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.


Anonymous "Q" the Enchanter said...

As it happens I'd just picked up Great Books out of the garage to read it again, about two months ago.

One of the things I find enjoyable about the book is that I get the sense Denby knows he's just muddling around in search of a coherent theory. (I don't mean to be perverse or contrarian – if I thought there were a coherent theory of the canon, I'd be annoyed that he didn't state it.) Sure, he'll state an argument here or there, but his seeming conviction is as ephemeral as it is infectious. As such, Denby's experience as a layman trying to come to terms with philosophical, psychological and political arguments about art (impossible!) resonates with other aesthetically sensitive layreaders (including I think philosophers trained outside aesthetics) in a way that a systematic treatise on aesthetics couldn't. After reading it, you can't help but want to love the canon...

2:18 PM  

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