Joyce Carol Oates: The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews; E. P. Dutton; New York.
Kenneth S. Lynn: The Air-Line to Seattle: Studies in Literary and Historical Writing about America; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago.
Beyond any reasonable doubt, Matthew Arnold knew far more than did Samuel Johnson. Curiously, however, he was far less confident about turning his knowledge into literary or cultural judgements. It is quite impossible to imagine the reserved intellectual schoolmaster ever discrediting long-revered works of literature with the assuredness that Johnson evinced when denigrating Milton’s Lycidas and the poetry of Cowley and Donne. Just as unimaginable is the possibility of Arnold’s ever pronouncing the kind of ironclad verdict Johnson gave in answer to Boswell’s defense of a woman who left her husband for another man: “My dear Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle virtue and vice. The woman’s a whore, and there’s an end on’t.”
The contrast between Johnson’s bracing finality and Arnold’s cautious deference is best explained in terms of a paradox: Johnson could be assertive because he humbled himself before the God of Christianity; Arnold was forced to be tentative because he dismissed God and arrogated to himself and other artists and critics the task of creating and choosing new objects of worship. Johnson was confident in his moral pronouncements, but nor self-confident. His resolution reposed in Christian ethical principles far larger than his ego. While vigorously opposing skepticism with regard to religious dogma, Johnson was a bold freethinker on many literary matters because he regarded literature as human artifice fully subject both to divine standards of morality and order and to human approval, or rejection.
Arnold, on the other hand, rejected Judeo-Christianity because its “supposed facts” appeared unreliable to his “modern” mind. What was needed, he therefore argued, was a new “religion” of poetry, in which “the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion.” Who was to serve as god in this new religion? Arnold’s answer is unclear, but presumably it was either the Poet or his Poem. This, of course, was a tremendously self-serving notion, since Arnold believed his own poetry to be the best expression of “the main movement of mind” in his generation. As he appears in his verse, filled with despondency and alienation, Arnold’s new deity does not, however, appear capable of inspiring deep faith — not even in Arnold. A more perplexing problem, since poets are as far apart in their views as Lucretius and Dante, and since every other village boasts its own self-identified poet-god, is how mere mortals are supposed to practice true devotion. Arnold assigns this knotty theological conundrum to the critic-become-priest. But since Arnold concedes that the critical power is inferior to the creative one, the critic must approach the body of literature with all of the confidence of the Uzzah approaching the ark.
Nonetheless, as Arnold unhappily perceived, in the new religion of modernity, the priests must perforce judge the gods, not the other way around. Fearful of the fallacies of both the “historic estimate” (unthinkingly endorsing the received tradition) and of “the personal estimate” (unthinkingly endorsing the received tradition) and of “the personal estimate” (legitimating every idiosyncratic whim) Arnold was har pressed to articulate any credible rationale to guide the judgement as to which literature was to be canonized as scripture. He admitted that “sometimes . . . for the sake of establishing an author’s place in literature, and his relation to a central standard,” judgements must be made, but complained that this is “not the most satisfactory work to the critic.” How indeed is this unsatisfactory task to be accomplished at all when art itself is “the central standard” because it is the only recognized repository of the divine? Arnold answered, “here the great safeguard is never to let oneself become abstract, always to retain an intimate and lively consciousness of the truth of what one is saying.” He must have realized that in a religion in which “the idea is everything” and artists are gods (or at least god-makers), “truth” is highly subjective and therefore the second part of this prescription wholly vitiates the first. So after a few years of promoting “sweetness and light” and “reason and God’s will,” Arnold made another attempt to resolve the problem, advocating the use of “touchstones” taken from the “lines and expressions of the great masters” and gave specific examples. He did not, however, bother to explain how the touchstone comparisons were to be made or how the great masters and their best lines and expressions were to be identified in the first place. It is hardly surprising that he relegated “mere judgment and application of principles” to the “second place” in the critic’s concern, elevating the acquisition of “knowledge, and ever fresh knowledge,” to the first position.
Fortunately, though Arnold required the critic to occasionally hold court on the gods, he forbade him from giving commandments to men. The critic, he declared, must forswear “the region of immediate practice in the political, social, humanitarian sphere” in favor of the “more free speculative treatment of things which may perhaps one day make its benefits felt.” Indeed, in surveying the French Revolution, Arnold offered not a word against its “fine ideas,” but attributed its “crimes and follies” merely to the attempt to give them “immediate political and practical application.” Even though he died well before the French attempted to put them into practice, Johnson anticipated Burke in many of his telling critiques of libertarianism, secularism, and egalitarianism. (Johnson to Boswell: “So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.”) He did not have to read about the September Massacre to know that, even as ideas, revolutionary doctrines were foolish and dangerous because they violated immutable truths concerning the nature of man. These foundational principles were fixed, and, as he dramatized in Rasselas, the search for liberating new ones was vain. Accordingly, in Arnold’s quest for more and more “fresh knowledge,” the apostle of art as religion fulfilled the Apostle Paul’s description of one “ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
It would be grossly unjust to compare Arnold to Joyce Carol Oates, a writer of far less talent and intelligence. Nonetheless, Ms. Oates’s assertion in The Profane Art that Matthew Arnold’s “disinterested” criticism provided her with a model for these collected pieces is not entirely unwarranted. For Ms. Oates has taken quite seriously Arnold’s dogma that art must replace religion and has drawn from that position conclusions which are perfectly consistent and logical, though Arnold was himself too decent and civilized to advance them. Dismissing “traditional religion as handed down by a priesthood” as “a fantastic spirit-world of wistful and childlike yearnings,” she identifies creative art as the only “sacred” dimension of modernity, with criticism helping to provide “profane” illumination (hence the title). In Oates’s views, “for both the collective and individual salvation of the race, art is more important than anything else, and literature most important of all.” A more orthodox believer than Arnold, Oates insists that the critic reverence the creators of art (like herself) as the gods and goddesses they are.
Criticism, she explains, “must take the artist’s freedom seriously — it must resist its own conservative and reductive instincts.” This apparently means that the Olympians will tolerate no more impious and presumptuous human judgements on the mysteries of divinity; true believers may offer up only ceaseless praise and the sweet fragrance of incense. After lighting a few candles before the images of Virginia Woolf and Paul Bowles and genuflecting at the shrines of Donald Barthelme and Géza Csáth, Ms. Oates invites us to join in a hymn of thanksgiving for an amoral modernist literature which has overthrown “the prejudices of the bourgeois culture” and has repudiated “the tiresome pieties of the Victorians, like those of the Augustans, having to do with the morality of art, and the duties of the artist.”
For the liberal like Ms. Oates, the consolations of this worship are prodigious, for the icon of the autonomous artist is finally just a projection of the sovereign self. In Oates’s “religion without a reigning deity,” the individual ego is free to imitate the artist in filling the metaphysical hole. Conservative artists, of course, remain a problem, since their work inevitably measures human limitations against superhuman standards. But they can be anathemized for indulging a heretical weakness for value systems, such as ethics and traditional religion, not defined primarily by art and artists. Thus in a rare exercise of judgement, Ms. Oates censures the “savage judgements” on contemporary culture found in Bellow’s work. And, after dividing Flannery O’Connor into “several Flannery O’Connors,” she redeems the artist O’Connor from the Catholic “bigot” O’Connor, even if this requires a truly miraculous gloss on Miss O’Connor’s assertion that she wrote only because she was Catholic. (Ms. Oates has better hope her religion is true, for an afterlife confrontation with the one Flannery could prove unpleasant) The, too, there are those artists like Faulkner and Conrad whose art suggests an affirmative judgement on traditional sex roles; a critical jihad against these schismatics is also in order.
Yet even after Ms. Oates has zealously cleansed the temple of modern art, what kind of ‘salvation” can it offer? By her alcoholism, her adultery and divorce, and her endlessly self-obsessed confessionalism, Anne Sexton certified her identity as an autonomous modern artist. Ms. Oates therefore canonizes her as “a highly courageous woman” and her poetry as “a triumphant event in our literature.” Still, the spectacle of Sexton’s emotional breakdown and suicide is not an attractive one. Because the artists who formulated Oates’s credo envisioned only “this world . . . rendered in all its detail, with no more revulsion for the contradictory, the obscene, the vulgar, the unspeakable, than any anthropologist or chemist might feel confronted with his or her primary material,” she lacks any strictures against which to measure Sexton’s pathologies. So, after becoming vaguely “disturbed and moved” by them, she implausibly argues that “all works of tragedy deal with ‘suicide’ of any kind” and, even more incredibly, that the final catastrophe was caused by Sexton’s weak sense of masculine God “outside of her.”
Ms. Oates is similarly evasive and unconvincing when she blandly labels it “ironic” that modern artists have invariably found that “a kind of hell . . . [is] the only place for the liberation of a certain kind of independent and courageous woman.” Never — worlds without end — will Ms. Oates peek beneath this irony. To do so would reveal that the governing spirit in modern art-become-religion is the same one Milton portrayed defiantly affirming that he had rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” No sanctimonious Pharisee was ever more hypocritically self-justifying than is Ms. Oates when she accuses conservatives of “a refusal to examine one’s beliefs.”
As Kenneth Lynn’s The Air-Line to Seattle proves, it is actually liberals and leftists who refuse to examine their beliefs. Dr. Lynn’s critical powers are fare more potent than Ms. Oates’s not just because he is more intelligent (though this is clearly true) but also because he brings to literature a marvelously Johnsonian skepticism about the holiness of modern art and artists. Tearing through liberal hagiography, he demonstrates that Emerson, Whitman, and Hemingway were not gods, not even very admirable mortals. Emerson, who reputedly fathered American literature through this bold advocacy of self-reliance and his opposition to the Puritan tradition, did not cut himself loose from Christian doctrine and clerical employment until after he had secured a sizable business fortune through a dubious courtship of a dying heiress. Whitman, whose paens to unbridled lust have made him a favorite among homosexual activists, confessed in his private notebook that his perversion made “life a torment . . . [of] diseased feverish disproportionated adhesivenesss.” Hemingway, the champion of modern masculine bravery, cowardly lied to his mother about his atheism and cravenly shirked the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. Dr. Lynn also irreverently trashed the standard liberal readings of Twain’s Huck Finn and Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” with compellingly documented arguments. The “drop out” approach to twain’s work ignores books both before and after Huck Finn in which Twain firmly tied Huck both emotionally and morally to Missouri society and therefore made his thoughts about fleeing to the Indian territory incredible except as a passing boyish fantasy. Contradicting the popular “war wound” explication of Hemingway’s story is bountiful biographical evidence suggesting that the ambiguous unpleasantness Nick tries to suppress was merely a fight with his mother.
Turning to historical scholarship, Dr. Lynn proves that contemporary images of Jefferson as an egalitarian communist, of Greenwich Village as a gathering place for refugees from bourgeois horrors, and of leftish New York journalists as unbiased observers of Soviet politics are the specious manufacture of “modern-day intellectuals and their terrible need for radical myths.”
Professor Lynn cannot abide left-liberal myths because, like the rock-kicking, woodcock-watching Johnson, he has a deep respect for concrete facts and actual human experience. The refusal to perceive the gap between theory and fact, he finds, is “a telling indication of the intellectual temper of the times.” (It is also a likely explanation of The Nation’s negative review of Dr. Lynn’s book) But Dr. Lynn is far more than an iconoclastic collector of facts. He indicts Matthew Bruccoli for a “fact-mongering” which evades the need for interpretation, and he censures Gay Allen for failing to draw any conclusion from the sordid details he uncovers in researching Emerson’s calculating romance. Like Johnson, he wants both facts and a vision of life within which facts fit and can be interpreted and evaluated.
Though much of this volume is devoted to nay-saying, his nay is grounded in a fundamental yea. With Johnson, Dr. Lynn says nay both to those who would denigrate the nobility of bourgeois man and to those who cannot appreciate the significance of Christianity when manifest as a “living faith, not an ossified piety.” He says nay emphatically to all who “rest content with nihilism.” So while Ms. Oates leads the nauseous public chorus of liberal critics hailing narcissistic artists as gods, Dr. Lynn stands as a courageous blasphemer who stills the hosannas with a confident and resounding verdict: “This is nonsense, and there’s an end on’t!” The reader cannot but believe that in private he bends his knee to a better God. cc