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Critical materials: Stylistics and the Logic of Intuition; or How Not to Pick a Chrysanthemum

From Peter Barry, 'Stylistics and the Logic of Intution: Or, How Not to Pick a Chrysanthemum', Critical Quarterly 27.4 (December 1985), 51-58. We are particularly grateful to Peter Barry and Critical Quarterly for permission to reproduce this piece.

The article is a response to Walter Nash, 'On A Passage from D. H. Lawrence's 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' also available on this site.

Critics who adopt the linguistic approach to literary criticism believe that their methods enable a reader to pass beyond responses which are merely 'intuitive' and 'impressionistic' to an objective and proven account of the text. Such critics (or stylisticians, as they are now frequently called) have not usually been well received in English departments, and it is often said that their own language is so out of key with the language of literature itself as to suggest a lack of literary sensitivity which calls into question the value of their work as literary criticism – whatever status it may have as applied linguistics. These attacks on stylistics are necessarily seen, according to the reader's predisposition, as either devastating exposes of the hollowness at the centre of literary linguistics, or as further evidence of that incorrigible resistance to new methods which is the hallmark of conventional English criticism: that is to say, such essays seem to do little but confirm and deepen prejudices on both sides.

Moreover, these essays fail to address what should be seen as the real problem, since the deepest failings in stylistics arise not from any supposed lack of literary sensitivity, but from a lack of intellectual rigour. While claiming to pass beyond impressionism, stylisticians frequently fail to argue consistently or weigh up evidence dispassionately. The linguistic scalpel, in a word, is often blunt, and the cuts merely optimistic or clumsy. If it can be shown that there is at least a case to answer in this respect, then perhaps a discussion could be started which would not result in the tediously automatic taking up of entrenched positions, for we all need to know the true intellectual worth of stylistics.

In what follows a case is made against stylistics by using just one essay and identifying in it a series of false premises and false moves which suggest (and typify) weaknesses in the foundations of stylistics itself. But these weaknesses, it cannot be too strongly emphasised, must not be assumed incurable. The new critical approaches are needed (because the old ones are becoming jaded and complacent, and because boredom is inescapable in the course of an academic year unless there is some variety of method) and it is therefore important that they be subjected to constructive criticism. In other words, you will have no reason for reading further if you have never doubted the worth of stylistics, or if you have never doubted its worthlessness.

The essay discussed is 'On a passage from Lawrence's 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'' by Walter Nash (in Ronald Carter, ed., Language and Literature: an Introductory Reader in Stylistics (Allen & Unwin, 1982)), which has been chosen for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that it is an interesting and thought-provoking essay, not a convenient aunt-sally. It is published, too, in a collection addressed to the literary student, not the linguistic specialist, a collection which is certain to be widely used as a course-reader in colleges and universities. Its author, finally, takes a liberal and enlightened view of the language and literature question, rejecting the easily-refuted philistinism which regards linguistic evidence as sufficient of itself in literary interpretation. Finally, it discusses a text which is widely available and brief enough to be set for and comprehensively discussed in a single seminar devoted specifically to sampling and evaluating the stylistic method.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Nash's essay is that it is not about Lawrence's tale 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' but (as its title indicates) about a passage from it. A sixty-line sample-text is examined, the assumption being that this sample typifies the whole, and that it is a self-contained item which has its own structural unity. Given that its methods of scrutiny are so minute and intensive, stylistics obviously cannot examine the whole of lengthy texts, so the excision of sample-texts is always a vital first step. In the case of this story, the actual sequence of argument is roughly as follows: intuitive response suggests that the tale is about alienation, and this is seen throughout in various guises—a woman alienated from her husband, strained family relationships, a housewife uneasy among her neighbours, and man ill-at-ease in his industrialised environment. 'These paradigmatic variants of the general theme', we are told at the start of the essay, 'are explored cumulatively in a series of episodes any one of which would provide a representative stylistic sample'. The implication is that each of these 'episodes' is a separate integral text, or can usefully be treated as such, and this is made explicit when Nash introduces the passage he wishes to analyse as 'one such sample-text, perfectly defined and self-contained'.

This process of identifying and selecting a sample-text provides the critic with a manageable artefact which is then analysed as if it were poetry rather than prose, for he searches out patternings and recurrences which are like those found in lyric poetry and provide him with 'a framework of reference for stylistic features' (p. 112). This transfer of a poetic method to the analysis of fiction is of dubious validity, for it has never been shown that fiction works 'specially', in terms of the verbal patterning of separate episodes. To be more specific, treating passages in a narrative as self-contained units is taking something which is really dynamic and temporal—part of the narrative flow—and turning it into a static, spacial artefact. In reality, without a chapter-break, or page-division, or change of scene, one 'episode' simply flows into another. The episode which Nash examines, far from being 'perfectly defined and self-contained' actually flows without a break from the opening paragraph and then into the exchange between the engine-driver and his daughter which follows. Thus, to imply that readers would agree on where these various episodes begin and end (as if their beginnings and endings were objective facts rather than interpretations) is misleading: the episodes are not indisputable discrete units in the way that lyric poems are, and there seems no reason for assuming that the whole must be homogenous so that any 'sample-text' will provide stylistic data which is representative.

But even if we accepted the division of the text into discrete units, other difficulties would remain. Firstly, Nash tries to show that his chosen passage really does constitute a self-contained verbal artefact by demonstrating that it has a symmetrical structure, but the symmetry he perceives is really an illusion, as I will show. Secondly, Nash goes on to interpret the perceived symmetry of the passage, but this interpretation is inherently and inescapably subjective, as will also be demonstrated. Thirdly, the exclusive concentration on a single passage from the story leads (as would be expected) to a misreading of the whole. Fourthly (and consequently) the claimed distinction between 'intuition' and the findings of stylistics should be rejected.

I will take these points in order and deal first with the question of structural symmetry. It is claimed that the chosen episode can properly be regarded as a discrete text because its boundaries are marked by a symmetrical pattern whereby the ending reflects and reverses the beginning. Thus, it begins with a mention of the engine, then goes on to the miners, then the steps which lead down to the laneside-cottage, and finally the chrysanthemums. Then in the closing stages of the passage these elements are repeated in reverse order—chrysanthemums, steps, miners, engine. Thus, there is a symmetry in the story's 'scenic arrangements', for it begins and ends with 'the lively bustle of the little engine and the shadowy 'passing' of the miners' (p. 103). Initially this is impressive, but if we look again at the passage it becomes evident that a symmetry of 'scenic arrangements' could easily be proven in many passages if we allowed ourselves the licence of silently deleting items in the scenery as Nash does here. The items in the scenic arrangements at the start include the wide bay of railway lines, the colliery, the rows of trucks standing in harbour, the low cottage, the bony vine, the bricked yard with its primroses and the bush-covered brook-course beyond, with the apple-trees and the ragged cabbages. That is the scene which is set and there is obviously no attempt to reproduce it at the end of the passage. Indeed, symmetry can be perceived only if we are at liberty to delete all those items which do not fit the pattern we want to see. Analogously I might claim that this pattern of crosses is symmetrical:


and when asked for proof reproduce the diagram thus:


simply deleting the crosses whose presence would refute my claim.

Nash's essay, though, as well as identifying a symmetrical pattern in the text offers to interpret that pattern. At the start of the passage we have the engine mentioned first and then the miners, while at the end this order is reversed. So the pattern made by these nouns is: engine-miners/miners-engine. Of this pattern Nash writes 'The inversion seems to suggest that industry has the first and last word; machines have greater vitality than human beings' (p. 103). This interpretation is purely subjective from whatever point of view it is regarded, and this too can easily be shown; the pattern engine-miners/miners-engine corresponds to this arrangement of noughts and crosses:

X 0 0 X.

Invited to interpret this pattern, any number of widely-differing responses might be made, of which the following are just three:

  1. Noughts are more important and more powerful than crosses, and this is shown by the fact that in this structure they are at the centre, traditionally the most important position—we talk of 'centre-stage' or of being at the centre of things. The crosses are pushed out to the edges, which we traditionally see as a less important position—we talk of being on the side-lines or of becoming marginalised.
  2. Crosses are more powerful than noughts. The crosses stand at the flanks, hemming in the noughts, as sheep-dogs confine sheep or as guards flank a prisoner. This outer position, in contact with the wider world, is the position of power, while the inner position, isolated from the wider world, is the position of inferiority.
  3. Noughts and crosses are co-existing in a perfectly-balanced harmony. We have a symmetrical pattern in which one side of the structure is the mirror-image of the other. The pattern suggests stasis and interdependence – an image of all that is the opposite to conflict.

To this list of interpretations we might add Nash's, that the pattern seems to suggest 'that 'crosses' have the first and last word', which is really a variant of the second option in the list. I think it is evident that there can be nothing in the pattern as such to justify preferring one interpretation to another. It would be just as plausible, therefore, to write that the pattern in the text seems to suggest that the world of machines will never totally triumph over the human world, since that human world, represented here by the miners, will always interpose itself and its unpredictabilities within the mechanised world. But it is impossible to imagine any way of adjudicating between these competing interpretations, since none is based upon anything but fancy and free association. Stylisticians spend a good deal of their time identifying verbal patterns in this way and then offering interpretations of them, but both activities are inherently impressionistic.

My third suggestion was that exclusive concentration on episodes within a narrative is bound to lead to misinterpretations of the narrative as a whole. Nash believes that one aspect of the theme of alienation in the tale is the idea that 'man is a mere tenant in his industrial environment'. He seems to see the engine as representing this threatening, alienating side of industry, but it is possible to do this only if the episode begins and ends precisely where Nash says it does – extend it back a little and forward a little and the picture is very different. In the opening paragraph of the story, for instance, the engine is seen rather ambiguously, being at first notably unthreatening, in fact a re-assuring kind of machine, huffing and puffing in a cheerful and comically-ineffective way:

The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter.

And immediately after the Nash episode the driver leans out of the stopped engine and asks for a cup of tea 'in a cheery, hearty fashion', for he is the woman's father, He drinks his cup of tea and eats a piece of bread and butter in his cab as she stands by the footplate talking to him. It is difficult to read all this as alienation—indeed, it seems an industry which has been domesticated and accepted into the pattern of everyday life. But this aspect of the story does not appear in Nash's episode, and consequently it does not appear in his interpretation, which is, consequently, a misreading.

I said, though, that the engine, and industry generally, have an ambiguous function in the story, and this is so; the aspect of industry which Nash picks up is there, of course, and it appears immediately after the lines just quoted:

A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black waggons and the hedge.

But this threatening aspect of industry is juxtaposed throughout the tale with the comforting, familiar associations of everyday sights and sounds in an industrial environment. Thus, in the lines which follow we have a description of the landscape through which the engine passes. Much of it is gloomy and desolate – the fields are 'dreary and forsaken' and littered with industrial waste, and the pit-bank beyond the pond has 'flames like red sores licking its ashy sides'. But then we revert to a more homely and integrated impression of the surrounding industry with the 'tapering and clumsy black headstocks' of the colliery in the distance, its wheels 'spinning fast up against the sky' as the winding engine 'rapped out its little spasms' which indicate that 'the miners were being turned up' at the end of their shift. This engine too seems essentially homely and unthreatening and represents one side of industry while the flames represent the other.

If this ambiguous attitude towards the industrial environment is missed then one reads a simpler and much less interesting tale. The climax of the tale is a juxtaposition of these two things, as the dead miner, unwashed, and somehow awesome in his otherness, is laid out in the cosy little parlour, again bringing together the homely and the alien. The ambiguity in question is missing from Nash's accounts of the tale because it does not appear in the episode which (for unexplained reasons) he thinks must be representative of the whole, as if a story were like a sponge-cake and any slice cut from it would illustrate the structure and content of the whole.

I will take one final example of a characteristic weakness in the stylistic method, one which is not related to structure. It concerns a curious habit of treating grammar literalisticly, something which is becoming more and more common in criticism. Nash quite rightly detects in the woman featured in the story a divided attitude towards her husband, that strange mixture of fascination and distaste which is common to nearly all Lawrence's working-class wives. This division, says Nash, is illustrated by 'one fine stylistic touch'. As the mother and child return to the house near the end of the episode the mother 'broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she pushed it in her apronband'. In the phrase 'her hand hesitated', we are told, 'there is a shift of initiating agency from the whole person to a part, the hand, which is treated as though it had an independent will. This device expresses in a very telling way her division against herself, her alternations of voluntary act and involuntary response' (p. 109). This is fancifully impressionistic and betrays a misunderstanding of the way language actually works. The shift of initiating agency from the whole to the part exists in the grammar only and carries no suggestion of the hand acting independently. Consider the following sentences: 'My foot slipped as I was coming down the steps.' If you conclude when I say this to you that I am schizophrenic, because I blame my foot for causing me to fall, I will think you very foolish indeed. Or again 'His eyes lingered on hers and he smiled briefly.' He smiled, but his eyes lingered. Do we conclude that he is divided against himself? Obviously not. Or, finally, 'His voice shook with emotion as he explained what had happened.' Again, to imply that the voice itself is the initiating agency is wilfully to confuse grammar and semantics. If we are to impose such absurdly-literalistic rules upon language we will not be able to understand what the cry 'Look out!' means and regard it as an instruction to open the window and see what is happening in the street, and when the circus entertainer calls 'Roll up! Roll up!' we will conclude that he expects us to turn cart-wheels.

It may be objected, though, that because the word 'hesitate' suggests cerebral activity it is a different case from the ones I have used as examples. I am not sure that it means much more than 'pause', but even so, the fact that, the narrating voice is quite external to the woman makes it seem a natural locution in the circumstances. The expression would only be peculiar if the woman, in relating what she had done, were to use the same locution of herself. The difference can be seen in the two sentences which follow, the first being quite normal, because the speaker draws attention to something he has seen, while the second, in which the speaker describes an action of his own, is definitely peculiar and does imply a disturbing kind of self-division: 1. As he was handing me the parcel his hand hesitated for a moment. 2. As I was handing him the parcel my hand hesitated for a moment. In Lawrence's story the circumstances are as in the first sentence, with an external narrator describing the actions of another person, so that the kind of self-division implied in the second sentence is missing. Thus, even if the verb 'hesitate' is considered as a special case there can be no grounds for congratulating the author on his 'fine stylistic touch', for it is wholly imaginary. Though he uses only one short passage, Nash offers his essay as evidence to 'account for what happens when we attempt close reading of a piece of prose fiction' (p. 113). This essay is offered as evidence that the account, and the stylistic approach to analysis which it represents is ill-founded. Each of its major corner-stones – the identification of verbal patterning, the interpretation of that patterning, the concentration on self-contained sub-texts, and the semantic interpretation of grammar and syntax – is intellectually suspect. Opponents have been so eager to criticise stylistics on what are (essentially) aesthetic grounds that its intellectual failings tend to go unremarked. The reality is that stylistics is too often guilty of the very impressionism it despises. Indeed, the logic of what stylisticians call intuition is frequently more rigorous and more accurate than their own.

© Peter Barry
February 2010

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