Near the end of each semester a student inevitably asks, “Why is literature always about bad stuff?” Even if we’re not reading, say, Titus Andronicus (dismemberment, cannibalism, it’s got it all), cummings (“his rectum wickedly to tease / by means of skilfully applied / bayonets roasted hot with heat”), or Erdrich’s “Red Convertible” (suicide, students suspect, maybe), it’s a fair enough question. Do you know a literary work in which everything turns out great?
(No, not Catch-22. Yes, Yossarian “jumps” to freedom, but all his friends have been killed, and few would bet he’ll succeed.)
Part of the answer to the students’ question is that drama is conflict, but there's also something in literature that can seem cold, even "inhuman," as Ortega y Gasset says. James Joyce writes that "the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."
(No, not Ulysses; despite the deep connections made and sustained, Blazes Boylan, “the worst man in Dublin,” is still out there at novel’s end.)
Chekhov's stories, too, have a "cosmic" point of view, one critic says, as if we were being observed by something too distant for empathy. Some readers don’t feel comfortable with detached clear-sightedness and a refusal by the text itself to get overtly worked up over what is portrayed.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot defines “depersonalization,” his mandate for great art:
What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.
The writer must hold himself aloof from the “structural emotion” of drama, Eliot says, which is provided by the combination of “an intensely strong attraction toward beauty and an equally intense fascination by the ugliness which is contrasted with it and which destroys it.” This makes for a tone of objectivity or authority, or, perhaps, coldness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald confesses in “The Crack-Up” that his failure was due in part to an inability to “depersonalize,” because he identified too closely with “the objects of my horror or compassion”:
It is something like this that keeps insane people from working. Lenin did not willingly endure the sufferings of his proletariat, nor Washington of his troops, nor Dickens of his London poor. And when Tolstoy tried some such merging of himself with the objects of his attention, it was a fake and a failure…. My self-immolation was something sodden-dark. It was very distinctly not modern….
Hemingway is a functioning High Modern, from the publication of the Paris edition of in our time. One scholar calls his short stories “nightmares at noonday” for their clear-sighted view of emotional wreckage. Visit his house in Key West and check out all the pictures of him with dead things or with his bandaged wounds on display. These things are a veneer of toughness, which I’m uninterested in, over a highly aware sensitivity. When he says, “[Courage is] Grace under pressure,” it applies better to his daily struggle as a writer to face, as he says, “eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” That is, to balance self against the long view of literature.
Rory, an administrator friend, and I were having Sloppy Joes down at the Catholic dorm. He has a Ph.D. in Jack Kerouac, and I wanted to question him on the Beats, their precursors, and associates. Their work often deals with aspects of the eternal and portrays attempts to dissolve self into it, though their attitudes toward that differ. Those most knowledgeable in Eastern religion, philosophy, and literature, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Matthiessen, or Gary Snyder, seem best able to achieve the impersonal that Eliot wants, which they might call dharmic. But Kerouac, it seems to me, suffered—badly—for the impersonal, or from it. All good writers venture out alone, but he was lonely.
Rory said he’d never thought of that, and I pointed out that one of Kerouac’s books is called Lonesome Traveller. He said that most people have only read On the Road. I said I’d read maybe five of Kerouac’s books, so he lectured me on them. I asked if he remembered the novel where climbing the mountain becomes a metaphor for how each of the three characters will engage with life in time, and how the Kerouac-narrator clearly fails the test. Rory thought maybe that was in Lonesome Traveller. Or Dharma Bums. I asked if he knew who the characters were based on, and he said one was Kerouac. Another was Gary Snyder, but he forgot who the third was. I could Google it, he said.
We were leaving when I brought up Li Po and the hermetical tradition of (and joy in) nature, contemplation, and solitude (and sometimes drunkenness). Clearly the Beats are trying to be beatific in this fashion. Rory interrupted to say he’d never read Asian literature and wondered if it was better to have read deeply but narrowly, or widely but shallowly. Then he went to put money in the meter.
The very notion of loss of self (in nature, in time, in culture) is a hard pill to swallow in the West, which is why so many toupees and red sports cars are sold here each year. (I can’t afford either, so I’ve had to become a blogger in midlife instead.) Eliot’s depersonalized writing is meant as hard solace (both for artist and for reader), in exchange for the extinguishing of self, but it’s very different from, say, the bliss of Buddhic repose.
In the West, our attitude to our place in the flow of time and nature is more likely to be a fascinated horror, as in Moby Dick (“The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?”), or a paranoia and rage at otherness, as in Nausea. This is not the writings’ fault; it’s merely reflecting the culture. When young (and other) readers fear literature, what they fear, maybe, is the long view, which tends to strip away comfortable illusions about behavior, busyness, and agreed-upon importance and to show them where we truly are. (God knows they don’t fear portrayals of sex and violence.)
In any case, the fear of art is built into our culture ( Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and is used as excuse not to engage with it. Woody Allen has a great joke: “I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” But while length may frighten off some readers and complicated patronymics can be tedious, War and Peace is actually made up of short, vivid chapters that stand nearly on their own, and the language (of the Garnett translation, anyway) is simple and direct.
The thing springs to shocking life and transcends time and place, just when it’s most specific. We recognize characters, written so long ago—and besides, that was another country—as if they were people we live with, and their problems and love and hypocrisies are our own. There’s something unsettling in a view of human struggles so clear that it short-circuits time to talk about us as well as them.
I think that’s what Gertrude Stein is saying here, in “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them”:
And so there are very few master-pieces of course there are very few master-pieces because to be able to know that is not to have identity and time but not to mind talking as if there was because it does not interfere with anything and to go on being not as if there were no time and identity but as if there were and at the same time existing without time and identity is so very simple that it is difficult to have many who are that. And of course that is what a master-piece is and that is why there are so few of them and anybody really anybody can know that.
I think that’s what she’s saying. You know she scares me a little.