FEBRUARY 12, 2017
THE CRITIC and scholar Angus Fletcher died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on November 28, 2016. He was, at the time of his death, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Lehman College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Fletcher was the author of the groundbreaking Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (1964), and followed this with a series increasingly brave and speculative volumes of literary and philosophical thinking, including The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser (1971), The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton’s “Comus” (1972), Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature (1999), A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (2004), and finally The Topological Imagination: Spheres, Edges, and Islands (2016). What follows is a series of memories and appreciations of Angus Fletcher as writer, friend, and teacher.
— Kenneth Gross and Lindsay Waters, editors
V. N. ALEXANDER
As a graduate student, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the complexity of Angus Fletcher’s thinking. In class, I was not always able to ride Angus’s train of thought, instead I had to chase it down like a clown at the pump cart, sometimes lucky enough to catch up at the next station where I threw myself on just as it was pulling out again. However, confusion, I now realize, may be a greatly underrated tool of learning. When you don’t know something, you enrich the mental space it should occupy with all the possibilities supplied by the context.
Angus taught us how to acquire an aesthetic knowledge of the world, an ability most Americans are in great danger of losing. This will be disastrous, not because without knowledge of poetry we make less impressive dinner guests, or because poetry is necessarily uplifting to the human spirit or because poetry provides good mental hygiene through safe play and harmless transgressions. These hopelessly vague and ultimately meaningless ideas are trotted out and paraded around as the “reasons” why we need literature, but they just aren’t convincing. No wonder budgets are cut for the arts. No wonder literature sales are down. No wonder students of literature have gone over to marketing and advertising.
Angus understood why we need literature. If the world is as complex as a poem is, and we don’t have a sense of complexity, then we will not make sound decisions in politics, business, or science. If we regularly exercise the mind with poetry, we are less likely to try to paraphrase the world and call it knowledge of the world.
V. N. Alexander, novelist and philosopher of science, is the author, most recently, of Locus Amoenus and Trixie. She is a Public Scholar at the New York Council for the Humanities and a director of the Dactyl Foundation.
When I began my undergraduate education at Columbia in September 1965, I knew next to nothing. I was 18, and I had spent my years in high school cranking out dozens of short stories and poems, already convinced that it was my destiny to become a literary man (poet, playwright, or novelist — to be determined later). But even though I had read a fair amount for someone my age, I had read nothing written before the 19th century. Yes, I had plowed my way through Ulysses over the summer and had anointed Joyce as my number one novelist-hero, but I had yet to read a single line of Homer’s Odyssey. Which is to say: I still knew next to nothing.
One of the best things about the Columbia program was the Great Books course all freshmen were required to take, Humanities I. Not only was Homer on the syllabus, but the first semester also included works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Virgil, and others. As luck would have it, my professor for that course was Angus Fletcher. As luck would also have it, the required freshman composition course could be waived for students who had scored above a certain number on the Advanced Placement exam. For those of us who had achieved the magic number, there was a substitute literature class that we were supposed to take: one semester examining a single work in exhaustive detail. In my case, that work was Tristram Shandy. And, as luck would have it, my professor for that course was also Angus Fletcher.
Imagine an 18-year-old know-nothing boy plunging into the alien waters of Homer and Sterne with Angus Fletcher as his swimming instructor. Imagine sitting in two different classes seven hours every week for an entire semester and listening to that man talk. If you listened carefully (which I did), it was bound to reconfigure the molecules in your brain.
He had just turned 35 — an extremely youthful 35 — and he resembled no other teacher I had ever had. Not because of his erudition, which was vast, and not because he looked upon his students as fellow seekers on a life-long quest for understanding, but because of the quality of his mind. Unlike most professors of literature, his aim wasn’t to master texts or crack codes or come up with definitive answers but to ask good questions — and sometimes even the right questions.
It was never clear to me whether he prepared for the classes or not. Certainly he knew the material inside out, certainly he had given some thought to the book or passage we would be discussing that day, but there was an improvisatory quality to his teaching that kept us all on our toes, as if his sole purpose was to think out loud in front of his charges and lure us into a conversation about things none of us had previously thought about. A lanky blond with a shock of hair hanging over his forehead, there was something rumpled and bumbling about him as he mused and pondered and muttered his witty asides to the dozen of us sitting in the room, a certain Jimmy Stewart aura emanating from his person, an undogmatic American charm that seemed to amplify the brilliance of his intellect. He could range far and wide, and he could dig deep, and whenever he zeroed in on a particular detail of a particular text, what a pleasure it was to watch him pull out a slender thread and expose it to the light, patiently pulling and pulling until the whole work began to unravel and then gradually reknit itself into a different form. He made thinking an adventure. He made books the very bedrock of what it means to be human.
Columbia was all boys back then, and nearly all of us smoked non-stop through the classes. The Humanities course met at 9:00 a.m. for two two-hour sessions a week at the Casa Italiana on Amsterdam Avenue. One cold December morning, as we sat there huddled in our overcoats puffing away on our Luckys and Camels, the room became so dense with smoke that Angus paused, looked out at us with an amused expression on his face, and said, “I sometimes wonder if this is a classroom or a tavern.”
Dear Angus, wherever you are now, you know as well as I do that it was both: Fletcher’s Tavern for the Improvement of Young Minds. More than 50 years later, it is still standing.
Angus Fletcher was my close friend from September 1951 until his recent death. When I consider my own work as a critic, I realize again how much he goes on teaching me. His major books include Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode; The Prophetic Moment, a study of Edmund Spenser; and The Transcendental Masque, on Milton’s Comus. Fletcher went beyond these extraordinary achievements in Colors of the Mind, essentially an analysis of poetic thinking. Greater work followed in A New Theory for American Poetry, centering upon Walt Whitman and John Ashbery. In his final phase, Fletcher turned to Shakespeare, in two books exploring the affinities between the greatest of poets and the scientific imagination.
Angus Fletcher was an authentic Renaissance magus, akin to Bruno, and to Vico in a later age. Like them, he was a curious universal scholar, endlessly breaking the new road for literary criticism. I learned from Fletcher how to apprehend the daemonic element in poetic imagination. For a lifetime, I have been a student of the Western Sublime, consciously in Fletcher’s wake. When I read and teach Milton, Angus is always by my side.
I think of Fletcher as the true theorist of all Western poetry. He is a burning fountain and will not go out. His pure spirit, like Shelley’s, scatters sparks from the unextinguished hearth of his thinking.
Ultimately what Angus taught me was that the poetic imagination is a holy fire. When I read, in Fletcher’s ongoing spirit, I channel him, and gather again the vision of transcendence.
Harold Bloom’s most recent books include The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible and The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime. He is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.
Back in 1973, I was a visiting professor at USC with a long commute, and one day I got home late to find my wife and daughter not missing me at all because they were being entertained by Angus Fletcher who (he told us) had driven across the country and was just stopping by to say hello. Another time Angus came to give a talk at Johns Hopkins and told that same daughter, and only her, that he had left his prepared lecture in the bathroom of the Washington train station. (He gave it anyway.) That was Angus, fey and magical and utterly irresistible; he seemed to float through life on gossamer wings, never quite touching down on the mundane ground on which the rest of us walked. But he did touch down in his scholarship, which was (and is) rock solid and a great deal more: it is wise, far ranging, deeply incisive. The link between it and Angus’s personality is the light grace with which he offers his massively documented analysis of more texts than most of us have ever heard of, never mind read. This is particularly true of his masterpiece Allegory, which, many years after its publication, remains the indispensable account of its subject. Rarely does anyone get to say the last word on a major genre, but he did. No one can take his place.
Stanley Fish is Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. His most recent book is Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution.
Angus Fletcher wanted people to feel what is most blunt and strange in the life of literature, in how literature gives form to life. He wrote about the abstractions of allegorical fiction as visceral things, shapes of human compulsion, or as “daemons,” wild but embodied spirits — talking as if he knew such creatures well, knew how they lived and how they lost their lives. He described how literature shows us the world as both ordered temple and chaotic labyrinth, and made you feel how each could be both a home and a place of exile, and then the power of living just at the threshold between temple and maze.
I remember talking with him once about the ghost in Hamlet, that creature who describes a listener’s hair standing up fearfully, “like quills upon the fretful porpentine.” Only a ghost would talk that way, Angus insisted, with a curious smile. Such uncanny words were the “natural language of ghosts.” He spoke as if he himself had talked with such creatures in the natural course of his life, and knew well the sound of them. He wrote once about “the ghostly operations of thought, whose source, as thought, appears to be lodged in the tissue of individual life.”
I remember a late-night phone call in which he talked about laying down the coiled lines of a drip system under the earth of his garden in the high desert of New Mexico, a work he did with his own hands. That system became, as he described it, its own kind of wonder, also an image of thought. I pictured the buried water-lines as a nourishing, labyrinthine script, like that page of twisted plot lines offered up in Tristram Shandy (a book he loved). Angus fed the minds of friends and students in unpredictable ways, often by pointing out unpredictable words and objects around us, wonders hidden in plain sight.
I remember his talking with fascination about the Highland Scots from whom he was descended, women and men who made their home in that stark, always changing landscape. He liked pointing out that Robert Louis Stevenson, great romancer and traveler, came from a family of Scottish engineers who specialized in building lighthouses on the most dangerous, storm-ridden coastlines.
In later work, thinking about how we imagine earth, and our earthly fate, he grew fascinated with another edge or threshold: the horizon. It is a line that we both find and make, a living thing. It helped him describe how, in poets like Clare and Whitman, the mind tries to compass its own limits, to compass both its own world and a world outside of which it is yet a part, the world of other creatures, voices, landscapes, and weathers. He saw these poets — indeed, all of us — always making, bending, and breaking circles, drawing and redrawing the horizons our minds pursue, the circumference of our fears and dreams.
Marking horizons, he wrote, “is sometimes a hard business, calling the ship to reach the impossible edge of a dull, leaden shadow line.” But the horizon is also “always only a phenomenon of beckoning promise, reminding us that we are encircled by our own ignorance, even as we are protected by the circle of our tentative knowing. Finally, horizon carries us outside of ourselves, yet keeps our feet on the ground.”
Angus was himself a horizon, always in motion, yet stopped somewhere waiting for you.
K. J. KNOESPEL
The following quote from I. A. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism represents Angus Fletcher’s impulse to scholarship and world citizenship:
The mind does not shy away from anything, it does not protect itself with any illusion, it stands uncomforted, unintimidated, alone and self-reliant.
The urgency Angus Fletcher brought to his book on Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare led to our detailed phone conversations on early modern science. These conversations continued when we met in Albuquerque, where the Flying Star Diner became a setting for discussion about Newton and allegory. Our wonderful conversations showed how he refused to be confined or hemmed in by any prevailing mode of theory or notion of historical epochs.
His daring to cross boundaries was encouraged by his Harvard professor, I. A. Richards, too often fixed in a role as “New Critic.” From Richards, Fletcher learned to think synesthetically. Fletcher’s many books concentrated the impulse for border-crossing into mapping of new territory or rendering visible something present all the time. For Fletcher, it was essential that science be part of our discourse about language. His work warns that a feeble knowledge of science on the part of humanists contributed to weakness in the study of language and literature.
While he valued historical research on allegory, his own work articulated an impulse to allegoresis that extended beyond its classical, medieval, or early modern practice. Historical scholarship was an invitation to expand the dimensions of received understanding. Invitations came from multiple sources, i.e., Sidney’s In Defence of Poetry (cited in both Allegory and Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism): “But poetry acts in a diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.” Fletcher’s scholarship still carries a forceful admonishment to cross borders, and to ask with urgency about such unapprehended combinations of thought.
Angus spent most of his childhood sailing the coast and walking along the shores of Long Island’s east end when the Hamptons were still inhabited by small, local populations, the houses not second homes for the rich. It was the edge of the sea, the richness of its life amid the ceaseless metamorphosis and intermingling of water and land that formed his imagination. In his teaching as in his public lectures, Angus was dazzling, articulating insights as they came to him in a style so fluid, so possessed by motion and change, that you could feel his obvious mastery happily yield to the pulse of mutability.
In his last published work, the speculatively daring The Topological Imagination, Angus persisted in pondering the realm of edges and boundaries, the shifting perceptions of shape and scale that these necessary, fictional demarcations created. He considered that topology, through its procedures of deformation — the twisting, bending, and stretching of its tropes and transformations — was in essence a mathematics of quality not quantity: a kind of poetic intrusion into the world of numbers that offered a way of thinking through our new global consciousness, the result of technology that has forced us for the first time to fully inhabit the roughly spherical surface of our planet, itself a shape without edges.
It was poetry — the mind of the poet, poetry as a way of thinking — that to Angus was at the heart of literature, and of central importance to a world of permanence in change. Indeed, much of his unique work can be read as a wonderfully varied, learned, and profoundly idiosyncratic defense of poetry in the interests of life.
For all the abstract play of his thought, the wide, sometimes esoteric range of his learning, Angus loved nothing more than Whitmanian leaning, loafing, and observing. He never lost touch with the physical world of nature, or with what he called the tra-la-la of poetry. Nor did he ever doubt the elemental power of the delight it offered. He told me once of a public speaking competition in which he defeated William F. Buckley when they were undergraduates at Yale by cheating.
“Cheating?” I asked.
“I read Yeats,” he told me. “I wrote the speech so I could quote from the poems, and what could he do after that?”
I first encountered Angus Fletcher as a person rather than an author when Lindsay Waters, our mutual editor at Harvard, pressed him into service as a reader for my book The Secret Life of Puppets. Unfortunately a computer glitch — I suspect Angus suffered a lot of them — had erased large portions of his report, as he rather grandly informed us without bothering to recreate them, but he provided what was left along with some inscrutable notes and jottings. (The sole negative one: “Imagine putting Ficino and Pico della Mirandola in the same sentence!”) But I clearly recall his acute understanding of what I was trying to do in that peculiar book and the generous enthusiasm he displayed for it.
A few years later Angus was installed as a Getty Fellow in Los Angeles and he invited me down to participate in a two-day conference. His age, passion, and overall maverick nature made him stick out like a sore thumb in this setting. He and Michelle, his wife and beloved partner in crime, whispered gleefully that they were staging a revolt among these buttoned-up, career-oriented young art historians. The outcome of this revolt I do not know.
Like his other partner in crime Lindsay Waters, Angus was a teen talker on the telephone. It pleases me to picture the marathon gabfests they must have indulged in over the years, the rich exchange of ideas, gossip, and magpie free association that helped fuel Angus in achieving the amazing creative outpouring of his final years. Few scholars can boast of such productivity in the prime of their life, let alone their 70s and 80s.
“Humdinger” is one of those old-fashioned slang words Angus relished using. In August of this year, I sent him a photo of the magnificent English garden in the backyard behind my flat in Highgate, London, while on the Guggenheim he helped me get. “This is what I’m enjoying thanks to you,” I wrote him. (He had confided to Lindsay: “I wrote her a humdinger of a recommendation!”)
Angus. The humdinger.
Victoria Nelson is a writer of fiction, criticism, and memoir. Her most recent books are The Secret Life of Puppets and Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.
Many years ago, in composing a letter in support of his nomination to Distinguished Professor, I observed that had we in the United States the designation “National Treasure” as they have in Japan my candidate would be Angus Fletcher. In my now quite long professional career within and without the university I have yet to encounter another individual so deeply and broadly informed whose full attention was given to the shapes and strains of thinking as it moves along the horizon where it meets imagination.
The very first lecture I heard Fletcher give, some time in the mid-’70s, was devoted to the line of this activity which he then described as the “liminal,” taking into account its derivation from the threshold area of a temple designated by the ancients, the limen, where those who were about to invoke the gods with sacrifice purified themselves through incantations. His last book, in typescript at the time of his death, is concerned with what the physicist David Bohm has called the “implicate order,” the invisible but actual trembling power in which we and all are enfolded, recognizing only its edges and points in the shapes of things we call real.
The consistency of his address to what is, finally, the most essential of our activity as humans, drawing out of what is not what is, could not be more needed than it is now. Those of us fortunate to have been in his presence witnessed, in following his words, what thinking looked and sounded like. Those following his words in print will invoke the presence of his spirit in the liminal space of the page.
Joan Richardson is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and American Studies at The Graduate Center CUNY. She is the author, most recently, of Pragmatism and American Experience and The Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein.
Angus Fletcher was an inspiration to me, an encouragement, and a friend. This last February, he confided, “I have been writing a strange essay on Whitman and the Wave/Particle Duality, if you can believe it!! but it does explain partly how he did it.” He asked me from Albuquerque what I was working on, and I gave him a little annotated list, signing my email back (our last communiqué): “Topologically (sorry I couldn’t resist).” The reference was to his last book, The Topological Imagination, which I described, in a blurb I was flattered to give, as, among other things, “an incitement to poeticize,” adding that, “Like his master figure, the sphere, Fletcher wraps up what was never really apart.” I think some of this feeling applies to my feeling for him personally, a connection of solidarity-in-difference, the category-connection, generation-spanning, discipline-combining kinship of intellectual work that gravitates toward the literary but is not confined to it.
I was a bit of a gumshoe in teasing out little fillips of Angus’s interaction with the currents of French thought that would become continental philosophy in its literary critical mode. After having heard of the rumor that he punched Jacques Lacan, I eventually asked him about it. The rumors of his clocking Lacan were, he indicated, much exaggerated, saying the attack was only verbal and in French; a swearing jag, at a conference in Maryland, in part precipitated by Lacan’s claim that the unconscious was like Baltimore at 4:00 in the morning. But Angus then admitted (and perhaps without the arrogance that had motivated his flurry) that, upon returning to his hotel room, and looking out the window in the wee hours of the morning, he had to admit that Lacan had a point.
Unapologetically recondite, inspiringly interdisciplinary, fiercely intellectual, humble yet rebellious, rigorous but kindhearted, a voracious reader and synthesizer of texts — such were the qualities that attracted me and kept me attracted to the figure and person of Angus Fletcher.
Angus held sacred what he called “diurnal knowledge.” Looking to journée’s roots in diurnum, thinking of sundowns, Joseph Conrad, via Angus, comes to mind: “A Landfall might be good or bad.” Now Angus has made Landfall, his daily path and toil at an end. He has left us with a shelf of his books, each of which sends us on to more thought, more reading — enough to fill many more journeys, whole lifetimes, of days.
His early studies of Milton and Spenser, his classic work on allegory, his thoughts on Renaissance cosmology, and the visionary works of his late career, Colors of the Mind and The Topological Imagination, all form a coherent whole, for in everything he wrote Angus was preoccupied by the integrity of forms, even as they underwent motion and change.
Always taking pains to distinguish between organic coherence and a mechanistic conformity, he rejected too-ready — indeed, allegorical — answers. He searched for a capacious, unresolved fit between the complexity of environments, the myriad differences between individuals, and the shapes of art.
In a letter I had from him a few years ago, he described his “love for the poetic enterprise, for creating and recreating its structures and tones, its architecture,” and he explained that, from his perspective, “the heart of the matter is I am always wondering out loud what visions we humans need, for the better survival of the species.”
He was an American improver, but little interested in the “better” on a small scale. Scaling up to the cosmos was Angus’s specialty, and it was the mere possibility of yoking human making to human values — the verum factum principle he took from his beloved Vico — that excited him.
In his book that has meant the most to me, A New Theory for American Poetry, he writes: “Horizon promises neither beginning nor end, but only the growing awareness that by describing a circle one has reached beyond the idea of either beginning or concluding.” Angus was a restless explorer of edges, shores, and infinite lines; he would not settle for settlement. He was a thinker suited for the New World and he embodied a spirit of the new that has yet to arrive.
Susan Stewart is a poet, critic, and translator. She is the author, most recently, of Cinder: New and Selected Poems and The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making. She is Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities and Director, Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University.
When I came to the Harvard University Press in 1984 — after finishing my PhD in 1976, and after a stint at University of Minnesota Press — among the first things I did was check the editorial files on the chance there’d be a file for Angus. He’d earned his PhD at Harvard under the guidance of “Doc Richards,” as he always referred to him, sounding respectful in a very old-fashioned way. He’d been one of the few, if not the only English PhD student who had managed to work with Richards, because the English department at Harvard forbid any student to study with him; they refused to acknowledge this superstar of literary studies who had been forced upon them by a dean convinced that Harvard students should learn about the “New Criticism” that was all the rage in the English departments worldwide, except Harvard. Criticism, which Richards represented, was never going to find a place in a department dedicated to real scholarship. Their bullheadedness was matched and beaten by Angus’s determination to study with Doc Richards.
Now that he has passed away I feel I am coming to know him in a new way. When I dug into that file, I discovered that he had submitted the dissertation to Harvard, and the press had turned it down. The reason they turned it down was what made me angry. The killer review of the book was a long, detailed, supremely reasonable review by the scholar who had the most to lose if Angus’s book came out in glory from Harvard. Angus always criticized my tendency to moralize everything. But it was my moral outrage at the injustice done to him at the hands of my unsuspecting predecessors at the Harvard Press that made me determine to right this wrong, if I could. A murder mystery needs to be written …
So I planned to meet him, and we did meet for a coffee at the old Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York. I felt I was meeting J. D. Salinger or one of the Glass Family. Or Coleridge. Or Aschenbach or Tadzio — if he ever paused to let someone approach him — from one of Angus’s favorite movies, Death in Venice.
In no time, Angus put together his book, Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature. What I did not know was that Angus had met his wife in Berkeley in 1989, and he’d been, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say, reborn intellectually. I was lucky: I connected to him when he was ready to think about books with a new determination.
He became productive, very productive, when he caught his second wind, all the while railing about how the neoliberal (a word he never used) university was encouraging mindless production of readerless publications. I influenced him by finding ways to get him to write and thereby exercise his imagination, and he influenced me to think about my work as a publisher. I, too, had a second career after I met him. At Minnesota, I published literary theory. At Harvard, I worked intensely with a theorist and really learned what theory was. I happily transitioned from the frying pan into the fire. He had thought deeply about the damage being caused to the academic world by the empty focus on numbers. This became a main theme of my Enemies of Promise. But adjacent to that was what I learned seeing Angus, a person who had so much to say, but had become unable to say it thanks to witnessing the wild and obscene proliferation of numbers of books and essays.
Our constant topic was the necessity to revive the appreciation of poetry and aesthetic theory against the tide of moralizing that substituted for critical thought. He showed me how criticism had to be rooted in feeling. When I say show, let me show you what I mean. I was writing an essay to attack a book I thought was a piece of pseudo-theorizing, the kind of thinking Angus had labeled the “barbarism of reflection, the curse of a sophisticatical, depleted rationality.” The book I was trying to attack was Walter Benn Michaels’s The Shape of the Signifier. I was trying to attack it by coming up with ideas to counter the book’s sophistry, but I felt I was missing my target. I called up Angus several times to ask him to commiserate with me. I called and talked and we got nowhere. I was getting frustrated. He was listening. Finally he said to me, “How does reading that stuff make you feel?” Why do you ask me? I told him. I refused to answer his question, but he kept repeating it to me. Finally, I said, “It makes me angry.” And he said, “Good. We are getting somewhere. In dealing with complex things, you have to keep to the principle of keeping it simple. Talk about your anger. In the ancient world, there was a school of rhetoricians who trained speakers to say things to their audiences that would outrage and thus disarm them. This method of Michaels is a well-known strategy. Talk about your anger.”
Angus insisted upon the importance of the emotional. This little exchange with him exhibits his varying the rhythm of talk that made talking with him an emotional event. He said consider the rhythm of a basketball game. Almost all the game takes place in a mad rush up and down the court, but the game can always be interrupted by a free throw that gives the game a moment of repose when all the players cease moving and pause for one player to take a shot, and they never take them quickly. That moment of repose is crucial to how a game feels to players and fans.
Thus Angus could stop me from thinking frantically about how to outplay Michaels. He made me pause for my moment of Zen. Now Angus is pausing, having had some repose forced on him, but he will be back in our hearts and souls soon, helping us think, as he did best of anyone I have known.
Of Angus Fletcher, poet John Hollander wrote, his “very asides and footnotes have been, for a generation of interpreters, oracular.” This is not hyperbole. Angus is one of the very few literary critics of the past 50 years (Northrop Frye and Allen Grossman join him) whose works transcend scholarly specialization, or even genre, to reach the status of literature: visionary and measured and strange. But really Angus was no more bound to this generation than he was to genre. In books ranging from Allegory to Colors of the Mind to A New Theory for American Poetry, Angus channeled those labyrinthine Renaissance anatomists Burton and Browne, revealing the eccentric networks encompassing what we thought we knew.
“Labyrinthine” also describes the way Angus taught. When I first matriculated to the PhD program in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, a professor told me I should take Angus’s seminar on the Renaissance. I told her I was interested in Romanticism. She said you don’t take Angus’s classes for the subject, you take them for Angus. She was right. I can’t remember the names of the classes I took, but I can recall verbatim scenes from Angus’s mental drama.
It was in Angus’s class that I first read Borges’s Labyrinths, which features “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” about a translator of Cervantes who immersed himself so deeply into his rendering that he wanted to reproduce, line by line, in the Spanish of Cervantes, the exact Don Quixote itself. “He did not,” Borges’s narrator writes, “want to compose another Quixote — which is easy — but the Quixote itself.”
Angus read aloud the passage in this story where Borges quotes a passage from Cervantes and then what is seemingly the exact same passage from Menard. Angus read in a resonant, slightly hesitant, melancholy yet affirmative voice, after which the class sat in stunned silence, before Angus gave a gentle chuckle, to save us from awkwardness but also to acknowledge that something really wondrous had just occurred. Remarkably, in reading both passages — one by Cervantes, the other by Menard — in exactly the same way, he had captured perfectly their vast distance in depth and meaning.
I became hyper-attentive to everything Angus said. I didn’t know when he might, like a Zen master, utter some koan-esque phrase that would alter, as might a pair of colored glasses, everything I thereafter witnessed.
One day, he brought in a copy of some tabloid. On the cover was a cloud formation resembling a giant demon. The headline read, “Satan Appears in Cloud.” Angus said, “I saw this and wondered, ‘What does it mean, to appear?’” Yes, I thought. Think of how we use the verb “appear.” A ghost appears. A celebrity appears. A relative, though, shows up. And I, when entering a room, enter, just as I, attending a party, attend.
Another time, on the day before Thanksgiving, just as we were shuffling out of class, Angus said, “Well, once a friend of mine told me that if you’re going to cook a turkey, just put it in the oven and leave it in there for four hours and it will be cooked.” Was this just a bland description of what happens when you cook a turkey, or a deep statement on the nature of existence?
Angus’s books intensify his pedagogical uncanny. I certainly read them for information — they are profound works of scholarship — but I read them more for inspiration, an intellectual superabundance that makes me say yes to my own mind’s more humble efforts. Without Angus, I never would have understood the exuberance of writing.
Eric Wilson is Professor of English at Wake Forest University. His recent books include Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck; or, Why We Can’t Stop Looking at Terrible Things and The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace.
I hadn’t seen Angus recently, but I have been reading him constantly over the years, and was delighted when my fellow judges agreed that his book A New Theory for American Poetry was the obvious choice for the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2005.
My chief memories of Angus go back much further, though, to the time when we were at Columbia together. I arrived in the summer of 1964, and I think Angus had been appointed two or three years before that. His marvelous book on allegory came out in 1964, and he got tenure in 1968.
The intellectual company in that place, at that time, was amazing. This was my first encounter with the United States. I had come from Cambridge, England, and thought I knew what lively minds looked like, and how their owners talked. It turned out that I didn’t even know what a lively mind was. The wonderful, infinitely varied conversations were an everyday revelation. Each person I met, it seemed, thought better, faster, and more amply than anyone I had previously known, and what’s more they were all different from each other. Everyone had just read a book he or she wanted to talk about, and since most of us were teaching the Columbia College Humanities course, we were constantly swapping ideas about how to approach some classic or other: a new angle on Oedipus, a way of rescuing Virgil from his apparent apologia for empire.
Even in this dazzling company, Angus was an exception. Genial, funny, relaxed, slightly detached from the world, and infinitely learned, he could do in reality what the legend of those days said all assistant professors at Columbia were able to do: talk intelligently about anything in the world for 10 minutes. Most of us could fake this — it’s not a negligible feat — but we were certainly faking, and the 10 minutes could seem long. Angus could talk about anything for a whole hour or more with fabulous grace and charm, and without a trace of fakery. It wasn’t just that he knew something about everything. It was that he delighted in knowledge, whatever kind of knowledge it was, and wherever he had picked it up. It was stuff to think with, as well as stuff to think about.
You have only to glance at a page of his first book to get a feeling of this mental style. Illustrating the variety of literary forms that make use of allegory, Angus mentions Lucian, Swift, Jules Verne, Henri Michaux, genteel whodunits, hard-boiled detective stories, fairy tales, medieval poetry, Yeats, and Allen Ginsberg. These names are not just illustrations. They are markers for all kinds of speculative, acrobatic leaps of thought. One of the delights of talking to Angus was that you never knew where the conversation would go, what brilliant and unlikely concept he would invite you to consider.
For a man of such adventurous mind, he could be admirably unruffled when necessary. I recall an occasion — this would have been in the 1970s some time — when a distinguished visitor was lecturing us on our failings as literary scholars and critics. We overproduced, all we had to offer was a mass of mediocre material, cluttering the libraries and our minds. We felt appropriately upbraided and downcast. So true. And what was to be done? Angus, who seemed to have been asleep during the talk, but obviously hadn’t been, asked the speaker if he knew that the current wisdom in areas like the writing of science fiction was that only 10 percent of what was published was any good. Angus thought this might also be true of literary scholarship, indeed might be true in almost any area. If so, then all that mattered was that the standards were maintained for the 10 percent. There might even be an advantage in overproduction, since 10 percent of a larger total would be welcome. Why hadn’t we thought of that? Angus grinned amiably, and seemed to go back to sleep.
Angus Fletcher 1930-2016