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“I Don’t Do What Happens”: Hugh Kenner’s Theory of Action

Several times the same Comrade, this other, came to me and confided his need to act: what was he aiming at?—…the occupation of creating, which seems supreme, and being successful with words; I say again, what did he mean expressly?
—Stéphane Mallarmé, “Restricted Action”

“And do not think of the fruit of action. / Fare Forward,” Eliot writes in “Dry Salvages.”1 Actions imply consequences, so an even safer proposition for going forward, the one that appears in Ash Wednesday, is the hope placed in the holy mother to “Teach us to sit still” and to never “turn again.”2 As I will argue, Hugh Kenner’s concern is not with the fruit of action, but rather with the nature of action itself.

Kenner describes the Hollow Men as a “lurid parody” of the lives of the saints. For the Hollow Men, anything but saints, the meaning of an action is reducible to the “fruit” or consequences of the action.3 “A penny for the Old Guy”—the second epigram to the poem—refers to the salesman selling cheap fireworks to commemorate “a failure to produce an explosion” (IP, 160). The fireworks of November 5th, although intended to celebrate the failure to generate consequences, instead reiterate the fact that “nothing happened” back in 1605, the fireworks being counterfeits of an original counterfeit. These cascading acts of counterfeiting lead Eliot, as Kenner sees it, to question the “over-simplifying nature of all action” (IP, 161). Another way to put it is the way Iris Murdoch does in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). What is “at stake,” she writes in her response to Elizabeth Anscombe, is “something about activity in a sense which does not mean privileged activity.”4 Kenner, following Eliot, is dissatisfied with the picture of action as something that is defined in terms of what happens. Kenner sees a world of difference between not thinking about what will happen, of leaving the consequences of one’s actions out of the reasoning for one’s action, and “We do not wish anything to happen,” the words spoken by the Chorus in Murder in the Cathedral (IP, 161).5 For Kenner there is a world of difference between not wanting something to happen and what might happen when you “sit still.” Not wanting something to happen is what happens when you begin to think about what might happen.

Complicating this point further, Kenner defines “all action,” all happenings, as “occurrences”—a variant on F. H. Bradley’s “immediate experience,” or, when we get to the Counterfeiters, action as externalization—over and against a different concept of action, even of “Aristotelian action,” which Kenner paradoxically construes as invisible and private (IP, 285).

According to Kenner, the Hollow Men provides the first expression of the “structural principle” of Eliot’s later work and, I would suggest, of Kenner’s work as well. What is that principle? Eliot’s aim is to articulate “moral states which to an external observer are indistinguishable from one another” (IP, 163). So that we can “judge a man’s action,” Kenner says, but “we cannot judge the man by his actions.” What Kenner calls “distinct actions,” occlude from the observer the nature of a man’s true actions. And since what we are asked to judge are “moral states,” it naturally follows that we are not meant to judge works of art, which is exactly what Kenner says (IP, 163). “In art,” Kenner writes, “actions are determined by their objects.” In morals, by contrast, actions are “determined by their motives, which are hidden: hidden, often, from the actor” (IP, 163). The art that Kenner admires is anti-art in the sense that conventional artworks are construed as the expression of distinct actions, a kind of action we sometimes define as intentional tout court.

Compare this now with a seemingly similar set of claims on the nature of intentional action made by Stanley Cavell in “A Matter of Meaning It.” In a sense, Cavell takes the exact opposite approach to Kenner when he writes that “In morality, tracing an intention limits a man’s responsibility; in art, it dilates it completely.”6 Cavell goes on to say that the “artist is responsible for everything that happens in his work,” a view he contrasts with the moral act, which is strictly delimited, an example being, for instance, the pumping action described by Elizabeth Anscombe in Intention.7 The question raised by the pumping action is whether the pumper is intending to kill the Nazis in the house or was unaware of the consequences of his act of pumping poisoned water. Anscombe, like Cavell, is interested in the question of responsibility, and in order to be responsible, one has to know where the action begins and ends; the action has to take on a form (what she calls the A to D series). In “A Matter of Meaning It,” Cavell is making a case against serial composers and Pop artists, both of whom he accuses of irresponsibility, of not composing “everything that happens” in their work, thus the possibility of “fraudulence” which is, yet again, a kind of inversion of Kenner’s notion of the “counterfeit.” For Kenner, in contrast to Cavell, being moral means not imagining that “what happens” in the work is actually your responsibility, except in the sense of arranging and rearranging counterfeit material. This marks a difference between Anscombe’s approach and Cavell’s. Anscombe is of course addressing actions with explicit consequences for which questions of legal responsibility are potentially at issue.8 For Cavell, by contrast, the question of fraudulence in art is meant to distinguish “sincere” works from counterfeits. It is hard to imagine a line of thought at once closer and yet ultimately distant to Kenner’s approach than Cavell’s claim that “The moral is again … you cannot tell from outside [the counterfeit from the real]; and the expense in getting inside is a matter for each man to go over.” The experience of the “fraudulent in art,” Cavell writes, “will not defeat the practice of the real thing.”9 It is close to Kenner, because they both assume that the view from the outside is not enough to determine the nature of the action. Where they differ is in their understanding of what an artistic action is. For Cavell, the opposite of the fraudulent work is a sincerely produced expression, while for Kenner, the counterfeit is the real thing itself, there being no act which does not originate in imitation (which in part explains Kenner’s interest in Pop Art and Cavell’s dismissal of it).

Kenner’s admiration for Augustan satires, Pop artists, and modernism itself as the ordering of “nullities,” depends on the artist as someone who categorically does “not compose [his] utterances,” but only “endorse[s] them.”10 For Kenner, the action in a work of art is, literally and figuratively, invisible, it does not happen at all, and to confuse what happens with what someone does is, he says, the “negative way” of understanding counterfeits.

Eliot offers a glimpse of his basic structural approach with the Hollow Men, but it is with Murder in the Cathedral that Eliot provides what I think is the central paradigm for Kenner’s practice. In the play, everything hinges on what we do not see. The “business” of Murder in the Cathedral, Kenner writes, is to “train the untrained eye which cannot tell hollow men from men self-divested” (C, 155). Murder, suicide, martyrdom, which is it? Kenner carefully parses the Knight’s attitude toward the event. In the conclusion to The Counterfeiters, Kenner describes how the Knights “try to represent as suicide what the audience has understood to be self-surrender” (C, 155). Earlier, in The Invisible Poet (the title is key), Kenner observes that for the Knights who kill Thomas à Becket, there is no way to “determine, since he opened the door to their swords, that he did not commit suicide” (IP, 163). So presumably, the Knights get over their indecision about what happened and tell others that it was a suicide. Recall that for Kenner moral actions are not just invisible to the audience (both the Knights and the actual audience) but are often hidden from the actor himself. That’s why Kenner insists that “Thomas himself is made to confront the knife-edge between seeking death and resigning himself to it” (C, 155–56). In other words, the action is invisible even to agent of the action. The audience is in the same position as the Knights and as Thomasno one can determine the nature of the action that they witness. We see a murder, but everything turns on what Thomas is doing, is it suicide or self-surrender? Suicide and self-surrender, Kenner insists, are “the same action”; “suicide,” he says, “is an exact counterfeit of the martyr” (C, 156). But the meaning of the act, what Thomas is doing, occurs elsewhere, somewhere internal and private, someplace other than what we see on the stage, someplace hidden from the Knights, from the audience, hidden as well from Thomas. From the outside, for the Knights and the Archbishop, the “consequences” of the action justify the act, as “England is now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State” (IP, 163). For Kenner, as for Eliot, these consequences are not only separable from Thomas’s action, they are unrelated to it. Eliot’s point, as Kenner sees it, is that whatever consequences follow from the murder, they “cannot be traced back to the event and there rechristened a motive” (IP, 163). This is what Anscombe attempted to overcome in her account of “double talk about double effect,” a familiar kind of abuse that seemed to follow from an internalized picture of intention. One tells oneself “a little speech” about what one is doing, conceiving intention speculatively or as a strictly internal action, as though to exonerate the actor from the malign nature of their actions.11 Contrast this, directly, with the principle underlying Pound’s Cantos, where the last canto (of 1962) is rechristened a motive of the first one (of 1915).

So if it is the case that, as Anscombe says, “I do what happens,” then Kenner’s project is to explore a mode of artistic production that hinges precisely on the point where what happens purposefully occludes what someone is doing.12 Thus, in Sweeney Agonistes and The Family Reunion, the plot turns on the “evasiveness about what actually happened” (did he kill the girl or not). Sweeney is, like Thomas, “closed on the outside,” his “sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.” The “whole point” of the drama,” Kenner insists, is that it is “uncommunicative,” it “exteriorizes,” it is full to the brim with drawing-room conversations but does “not explicate the locked world of the self” (IP, 200).13 Kenner describes the “principal component” of Eliot’s dramatic method as “his unemphatic use of a structure of incidents in which one is not really expected to believe.” In other words, he builds a counterfeit world for his characters. Why would Eliot take up this method? Because when we come to categorically not believe what is happening, we begin to think about what they might be doing, “thus throwing attention onto the invisible drama of volition and vocation. The plot provides, almost playfully, external and stageable points of reference for this essentially interior drama” (IP, 288). Eliot’s plays are analogized to Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck because for both of them what they aim to express is the nature of the “unproducible” “nonexistent” action. Thus, the thesis of the Counterfeiters, what Kenner calls both the “general law” and “real purpose” of the counterfeit, is to reproduce “not a visible thing but an invisible event” (C, 72). By reproducing something that “never happened,” the counterfeiter “throws attention” back on the invisible act of creation.

Eliot expects that everyone knows the story of Thomas à Becket before they open or see the play, that everyone already knows “what happens” both before, during, and after the murder, but at the same time, no one knows what Thomas has done. It is an exact proportion: His intention is as opaque as the actions are transparent. What Eliot explores in the play is the fact that Thomas’s sainthood “happened [but it] has nothing to do with” his actions (IP, 237). The moral of the play, as Kenner describes it, is that “knowledge of the consequences of the act … would be the most depraved conceivable motive for willing that act” (IP, 237). Intending to become a saint would “concede that what I do,” let himself be killed, is dignified by its consequences.14

Kenner’s analysis turns on Thomas’s Fourth temptation, the one voiced by Eliot in the 1951 filmic adaptation (crucially, the fourth tempter does not appear on screen). What the Fourth Tempter offers Thomas is to “construct for himself a martyrdom” (IP, 237). To “make yourself the lowest / On earth” in order to “be high in heaven.” This is, we are told, the most “dangerous” temptation of all. Why? Because this is to collapse what happens into what one does. The “main moral action,” Kenner says, is that Thomas was “tempted not to resist his enemies, and finally succeeded in not resisting them, but not as he had been tempted” (IP, 235). Did you follow that? He was tempted not to resist his fate, he succeeded in not resisting his fate, but not at all because he was tempted to resist his fate. Kenner rightly calls this action “invisible, because there is no way it can express itself in action” (IP, 239). Kenner’s language is obviously tortured here, as he’s knotted himself into the position of saying that the only thing that constitutes an action is something that by definition is not an action, at least not one that is visible as such. We can now see how it is that Eliot’s “great dramatic problem” is exactly Kenner’s “great problem”: to describe a mode of action that does “not terminate in distinct actions.” Or rather, how it is that one and the “same action” might mean something entirely different from the “distinct actions” that we witness (IP, 241).

In The Stoic Comedians Kenner offers a graphic expression of the Thomas problem in his chapter on Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. Totally unlike Eliot, for Flaubert, literature should aspire to “a scientific order of general truth,” and all actions should be available for “observation and scrutiny.” But what Flaubert finds when he scrutinizes the world is nothing but hollow men, people whose every word is counterfeit coin.15 For Flaubert, stupidity is “the only material there is” (SC, 71). If Flaubert’s starting point is the opposite of Eliot’s, his solution to the problem of the hollow man is the same. The Flaubertian novel “must arrive, by a more laborious route … at a trajectory parallel to that executed by the hack” (SC, 71). Here Kenner leaves some room between saying it is the “same act” as the hack and it being “parallel” to the hack. Almost everything hinges, for Kenner, on the capacity to recognize and understand the difference between a counterfeit hack and a straight hack, even if the words are identical. In a brilliant passage Kenner describes how “The hack draws his freehand curves; the Flaubertian novelist performs a laborious, critical reconstruction of these arcs, with infinite care and calculation.” These arcs “still mean little, but they mean it meaningfully” (SC, 71). Kenner further describes Madame Bovary as being “from beginning to end the knowing rescription of a shilling romance of adultery” (SC, 71). Flaubert’s project remains scientific, but it provides, Kenner says, “an encyclopedia of the null,” which in literary form is anything but null.

Kenner sees Flaubert as reviving the great Augustan tradition of counterfeit hacks (so counterfeits of counterfeits). Writing of Alexander Pope’s 1742 version of his own 1728 Dunciad provides what Kenner calls the most “intricate” example of the “esthetics of simulation” ever conceived (C, 84). Like Flaubert’s imitation hack, The Dunciad is a painstaking effort to create a mock-heroic epic. What, then, is the The New Dunciad? Kenner calls it the “Pop Dunciad,” and it tries to imagine how a “drudge infatuated with Milton”—that is, already a counterfeit—would compose an epic (C, 83). This is the opening: “The Mighty Mother, her Son who brings / The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings, / I sing.” “This bard,” Kenner writes—he is the Ur-type of Buster Keaton—“stumbles into his kettledrums and falls headlong” (C, 83). The New Dunciad layers counterfeit on top of counterfeit as Pope succeeds in “imitating the catastrophic efforts of a dunce to imitate the epic manner by imitating an earlier Pope’s imitation” (C, 84). (I’m not going try and unravel that phrase; it would take a page or two.)

For Kenner, everything hinges on the reader’s capacity to understand, even or only if they literally cannot see, the difference between what happens in a work and what the author does with the work. Looking at another “thoroughly counterfeit” book, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—it is a mock autobiography, the material drawn, like Flaubert, from the “pamphlet-rack”—Kenner returns to the image of rescription, of what happens when one painstakingly recreates the freehand arc of the hack with “infinite care and calculation.” Kenner finds his cue at the conclusion to the Portrait where Joyce describes the “priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life” (Joyce, quoted in C, 60). Clearly there are two, entirely opposing ways of eating the wafer, as caloric intake and as an instance of transubstantiation. Kenner glosses this passage by saying that “Those of us who consume that body … will presumably derive from the transmuted experience benefits not obtainable from the experience in its unconsecrated state, when we perhaps merely lived it, just as the bread which has been transubstantiated in the priest’s hands feeds the soul though formerly it was fit only to feed the body. … A priest, then, changing everything but the appearance of what he handles” (C, 60). Referring to Warhol and other Pop artists, Kenner observes how the “forger … priest” works, by the “imposition of a signature … by someone duly ordained, [how by this act] the mere sensate thing undergoes a change which does not affect its physical or chemical properties in the slightest … and from being an object” it becomes “an utterance” (C, 65). Of course, there is a subtle but crucial difference between the priest and the forger. Obviously, a signature will indeed produce a “physical and chemical” alteration in the thing. And this generates a serious problem for Kenner. If the action is truly invisible, as he continually insists, then how would anyone ever know the difference between the hack and the counterfeit hack? It is here that Kenner frequently hedges his bets. At times he’s interested in the ways in which the signature is imposed on the object to make it an utterance or a work, at other times he is committed to the modality of the priest, where the signature comes from God, or a wholly private experience, and nothing happens. (In neither case, I should add, does Kenner show any interest in the aesthetic of perception, that is the attitudinal shift that occurs when one changes the world in, say, the mind’s eye, the idea proposed by Robert Smithson (in the same year as The Counterfeiters) that “A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.”16 For Kenner, there is an observable event, the only question is the status of privacy to that event.)

Consider, finally, Kenner’s complicated gloss on the nature of action in Burnt Norton, a poem borne out of “certain fragments” left over from Murder in the Cathedral. “We never know quite where we are in the poem,” as though in the garden, all “happenings are simultaneous” (IP, 252, 253). Kenner describes this “state promised in the garden” as a version of what occurred with “the reorientation of [Thomas à] Becket’s will.” The experiential quality of the garden, Kenner writes, is “not reducible to terms of exhibited action, but rather an invisible inflection of whatever action one performs” (IP, 260). This is a complex formulation and what is at stake is Kenner’s desire to counterpose “exhibited action,” or “distinct action,” the one Cavell identifies with the work of art, with another kind of action, one that mirrors the first kind but is also fundamentally different from anything that is happening. This alternative mode of action is not exactly invisible but rather an “invisible inflection” of all actions, as though a life could consist in balancing on the “knife-edge” between exhibited and invisible action, or we might just say, Kenner’s sense of the full meaning of action is in fact hidden from himself.


1.  T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1971), 134.
2.  Eliot, Poems and Plays, 60, 61.
3.  Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot (London: W.H. Allen, 1960), 161. Hereafter cited in the text as “IP” followed by the page number.
4.  Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970), 22.
5.  Eliot, Poems and Plays, 188.
6.  Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 236.
7.  Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say, 236.
8.  It is worth noting that Anscombe, in Intention, explicitly distinguishes between legal or ethical responsibility and her account of the nature of an act. One might be legally guilty of something one does not intend or at least fully intend, the case here is the one where the man pumping is believably “doing his job” and does not intend to kill the inhabitants of the house. Here is Anscombe’s gloss on the distinction between action and ethics: “The question arises: what can be the interest of the intention of the man we have described, who was only doing his usual job, etc.? It is certainly not an ethical or legal interest; if what he said was true, that will not absolve him from guilt of murder! We just are interested in what is true about a man in this kind of way.” G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1963), 45.
9.  Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say, 209. Walter Benn Michaels keyed me to this sentence in Cavell.
10.  Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 66. Hereafter cited in the text as “C” followed by the page number. There is far more here to be said in terms of the comparison with Cavell, who also affirms notions of “ratification” against assertions of pure originality. Here is Cavell, writing of comedies of remarriage: “Something evidently internal to the task of marriage causes trouble in paradise—as if marriage, which was to be a ratification [of a convention], is itself in need of ratification.” The latter seems highly compatible with Kenner’s claims about counterfeits understood as an endorsement of conventions. See Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 31.
11.  Here is the passage in Anscombe: “The idea that one can determine one’s intentions by making such a little speech to oneself is obvious bosh.” Anscombe, Intention, 42.
12.  Anscombe, Intention, 52.
13.  Sweeney’s uncommunicativeness and worldly disenchantment is in fact at the opposite pole from the uncommunicativeness of Becket or the Magi in “Journey of the Magi.” So that the “annihilation” of “Sweeney’s savour in Sweeneyesque pleasures parody the Magi’s disenchantment with their kingdoms on witnessing a Birth” (IP, 218).
14.  Here, Kenner offers a banal but useful analogy: “The finger of the man who turns on the light, in turning on the light abandons itself to the causalities of a switching system; but to turn on a light is a moral act when we do not know what we shall see” (IP, 237). What happens in both cases is that a light has been turned on, and what is revealed remains exactly as it was before the light was turned on, and yet the person that turned on the light can either be described as looking for something they know is there or waiting to see what they will find.
15.  Hugh Kenner, The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett (Berkeley and Los Angeles, et al.: University of California Press, 1962), 70. Hereafter cited in the text as “SC” followed by the page number.
16.  Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley and Los Angeles, et al.: University of California Press, 1996), 112.
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