Frederick Crews Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Criticism and the Empirical Attitude: Conversation with Frederick Crews, Professor Emeritus of English, UC Berkeley; 8/24/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor and Critic

So you came to Berkeley. Is that the first job you had, and then you stayed here?

It's the first and only job I've had. My résumé is about that thick. [indicates few pages]

Part of what your work is about is coming to terms with this romantic self and marrying it to scientific discipline. Do you think it mattered a great deal that you came to Berkeley and stayed here, which is a place both for protest and a citadel of science?

Well, the protest was an important part of my life, because I was an anti-war activist from 1965 to about 1970. I ceased being an activist when the Republicans became activists. I figured I could relax at that point. But this happened to coincide with the period in which I was conducting graduate seminars in psychoanalytic criticism, and privately wondering about the basis of psychoanalysis as a system of thought. And it might just be a funny coincidence, but about the time that I reverted to a kind of garden variety liberalism in my political outlook, I also lost faith in this other form of radicalism, this intellectual radicalism that was psychoanalysis. And I should say that psychoanalysis as an institution isn't radical in the least. Nothing could be more Establishment in this country. But in the academy, in literary studies, up through most of the 1960s, it was a very unusual and controversial point of view.

You seem to me to be a literary critic, obviously, but also a liberal and an empiricist. book cover In The Critics Bear It Away, you speak of your concern for "understanding American literature with as few illusions as possible." What did you mean by that?

Well, of course that's a book about what I consider to be methodological dead ends that have been taken from the late 1960s until that book was published in 1992. And it's ironic, because part of that methodology is definitely psychoanalysis. The fact that I got off the trolley didn't slow the trolley down at all. My work had been somewhat influential, but when I recanted it the recantation was not the least bit influential. Psychoanalysis, as a methodology, kept going. book cover Meanwhile it got combined with various currents of thought, from France chiefly, Western Europe more generally, currents that can be summarized in the word "post-structuralist." Deconstruction, Foucault, Derrida, all the rest of it.

By the time I wrote Skeptical Engagements in 1986, I felt that literary criticism or literary theory had become extraordinarily top heavy and dogmatic. That, on the one hand, theorists thought of themselves as very skeptical, to the verge of nihilism. Certainly a kind of epistemic nihilism where they felt that they were taking nothing for granted. And on the other hand, they were relying on doctrines like psychoanalysis that were highly orthodox and full of a priori, unexamined, assumptions. And it seems to me that if you want to do justice to literary art you have to clear away this underbrush and try to look at the works, not only for themselves, but in their social and biographical contexts without all these assumptions.

So in a way it's about the facts and relating them to reality.

I was struck by the several themes of your work that come down to exposing, and I quote you here, "the fear of facing the world, including its works of literature, without an intellectual narcotic at hand."

Yes. I like that sentence. I'm glad I wrote it. Yes, you know: why do we read literature? We read literature because it gives us things that we can't get from any other source. We can't get it from paraphrases. We can't get it from a theory about literature. The writer is out there on the edge of something, trying to do something that is new, that is unique. And if it's a great writer, you owe that person the respect of being ready to respond to that which is new in the work. But all of this theoretical background serves to anesthetize you against exactly that risk.

The second adjective that I applied to you was liberal, in a classic, traditional sense.

You say somewhere, I think it's in The Critics Bear it Away, "I value singular departures from established belief and practice, even when these efforts produce clouded results. The best novelists themselves have been liberal in this sense, courting isolation and incoherence in the hope of making something new."

Yes. Absolutely. Think of Melville, for example. Think of just how deeply opposed he was to the spirit of his own time and how lonely he was. And how many years he spent, really, with writer's block because he felt that he no longer had an audience, and [his earlier] audience had misunderstood him as a kind of popular travel writer. His greatest works could not be understood in his lifetime. But instead of repudiating them, he fell silent, at least as a fiction writer, until the very end with Billy Budd, when he wrote another one of these great, tragic, highly ambiguous works that doesn't toady to anybody's values. It's an expression of his own vision of the way things are. And it's just tremendous.

If you're going to get at that accurate knowledge about Melville, let's say, what skills do you need? What materials do you have to look at?

You have to know the corpus of his work backwards and forwards. You have to know what he read. You have to know the philosophical sources that interested him. You have to know the temper of his times. You have to know the political issues that he was engaged in. You must know his biography, but above all you must learn to catch the way his mind works, to figure out the characteristic way in which he puts thoughts and words together. And nobody can help you do that. It's just a question of you and the text.

So that in a way, your isolation, loneliness, and courage in looking at an author can be said to mirror that author's own courage, isolation, and loneliness in creating his work.

Well, that's a pretty heroic way of looking at somebody just doing what he was going to do anyway. I mean, I've always loved books, and to get paid for teaching books was a treat for me. There's nothing particularly courageous about it.

But had you continued your Freudian studies, in the sense of "doing" Freud as opposed to critiquing him, book cover what you just said might hold true [that there was no heroism involved]. But you had been teaching a graduate seminar on Freud for four years, you were perceived as training future students of Freud, and you completely broke [with that intellectual agenda]. So that is different.

No, that is true. And that is one of the reasons I make Freudians uneasy, is that I have been on their side and thought it over and decided not to be any longer. Which means either I made a correct intellectual decision, or there's something terribly wrong with me psychologically; and you can imagine which alternative is preferable to them.

That's right. Now, the key tool in your journey, so to speak, is the scientific method and your commitment to empiricism in the work that you do. Explain how in literary studies one adopts that methodology and undertakes one's studies.

Well, the phrase "the scientific method" is kind of a red flag. Virtually all philosophers of science today would deny that there is such a thing as the scientific method in the sense of an algorithm that leads us to correct results in our propositions about the world. That was the dream of logical positivism, and it's been exploded. So scientific method in that sense is certainly not what I have in mind.

What interests me is general rationality, of which science is a part. General rationality requires us to observe the world carefully, to consider alternative hypotheses to our own hypotheses, to gather evidence in a responsible way, to answer objections. These are habits of mind that science shares with good history, good sociology, good political science, good economics, what have you. And I summarize all this in what I call the "empirical attitude." It's a combination of feeling responsible to the evidence that is available, feeling responsible to go out and find that evidence, including the evidence that is contrary to one's presumptions, and responsibility to be logical with one's self and others. And this is an ideal that is not so much individual as social. The rational attitude doesn't really work when simply applied to one's self. It is something that we owe to each other. We submit our ideas to each other in a way that enables them to be clear enough, non-contradictory enough, to be accessible to refutation. And that's as true of propositions about literature as it is of propositions about quarks and protons.

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