Suppose that A is standing at a bar with his friend B and tells B, “I’ll give you a dollar to fight the man on the side of you”(C). B, naturally, answers: “Are you crazy? Even if I win, I’ll probably tear my clothes, or mess them up. A dollar wouldn’t even cover the dry-cleaning bill.” B is very sensible.
But then C starts to pick up B’s change on the bar—about a dollar’s worth. “You can’t do that,” B assures him, emphatically. C says, “Who says?” “Oh yeah?”s get traded, then shoulders pushed in rotation—and before you know it, B is fighting for a dollar after all.
But now, B will assure us, the money does not matter, it’s the principle of the thing. What principle? “That no one can steal from me, no matter what the amount.” But the man picking up the change thought it was his; no principle about stealing existed in his mind. “Well, I don’t want the idea to get around that anyone can take things from me.” So C is suffering proleptically for all the people who might feel tempted to engage in C-like activities (the deterrence theory of punishment). But what if C’s calamity does not get around to all the bars? What, that is, if future Cs do not know about the educational improvements B has effected on C’s nose? “They might not know, but I would.” B, it appears, can have no pride in himself unless he fights over one-dollar misunderstandings.
In the preface to the Yale edition of Samuel Johnson’s poems, the editors remark that “for a modern reader who can recreate the situation in which [“London”] was written, it may still be exciting enough. But to one with less imaginative capacity or historical knowledge, its appeal lies in Johnson’s skillful handling of the couplet.”2 To assist us in re-creating the milieu of 1738, the editors supply the usual notes identifying various historical personages and events which are no longer in the domain of common knowledge. In this respect they follow Johnson’s lead. “London” is manifestly an occasional poem; and its occasion—in part, Walpole’s timidity abroad and corruption at home—like all occasions, passed.3 Indeed it passed so quickly that Johnson himself felt called upon in the fifth edition (1750) to annotate, for instance, his mention of “the Gazetteer”: “the paper which at that time contained apologies for the Court.” By 1750 Walpole was long out of court, the Gazetteer extinct, and “London” as outdated as yesterday’s newspaper.
For poems like “London” whose contents are neither au courant nor immortal but rather historical or simply dead, the Yale editors suggest two avenues of resuscitation: the reader may either restore the background by means of historical imagination or, failing that, admire Johnson’s couplet art, which perhaps has a better chance at perennial appeal. Either content or form, either history or art—both options require a sacrifice on our part, and that sacrifice is our occasion, our need. Even assuming that the poem’s context could be exhumed and that we could participate once again in all the rage of the “patriot” opposition to Walpole, Why would we want to? The problem is that not only “London” but the Walpole regime itself is now defunct. Yet the same question must be asked of the poem’s art, even and especially if it is eternal. Why are we interested in the aesthetic knowledge of couplets that have been drained of all substance? Is understanding “London” in either case an end in itself? The pure content of the poem is too concrete, its pure form too abstract, to answer our occasions. Thus to understand the poem as either history or art demands a leisure that has no exigencies and is therefore free for the bygone and ethereal.4
2. E.L. McAdam, Jr. and George Milne, eds., Poems, vol. 6, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven, Conn., 1964), p. xvii.
3. For a detailed exposition of the social and political background of “London,” see Donald Greene, The Politics of Samuel Johnson (New Haven, Conn., 1960), pp. 88-92, and James Clifford, “London,” Young Sam Johnson (New York, 1955), pp. 175-94.
4. John Locke explains the infinite leisure we can take in understanding the obscurities of ancient authors in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser, 2 vols. (New York, 1955), 2:110:
There being no writings we have any great concernment to be very solicitous about the meaning of, but those that contain either truths we are required to believe, or laws we are to obey, and draw inconveniences on us when we mistake or transgress, we may be less anxious about the sense of other authors; who, writing but their own opinions, we are under no greater necessity to know them, than they to know ours. Our good or evil depending not on their decrees, we may safely be ignorant of their notions: and therefore in the reading of them, if they do not use their words with a due clearness and perspicuity, we may lay them aside.
See also: Steven Mailloux, Rhetorical Hermeneutics
Recent developments in post-structuralist hermeneutical theory, whatever their effect on the reading of Western literature, have had an enormously salutary effect on the reading of Native American literature. With the reexamination of such concepts of voice, text, and performance, and of the ontological and epistemological status of the sign, has come a variety of effective means for specifying and demonstrating the complexity and richness of Native American narrative. The movement away from structuralism’s binary method necessarily rejected Claude Lévi-Strauss’ opposition of the “myth” to the “poem,” the one infinitely translatable, the other virtually untranslatable. In Lévi-Strauss’ work, anything that might be considered the literature of the “primitive” people always appeared as myth, its “content” available for transformation into abstract pairs while its “form,” its actual language, was simply ignored or dismissed.
Dickens’ famous satire of complacency and chauvinism entails a peculiarly English fiction about the innocence of girls. The “Podsnappery” chapter of Our Mutual Friend is in fact devoted to a dinner party in honor of Georgiana Podsnap’s eighteenth birthday, though “it was somehow understood…that nothing must be said about the day”1—the generation of Miss Podsnap being one of those disagreeable facts that Mr. Podsnap simply refuses to admit. But if Miss Podsnap’s birth is unmentionable, her existence is crucial: Podsnappery very much depends upon the presence of a daughter. What Mr. Podsnap cannot dismiss as “Not English!”—starving Englishmen, for instance—can always be removed as subjects unsuited to the female young. The “cheek of the young person” becomes the test of knowledge over a wide field.
1. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, ed. Stephen Gill (Harmondsworth, 1971), bk. 1, chap. 11, pp. 181-82; all further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text with only book and chapter numbers for the convenience of those using other editions.
Usually a novel’s subject is the individual in action. That individual must confront a set of social expectations and norms which define and limit him. In such novels the revelation of social expectations constitutes a central element in the artist’s depiction. The degree to which society limits the hero’s action, of course, varies widely. We can imagine a continuum along which the influence of society is arranged. Sociological/naturalistic novels, in which a social order is depicted as destructive, define one extreme of that continuum. The protagonists in their suffering reveal this society’s destructive force. At the opposite extreme, society’s values and norms may be important in guiding and evaluating a protagonist’s movement toward his fate without society itself becoming an obstacle to his progress. We think, for instance, of Jane Austen’s novels. In the broad middle range of the continuum, protagonists struggle to realize their potential within social limitations, and their successes are usually partial. In assessing their triumphs, we must evaluate the obstacles they have encountered both in their own natures and in the natures of their social milieu.
To make society the protagonist of a novel upsets the expectations of readers, first because the novel as a genre usually depicts the growth or change of protagonists moving from complications to stability, and second because the novel customarily concludes in some alteration of the protagonist’s external state and in some expansion of his understanding. With society as his protagonist, a writer commits himself to engaging our primary interest in the life of an abstraction or set of principles. Here, too, action is crucial. This kind of novel differs from a utopian novel, however, which focuses on ideas about society and whose principal end is to criticize or espouse a particular social order, not to engage us in working out instabilities through action. In novels in which society is protagonist, we are involved with the fate of an entire social order, and it is one about which we are made to care. The principal purpose is to present a society moving from a state of instability toward a qualitatively defined fate analogous to the movement of an individual hero.
To achieve this end, characters become agents through which a social order realizes its fate. This function of character entails no simple inversion of the usual relationships between individuals and society, because characters can never be reduced to a backdrop the way society can, and society cannot easily achieve the particularity of definition and identity the way a character can. In attempting to discover narrative terms for realizing the fate of a society, a novelist faces an enormous technical challenge. He must make us care as much about a social order as he would about a particular individual, and yet he cannot write directly about ideas—he must record the actions of humans. Because his plot will focus on no single individual but on abstract processes and social hopes, he must constantly minimize individual fates and aspirations and make them clearly a function of society’s larger turmoil. Our empathy must rest firmly with the social principles being threatened rather than with any single character. With this end in view, a clearly defined, circumscribed arena for action becomes necessary. Literal battles, or scenes in which battles operate as a principal metaphor, frequently appear in such novels. By bringing many of the major characters together, defining and creating allegiances, and pitting opposing social principles, such battles provide an important context for measuring the progress of those values with which we empathize.
See also: Frank Lentricchia, Andiamo!
In the chapter on multiplicity and unity, the affective or anthropological motifs are both more complex and more interesting. Wölfflin’s initial distinction is between “the articulated system of forms of classic art and the (endless) flow of the baroque” (PAH, p. 158). Imagery of fluidity pervades the chapter, for water, according to Wölfflin, “was the period’s favourite element” (RB, p. 154). “Now, and now only,” he says, “the greatness of the sea could find its representation”(PAH, p. 178), and as if to inculcate this affinity he places the reproduction of a baroque seascape by Jan van Goyen at the head of the introduction to the book and a riverscape by Peter Brueghel at the head of this chapter, even though neither painting is discussed where it is reproduced. In fact it is worth observing that Wölfflin does not discuss any water paintings in this chapter, though of course he does so elsewhere. Where fluidity becomes the meaning of his category, it is absent from the contents of the paintings. Wölfflin’s procedure, as I have argued, is both objectively analytical and subjectively interpretive, and in this chapter he seems careful to preserve the distance between the forms he describes and the significances he reveals. Were he to treat water paintings here, he would obscure the fact that his analyses are always the prelude to translations.
Though he conceals the fact, Wölfflin has here effected a translation of the baroque into itself, of water painting (and fountain architecture) into fluidity. Baroque art has declared its true meaning, which is to be an art of flux—of time and, throughout this chapter, of momentariness. Suddenly here the baroque comes into its own, with a surprising reversal in Wölfflin’s categories. Until now he has associated the baroque with lawlessness and confusion, and classicism with the unifying force of symmetrical organization around a center. Unity is repose—the equation had been made explicitly in the discussion in Classic Art of Michelangelo’s Medici Madonna (see p. 194)—and clearly in Principles of Art History Wölfflin seems to say that the unification achieved in Leonardo’s Last Supper was later lost Tiepolo’s version.21 As Wölfflin says in the first sentence of chapter 4, “The principle of closed form of itself presumes the conception of the picture as a unity.” But as the baroque now comes into its own, it appears that the unity of classicism is an illusory, “multiple unity,” whereas the true or “unified unity” actually pertains to the baroque. It is the usurping baroque, rather than the deposed classic, that now has “a dominating central motive.” And So Wölfflin returns in this chapter to the two Last Suppers in order to rescind his earlier position. He still claims that Leonardo’s painting is unified, but he offers Tiepolo’s version to illustrate the “possibility of surpassing this unity” (PAH, pp. 189, 174). In becoming itself, baroque art has overthrown classicism.
21. “Tiepolo composed a Last Supper which, while it cannot be compared with Leonardo as a work of art, stylistically presents the absolute opposite. The figures do not unite in the plane, and that decides” (PAH, p. 88).
Nature did not equip any of its creatures with wheels, but that means of locomotion was discovered anyway; an even swifter vehicle for the mind has been found in the atom—that irreducible unit which by virtue of its ubiquity provides reason with immediate access to alien objects, naturalizes nature, and urges an essential likeness beneath appearances so diverse that only an improbable imagination would even have placed them in a single world. The goal of atomism is to find one entity, a building block which then in multiples constitutes the structures of reality and appearance. All that is needed, given this once and future One, is a set of transformational rules—and everything comes to life that has been dreamed of in the topologies of geometry, physics, history, even of metaphysics: a full representation of the world as it has been, is, will be.
The ideology of atomism includes the assumption that, for structures distinguishable into parts and wholes, the parts precede the whole, temporally and logically. For the atomist, all structures can be analyzed in this way; that, in fact, turns out to be his definition of structure. This premise is already evident in the building-block universe first depicted by Democritus and Leucippus; it is no less present in the heady days of twentieth-century physics (although by now the proliferation of quarks and the thirty-odd other particles might cause the most ardent atomist to long for an unatomic whole that exerted some prior restraint). It is slightly more pliable in latter-day atomists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky and their descendent structuralists; but here, too, atomic units of linguistic or social discourse are claimed as blind first causes of the sighted and complex structures allegedly derived from them. And if the followers of even these contemporary advocates find themselves still waiting for the promises of atomism to be kept, the imaginative turns of those promises—the binary code, the rules of an innate grammar—keep old expectations alive.
In contrast to this general ideological assertion, the search for artistic atoms by poetics and aesthetic theory has lagged noticeably. We can see this disparity in the characteristic resistance to fragmentation by works of art; for many writers, the will of artistic appearance to exhibit itself as a whole, to insist on an undivided surface rather than on the elements within or beneath it, is precisely what distinguishes the structures of art from others. Even where a craftsmanlike impulse breaks into the surface of artistic unity (for example, when Aristotle itemizes the “parts” of tragedy), the pieces are usually counted teleologically: they matter as contributions to an effect, retrospectively. The artist himself, it is implied, deployed them in the first place to anticipate the unified surface; we (audience, critics, theorists), in turn, then understand them only in terms of that whole, not—with the atomist—by conjuring a unity from the earlier accidental joining of what then become accidental parts.
Whatever we choose to call Beckett’s series of disjunctive and repetitive paragraphs (sixty-one in all), Ill Seen Ill Said surely has little in common with the short story or the novella. Yet this is how the editors of the New Yorker, where Beckett’s piece first appeared in English in 1981, evidently thought of it, for like all New Yorker short stories, it is punctuated by cartoons and, what is even more ironic, by a “real” poem, Harold Brodkey’s “Sea Noise” (see fig. 1). Notice that the reader immediately knows—or is supposed to know—that Brodkey is a poet and Beckett a fiction writer, not only because “Sea Noise” is designated a poem in the issue’s table of contents, but also because its placement on the page, framed by white space, distinguishes it from Ill Seen Ill Said, which is printed in standard New Yorker columns. Yet if we examine the sound structure of Brodkey’s poem, we find that the rhythm of recurrence is, if anything, less prominent here than in the Beckett “prose.” The four stanzas are of irregular line length (9, 6, 9, 7); the stress count ranges from one (“and cúrsive") to five (“ínterlócutóries [baritone]”); rhyme occurs only once, at the end of the poem (“lie”/”reply”); and alliteration and assonance are not marked. Unless we assume that poetry is defined by the sheer decision of its maker to lineate the text, or unless we want to call “Sea Noise” a poem because it is built around a single extended metaphor (the witty analogy of sea:shore = professor:class), there is no rationale for the classification the New Yorker has implicitly adopted.4
The meaning of this classification is worth pondering, for it represents, in microcosm, the orthodoxy of every major literature textbook and literary history as well as of most classrooms in the United States and Britain, which that Beckett is a writer who, like the young Joyce or the young Faulkner, wrote in his dim youth some negligible, clotted lyric poems but whose real work belongs to drama and fiction. As such, we don’t teach Beckett in our poetry courses or include him in discussions of contemporary poetry and poetics. The index of any major book on the subject—say, Robert Pinsky’s The Situation of Poetry—will bear this out. And yet the irony is that contemporary poets are increasingly using forms that cannot be properly understood without the example of Beckett’s astonishing “lyrics of fiction”—to use Ryby Cohn’s apt term5—or, as I shall call them, his “associative monologues.” Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink our current procedures of canon making. In what follows, I shall use Ill Seen Ill Said as an example.
4. Contemporary prosodists, perhaps because they must account for the difficult case of free verse, generally do equate verse—and hence implicitly the poem—with lineation. For example, Charles O. Hartman, in his recent Free Verse: An Essay in Prosody (Princeton, N.J., 1980), observes that, difficult as it is to define the word “poetry” “rigorously and permanently,” verse can be distinguished from prose quite readily:
Verse is language in lines. This distinguishes it from prose…. This is not really a satisfying distinction, as it stands, but it is the only one that works absolutely. The fact that we can tell verse from prose on sight, with very few errors…indicates that the basic perceptual difference must be very simple. Only lineation fits the requirements. [P.11]
But, as I have just shown in the case of Beckett and Brodkey, what looks like verse may sound like prose and vice versa. The “basic perceptual difference” between the two is surely not as simple as Hartman suggests. I discuss this question from a somewhat different angle in “The Linear Fallacy,” Georgia Review 35 (Winter 1981): 855-69.
5. See Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett (Princeton, N.J., 1973), chap. 5, “Lyrics of Fiction.”