Tuesday, May 12, 2015

`The Mere Negation and Opposite of Their Age'

Like any virtue, pugnacity ought to be deployed with discernment. To sputter without letup is self-defeating. You get written off as a crank or malcontent, a bush-league Jeremiah with a grudge against the world, and your argument is ignored. Besides, there’s too much to celebrate to remain perpetually on the attack. To criticize convincingly demands a commensurate gift for praise. 

In his foreword to Unbought Spirit: A John Jay Chapman Reader (University of Illinois Press, 1998), Jacques Barzun says he must appeal to “a still higher snobbery” when recommending Chapman (1862-1933) to readers: “I have admitted his drawback: he is as clear as a bright day; hence in reading him one cannot simply scan the words with a fluctuating awareness of their drift, confident that a useful mental residue accumulates while time passes. Instead, one must think and also feel, without letup, the reality that the words are meant to reproduce.” Barzun is rousing in his advocacy. Dave Lull several years ago tried to spark my interest in Chapman, but the same quirk in my makeup that causes me to fend off praise often moves me to defy useful, well-intentioned suggestions. In typical contrarian fashion, I’m finally enjoying Chapman, despite his unlikely admiration for Emerson. Here is Chapman in an 1893 letter to Sarah W. Whitman on one of the grandees of American literature: 

“I forgot to abuse James Russell Lowell’s letters of which I read a few in reviews, advance sheets, etc.—and won’t read any more. I think they are self-conscious, literary, ointed [OED: “Obs. anointed” – a damning word in Chapman’s lexicon, implying unearned privilege], and twiddling, and the reverse of what letters ought to be. Good letters are violent—vivid, unconscious, rapid, colloquial—like Byron’s, which are stunning—not that I like Byron, but he did know how to write manly and delightful letters.” 

I like a critic who tells it straight, even if the telling is mixed: Byron’s letters are “stunning—not that I like Byron.” Exactly my assessment, but one I have never heard expressed by someone else. Chapman embodies forthrightness. He’s nuanced but never slippery in his judgments. In John Jay Chapman—An American Mind (Columbia University Press, 1959), Richard B. Hovey reminds us that Chapman “assailed scores of prominent persons in the [eighteen-]nineties. His conduct puzzled Americans then; its like still does today.” I’m not sure the same is true more than half a century later, when ad hominem assaults flourish alongside “trigger warnings.” Savagery and soft-headed niceness can coexist. Hovey continues: 

“We forget that such behavior is in the tradition of great criticism. We forget the harshness of Ben Jonson, the murderous couplets of Dryden and of Pope, Dr. Johnson’s pulverization of the creator of Ossian, the Scotch reviewers’ lambasting of Byron and his fellow poets, Hazlitt’s pugnacity, Carlyle’s sulphurous invectives, Samuel Butler’s idol-smashing, Shaw’s dexterity with either bludgeon or needle, Mencken’s use of heavy artillery. This is the company of Chapman.” 

In the essay on his friend William James, written shortly after the philosopher’s death in 1910, Chapman praises him as “a wonderful man” but counters, “He seemed to me to have too high an opinion of everything.” He goes on: 

“Of course, we know that Criticism is proverbially an odious thing; it seems to deal only in shadows--it acknowledges only varying shades of badness in everything. And we know, too, that Truth is light; Truth cannot be expressed in shadow, except by some subtle art which proclaims the shadow-part to be the lie, and the nonexpressed part to be the truth. And it is easy to look upon the whole realm of Criticism and see in it nothing but a science which concerns itself with the accurate statement of lies.” 

You see Chapman’s un-hypocritical cunning at work. Barzun calls him “stunningly lucid,” and in an age of obscurity, lucidity proves itself “subversive,” a quality much prized by today’s obscurantists. Near the close of his essay on Emerson, Chapman writes: “Great men are not always like wax which their age imprints. They are often the mere negation and opposite of their age. They give it the lie. They become by revolt the very essence of all the age is not, and that part of the spirit which is suppressed in ten thousand breasts gets lodged, isolated, and breaks into utterance in one.” 

Reading Chapman with admiration for his prose and stance, if not always his judgments, I think of a passage by Thomas Beer in The Mauve Decade (1926): “So in 1896 the thin Jeannette Gilder denied Stephen Crane’s right to express his disgust with Hebraic wraiths in Black Riders. It was timidly urged that free speech was any man’s privilege. `Not if it hurts people's feelings,’ said the female critic; and the saying may be taken as the American’s whole social posture before free thought at the century’s ending.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

"Mankind can't stand much reality" and lucidity is subversive. Excellent. In the Charlie Hebdo age where free speech is defined as going out of your way to provoke and offend it is forgotten that real free speech is simply truth-telling, something that ordinary society is unable to tolerate.