Mudrick is nothing if not entertaining--a maker of learned but lurching, untidy yet pointedly deflating literary essays,...



Mudrick is nothing if not entertaining--a maker of learned but lurching, untidy yet pointedly deflating literary essays, frequently very funny; if read aloud, they'd be the sort of lectures given by a highly opinionated, popular English prof--a campus character. But this collection is faintly disagreeable too--because the same ruthless, no-nonsense, anti-sentimental taste that can be so engaging also has some dark, stifling ramifications. ""Life is plural and defines itself against life; life is too emphatic to get lost in the words on a page."" This is Mudrick's appealing premise. So he attacks other academic critics, Parnassian art, piety toward ""the text,"" and any costiveness that denies the body its pleasures--conversational as well as sexual. He likes Chaucer, of course, as well as Jane Austen (her cool intelligence), Dr. Johnson (his unpious wit), D. H. Lawrence (his frankness), and such under-appreciated glories as The Tales of the Genji, classic Chinese stories, and the letters of Van Gogh. He goes after such sacred cows as Jesus: "". . . but suppose it's all a cock-and-bull story and there isn't even a mother hen and there's nobody here but us chickens. . . ."" And Shakespeare--whose ""moral connection"" with Jesus ""is that what anybody else calls love they call lust, and what they call love anybody else having thought about it would call pity . . . a clinical or morbid interest in the lame, the halt, and the blind including for Shakespeare his own precious sensibility."" All this debunking froth is, of course, splendidly raffish. But the limitations of the thought beneath the entertainment are highlighted here--in the book's first section, which discusses historical figures who have made (or would make) better characters than those found in literature: William of Orange and Phillip of Spain (in Schiller, in Verdi); Solzhenitsyn; 16th-century Japanese ruler Toyotami Hideyoshi; Alcibiades; Trotsky. Here, however, while saluting these men of will and courage and realism--Ubermenschen who were stymied by the lily-livered and the over-aesthetic--Mudrick mentions but never stresses that many of these shrewd, intelligent fellows were murderers on a fair-to-large scale. The implication is that people of intellectual maturity and Lawrentian virility (like Mudrick) are grown-up enough to cheerfully accept such realities. And this disturbing blind spot--a dangerous openness to violence and oppression which Mudrick tries to pass off as just aggressive common-sense--seems to color this whole book, casting some doubt on the strong-minded premises which allow Mudrick to be such a freewheeling, earthy entertainer.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981