The question of what constitutes literary inspiration has been an obsession, major or minor, of every age. I would guess that the issue is not at all confined to what we can thank Harold Bloom from re-naming The Western Canon. Timothy Clark’s The Theory of Inspiration (another title commanding in its dogmatism) confines itself to this canon, however. Nonetheless, it does not minister to the needs of the pompous Reader Of Literature, as Bloom’s book does. Instead, it gently teases out historical notions and accounts of inspiration, from the ancient Greek lyricists and rhapsodists, through renaissance neo-Platonism, enlightenment ambivalence and enthusiasm, romantic animism/’otherness’ (horrid jargon, but descriptive), modernist and surrealist trauma. Clark ends with Celan and Derrida as, it seems, has literary theory.
Clark makes sure to tell us that the psychological and psychoanalytic studies of inspiration from Harding onward ‘blur distinctions between the arts and the sciences in misleading ways…’ Indeed they do. (By the by, since we are effectively talking about conceptions of the metaphysical, we might follow Clark’s lead and suggest that every literary theorist these days also mysteriously doubles as a qualified psychoanalyst, despite having forgone the training.)
Clark puts his history across rather in the manner of Oliver Sacks’s case studies. Witty Ticcy Shelley’s is ‘a theory of poetry as a “self-displacing linguistic energy”,’ while Coleridge is nearly aphasic in his insistence on the indwelling force of Imagination (and, in my opinion, literary process totally to the contrary). As Clark shows, Coleridge transposes the Jena Romantics of Germany into the English frame of reference with almost too great a feeling for their sense that inspiration is alien. The book demonstrates how this sense of otherness (there it is again) is a vein that runs its course right up through to the present, traumatising modernists and surrealists along the way.
He also fascinates with his account of the transition from an ancient Greek oral poetic culture, to our present, written one. Clark’s implied account of a hidden orality lurking within poetic textuality is perhaps not analogous to Graves’s battle of the trees (where Graves suggests that an ancient matriarchal and overtaken alphabet lurks within the more obvious patriarchal one) in that Clark is sane, but the textual detective work is similar. Both accounts rely on second hand evidence, which is absolutely fine, but of course prohibits being definitive.
Here are my three main complaints (and I want to emphasise that this is an outstanding work): 1), where are the Americans? There is a major interplay between American transcendentalism and the more European phenomenon. Clark gives only the briefest of nods in the direction of Emerson, whose ‘transparent eye-ball’ wafting supra-personally above the hills of New England is hugely relevant. I accept that the man’s beliefs were frequently based in a misreading of Kant via Coleridge, but for Heaven’s sake, he was a member of the American Swedenborg society, and close mates with Carlyle. Then there’s the fact of Whitman’s direct influence on Laforgue (who, I agree, perverted Whitman’s aspirational idealism) and then indirect (re: perverted) influence on generations of nihilists. I could go on. Suffice it to say, there are many interconnections between the American and European traditions from the romantic period onward; 2), despite a stated antagonism to psychoanalytic textual interpretation, the spectre of Lacan skulks insidiously, suggesting, implying as yet unarticulated interpretation throughout Clark’s book. Let us articulate – objet a – there; and 3), when he gets to Celan and Derrida, Clark ceases to be (or, at least, pose as) objective. All of a sudden, we are ushered into the realm of apparently correct theory. This is irritating because Clark’s main strength is in showing us that theoretical writing about the literary process is itself literature, fictive and/or poetic, and therefore subjective. Because of this, we cannot quite pass on M.H. Abram’s mantle.
I’ll end with an appropriately subjective metaphysical point myself. If poetry is merely ‘an event in language’, as in the Derridian conception, I’ll be damned. Heideggerians take note.
Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris