tend to make reality, or art, or facts, "fit in" categories and theories. Each of the essays is about one such conceit or theory and tries to "go round it," so to speak, to analyse what is behind the use of such or such notion. I find it quite a fascinating approach—and the topics and notions taken up by the author are also "impressive," because they are extremely diverse and complex ones. However, the reader quickly feels that this is the main shortcoming of the book. It bites more than it can chew, and this feels rather frustrating.

It is frustrating, indeed, to read an essay that is supposedly about Conservatism, like the first one, "The Politics of Equilibrium," and which, in fact, is a book review. Book reviews—unless they are exceptionally well written, and their relevance goes well beyond their status as reviews—do not age well. In the case of "Fetishizing the Unseen" (Chapter 6, on the issue of Consciousness) and "Thinking Degree Zero" (Chapter 7, definitely about the book it reviews—Very Little… Almost Nothing, by S. Crichley—and not about anything else), it makes them quite unpleasant to read. Such texts can hardly be considered as essays.

As for the actual essays, they do not connect too well with one another (apart from Chapter 2, about Freedom and Chapter 3, also relating to Freedom). "Must new world also be good?" (Chapter 3) tackles the question of freedom, culture and individuality, but does so in response to another text, which, once again, may be bothersome at times. The good point in such a way of proceeding, however, is that the texts are brimming with ideas, examples, and tend to couple ideas one might not have expected to find associated. This is thought-provoking and helps the reader hold on. On the other hand, there are at times odd conceptual short-cuts, or issues suddenly coming up (like the case of Jews in Britain [51-52], an issue which I believe is too complex for it to be thus conjured up, wrapped up and abandoned, all in the space of three paragraphs)—it spoils the rest of the argumentation.

Chapter 4's title, "Honesty, Honour and Trust," sounds like an assignment, and the whole text reads indeed like a paper about morals. Chapter 5, "The Ideology of Deconstruction," on Deconstructionism and the concealed roots it shares with Structuralism, has got good arguments and findings going for it, but there again are some clichés (about French intellectual life, for instance) and above all an overpowering irritated tone (as well as what seems a visceral resentment against Derrida) that literally disrupt the course of the demonstration.

As promised in the introduction, the essays go from very abstract issues to more literary matters. That is about the only dynamic structuring and sustaining the book. Chapter 8, "Fiction, Meaning and Utterance," argues for a speech-act interpretation of fictions and a revaluation of intentionality in fiction. This is the one essay in which one can see (and appreciate) Grant's point, or his trademark line of thought—here for instance taking up the question of meaning from the angle of ethics. Grant goes back to it in the last essay, "Providence, Authority and the Moral Life in 'The Tempest,'" an essay on Shakespeare and morals. The epistemological discussion opening the text is truly interesting. However, what the author makes of his method is rather controversial, perhaps "exaggerated," one could say. Chapter 9, "The Case of L. H. Myers," is a charming and instructive piece on the "non-revival" of a scholar-forsaken intellectual, which also provides a short bibliography. It exemplifies the main flaw of the book—heterogeneity, which sometimes gives a sense of superficiality—but also shows its talent for reaching the unexpected.


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