FEROCIOUS ALPHABETS by Denis Donoghue

FEROCIOUS ALPHABETS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A summa contra structuralism that does not mount its charge until the final pages--by which time it may well be too late. After introducing his small book as intended to examine ""ideological strife among modern critics, a war of words about words, a paper-war,"" Donoghue promptly (and slightly bewilderingly) reprints six of his own short BBC-radio talks; appends his own, often critical commentaries on them; and then, having effectively cancelled himself out, goes on (his purpose still veiled) to declare conversation the best form of verbal communication: ""I think of it as communion rather than communication."" Since writing isn't conversation, Donoghue next discourses on some critics who try to compensate through style: Blackmur, Kenner, Eliot, Gass. How these critics are linked (except by Donoghue's disapproval of what he sees as their eclecticisms and inconsistencies) is never clear; but, no mind, we're already past them and on to ""epireaders,"" the critics who are ""turned toward speech, voice, a personal presence."" An epireader--Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kenneth Burke, Paul Ricoeur--wants to restore the words on a page ""to a source, a human situation, involving speech, character, personality, and destiny construed as having a personal form."" Which finally brings Donoghue, on a wave of contrast, to where he really seems to want to be: at the very antipode of ""epireading,"" the French ""graphireaders""--structuralists like Derrida, Barthes, Paul de Man, Lucette Finas. On these difficult (frequently opaque) French critics, Donoghue is himself difficult but levelly sedulous; his repudiation of structuralism, when it comes, is sure and strong. But except for that one very fine essay, beware: the brief for ""epireading"" is milky (sometimes Donoghue seems to be championing literature as some ultimate form of the lonely-hearts group, the Family of Man) and the peremptory discussion of third-camp critics (Kenner, Empson) is distressingly glib, brief, straw-man-making. When argument finally coagulates here, for all its final tellingness and good sense, it arrives already a little worn and dusty from a noodling, jargony journey that never seems quite worth it.

Pub Date: July 14th, 1981
Publisher: Little, Brown