the image of LI's art

The symbol of Irish art, for Stephen Daedelus, was the “cracked looking glass of a servant.” Ah, those mirrors – surely Buck Mulligan’s was related to Stendhal’s, who wrote, in The Red and the Black, that a novel is a mirror that one walks along a street. But such handling of mirrors requires care – they so easily slip out of one’s hands. And once they get a crack in them, the crack will leap out, like an imp, from realism to the real. For instance, Stendhal’s phrase is actually attributed to someone else – Saint-Réal. And who was Saint-Réal? Some critics say that he was no person, but Stendhal himself – who thus quotes a saint of reality who doesn’t exist, carrying a mirror in which he doesn’t look at himself - for what would he see - down a street. Lawrence Scher, in his book on French realism, writes: “by all accounts, the reference to Saint-Réal is spurious, for the quote has never been found in Saint-Réal’s work; thus we can immediately consider the remark to be an ironic commentary on the very process of verisimilitude.”

Others would say that this Saint-Réal must be the same as the author of the Conjurations des Espagnols contre Venise, which Saintsbury claims is a masterpiece of style. Also according to Saintsbury, Saint-Réal associated with the libertines around Saint-Evremond and ended up as the historiographer for the Duke of Savoy.

Scher's remark would seem to answer all questions except one – why did Stendhal feel the need to invoke Saint-Réal at all? Which helps us notice that Stendhal does not quote from one of Saint-Réal’s works, but quotes the man - as though this were a phrase in a conversation, an oral delivery. This is all the more possible in that Stendhal, like Saint-Réal, frequented circles in London and Italy which were infused with both the moraliste precept that history is a great reserve of exempla and the hardheaded materialist psychology of amour-propre (which was transmuted, via Cabanis, into a mystifying discourse about nervous impulses). Of course, a full century stands between Stendhal and Saint-Réal, during which even the wittiest remarks tend to be forgotten. So perhaps Scher is right, and Stendhal made up the remark and hung it on Saint-Réal as a joke. Although the joke depends, for its success, on there being such a thing as “realism”, which wasn’t the case when the Red and the Black was written.

We walk down the street and turn and walk down another street and turn and we are back on the street we began with. Thus, the phrase is not only a spurious attribution to the saint of realism, but a joke of which the punchline is also a prophecy. Well, as Wittgenstein said, he could imagine a work of philosophy consisting entirely of jokes. Which is not a thing he wrote down himself – he said this in a conversation with Norman Malcolm, who wrote it down in a memoir. And there it stands, the mirror of Wittgenstein’s thought, not Malcolm’s – to whom the phrase is never attributed.

All of which is by way of a preface to another symbol of the art of the novel. This comes from the Ludwig Hohl. As is always the case in the Notizen, Hohl’s jottings seem to come out of the air of the ordinary – a walk down the street with no mirror at all, or blue days in his little room under the bar in that working class section of Berne. So, Hohl is writing about strength and exercise – or performance, Leistung. Hohl, as always, seems on the edge of losing control of his topics. This is fatal, since it is the equivalent of becoming boring, even to oneself. I, for instance, am almost always at that point, as this blog abundantly illustrates. But the crooked genius inside of Hohl understands, like a shape shifting messiah, that the air of the ordinary is only a disguise, only another disguise. Hohl ends the note on muscular strength with this story:

“Hard earned strength”, they say – do they imagine that the opposite is stolen strength? I once saw a man in the circus who lifted with one arm a weight on which was written, 200 Kilos. He lifted it up to his head and, always using just one arm, over his head, with obviously the most extreme effort; and as the weight had reached the end of his outstretched, upward arm, then it lifted itself all alone somewhat higher and – o unforgettable sight! – kept climbing up to the ceiling of the circus, pulled by a string – for it was made out of cardboard.”

O unvergesslicher Eindruck! Here, indeed, is an image of art for you. Here, among the popcorn chewing innocents, we suddenly catch a glimpse of the imp of realism, that most fabulous of cryptozoological creatures, as it tries to make its escape.


Duncan said…
I very much like Nabokov's riff on that Stendhal phrase in the opening chapter of The Gift:

"As he crossed toward the pharmacy at the corner he involuntarily turned his head because of a burst of light that had ricocheted from his temple, and saw, with that quick smile with which we greet a rainbow or a rose, a blindingly white parallelogram of sky being unloaded from the van — a dresser with mirror across which, as across a cinema screen, passed a flawlessly clear reflection of boughs sliding and swaying not arboreally, but with a human vacillation, produced by the nature of those who were carrying this sky, these boughs, this gliding façade."
roger said…
That's gorgeous.
Anonymous said…
Hmm, striking that the Nabokov quote would mention a cinema screen. How does a novel as mirror walking down the street track sounds - as well as images? And what does it say about realistic art - all the way from Stendhal ( who did also write about music and opera ) to our media saturated "real world" today? To say nothing of the cracks in the mirror, can you hear them?

P.M.Lawrence said…
I am surprised there is no allusion to the fish in the mirror.
roger said…
Amie, I think there are movies that take advantage of the staticy sound of film, which would be what the crack in the mirror sounds like, I presume. But sound in general introduces a, well, inter-subjective element - the sound that triangulates between the diagetic and the audience - that no one seems to think is weird. Which is weird! I have read a number of accounts of the audiences, watching the first films, growing paniced at the vision of, say, a train coming towards them on the screen - but I have never read about what the audience thought of the first sound tracks. Of course, the audience was used to theatrical music, but the sound track has never quite been like the same thing. Although I have a very lose grasp of the history, here.
Anonymous said…

roger said…
Amie, that is quite a link!

Shamefully, after my vid store closed down, I haven't really pursued my movie agenda, which was mainly just watching films that you suggested. I was thinking about this the other day - I haven't turned on my television set in three months.

This is bad. I need to start checking out vids again.
northanger said…
northanger said…