Yvor Winters (1900-1968) combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar but he was a marginal figure, sometimes lumped with the New Critics, sometimes dismissed as a simple-minded moralist. Biographical notes here.
At the height of his powers he wrote prose of marvelous clarity and vigour. Some of his best essays stand as works of literature in their own right, something that cannot be said of very many modern works of criticism or scholarship.
One of his most impressive efforts is the Foreword to his collection of essays In Defense of Reason. Athough it was not written with the deconstructionists in mind, it can be seen as a three-pronged response to them. First, there is his robust sense of the reality of the external world, as one might expect from a man well versed in the system of St Thomas Aquinas (and also a breeder of Airedales). He wrote in the polemic preface to In Defense of Reason ‘I am acquainted, for example, with the arguments which prove that the wall is not there, but if I try to step through the wall, I find that the wall is there notwithstanding the arguments’. This is reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s arguments to prove the non-existence of matter, consisting of kicking a stone ‘I refute it thus’.Second is his insistence on the impact of literature on the world and the moral responsibility that this places upon writers and critics to be clear about what they are doing and its likely effects if they are taken seriously. Third is his attention to the living presence of literature that is achieved by appropriate meter and rhythm. On the significance of literature he wrote:
The power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history…it behooves as to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does and how it does it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important as atomic fission.
One of his missions in life was to combat the flight from reason and moral responsibility that he saw as a major theme in modern literature, under the influence of the idea that literature, like art in general, is a form of self-expression. He calls this the Romantic theory.
The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience…that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely on his impulses, he will achieve the good life.
He argues that this line of argument leads to a doctrine of automatism because it encourages people to submit themselves to whatever impulse moves them at the moment. He also notes a link between Romantic theory and the theories of determinism and relativism. This comes about because Romanticism teaches the desirability of automatism while determinism teaches that there is no way to avoid it. At this point the thrust of Winters argument converges with Popper’s work on determinism and historical inevitability in The Poverty of Historicism.
This essay on Winters was written for an issue of Critical Review devoted to the pros and cons of the deconstructionists.