A historian friend once pointed out the connection between the hydraulic systems used by Citroën cars and the kind of theory beloved by French philosophers. I think he was referring primarily to the Citroën DS range, for which I had a special fondness. I remember my delight when my father bought a DS estate as his wine delivery vehicle; I exulted in the shark-like nose, the spokeless steering wheel and the little button foot brake, which made a slight hissing noise as you depressed it.

Both Citroën hydraulics and French theory depended on a kind of universal substance – in the Citroën case it was a hydraulic fluid that controlled the brakes, the suspension and just about everything else. The advantage of this was conceptual purity; of course the disadvantage was that if anything went wrong with the hydraulics the whole car instantly seized up.

One of the startling developments in the humanities in the past 30 years or so is the grand march of theory. You might think the march of theory was a phenomenon more suited to the sciences and I believe you would be right. As natural science and physics in particular proceeded towards a grand unified theory (GUT), or theory of everything (TOE) – well, that was the idea, wasn’t it, though it remains tantalisingly out of reach – the humanities didn’t want to be left behind. Big theories represented power and, ultimately, big bucks. So we had structuralism and feminism (in multitudinous forms), deconstruction and post-structuralism and all sorts of other isms.

I remember the structuralism bit because it was happening when I was at Cambridge in the late 1970s and became notorious with the refusal of tenure to the structuralist critic Colin McCabe in 1981. Structuralist poetics, as far as I can dimly remember, was a marriage of Saussurian linguistics – based on Saussure’s first principle of “the arbitrary nature of the sign”, the idea that the component parts of language have no intrinsic meaning or connection with reality – with the anthropological theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. All very exciting, bracing, rigorous, a white-hot alternative to the old discredited amateurish tradition of belles-lettres – how scathingly my teachers pronounced the phrase – represented by the founder of Cambridge English, Arthur Quiller-Couch? No?

Well, as far as I was concerned structuralist poetics and theory in general promised far more than they delivered. It was exciting and promising, to read Roland Barthes on what he called “the pleasure of the text”, which he argued would be enormously increased by treating the text not as a closed unity but as an infinitely open node of meanings. But in practice I hardly found that a single line or word of poetry was illuminated for me by these approaches. They were more likely to prove, for example, that the whole of Romantic poetry was phallocentric than to light up an extraordinary image from a Coleridge conversation poem – what exactly Coleridge might be conveying when he spoke of the “secret ministry of frost”, sounding tender and sinister at the same time.

If I said I thought there was something fundamentally misguided about the application of grand theory to literary studies, I would probably be branded a hopeless reactionary. But look at it like this. If physics ever does succeed in formulating that grand unified theory of everything, the marriage of quantum mechanics with gravity, what effect will that have on the living of ordinary human lives – which is, after all, the stuff of literature?

Will our messy human, social, political lives suddenly become less messy and more orderly, in keeping with the grand order discovered in the stars and atoms and particles? I somehow doubt it.

Saussure’s linguistic theories, according to the penetrating critique by the poet and literary critic Colin Falck in Myth, Truth and Literature, committed an error by turning language, as an object of study, into a system comparable to logic and allowing “the true nature of the language-using process and its place in human life …to slip away out of the picture”.

Recent columns by my colleagues Andrew Hill – on the modest virtues of mini-roundabouts– and Peter Aspden – on Grayson Perry and the virtues of “weak thinking”– encourage me to hope that 2012 will turn out to be a year not of grand theories but of small, even faltering insights. Human life, culture, politics, are just too uncertain to fit into any neat pattern. Just acknowledging that, and rejecting hubristic claims to absolute knowledge or systemic perfection, would be a step forward. 

The Citroën DS was one of the most beautiful cars ever made but also the worst get-away vehicle in history. After starting the engine, you had to wait for the hydraulic suspension system to boot up and lift the car high enough off the road to proceed. This would be fatal after a heist.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.