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Cultural cohesion, p.44
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.44

           Clive James
 

  “Yeats: The Problem and the Challenge” isn’t up to the Eliot piece for several reasons. To begin with, it is too restrictive: “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Byzantium” and “Among School Children” are the only qualifiers for the title of “fully achieved thing.” This has to be wrong. In outflanking the dreaded “fully equipped commentators” F. R. Leavis is concerned with identifying and isolating the major poems (not just the many Yeats poems “worth having”) which do not require “that one should bring up any special knowledge or instructions from outside.” But here one of his most valuable strains of thought, the one which has always been able to evaluate academic pressures and characterize rampant scholarship as a cultural threat, has been mightily over-asserted. Yeats’s poems explain each other where they do not explain themselves, and it is possible to go a long way towards a full understanding of his work without ever once opening any ancillary volume by him or anybody else: his intention of writing a magic book of the arts was fulfilled.

  F. R. Leavis’s whole argument—it is intricately developed—about the extra-poetical in Yeats could as well be detached from that poet and attached to, say, Eliot—in relation to whom, it seems plain, some very extra-poetical considerations are gone into in the lecture next door. Looking at the two essays in conjunction, it seems likely that such considerations are rationalized when admiration is total and developed into a limiting commentary when it is not.

  It is characteristic of Yeats to have had no centre of unity, and to have been unable to find one. The lack is apparent in his solemn propoundings about the Mask and the Anti-self, and in the related schematic ­elaborations.

  Not the same, apparently, as being solemn about the Etruscans.

  Throughout this piece on Yeats, the appreciation of the few poems does not link up with the limiting of the many: the appreciation and the limiting do not spring from the one impulse, despite the vigour with which singleness of viewpoint is asserted. It can be added, perhaps impertinently, that this lecture, like the others, contains several endearingly familiar turns of speech and all on its own offers us one of the master’s most memorable put-downs.

  I remember vividly the impact of The Tower, of which I have a first edition, acquired in the way in which I have acquired such first editions as I have had—I bought it when it first came out.

  What a burn! Yet here again you see what he is driving at; rejecting the fashionable, recalling the essential.

  I don’t believe in any “literary values,” and you won’t find me talking about them; the judgements the literary critic is concerned with are judgements about life.

  When a man offers “the friction, the sense of pregnant arrest, which goes with active realizing thought and the taking of a real charged meaning,” he is not offering something he will be honoured for in any conventional way. But as a living force in the plurality of society his recognition is assured, and his name becomes a known quality. Lectures in America helps to define that quality even more closely.

  Times Literary Supplement, 1969

  POSTSCRIPT

  Trying to get Queenie Leavis out of the road in one line was the biggest single bêtise I committed in that period. It was worse than a crime: it was a mistake, because the old lady boiled over and went for me. She wanted to know why someone so obviously unqualified had been sent to judge her work. She was right about that, although not completely. I had indeed not read much of the recent scholarship on the subject of her lecture, “Wuthering Heights”; but I had read Wuthering Heights recently enough to wonder if she had ever read it at all, in the sense that ordinary mortals do. The apparent premise of her lecture was that nobody had ever understood Wuthering Heights before she picked it up. I thought she was crazy. I was just reluctant to say so. To venture a few strictures about her husband’s share of Lectures in America had already taken all the courage I could muster.

  Though a few chips had appeared in his plinth by that stage, F. R. Leavis’s prestige was still mighty, so it was quite standard procedure to screw up the tone of awe a notch or two when going against him. Also I retained, as I still retain, a high regard for some of his early work. But I had never thought him much of a judge of poetry. To my mind his praise of T. S. Eliot was decisively undermined by his often-stated conviction that Ronald Bottrall was Eliot’s successor, and I couldn’t see the point of his insistence that Shelley was not Shakespeare: it wasn’t as if anybody had asserted the contrary. On top of these particular misjudgements there was his pervasive indulgence in the language of calumny. Special venom was reserved for fellow critics who had arrived at his conclusions before he did. When he finally decided that Dickens was a great writer, he took particular care to vilify any other critics who had ever said so: they hadn’t been right in the right way. He treated D. H. Lawrence the way the scholiasts had once treated Virgil, as a voodoo talisman. I already thought that there were totalitarian tendencies in all this but had not yet found the nerve to say so: hence the strained tone, of respect trying to conceal repulsion. When I called his view of history “enormously complicated,” the “enormously” was the tip-off. I not only didn’t really believe it, I thought his view of history was the opposite of complicated—i.e., actively simplistic and misleading. But I didn’t yet dare to say what I thought, partly because not enough people seemed to be thinking it. Later on, with the back-up provided by having absorbed the life’s work of real historians such as Pieter Geyl and Golo Mann, I found the moxie to declare, instead of just hint, that Leavis’s historiographic rigmarole was a religious dogma in disguise.

  The Metropolitan Critic, 1994

  28

  A WHOLE GANG OF NOISE:

  SUSAN SONTAG

  Despite the relative civility with which Against Interpretation was greeted, Susan Sontag’s reputation in this country has never really recovered from her first disastrous appearance with Jonathan Miller in an episode of Monitor which could have been called “Captain Eclectic and Thinkwoman Meet Public Ridicule.” The medium was the massacre: scarcely anybody came out of the programme with prestige intact and Miss Sontag was immediately incorporated into the British intelligentsia’s typology of dreadful examples. Her appearances in print—a less damaging medium revealing neither her self-assurance rivalling Ethel Merman’s nor her nonstop ponderosity which rendered even Miller unable to get a word in edgeways—have by now done something to correct this bad impression. In fact some of the home guard one might normally expect to be more careful when handling imported brainpower have started to overcorrect. “She has all the qualities of an excellent critic,” avers A. Alvarez in an unwise statement which the publishers are now employing on the jacket of Styles of Radical Will: “she is intelligent, perceptive, and impressively well informed.” Can’t agree. She certainly possesses the qualities named, but conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to be carried away by a big idea.

  Except for the two political essays in the book, one of them being the truly superlative “Trip to Hanoi,” her work is customarily marked by the use of a half-argued, hugely magnetic central notion which attracts examples to its surface so quickly and in such quantity that its outlines are immediately obscured. Sainte-Beuve once said that Montaigne sounds like one continuous epigram but Miss Sontag, like Harold Rosenberg most of the time and Hugh Kenner all the time, sounds like one continuous aphorism. The opportunity to stop the flow and ponder is rarely offered. When it is, usually by an overglib employment of a “thus” or a “nothing less,” the results yielded by a good hard think are seldom happy. Her long essay on pornography, for example, is an impressive against-interpretation job of getting facts in and prejudices out, but even in this field, where she seems to have read absolutely everything, the urge to generalize blocks the way of ordinary observation: you need only have read Restif de la Bretonne, let alone the modern pornographers, to realize that her statements about the use of speech in pornography are wide of the mark. Similarly in
her essay on Godard it’s the little things that bring on the big objections and the eventual wondering whether the thesis really is a thesis. She briefly notes that Godard’s handling of torture scenes is pretty sketchy. Card-carrying Godard fans have long since realized that they must defend him at this point or lose all: they say that the master’s imagination is so exquisite he can’t sully it by trying to represent (or redeem, to employ the dusty vocabulary of Kracauer which Miss Sontag puts herself on record as admiring) reality in such things. But Miss Sontag doesn’t feel bound to defend him since what she is postponing is not interpretation but judgement.

  Wherein lies the fallacy and this lady’s besetting intellectual vice—because judgement is not some higher brain function you turn on after a set period of omnivorous data-gathering, it’s a process which should be continuously operative and in the critic is continuously operative. Thus (there, now I’m doing it) her contention that Godard needs to be regarded in the totality of his films is easily countered by the contention that you will gain no wisdom from a fool’s utterance by cancelling the rest of your appointments and listening to him all day.

  Miss Sontag attempts to break free of the historical burden and ready herself for the new but her attempt, fulsomely documented and exhaustingly fluent, doesn’t alter the fact that the historical burden is only burdensome historically: aesthetically the giants of the past are our contemporaries and must be competed with as if they were still around—we’ve changed, but we haven’t changed as much as we haven’t changed, and Miss Sontag unconsciously concedes this point by being vague about when Modern Man actually got started—i.e., stopped being the old kind. There is great play here with Hegel as the last of the religious philosophers: it appears that his materialistic component got picked up and carried forward but his spiritual component got neglected, which only goes to show that Miss Sontag hasn’t made much headway with Italian idealism. None of her broad arguments about modern trends and currents of thought is very trustworthy and there is a tendency to identify the unholy American mess with a crisis in Western civilization, a notion which ought to be resisted. The best and only solid part of the book is “Trip to Hanoi” but it should quickly be added that you only have to write one thing as good as that to earn a name. Here for once her prose has grace, her argument clarity and her whole literary personality a human presence.

  The Listener, 1969

  POSTSCRIPT

  Susan Sontag deserved rather better than this: after all, it was she who wrote “Trip to Hanoi,” not I. But the really reprehensible thing I did then that I wouldn’t have done later was to go along with the bad press she had received after her notorious Monitor appearance. It certainly was a deliciously absurd moment in television history when Ms. Sontag, or Miss Sontag as she then would have been called, turned up at Andy Warhol’s celebrated Factory to interview him and spent half an hour of precious screen-time examining the aesthetic implications of his failure to keep the appointment. She might have discussed the moral implications with some profit—he had been vilely rude, and we all might have benefited from having had that pointed out. Jonathan Miller no doubt regretted later on, in less indulgent times, that he had helped his protégée to drop herself in it. The publicity that accrued stuck to her for years. But since all publicity is binding publicity, and television publicity is intensely so, the task of the critic is to help sort out the real person from the image that has trapped him, or in this case her.

  The real Sontag was, and is, a very clever woman—and a brave one, as I found out much later when I met her in New York and heard her on the subject of Sarajevo, where she had taken considerable risks to stage Waiting for Godot in circumstances that even Samuel Beckett might have found too appropriately eschatological. If she was carried away by big ideas, at least she had the courage to speculate over a wide cultural range, and often to original effect. An enthusiasm for the collected cinematic works of Jean-Luc Godard looked less ludicrous at the time, when the later films had not yet arrived to sow irreversible suspicion even in his most unquestioning fans that the earlier films might have been trivial all along. The sceptical Alvarez wrote a Fontana Modern Masters booklet about Godard, and it was far less corrosive than Jonathan Miller’s companion volume on Marshall McLuhan. “Can’t agree” was an over-­colloquial, and hence under-spontaneous, way of saying “I can’t agree.” Wouldn’t do it now. Sontag’s empirical acuteness would have shone more brightly for being less veiled in whirling conceptual fluff. She wrote the way Salome danced, but the head she wanted was yours. Her relentless intellectualism asked to be appreciated uncritically for its aesthetic impact, with the inevitable corollary that if you couldn’t take it you left it alone. She had, however, more staying power than her impatient young critics gave her credit for, and when the time came her proclivity for treating any subject as grist to her mill made her an indispensable commentator on the disease that struck her but found it so hard to strike her down. Nowadays, when I re-read her early work, I can see that strength in embryo, waiting to be born and flourish. It is a commonplace that books have their histories. It is less commonly noticed that the people who write them have their histories too, so that you can’t quite know why they are like that at the start until you see what they do later.

  The Metropolitan Critic, 1994

  29

  GERMAINE GREER:

  GETTING MARRIED LATER

  Germaine Greer’s first and very considerable book The Female Eunuch drops into the intelligentsia’s radar accompanied by scores of off-putting decoy noise-sources: a panicky response is virtually guaranteed. Granada Publishing (the command group for MacGibbon and Kee) have done an impressive job with the highbrow press, and weeks before publication date Dr. Greer was already well known.

  If this makes it seem that the reviewer is too concerned with media reactions and media values, let it be made clear that there is little chance of any other kind of reactions and values operating in the present instance. Germaine Greer is a storm of images; has already been promoted variously as Germaine de Staël, Fleur Fenton Cowles, Rosa Luxemburg and Beatrice Lillie; and at the time of writing needs only a few more weeks’ exposure in order to reoccupy the corporeally vacant outlines of Lou Andreas-Salomé, George Sand, Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe and Marjorie Jackson (the Lithgow Flash). Media-hype is never sadder than when something decent is at the centre of the fuss. These forebodings might be wrong, and there could just be a slim chance that The Female Eunuch will be appreciated on its merits. But I wouldn’t count on it.

  The book’s merits are of a high order. It possesses a fine, continuous flow of angry power which both engenders and does much to govern the speed-wobble of its logical progression; it sets out an adventurous analysis of social detail which does much to offset the triteness of its theoretical assumptions; and all in all it survives its flaws of style, falsities of assessment and excesses of sentimentality to present an argument of terrific polemical force. “Now as before, women must refuse to be meek and guileful, for truth cannot be served by dissimulation. Women who fancy that they manipulate the world by pussy power and gentle cajolery are fools. It is time for the demolition to begin.” It’s a revolutionary position from first to last, and a lot of people, many of them ladies, are going to be interested in taking the sting out of it, principally by institutionalizing the authoress. A six-foot knock-out freak don with three degrees and half a dozen languages who can sing, dance, act, write and turn men to stone with an epigram—what a target for the full media treatment!

  Meanwhile the book’s content demands summary and analysis, neither of which is easy to give. The Female Eunuch begins with a lushly overwritten dedication to various female companions in the struggle and ends with twenty pages of dauntingly erudite notes. In between are four main sections of argument and one minor section: “Body,” “Soul,” “Love,” “Hate” and (the minor one) “Revolution,” which last I found to be mainly rhetoric. Of the main sections, the first one, “Body,” is the most
ill-considered, so it’s rather a pity that it sets the terms of the book as well as the tone. She argues very well in the “Soul” section that the supposedly ineluctable differences of emotional and intellectual make-up between the sexes are imposed by stereotype and are consequently alterable, if not eliminable and indeed reversible. There was not the slightest need to peg this argument back to the “Body” section and there pronounce that the differences of physical shape between men and women are likewise metaphysically determined. It makes for a poor start and surely a false one. The anthropological, ethnological, biological and chromosomal evidence adduced is scarcely convincing, and the notes given for this section are relatively thin—relative, that is, to the mass of reading which has been drawn upon to substantiate the arguments of the subsequent sections. The import of this opening section really amounts to the notion that women and men are more similar than they are different, which is unarguable, like its converse: like its converse it is merely a chosen emphasis, providing a preliminary to argument. It is one thing to say that “the ‘normal’ sex roles that we learn to play from our infancy are no more natural than the antics of a transvestite,” since that deals with the psychology of the business. It is another thing to say that in order “to approximate those shapes and attitudes which are considered normal and desirable, both sexes deform themselves, justifying the process by referring to the primary, genetic difference between the sexes.” (Shapes? The whole shape? Everybody? All the time?) And it is a hell of a thing to say both those things in two succeeding sentences.

  “But of 48 chromosomes only one is different: on this difference we base a complete separation of male and female, pretending as it were that all 48 are different.” Only if we are clowns. What we actually do is something far more insidious: realizing that differences based on physique are not seriously worth considering, we keep everything on a mental plane, and attribute to women intellectual virtues we do not possess, in order to palm off a mass of responsibilities we don’t propose to handle. The same trick works in reverse: women flatter men in much the same way. The result, until recently, has been a workable (I don’t say just) division of labour. A good deal of the woman’s share (I don’t say a fair share) of the labour centres on the fact that she has the babies—which is where the physical difference really does come in, or did. After Miss Greer has cleaned up the question of subsidiary physical differences (it appears that women wouldn’t have so much subcutaneous fat if they didn’t leave so much skin exposed on things like, for example, legs) and gets on to the social forms and structures which are governed by this one remaining, glaring physical difference, the book picks up. Because she instantly realizes that if women are to be free, the reproduction of the race is the rap they have to beat.

 
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