Saturday, August 04, 2007

Smoothness of Surface

Earlier this year I read Middlemarch, and I was thoroughly entertained by it. But I wrote about feeling "pulled along by the plot" and not liking that feeling and having to slow myself down to savor what I did like about the novel. Last year, I read both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre--both of which are also very entertaining novels, but which leave me with little to say, little to ponder. The copy of Wuthering Heights we have is a Bedford Books Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism edition, nearly half of which is devoted to five critical studies of the novel--Psychoanalytic, Feminist, Deconstruction, Marxist, and Cultural--along with brief histories of each type of criticism, as well as a short history of the critical response to the novel. My plan was to read each essay and then perhaps write about what I found there. I didn't make it very far. The Pyschoanalytic essay ("The Absent Mother in Wuthering Heights" by Philip K. Wion) was so tedious that I had to quit it only a couple of pages in. Then other books actually managed to keep my attention, and that was that. Thus did my good intentions die.

The thing is, I am curious about these forms of criticism. I know that it's a commonplace for academic criticism to be taken to task for reading literature for anything other than its literary/aesthetic qualities (this is certainly one of Dan Green's common themes at The Reading Experience). I also know that my sympathies, though I have no personal acquaintance with any critical method as yet, are with those making this assessment--or, rather, my sympathies lie in favor of the idea that this is not conducive to the study of literature as art, however justified the practice might be for other purposes. Even so, I'd like to know what these critical methods are actually like; so I thought, anyway. But I don't have all the time in the world, and a quick survey of these essays (even just a glance at the descriptions of each type, though the Deconstruction piece may be an exception) tells me that they don't take the kind of approach that I think I want or need.

Just a few weeks ago, I read Emma. I liked it a little less than the other Jane Austen novels I've read, but, still, I enjoyed it. But the pleasure is chiefly in reading about what happens, isn't it? Right now I'm in the middle of The Portrait of a Lady, and the same is essentially true. I am learning about Isabel Archer and watching her develop and gain experience in the world. Our narrator, indeed, routinely refers to her as "our heroine" and the book is given to be a biographical work of some kind. Don't get me wrong: I am far from immune to the pleasure to be had in Henry James' sentences. There are quotable passages; things are very well observed, very well put. The same is certainly true of George Eliot and Jane Austen and, to a lesser extent, the Bront√ęs. But this doesn't seem to be what critics want to talk about. With The Portrait of a Lady, I skim Geoffrey Moore's introduction and James' own preface, and everything seems to be about Isabel and the events in the novel and those potentially corresponding events in James' own life. I look in the back of the book, under the Further Reading heading, and I see references to and brief descriptions of twenty critical works about The Portrait of a Lady, nearly all of which seem exclusively concerned with the same material.

An exception to this tendency is an essay by William H. Gass, "The High Brutality of Good Intentions". The essay originally appeared in 1958 and is collected in his Fiction and the Figures of Life. It so happens that it was this essay by Gass, along with another one in the same collection called "In the Cage", that inspired me a few months ago to get a copy of The Portrait of a Lady and finally read one of the long James novels (I'd previously read the very short works Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller). In "In the Cage", Gass reviews the biography Henry James: The Treacherous Years 1895-1901, by Leon Edel, whose "method is so narrowly 'psychological' that the actual psychology of his subject frequently escapes him":
Sibling rivalries, castration complexes, homosexual tendencies, oedipal longings: these are common, we may suppose, to many men, none of whom possesses the style and the mind of this master; they tell us too little, and even in one life make our explanations increasingly monotonous and empty; since what is any life, from this point of view, but a repeating pattern of family relations, one where every war is the first war refought? so that the answers to our whys have a persistent dull sameness. . .
When, after all, the only reason for a biography of Henry James is the existence of his voluminous writing. He famously didn't do much of anything else: "He merely wrote his novels like the useless man he was, and what is striking about these if not their quality, their extraordinary refinement, their personality, their style?" Gass discusses character and plot and theme, too, but he is not like other critics. Gass, of course, is nothing if not a great stylist himself, and as a critic he is primarily interested in teasing out the workings of a writer's style--how does he do the things he does? In the "High Brutality" essay, he is at pains to show how the character manipulations of the story are a manifestation of James' style:
It is not simply in the organization of character, dialogue, and action that Henry James reveals The Moral Passion, nor is it reflected further only in his treatment of surroundings but it represents itself and its ideal in the increasing scrupulosity of the style: precision of definition, respect for nuance, tone, the multiplying presence of enveloping metaphors, the winding around the tender center of ritual lines, like the approach of the devout and worshipful to the altar, these circumlocutions at once protecting the subject and slowing the advance so that the mere utility of the core is despaired of and it is valued solely in the contemplative sight.
Critics too often want to reduce fiction, cut it down to size, manage it. Gass, at least, is a corrective. He is always alive to a writer's style--alive to the mastery of a Henry James, alive to how his peculiar style achieves its effect on the reader. And he reminds us, should we need reminding (and all too often we do, don't we?), that novels are not merely repositories of story. There is no "story" hiding there without James' style, and the same holds for Eliot, Austen, Dickens, and anyone else. When we enjoy these novels, a big part of the enjoyment is the language itself.

And yet. And yet my tendency with these novels, still, is to want to pick up the pace, read quickly, to find out what happens, to allow myself to be pulled along by the machinations of the plot, and to identify with and like or dislike characters.

I've been reading a lot of Gabriel Josipovici lately--specifically his books On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion and The Book of God: A Response to the Bible. In these wonderful books, Josipovici taps into something that feels right to me, but which I've only recently realized needed articulating. Of course, all of the novels I've mentioned are Anglo-American and hail from the 19th century, when the novel was in its "classic" phase. In On Trust Josipovici describes the situation as follows:
The characteristic of the classic novel is the smoothness of its surface. Since it seems to exist 'out there', free of any maker, it offers no purchase for criticism. As a result, commentators on novels have tended to speak in the very terms the novels themselves have presented them with--essentially, character and plot.
The "maker" of these novels is not invisible to all readers--witness Gass on James, or Nabokov's discussion of structure in Austen's Mansfield Park, in his Lectures on Literature--but the problem remains. They proceed as if they had every right in the world to exist, as if the coherence of the world contained within them was not open to question. Josipovici, instead, explains the idea of the craft tradition, and how the loss of that tradition leaves writers adrift. In his introduction to On Trust, he provides an example of the dilemma by giving us five versions of a brief dialogue. Then he asks:
. . . if I can write a tiny fragment of dialogue in so many different ways, how am I going to decide which is the right way? If each decision depends on how I feel on the day I'm writing, or how I imagine novels ought to be written, or, which amounts to the same thing, on which books I've read, then what happened to my need to speak? For that was something intensely personal and urgent, something which seemed to have nothing to do with books and to be too deeply rooted to be dependent on daily fluctuations of mood.
Josipovici believes that we must be "deeply suspicious of any claims to be representing tradition", but also strongly disagrees with the post-modern idea "that we are now free to plunder from all traditions, selecting what we want and dismissing the rest." Of course, a great many books are published each year, in a wide variety of modes, so writers do not seem to feel adrift by this loss of tradition, or even notice it, seem "untroubled by doubt". Is this a problem? We are constantly being told, especially in the blog world, that there is significant body of "high quality" fiction published each year (which is increasingly impossible to keep up with). Is this really true? Is there something false about the preponderance of these books? How much of even the best and most highly regarded literary fiction simply amounts to "entertainment"?

Josipovici locates a lineage of writers which recognizes these problems, thus running counter to the assumptions of the classic novel (assumptions that seem ever more dominant today). The Modernists, for example, took issue with the classic novel and the sense its writers conveyed that the world could be portrayed in its totality, as it is ("realistically"), and that this was a worthy goal for art. But the lessons of the Modernists seem to have been lost or ignored or misunderstood by most writers.

And that's enough for this already quite long entry. I'll be spending more time discussing Josipovici and his books in future posts.


LK said...

I look forward to your future discussions on this. Novels are at some sort of critical juncture in their development -- I suspect Josipovici is touching on this somehow -- and I'm interested in learning more...Perhaps it is that much of our culture is weighed against entertainment -- maybe entertainment is the supreme value as opposed to enlightenment, moral philosophizing, etc.: How is this affecting how we approach the novel?

Anonymous said...

"...the only reason for a biography of Henry James is the existence of his voluminous writing. He famously didn't do much of anything else: 'He merely wrote his novels like the useless man he was, and what is striking about these if not their quality, their extraordinary refinement, their personality, their style?'"

This is naive. Henry James's writing did a lot - in doing so little of progressive substance - and has been used for a lot - such as the promotion of non-politically progressive forms of art as being (ostensibly) aesthetically superior to, and culturally and personally more valuable than, say, progressive partisan art.

The career of the accomplished mainstream literary critic turned politically progressive literary critic, Maxwell Geismar, was in large part destroyed (on national TV) over his book of criticism on the novels of Henry James. The main attackers of Geismar on the TV lit show were, no less, the now-reputed "father of American neoconservatism" Irving Kristol in a tag team with William vanden Heuvel, a stalwart of the political establishment (and the father of the current editor of The Nation magazine, Katrina vanden Heuvel. Irving Kristol is the father of current prominent Fox News pundit Bill Kristol).

Geismar posits William vanden Heuvel as "a rich, cultivated, charming, and liberal member of the upper echelons of the CIA [who] had a large hand in embroiling [the U. S.] in Vietnam," while Irving Kristol "as it later turned out was almost always affiliated with many State Department or CIA literary projects in editing, publishing, and the academic world…a hired hand of the establishment."

This combined liberal and reactionary political literary attack against the increasingly progressive literary stalwart Maxwell Geismar, having occurred on national TV no less, is one of the most significant moments in all of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century – yet it remains virtually unknown. Details may be found in Geismar’s decades-delayed, invaluable memoir, Reluctant Radical (2002).

Kristol and vanden Heuvel, two central figures of the social and political establishment hastened to appear on national TV over four decades ago to attack directly to the face of silenced progressive literary critic Maxwell Geismar on the occasion of the publication of his book of criticism about Henry James ("a primary Cold War literary figure," as Geismar details him.) Some additional notes here:

Geismar's latter literary criticism is part of the buried US history of liberation lit criticism, which I overview briefly here: John Pilger recently noted the tendency of Americans to be "terminally naive". The burial of the important history (and works) of liberation literary criticism in the US helps ensure this in intellectual circles and beyond.

Richard said...

Tony, your comment seems something of a non sequitur: it's not clear what about the quote from my post prompted your comment. Note that I said nothing about what his writing "did" or didn't do, politically speaking. Nor did I say anything about how his writing might have been used by critics. I said that he "famously didn't do much of anything else". This can hardly be read as meaning anything other than a reference to the man's life, as opposed to his writing.

This post was not about the political aspects of James' or any other writer's work. I admit that I do not know of Maxwell Geismar, and the info you provide is all very interesting, but rather beside the point. I'm under no illusion that Henry James was a progressive writer--and, in fact, I think the continued predominance of the "classic" novel as the ideal type, given its original heyday in the Anglo-American bourgeoisie of the time, does serve to help marginalize other kinds of writing and that there are a lot of interesting things that could be said about this. I could expand on this, and might, but this was hardly the topic of this post.

Anonymous said...

Is it really not clear what I disagree with in the quote I gave?

"...the only reason for a biography of Henry James is the existence of his voluminous writing. He famously didn't do much of anything else: 'He merely wrote his novels like the useless man he was, and what is striking about these if not their quality, their extraordinary refinement, their personality, their style?'"

Contrary to [Gass's? or Edel's?] claim: writing novels is not useless. It doesn't make a person a "useless man". Which James wasn't. If James apart from his writing was useless, his writing had plenty of use to readers, and critics, and political figures. An ostensibly "useless man" or life cannot be "like" a body of writing that was made great use of in its various functional and dysfunctional ways.

"...what is striking about [James's novels] if not their quality, their extraordinary refinement, their personality, their style" is, as I noted, the socio-political nature of the writing itself and its role in the larger society. That a serious critic could find nothing "striking" about society and politics in the writings of James is remarkable for its sheer ignorance - prejudice, bias, or blindness - whether willful or naive.

(A sneaking implication here is that any novel that has some "useful" effect in the world is thereby unremarkable in "quality," "refinement," "personality," and "style" - again, a notion of sheer ignorance - whether willful or naive. This notion is belied in James's work itself, "useful" that is, in debilitating ways.)

You claim that a biography of James must involve his writings, that there is no reason to justify a biography of him otherwise. I have no opinion on that. But apparently as intended evidence or example of this point, or simply seeming concurrence, you provide the statement that claims more than you do, provides no evidence, and in its broader claim at least is not supportable, quite the opposite. That's the issue.

Much of the personal life of James finds its way in to James's novels, as is not uncommon among novelists, affecting both the esthetics and the content and substance apart from esthetics. Maxwell Geismar explores this in great detail in his book Henry James & the Jacobites - a study of James the person, the writings of James, and literary criticism of the writing (and the interplay between all of these especially in relation to society and politics). Geismar's work shows in great detail the striking private and public nature and function and dysfunction of the writings of Henry James and their striking reception by the literary and political establishment. A nature, function, and reception that is naive at best, and often strikingly worse.

Richard said...

Have you ever read Gass, Tony? Your seizing on his use of the word "useless" is excessively literal-minded. Since it appears to be the only word in my entire post that could account for your lengthy comments, I still have to say that they are beside the point. You jump from there to the assumption that I or Gass are thus necessarily completely in the dark about the uses to which James' fiction might have been put.

Parenthetically you say:
"A sneaking implication here is that any novel that has some "useful" effect in the world is thereby unremarkable in "quality," "refinement," "personality," and "style" - again, a notion of sheer ignorance - whether willful or naive."

No, it's not. That is, no it's not a sneaking implication of what's being said. I see no reason why art that has a "useful" effect in the world must thereby be otherwise unremarkable. I do, however, think that art is too often viewed only in terms of whatever "use" it might have, and too rarely in terms of how it achieves whatever artistic effect it might have.

I know that you are particularly interested in progressive art, art that is specifically intended for progressive purposes, however you want to put it. I know that in the past I've disagreed with you on the efficacy, or aesthetic value, of such political art. For what it's worth, I'm not as sure now, though I am still skeptical. But my skepticism is not easily pigeon-holed. I still doubt the point of writing a novel for the express purpose of ending the war, for example, if only because so few people read any given novel. I have no doubt, however, that writers can be and have been inspired by explicitly political events or ideas to create excellent fiction. And I have no doubt that novels, especially widely read and/or classic novels, have and have had important socio-political effects.

It could be argued that there indeed was a political aspect to this post, in that I am discussing the smoothness of surface of the classic novel, which smoothness of surface arguably lures the reader into an acceptance of the author's totality of vision (that "everything" is accounted for in the world of the book). And I think it's more than a little interesting that it is in the Anglo-American mainstream literary world that this kind of vision is still seen as the ideal, and that politics is seen as insufficiently literary. I note that the books I read that hail from Eastern Europe or Latin America or even Scotland or Ireland are informed by a much more radically aware politics than English or American novels tend to be.

I guess that the upshot is that I'd like to think that if you were a semi-regular reader of this blog, you'd be able to tell that politically we are likely most often in agreement and that I am not as black & white on the issue of politics and literature as I might have seemed when I first wrote about you last year, and that, as a result, it would be apparent the comment you were making was not necessary--at least, that is, the accusation of naivete or ignorance (except insofar as I was literally ignorant of Geismar, having neither heard of him previously nor read his book).

Anonymous said...

I've read Gass, both fiction and criticism. Some of his work is of interest. My criticism of his statement stands of course. You don't address it directly, except in a passing brief sentence. Instead, you address a parenthetical comment I made. I also made clear that Gass's statement is naive/ignorant - that is, mistaken - and scarcely related to your own point, and that you mistakenly use it to bolster your own point, thus confusing the issue, confusing your own point. Doing so also seems to affirm Gass's inaccurate claim. Aside from that confusion, again, as I stated I'm not disagreeing with your view about a James biography. In fact I'm more inclined to agree. (My only thought on the matter is that sometimes with people whose lives are more documented, for whatever reason, than other people's lives, sometimes then it seems to me that a useful biography might be cobbled together, if only because there is more available information of the person than might otherwise be typical.)

Richard said...

I addressed your point by saying that your interpretation of Gass' use of the word "useless" was overly literal. Which was to say that, no, you did not "make clear" that his statement was naive/ignorant, or mistaken. Your comment about the uses to which the writing of Henry James has been put, even if completely accurate (and I have no trouble believing it basically is) does not invalidate the line. It is not a factual statement. Nor is it opinion; really, it is itself literary, as much of Gass' criticism is. I don't know that there's much more we can say about that.

In any event, my use of his quote was not to bolster my own claim--I made no claim about it. The claim about the point or pointlessness of a biography of James is also made by Gass, though I present it in my own words. In that part of the post I am talking about Gass, and I am presenting, in his words and mine, his take on Henry James, at least in the two referenced essays. And besides, his point is largely about the overly psychological nature of the biography, which, he is saying, does not have much to say about the nature of the writing itself. His opinion, of course, is that what is "striking" about this writing is its style, quality, etc. Obviously you and Geismar would say that there is something else striking about it, and say further that it has been used for decidedly non-progressive ends. I have no quarrel with this. But that doesn't make Gass naive or ignorant, certainly not on the basis of one, brief passage in an essay from 50 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I disagree with Gass's point, as I explained. I don't think - nor did I claim - that Gass is naive or ignorant in general, far from it. His point is, though, in my view.

litlove said...

'I am curious about these forms of criticism. I know that it's a commonplace for academic criticism to be taken to task for reading literature for anything other than its literary/aesthetic qualities'

This would seem to imply that all criticism fuelled primarily by forms of theory (psychoanalysis, deconstruction, reader response, etc) would not be reading novels for their literary or aesthetic qualities, and I think that would be a somewhat sweeping and inaccurate generalisation. There's good theory and there's poor theory; it's a huge field. I get very uneasy about the fashionable tendency of late to dismiss it wholescale or tie its identity down to a few labels.

But I agree with the smoothness of surface in 19th century fiction as being part of its pleasure. It does not draw attention to its methods of production. Unlike Modernist works, of course, part of whose literary originality lay in their attentiveness to their own constructed nature.

Apologies if I am reading you wrong on any of these points.

Richard said...

litlove: to clarify, I am not trying to imply anything, really, about the uses of critical theory. I have little to no knowledge of it, outside of what people say on blogs. I understand that it's a huge field and would like to know more. (For what it's worth, I too get uneasy about the tendency towards wholesale dismissal of it. Not because I know myself, but because I don't, if that makes any sense. Since I can't judge for myself, I'm forced to take dismissals at face value, and that makes me uneasy.)

Also, I wasn't quite saying that "the smoothness of surface in 19th century fiction [is] part of its pleasure", but what I am saying may become clearer in subsequent posts, so I won't take the time to expand on it here.

Thanks for reading and responding.

Anonymous said...

One of the many, many interesting things about Middlemarch is that Eliot wrote it in the aftermath of the 1867 Reform Act, which had given working class men the vote. The book illuminates the anxieties of the period concerning whether this was a wise move: workers vandalising the site of a proposed railway are portrayed like errant, disruptive children, while the ideal worker, Caleb Girth, is subservient and personally unambitious (cf Joe Gargery in Great Expectations).

Enjoy your reading (great blog, incidentally).