Three Philosophilcal Novelists
Wait Without Idols
“It is better to ruin a work and make it useless for the world than not to go to the limit at every point.” So said Thomas Mann, as quoted by Mr. Joseph Brennan in a book distinguished for its moderation, liberal conservatism, and dynamic middle-of-the-roadery. No doubt the dictum wasn’t intended for works of literary criticism; but it points up a critical dilemma no less exigent for being familiar. How to discover and cultivate that narrow border between the desert and the sown, between the critical approach so intensive and limited as to be destructive, and that so generous as to be wishy-washy?
Mr. Brennan, a philosopher of the older school, brings to the study of letters a steady, sensible gift of appreciation, a temperament judicial and tending to abstraction, and a prose style which is lucid, undistinguished, and industrious. He has produced three essays introductory to the work of three philosophical novelists, not without a graceful bow in the direction of Santayana. His figures are Joyce, Gide, and Mann; and no reader will take harm from reading these essays, though it is almost as safe to say that no man will emerge from the experience shaken to his foundations. Mr. Brennan’s studies make no pretence of being definitive or even complete; in dealing with Joyce, for example, he says little of Dubliners and less of Exiles, while the study of Gide focuses on The Immoralist, Lafcadio’s Adventures, and The Counterfeiters, leaving a dozen minor works in shadow. In itself, the procedure is perfectly legitimate; it is the quality of each author’s mind in which the critic is interested, and he has no reason to burden his book with secondary discussions. Yet, by the very act of focusing on a quality of mind, he misses a good many of the pointed particularities of the artist’s sustained and unsystematic quarrel with his materials, with himself. I think too that he has missed some of the crucial instabilities which underline the uses to which his novelists put their philosophic materials. Mr. Brennan sees very nicely how Joyce invoked some devices of dialectic to order some of his materials in Ulysses; but what he doesn’t help us see is that the dialectic is itself subject to the most brutal parody in that great leonine episode of “Ithaca” and thereafter gives way to a process which is visionary, not dialectic at all. “Penelope” wasn’t written out of a study of the Posterior Analytics—germane though that treatise doubtless is. Technically speaking, the chapter is one in which, by an extraordinary tour de force, Defoe is married with Blake. But one couldn’t learn from Mr. Brennan that either one had ever been present at the festival. Perhaps too this sort of remoteness from the texture of the book he discusses explains Mr. Brennan’s ducking the Finnegans Wake problem. For this problem is less philosophical than linguistic—a question of ways to apprehend a set of symbols which symbolize other symbols.
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