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About Angus Fletcher
by Kenneth Gross

Let me start with something that I wrote about Angus soon after he died this past November, at age 87:

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 smilingly insisted. 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 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 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 coast-lines.

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.

This piece appeared as part of a gathering of homages to Angus published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It catches a little of what I’d want to say about him here, though I could never really convey his quicksilver mind, his deep geniality and sense of play, his candor, sympathy, and curiosity, his present-ness to the world, his sharp anger at stupidity and cruelty. Whatever question engaged him, he spoke about as if from a depth of old reflection, even as he kept the lightness of a thought suddenly improvised and open to change. Angus was a bit of a spellbinder as a talker, partly because he was himself bound by the spell of things he was thinking about, and offered to you to think about—often when he was helping you probe your own thoughts about a new or ongoing piece of work, to help you find out your own most urgent questions, intuitions, obsessions.

Angus’s first and still best known book is Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, published in 1964 when he was 35, and still in print, still a powerful tool for making sense of this ancient mode. For me it was a crucial guide in my first investigations of Spenser. What has stayed with me most about this complex, madly learned book is its way of conveying the dynamic feel of allegorical fictions, their almost bodily life, the kind of shape and energy they give to ideas. (Angus was often less interested in the particular ideas themselves, or the interpretive labor that it takes to unpack ideas in allegory—he often held himself aloof from the work of “interpretation,” as if something else had to happen first). It is characteristic of Angus’s mind that he would haul into use the archaic, magical idea of the daemon—the name for a mediating or middle spirit, deeply ambivalent and often dangerous in its being—to characterize the mode of an allegorical agent’s life, and then further join that idea to the analogy of living humans caught by compulsions, obsessions, an idée fixe. This way of speaking catches the visceral, psychic appeal of what can often seem an abstract, impersonal mode of writing, as well as its tendency, as Angus wrote, to become an armored, robotic form of fiction in the service of power and ideology, a mechanized dream of sense-making. This breadth of analogy was part of what allowed Angus’s “theory” (a charged and often mysterious word for him) its wide historical scope: “I wanted my work,” he wrote in 2012, “to apply to foxes in Aesop, knights in Tasso, the nose and portrait in Gogol, the detective in Poe, the fallen woman in Hawthorne, Big Brother and Winston Smith in Orwell, the plague in Camus.”

It’s not just the theoretical terms but the odd immediacy of encounter in his writing that counts: “If we were to meet an allegorical character in real life, we would say of him that he was obsessed with only one idea or that he had an absolutely one-track mind … . It would seem that he was driven by some hidden, private force; or viewing him from another angle, it would appear that he did not control his own destiny, but appeared to be controlled by some foreign force, something outside the sphere of his own ego” (my emphasis). This is a description of “behavior manifested by people who are thought (however unscientifically) to be possessed by a daemon … . And since there is no practical difference between being possessed by a daemon and being one,” there is nothing to prevent our “equating daemonic and allegorical agency” (again, my emphasis). This is a very strange way of speaking. To say that “there is no practical difference between being possessed by a daemon and being one” is wild—you want to ask, what sense of the word “practical” is at work here? You also feel as if the writer has met just such daemons. As perhaps we all have. The idea of the daemon becomes in a passage like this as immediate, as present, as it is archaic.

Two books on Renaissance literature followed Allegory fairly quickly. In The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser, from 1971, he made it clear why Book V of The Faerie Queene, the Legend of Justice—with its relentless acts of literal and symbolic violence, its harsh impositions of order, even at the level of dream—can be seen as a typical rather than idiosyncratic or uncharacteristically politicized instance of the poem’s workings, as earlier critics had often said. Again, Angus’s theoretical language has a poetic and archaizing bent: he sees the allegorical narrative as working through conflicting shapes of experience and time, or conflicting impulses to shape experience and time, which he names “temple” and “labyrinth.” What he calls “the prophetic moment” marks the charged, dangerous threshold between the two, the place where we cross over from sacred to profane, or profane to sacred. The threshold is a place to which, he sees, Spenser always returns. Both temple and labyrinth are instances of what in Allegory Angus calls “the cosmic image,” emblems of metaphysical order (and disorder) that are also, as the Greek word kosmos indicates, forms of humanly constructed “ornament.” Here again there is in the writing a delicate balance of perspectives. A disenchanted clarity about allegory’s energies of making, a Kenneth Burkean pragmatism regarding the highly constructed shape of literary fictions, doesn’t keep Angus from describing Spenser’s work, without irony, as “prophecy.” In this he seems both more and less of a rationalist than Northrop Frye, whose archetypal criticism was an important early influence on Angus’s thought. You can also see him grappling in the Spenser book with what his close friend Harry Berger, Jr. was writing in the 1960s about the evolutionary and retrospective shape of Spenser’s allegorical fictions.

There is indeed a simultaneous Platonizing and anti-Platonizing bent in Angus’s thought, something that also feeds The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton’s “Comus,” from 1972. This book attempts to show how Milton’s work anatomizes the ambitions of the masque form at large, showing at once its intimate, psychic force and its cosmic (not just cosmetic or ideological) resonances. What in that book he calls “transcendental form” becomes, I’d risk saying, a name that applies to the kind of criticism which Angus himself tried to write.

Angus’s next book took almost twenty years to emerge. Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature, published in 1991, gathers together essays on a vast range of texts, from pre-Socratic fragments, Don Quixote, and Paradise Lost to the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wallace Stevens, the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the films of Lucchino Visconti. One central theme is that “thinking in literature” comes to us only through metaphor, through intensely, mysteriously shaped gestures of language, what he calls an “iconography of mind.” This book returns to reflecting on thresholds and labyrinths as aspects of such an iconography (for instance, in a great essay titled “The Image of Lost Direction”). Even more crucial is the book’s preoccupation with the idea of the “gnome,” or the “gnomic.” That archaic word for an aphorism or maxim (from the Greek for “thought,” “opinion”) helps Angus to name particularly urgent shapes of thought, things at once luminous and opaque, impersonal and inward. The true gnome, he implies, is resistant to mere interpretation and also (unlike the “daemonic agent”) resistant to the appropriations of ideology. Inescapably an artifact of language, the gnome yet speaks its own silence, its own loss of sense, speaks of what language can only name or know by indirection, telling the truth “slant,” as Emily Dickinson says one must. Essentially literary, the gnome puts our definitions of literature to the test. Angus’s own examples of the gnome, “listed in no special order,” include these:

  • Crane: None of them knew the color of the sky.
  • Keats: Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.
  • Whitman: The sea whispered me.
  • Wittgenstein: Roughly speaking, objects are colorless.
  • Greville: Absence is pain. 
  • The opening line of Hamlet: Who’s there? 
  • Heraclitus: The wise [meaning wisdom] is one thing, to be acquainted with true judgment, how all things are steered through all.
  • The self-identification of the dull-witted constable in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “I am Anthony Dull.” 
  • Thoreau, in Walden: “I was determined to know beans.” 
  • The last words of the Lord, to Jonah: “And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, where are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?”

You get in such a list a kind of wit, a kind of waiting and watching, a holding of himself open to thought, that is very much Angus’s own. It evokes an apprehension of the strange in the commonplace, the immediate in the ancient. They are forms of what he called, in a phrase borrowed from Husserl, “immanent transcendence.” These are words that might help you survive in the world, partly in the ways that the words reflect on themselves, on how we trust or turn them.

Colors of the Mind (shepherded into print, as were all of the subsequent books, by his devoted editor at Harvard University Press, Lindsay Waters) heralded a kind of Renaissance in Angus’s writing, though that would take more than a decade to crystallize. If I gallop through his last three books here it is just because the scope of them, their ambition and freedom of thought, makes summary more than usually difficult.

A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of the Imagination, from 2004, brought together his lifelong preoccupation with American poetry with a growing interest in absorbing to the work of criticism the languages of science and mathematics, here especially the work of quantum and particle theory, chaos theory and the study of “emergent orders,” as well as aspects of ecological and environmental thinking.  The book focuses on the poetry of John Clare, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery—Clare being included as a crucial British precursor for the kind of poetry the two American poets come to write. It asks us to think about the radical-ness of a poetry of what seems mere “description,” alive to the stark presence and opacity of what is given in the world. Wonder, the negotiation of wonder, is of the essence. Angus evokes a poetry that places our thought—also the stops, leaps, waves, wanderings, and massings of our words—within the world, makes them part of “the surround,” the always moving “horizon” of our experience, the threshold of desire, discovery, limit, renewal, anxiety, entrapment and freedom. It is a poetry that traces the sense of an “almost genetic connection between poetry and natural fact,” the truth of the feeling “that the sky may be at the back of someone’s mind.” Such poetry becomes the chief register of a kind of “diurnal knowledge” without which both human imagination and the earth which that imagination finds and creates are in danger of death, of self-destruction.

As if to offer a pre-history of this Romantic and modern poetics, Angus published three years later Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare. Here he describes how the new scientific and mathematical spirit of the Renaissance, as exemplified in Galileo (also, in different way, in Giordano Bruno), is continuous with an enlarged sense of the human mind’s speculative, synthetic, and subjective powers in facing the objective and shifting orders of creation, something shown in the work of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, and Milton. The book studies this exploratory energy as it is incarnated in a figure like Marlowe’s Faustus, in new conventions of dramatic gesture and movement on stage, in the enlarging convention of the soliloquy, in Donne’s dramatic lyrics of thought and his cosmic satires, in Milton’s charged vision of unshaped space, by turns demonic and angelic. The Renaissance poets come to know, as do Clare and Whitman, that “the psyche is always a part of the world out there.” Spenser, though he gets no chapter of his own, is present throughout the book, especially in Angus’s sense of how the ordering powers of the mind and of nature strangely collaborate in a poem like the Mutabilitie Cantos—a poem which he makes you think of as an early essay in chaos and complexity theory, as well as a precursor to one of Ashbery’s late masterworks, the book-length poem Flow Chart.

The Topological Imagination: Edges, Spheres, and Islands was published in April of 2016, just half a year before Angus died. Topology is, in his view, principally “a theory of edges”—the edge being, like the horizon, something the mind invents and plays with, translates, dissolves, and hardens, rather than something merely found in nature. It is centrally a book about the shape of our imagining, especially our imagining of the earth and our own life on earth, the radicality of our place here. It is in this “an essay in praise of the most unusual sphere ever imagined,” as he says at the close. Indeed, the book asks us to reimagine our imagining, to see better its shape and stakes. Angus wants to consider how the imagination takes in the nature of change and stability in change, also the imagination’s ambitions toward wholeness. He wants to educate our imaginations in the need to embrace adaptive, emergent patterns of thought that yet honor the “bass note” of terrestrial existence, our ties to diurnal cycles.

Old preoccupations come into play throughout the book: Giambattista Vico on the poetics of law, history, and culture, Coleridge on thresholds, I. A. Richards (Angus’s cherished thesis advisor at Harvard) on the “disparity action” of metaphor. But there is an ever-deepening engagement with scientific and mathematical thought. He dwells at length, for instance, on the eighteenth-century mathematician Leopold Euler’s invention of “the edge,” basic to his founding of what was only later named “topology”; on Rachel Carson’s dark reflections about life and death at the shore; on the quantum theorist David Bohm’s discussions of the “implicate order” of the physical and mental world; on James Lovelock’s controversial “Gaia hypothesis”; and on Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky’s posit of the “biosphere.” In trying to build bridges between realms of thought too often separated, the book broods on what it means for us to be inside a world that is also inside us, a paradox that marks “the mysterious dimensionality of our existence.” It is a book which includes a complex meditation on the many boundaries, edges, cuts, walls, thresholds, and horizons that shape our experience. Fiercely skeptical as it is, the book also asks us to take seriously a model for a kind of idealism that doesn’t slander time, or the life of earth, by banking on violent, rigid models of truth, narrowly framed (and hence destructive) explanations or maps of cause.

A coda to this late work might be found in an unpublished essay from 2010: “We are born into a world that we must imagine, if we are to understand the staging of our lives in terms no less complex than the twisting strands of life process, so rich with promise and yet so burdened with fear in all its tragicomedy. Perhaps Shakespeare’s play The Tempest tells a story very close to our earthly fate. Perhaps we should begin with the idea of a storm survived.”

In that collection of homages I mentioned earlier, part of what is moving is the range of kinds of people whose minds and writing Angus touched, scholars of ancient and modern literature, philosophers, poets, novelists, journalists, scientists. Some of their memories and anecdotes are telling: Angus in his childhood investigating shorelines, or sailing on the waters off Long Island; Angus reciting Yeats to overawe William Buckley, Jr., in an undergraduate debate at Yale; Angus compelling the Harvard English Department to let him work with the annoying newcomer, Ivor Richards; Angus thinking aloud about Homer and Laurence Sterne in a smoke-filled classroom of Columbia University freshmen in the 1960s; Angus relishing the word “humdinger.” One former student, Eric Wilson, recalls that “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.’” Wilson also remembers him bringing into class a copy of a 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?”’” (Both stories show, for Wilson, Angus’s koan-like moments, his attachment to “the pedagogical uncanny.”) And there is a memorial by a friend of more than six decades, Harold Bloom, who always spoke of Angus as his intellectual conscience. Bloom writes that what Angus taught us in the end is that “the poetic imagination is a holy fire.” I think that Angus, smiling gently, eyes glittering, would have assented.

Kenneth Gross
University of Rochester

Books by Angus Fletcher

Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Cornell UP, 1964. 

Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Reprinted with a preface by Harold Bloom and a new Afterword by the author, Princeton UP, 2012. 

The Prophetic Moment: An Essay on Spenser. U of Chicago P, 1971. 

The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton’s “Comus.” Cornell UP, 1972. 

Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature. Harvard UP, 1991. 

A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of the Imagination. Harvard UP, 1991. 

Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare. Harvard UP, 2007. 

The Topological Imagination: Edges, Spheres, and Islands. Harvard UP, 2016. 

Selected uncollected essays by Angus Fletcher:

“Northrop Frye: The Critical Passion.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 1, no. 4, 1975, pp. 741-756. 

“On Two Words in the Libretto of The Magic Flute.” The Georgia Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 1975, pp. 128-53. 

“The Place of Despair and Hope.” Social Research, vol. 66, no. 2, 1999, pp. 521-29. 

“Complicity and the Genesis of Shakespearean Dramatic Discourse” [on Harry Berger Jr.]. Shakespeare Studies, vol. 27, 1999, pp. 37-41. 

“The Graver Strife: Shakespeare Against Nature.” The Shakespeare International Yearbook, Volume 1: Where Are We Now in Shakespeare Studies? Edited by Tom Bishop and William R. Elton. Ashgate, 2003, pp. 282-303. 

“Complexity and the Spenserian Myth of Mutability.” Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2004, pp. 1-22. 

“Words for Music, Perhaps.” The Hopkins Review, vol. 1, no. 4, 2008, New Series, pp. 559-592. 

“Poetic Wisdom and the Barbarism of Reflection.” The Hopkins Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 2012, New Series, pp. 50-67. 

Note:  In the 1970s especially, Fletcher also published probing reviews of books by his major contemporaries in the field of literary criticism and theory, including Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and Edward Said.  




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Cite as:

Kenneth Gross, "About Angus Fletcher," Spenser Review 47.2.23 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed September 24th, 2018.
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