[KB] TLS on Burke: Beard's Critical Irritation

dbeard@d.umn.edu dbeard at d.umn.edu
Wed Jul 18 14:40:15 EDT 2007

About the review:

I need to sleep on this one, but my first impulse is to agree in a  
very, very qualified way.  That is, this person has read a very  
particular slice of Burke and taking it as indicative of all of Burke,  
and misrepresented Burke in the process.

I'll be the first to admit that late Burke, the Burke in which Burke  
realizes that he is _Burke_ and starts philosophizing about the nature  
of Man, and even some mid-period Burke, has some of the qualities that  
this guy attributes to him.  But I have shoes;  to represent me as  
shoes would be a misrepresentation, to be sure.

In a certain way, I am not sure that our willingness to embrace the  
whole of the Burkean corpus is doing us a favor, all the time.   
Neither here nor there, except that the review draws too deeply on  
books that are in my mind supplemental, rather than central, to  
Burkean studies.  This is the reviewer's fault, to be sure, but we  
should be wary, too.

Burke should be measured as much by his legacy as against his  
contemporaries.  here, the author does weird things, at best:

	"Notwithstanding Burke?s anticipation of numerous trends in literary  
and cultural interpretation, he seems a lesser figure than other  
critics of his age. It is not just that the critics who last are those  
who understand that words alone are certain good, and know that  
criticism is an art. It is that, unlike contemporaries such as Eliot,  
Orwell, Leavis, or Trilling, Burke, for all his progressivism, seems  
an unengaged critic. His writing lacks the ferocity and urgency that  
come from developing theoretical positions in direct response to  
particular cultural and political contradictions. In Burke, nothing  
very much seems to be at stake. There is no parallel to, say, Leavis?s  
abhorrence at the rise of a technocratic and utilitarian society, or  
Trilling?s dismay at the bewitchment of the modern artistic  
imagination by Fascism and other lethal regressions. Though Burke,  
unlike Leavis and Trilling, never held a continuous university post,  
temperamentally he seems a more academic writer than they. He is  
always good-humoured, generous and unpretentious ? but this can come  
across as a lack of seriousness. The recondite interpretive machines  
he dreamt up are rather serene and unworldly devices, and there is  
something boffinish and white-coated about their inventor. In each of  
the four of his contemporaries I have mentioned, one is aware of an  
ideological campaign being fought, sometimes crudely and unfairly.  
Their ideas were weapons."

To call Burke a writer "for whom nothing much seems to be at stake" is  
a profound misrepresentation of Burke -- at least, the Burke that I  
know and love.

The errors of calling Burke failing in these areas is clear:  "There  
is no parallel to, say, Leavis?s abhorrence at the rise of a  
technocratic and utilitarian society, or Trilling?s dismay at the  
bewitchment of the modern artistic imagination by Fascism and other  
lethal regressions."  Clearly, this man has never read my Burke.

To call him unengaged compared to Eliot is to misunderstand or ignore  
early Burke and to misunderstand vehement conservatism in the face of  
cultural environment as "engagement."  Pound was more "engaged" than  
either -- measured by real political activity and by engagement with  
other critic-poets among his contemporaries, to no good.  This aspect  
of the review puzzles me.

I can't puzzle through the motivation for this piece.  I mean, I am  
grateful for it, I guess -- attention in the TLS is a worthy thing.   
But the author is not interested in engaging the books.  He's not  
interested in engaging Burke in his depth.  What is he engaging?

Is the purpose of this essay, at some level, not so much about Burke  
as about American academic culture?  Are Burke and Burkeanism symbols  
for what this guy thinks is wrong with American academic life?  I  
quote from the review below:

"Burke?s relation to the academy, however, was irregular: that of an  
itinerant, self-taught lecturer who did short stints at universities  
all over the country. What partly explains his éclat is that he had,  
in his academic peddler?s pack, an arcane System (systems produce  
explicators, such as Rueckert) which he could take out and demonstrate  
at one campus after another. The System went under various, now rather  
comical, names: ?Logology?, ?Dramatism?, even the ?Socioanagogic  
approach to literature?, etc. Such a living as Burke made was done on  
the margins of academe. Only in America, one feels, with its serious  
faith in the speculative mind ? and seriously rich universities ?  
could such an independent academic career have flourished."

I have no idea what a seriously rich university is, never having  
attended or taught at one.  It does seem to me that Burke is the lever  
by which this reviewer can attack American academic culture, or at  
least this reviewer's misrepresentation of it.

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