By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 22, 2011

7. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 121-142

Symbolism: The Autonomy of Art; The Purification of Fiction (Virginia Woolf, Gustave Flaubert, André Gide. The Objective Artifact (Gustave Flaubert, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Joyce)

Virginia Woolf: The Novel of Consciousness

In the essay "Modern Fiction" (1919), Woolf takes on the most celebrated novelists of the Edwardian era, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy, and leaves them in tatters. None of them seems to have recovered from the attack: Wells is known today mostly for his science fiction and Galsworthy for the TV adaptation of The Forsyte Saga (and for a Nobel Prize in Literature, an award that eluded such figures as Proust, Joyce, Tolstoy and Henry James, not to mention Virginia Woolf). Bennett, after a long period of neglect, has received some serious consideration in recent years, including a biography by Margaret Drabble, but of the three he remains probably the least-known by the general reading public.
Virginia Woolf, date unknown

Woolf's criticism comes after one of those assertions modern artists were fond of making: "It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature." And Wells, Galsworthy, and Bennett are her proof, because the three celebrated 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 ... the better for its soul."

She singles out Bennett for the kind of faint praise that damns: "he is by far the best workman" of the three. "He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in. There is not so much a draught between the frames of the windows, or a chink in the boards. And yet -- if life should refuse to live there?"

It may be that today we value craftsmanship more than the innovative writers of Woolf's day did, but for her, to call a writer a "workman" and to praise his craftsmanship was to say that he wasn't an artist. Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells, she proclaims, "write of unimportant things" and "spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring." We have seen writers and elsewhere in this book suggesting that an ability to find the "enduring" in the "transitory" is exactly what the artist should possess, but Woolf doesn't think that's enough -- at least for fiction. Bennett, she suggests, has caught "life just an inch or two on the wrong side." This choosing of right and wrong sides is rather impressionistic and vague, but she goes on to elaborate in a famous passage that bears repeating almost in full:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions -- trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.
That's such a barrage of ideas and images that, even though we're only at the midpoint of this celebrated paragraph, it's probably a good idea to stop and parse a bit of what she's saying. The emphasis here is on the freedom of the artist from convention, from the traditional way of reporting what occurs to "an ordinary mind on an ordinary day." Convention demands that the writer impose a plot on it, choose whether to regard it as comic or tragic, to dress it up neatly "in the accepted style." She continues:
Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us belief it.
Gig lamps
"Gig lamps" are carriage lamps, and we can think of them as headlights. But because they were "symmetrically arranged" on either side of the carriage the phrase also became slang for eyeglasses. So Woolf is thinking of lights or spectacles peering through the dark, and singling out objects in the viewer's path. But this is to circumscribe existence, and Woolf prefers to see life, or existence, or experience as something that surrounds one and is spiritual -- intangible, ineffable -- rather than the materialistic singling out of objects in one's path.
Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. 
But wait: Didn't she just criticize Bennett for his emphasis on the "trivial and transitory"?  Yes, she did. But what she said was that he made "the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring." (Italics added.) I think the point is that Bennett overemphasizes things, sentimentalizes them, claims for them a significance that they don't really possess. He doesn't "trace the pattern ... upon the consciousness." He gives individual sights and incidents connection and coherence. He imposes an order rather than discovers it.

And so to James Joyce, who had published The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and was beginning to serialize Ulysses, which Woolf thinks "promises to be a far more interesting work." He comes closer to what Woolf hopes fiction will accomplish:
In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see.
She has read the cemetery chapter from Ulysses, and comments, "If we want life itself, here surely we have it." But does Joyce measure up to Conrad or Hardy? No, "because of the comparative poverty of the writer's mind" which gives her the "sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free." She's also a little shocked by Joyce: "Does the emphasis laid, perhaps didactically, upon indecency, contribute to the effect of something angular and isolated?"

The comparative merits and faults of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are not up for debate here, so I'll just say that Woolf's reading of Joyce seems to me to have elements of envy tainting it, as well as a theoretical bias. Woolf would go on to try to trace the patterns and evoke the semi-transparent envelope in her own novels, and if Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse have faults, it may be that they are too theoretical at basis.

She turns away from Joyce to consider the Russians: "If we want understanding of the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable profundity. If we are sick of our own materialism the least considerable of their novelists has by right of birth a natural reverence for the human spirit." The problem with Russian writers, however, is "the inconclusiveness of the Russian mind" and "the sense that there is no answer" to the questions life raises," which "fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with a resentful, despair." One of the virtues of the English novel is its capacity for humor: "English fiction from Sterne to Meredith bears witness to our natural delight in humour and comedy, in the beauty of earth, in the activities of the intellect, and in the splendour of the body."

Gustave Flaubert: Style as Absolute

Edmond and Jules Goncourt recorded in their journal in 1861 that Flaubert claimed to be unconcerned with plot and character: "In Madame Bovary, all I wanted to do was to render a grey color, the mouldy color of a wood-louse's existence." His initial concept of Madame Bovary was "a chaste and devout old maid," and he didn't change his mind until he started writing.

However much we may suspect that Flaubert was pulling the Goncourts' legs, he also claimed, in an 1852 letter to Louise Colet, who is often thought to be the model for Emma Bovary, that he wanted to write "a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible.... I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction." (Perhaps he was only viewing the future of the sitcom: "Seinfeld," the show about nothing.)
It is for this reason that there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects; from the standpoint of pure Art one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject, style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.

André Gide: The Pure Novel 

André Gide, date unknown
Flaubert never pulled off his novel about nothing, but the idea was still lingering in 1925 when Gide published The Counterfeiters. In the journal about its composition, published a year later, Gide proclaimed:
I should like to strip the novel of every element that does not specifically belong to the novel. Just as photography in the past freed painting from its concern for a certain sort of accuracy, so the phonograph will eventually no doubt rid the novel of the kind of dialogue which is drawn from the life and which realists take so much pride in. Outward events, accidents, traumatisms, belong to the cinema. The novel should leave them to it. 
(Movies, of course, were then silent, so Gide gave the phonograph the task of removing dialogue from the novel. A few years later, the cinema would serve the purpose as well.) The point, as we have seen poets and painters also insist, was the "purity" of the work: "purity is the only thing I care about," Gide proclaims.

In the novel, Edouard is the novelist trying to liberate the genre from alien elements, and his ideas meet with derision from his friends. He wants the novel to exhibit a "deliberate avoidance of life," to be as artificial as "the works of the Greek dramatists, for instance, or ... the tragedies of the French XVIIth century" which "don't pride themselves on appearing ... real." He tells them, "I should like a novel which should be at the same time as true and as far from reality, as particular and at the same time as general, as human and as fictitious as Athalie, or Tartuffe or Cinna." (Plays by, respectively, Racine, Molière, and Corneille.) The central character of the novel would be the novelist struggling "between what reality offers him and what he himself desires to make of it." And he proposes to keep a notebook, "a running criticism of my novel" that would be "more interesting than the work itself." 

When one of his friends asks if he isn't afraid of  "making a novel about ideas instead of about human beings," Edouard retorts that "ideas, I must confess, interest me more than men -- interest me more than anything." And he isn't afraid of writing a novel of ideas just because others have tried and made a botch of it. He's even thinking of trying to write a novel that would be like a fugue: "I can't see why what was possible in music should be impossible in literature." Bernard, who knows the title of Edouard's book, says that the title itself seemed to promise a novel with a story: The Counterfeiters.

Gustave Flaubert: The Impersonality of Art

In another 1857 letter to Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie, Flaubert announces that he is "going to write a novel whose action will take place three centuries before Christ" -- it became Salammbô -- because "I feel the need of taking leave of the modern world: my pen has been steeped in it too long, and I am as weary of portraying it as I am disgusted by the sight of it." He also denies that Madame Bovary is based on any actual incident or in any way on his own life:
The illusion of truth (if there is one) comes ... from the book's impersonality. It is one of my principles that a writer should not be his own theme. An artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful; he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen.
He also argues that art should be endowed "with the exactness of the physical sciences." The naturalism of Zola would follow this principle to the letter. The goal of the scientist is the impersonal approach to the truth, but in art, he admits, impersonality is a hard thing to maintain: "Feeling does not make poetry; and the more personal you are, the poorer you will be. That has always been my sin; I have always put myself into everything I have done.... The less one feels a thing, the more fit one is to express it in its true nature.... But one must have the faculty for making oneself feel."

Rainer Maria Rilke: Artistic Objectivity

Rilke writes in 1907 to his wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, about his favorite painter, Paul Cézanne, whose "integrity reduced the existent to its color content that it began, beyond color, a new existence, without earlier memories." While this treatment of color was accepted in his still lifes, some viewers found it harder to accept in landscapes or portraits.
They apprehend, without realizing, that he was reproducing apples, onions, and oranges with sheer color ... , but when they come to landscape, they miss interpretation, judgment, superiority, and where portraiture is concerned, why, the rumor of intellectual conception has been passed on even to the most bourgeois, and so successfully that something of the kind is already noticeable even in Sunday photographs of engaged couples and families. And here Cézanne seems to them quite inadequate and not worth discussing at all.
Paul Cézanne, Apples, peaches, pears, and grapes, c. 1870
Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c. 1902-05
Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, c. 1888-90

T.S. Eliot: The Objective Correlative

Eliot's 1919 essay on Hamlet is probably his most famous, not only for the somewhat maddening concept of the "objective correlative," but also because Shakespeare's play was at the time venerated as the pinnacle of the playwright's art, and Eliot's cheeky judgment that it was a failure shocked many of the conventional-minded.

The objective correlative is "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." Hamlet's emotion, Eliot claims, "is in excess of the facts as they appear." He seems, to Eliot at least, to be overreacting to his father's death, his uncle's role in it, and his mother's infidelity. "Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her."

It's a tricky claim, because it treats the play as a text to be read and not as one to be acted. Who's to say that skillful performers and directors can't provide in the performance the detail and nuance that would make Hamlet's emotion convincing? And to some of us, the very eccentricity of Hamlet is what's so eternally fascinating about the play.

James Joyce: Stasis and Objective Form

James Joyce, 1915
Stephen Hero (1904-06) is the abandoned first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). It gives us Joyce's first concise definition of an epiphany as "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself" and as "the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact form. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised."

In the Portrait, Stephen Dedalus lays out his aesthetic for his coarse friend Lynch during a walk through Dublin, mixing Aristotle with Aquinas in a superbly callow but brilliant fashion. He begins with a parsing of Aristotle's "pity and terror," the elements of tragedy:
--Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.
Pity, in Stephen's terms, is virtually synonymous with empathy. Terror is harder to define, but it seems to denote a kind of identification of the viewer with the tragic victim. The key word for Stephen, though, is arrest, a momentary halt in the flux of existence: "the tragic emotion is static." True art produces this stasis, this epiphanic moment of suspension in time, whereas "improper art" urges one to do something, it is kinetic. Pornography stirs desire, and is therefore not true art. Lynch, of course, makes a joke out of this, but Stephen soldiers on:
Beauty expressed by the artist cannot awaken in us an emotion which is kinetic or a sensation which is purely physical. It awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an esthetic stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth, prolonged and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty... the first formal esthetic relation of part to part in any esthetic whole or of an esthetic whole to its part or parts or of any part to the esthetic whole of which is its a part.
Yeats remarked on the role of rhythm as a form of hypnosis, similarly leading to a kind of stasis.

Stephen then ventures into Scholasticism and Aquinas to examine the nature of beauty, whose elements, as defined by Aquinas are "wholeness, harmony, and radiance." And he examines some aesthetic conundrums, including:
--If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood ... make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?
He doesn't stay for an answer, however, but proceeds to the familiar withdrawal of the artist from the work he has created: "The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, so to speak.... The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." We are back to Flaubert's assertion: "An artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful; he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen."

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