Friday, July 28, 2006

Brief Hiatus...

...caused by the birth of my adorable son, Elliot, on July 24th; normal service will resume when I recover from paternal post-partum euphoria. (I'm working on a post for next week.)

Meanwhile, a book recommendation for the sleep-deprived: Death and the Penguin, by Andrey Kurkov. Funny, pithy, suspenseful, with an average chapter length of three pages, it's perfect for the short attention span.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Great Books (VI): Woolf

The contrast with Austen could not be more severe: here is London, agitated, sonorous, euphoric, at the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway; here is Clarissa, with her "narrow, pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird's"; "button-faced Miss Pym, who hands were always bright red, as if they had been stood in cold water with the flowers."

In "Modern Fiction", Woolf protests against the novels of Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Galsworthy:
If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say that these three writers are materialists. It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only to the desert, the better for its soul.
If there is a paradox here – since Woolf, unlike Austen, is concerned with objects, with bodies, with the appearance of material things – it is resolved by her conception of experience, which echoes Moore's remark in "The Refutation of Idealism":
And, in general, that which makes the sensation of blue a mental fact seems to escape us: it seems, if I may use a metaphor, to be transparent – we look through it and see nothing but the blue.
For Woolf, the envelope of consciousness is "semi-transparent", "a luminous halo": to capture the contents of the mind is to capture its objects in the external world. (No wonder Denby is less excited by Woolf than by Austen: he is a moralist, not a metaphysician.)

The evidence for Moore's influence on Woolf is, as far I know, merely circumstantial: his work was an intellectual prop for her confederates in Bloomsbury. But it is tempting to speculate.

While everyone knows that Mr. Ramsay is a portrait of Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, he is not a historian of thought or a moral philosopher, as Stephen was.
When [Lily Briscoe] 'thought of his work' she always saw clearly before her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him what his father's books were about. 'Subject and object and the nature of reality', Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, she had no notion what that meant, 'Think of a kitchen table then', he told her, 'when you're not there'.
The example of a table existing in space is used by Moore in the "Refutation"; and the implicit problem, about idealism and sense-data, was his. It is imagined, on a different scale, in the ecstatic language of time passing, as the Ramsays' house sits abandoned for a decade.
Not only was the furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say 'This is he' or 'This is she.'
In Mrs. Dalloway, the privacy of consciousness – a Moorean theme – appears in the windows and doors that open into separate rooms, and in the particulate selves that pass through one another like waves on the streets of London. Only Septimus makes a momentary breach:
[Lucrezia] held her hands to her head, waiting for him to say did he like the hat or not, and as she sat there, waiting, looking down, he could feel her mind, like a bird, falling from branch to branch, and always alighting, quite rightly; he could follow her mind, as she sat there in one of those loose lax poses that came to her naturally and, if he should say anything, at once she smiled, like a bird alighting with all its claws upon the bough.
But there is another force in these pages, in the web that connects the characters, and in Woolf's inscrutable pronouns: her monadology, the same world contained within each one.

The literal rooms of her most wonderful book resound with these notes of defiance, and with a picture of the soul like nothing to be found in Moore: a kind of historical materialism, of minds furnished with the property one's income can afford. The most mundane of material needs – a room of one's own, five hundred pounds a year – are priced in the currency of thought, and invested with reverence.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Great Books (V): Austen

My indifference to the novels of Jane Austen has been a source of suspicion to friends, and of mild anxiety to myself. Am I still the fifteen-year-old who made fun of Mr. Knightley's entrance at the tops of the stairs, "slick, black and creamy [sic]" like a pint of Guinness? I hope not.

Still, I can't share Denby's enthusiasm, even as I am persuaded of Austen's gifts as a moralist and social critic. My quandary is made a theme in her first published novel:
"I think you will like him," said Elinor, "when you know more of him."

"Like him!" replied her mother, with a smile. "I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love"

"You may esteem him."

"I have never yet known what it was to separate esteem and love."
Like Elinor, "I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of [Austen] – that I greatly esteem [her], that I like [her]" – but I cannot go further: I do not love Jane Austen.

There is no question of justifying this disdain, but I can perhaps explain it. What I miss in Austen's prose – at least in Sense and Sensibility, which I read for the first time last month – is any sense of physical reality. Its absence is almost eerie. Thus, none of her protagonists have faces: Elinor and Marianne are first described, programmatically, in Chapter 10. And apart from functional descriptions of cottages and estates, the material environment is barely there. Like Edward, Austen will not praise a landscape "on picturesque principles": their common sense prefers a straight to a crooked tree, but nothing more.

This virtual absence of colour, space and movement is deliberate, I think: it is part of an experiment in writing only about character and society. But it, too, becomes a theme. Marianne walks, runs, falls, is carried, swoons, cries, sweats, groans, shakes: she is the only one who has a body, and it almost kills her. Only when her physical beauty is dulled by grief and illness is she permitted to wed.

Readers have been willing to accept, on Elinor's muted testimony, that she feels as strongly as her sister – and to criticize Marianne for doubting her. According to Ryle, the novel asks, "must Head and Heart be antagonists?" And it answers – correctly, in Ryle's view – that they must not:
Marianne and Elinor are alike in that their feelings are deep and genuine. The difference is that Marianne lets her joy, anxiety or grief so overwhelm her that she behaves like a person crazed. Elinor keeps her head. (Gilbert Ryle, "Jane Austen and the Moralists")
If Elinor loves Edward, however, it is without the somatic vigour of Marianne: she makes no sharp distinction between love and esteem. As the novel ends, her sister's "lively friendship" for Colonel Brandon fades into devotion. Can we suppose that Elinor has ever felt more than this for Mr. Ferrars?

Neither of them controls her passions; it is just that Elinor's are less intense. Think of her lenience to Willoughby in the scene of his thoroughly incredible confession.
She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction – that open, affectionate and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less.
When Elinor's emotions are violent – as they are on a few occasions – their subsidence is alarmingly prompt. "Much as she had suffered from her first conversation with Lucy on the subject [of her engagement to Edward], she soon felt an earnest wish of renewing it." And when Edward finally proposes, she is so "overcome by her own felicity" that "it require[s] several hours to give sedateness to her spirits". Marianne would be exalted for weeks.

Austen tempts us all to read against the grain – as in Denby's perverse apology for Mrs. Bennet. Is it going too far to say that Sense and Sensibility condemns, not Marianne, but the institutions that make impossible or imprudent any form of love that is more than mutual esteem?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Great Books (IV): Interlude

A little mystery: why is Denby's book so much fun to read? He is perceptive about the classics he encounters – but not tremendously so; the insights are modest. And his writing is fluent without pyrotechnics. Yet, despite its shortcomings – which were catalogued by Helen Vendler in The New Republic (add that to the list of mean reviews) the book is consistently entertaining.

Part of the reason is contained in a blurb by Joyce Carol Oates:
The tone of prose [of Denby's book] is one of unqualified enthusiasm: energy, vigor, intellectual curiosity and what might be called an ecstasy of imaginative journalism.
Perhaps because of his background as a reviewer, Denby is not afraid to praise – as when he observes that Virgil's account of the fall of Troy is "one of the greatest things I have ever read". Happily, he can joke about this:
Reading the Aeneid again after thirty years, and knowing now what I couldn't have known earlier – how difficult it is to write anything well, even a thousand-word movie review, a short essay, a decent letter – I was amazed by Virgil's skill. What a surprise! Journalist discovers that the most famous poet of classical Rome can write!
Like beauty, however, pleasure can be confusing, and Denby's receptivity becomes a vice. For all the wit he levels against the critics of the canon, he has no theory to offer in its support:
Pleasure was the key, the only way of approaching the arts that wasn't false. You went from one pleasure to the next, one work to the next, and you made a chain of delight. […] Did the requirement that all students listen to a little Mozart – or a little Armstrong, Ellington, and Charlie Parker – set up a hierarchy of values? Of course it did. It was a statement that many people in the past with intellectual equipment and social opportunities similar to [yours] had received extraordinarily intense pleasure from this music. You might not feel it yourself – but at least give it a chance. Give pleasure a chance. That was all such courses really said.
This evasion was picked up by Frank Kermode in his review of Denby, and, arguably, in his most recent book. That it is an evasion is something I have argued before. In this context, the problem is that an appeal to pleasure does nothing to justify these works over others you might more readily enjoy.

The insufficiency of pleasure to encompass what seems valuable in art is one source of the Romantic attachment to poetry as knowledge – as, perhaps, in knowledge of how to feel. This idea is developed by Raymond Geuss – but then is briskly dismissed:
To say that some determinate, coherent (or, for that matter, incoherent) 'feeling' or even range of feelings is fitting as a response to this poem is like saying that there is one proper emotional response to human life in the twentieth century.
Geuss himself is not disturbed by this, or by the failure of the Romantic view:
If, however, there is nothing inherently wrong with pleasure, and certainly nothing wrong with feeling 'what I want to feel,' there would be nothing inherently wrong with an art that was (merely) entertaining, and no one would need to claim that poetry is knowledge in order to defend it.
But the problem was never that pleasure is bad – the sub-Platonic objection – but that it may be at war with taste: Geuss is shoved into the same disabling position that Denby was abandoned in, above.

None of this is meant as a defence of the Romantic conception, which seems in its own way distorting. But the incoherence of Denby's enthusiasm is a symptom of the fact that suspicion of pleasure in art, far from being joyless or puritanical, is a condition of explaining why it should be enjoyed.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Great Books (III): Dante

The most interesting moment in Michael Tanner's influential essay, "Sentimentality", occurs at the very end:
I am inclined to think that nothing can secure us against sentimentality to anything like the degree we need. Most of our basic attitudes and feelings are sentimental, on the analyses I have adumbrated of the concept. For my answer to the question whether sentimentality is a historical phenomenon is that it is, to this extent: enormous numbers of our feelings and attitudes towards the most basic issues are based on some more-or-less traditional Christian outlook. But we are no longer living in a Christian society, in any serious sense, and most of us are not Christians. Our general view of the world is not at all like Christ's. And yet we depend for much of our emotional and spiritual succour on art and teaching that not only presupposes the truth of Christianity, but actively propagates it. Many an atheist thinks that the B minor Mass is one of the greatest works of art; that is what I feel. But I am not at all clear that I should. The brevity with which I have mentioned this matter means not that it is an after-thought, or tangential to the subject-matter of the paper, but that I am too disconcerted by it to know what to say.
Tanner's "analyses" are in fact quite hard to make out. Certainly, he regards a feeling as sentimental only if it is inappropriate or unwarranted. There is also a tentative connection with pleasure; for when painful emotions like grief are sentimental, as they can be, they are also in some way consoling. But it is hard to be more specific. Thus:
Sentimentality […] is the name of several kinds of disease of the feelings, in which the elements of feeling 'in the void', of unfocused emotion, and of being prepared for huge bouts of emotional response to virtually random, or alternatively, direly predictable stimuli, are all closely connected.
As well from being (perhaps forgivably) vague, however, this definition seems to miss the valence of sentimentality. As it stands, the account would apply to many cases of depression. But depression is rarely sentimental, even when it is inflected with the pleasures of self-pity, because – roughly speaking – its distortions do not turn on seeing the world as sweet or gentle or tender in ways that it is not. A hard emotion like anger can be sentimental, but only when it is, say, righteous indignation at an offence that the tough-hearted would merely expect.

The atheist's reaction to religious art is sometimes sentimental in this sense, as when Denby reads the Torah in Contemporary Civilization:
I looked around me and struggled to take in what was happening. Not just Jews and Christians but also Muslims, who recognized the Old Testament prophets as their ancestors, had long contended with this ornery, ungovernable text. Suddenly, I was extraordinarily happy. […] We were in this place, at this moment, with one another. We were also part of an endless chain of such discussions, a link of immortality. The core curriculum was a secular manifestation, but it had become, this day, part of that eternal chain.
The sentimentality of these remarks lies in exploiting the Biblical resonance of immortality and eternity outside of the context in which it makes sense.

But this is not inevitable. It would be wrong to say that an atheist who is deeply moved by Dante's Inferno is being sentimental. Whatever is disproportionate in his feelings, it does not turn on seeing the world as more forgiving than it is.
No barrel, even though it's lost a hoop
or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
his vitals and the miserable sack
that makes of what we swallow excrement.
Why does Tanner over-estimate the scope of sentimentality? In part, I think, because he is interested in something at once more narrow and more general: the emotional impact of art that rests on false beliefs. The problem is hard to formulate. In reading fiction we routinely work with propositions that we know are not the case, ways of seeing things we do not share; we enter into them as make-believe. But Tanner is right to think that there are limits here. For Denby, the gate of hell is where the limit is passed: "the violence [of the Inferno] was too exact, too thorough; one had to believe in it or reject the poem altogether."

The question is not confined to religious art, where reading as fiction can feel irreverent. It is about the extent to which appreciation makes demands upon belief.