The title of this blog is from R.P. Blackmur, who’s in my personal pantheon of nine or ten great twentieth-century literary critics. “Provisional” is one of his favorite words–criticism being, for him, always a provisional act, an attempt at understanding that is liable to change. Maybe it’s an assumption of all good critics that their words are not the last words, that others, and often they, at a later date, will revisit what they have said to tweak and turn the terms. But Blackmur liked to draw attention to the fact and remind his readers of it.
He doesn’t, I think, need to be taken as defending lazy criticism–as if calling criticism provisional were an excuse for not trying to set matters right–but there is no knowing that will prove valuable to others, what wobbling rocks and fallen rotten trunks will make for the best route across the swamp. And it’s all wobbling rocks and fallen rotten trunks at some point; I’m not sure where the literature comes in this analogy; perhaps the whole environment we walk through.
An Empson approach is required–as often–to make sense of what Blackmur means: he is holding himself between two contraries: the awareness that all criticism is provisional, and the belief that criticism needs nonetheless to be finished, to be made as right, as solidly realized, precise, and perfected as possible if it is to serve as a stone for anyone at all.
To raise myself to still loftier heights, there’s a wonderful moment in Proust’s Recherche, the second volume, when the Narrator tells us of his discovery that a youthful momentary lapse of decorum, his nearly leaning in to kiss the hand of the arid aristocrat and diplomat M. de Norpois, has been remembered and recounted by the diplomat years later–embarrassment cedes to hopeful optimism: there is no knowing what acts, what events will perish, which will remain; most do perish–this he concedes–but a list of names from an archaeological dig in Ancient Egypt (I think) reminds the Narrator that, against odds, there are some things that, even after being lost, or seemingly wasted, will be rediscovered.
It’s a version of the thought at the end of Middlemarch, where Eliot insists on consoling us with the vision of Dorothea’s undetected acts diffusing themselves widely, fostering good in the world. Proust is more honest than Eliot, and more surprising (there’s no drumroll, but instead he arrives at the thought as if by chance, appropriately; and it is occasioned by flitting embarrassment over a minor social trip), but they are alike in their sense of time stretching forward and unexpected preserving as well as destroying. Empson was attuned to it, too, in his beautifully imaginative work on pastoral and the waste of life, in his poetry–as was one of Blackmur’s critical masters, Eliot, of course.
What does this of this loftiness have to do with provisional criticism–not here, even, but in general, in its bearing even on critics like Blackmur who have and will held up? Well, accepting that criticism is provisional might lead one to care too little–to surrender to the belief that time wastes all. But the potential for critical revision, change, destruction, loss, oblivion, can be held against the prospect that time is also a great restorer, redeemer, and even conservationist–given the chance of this, one ought to make any and all of one’s acts in time as perfect and finished as possible. They stand a chance of mattering simply because they do happen in time. The point is one never knows. So why not. Presume not, one was damned; despair not, one was saved.
And so this whimpering little whelp of a blog: casting out words and thoughts–or not casting out, but sending forth–both in the comfort that, being a blog, there is space for thoughts and phrases of all shapes and sizes, some more provisional than others, and also in the somewhat ponderous belief that it’s not entirely a waste to send these thoughts out into the ether, that I might as well try to shape them, finish them as well as I can; they can be provisions–good or bad, tasteless or savory–for whoever happens on them.