Wrapped in a Macintosh: The Pleasures and Dangers of Private Criticism
Leopold Bloom on a page of James Joyce’s notes
by Eric D. Lehman
Literary critics are an easy target, particularly for authors. John Fowles put it this way in his novel Daniel Martin: “However justified the criticism, it is always inflicted by someone who hasn’t, a eunuch, on someone who has, a generator; by someone who takes no real risks on someone who stakes most of his being, economic as well as immortal.” Poet Han Shan was even more disparaging, calling critics “a species of pest like the silverfish/that chews through the binding of other men’s books.” As someone often on the author side of the relationship, I might sometimes agree with these derisive comments. But as someone also on the other side of equation, I know that the world need critics, even literary critics. Our ostensible job is to help other readers analyze and evaluate, to explain and enlighten, to shine a light on a dark place. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Criticism must be transcendental, that is, must consider literature ephemeral and easily entertain the supposition of its entire disappearance.” Without intelligent readers, literature dies.
We might generously say that there are two poles on a spectrum of criticism, with jargon-ridden examination of minutiae amongst like-minded people at the “private” end, and with something like book reviews on open websites or television shows near the “public” end. In the middle we might find an accessible public site that delves into analytical details, like this magazine, or a high-quality but readable evaluation like the London Review of Books. I know I am supposed to prefer the public end of the spectrum, but must admit my great affection for the private. After all, I am its audience: a teacher of literature, a writer of books, a reader who loves to uncover what is hidden. Not only do I play detective when I read, I have many times indulged in this type of written criticism myself. It’s fun to show other people how smart you think you are. There are many mysteries that I delve into during my forays into literature, and many others that I ruminate on during odd hours of the day or night.
The inherent danger of arguing about literary bric-a-brac with other scholars has been shouted from the rooftops for decades now, but it is worthwhile to revisit it, particularly as universities increasingly doubt the value of this type of academic criticism, even as incentive to tenure. After all, during the 20th century both the dissertation and tenure systems were transformed to meet the “private critic” objective, and they could just as easily be changed back. Still, the danger is not so much to the career paths of potential PhD candidates or professors, it is that too often we are not doing our job as champions for books. As we spend our intellectual capital and capacities in private ways, we turn readers away from literature and towards other pursuits. We devalue the very things we are passionate about.
Let’s look briefly at one example of this: the “man in the macintosh” in James Joyce’s Ulysses. When I read this book many years ago, I was intrigued, and wrote my own critical essay on this topic, using “McIntosh” to show how Ulysses uses the anonymity of certain characters to create a view of society where the individual’s identity is lost within a nameless, faceless crowd. Other critics have spent the past century coming up with the “final” analysis of this mysterious man, stating definitively that he is the ghost of Leopold Bloom’s father or Christ or death or James Joyce himself. Critics have applied Freudian methodology, existential philosophy, and even chaos theory to the problem. It is an “enigma,” one critic stated, “that needs to be solved.”
Does it? This “enigma” appears only a few times in a very long novel. Leopold Bloom first notices him in the Hades chapter, saying, “Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who he is I’d like to know? Now I’d give a trifle to know who he is.” He is also the unlucky number thirteen at the funeral. In addition, Bloom first says that he himself is number thirteen, making the unnamed man a mirror for himself. This is further supported when the man in the macintosh springs from a trap door in the Circe chapter and says, pointing at Bloom, “That man is Leopold McIntosh.” When Hynes takes down the names at the funeral, the man in the macintosh first becomes his clothing, “McIntosh,” then disappears entirely. This invisibility runs parallel Bloom’s physical and mental presence throughout. The nameless narrator of the Cyclops chapter could possibly be the man in the macintosh himself. In the meta-theatrical Circe chapter, Bloom has the man in the macintosh shot with a cannon, calling him a “dog of a Christian.” And could he be the driver of the streetsweeper in the close of the Eumaeus chapter? There’s not a lot to go on here, but wait! There are other unnamed characters. Perhaps they, too, are like the man in the macintosh…or are the man in the macintosh himself. Thus an interpretation builds. And it is not wrong. It could even be right. But its usefulness is more difficult to see. As one of my English majors, Ethan, said to me, “Things that are celebrated in private criticism are deadly in public.”
Joyce delighted in these sorts of literary games, so we can’t say that he didn’t want us to hunt for meanings and truths. From the 1920s to the 1990s this was the apex of literature: Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Nabokov, and hundreds of others. Accessibility was anathema; only complex puzzles mattered. This idea may have advanced not only because these books were the most fun for specialists – but because they required critics or teachers to act as the priests to interpret the liturgy. Poems that needed footnotes, novels that needed accompanying critical essays, cubist ballets and existential manifestos, endless references, fusions of allusions. It was literature that was undeniably great, but its greatness was often overshadowed by the way it made readers with specialized knowledge feel good about ourselves.
As the 20th century passed by, increasing numbers of teachers, students, and critics found the fun in searching for hidden meanings, in figuring out the games the writer is playing, with some taking the game even further into deconstructionism. And maybe that “fun” is in fact a flaw. This sort of criticism is focused on our own pleasure, our own solution to the mystery, our own happiness at seeing what others cannot. It’s a secret that I and the author and a few other devotees share, a message sent to me a century ago by James Joyce. Unfortunately, all this author-to-critic secret messaging feels a little like the situation of the stalker in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, who knows without a shadow of a doubt that the narrator is sending him signals by moving the curtain. If by figuring out who the man in the macintosh is we are shining a light on a dark place in literature, then it is a very small one, offering illumination to only a very few on a very small piece of real estate.
This property is made smaller and more “private” by the venues in which we sometimes choose to exhibit our analyses of minutiae – scholarly journals and conference presentations. By doing this, we make sure that our critique means little even to the readers of Ulysses, except those few like us, those who attend conferences and read obscure journals, and who will promptly disagree and write our own opinions of the identity of the man in the macintosh. Attending exciting symposia and carrying on conversations in print seem like “public” acts, and are certainly more public than sharing our theories with a bathroom mirror. However, we are too often playing a glass bead game with those who may disagree with our individual arguments, but all of whom agree that the world of books and authors and secret meanings is worthwhile. It is like being a member of an exclusive club: safe, warm, and most importantly, privately contained.
Is that so shameful? I argue with myself often about this, and come up with plenty of reasons to stay behind the academic firewall. After all, that scholarship may filter out to a larger audience eventually, through some more “public” critic’s work. And who can blame us for not wanting to become more public figures? The turtle-shelling of scholars increased during the witch-hunts of the 1950s and continues through the internet witch hunts of today, with pressure from all sides to toe the line. A public critic can lose her job for saying the “wrong thing,” as it spreads like a virus to millions of people. Wouldn’t it be better to test those obscure ideas in a safer laboratory amongst a specialized audience?
Having lived in both worlds, I understand both points of view. Being a more public critic rather than a more private one may be the braver and wiser course. But oh, to be the man in the macintosh and slip quietly through the pages of a book.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his work have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, from Berfrois to Entelechy. He is also the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.