Before going further, it will be helpful to consider briefly the notion that novelty per se is a fundamental human need. Experiments with human beings, as well as with animals, indicate that the maintenance of normal, successful behavior depends upon an adequate level of incoming stimulation—or, as some have put it, of novelty.2 But lumping all novelty together is misleading. At least three kinds of novelty need to be distinguished. (1) Some novel patterns arise out of, or represent, changes in the fundamental rules governing the organization of musical processes and structures. By significantly weakening our comprehension of the musical relationships presented—undermining not only our understanding of what is past but our ability to envisage what is to come—such systemic change seriously threatens our sense of psychic security and competent control. Far from being welcome, the insecurity and uncertainty thus engendered is at least as antipathetic, disturbing, and unpleasant as stimulus privation. (2) Novel patterns may also result from the invention of a new strategy that accords with prevalent stylistic rules. Though they may initially seem to threaten existing competencies, the function and significance of novel strategies within the larger set of stylistic constraints can usually be grasped without too much delay or difficulty. For a while the tensions produced by strategic innovation may seem disturbing. But in the end, when our grasp of the principles ordering events is confirmed and our sense of competency is reestablished and control is reinforced, tension is resolved into an elation that is both stimulating and enjoyable. (3) Most novel patterns—original themes, rhythms, harmonic progressions, and so forth—involve the innovative instantiation or realization of an existing strategy or schema (see examples 1-3 below).3 Novelties of this kind not only enhance our sense of control—a feeling that we know how things really “work”—but provide both the pleasure of recognition and the joy of skillfully exercising some competency. We enjoy novelty—the stimulation of surprise, the tension of uncertainty—as long as it can be accommodated within a known and understandable set of constraints. When the rules governing the game are abrogated or in doubt—when comprehension and control are threatened—the result is usually anger, anguish, and desperation.
These responses to novelty are consequences of fundamental and poignant verities of the human condition: the centrality of choice in human behavior. Because only a minute fraction of human behavior seems to be genetically specified, choice is inescapable.
While in lower organisms, behavior is strictly determined by the genetic program, in complex metazoa the genetic program becomes less constraining, more “open” as Ernst Mayr puts it, in the sense that it does not lay down behavioral instructions in great detail but rather permits some choice and allows for a certain freedom of response. Instead of imposing rigid prescriptions, it provides the organism with potentialities and capacities. This openness of the genetic program increases with evolution and culminates in mankind.4
The price of freedom is the imperative of choice. Human beings must choose were to sow and when to reap, when to work and where to live, when to play and what to build. Intelligent, successful choices are possible only if alternative courses of action can be imagined and their consequences envisaged with reasonable accuracy.
2. For further discussion, see my Music, the Arts, and Ideas (Chicago, 1967), p. 50.
3. Rules are transpersonal but intracultural constraints—for instance, the pitch/time entities established in some style, as well as grammatical and syntactic regularities. Strategies are general means (constraints) for actualizing some of the possibilities that are potential in the rules of the style. The rules of a style are relatively few, while the number of possible strategies may, depending upon the nature of the rules, be very large indeed. The ways of instantiating a particular strategy are, if not infinite, at least beyond reckoning.
4. François Jacob, The Possible and the Actual (New York, 1982), p. 61. See also Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin (New York, 1977), p. 257.
It would be pretty to think that Descartes’ Meditations is itself a structured transformation of the meditational mode, starting with the dominance of an intellectual, ascensional mode, moving through the penitential form, and ending with the analytic-architectonic mode. Unfortunately the text does not sustain such an easy resolution to our problems. Instead, we see that different modes seem dominant at different stages; their subterranean connections and relations remain unclear.
We could try to construct a nesting of mask, face, and skeleton in Descartes’ use of these distinct traditions. He might have unselfconsciously inherited a Stoic skeletal structure, fleshed it with the weight of his analytic-architectonic meditation, and masked it with a penitential meditation for the sake of safety in orthodoxy. But the penitential mode provides essential structural support—it cannot be unmasked. And, as we have seen, the analytic-architectonic flesh does not always conform to the Stoic skeletal structure.
The problem is that the various readings subtly undermine one another. It is as if the Meditations were composed like a Francis Bacon painting. There are plenty of good solid clues for how to read the composition of the work—in fact there are too many. The work we see when using some of those clues is quite different from the work we see when following others.
Did Descartes do this deliberately? An extremely chartable reading would turn him into a new sort of Socrates, constructing puzzles to force us to examine the truth of his arguments dialectically. But whatever Descartes may be, he is not Socrates, any more than he is Hume. He is defensive as well as devious, proud as well as prickly; and he is not funny.
French theorists have recently proposed a theory which describes all literature in terms of the probable, the vraisemblable.6 This poetics of the probable commences with a purely relativistic claim. What is probable not only changes in accordance with the audience’s concept of reality but also changes in accordance with the needs of the story and with the narrative possibilities open to various genres. It includes all of the norms and models making a given text understandable to the reader, however outlandish and eccentric it may be. Various levels of the vraisemblable are distinguished from each other, and the vraisemblable based upon models of the world or the world view prevalent in a given culture is scrupulously separated from types of the vraisemblable that are based upon literary, generic models. However, as Tzvetan Todorov gladly admits, “the two notions tend to melt into each other.”7 He and other theorists see the literary genre itself as one of the models “probabilizing” a given text, at times in direct contradiction with “natural” models of the world. Still others see the world, or the prevalent world view, as the universal text which probabilizes other texts.
Rather than how this new concept of the vraisemblable, of probability, fares in relation to farce in films, theater, and literature, I prefer to ask how farce fares in relation to it. I think that it doesn’t do well. Farce shows that it is a mistake to unify the possibilities for understanding a text and the possibilities for understanding its fictional world within a single integrated concept. It is a further mistake to term such a concept “probability.” When dealing with the fantastic or the marvelous, for instance, probabilizing the text and probabilizing the work’s fictional world may legitimately be unified under a single principle or concept. If we agree to change or suspend a fundamental belief about the world, we will be able to perceive as logical and probable not only the texts but also the fictional worlds of such works. Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” excellently fits works that are written in these genres. Such works require that we temporarily forget (“for the moment,” as Coleridge would have it) a certain general belief about the world. After we’ve agreed, as a result of this suspension, to include certain elements in the world (like fairies or witches), we may then rebuild the fictional world while using the rest of our beliefs along with this new assumption.
Farce’s incredibility creates a different situation. Before we have even begun to recover from an attack upon one probability principle, another is undermined. In farce the rules of probability are not neutralized in one specific realm of reality; their inversion operates constantly on all of reality’s realms. The image of a seemingly real world, reminding us of our own world and of our own set of probabilities, is all we need to be constantly astonished by farce’s persistently novel deviations from predictable probability. Here, in direct opposition to the marvelous, the new deviations must keep on coming from unexpected directions, because farce won’t allow its incredibilities to consolidate and become new rules of probability. The fictional world of overt farce lacks a specific factor, the one that would have probabilized all of the other factors of this world. Such an Archimedean center might seem to be located in the genre’s definition—this genre, however, does not probabilize the incredible. Farce’s definition does not make farce’s world more intelligible in any sense of that word. At the very most, farce allows us to forgo such intelligibility without transgressing the established boundaries of art.
6. For an excellent presentation of their views, see Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (London, 1975), pp. 131-60.
7. Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977), p. 83. See also his introduction to Communications 11 (1968): 2.
It became customary in the eighteenth century to praise Longinus in ways that mimicked one of his own favorite turns of thought—to identify enthusiastically two elements that would more commonly be thought of as quite distinct. To say, with Boileau and Pope, that Longinus “is himself the great Sublime he draws,” or to profess to doubt, as Gibbon did, “which is the most sublime, Homer’s Battle of the Gods or Longinus’ apostrophe…upon it,” is knowingly to override certain conventional lines of demarcation—between writers and their subject matter, between text and interpretation—very much in the manner of Longinus overriding the distinction between Homer and his heroes, between sublime language and its author (“sublimity is the echo of a noble mind”), or between sublime poet and his audience (“we come to believe we have created what we have only heard”).1 Longinus’ admirers, struck by the force of the treatise, are usually willing to release him from the strictures of theoretical discourse and allow him the license of a poet; they are likely to appreciate his transgressions of conventional limits without ever calling them into question. It has been left to more skeptical readers, wary of Longinus’ “transports,” to draw attention to his odd movements of thought: W. K. Wimsatt, for example, is unsympathetic but acute when he accuses Longinus of “sliding” from one theoretical distinction to another, a slide “which seems to harbor a certain duplicity and invalidity.”2 Wimsatt is right: something one might want to call a “slide” is observable again and again in the treatise, and not merely from one theoretical distinction to another. One finds in the treatise a rhetorician’s argument conducted with great intelligence and energy, but one also discovers that it is remarkably easy to lose one’s way, to forget which rhetorical topic is under consideration at a particular point, to find oneself attending to a quotation, a fragment of analysis, a metaphor—some interestingly resonant bit of language that draws one into quite another system of relationships. I want to attempt to follow that movement here, to hold it in mind and to question its implications. I will look closely at a number of passages in which Longinus interweaves language of his own with that of the authors he admires—for it is here, out of the play of text with quotation and of quotations with one another, that the most interesting meanings as well as the peculiar power of the treatise are generated.
1. ‘Longinus’ On Sublimity, trans. D. A. Russell (Oxford, 1965), 9. 2, 7. 2; all further references to this work will appear in text, though I have changed a word or two of Russell’s translation in the interests of a more literal rendering of the Greek. I am indebted to another recent translation, G. M. A. Grube’s Longinus On Great Writing (New York, 1957), and more particularly to the ample and intelligent introduction and notes accompanying Russell’s edition of the Greek text, ‘Longinus’ On the Sublime (Oxford, 1964).
2. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (New York, 1957), p.101.
Critics, then, who label theories such as objectivism or deconstructionism as “authoritarian” or “subversive” are committing a fallacy of overspecificity. To call Hirsch’s theory authoritarian is to assume that such a theory lends itself to one and only one kind of political use and that that use can be determined a priori. To refute such an assumption, one need only stand back from the present in order to recall that today’s authoritarian ideology is often yesterday’s progressive one, and vice versa. Indeed, there’s considerable historical irony in the fact that objectivism has now acquired the status of a right-wing idea, while Nietzsche and Heidegger have emerged as heroes of literary leftism. As recently as a few decades ago, these alignments were different. George Orwell, for instance, thought that the tendency to deny the possibility of objective truth reflected a totalitarian mentality. “Totalitarianism,” he wrote, “in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the existence of objective truth.” He added that “the friends of totalitarianism in this country tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. It is pointed out that all historical records are biased and inaccurate, or, on the other hand, that modern physics has proved that what seems to us the real world is an illusion, so that to believe in the evidence of the senses is simply vulgar philistinism.”10
It’s not that it hadn’t occurred to Orwell that the notion of objective truth could easily be used to justify the actions of tyrants and oppressors. But Orwell’s experience of Fascist and Communist falsification of history showed how the denial of the possibility of objectivity could also justify oppressive actions, perhaps in a more disarming way. For various historical reasons, Orwell’s insight is easily lost today. His is one of those Enlightenment concepts of truth which have been compromised in usage. As the Enlightenment has come to be associated not with progress, democracy, and equality but with the ideological exploitation of those concepts in the interests of social control, a great moral and political transvaluation of the epistemological vocabulary has occurred. Enlightenment thinking is frequently associated with the bourgeois complacency or the menacing technology of Western democracies or is identified with the totalitarian regimentation of the Soviet Union. Thus the concepts of objective truth, nature, essence, identity, and teleology have come to be viewed as conservative or reactionary ideas, as if these ideas had never operated, and never could operate, in quite other ways.11
10. George orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, 4 vols. (London, 1968), 4: 63-64.
11. As Frederic Jameson has noted, “it is certainly the case that a belief in the natural is ideological and that much of bourgeois art has worked to perpetuate such a belief…. Yet in different historical circumstances the idea of nature was once a subversive concept with a genuinely revolutionary function, and only the analysis of the concrete historical and cultural conjuncture can tell us whether, in the post-natural world of late capitalism, the categories of nature may not have acquired such a critical charge again” (“Conclusion,” Aesthetics and Politics [London, 1977], p. 207).