Sunday, December 28, 2008

The moral law and the rendered world

Between books, and a desultory Shabbes. Sometimes, though, even while you are reading a little here and a little there, without paying close attention to anything much, you stumble upon an uncanny accidental connection. So. A box of used books arrived on Friday. Among other things it contained a collection of Martin Amis’s essays and reviews entitled The War against Cliché; the 1989 reissue of Frederick Crews’s Sins of the Fathers; and a reprint of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between.

At least that’s the order in which the connected passages struggled to consciousness, one by one, like school-aged brothers on a weekend morning. In a 1976 New Statesman review of John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces, a book very like the collection in which this review appeared, Amis concludes,

Updike, who likes fiction to believe in “improvement” and “a better world,” crucially asserts that “by a novel we understand an imitation of reality rather than a spurning of it,” and grades them accordingly. But what’s the difficulty? Life goes on regardless, and reality won’t mind if a novel spurns it. The confusion is age-old, answering as it does to an authentic pang. If Updike granted art the same reverent autonomy he grants life, some “improvement” would indeed take place; he would become a better critic.Ouch. But also: exactly right. The effect is such that, later, when he says that Nabokov and Bellow are his only serious rivals in writing “prose works which address the American century,” I don’t believe him. Amis has punctured Updike with an iron stake through the temple. It is impossible now to read him without being aware of “that vein of folksy uplift which underlies his novels as well as his criticism.”

The exact nature of Updike’s confusion only became clear to me the next morning, when I was reading Crews’s afterword to the new edition of his psychoanalytic study of Hawthorne. Crews of course is famous among English professors for turning volubly and persuasively against the Freudian approach that he himself once championed. He is the Elia Kazan of American literary scholarship. His very name will provoke boos in an academic audience. Needless to say, he is one of my intellectual heroes.

Crews has become convinced that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience, and he never tires of producing the evidence that knocks the legs from under its scientific claims. The howls of outrage are deafening. Nevertheless, Crews believes that he has gained more friends than enemies by renouncing a “sectarian brand of criticism that binds its practitioners in defensive solidarity. . . .” He explains why:The split in our currently polarized academy, I believe, falls not between “theorists” and “antitheorists” but between apriorists of various kinds and what I would insist on calling empiricists.It is in light of this belief that The Sins of the Fathers continues to have any value. The a priori and deductive parts of the book, which treat Hawthorne’s fiction as the confirmation of Freudian theory, are worthless. But Crews turned to Freud in the first place because of a problem in Hawthorne that was going unsolved—was going unaddressed, even unnoticed—by critics of the 1950’s and 60’s. As Crews says, the dominant critical mode in 1966, when the first edition of his book came out, was a “combination of moralism and formalism,” which had reached an “intellectual dead end.” It was not simply that a new fashion was needed. An empirical fact was escaping the attention of Hawthorne’s critics—namely, “how little of his rendered fictional world is encapsulated in the ‘morals’ of his works.”

Which brings me to Hartley. Against all expectation, I had very much enjoyed Eustace and Hilda, his nearly 800-page trilogy about a brother and sister’s lifelong relation. Hartley’s prose is fine in its discriminations without becoming fussy or clotted. As William Maxwell says of argumentative writing, it has the “forward movement of prose that is bent only on saying what the writer has to say,” but what Hartley has to say is so involved that it would seem to demand a back-and-forth instead of the forward movement it pursues:[T]hey didn’t give him much help. Their demeanour showed that the idea of Eustace wanting to resume his studies at Oxford was new to them; they had their own situation to consider, and naturally couldn’t spare much thought for other people’s. Barbara said at once, as he guessed she would, ‘Of course you must go back to Oxford, Eustace. Leave Hilda to us; we’ll look after her all right, won’t we, Jimmy?’ But Jimmy hesitated. The aspect of the problem that dominated Eustace—his moral obligation to stay at Hilda’s side—didn’t seem to weigh with Jimmy at all; at any rate, he made no reference to it, and he entirely agreed that it was a pity for Eustace to interrupt or abandon his work at Oxford. Indeed, he seemed to attach more importance to a degree than Eustace did. “But who’s to carry her, that’s the thing?” he said.That is my kind of writing. Interpersonal complexity clearly rendered. No vein of uplift here.

Imagine my surprise then to find Hartley saying, in the “author’s introduction” to The Go-Between, that he agrees with F. R. Leavis that a “novel should be concerned with moral issues, and from moral issues it is only a short step to moral judgments.” Leavis makes Updike look like an aesthete. As Amis says elsewhere in The War against Cliché, Leavis “sought to reduce literature to a moral audit, an elaborate way of determining whether individual readers were or were not mature and wholesome human beings.” Amis doesn’t much like Leavis.

Not so Hartley. Despite being named for Leslie Stephen, Hartley had little else in common with the Bloomsbury group. He was Leavis’s exact contemporary; perhaps his morality was a rationalization of his well-known social snobbery; perhaps he came about it honestly. He said that Henry James “would never have written a novel which seemed to mitigate the sin of adultery.” And apparently he set out to write The Go-Between with the same uncompromising attitude toward the adulteress in his own novel. “Altogether she ruined at least half-a-dozen lives,” and deserved not to “get off lightly herself.” But a strange thing happened as he worked on the novel. He found himself softening toward her; he no longer had it in him to paint her in “such dark colours.” Although it was obvious that he disapproved of her, readers told Hartley they liked her or at least they found her attractive. He was not unhappy with the reaction:Of course any novelist would rather have it said that he had drawn an attractive woman than that he had upheld the Moral Law.So much for Leavis. Hartley casts his lot with the rendering of a fictional world, compared to which everything else is of secondary importance. As Amis might say, the law won’t mind if fictional characters don’t uphold it. Or, more accurately, fiction dispenses with the Moral Law, because in a rendered world there is one law for morality and nature. Flora, fauna, and physical objects as well as people are governed by the same set of principles. It doesn’t really matter that the principles belong to that world, not this one; nor that every novelist is a moral relativist (while he is writing his novel). Moralizing about fiction gets its arms around only a portion of a writer’s achievement, and only a small portion at that, because a fictional world is rendered by an autonomous and self-consistent law which must be grasped in its entirety if the world is to be inhabited at all.


Anonymous said...

Where in the distinction between apriorists and empiricists is there room for Crews himself, who, calling for a rich empiricist criticism, never wrote much about literature again after his book on Hawthorne, preferring to devote himself to skewering apriorists? Perhaps a third category is needed, apriorist-harriers. The argument might be that this was the more urgent task in the contemporary environment, but surely one could take time to exemplify what's being celebrated, in order to demonstrate its merit? Abstaining from practicing the opposite of what you're preaching is not the same as practicing what you're preaching.(And it does take practice.)

Reissuing the Freud book, even with the cautionary note, however, is somewhat worrisome. If it's found cogent, it may mislead innocents into a misguided Freudianism. if it's not too cogent, why put it up for purchase?

D. G. Myers said...

You need to reread my post on the very idea of literature before you can say that Crews “never wrote much about literature again. . . .” The criticism of criticism is also a branch of literature, and reading Crews, you know that it is a branch that supports good writing.

Nor is it fair nor accurate to suggest that Crews never took the “time to exemplify what’s being celebrated”—namely, empiricist criticism. In addition to his deeply learned and thoroughly documented puncturing of Freud’s pretensions as a scientist, Crews has also, single-handedly almost, put paid to the popular delusion of “repressed memory.” See also his brilliant essays on Darwin and the new creationists in Follies of the Wise.

What it true is that, since The Sins of the Fathers, Crews has not been, in his own words, one of those “scholars who concentrate on single authors like Hawthorne”; such scholars, he says respectfully, are most likely to withstand and oppose “grand ideological agendas.”

Even so, Crews has lived his entire professional life in the world of “empirical scruples.” And as he says, the partisans of “off-the-shelf” theoretical models, who are convinced that “ideological considerations should and always do come first,” may work in the same departments as the empiricists and “go through the same institutional motions,” but they live in an entirely different world.