Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Literature and silence

Howard Nemerov defines good writing as getting something right in language. And the only proper response to rightness, he adds, is silence. No other answer is required or even imaginable. On this showing, the first test is whether the text leaves the critic with anything to say. The imme­diate experience of literary greatness, then, would be akin to clarity of vision or understanding; there would be nothing more to add. And the comic role of the English professor would be to scour about for some­thing to say anyhow.

Surely this is the effect that a certain kind of writer seeks. The prooftext is James’s story “The Middle Years” (1893), in which Dencombe, an elderly novelist staying at a health resort, receives an advance copy of his latest novel, “perhaps his last.” As he begins to read his own prose, Dencombe is reminded of the difficulties he faced in writing the novel, which also brought to his awareness, “though probably, alas! to nobody else’s,” the means by which he overcame them.

As he sits on a bench outside, enjoying the sunshine and idling with his book, Dencombe is joined by a young admirer—a staff doctor at the health resort—who has also finagled an advance copy of Dencombe’s book. Seeing Dencombe’s copy, the young doctor excitedly calls it “the best thing he has done yet!” Dencombe does not reveal his identity, “because a person was always a fool for insisting to others on his work.” Doctor Hugh is inflamed by admiration, asking his companion whether he noticed this passage or “Weren’t you immediately struck with that?” He grabs the book and says, “There’s a beautiful passage toward the end.” But he has accidentally picked up Dencombe’s copy rather than his own, and he colors when he sees what Dencombe has done to the pages:

Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final for himself. His ideal would have been to publish secretly, and then, on the published text, treat himself to the terrified revise, sacrificing always a first edition and beginning for posterity and even for the collector, poor dears, with a second.For the novelist, in short, silence is not an option. Imperfect prose must always be answered with more perfect prose, adjusting it and read­justing it to get it exactly right. In his anxiety, though, he can never rest assured that it is exactly right or that there is even such a condition as “exactly right.”

For his admiring reader, though, the case is otherwise. “I see you’ve been altering the text,” Doctor Hugh says disapprovingly. The writer is a special pleader: he wants it both ways. He wants his reader to be horrified at any alteration of the text, but he also wants to alter it at will. Reader and writer are equally confident that good writing aspires to an ideal state of exact rightness, but the reader is far more willing to accept it in silence than is the writer, at least a certain kind of writer, who could be described worse than as a passionate and lifelong corrector of his own prose.

7 comments:

Hannah Stoneham said...

Interesting piece - thank you for sharing. I think that I incline to the view that there is no such thing as literary perfection, and it is better to write and be wrong, or even sub standard than to be inhibited by a constant need for the ideal prose....
Hannah

R. T. said...

Perhaps I misunderstand you, but does not this all suggest that a writer ought never be satisfied with the final product (and be anxious to revise repeatedly and endlessly) whereas the readers at the same time--if they are careful and critical--must always wonder about improvements that either could have been made or still ought to be made? This suggests a unstable mutability to texts that seems to me to be a post-post-modern wish-fulfillment rather than a more conservative (New Critic?) understanding that the text--for lack of a better phrase--is simply what it is, and it ought to be assessed only on those terms.

D. G. Myers said...

On this side of heaven, there is no perfection of the text. There are only deadlines.

R. T. said...

Of course, I was not suggesting the possibility of perfection. Instead, I believe texts are rather final and immutable, unlike human beings, but with absolute beginnings and endings, and subject to almost endless valid (and invalid) interpretations by others, much like human beings. Perhaps, though, my New Critic's slip is showing, which means I ought to be more modest about my old-fashioned assertions about fixed texts.

D. G. Myers said...

The fixed text is a mirage. Hence my argument, here and here, that critics must shift their attention to authors instead.

R. T. said...

And so, with gratitude to a good mentor, I now go there and there to learn more. Thanks, as always, for patience and guidance. (Note: I intend no irony but only sincerity.)

Shelley said...

As someone whose subject is a culture famously close-mouthed, thank you for that thoughtful affirmation of silence, both as people react to each other's words, and as critics do (or do not) react. What you say reminds me of Randall Jarrell quoting Goethe: “Theories are as a rule impulsive reactions of an overhasty understanding which would like to have done with phenomena and therefore substitutes for them images, concepts, or often even just words.”