new left review 59
sept oct 2009
JAMESON AND FORM
here is surely
no doubt that Fredric Jameson is not onlyan eminent critic but a great one, ﬁt to assume his place in aroll-call of illustrious names stretching from Edmund Wilson,Kenneth Burke, F. R. Leavis and Northrop Frye to I. A. Richards,William Empson and Paul de Man. Even this is to limit the judgement toAnglophone colleagues only, whereas the true ﬁeld of comparison rangesmuch more widely. No literary scholar today can match Jameson’s versa-tility, encyclopaedic erudition, imaginative brio or prodigious intellectualenergy. In an age when literary criticism, like so much else, has sufferedsomething of a downturn, with forlornly few outstanding ﬁgures in theﬁeld, Jameson looms like a holdover from a grander cultural epoch alto-gether, a refugee from the era of Shklovsky and Auerbach, Jakobson andBarthes, who is nonetheless absolutely contemporary.To mention the name of Barthes, however, is to indicate one way inwhich Jameson has the edge over almost all of his
For he issurely one of the most superb critical stylists in a largely styleless age. AsPerry Anderson has put it, he is quite simply ‘a great writer’.
Consider,for example, this breathtaking patch of prose from an essay entitled‘Towards a Libidinal Economy of Three Modern Painters’, to be found inthe author’s recently published collection,
The Modernist Papers.
Jamesonis examining what he calls the ‘ﬂat’ in the paintings of De Kooning, bywhich he means ‘stretches of painted colour across which the eye skidswithout so much as raising a ripple’:
You have to imagine, I think, a process of effraction that seizes on the lineitself, tangling it, as in the charcoal sketches, making it shiver and vibrate,shattering it rhythmically into pencil shadings, like so many overtones.Here some inner compulsion of line, some originary nervousness, makesit want to burst its two-dimensional limits and produce, out of its own innersubstance, smears that co-opt and preempt its primal adversary, the brush-stroke itself . . . In De Kooning, line transforms itself, it splays out, fanning