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Interfering with Literature

The Ordinary Universe

by Denis Donoghue
Macmillan, 320 pp., $6.95

Seeing into literature without losing sight of it altogether is a problem of critical focus; it involves us with literary energies and façades. Any man who offers to reduce these slippery variables to a single formula merits at least a prize for bravery. The Dynamics of Literary Response by Norman N. Holland, is a vigorously reductive Freudian argument, of the kind more frequently encountered twenty or thirty years ago. The book begins with a joke of sorts, modified to suit the author’s special interests, from the pages of a 1964 Playboy; when ground exceedingly small, this joke proves analogous, in the mechanism of its fantasies, to the Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer. The successful promotion of this parallel (designed to show the importance of fantasy to all literature) is not without its perils, since one could readily give it this twist: fantasies which underlie both a piece of literary garbage and a literary masterpiece can have little to do with specifically literary responses. Mr. Holland, however, keeps well away from this argument; having established that fantasies underlie the “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he finds characteristic of both the joke and the Tale, he proposes that the psychoanalytic reading of a work of art has “special status,” that it involves “the deepest roots of our cumulating lives,” and is indeed “the ultimate form of the fantasy that generates our response.” “Special,” “deepest,” and “ultimate” are the key terms here; and, alas for the argument, most literary readers won’t be disposed to grant Mr. Holland these large claims quite as blithely as he makes them.

The argument tends, in fact, to unravel even as it’s being woven. The “deeper”, and more “ultimate” the causes one discovers, the less relation they have to a particular effect. Even if it could be established that a fantasy prompted a work of art, it wouldn’t follow that we should give the fantasy primacy in contemplating the finished product—unless we’re prepared to argue that a grain of sand is the “special,” “deepest,” and “ultimate” form of a pearl. An artist commits himself to artifice when he writes (particularly when he advertises his deep personal “sincerity”), and he often has more interest in the associational patterns of words than of psyches, more interest in the distances between images than in their proximity. Besides, the very process of talking about fantasies converts them, all too often, into something else—the artificial moral constructions of the Freudian critic. Like many of his Freudian predecessors, Mr. Holland talks finely of fantasies as deep wellsprings of our buried instinctual life, but in practice he categorizes them with the mechanical rigidity of an early scholastic philosopher. Dividing up the poets into oral, anal, urethral, phallic, oedipal, latent, and genital types is as harmless an exercise as working out their horoscopes; but “special status” and “ultimate form”—really, somebody’s got to be kidding if he proposes to find much imaginative vitality in these erogenous pigeonholes. The fantasy to which the Wife of Bath’s Tale reduces itself turns out to be a perfectly bald and simple-minded moral formula: “If I am phallicly aggressive and do not submit to my mother, she will castrate me” (p. 27).

It is an ancient but not very intricate fallacy in logic to talk about “fantasies” in literature without ever saying whose fantasies they are—whether those of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Wife of Bath, the compilers of Arthurian legends, Norman N. Holland, the reader of Norman N. Holland, or the human race as a whole. In the instance of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the fantasy as formulated (“If I’m phallicly aggressive, etc.”) is clearly inadequate because it’s bound to be meaningless to at least 50 percent of the human race. Getting castrated for “phallic aggression” doesn’t seem like a very powerful fantasy for women, or if in some inverted way it is, feminine reactions to such a story ought to be perceptibly different from masculine ones. There’s no reason to think they are, by any measure we know of. No doubt one could make verbal adjustments in the formulation of the fantasy, to avoid the anomaly. But the real problem is the process of reduction itself—the assumption that what a work of art “stands for” is determined by a scheme to which only the critic has proper access.

A proper account of the response to literature might well begin with the recognition that among shifting literary energies there are no pre-programmed deeps and shallows. To limit the author’s freedom in this regard, in order to exalt the analyst’s power, seems self-defeating; a critic who successfully uncovers all the vaginae dentatae in world literature has still told us more about himself than about world literature. Mr. Holland pays, as it seems to me, minimal respects to the power of literary form in coloring, patterning, inverting, or restructuring the “basic” fantasy on which, he is convinced, everything rests. As a result, just about everything he says concerning the Wife of Bath’s Tale could just as well be said about a two-paragraph paraphrase of it in Serbo-Croatian prose.* What he is interested in is theme, i.e., subject matter. Thus he attributes to its theme of sexual insecurity the failure of Lovelace’s poem “The Scrutinie” to attain anthology recognition, without ever reflecting that the poem is patterned on Donne’s “The Indifferent,” which has enjoyed great success in the anthologies. Just conceivably this difference, along with some others of greater significance and delicacy, has something to do with literary art.

Earnest, persistent, voluble, and decently middlebrow in its occasional literary judgments (no danger of undue excitement here), Mr. Holland’s volume is a classic exercise in the art of falling between two stools. Though it has only half an eye on literature, that is enough to impose on its psychological explanations a patient, condescending tone, like that of a scoutmaster leading a group of underprivileged children through the botanical gardens of the libido. And it will be hard for anyone who cares about literature to read without impatience its placid mastication of the masters, its absorption of elegantly counterpointed distinctions into one much-ruminated cud. Kenneth Burke (to mention only one critic) has been forty years at work, showing us how much can be derived from Freudian insights without falling into reductionism; so far as Mr. Holland is concerned, Burke might as well never have existed. Mr. Holland has offered in this book a substitute for literary experience, not a form of it.

The interference with literature to be anticipated from Leslie Fiedler is less systematic and more provocative than that emanating from Mr. Holland, but it is almost as bad for literature. The Return of the Vanishing American is the third volume of a trilogy (the first two sections were Love and Death in the American Novel and Waiting for the End); it is thematically independent, but marked by the same intellectual style which has already polarized so many readers for or against Mr. Fiedler. Is he really provocative or just provoking? It’s hard to do justice to both qualities, for both are generously present in all his work.

The topic of this latest venture is, broadly, “literary Indians.” Mr. Fiedler is interested in Indians primarily as they serve to refract the terrors and desires of the American psyche—that is, of white, educated Americans with (generally) European and (predominantly) nineteenth-century cultural backgrounds. Thus the Indians most useful to Mr. Fiedler’s explorations are mysterious savages, and one savage Indian, whether in a dime-novel or a B-movie, is about as valuable as another. If he could keep some perspective on this primitivism, which is indeed a strong and persistent strain of American feeling and does have many fascinating overtones, Mr. Fiedler would be a welcome guide through the mazes of American fantasy-life. But he is carried away by the racial and anti-rational rhetoric which is in vogue nowadays, and his argument builds steadily toward the conclusion that insanity, schizophrenia, and drugs (recommended pretty much indiscriminately and without apparent differentiation) must be welcomed as the new frontier toward which previous imaginations had been reaching (whether they knew it or not) under the image of Indians.

Much of this schema the present reader can regard only as irresponsible nonsense, starting with the conclusion, which renders ridiculous books, reviews, and discourse itself. At earlier stages, one can demur at any description of “Indians” which imputes to them a uniform common character (as if Eskimos and Incas, Zunis and Cherokees were bound to have one basic character because their skin is the same color). One can repudiate the “savagery” of the Indian, his darkly alien patterns of thought, as a crude projection—whether admiring, sentimental, or contemptuous, and sometimes with one attitude serving as a disguise for another—of the white observer. One should be particularly suspicious of a passion for savagery in one’s Indians because it is so modish, an intellectual’s anti-intellectual anti-ideology. As for the myth about the happy drug-culture of the Indians, there is some evidence that as aborigines they made relatively little use of drugs and chiefly as medication; it was only when cowed and frustrated by European conquerors that this use started to turn into a cult.

Finally, the notion that the Vanishing American is staging some sort of comeback these days seems pretty tenuous. The grade-X television serial has largely superseded the horse-opera movie and the novels of Zane Grey and Clarence E. Mulford, without giving Indian themes any particular access of vitality. The inverted Indians that Fiedler cites in evidence of “return” could just as easily be cited in evidence of depletion. There is, to be sure, a going move for the hippie world to take up Indian ways, on the basis of obvious (if largely one-way) bonds of sympathy; but this is a long way from a literary movement. Writers who are interested in nature, drugs, or schizophrenia can, and probably will, continue to exploit these themes without detouring through the reservation, where most of them have never been and can never be anything but tourists.

Still, even in this exasperating, cantankerous book, written in Mr. Fiedler’s usual picturesque mixture of styles, repeated flashes of insight make themselves felt. Not only is Fiedler naturally a very bright fellow, but he possesses a spotlight mind that can make patterns stand out which steadier illumination would never discover. The dream of a cross-cultural friend, for instance, of an easy accomplice in play as well as special projects overriding racial difference and sexual sameness, is a brilliantly perceived ingredient of some American fantasies; looking around, one finds repeated instances of it, in “I Spy” as well as in classic American fiction. Or again, the figure of mother-with-a-hatchet; very likely Mr. Fiedler makes more of this image, imbedded in the story of Mrs. Hannah Duston, than prudent scholarship will find evidence to justify. But it is a recurrent theme in nineteenth-century literature, which one can sometimes usefully set against the myth of Redeeming Love in a Good Woman, of which we see so much.

I think Mr. Fiedler would have carried more conviction had he let history more generously into the scheme of his categories. A great deal that he presents as mythic or archetypal American image of life seems easier to accept as a stage in the development of romantic thought. And he wouldn’t really weaken his positions, he might even strengthen some of them, by laying them down in a less take-it-or-leave-it way. On page 142 there is a passage that strikes one with genuine amazement, where Mr. Fiedler speaks of “the archetypal sense I have been trying to define.” It seems so peculiar, because up to this point the word “archetypal” has been used with absolute assurance, without definition or discussion or the slightest sense of problematic in any way connected with it. But for the reader who comes generously supplied with his own question-marks, The Vanishing American seems likely to provide a stimulating rough-house, as the vision of little men in white coats, at the end, dissolves in universal laughter.

Compared with these two volumes, Denis Donoghue’s The Ordinary Universe seems expressly designed to illustrate contrary virtues—and contrary limitations as well. Mr. Donoghue writes quiet, fluid prose; his citations are impressively wide, ranging from Wittgenstein to Parmenides and back again. He deals with classic modern authors, and some not so classic; and his thesis is characteristically modest and trenchant. All modern authors, he would say (if I may try to reduce his argument to a summary statement), though they have been impelled to move into private personal worlds for various purposes and under various pressures, have necessarily kept one foot planted in the public world, the ordinary universe, where people communicate with other people about human situations; a balance of these commitments is highly desirable, and tilting the scales one way or the other brings with it quantities and qualities of gain and loss which it is the business of criticism to assess.

That, or something like it, is the thesis of The Ordinary Universe, and clearly it is a thesis loose enough to accommodate a great deal of civilized discussion. Mr. Donoghue’s liberal Catholic humanism tends on the whole toward a conservative estimate of how much private chaos literature can profitably admit, and one sometimes gets the sense that he’s rather too anxious about this. The chapter on Yeats, for example: it sets symbolic Yeats against Celtic Yeats, with a preference for the latter, and ends by saying that Yeats got from Irish sources (among other things) “the dialect of the tribe”—which, it implies, was a very good thing to have. This leads Mr. Donoghue (not quite explicitly) to exalt a poem like “Coole Park, 1929” over one like “Byzantium.” Here, despite a good deal of original sympathy with Mr. Donoghue, I start to lose him. Whatever else his position implies, it can’t let itself get reduced to a preference for neat human-sized poems over the big outward-reaching mind-wideners.

The national Yeats whom Mr. Donoghue emphasizes in preference to the symbolist Yeats is there; if he weren’t, the lesser Yeats would be. But precisely Mr. Donoghue’s ground of discrimination supports an argument that emphasis on Yeats as a symbolist yields a fuller vision of the poet. Consideration of the symbolist poet must focus on the oeuvre; the Irish vernacular tradition focuses on the spoken word. There is no need to argue that Yeats was an abominable reader of his own verse, though he was. By general admission, the most rewarding way to read his poetry is as a single volume of verse, within which each successive poem adds new complexity to the recurring images. And when we read the poetry in this way, we get a larger idea of what can be accomplished by the devices of juxtaposition, superposition, and precisely ordered repetition—all without formal links or connecting syntactical statements—than Mr. Donoghue is willing to allow in a couple of starchy pages allotted to the subject (58-60). Yielding to this sort of thinking may very well lead out into the galaxies of a private cosmos as vast as it is strange; perhaps that’s deplorable, but it’s Yeats. One can argue that even the humane, “domestic” poems would be less exciting if one didn’t feel the poet to be capable at any moment of gyring off into the outer wabe—while, at the same time, it is a redeeming feature of even the most visionary of his poems that, with a little transposition, they can be brought to bear on the most human concerns of men and women.

I’d rather see Mr. Donoghue at work expanding the definition of the “ordinary universe,” and multiplying the ways one can get out of it without losing touch with it, than shrinking the dimensions of men like Yeats and Joyce in order to get them inside it.

A word, finally, in praise of a book that treats the reader like a civilized interlocutor instead of a passive boob. Mr. Donoghue begins by examining some texts from writers who have spoken deliberately to his point. His thinking is based on a steady contemplation of what the writer is saying and how his particular words enable him to say it with particular fullness and weight. But in the end, the positions are reversed; we respect the critic’s conclusions, not because they are deduced from careful observation, but because they seem to make that observation possible. If Mr. Donoghue’s “ordinary universe” were oppressive or restrictive in its effect upon his handling of texts, we might well look upon it with a jaundiced eye.

In the course of his argument, Mr. Donoghue cites Yeats as saying of someone that he was helpless before the contents of his own mind. That’s a wonderful formulation, because it suggests the way a principle of inner resistance sometimes disappears under pressure, whether from a perception, a persuasion, a system, or simply from prolonged omphaloskepsis. Escape from the tyranny of what we think we know evidently lies in some form of indirection, in the power of reflected vision to keep us detached. The ordinary universe will serve that purpose, but so (it may be) will other, odder ones; perhaps the specific mirror used (so long as it’s steady and alien) matters less than the process. Reflection seems like a timely topic in its own right; and it could be argued that modern criticism needs fewer magnifiers and more mirrors.


Shrinking Literature September 11, 1969

  1. *

    A nice exercise here for graduate students: given a particular critique of Work X, create a model of X which will answer the terms of the critique as fully as possible while resembling X as title as possible. Then rewrite the critique in such a way as to make the carody impossible.

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