Wednesday, 6 October 2010

What Ever Happened to Criticism?

Austen, writing in an age that allowed women mostly no voice at all, in a sitting room that was throughway for the busyness of domestic life, in a genre widely held to be at once insignificant and corrupting, a woman whose future stood to the attention of the many contingencies that operated upon the men of her family, and whose home was, by today's standards, continually shifting its scope, location, and contents, was still, according to Josipovici's recent What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a writer whose most central characteristic is that she was sure of the ground under her feet. Dickens too, Josipovici insists, despite the former's lowly beginnings, frequently precarious finances, ever expanding family, crowded commitments, uncertain health, and never abating drive to remove himself, both literally and figuratively, from the unprepossesing prospect of his father. "The more I see of the world, the less I am satisfied with it": Austen's Elizabeth Bennet testifies to the effect of the contemporary stultification of women that is the theme to dominate Austen's oeuvre; but still, Josipovici tells us, Austen shows none of that disenchantment of the world that he regards as so essential to good, to true, to real art. Similarly Dickens, notwithstanding what must be one of the most comprehensively dark visions of Victorian society and its institutions of change; "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" - Josipovici quotes Salinger's Holden Caulfield - is still too complacent, altogether too comfortable, to share in the disillusionment that Josipovici so values.

How are we to understand this? Why would a woman writing under and about conditions of almost impossibility, why would a man writing in a space as actually and as metaphorically cramped as it could be and in a spirit so continually depressed by endemic evils, be accused of unadmirable assuredness and insufficient disenchantment? The answer according to Josipovici would lie in the category mistake that regards precariousness in one's material circumstances or the haphazard crowdedness of one's daily existence to address the kind of uncertainty that goes to produce good art, the mistake that assumes disappointment, however well-directed, at the conditions of women or anger at the major socio-political institutions to have relevance for the kind of disenchantment exhibited by great artists. For it is not uncertainty per se that Josipovici values in the artists he admires, but uncertainty about art, just as it is not disenchantment with the world that he looks for in the artworks he encounters but what he calls disenchantment of the world, which amounts to a disenchantment with the world of art. Poverty and poor health do not the artist's assuredness dampen, Josipovici implies; the despair of irony and the humour of darkness do not the artist's disenchantment make: for the world is the world, and art is art, and never the twain should meet. Austen and Dickens, by being too much of the world, are too little for art.

And therein lies the reason for Josipovici's distaste for all but the "Modernists"; only the "Modernists" exhibit disenchantment itself, because only the "Modernists" have no ground at all under their feet, because only the "Modernists" despair, not merely at this or that message, but at the medium through which any message might, must, be transmitted. That, for Josipovici, is real disenchantment: not the having of something disenchanted to say, nor even merely the having of nothing to say, but the having of everything to say and nothing with which to say it.

Austen and Dickens, then, and those more contemporary authors who Josipovici identifies as their descendents, are, in effect, all too human: too directed in their uncertainties with too much purpose to their disenchantment. Austen, a woman in a time of men, intervened in that time both by the fact of her writing and by its content, demonstrating in what she says and does women's claim to greater consideration and the continuity that exists between daily life and the creative spirit. Dickens, for his part, performed his creative practice in the same manner and with much the same motivation and effect as he had, early on, fufilled his post as court reporter for the newspapers. Just as, then, he wrote for cash and on schedule, often completing his report to the rhythm of the jolting carriage that was carrying him back to London, so later he wrote to keep his children in clothes and his father from debt, to strict and regular deadlines, with the helter skelter of domestic life and a busy social diary all round, with the noise from the street and the stench from nearby tenements never relenting . And as his reporting functioned to inform people what went on in court, so his novels functioned - albeit at greater length and with conventional devices employed - to show people what went on in their world, a world with which Dickens was anything but enchanted. But all of this has little to do with art, Josipovici implies; for art does not function, art does not intervene, art does not seek to profit, art does not have deadlines, art has no concrete conditions and effects, art is disenchanted with nothing. Art, rather, pursues the "relentless contact with reality" that too much contact with the world would suppress. By being too real, it would seem, the novels of Austen and Dickens are not then real enough.

Because in the end, Josipovici would have us believe, the novels of Austen and Dickens suffer by not being the things they describe: they are not the feeling of muslin on the skin, nor the stench of sewage, nor the taste of madeira, nor the sight of rotting flesh. But that is not it, of course; words can never be such sensations. Austen and Dickens, then, fail in being too complacent in the face of this never, in being too at home in the language they write, as if that language were somehow capable of representing the things to which it points. Everything happens exactly as and when it should in their novels, Josipovici bemoans: the carriage pulls up at five minutes to nine; the gown is let down another two inches; the marriage occurs at just the moment it ought. There are no doubts, no hesitations, no "examining of what's going on in their own minds" as they imagine, no ability "to question what it is they are doing" as they write. Instead, there is mere anecdote, the telling of stories to lure us into a world that is not real, the use of the past simple to tempt us to think it's all true, the production of "reality effect" as evasion of "reality itself." From being, in one sense, too real, then, too fulsomely of and in the world and its ways, the novels of Austen and Dickens move to being, for Josipovici, far from real enough. Content, as he describes it, with mere representation, they never face the challenge of representing reality, of showing "the trembling of life itself," a challenge that can never be truly responded to except, indirectly, as the suggestion that there is something that cannot be done. Hence the greatness of Beckett's avowed weariness of "going a little further along a dreary road," and the all but impossible, quintessentially "Modernist," search, through art, for that which refuses to be turned into art. Austen and Dickens, by taking artifice at face value, by resting within that which art allows to be possible, act in bad faith, Josipovici tells us; they employ their arts to do what can be done and neglect altogether to use them to do what cannot.

Which gives us a timely entrance to criticism of Josipovici's commitment to what he calls "Modernism," for it is a commitment ultimately to a curious determination to continue to engage in an activity that is rather an indulgence than anything else (for Josipovici, art does not make a living; it is not fitted kitchens), but in a spirit of begrudging despair at the value of that activity, rather as if one spent one's time on the golf course in Marbella doing nothing but despairing at the impossibility of achieving anything by playing golf. Don't go to play golf in Marbella, we might advise, but spend your time more productively; similarly, put down your pens and your paints, we might counsel, and get out there and do something else with your life. But that's just it. Doing something else with your life is equally irrelevant, equally distant from reality, equally merely human, Josipovici believes; in fact, it is much more irrelevant, much more unreal, much more human, insofar as it occupies one's mind with concerns other than the conviction that nothing mere humans can do or say is anything but incomplete, prejudiced, contingent, grubby...well, human. Effectively, then, "Modernism," for Josipovici, is the discontent with the merely human; and art, for Josipovici, is that realm of activity where this discontent finds expression.

But, if Josipovici feels impatience at what he perceives to be certain supposed artists' sense of assuredness of the ground beneath their feet, we might pause here to, with far greater reason, accuse Josipovici of something similar. One experience of staying with, of operating within, the "merely human" is the experience precisely of the shifting nature of the ground on which one stands, the sense that one only ever has an insufficient amount of evidence for one's claims and a finite capacity to justify one's beliefs. This is the experience that the human is all there is, the experience that one must pull oneself up by the bootstraps, the experience of the lack of any superhuman ground for human existence that would remain stable through all our vicissitudes, a foundation for all our relations. But it is precisely this superhuman ground that Josipovici imagines himself and his "Modernists" to stand upon, as they try to recognise "that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art," as they try to give voice to the "inhuman," to Reality, to Now, to Nature: how to capture the landscape without humanising it, how "to see it as it is and not as I see it" is the challenge that faces Cezanne, as Josipovici describes it, a challenge, to put it bluntly, to see the view from God's seats. Neither the "reality effect" of the realists nor the flights of the fantasists can do anything but grate upon Josipovici's sensibilities therefore, not, he explains, out of some Puritan disdain for the imagination or for the craft of letters "but out of respect for the world." But belief in this "world," to which human efforts to think and do are so offensive, can finally rely for its effect only on exactly this disdain: for the finitude of human existence, for the partiality of human achievements, for the relativity of human truths, for the contingency of human successes and failures.

Josipovici is, in the end of all, a fairly straightforward Platonist. For Josipovici never questions the assumption - which is quintessentially Platonic, although it has had its more recent proponents - that humans use their arts to represent. It is true he makes distinctions between the tradition of representing character and his more favoured practice of representing action, and between those artists who think of their work as mirroring reality and those - the "Modernists" - who know that their words function merely as "emblems" or "signs" of reality; but these nuances do not take from what is Josipovici's basic belief: that the primary character of art is its representation of the world. And his Platonism does not stop there. For - and this is the inevitable consequence of believing, as Plato did, that the reality that humans see around them is but a dim representative of Truth itself - Josipovici also believes that the representations of artists will always fail because, even at their most faithful, they will only succeed in representing human truths and inevitably fall short of representing Truth itself. He goes further: insofar as art multiplies the number of human truths around us, insofar as it points us again and again towards the human world, and especially insofar as it does this "faithfully," it is actually corrupting, actually damaging of our capacities to sense that, beyond the human, there lies a Truth that is inhuman, a reality that is infinite. Hence, Josipovici shares with Plato a rather negative view of the value of art, a conviction in its degrading effect.

But this is not all: Josipovici also shares with Plato the elevation of a certain kind of artwork - for Plato, this was the highest form of poetry - which employs its arts to represent not human things but some inkling of the inhuman. For Plato, great poetry gives an idea of Love itself, of Hope itself, and so on. For Josipovici, great art - "Modernist" art - gives a sense of reality itself, which turns out to be the realm in which no possibility is annulled by the commitment to any particular possibility; rather, possibility itself - which, we are asked to accept, is the most real of conditions - is suggested through the annihilation of, the utter disregarding of, any particular possibility. Hence Josipovici's admiration of Henry James who, according to Maurice Blanchot's reading, wrote in a manner characterised by an allegedly "pure indeterminacy," and who we are told managed, "behind the constructed work which he brings into being, to allow us to feel other forms, the infinite yet weightless space of the narrative as it might have been, as it was before all beginnings." Certainly, on this model, Austen and Dickens, do, spectacularly, fall short: Dickens, because of the explicitly interested, determined, aspect of his novels, their frequent dialogue with contemporary developments, their address of socio-political events, and their explicit submission to the requirement of regular remuneration; and Austen, perhaps primarily because hers are novels of which we might particularly remark that, before all beginnings, they might have been nothing at all, such were the unfavourable chances of being a woman and a writer at that time. For neither Dickens nor Austen, then, was the weightless space before all beginnings in itself of any significance at all, let alone of the infinite significance that Josipovici would attribute to it. But that is because their living conditions or their livelihood depended on it; and only if one's life depends on it is one capable, in Josipovici's view, of making good art.

For this is not fitted kitchens, Josipovici tells us; this is not package holidays (golfing in Marbella nothwithstanding): this, we are asked to believe, is the stuff of life and death. The lives of the "Modernists" depend on it, on answering the call to write while knowing that to write is fruitless, on taking up the pen while aware that pens are no use, on going a little further along that dreary road. But the problem is that all of this is rather unconvincing to the unconvinced. Josipovici and his "Modernists" have got themselves into a little loop: beginning with the assumption that art differs from fitted kitchens in having no use (and this is an assumption, for art - that is, the artificial generation of meaning - has often, as in cases as well known as Austen and Dickens, had its uses), then they avail of the general uselessness of art - its remove from the world - to indulge in the very-removed-from-the-world leisure activity of descrying the world for not being enough; but, of course, art - human artifice - will always, to some extent, be of the world, and so the loop goes on, as the leisured artists of our time bemoan the mere humanness of the world with its least human of pursuits and then bemoan the humanness of even this pursuit. But it is not a mere leisure activity, we are told, for their lives depend on it. But in what sense? In no sense that can be made to sound reasonable: the "Modernists" do not write because they would champion the female intellect in a world of men, they do not write because the legal system is so involved and corrupt as to make misery among the people; no, they write because they have to, but the "have to" cannot, by definition, be given further content. But this makes "Modernism" into a belief system and the "Modernists" into alleged prophets, called by the gods to do their work, and looking all over for inhuman, immaculate, conceptions.

Which brings us back to Plato, but with more force than Josipovici is ready for. For, of course, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be a Platonist like this, to hold that the world makes sense only in the context of an Other World in which things are not merely human. But, if you are one - and Josipovici does not write as if he thinks of himself as one - then you must accept: firstly, that you have a ground beneath your feet that is as solid as any that can be imagined - you have a fully worked out belief system at your disposal; and, secondly, that your experiences will be, for the most part, unreasonable, that is, incapable of justification to those who do not share your belief. Now, Josipovici's book does not read like the work of one who is indulging in the expression of what is consciously held as a belief, nor does it read as the work of one who regards "Modernism" as anything other than the effect of the waning of belief - the dissolution of grounds - that is often regarded as the defining feature of the modern age. Josipovici finds himself in a difficulty, therefore, defending a mode of creative practice that relies upon nostalgia for necessary truths and a sufficient distance from the world of human wants and needs to feel that nothing is worth saying when nothing absolute can be said. Meanwhile, the world goes on all around: successful interventions are made, bad books are written, the health service is reformed and a bestseller comes from nowhere, and nobody thinks, for a moment, that any of this is the result of activity too human to have any value.

Where do we start to unpack this misguided account? Jane Austen's novels are not representations; Charles Dickens' novels are not representations: that is the first thing. If one were to say "You're a pig!," although one element in this event is the fact that the word "pig" "represents" a fat, pinkish animal, this is by no means of central importance. Because "You're a pig!" is not primarily representational; it is a performative utterance, it produces an effect, it expresses anger, it intervenes to increase the tension, it is something itself. Similarly, Austen's novels do not primarily represent a particular village in late-eighteenth-century England. They are the effort of one woman to stake a greater claim on intellectual life; they are the intervention of one voice in the changing of women's position in society; they function to criticise the system of class, and so on; they are something themselves. And similarly Dickens' novels, which urge the poor to revolt, shame us all to greater benevolence, make some peldge to live better lives, intervene in the contemporary debate over the possibility of spontaneous combustion, and so on: they are something themselves. Josipovici's idea, then, that such novels are like drugs, tempting us to a half-life of unreality, is preposterous. On the contrary, the novels of Austen and Dickens are compelling, not in the way of drugs but of stories - yes, anecdotes in the past simple tense - that change us, that goad us to action, that inform us of times and their people; they are more likely to prod us awake than they are to lull us to sleep.

A second thing: in casting such novels aside as corrupting in their temptation of humans to humanness, Josipovici curiously reenacts a move that was made at the very inception of the novel. Austen's Northanger Abbey subjects the move to no small degree of irony, when her heroine, Catherine Morland, an increasingly enthusiastic novel reader, is depicted as a naive girl full of nonsense and fancy, and placed by the plot under the supposedly more mature capacities of Henry Tilney, who laughs at novels to begin with but then seriously warns Catherine of their perniciousness when he judges them to have led her so astray as to have suspected his father of gross philandery and the possible murder of his mother. But the criticism of the novel in this novel is highly ironic, and, in the end, implicitly trounced when only Catherine, and as a result of her education by novels, turns out to have been able to read the character of General Tilney, who, if not quite a murderer, is revealed to have treated his wife, when alive, most cruelly, and who pursues Catherine for her wealth and throws her out of his house without provision and in the dark when he discovers her penniless state. For novels can educate, can inform, can enlighten, can cultivate, can inspire one, can change things. Only a society like that of Jane Austen, with one view of what's right and real, and we might say only a position like that of Josipovici that holds there at least to be one right and one real (even if he has learnt to give it no content), can judge of this education as inevitably negative, can feel threatened by the exposure if offers. That Josipovici has, at the moment he likens novels to drugs, to caricature the novel as the thing that would tell us what it's like to be a tiger or a lobster, shows, I think, the desperation of a critic who has no more reasons to give.

Which brings us, at last, to the question of our title: whatever has happened to criticism? Well, what has happened in this case is the result of a curious commitment to the notion that the good critic "makes us see through their eyes." In this notion is lodged the key to what is ultimately the unreasonableness of this piece of criticism, for it suggests that the good critic operates in that most unreasonable of middle grounds between the subjective and the objective, that place where one has allegedly no reasons to hold the views one does hold apart from subjective impressions and yet all the reason in the world - as a result of the privileged status of those impressions - to claim the right to "make us" see what one sees, the right of objective truth. This explains the marked tone of Josipovici's book, which unites the assertiveness of subjective experience with the imperiousness of objective fact. Of the original version of Duchamp's Large Glass, indistinguishable from other versions except that its panels were shattered by accident, Josipovici asserts that, while other versions may be beautiful, only this one "lives." We are given no argument to persuade us of this: it is asserted with all the immediacy of a subjective impression and assumed with all the confidence of a clear cut case of fact. Similarly, Josipovici points to Duchamp's and others' alleged commitment to the imitation of action as superior to the traditional tendency to imitate character, without once proposing any reasons why it should be considered so. And yet, in his closing comments, Josipovici recognises that some may not share his views on "Modernism," on art, or even on the world, and that all he can try to do is to persuade others to see things as he does. But this is precisely what he has not done, has not even tried to do. For, being too much of an unwitting Platonist, he is also too much of an unwitting Kantian in relying upon that mode of aesthetic experience that Kant so cleverly devised, which is both purely subjective and universally true. Of course, Kant, like Plato, thought that the human world was but a poor, merely human, representation of the World-in-itself, because Kant, like Plato, in the end had a God to defend. Josipovici has no such God, but he does keep the space where that God used to be; his task, like that of all good critics on his account, is to fill it. But Gods rarely deign to persuade; and so they make very bad critics.

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