in that school of thought to reflect the profundity of thentheorist.nIndeterminacy is the wear. Umberto Eco’s The OpennWork (1962), for example, resolutely celebrates indeterminacynof meaning in literary masterpieces; and in The Role ofnthe Reader (1979) he rejects the notion, once propoundednby Levi-Strauss, that works of art are “endowed with precisenproperties” or “the stiffness of a crystal.” Eco’s open text, byncontrast, does not permit of misinterpretations — only ofncompeting interpretations. No view is wrong: it is at bestnrevealing, and revealing only of the speaker; at worst,nincomplete. No subtlety is to be rejected, no ambiguityndenied. Assertion gives place to symbol, and the critic doesnnot refute claims but welcomes them into an ever-widerngathering of possible views. His most earnest censure, if he isnconsistent with his principles, is to ask of an interpreter tonwait his turn, much as a traffic cop might raise a hand to annadvancing vehicle to signify that it should pause, if only for anmoment, to let others through. The object is continuousnflow. There is no destination to his task, as he conceives it,nand where others are bound is their concern arid not his.nAll that leaves Nicodemus nowhere. It deprives literature,nwhether deliberately or inadvertently, of its power to inform,nto censure and to judge, to subvert or to disturb. Its effectsnbeyond literature may be though another matter, but that isnperhaps to be doubted. It is not always easy, or even possible,nto distinguish critical reading from reading in general, and anhandful of instances drawn from public affairs may help tonmake the issue look grave and the cost of denying the literal,nat times, a heavy cost. In Beyond the Pale (1963), fornexample, a biography of Sir Oswald Mosley, once leader ofnthe British Union of Fascists, by his son Nicholas, it is toldnhow Mosley after the war would shudder at any mention ofnthe name Adolf Hitler, whom he had known personally innthe 1930’s, clouding his eyes and murmuring “terrible littlenman” as he recalled what Hifler eventually did. What Hitlerndid was what in Mein Kampfhe had said he would do, andnMosley had read Mein Kampf. In Politics and Literaturen(1977), I suggested that if poets like W.H. Auden andnpolemicists like Andre Gide publicly supported communismnin the I930’s, it was quite probably because they believed innit, and the derision that nicodemical view was greeted withnwas considerable. Two years later Margaret Thatcher announcednas prime minister to the House of Commons thatnSir Anthony Blunt had been a Soviet spy, and it suddenlynbecame easier to believe that nice young men who had beennto good schools and universities could act, as well as speak, innsupport of foreign dictators. Or again, when in a speech atnHarvard Ernst Nolte of the Free University in Berlin quotednHitler on genocide and, to his own rhetorical questionn”Where have we heard this before?” replied “In the writingsnof Karl Marx,” he was treated as hopelessly naive. “Youndon’t imagine Marx meant it literally?” a Harvard professornasked him incredulously, as passages in which Marx andnEngels advocated mass-murder were read to him. Thennicodemical answer, which is also the right one, is that theyndid.nArefusal to nicodemize, then, has its costs, as bowdlerizingna famous text like Shakespeare or the Bible hasncosts, and it is time and more than time that someone said anword for the literal. The modern Nicodemus is accustomednto being shouted down and outfaced, by now, so he maynneed to be emboldened. He has advantages, after all, notngiven to the figure in my Dutch painting. He is notnconfronted with divine wisdom, merely the dogmatics ofncritical theory. He would have good sense on his side if henprotested that, if all assertions are figurative or ironic, thennno assertion — not even that one — could count at its facenvalue. If, in a card game, all the cards were “wild” and couldnsignify anything, then there could be no game, since anynhand could mean anything at all; just as, if nothing is certain,nthen that too is not. Oddly enough, Nicodemus whennchallenged seldom says any of these things. He has beenncowed; he shares, all too often, the terror of the obvious.nThere have been heroic exceptions. Some thirty yearsnago, for example, William Empson in Milton’s God (1961)nproposed that Milton in Paradise Lost meant what he said:nthat it was, in truth, no easy matter to justify the ways ofnGod, and that the doctrine of the atonement was genuinelyndifficult. The book caused a large ripple, but it is notable thatnmany unbelievers as well as many believers have refused tonaccept Empson’s strenuously nicodemical point. Milton,nthey say, cannot really have meant what he said. ParadisenLost is a poem, isn’t it? And Empson has shown himselfntotally ignorant of the conventions of epic form. Even in thengreatest of English epics, the cards are easily imagined to benwild, and interpretable at will. We are reluctant to be literal.nThe prestige of the nonliteral has led to some odd results,nnot least in higher education.nThe largest result might be called weighflessness, in thensense that few assertions in literature are by now felt to havenweight, and to the point of making a difference to whatnanyone believes or does. They exist, so to speak, only in air.nTo be trained to read, in that tradition, is to be trained tondiscount what one reads, and the armory of critical discountingnis by now a well-stocked and impressive one: that allncharacters — in Shakespeare, for example — are based onnstock types, so that Shylock cannot really be evidence ofnanti-Semitism; that all poems, and not just monologues likenRobert Browning’s, presuppose a dramatic speaker, so thatnT.S. Eliot in The Waste Land nowhere speaks in his ownnperson, and not even, altogether reliably, in Four Quartets;nthat symbol and irony, if not omnipresent, hover eternally innthe background or around the corner; that all opinion isnideology; that all language systems impose patterns thatncorrespond only accidentally, if at all, to the real world; thatnthe real exists simultaneously and attempted accounts of itnonly sequentially, being couched in words, so that the realnalways evades description. It is not an exaggeration to saynthat much advanced training in literature, by now, is trainingnin how to use such techniques of evasion and escape. Thencritic is Houdini, or Houdini’s assistant, forever out ofndanger and somewhere else.nTo argue so far is to widen the argument beyond anythingnNicodemus ever knew. Weightlessness in that style is andisappearance trick; it converts great art to air. When thenlate Roland Barthes called literature “the art of disappointment”n{“I’art de la deception”), he forbade himself, andnanyone who agreed with him, to imagine that authenticnknowledge could ever lie at the end of any critical inquiry.nThat claim may look new, but we have been here before.nnnSEPTEMBER 1991/17n