Friday, January 02, 2009

`The Faintest Clamor of Celestial Horselaugh'

“Every new sentence, every new fragment of imaginative literature born into the world, is a heart-in-the-mouth experiment, and for its writer a profound chanciness; but the point of the risk is the continuation of a recognizably human enterprise.”

That Cynthia Ozick is a formidably intelligent writer is obvious to anyone even glancingly familiar with her fiction and essays. That formidable intelligence is not a prerequisite for being a first-rate writer, particularly a novelist, is likewise apparent. Consider two of our best – Willa Cather, William Faulkner. Neither was a bona fide intellectual, praise be. The reverse, too, is true. Brilliance of intellect doesn’t assure brilliant fiction. Exhibit A: David Foster Wallace.

The passage quoted above is from “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” included in Ozick’s first essay collection, Art & Ardor (1983). It amounts to a rearguard defense against experimentation in fiction for its own sake, and is a conflation of two earlier essays. The first, “Some Antediluvian Reflections,” dates from 1971, when meta-fictionists like Barth and Barthleme, and such lesser lights as Ronald Sukenick, Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy, were all the rage. In the portion of “Innovation and Redemption” salvaged from that earlier essay Ozick writes:

“What is today called `experimental’ writing is unreadable. It fails because it is neither intelligent nor interesting. Without seriousness it cannot be interesting, and without mastery it will never be intelligent.”

This is delicious, little has changed, and I wish I had read it back in 1971. It might have saved a lot of time and energy in my subsequent reading life. I doubt it, though: I was young and impressionable and unable to distinguish idiosyncratic mastery (Beckett, Stanley Elkin) from kneejerk novelty (Coover, Vonnegut). In those years, avant-garde or experimental fiction took on a quasi-political or religious portentousness. I was 18-19, cocksure and unaware that I wallowed in bad faith. Not liking Catch 22, admitting it was mostly dull and unfunny (Nabokov added “seditious”), would have been tantamount to not liking The Beatles. Today, I recognize my thinking, or non- thinking, as a familiar, oxymoronic syndrome: rebelling as part of a herd, substituting the tastes of others for original thought, dissenting according to fashion. Without realizing it, I had set up a convenient and very unliterary (moral, in fact) duality -- experimental vs. “conventional.” The scare quotes give it all away. Ozick is good on this:

“The idea of the experimental derives from the notion of generations: a belief in replacement, substitution, discontinuity, above all repudiation…There are, in fact, no `generations,’ except in the biological sense. There are only categories and crises of temperament, and these crisscross and defy and dent chronology. The concept of generations, moreover, is peculiarly solipsistic: it declares that because I am new, then everything I make or do in the world is new.”

I think of Ozick’s essay, in particular this passage, as a repudiation of John Barth’s silly, influential “The Literature of Exhaustion,” published in 1967 in The Atlantic Monthly, and perhaps of Robbe-Grillet’s notions in For a New Novel. Barth wrote that “to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect.” Well, no. This would imply that writers, like physicians, must “know the literature,” and if they don’t they ought to get out of the business. I trust good writers to choose their own best precursors, as Faulkner chose Conrad. An absurd syllogism: Henry James read Tristram Shandy; Sterne perfected self-subverting fiction; ergo, James should never have written The Portrait of a Lady. Influence is not always anxiety. Look at Ozick and her longtime immersion (“adoration, ecstasy, and awe”) in James. No one would confuse Ozick’s fiction with The Forsyte Saga. In “Innovation and Redemption” she writes:

“The will to fashion a literature asserts the obliteration of time. The obliteration of time makes `experiment’ seem a puff of air, the faintest clamor of celestial horselaugh.”

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