Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
Saturday, February 09, 2019
on the character's resistance to her author
I was talking with a friend the other day and she told me that she couldn’t stand Zola. Zola, she said, is boring.
I’m not a young pup. I’m not wet behind the ears, at least in the Zola department. I’ve heard the boring accusation before. I, on the other hand, find Zola amazingly not boring. For one thing, his scenes are developed in an amazing prehension of an art and technique that haven’t been invented yet: film. In the nineteenth century, the novel is close to theater – just as the novel is close to film in the twentieth century – because, for one thing, theater is where the writer could grow rich. Just as with film. We have forgotten the theater scene of the 19th century because we don’t, in the Anglophone world, retain much from it, until its end, with Wilde and Shaw. But that was the world in which the demimonde and the monde overlapped. It was from theater and opera, as well as from serialized novels, that popular culture absorbed, into its folklore, the “higher” culture.
There’s a long story about Zola. I think my friend is echoing Oscar Wilde – whose own ideas about Zola were unfolded in The Decay of Lying, from 1889, which consisted of a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian. Cyril is given the earnest lines, like the cutout in a Socratic dialogue, and Vivian is given the witty and visionary ones. The theme of the dialogue attaches, at points, to the very old theme of mimesis in art. Is an art to be judged on how well it copies reality? And what would it mean for a fiction to copy reality? Vivian explores the problems of mimesis from an angle taken from everyday life: the lie. The lie, after all, is a lie insofar as it doesn’t copy reality. However, it works as a lie insofar as it seems to copy reality. Thus, in the successful lie there must reside some special genius, and for that genius to work, we must look at another standard than that of truth or falsity. We must shift to the field defined by intensity:
“One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modem novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.”
There is one modern novelist whose dull facts particularly get under Vivian’s skin: Zola. At first glance, one would have thought that Zola would be on Vivian’s side, or at least on Wilde’s side. Zola was, after all, a scandal and a stumbling block to Victorian proprieties. Since Wilde aspired to be a scandal himself, one looks for some solidarity. Instead, Vivian remarks:
“M. Zola, true to the lofty principle that he lays down in one of his pronunciamientos on literature, “L’homme de genie n’a jamais d’esprit,” is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds! He is not without power. Indeed at times, as in Germinal, there is something almost epic in his work. But his work is entirely wrong from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but on the ground of art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. But from the standpoint of art, what can be said in favour of the author of L’Assommoir, Nana and Pot-Bouille? Nothing. Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George Eliot’s novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, but M. Zola’s characters are much worse. They have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest.”
This rings changes on an old trick in the game of scandal – one trumps the shock of scandal by being resolutely unshocked. In this way, one denies the initial, visceral moment that scandal depends on. The double movement of Vivian’s rhetoric conforms to an old routine: first comes the denigration of the shocked. Thus Zola’s work exposes the Tartuffe, and by implication the Tartuffe are the shocked. Second comes the denigration of the shock. Zola’s characters are dreary in their vices and their virtues. It is dreariness, not purity, that we must judge by. Wrenching the standard by which the copy is judged from the frame defined by veracity to the frame defined by intensity, Vivian finds a new angle from which to disarm Zola’s shock. Since one end of the mimetic spectrum is about sexual arousal, a continually deferred moment that defines art against its erotic use, its pornographic potential, this is a particularly good routine to top Zola. And once Zola is separated from his shock, we see — or Vivian sees — that he is without interest.