One of the primary functions of literary criticism is to impose a certain order on the subject, the text. In a very basic sense, it can be thought of as a set of instructions for the reader of the text, not unlike those packed along with a dishwasher or a swing set. However, there is a significant difference in that there are several ways to come at a text and only one way to screw part A into part C. “Still, a reader goes to a critic for some insight or for an aid to understanding about what something means or how it works. Trust is implied in the relationship between reader and critic, just as it is in the case of the owner of a new product and the technical writer who wrote the instructions. Should the owner find that a part can’t be manipulated as described (or should a part be missing), he is angered, not so much out of frustration as betrayal. Similarly, the same sort of thing is sought in a critic. If the critic is a structuralist, then the critical work should be entirely in that mode; he or she should remain within the parameters imposed. The set must be intact, which means that the critic, from the start, must have certain values upon which to construct the interpretation. Without this foundation, there is nothing but foundering. The literary text itself may seem totally variegated and protean, but if it is a conscious design, as it must be if it is to be art, then the critic, working from an established base, should be able to find and describe the arrangement; he or she can order the text. The cardinal virtue of a critic is coherence; conversely, the mortal sin is intellectual tumult.
Annie Dillard would, in light of her approach to criticism in Living by Fiction, write an incomprehensible instruction manual in lucid prose. In her essays there is no fidelity to anything save wobbling. Basically, in this work Ms. Dillard is promoting those who she terms “contemporary modernists.” Not one to limit herself, she includes Borges, Nabokov, Beckett, Coover, Barth, Hawkes, Burroughs, Barthelme, Pynchon, Wurlitzer, Disch, Robbe-Grillet, Baumbach, Hjorstberg, O’Brien, Calvino, Landolfi, Cortazar, Puig, Canetti, and Fuentes in her initial list of who’s who. Although Ms. Dillard feels that it is her task as an author to oppose the deleterious effects of entropy as described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics (i.e., she believes, with R. Buckminster Fuller that people orderthings–build bridges and write novels–and so counteract the falling apart of everything else), she contributes to it by willy-nilly adding to her list: Grass, Simmons, Ondaatje, etc. Soon it’s unclear who isn’t a contemporary modernist. And nothing ties the group together, except for her lists.
However, one way to understand what she thinks this assortment of writers has in common is to see what she opposes it to. The following passage includes a most-clear statement of her stance.
In the traditional novel, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European novel, ‘character’ means man or woman in society. Central characters in the Stendhal novel, the Dickens novel, the James novel, interest themselves in blood, money, and advancement to an extent that is simply staggering to anyone who approaches literature through formal methods appropriate to modernism. Where is the art? Where is the metaphysics? These characters, and presumably their authors as well, are more interested in man’s cash assets than in his bargaining with eternity.
She adds for the sake of contrast, “To Beckett characters, Borges characters, Nabokov characters, society does not exist,” and, “the jolly picaros, and Calvino’s Cosimo … and the various axolotls, dinosaurs, cows, etc., which I have mentioned [as examples of modern characters], have on their minds other things than marrying money.” The only things that unify this snippet of criticism are (1) Ms. Dillard’s opposition to, presumably, bourgeois society, what she perceives as the infatuation of several 19th-century novelists, and (2) curious readings of Stendhal, Dickens, James, Beckett, and Nabokov. To ask for the location of art in Stendhal’s novels is like asking for the location of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Dickens was certainly conscious of the poorhouse, but it’s more accurate to say that his concern was with what he considered justice rather thans olvent marriages. James’s novels pay more than passing attention to epistemology. The three 19th-century novelists were concerned with moving their characters through England and France, America and Italy. Still, the psychology of character is more important than the state of society, though that psychology is, as the novelists noted, affected by society. They are not total solipsists, but which characters in fiction are? Of the characters of Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov, the only one that immediately comes to mind for whom society plays, seemingly, a small role is Beckett’s the Unnamable, yet even it is not totally self-referential, as it describes itself with regard to Molloy, Moran, Murphy, etc. Ms. Dillard’s observation “You do not read Nabokov as a document of the times” brings into doubt certain elementary reading skills: if Lolita isn’t a document of Americain the 1950’s, what is it, a carefully crafted soft-core porno novel?
Other 19th-century novelists–Zola, in particular–and their heirs in the 20th also receive blows, though ambivalent ones, from Ms. Dillard. She says, “If someone out there is writing a purely naturalist fiction, using only nineteenth century techniques, he is not so much a chicken with his head cut off as a dead horse.” The techniques she proposes as required are those “developed sixty years ago” but which, curiously, “have been around for centuries, even, if you want to go back to Sterne.” (While this could simply be a semantic problem, the entire structure of her work here is so unsteady that that possibility is slight.) As Ms. Dillard doesn’t want to be offensive, and as her ex-thoroughbred metaphor is a strong one, she finds herself in a bit of a mess, recognizing that Saul Bellow, for example, doesn’t produce Joycean tomes. Her solution is to pretend that she didn’t say what she did by concluding, “There are abundant differences between naturalist fiction and contemporary modernist fiction. But there are simply too many writers and works of fiction which do excellent things in both categories for any one to talk about revolution or even opposing schools.” All of this happens within three pages. Did anyone say anything about dead horses?
Ms. Dillard plays fast and loose, and the result is incoherence. At one point she maintains that there is a distinct difference between writing and painting (“Since words necessarily refer to the world, as paint does not … “) then, at another point, she describes the writer as painter: “He manipulates words like so many dabs of paint.” Readers are said to “believe in the fiction writer as Paul Bunyan”–strong, bigger than life–but she states earlier, “People still regard novelists as helpless, fascinating neurotics.” Curious. All kinds of things happen to Sam Beckett in Ms. Dillard’s handling. She lists him in one place (as shown before) with the contemporary modernists, which she opposes with the “historical Modernists,” such as Kafka, Joyce, and Faulkner, whom she rightly notes are dead. Later in the book she generates another list, one of the Modernists, and not only does she add the name of the previously condemned HenryJames, but she prematurely places Beckett amongst the shades. Beckett, she says, is among the writers of “elaborated, painterly prose” (the tempera slips in again); a few pages later he is used as an example of a writer who produces “plain writing”: “It is sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs; it avoids relative clauses and fancy punctuation; it forswears exotic lexicons and attention getting verbs; it eschews splendid metaphors and cultured allusions.” It is everything painterly prose isn’t. Although Beckett’s texts do span various styles, there’s something suspect about Ms. Dillard’s pronouncements.
Theoretically, Ms. Dillard is a serious critic: she is a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize winner in the nonfiction category. She makes a call for serious criticism, which she thinks will save fiction from the “large and paying audience whose tastes serve to keep it traditional”–to revive dead horses. She is most laudatory to formalist approaches to texts. A critic–especially a formalist–must make deep readings of works, particularly those which are as complex as the contemporary modernists’s. But serious critic Dillard’s readings are not depth-plumbing. She says, “The context into which a work is received actually affects its meaning (despite a century’s valuable efforts by formalist critics), and this context can be manipulated.” Her example of such manipulation is an unscrupulous publisher touting a detective novel by an unknown as a must for “everyone who loved Ficciones, In the Labyrinth, or Harmonium.” Ms. Dillard, for example, of course. She continues, “Would the actual content of the novel, in such a context, acquire new meaning? I think so. I would be the first to fall for it. My review would read the narrative as an enormous metaphor for the search for epistemological certainty.” Such an admission from any seemingly intelligent person is frightening. But when a person who sets herself up in the position of a serious analyzer of literature readily confesses (“the first to fall for it”) that her reading of a given text is based primarily on what is nothing more than a sales gimmick, fright is tempered with disgust. Another comment from Annie Dillard can serve to sum up the difference between whatever it is that she is (a propagandist for contemporary modernism, perhaps) and a bona fide serious critic like Leon Edel: “The novel is a game or a joke between author and reader.” Such a reduction of the efforts that many devote their lives to, admittedly with varying degrees of success, demonstrates, in itself, a peculiar sense of humor.
Thomas Babington Macaulay’s description notwithstanding, Dr. Johnson has come to the present as a monument in the history of letters, both physically and with regard to his dictums, which seem to have been cold chiseled into living stone. Boswell, the source for this interpretation, of course, was kind to his mentor. More recent biographers, such as John Wain, have made their examinations with a more relentless eye, which is only natural, given their proximity to the subject; Johnson was a very vital presence to the young, absorbing Scot. Still, Boswell’s Life remains the defacto standard portrait. Johnsonians–even those who like to think themselves very modern skeptical types–turning to Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), can’t help but be abashed by the raw presentation of the man: praying, pleading, agonizing. Even if the notorious “De pedicis et manicis insana cogitatio” is overlooked, it is still pellucid that the Rambler wasn’t the mainstay he is typically thought to be. In a similar manner, Jonathan Swift is often treated as the author of a book that’s typically available with cartoon pictures of a giant and little people, not as a dark, complex individual who went so far as to predict mental breakdown in a poem about his own death. It is commonplace to say that there is more to an author than meets the eye, yet even when his or her life is documented for biography or that author’s works mined for symbols, there is often a hesitancy to go behind the author’s eye, into the mind, the place from which the work of imagination has sprung, fully armed or barely clothed. Some of those who do, like Leon Edel, perform something that Edel calls “literary psychology. ” He defines that practice as “The adaptation of psychology and psychoanalytic concepts to the study of mankind’s ability to create and use myths and symbols, in essence a study–without therapeutic purpose–of what literature expresses of the human being who creates it.” Obviously, a writer of creative texts works with the stuff of his or her life, whether in blatant or subtle ways. Edel carefully reads texts and compares certain elements in them against elements drawn from the author’s life. As he is well versed in both literature and psychology, his observations and conclusions, while not always acceptable to one who makes another reading, are invariably plausible.
In general, what is dangerous about literary psychology is that unskilled practitioners undermine its viability. These humbugs are usually reductive in that they apply significant meanings to things that have simple, obvious explanations. For example, a dime-store literary psychologist might interpret a character’s putting on of a necktie in terms of that garment as a penis, when it is actually nothing more than an act described to show that the character wants to be socially acceptable. Using a pencil, speaking into a microphone, flying in a jetplane, and various other acts are also ripe for reduction to the sexual by these poseurs. Edel avoids such ridiculous statements in Stuff of Sleep and Dreams and else where; he is a scholar who knows what to look for and who knows how to describe what he discovers. That is, he avoids the use of terms that are no more than cant in the mouths of mawkish guests on the “Donahue” show, authors and/or psychologists who have all the answers to what one of them calls “acute reality problems.”
One jargonlike word that Edel does employ is tristimania, which was coined by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the father of American psychology. According to Edel, Rush used the word to describe “agitated forms of depression.” Says Edel of the word: “It may be inaccurate in a diagnostic sense; yet I find it has descriptive value. It helps describe the component of depression in art, for nothing is more chronic among writers than their sadness.” In Stuff of Sleep and Dreams he provides case studies–of Joyce, James, Eliot, Woolf, and others which show this to be true. Outstanding writers are not the kind of people who would be located on the hump of a statistician’s bell-shaped curve showing “normal” behavior; they would be close to the edge. Think of Johnson and Swift, those who Edel deals with, and others, from Milton to Beckett.
Something is notable in Edel’s examinations because of its absence: the authors he deals with are all dead; there are no living writers scrutinized. This could be simply explained by the fact that his field of study happens to be, primarily, the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, there is another possibility. The fast and loose manipulators of post-Freudian psychology have perverted all societal norms to the point of virtual nonexistence by claiming that it is essential to “do your own thing” and by absolving all guilt for crimes committed by blaming not the responsible party but “environmental factors.” It is impossible to imagine Henry James or T. S. Eliot spouting the nihilistic phrase “Do it if it feels good,” yet it is quite easy to imagine those words–or a slight variation–from Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal. Whereas writers once recognized the necessity of propriety and so infused their art with their tension, many writers of today simply masturbate in public: sex, politics, acting, pugilistics, etc. Nothing is left for their literary works. Thus the vapidity of Ms. Dillard’s contemporary modernists, which is most apparent when examined in the light of Edel’s subjects. Of the living writers Ms. Dillard deals with at length in her book, Borges and Beckett are, perhaps, the only two who will leave behind a rich, sustaining corpus of works, which is due, in part, to their having backgrounds in which tradition means something more ancient than what happened yesterday.