When the wonderful literary critic Tony Tanner died twelve years ago, Colin McCabe wrote an obituary containing these lines:
The degree he undertook at Cambridge was largely the product of a union of I.A. Richards’s methods of practical criticism and F.R. Leavis’s historical moralism. Both for very different reasons situated English literature as the central discipline for a modern university: a discipline focused on close reading of the canon – the body of English literature from Chaucer to Eliot which recorded Arnold’s “best that had been thought and said”.
To read English at Cambridge in the late Fifties was to have the last opportunity to read the whole canon of English literature. The texts had been agreed for 30 years, the secondary literature was still modest and while history, sociology and anthropology could make contributions to the “central discipline of the modern university”, the questions posed by both theory and popular culture had yet to be articulated.
It’s hard not to hear this as a nostalgic narrative, though the nostalgia isn’t explicit. McCabe seems to sigh as he remembers the days when academic literary study knew — just knew — what it was doing.
Contrast this to the view expressed by Valentine Coverly, the devoted mathematician in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, as he tries to explain how chaos theory and fractal geometry are reshaping our understanding of the world:
The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
(Val’s preference for a time when “everything you thought you knew is wrong” may be shared even by people who don’t think that we’re living in such a time. Neal Stephenson’s fascination with the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in his Baroque Cycle, is clearly a function of his sense that that was really a time when existing intellectual worlds had been turned upside and nobody knew what was coming next.)
An interesting characterological divide: between those who prefer the periods of clear intellectual orientation — more or less what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” — and those who like living in the midst of chaotic upheaval.