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William empson and the common sense of theory

Reay-Jones, Robert. 2007. William empson and the common sense of theory. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.

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Abstract

'As for teaching---I quite like talking to myself in public. The thing is to look at the blackboard or anyway not at the assembled frogs. They can read what you write on the board though they can't understand what you say. If you write steadily on the board and keep up a spoken patter, never waiting for signs of intelligence or making jokes, the hour gets through all right' (SL 40). Thus wrote William Empson from Japan in a letter to John Hayward in 1932. Empson's early experience as an English teacher in the Far East helped shape the formation of his ambivalent attitudes towards the varied audiences he felt himself compelled to address as a publicly-minded intellectual who always wrote in fear of the charges of elitism and solipsism. Yet there is a sense in which Empson was not always altogether able, nor perhaps even willing, to resist the trappings of solipsistic eccentricity. Aware of his own idiosyncratic critical vision, Empson struggled with the social and theoretical implications of the ultra-refined rationalising drive that motivated his analytical concentration on 'the words on the page'. And though as a critic with distinct and highly sophisticated philosophical inclinations, he was not averse to engaging in spirited controversy with contemporary academic theorists and philosophers, still he was also keen to foster a sense of common belonging with the 'ordinary tolerably informed reader', to cultivate a sense of pastoral intimacy with a broader, non-specialised community, the 'assembled frogs' in the classroom and beyond. The resulting tension in his work between the democratic, commonsensical impulse of a publicly-minded intellectual speaking for our common 'social experience' (a key Empson phrase), translating for the greatest possible number, and the unarticulated, elitist products of an idiosyncratic critical consciousness, is the central topic of this dissertation. Empson scholar-theorists have often dealt elliptically with this sturdy resistance to theory by stressing the man's 'common sense rationalism' (Christopher Norris), the 'reasonableness' (Paul Fry) of a 'reluctant metacritic' (John HafTenden) keen to resist the professionalization of Eng. Lit. in its varied 'bother-headed theoretical' forms. Yet both Empson's homespun rationalism and his resistance to theory are shot through with tensions similar to those which structure his difficult attempt to reconcile the conflicting voices of articulate populism and elitist marginality. The recent publication of Haffenden's two-volume biography (OUP 2005-2006) and of his edition of the Selected Letters (OUP 2006), as well as the forthcoming publication of a collection of essays edited by Matthew Bevis entitled Some Versions of Empson (OUP 2007), give Empson scholars and enthusiasts an opportunity to reflect on the ambiguities of Empson's theoretical and pedagogical legacy.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
ISBN: 9781303208508
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2020 08:59
URI: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/56175

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