There is a painting on my wall that fascinates me.

That is partly because it is beautiful, partly because of the story it tells. It is a large Dutch oil of 1658 by Hendrik van Vliet, better known for his church interiors, and it shows two men solemnly seated at a dark table lit only by a candle—the one speaking from a book under his left hand, the other about to reply. The most probable view is that the first man is Nicodemus who, according to St. John’s gospel, came to Jesus by night. The second man, in that case, whose shadow crosses the wall to touch him, is Jesus.

Nicodemus has been the type of the literal man for two millennia, which is why, being literal myself, the story fascinates me. He is saying that one can only be born once, and he is about to be told that one can be born of the flesh and of the spirit: twice-born, in fact. One day he will help bury his master. In Renaissance English the adjective nicodemical is fairly common, meaning excessively literal; and there is even one recorded use of the verb to nicodemize, in 1624, meaning to misinterpret by failing to note that something is metaphorically meant.

In academia, at least, there are not many Nicodemuses now, and few enough in any literary age. Fame has not brought him honor. Though a learned man and a member of the Sanhedrin, he was never a hero, and his famous objection in the third chapter of St. John, like his help to Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion, assures him at best of a secondary role. The literal man, it is widely felt, is the one who gets it wrong—to be corrected, once and for all, by the seer and the prophet of God. Since the modern critic, at his most ambitious, sometimes aspires to be a seer, anyone who in academic debate denies that an author is writing metaphorically or symbolically is likely to lose points, and “I think he just meant it literally” is not a seminar remark likely to excite much approval. All that needs to be seen, as an analogy, in context. In a secular age the critic’s claims are not to the miraculous but to the hermeneutical; and it is significant that hermeneutics, which once meant biblical interpretation conducted by believers, has long since become the familiar tool of secular analysts who interpret works that, as they imagine, call for no commitment or faith.

In the past quarter-century interpretation of that sort has powerfully invaded criticism from the austere world of Old and New Testament studies—Frank Kermode’s lively and elegant book The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (1979) is a classic instance—and receding layers of meaning, as they are laid bare to view, are supposed in that school of thought to reflect the profundity of the theorist.

Indeterminacy is the wear. Umberto Eco’s The Open Work (1962), for example, resolutely celebrates indeterminacy of meaning in literary masterpieces; and in The Role of the Reader (1979) he rejects the notion, once propounded by Levi-Strauss, that works of art are “endowed with precise properties” or “the stiffness of a crystal.” Eco’s open text, by contrast, does not permit of misinterpretations—only of competing interpretations. No view is wrong: it is at best revealing, and revealing only of the speaker; at worst, incomplete. No subtlety is to be rejected, no ambiguity denied. Assertion gives place to symbol, and the critic does not refute claims but welcomes them into an ever-wider gathering of possible views. His most earnest censure, if he is consistent with his principles, is to ask of an interpreter to wait his turn, much as a traffic cop might raise a hand to an advancing vehicle to signify that it should pause, if only for a moment, to let others through. The object is continuous flow. There is no destination to his task, as he conceives it, and where others are bound is their concern arid not his.

All that leaves Nicodemus nowhere. It deprives literature, whether deliberately or inadvertently, of its power to inform, to censure and to judge, to subvert or to disturb. Its effects beyond literature may be though another matter, but that is perhaps to be doubted. It is not always easy, or even possible, to distinguish critical reading from reading in general, and a handful of instances drawn from public affairs may help to make the issue look grave and the cost of denying the literal, at times, a heavy cost. In Beyond the Pale (1963), for example, a biography of Sir Oswald Mosley, once leader of the British Union of Fascists, by his son Nicholas, it is told how Mosley after the war would shudder at any mention of the name Adolf Hitler, whom he had known personally in the 1930’s, clouding his eyes and murmuring “terrible little man” as he recalled what Hitler eventually did. What Hitler did was what in Mein Kampf he had said he would do, and Mosley had read Mein Kampf. In Politics and Literature (1977), I suggested that if poets like W.H. Auden and polemicists like Andre Gide publicly supported communism in the I930’s, it was quite probably because they believed in it, and the derision that nicodemical view was greeted with was considerable. Two years later Margaret Thatcher announced as prime minister to the House of Commons that Sir Anthony Blunt had been a Soviet spy, and it suddenly became easier to believe that nice young men who had been to good schools and universities could act, as well as speak, in support of foreign dictators. Or again, when in a speech at Harvard Ernst Nolte of the Free University in Berlin quoted Hitler on genocide and, to his own rhetorical question “Where have we heard this before?” replied “In the writings of Karl Marx,” he was treated as hopelessly naive. “You don’t imagine Marx meant it literally?” a Harvard professor asked him incredulously, as passages in which Marx and Engels advocated mass-murder were read to him. The nicodemical answer, which is also the right one, is that they did.

A refusal to nicodemize, then, has its costs, as bowdlerizing a famous text like Shakespeare or the Bible has costs, and it is time and more than time that someone said a word for the literal. The modern Nicodemus is accustomed to being shouted down and outfaced, by now, so he may need to be emboldened. He has advantages, after all, not given to the figure in my Dutch painting. He is not confronted with divine wisdom, merely the dogmatics of critical theory. He would have good sense on his side if he protested that, if all assertions are figurative or ironic, then no assertion—not even that one—could count at its face value. If, in a card game, all the cards were “wild” and could signify anything, then there could be no game, since any hand could mean anything at all; just as, if nothing is certain, then that too is not. Oddly enough, Nicodemus when challenged seldom says any of these things. He has been cowed; he shares, all too often, the terror of the obvious.

There have been heroic exceptions. Some thirty years ago, for example, William Empson in Milton’s God (1961) proposed that Milton in Paradise Lost meant what he said: that it was, in truth, no easy matter to justify the ways of God, and that the doctrine of the atonement was genuinely difficult. The book caused a large ripple, but it is notable that many unbelievers as well as many believers have refused to accept Empson’s strenuously nicodemical point. Milton, they say, cannot really have meant what he said. Paradise Lost is a poem, isn’t it? And Empson has shown himself totally ignorant of the conventions of epic form. Even in the greatest of English epics, the cards are easily imagined to be wild, and interpretable at will. We are reluctant to be literal.

The prestige of the nonliteral has led to some odd results, not least in higher education.

The largest result might be called weightlessness, in the sense that few assertions in literature are by now felt to have weight, and to the point of making a difference to what anyone believes or does. They exist, so to speak, only in air. To be trained to read, in that tradition, is to be trained to discount what one reads, and the armory of critical discounting is by now a well-stocked and impressive one: that all characters—in Shakespeare, for example—are based on stock types, so that Shylock cannot really be evidence of anti-Semitism; that all poems, and not just monologues like Robert Browning’s, presuppose a dramatic speaker, so that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land nowhere speaks in his own person, and not even, altogether reliably, in Four Quartets; that symbol and irony, if not omnipresent, hover eternally in the background or around the corner; that all opinion is ideology; that all language systems impose patterns that correspond only accidentally, if at all, to the real world; that the real exists simultaneously and attempted accounts of it only sequentially, being couched in words, so that the real always evades description. It is not an exaggeration to say that much advanced training in literature, by now, is training in how to use such techniques of evasion and escape. The critic is Houdini, or Houdini’s assistant, forever out of danger and somewhere else.

To argue so far is to widen the argument beyond anything Nicodemus ever knew. Weightlessness in that style is a disappearance trick; it converts great art to air. When the late Roland Barthes called literature “the art of disappointment” “l’art de la déception“), he forbade himself, and anyone who agreed with him, to imagine that authentic knowledge could ever lie at the end of any critical inquiry. That claim may look new, but we have been here before. The Ancients had Pyrrhonism, or radical skepticism, and the Essais of Montaigne once argued that disagreements about God or the gods, down the ages, left the believer with nothing to rely on but an act of faith:

Now trust to your philosophy; after hearing that racket from so many philosophical’ minds, boast that you have found the bean in the cake (11.12).

Anyone on Twelfth Night who, when the cake was cut and handed out, found the bean in his slice became King of the Bean; and Montaigne here, in “The Apology for Raimond Sebond,” implies that the claim to know is as idle as a reveler’s paper hat at a party. His title is empty, he implies, and the joke is on him.

So weightlessness has been here before; and over the centuries the world of letters, like philosophy, has known, abandoned, and readopted radical doubt and the denial of the obvious.

The larger effects of that mood are to be considered. One chief effect of weightlessness, and in all probability its chief motive, is to make life more comfortable. Skepticism only pretends to be subversive and defiant; in truth it is cozy. “Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable” Susan Sontag acutely remarked years ago in Against Interpretation (1966), contrasting it with “transparence,” which is the highest value in art. “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” she concluded, aptly quoting a letter of Oscar Wilde: “Only shallow people . . . do not judge by appearances.” The erotic analogy is striking, and it is certain that one can fall in love with great art at first sight. The lover, in that case, like lovers elsewhere, might reasonably be impatient at insistent demands to tell what he knows, since talk is only incidental to affection. It is the essence, by contrast, of what poets and critics do, and that is the dilemma out of which modern weightlessness is born. The skeptic-critic is not like a lover and cannot be silent. He is right to sense that what he has to say is a modest affair and never the whole story, wrong to assume that it needs to be the whole story. He is baffled, for instance, by the realization that there is no One Correct Interpretation of a work of literature, and bewildered by the discovery that, as George Orwell once put it, there is no argument by which one can defend a poem. Like Montaigne on God and the gods, he is alternately dazzled and puzzled by the diversity of intelligent views before his eyes; and, like him, fearful of the charge of arrogance, or seeming arrogance—of appearing to sit at a critical tea party wearing a paper hat and calling himself the King of the Bean. He wants, in any case, and as anyone would, to be king for more than a night.

In recent years kingship has lain with the skeptics, and that grand old game of more-skeptical-than-thou that began in Paris in the late 1950’s and moved to Yale and elsewhere a dozen years later, now looks exhausted and unamusing. It lacks an audience, and leaves critical theorists talking to one another at international conferences and not always listening. Hence the new mood abroad in literary study, which would like to find itself again. There is now a call for a sure footing and a guide to lead the way. If that call is resolute and sincere, then I suggest it can best be answered by listening first to what philosophers in this century have said. The 19th century is a long time ago. Marx and Nietzsche are not an avant-garde but prophets who looked old-hat to our grandparents, and what Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein have to tell us, especially in their later writings, could make a lot of recent critical skepticism look tired and outmoded. In The Certainty of Literature (1989), in an argument that acknowledged its debt to Wittgenstein’s posthumous book On Certainty (1969), I offered reasons for believing that literary judgments are as objective as any judgments that mankind ever makes, including those in mathematics and the natural sciences. That is an argument that will continue. But the search for a sure footing is one that will need to be pursued with some discrimination and care.

The dangers are familiar. If the search turns into a demand, yet again, for a theoretical basis to literary studies, then it may need to be said again that there is no such basis and can be none, since any theory that claimed to be that would itself need a theoretical basis or represent a fatal contradiction to itself If all claims to knowledge need agreed foundations, after all, then so does that claim, and so would the claim that next offered itself: and the next, and the next. Theory is not a sure footing but a wandering across dark marshlands after a will-o’-the-wisp. Nor is the demand for exactitude a hopeful one, since many truths are indeterminate in their nature and none the less truths, like the limits of a desert or the difference between night and day. Nor is truth always a statement or proposition, still less an agreed proposition, since there is no certain presumption that all knowledge can be told; and counter-instances like the taste of coffee show that much one certainly knows cannot be spoken of or defined. Nor should one tolerate the demand for completeness, since the whole of everything, as Henry James once said, is never told.

All that, if duly pondered, might diminish and assuage a terror of the obvious, and the modern critic may yet outlive his fear of literature, much as the Ancients outlived Plato’s attack on art. But it must be concluded that the terror of the obvious, in the end, is not wholly irrational. Great art really is alarming. It can frighten, subvert, and appall. If the modern critic, by over-interpretation, has striven to render it manageable and conformable, he has at least paid a reluctant tribute to something that is there, and responded, in unheroic fashion, with some due sense of awe. He is like a man trying not to look at the sun: not because he doubts that it is there, in the end, but because he knows that it is and is afraid of what it might do. Great art can blind. “Mysteries are like the sun,” said Donne in his third satire, “dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.” The obvious can maim and hurt; and the modern skeptic, like Plato, has paid it the greatest of all compliments by refusing to look. The next question is to ask what happens when he forgets his terror and turns his face to the sun.