Foucault, in the introductory lecture of Wrong-Doing and Truth-Telling, asserts that philosophy begins in the wonder at being, critical philosophy in the wonder at truth. I’ve suggested that Empson’s criticism begins in much the same place, though it would be more correct to reorient that: he reads literature as if it were produced out of the wonder at truth. That is, literature itself is critical in so far as it wonders that there can be truth in the world; fiction is necessary because truth cannot be accounted for on grounds that are themselves assumed to be true; the poet “never affirmeth and therefore never lyeth” (Sidney) because the poet is fascinated in the way in which truth and lies can themselves come into itself and pass out of itself.
Critics seek to enter into the judgments of a work of literature, as well as the conditions of judgment that get into the judgments of the work. I’ve said that could be taken to mean that they seek to enter into its judgments as well as its awareness of historical orientation and movement, differently understood for different authors and eras. But just as judgment depends on discord, and language casts the shadow of bodily life, the sense of history, or historicity itself, perhaps depends on the truth-telling as a capacity with sources and functions that are themselves different over time.
What I’d suggest here is that we can make sense of the judgments in a work of literature in terms not only of historical self-awareness but also of their fictions of truth-telling, of which they are exemplary as well as towards which they are vigilant—and indeed, language, truth-telling, and judgment are evidently mutually dependent.
Implicit in a work, therefore, is not only a sense of past and future co-extensive and exceeding the bounds of a single life, but also the capacity of a single life to generate truth, as well as be subject to truth generated elsewhere (in the play of power). Formally, literature makes a claim not to telling the truth but to a way of truth-telling that may resist or correct or exemplify ways of truth-telling that are not, as works of literature are, fictions of affirmation and negation; what literature lacks, and other forms of truth-telling possess, is the implicit judgment that binds the way of truth-telling to the truth that is told; the judgment in a work of literature, on the other hand, severs the claim that “this way of telling the truth is right” from the claim that “this is the truth being told,” where truth refers to something that is actually the case.
At any rate, a second line of literary history opens: in the one, these are related to some historical understanding, some sense of the experience of time and history; in this, the second, they are related to truth-telling. In terms of the critics themselves, truth-telling is the other side of Auerbach’s history of styles: how do the low, plain and high styles carry, at different times, the burden of truth-telling? They are implicit in Empson’s work on pastoral and complex words; the figures of pastoral are truth-telling figures and the words are essential to any accounting for the truth. More interesting to me, the thought that works of literature themselves wonder at truth-telling animates the criticism of Christopher Ricks, though he no doubt would not put the matter this way.
Under the influence of Ricks, I once took to writing that a poem contained in it “truths,” only to be told, by a reader sympathetic to Ricks, to avoid all mention of truth, so (naively?) construed. Ricks’ own construal is not naïve but deploying it in lazy imitation can be; better, would be to turn it to face in another direction, to read Ricks not as finding “truth” in poets but in making sense of where poets themselves see truth emerging and how for poets themselves truth-telling is possible.
Some of the best of Ricks’ criticism strikes contemporaries as ahistorical—which it is, in so far as “history” is not itself one of Ricks’ subjects. But if we read about Keats and embarrassment, Eliot and prejudice, Beckett and dying, or any number of shorter essays, we should be able to see how they are accounts of truth-telling as it dramatized, scrutinized, and realized in the fictions of these authors. At the start of Keats and EmbarrassmentRicks takes up Eliot’s suggestion that Keats, like Baudelaire, represented a new sort of mind; one possibility for what that means is that Keats, like Baudelaire, offers a new imagination of how truth-telling is possible, how truth emerges (embarrassment us a crucial angle because embarrassment registers the self-evident truths and norms by which we organize “rightness” in the world, can itself be a sign of deception, can alert us to our own un-ease with another’s “truth” and so on).
For the briefer essays, where the scope is often narrower, it can be helpful to think of Ricks’ starting point as being: before what experiences of truth and truth-telling is this poet in awe or confusion, and how do they make sense of truth as it emerges or fails to emerge from a life world? Ricks, of course, would never put it like that.