Finally I’m reading On Eloquence, by Denis Donoghue, after several readers urged me to do so. To start with the obvious, Donoghue writes eloquently, with style, wit, clarity, great learning and passionate engagement. As an academic with a gift for words, for whom language is a pleasure and a burden, he is an endangered species. I’ve read only 50 pages, but already I hear echoes of regret:
“It has occurred to me, during the past several years as a teacher of English, Irish, and American literature at New York University, that the qualities of writing I care about are increasingly hard to expound: aesthetic finesse, beauty, eloquence, style, form, imagination, fiction, the architecture of a sentence, the bearing of rhyme, pleasure, `how to do things with words.’ It has become harder to persuade students that these are real places of interest and value in a poem, a play, a novel, or an essay in the New Yorker.”
With more sadness than anger, Donoghue bemoans the extra-literary approach to literature now dominant in universities. He offers “Conrad versus Chinua Achebe – was Conrad complicit with Imperialism?” as an imaginary but all-too-typical and silly subject for literary discussion. He writes:
“These and many similar topics are in high standing in departments of English, but I am not much interested in them, because they lead me away from the literature I care for toward serious issues that are treated well enough by political commentators in books and magazines.”
Donoghue laments the corrosive effects of trendy politics on literary studies. Not even Shakespeare is immune to such bastardization. “What are the ideological implications of King Lear?” Donoghue asks, only to reply:
“But a better question is: how did Shakespeare turn `the quality of nothing’ into King Lear? How did he write the play, and what are the marks of it? These are questions in aesthetics, which point `to a value present beyond any appropriation of it by current utilitarian ideas.’ [quoting Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars] How has Shakespeare worded the play? Further questions I take pleasure in: how does William H. Gass compose a sentence; how did Guy Davenport make a paragraph; how did Yeats find that particular way of writing `No Second Troy’; how did Calvino construct Invisible Cities?”
Along with writing well, Donoghue possesses the critic’s other requisite gift: superb literary taste.