KENNETH BURKE, age 84, remains a prodigy of inventiveness, and may be the most distinguished critic of this century.
Burke, this year's recipient of the National Medal for Literature, is so fecund and dialectical a writer that any brief summary of his work is in danger of becoming involuntary caricature. Rather than risk travesty, I will confine myself to a personal testimony of his influence, on the Burkean assumption that any quest for critical stance and perspective leads one back to the problem of terms for order. The American master of such terms inevitably has to be Burke. Ralph Emerson stated the credo for American criticism: self-reliance; Burke, the Emerson of our age, has performed the pragmatic labor of making an American self-reliance possible in literary criticism and in several related fields.
Fifty years ago in his vigorous first book, Counter-Statement, Burke established the ethos of all his work in response to an aphorism he quoted from Nietzsche: "What we find words for is that for which we no longer have use in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking." Burke's noble counter-statement was and is: "Contempt, indeed, so far as the original emotion was concerned, but not contempt for the act of speaking." What Emerson post-structuralists and their American critical disciples call (rather contemptuously) "logocentrism," the privileging of voice over writing, is crucial to Burke's humanistic expressionism. Burke, as opposed to the French theoreticians, shows that a deep concern with language, as a contending force in the deciding of meaning, need not exclude a belief in the centrality of the psyche, of the will, in the agon that is literature.
Writing on Freud, Burke observed that Freud's use of language was both scientific and poetic. In the scientific or reductive mode, Freud uses language to explain (or explain away) the complex in terms of the simple. But in the poetic or proportional mode, Freud charts contending forces at what Burke calls "crossings," places like the one at which Oedipus killed his father Laius. As a poetic critic, Burke teaches us to avoid reduction and to measure agonistic forces, whether as what he calls "ratios" or at crossings. Ratios, in Burke, are formulas indicating transitions between terms, and transitions in this sense are not crossroads, but disjunctions, places where you can get lost but where meanings nevertheless get collected.
And here I locate Burke's strength as a teacher. He has revivified rhetoric, the verbal act of persuasion and defense, by charting some of the missing links between language and action, language and memory, language and desire. One of his fine moments is in the section of "Act" in A Grammar of Motives where he translates Freudian defense mechanisms into rhetorical terms, and then remarks genially:
"We do not thereby ask that modern psychology abandon its terms for terms more apparently 'Grammatical.' Rather, we should ourselves apply such exegesis. For only in this way can we see the true significance of whatever changes may have been introduced into the newer termiologies of motives. It is by such forms designed for bringing out continuities in psychological terminology that we can best locate the discontinuities, and thereby be able to know just how religions and secular, ancient and modern, psychologies do square with one another."
This passage defines the center of Burke's enterprise, which could be called language as the scene of social action, where action necessarily involves not just "outward" events, but a panoply including religious and philosophical systems, literature, and psychoanalysis. Burke's precursors include Vico and Nietzsche as well as Emerson and Freud, all of them great destroyers of barriers between supposed human disciplines and fields of discovery. Like his precursors, Burke is a specialist in the psychic drama of identification or introjection, in which individuals and groups seek both to alter and to stay the same, an absurd but necessary quest if human self-esteem is to maintain itself.
Burke's masterpiece, in my judgment, is The Rhetoric of Religion, first published 20 years ago, and still being developed in his current writing. By viewing religions "as exceptionally thoroughgoing modes of persuasion," Burke helps to complete that demystification of spirituality which is the common factor uniting his otherwise disparate precursors. The terminology of religion turns out to have been Burke's true subject all along. As a student of "words about words," Burke is at his rare best running wild through the orders and disorders of the first three chapters of Gensis. Here the exuberance of a lover interpretation for interpretation's own sake finds full scope.
So personal and experimental a theorist and critic as Burke demands a personal and experiential response. I have never met Burke, but I have benefited by his correspondance and by his shrewd and generous reviews. I am by no means the only critic a full generation younger than Burke greatly indebted to him, but I found his influence upon me decisive just when I needed it most. Struggling with problems of poetic influence and persuasive "misreadings," I turned naturally to Burke as American source, and was refreshed to find both precepts and examples, provender for theory and for praxis. The rhetoric of the academies, ancient and modern, seemed too far away from the actual, human-all-too-human evasiveness and cunning of the strong poets. But the rhetoric of Burke understands the uses of the negative, the psychic modes of disavowal and denial that nevertheless maintain essential continuities with what goes before.
More than this, Burke like Emerson teaches the American critic the critical lesson of self-reliance. Cultural nationalism can be an ignoble phenomenon all too easily, but not as it is encouraged by these sages. To reject the gifts of the intellect because they are not domestic would be as silly as the more prevalent pattern of making them fashionable because they have flown in across the Atlantic. But we, and our writers, are as contexualized in place and time as the Europeans always are. American texts are involved in American traditions, and yield most fully to American modes of reading. And all texts read in America necessarily become modified in that reading. Burke, like Emerson and William James, is now and forever a permanent element in the American way of reading.