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Literature and the Taste of Knowledge
Michael Wood

Cambridge University Press, 2005
205p., ISBN 0-521-60635-5


Reviewed by Marie-Dominique Garnier



In Search of Michael Wood: Six Types of Obliquity

There are two Michael Woods: the Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University—who incidently loves to joke about imposture and the way literature and poetry play with it—should not be confused with another, Manchester-born Michael Wood who has produced books and TV documentaries, all of which bear sibling, quest-bound titles: “In Search of the Trojan War” (1985), “In Search of the Origins of Civilization” (1992), “In Search of England” (1999), or “In Search of Shakespeare” (2003). Michael Wood’s—the professor’s—most recent work seems to belong, however, in exactly the same category of books-in-search-of, or books written, perhaps, like all genuine books, in search of themselves. Literature and the Taste of Knowledge at once promises and performs, in the subtle, teasing and complex game which such a key term as “taste” renders possible.

Michael Wood’s book, written “in taste,” offers a wide-ranging selection of critical analyses centred on a tasteful, elegant corpus ranging from Henry James to Kafka, Yeats, Empson, Auden, Bishop, and Banville. It was first “tested” in the form of lectures given in Cambridge in the fall of 2003, as a seminar in Yale just before the William Empson Lectures, and as various contributions to the London Review of Books (2003) and the Daily Times (2006). The book subtly leaves its reader with a taste for more, as the promised knowledge recedes into a non-substance, a taste or touch “of” literature, while leaving in the mouth a strong taste and urge “for” it—and this is quite in keeping with the art of ambiguity which Wood has learned from Empson, and practises very well. Wood’s “taste” reads as a concept in the making, as something which Deleuze and Guattari would have identified as a type of “becoming,” a concept in progress, which has nothing to do with the half-baked and the afterthought. Taste, in this particular instance, takes its cue from Barthes’ saveur,1 and from his post-structuralist play with etymologies. How close is “saveur” to “savoir,” taste to knowledge? Wood’s “taste of knowledge” summons two key-terms in the commendable effort to translate Barthes’ French into English, or, rather, to convert the uncertain middle-ground between two paronyms, saveur/savoir, into English. A similarly thin gap severs literature from knowledge—a gap which Michael Wood’s book is too clever to want to bridge.

Michael Wood’s title in translation, spelt on the thin edge between English and French, reflects the book’s in-between, pregnant status: between European culture and Anglo-American literature, it travels, like characters out of Henry James’ novels and stories, between continents and classes, bringing philosophic texts on the verge of literature, and novelists and poets as close as possible to philosophy—generally avoiding heavy-weight concepts and congealed certainties. Even Wittgenstein, whose formidable work could bar easy access to any literary text, is quoted in such a way as to seem light and easy to digest, in the improbable vicinity of Barthes, for example. The book operates on the mobile, questionable boundary between literature and philosophy, by displacing everything philosophy has always wanted to know about itself—via cognition, consciousness, truth, phenomenology and hermeneutics—towards less often patrolled, literary frontiers. Take Friedrich Nietzsche, for example. “The name sounded absurd, like a sneeze,”2 says one of Banville’s characters. Wood’s book covers the sort of ground which a recent book of interviews by Avital Ronell, American Philo (2006), endeavors to cover. Michael Wood’s approach qualifies as philosophical and as American, in the non-linear, quilted, fascinating way in which it manages to assemble distant threads; to cover the ground between Nietzsche, Kafka, and Banville, convened in the last chapter around the single episode of Nietzsche’s outburst of madness in Turin. Something like madness is at work in the space which articulates literature and knowledge. To approach such an elusive, demanding subject, Wood has devised something like a method.

The method is inspired from Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which Wood cites and mentions as a source of ever-renewed inspiration. Like Empson, Wood fine-hones seven chapters, or more exactly six chapters plus an epilogue entitled “The Essays of our Life,” a phrase which should be understood with a receptive, pliant ear, as the term “essay” here roams freely between a number of meanings ranging from the generic (after Montaigne) to the literary, including a more conversational, tentative sense. Here the term “essay” is imported from Musil’s Der Mann Ohne Eigenshaften, The Man Without Qualities, to which Wood provides a “slightly modified” English translation. Essayists, according to Musil and Wood, are “masters of the floating inner life” [189], whose domain lies “between religion and knowledge, between example and doctrine, between amor intellectualis and poetry.” They are, Musil adds, “saints with and without religion” or sometimes simply “men who have gone out on an adventure and lost their way” [189].

Agreeing to lose one’s way in the dark and bright wood of contemporary philosophy and fiction is one of the prerequisites to reading Michael Wood’s elegant, gravity-defying book. What it does to and with the concept of knowledge comes close to the way Nietzsche worked his way through the word “Wissenschaft” and how to make it “fröhliche”—how to turn science or “savoir” into “saveur” and “gay science. Wood’s six essays retain from their earlier spoken condition the lightness of what was once meant delivered to the ear rather than to the eye. Their tone is light, conversational at times, always tuned to the possibility of an objection raised or an interruption from the floor. Wood’s friends and colleagues do make odd and often welcome appearances throughout the pages of the book, along with other guest speakers, dead or alive—J.-L. Austin, William Empson, Barthes, or Christopher Ricks, all of whom are made to sound extraordinarily present.

One of the fertile inventions of Michael Wood’s book is that literature has a mind and a life of its own—a feature which some of the author’s colleagues would gladly call a bug and point out as a serious theoretical weakness. Their critique can be heard in the book: “a number of friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed the subject of this book have objected strenuously to my use of personification” [109]. Wood responds by remarking that such a person would have to be “someone oblique” [114], before developing, perhaps too quickly, the (semi-) concept of obliquity.

A novel, in Wood’s approach, is able to “make some very strange suggestions” [29], such as, for example, in the case of James, that “knowledge is very often fully available but often unwelcome”—an argument fully developed in Wood’s first chapter devoted to “What Henry Knew” and to what The Wings of the Dove knows. The following chapter which opens on the difference between “to know” and “to know of” engineers a very convincing translation of Barthes’ description of literature as “[faisant] tourner tous les savoirs” [40]. Wood introduces a Nietzschean element in Barthes’ “turn” of language, which he interprets as a dance: literature is what makes knowledge dance, “perhaps makes it dizzy” [41].

Against a historicized approach to the subject, where the term “literature” is taken in the narrow sense it began to assume between 1760 and 1800, Wood recovers a buried, ancient link between literature and poetry. His approach, in that sense, differs from Pierre Macherey’s À quoi pense la littérature? (1990), as it does from Stathis Gourgourian’s theory-oriented Does Literature Think? (2003). It also differs from Walsh’s more recent Literature and Knowledge, by not considering literature merely as reporting on “what happens or on what may happen,” but as being itself "‘a form of lived experience" [9]. Words, not only characters, behave and misbehave. The storyline can be, without great loss, refined out of existence, for, according to Wood, “it is the aftermath of the story that forms my real subject” [52]. As to knowledge, it has parted company with the “hard, cumulative sense” [52] which the word tends to peddle, usually taken as it is in the sense of “accumulated stock.” Knowledge, in Wood’s account, has become coterminous with what he calls the “defense of poetry”—though not in the sense of what he calls the “modern defection,” however, i.e. “the kind of defense of poetry that is virtually indistinguishable from an attack” [52].

One of the “tender” buttons or sore points in Wood’s study, after his very convincing and humorous “Seven Types of Obliquity,” is Chapter 5, wonderfully named “Missing Dates” after one of William Empson’s Collected Poems. This is where poetry and criticism, or literature and knowledge, are actually invited to meet, and yet the reader is somehow left with a sense of missed opportunities, of guests failing to meet, or precisely of a missed date (unless, Empson-wise, one deviates slightly to find a “miss” just beneath the possibly punning surface of the verb to “miss”). In this chapter, Wood devotes time and critical energy to a minor literary form, the villanelle, and to two performances of the form, by Elisabeth Bishop and William Empson. The villanelle provides an example of poetry where form does work, where repeated lines “change their meaning with each repetition.” A close-reading of Empson’s repeated line—“Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills” [145]3—might have unearthed the syntactic ambiguity at work in this particular instance. A taste or touch of Derrida’s pharmacy, similarly, might have helped Wood to cover further lexical ground, and to explore the unstable, reversible semantics of “poison.” Wood concludes, after Empson, on the need to rethink “all grand melancholies,” which is unfortunately not exactly the general impression left by the whole chapter—an impression perhaps due to the simple fact that Empson’s poem does not rank among the best.

Wood’s concluding remarks at the end of this chapter, to the effect that we need to find “an ordinary, uneconomic form of vanishing that wasn’t loss at all” [155], are indeed something to be wished for. From there on, the next step would be to distinguish between this type of vanishing and the forms of haunting found in deconstruction. Derrida and De Man are briefly mentioned in the final pages of the book, but both vanish as quickly as they came. Wood mentions the “weird moral music” his sensitive ear once picked while reading some of De Man’s troubling remarks in Allegories of Reading [181]. De Man operates both as a haunting and vanishing presence, as he returns in the last chapter entitled “The fictionable world,” where he metamorphoses into one of John Banville’s characters in The Untouchableas Vander. Vander becomes, from Wood’s angle, something much less and much more than a De Man body-double; he becomes a “transferred incarnation” [185]. One of Wood’s most enduring responses to melancholy rests, perhaps, in literature’s aptitude for such “transfers,” perhaps another name for “translation.”

Michael Wood’s productive new book comes in the wake of a previous work of his also devoted to forms of knowledge, envisaged from an apparently radically different angle: The Road to Delphi: the life and afterlife of oracles (2003). Like the oracle, the work of literary fiction seems to withhold, to refuse to disclose its full knowledge of itself. It remains, to borrow the title of Banville’s book, “untouchable,” nearly unknowable. Perhaps the shortest road to Delphi is one which passes through Wood’s second book on the subject—taking the form, in other words, not of a relation to “oracles,” but to the life and “taste” to be found in orally delivered lectures at Cambridge, since, to quote Michael Wood’s opening acknowledgments, “there are traces in this book of more conversations than I can count” [ix].



1. Leçon, Paris : Seuil, 1978, p. 21. back
2. John Banville, Shroud, London, Picador, 2002, p. 108.
3. William Empson, The Complete Poems, London, Penguin, 2002, p. 244.






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