Allen Wier: Departing as Air; Simon & Schuster; New York.
by Dennis R. Perry
Critic Allen Tate once commented that the epic could not be written in a society without common values. Allen Wier’s Departing as Air unfortunately—and unintentionally—reminds us that if there is a basis for fiction in our society, it is based on the common nonbelief system of many of our writers who, with an increasingly complex barrage of ambiguous and ironic metaphysical puzzles, proclaim in their work the inability of modem man to sort out any absolute meaning from his environment. This epistemological dilemma began when writers of the romantic self-culture of the 19th century thought that they could look inward to discover Truth. Thoreau and Wordsworth, for example, attempted to synthesize the correspondences between the natural and spiritual worlds in order to perceive the divine underpinning of reality. In the current backwash of a romantic literature, much of what has since worn thin as merely an indulgent secular religion of the self has evolved away from the search for a divine self and toward the search for a more earthy one. The result of this less-than-lofty aim has been an intellectual flesh-peddling in which the search for Truth has become the search for Sensation.
This conspicuous concern for the body, which borders on worship, is only a part of Wier’s self-consciously modern arsenal of violent and hallucinogenic imagery. These devices betray Wier’s narrative, which becomes a collection of mere effects, the objective of which is to gratify or titillate a reader’s baser instincts. The result is a commercial substitute for organically realistic fiction. During the 19th century the charge of effectism usually applied to the sentimental fiction produced by what Hawthorne called that “mob of scribbling women.” Today it applies to the almost orthodox iconoclasm that ritually exposes what the early sentimentalists dared only intimate. Wier, for example, details the unstable mental ramblings of an old woman recalling her libertine history, by utilizing every gratuitous effect possible within the loose boundaries of today’s tastes. The aim here—as elsewhere—seems to be distract from his otherwise thin structure and characterization. Consequently, the novel’s insistence on the body over the mind renders it flat as a tawdry love story; as epistemological inquiry (created through its repeated images of an indeterminate reality), next to the original challenges of a Pynchon or a Nabokov, the novel displays the hackneyed commercialism of a television movie.
Modernist innovations become fashionably acceptable banalities in Wier and epitomize why Cleanth Brooks calls ours a literary “Age of Silver.” When technique triumphs over content, rather than deriving from it, literature becomes exploitive and decadent. The competent literary technicians at work today do not create art, something that finally endures because it brings with it a sense of intellectual energy that comes with the discovery of new ideas, not merely the reliance on a derivative and earthy poetics of shock to get reader attention. Art of a silver age begins just as respect for its audience ends. The result is art—no, craft—for its own sake. By contrast, perhaps art of a golden age issues from a concern with higher human values and produces a literature that can touch as well as dazzle.
Helen Hazen, Endless Rapture: Rape, Romance, and the Female Imagination; Charles Scribner’s Sons; New York.
If Mrs. Hazen wrote Endless Rapture with her tongue planted in her cheek, then her check must be ample enough to admit a fully loaded freight train. If she is being serious, then the vacant roundhouse metaphor can be applied to her brain pan. Mrs. Hazen, a woman who has apparently read virtually every modern romance novel available, is an educated but not intelligent Emma Bovary, or perhaps is what Mme. Bovary would have mutated into as a result of some toxic chemicals getting mixed into the Rouen cattle feed. Mrs. Hazen announces: “I would like to be raped,” then qualifies it by continuing, “but I want it to happen to me exactly as it happened to Cressida in Vice Avenged.” What that means is that she doesn’t want some nauseating slug to leap at her from the backseat of her car in the parking lot of a shopping mall, but that a “marquis” do it in a “hollow” on a “bed of bearskin rugs and furs he has spread.” “Rape,” Mrs. Hazen con tends, “occurs in the woman’s world of illusion; it is a ritual of love that exists in fantasy.” We wonder how much time she has spent in hospital emergency rooms, courtrooms, or bedrooms where criminally abused women suffer in silence. She seems to argue that men vent their urges by reading books about cowboys and that women’s fantasies take them into stylized worlds where there are the marquis, hollows, and bearskin rugs. Isn’t there more than a slight difference between roping calves and being raped?
Mrs. Hazen assures the reader that she is essentially a down-toearth kind of gal,
I was raised by two homesteading parents in the Alaskan woods. We—my mother, sisters, father, and I—pulled stumps every year. We cut down trees and dragged them from the woods to our home. We shot moose and packed in the carcasses. We built cabins. My father called us ‘you guys.’
Solid credentials, those. Mrs. Hazen launches into a polemic with feminists, whom she claims have it all wrong when they talk about rape as something bad, and even drags Edmund Burke in by his periwig in order to bolster her position. Mrs. Hazen fails to realize that fantasies—innocent or otherwise—too often become manifest in the real world. One real marquis, a contemporary of Burke, was, fortunately for the public locked up in the Bastille, in part because he failed to recognize that private whims and public acts are two distinct things. Mrs. Hazen equates the reading of books wherein women are raped with a desire for the same; do readers of The Little Engine That Could hope to become trains? Less time in the Alaskan woods and more time in New York City would have undoubtedly caused some scales to fall from her eyes.
Richard J. Barnet: The Alliance: America, Europe, Japan, Makers of the Postwar World; Simon & Schuster; New York.
As comic devices, silence, pause, or omission can sometimes be superior to the wittiest bon mot. Thus, for example, when Swift scattered strategic hiatuses throughout his Tale of a Tub and his Battle of the Books, what was not there was as satirically biting as what was. Richard Barnet is also a master of carefully deployed muteness, though the effect he aims at is neither satire nor amusement. As an intelligent and articulate writer who codirects the Institute for Policy Studies, Mr. Barnet cannot say enough about the sins—real and imagined—of American leaders and multinational corporations in their dealings with Western and Asian allies. However, whenever confronted by evidence of the relentless communist aggression that makes a strong alliance of free nations essential, he grows strangely quiet. Thus, while the faults and follies of the CIA are endlessly dissected, the KGB’s espionage, disinformation, “wet affairs,” and global support for terrorism are passed over in profoundest silence. Similarly, though the Anglo-French seizure of the Suez Canal is analyzed minutely as an example of how America’s muddled foreign policy produces international treachery, the Soviets’ gross violation of the Yalta Accord in Greece and Eastern Europe, the building of the Berlin Wall, the invasions of South Korea, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan, and the imposition of martial law in Poland all receive such passing and deferential attention that they appear to hold little significance for the West or Japan. Convinced that Americans have caused needless discord because they are “too suspicious of Soviet intentions,” Mr. Barnet protects his fragile thesis within soundproof margins, impervious to the moans of Vietnamese slave laborers toiling on Siberian pipelines, to the death cries of Afghan villagers slaughtered by Russian bombers, and to the screams of dissidents being ruthlessly “rehabilitated” in Kamchatka or in the psychiatric wards. No doubt Mr. Barnet eschews cacophony and sincerely longs for the blissful silence of worldwide peace. But if the Soviets ever achieve their objective of imposing a far deeper silence on the West than this soft-spoken pundit can even imagine, they will surely reward his helpfulness by
*****Hiatus in MS*****
David Spurr: Conflicts in Consciousness: T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism; University of Illinois Press; Urbana.
When the Moors wanted something belonging to medieval Christians—such as southern Spain—they simply took it by force of arms. Modern infidels, like David Spurr, are more subtle. Having decided that T. S. Eliot’s imagination is a good thing, too good to belong to a Christian, Dr. Spurr makes his conquest by partitioning Eliot into a sterile religious intellect and a living creative vision and declaring the two to be irreconcilably at war, with the best poetry coming from the undefeated and therefore unreligious forces of Eliot’s mind. Such a reading of Eliot’s verse thus permits neoheathens to enjoy the beauty of Eliot’s verse without ever confronting its doctrinal content; indeed, it allows the unbelieving auditor to feel an aesthetic superiority precisely because he does not share the poet’s dogmatic convictions. For many moderns, inhabiting an agnostic critical position which looks far down upon Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism is even more satisfying than ruling a sheikdom in Granada with a view of the Mediterranean. Of course, in order to convert key segments of Eliot’s verse into irreligious pleasure gardens, Dr. Spurr is forced to depart from the mainstream of critical opinion and to look “below the surface of Eliot’s language” into an allegedly repressed inner psyche. The fatuity of this approach is particularly evident in the interpretation of Eliot’s repeated images of “descent into a subaqueous world of confluences” as symbolic of a retreat into a potently Romantic subconscious which is fighting to survive the deadly oppression of conscious adherence to Christianity. But anyone familiar with the New Testament instantly recognizes submersion in water (i.e., baptism) as a central Christian symbol for death, burial, and renewed life. Professor Spurr’s perversely wrongheaded reading of great Christian poetry suggests that some English department needs a visit from El Cid. (BC)
Soothing the Savages
Ellen Frankfort, Kathy Boudin and the Dance of Death;Stein & Day; New York.
Terrorists are not people who hold screenings of John Carpenter’s movies, nor do they promote the reading of Stephen King books. That they aren’t and don’t would seem to be obvious, yet many Americans remain oblivious to the fact that terrorists are people who use violence and who act in an insane manner in order to justify whatever it is that happens to be itching them at the moment. The American attitude is: “Terrorists operate Over There,” by which they mean Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and Anywhere Else. However, as a number of recently released government reports indicate, this country’s blithe neglect of terrorists is making it a land ripe for attack—yes, attack: guns, bombs, missiles, etc.
Some Americans, particularly those who reached puberty in the heady days of the 60’s and who have yet to emerge from that pimply state, are aware of terrorists, yet they treat the criminals as if they are Cabbage Patch Kids. This is Ellen Frankfort’s approach in her dimwitted apologia for a despicable creature. What’s more annoying—and disgusting—than Frankfort’s semiliterate mollycoddling is the fact that Stein & Day saw fit to publish it. Is this an example of editorial “open thinking” or of olfactory prowess that insures a publisher able to smell money even in the rubbish of the bygone political issues.