Tuesday, August 25, 2009

`The Hardest and Rarest of Jobs'

“The artist who can actually get down on paper something not himself – some scheme of values of which he partakes – so that the record will not waver with time or assume grotesque perspectives as viewpoints alter and framing interests vanish, has achieved the only possible basis for artistic truth and the only possible basis for literary endurance.”

The implicit linkage of “something not himself” with “some scheme of values of which he partakes” is useful and profound. A writer committed exclusively to self-expression (most memoirs and blogs, most obviously), whether confessions, sermons or navel-gazing, is detached from the essential. The self unchecked is a perilous sovereignty, a rogue state. Self-regard is fated to self-annihilate. Writers as various as Chekhov, A.J. Liebling and Oliver Sacks revel in otherness and are most themselves when absorbed by something not themselves. For “grotesque perspectives” look to Virginia Woolf, John Barth and David Foster Wallace, among others.

“Homer so registered values and was the educator of Greece. It is the hardest and rarest of jobs. This or that novel which we in haste mistake for a mirror of the age – The Forsyte Saga, for instance – usually turns out to be a reflection in moving water. Language alters, connotations slither, the writer leans on what his audience understands, and that understanding does not endure.”

This is tricky. A writer is stuck with who he is and what he has, unless, through labor and imaginative reach, he transcends native limitations. The cheap way to accomplish this is to pander to readers, give ’em what, rightly or not, he thinks they want. The resulting commodity may sell but has the life expectancy of a fruit fly.

“…the point at which a writer defines something, whether one moral term – “wise passiveness” [Wordsworth] – or an entire civilization – Cummings’ Eimi – is the point at which he drives his peg into the cliff.”

We’ve lost our nerve. Confident of our “grotesque perspectives,” we step blithely off the cliff.

“Fiction finished has to bear the responsibility of its own meaning, it is its own memory. It is now a thing apart from the writer; like a letter mailed, it is nearer by now to its reader. If the writer has had luck, it has something of its own to travel on, something that can make it persist for a while, an identity, before it must fade.”

[The first three quoted passages are drawn from “Remember That I Have Remembered,” Hugh Kenner’s appraisal of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, published in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature, 1958. The final passage appears in “Words into Fiction,” an essay Eudora Welty wrote in 1965 and collected in The Eye of the Story, 1978.]

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I'm curious Patrick - is Kenner saying that Parade's End is such a transient "reflection in moving water" or instead a more enduring testament that "will not waver with time or assume grotesque perspectives as viewpoints alter and framing interests vanish".

Regardless, some wonderful passages.