Sunday, July 17, 2016

`He Drives His Peg Into the Cliff'

“The artist who can get down on paper something not himself—some scheme of values of which he takes—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.”
By these standards, our age will be recalled, if at all, as one of literary history’s near-vacuums. The Age of Hill ended two weeks ago, and the resulting vacancy rings in our ears. The best writers never proselytize but their words embody “some scheme of values” – not Truth, necessarily, but tentative, reality-tested truths.

“Homer so registered values and was the educator of Greece [and all of Western civilization]. 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.”

 The quoted passages come from “Remember that I Have Remembered,” Hugh Kenner’s review of the 1950 reissue of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, collected in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature (McDowell, Obolensky, 1958). Later in the same essay Kenner writes: “The point at which a writer defines something, whether one moral term--`wise passiveness’—or an entire civilization—Cummings’ Eimi—is the point at which he drives his peg into the cliff.”

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