THE ARTS WITHOUT MYSTERY by Denis Donoghue

THE ARTS WITHOUT MYSTERY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Against reductionism: a quietly eloquent defense of the arts as ""interrogation""--of society, the human condition, and the ultimate mysteriousness of being. The six chapters of this book are based on the 1982 Reith Lectures, a prestigious event sponsored by the BBC, with amplifications and occasional replies to his critics that Donoghue (Henry James Prof. of English at NYU) apparently couldn't resist adding. Donoghue presses his ongoing quarrel with the structuralists and kindred spirits who want to explain away a work of literature as autonomous, transparent verbal patterns or a therapeutic release of compulsions. The end result of this approach is the trivializing assurance that art is innocuous. But, asks Donoghue, ""If the arts don't hurt, why have them?"" He inveighs evenhandedly against both bourgeois humanism (flabby, self-involved, habitually dismissing transcendence as mystification) and its enemies, such as Michel Foucault, a ""moral terrorist"" who defines humanism as all the forms of discourse used to control and pacify people. Elsewhere Donoghue faults the substitution of labeling for criticism, as in the ritualistic invocation of terms like ""minimal art,"" ""action painting,"" or ""absurdist drama""--the last of which fosters ""the callow notion that life is absurd."" Though he refers only in passing to religion and his own Catholicism, Donoghue's argument for mystery is fundamentally a religious one. And, like his strongly traditional view of the critic's mÉtier (""the discrimination of intelligible pleasures""), his philosophical position is coherent and cogently stated. Donoghue's range of allusion is unpedantically broad; his style--now bland, now tart--is consistently urbane; and he has something to say.

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 1983
Publisher: Little, Brown