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This review is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.


The resistance to theory goes deep and far back in the history of English criticism. It has typically taken its sharpest, most aggressive form at times of ideological stress when the values of a native 'commonsense' tradition were felt to be threatened by alien modes of philosophic and political thought. The response - clearly visible in a line of conservative thinkers from Burke to T. S. Eliot and the current New Right - was to set up a mystified concept of tradition as guard against theory and its radical claims. What had to be resisted at all costs was the idea that thought could get a critical vantage-point outside the given context of values and assumptions that made up the national culture. A large role here was played by those dominant organicist metaphors which served critics like Coleridge, Arnold and Eliot as a substitute for actively thinking through the issues raised by a nascent sociology of art. Raymond Williams's Culture and Society (1957) set out to show how these metaphors developed and how deep was their hold on subsequent thinking, notably in the case of Leavis. What they chiefly worked to promote was a notion of timeless human good divorced from all practical dealing with history, politics or any kind of theorythat criticized existing relations of power. The 'organic community' of these thinkers' imagining was a transposition of aesthetic values into the sphere of historical myth. It begins with the Romantic ideal of poetry (or 'aesthetic education') as ...

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