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Sunday, May 30, 2004


This is how Mr. Ruskin approached Venice:

“The salt breeze, the white moaning sea-birds, the masses of black weed separating and disappearing gradually, in knots of heaving shoal, under the advance of the steady tide, all proclaimed it to be indeed the ocean on whose bosom the great city rested so calmly; not such blue, soft, lake-like ocean as bathes the Neapolitan promontories, or sleeps beneath the marble rocks of Genoa, but a sea with the bleak power of our own northern waves, yet subdued into a strange spacious rest, and changed from its angry pallor into a field of burnished gold, as the sun declined behind the belfry tower of the lonely island church, fitly named “St. George of the Seaweed.” As the boat drew nearer to the city, the coast which the traveller had just left sank behind him into one long, low, sad-colored line, tufted irregularly with brushwood and willows: but, at what seemed its northern extremity, the hills of Arqua rose in a dark cluster of purple pyramids, balanced on the bright mirage of the lagoon; two or three smooth surges of inferior hill extended themselves about their roots, and beyond these, beginning with the craggy peaks above Vicenza, the chain of the Alps girded the whole horizon to the north—a wall of jagged blue, here and there showing through its clefts a wilderness of misty precipices, fading far back into the recesses of Cadore, and itself rising and breaking away eastward, where the sun struck opposite upon its snow, into mighty fragments of peaked light, standing up behind the barred clouds of evening, one after another, countless, the crown of the Adrian Sea, until the eye turned back from pursuing them, to rest upon the nearer burning of the campaniles of Murano, and on the great city, where it magnified itself along the waves, as the quick silent pacing of the gondola drew nearer and nearer.”

This passage from the Stones of Venice is, among many other things, beautiful. But to say that is not to explain how, say, the balance of soft and hard terms in the passage (bosom/bleak, bright mirage/craggy peaks) resolve into two different movements, one of the eye gliding over the whole horizon, with its mountains and light and water, and the other of the gondola being “paced” – as though the passive had erased the human labor that did the pacing, as though the eye’s instant power and the invisible gondoliers’ sprang from the same root -- it is not an explanation of it beauty, but an explanation of the power of its particular use of language. In other words, to say that it is beautiful is one thing, a judgment dependent, in the end, on a whole system of judgments, but to pose the question of how that beauty was achieved, rather than to bow before its effect, is another thing entirely, and the finest thing that the critic does.

LI has been thinking about beauty since reading James Woods exercise in stripping the skin from an academic factotum in the LRB. The factotum, Randall Stevenson, seems to be of that dreary species that invaded English departments in the 80s, and – in a dialectical twist that makes LI’s head spin – cried up a didactic, identity-heavy literature using the tools of a post-structuralism that emphasized play, the tensions that create and dissolve binaries, supplements, sex, abjection, and the interminable deferring of identity. Wood flays this sort of thing. Here’s a graf in which every stroke is strong, and every stroke cuts:

Randall Stevenson's volume in the Oxford English Literary History, which provides an account of 1960 to 2000, prompts these thoughts [about aesthetics, which we will be coming to – LI] because his book has no interest in aesthetic intention and no interest in aesthetic success. It is a purely academic account of hundreds of literary forms created almost entirely by non-academics. In more than six hundred pages, it is hard to detect the author, who teaches at Edinburgh University, making a single evaluative judgment. In a moment of daring, he calls A House for Mr Biswas 'much-admired', but since he also reserves that epithet for 'The Whitsun Weddings', which he appears not to like, one is left in the dark. This evaluative reticence is not timidity, however. He does have likes and dislikes, and they emerge steadily. He likes poetry and fiction that draw attention to their own procedures: 'self-reflexive, postmodern' forms are what excite him, and the authors of these seem politically 'progressive' to him. This is why he likes J.H. Prynne's verse, but not Larkin's, and why he writes enthusiastically about Rushdie but treats A Dance to the Music of Time as if it were just a handbook of toff sociology.”

Sociology is the key word. Post-structuralism gave one very big gift to the identity theorists who followed them by attacking the formalist presupposition that one could bracket the utterance from the utterance situation. For the post-structuralists, the iterability of utterance did not indicate some fine Platonic preservation of sense, but rather a network of contexts in which the purity of the utterance is actively worked for. The quotation mark, in other words, marks not only the artifice of the Platonic form, but also the start of an investigation of agendas, motives, and unconsciousnesses.

What the identity people did was take that to mean that we must contextually bind utterance – in other words, track down the class and ethnic origin of the utterers, which will tell us all we need to know about the utterance. In a sense, they simply shifted the Platonic moment from sense to the social. This is a dumbfounding move, since it recuperates an attempt to think through a truly naturalistic philosophy of sense by diverting it into a didactic and very familiar frame of subordinating sense to a set of social ends. In hijacking the aesthetic for the ethical, the identity people re-enact a pattern that has cycled throughout the modern age – roughly from 1600 – the puritan’s revenge on license.

Kierkegaard, we think, made a true sociological trouvaille with his division of the social into the ethical, the aesthetic, and the religious. The aesthetic is the “weak” dimension – forever being transformed into an instrument by the ethical and the religious. Yet its weakness is compensated for by the innumerable secret strategies it employs to preserve its autonomy. When Dante, for instance, magnified the dispute between petty Tuscan factions into dramas that spanned hell, purgatory and heaven, the ethic0-political shed its smaller context to clothe itself in a larger and transforming context – one that is bound up with the poetry itself.

But to get back to beauty…

Wood is wholly right to go after Stevenson, and the hunting is good. What interests us as much, however, are Wood’s preparatory remarks. Wood observes the divergence between the Schoolman’s interest in art and the artists interest in it. The Schoolman divests art of intention, and – according to Wood – even of what interests us: its success or failure. The artist, on the other hand, clings to intention and the question: how good is it?

We wonder about Wood’s notion of intention. While the artist is as prone as the carpenter to say things about the intentional structure of the work (I planned this part of my novel to symbolize x, and this part to symbolize y), the artist is also prone to vaguer, de-intentionalizing talk about “inspiration.” This is so deeply embedded in Western art, and so “primitive,” that the Schoolman – and Wood – mostly let it be.

Instead, Wood opts for a realism that seems to have problems of its own:

“Writers are intensely interested in what might be called aesthetic success: they have to be, because in order to create something successful one must learn about other people's successful creations. To the academy, much of this value-chat looks like, and can indeed be, mere impressionism. Again, theory is not the only culprit. A good deal of postmodern thought is suspicious of the artwork's claim to coherence, and so is indifferent or hostile to the discussion of its formal success. But conventional, non-theoretical criticism often acts as if questions of value are irrelevant, or canonically settled. To spend one's time explaining how a text works is not necessarily ever to talk about how well it works, though it might seem that the latter is implicit in the former. Who bothers, while teaching The Portrait of a Lady for the nth time, to explain to a class that it is a beautiful book? But it would be a pardonable exaggeration to say that, for most writers, greedy to learn and emulate, this is the only important question.”

Notice how Wood easily couples “explaining” with “beauty.” In fact, I would like to know how one would explain that the P.of L. is a beautiful book without talking, as Schoolmen do, about how its beauty is achieved? In other words, the beauty of the Portrait of a Lady is mediate. The writer’s value judgments, in terms of success and failure, are about that mediacy: how beauty is achieved. And that takes us back, inevitably, to the utterance’s context. Although, like Derrida, LI believes that ‘context’ is a tease, a provisional fiction.

However, that’s enough for one day.

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