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.
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.)
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.
"I think you will like him," said Elinor, "when you know more of him."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.
"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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No barrel, even though it's lost a hoopWhy 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."
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.