Different from himself: reading Philip Larkin after modernism
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This thesis addresses the work of Philip Larkin in the light of critical positions, stemming from mainly modernist perspectives, which characterize it as the opposite of what counts as innovatory, experimental and progressive in twentieth-century poetry. It aims to critique this assumption without, however, trying to prove that Larkin’s work is modernist or experimental. Rather, understanding ‘form’ in modernism as an entity that resists subjectivity and ostensibly includes otherness within its self-reflexive boundaries, it aims to offer readings of Larkin’s work that do not begin from these parameters but from an understanding of otherness as relational. Additionally, it gives extended consideration to Larkin’s prose with the aim of initiating a reconsideration of Larkin’s contribution to literature in English from a perspective that includes the essays and the novels. My introduction sets out the reasons and precedents for thinking about otherness in Larkin’s work in a different way from that found in modernism-inclined literary criticism. I show that such criticism diagnoses an aesthetic regression in Larkin’s poems on the basis that they rely on the projection of personality rather than the foregrounding of form. I argue that recent critical work on modernism privileges form because of its ostensible ability to present otherness in art, but that this critical heuristic is inadequate for dealing with Larkin’s work. I then outline an alternative more suited to Larkin’s work: a way of conceptualising otherness that locates it in the relation of the work to subjectivities external to it (such as readers’), which, I argue, is not susceptible of capture through what is designated as ‘form’. The first chapter attends closely to the theme of failure to relate to otherness in Larkin’s two novels; I argue that it is this failure that Larkin’s fictions meditate on by creating fantasized love-objects that their protagonists desire and yet seek to arrest in non-response and self-identity. Building on this, the second chapter examines Larkin’s polemical deployment of the idea of ‘pleasure’ as what the reader coming from a position of otherness to the art is entitled to seek in it. Comparing Larkin’s position with Adorno’s in Aesthetic Theory, a major twentieth-century work on aesthetics in the capitalist age, I try to locate Larkin’s difference from Adorno and develop the perspective he offers in his essays and poems to show that it allows readers to approach literary writing without being constrained by formal prescriptions. The last three chapters are studies of three themes that have been the focus of special attention in Larkin criticism: subjective voice, place and death. In the third chapter, I argue that Larkin’s poetry makes use of (what I identify as) a ‘Romantic’ register that is undercut by a ‘personal’ one. I do this by examining how a Romantic voice – one that constructs the self and projects it into the world in symbolic and lyrical forms – is at odds with a personal voice which sees these forms as prisons. The result, I argue, is an art that explores the idea of being ‘different from oneself’. Chapter four, on the significance of place in Larkin, argues that while he does subscribe to certain notions of belonging to England, and more importantly, to the idea of belonging as a poetic imperative, he also problematizes what belonging means, treating it not as identification with a place, but as an unsettled and sometimes defamiliarizing relation with it. The last chapter, on the theme of death in Larkin’s work, shows that it uses ‘death’ not as a fixed point of annihilation, but one that moves backwards and forwards in life, informing its sense of possibility, and constituting an experience of something that is always present and yet always beyond experience.