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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

A Critical High Light

Monday, May 08, 2006

Anyone believing all modern literary criticism to be as artless and occlusive as the texts it analyses are artful and popular could do worse than to look at Barbara Everett's essay on Philip Larkin in this month's London Review of Books.

Taking the trope of "high windows" from Larkin's last collection, which is named after that image in a poem of the same title, she uses the symbol as itself a window onto Larkin's work and its complex moral psychology. In her study, Everett does as E.M. Forster once requested, and only connects: biographical history with the poetry, late works with early poems, images embedded within poems. But that "only" underestimates the skill of the task she achieves, which is to do as all great criticism can and to convince in its arguments and to widen one's appreciation of the art it scrutinises, through a combination of careful research, empathic close readings, a keen eye for ambiguities and ironies others might miss. She also realises the other potential outcome of critical writing, which is to give voice to what one might not have missed and always sensed, but which even the alert reader is unable precisely to describe. She uses a key adjective that pinpoints perfectly how I have always felt, but never been able to articulate about Larkin, when she finds a characteristic Larkinian humour in the last lines of "Send No Money": "A splutter of laughter, rage, misery, expostulation, acceptance, 'truth.'" That word "splutter" is every bit as artfully chosen as the words of Larkin's original poetry.

As she draws together the web of inferences and influences Everett's essay takes on some of the same qualities of satisfying resolution that are more commonly found in the thriller or detective story. That I feel able, without stretching my point too far, to make that connection between the most populist of literature, and its most prosaic branch in the extended essay, is testament to the exemplary nature of this piece of writing that is more than "only" academic, and which instead assumes some of the qualities of the art it values so highly.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:23 am


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