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Renoir’s Spell

In response to:

That's Entertainment from the October 3, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

While I was delighted to see the New York Review of Books devote so much space to Robert Mazzocco’s thoughtful appreciation of Jean Renoir (October 3), I’d like to register an affable but very firm disagreement with his contention that my book shows me to be clearly in love with the man (I said a certain generation was) and his implication that I scarcely criticize anything he does.

I go into great detail over radical flaws in just the film Mr. Mazzocco mentions (Le Testament du Dr. Cordelier), among others, and give a great deal of space to the sustained French polemics against Renoir which to my knowledge have never been mentioned in English before. Even if I don’t go all the way with them it must be obvious that I feel they possess real weight and point (as per Paris Does Strange Things, Lunch on the Grass, etc.).

It’s true that my criticisms are posed in terms appropriate to the assumption that Renoir’s films’ flaws are those of an important artist’s. Consequently I present the errors as intelligent ones, having some justifications, even if they’re inadequate; being, at least, the result of thought. This could, I suppose, seem like denying that they’re errors, though only if your idea of negative criticism is inspired by, say, the megalomanic idiocies of John Simon. But in Renoir’s case I follow the quite normal literary practice of taking an artist’s minor works in a reasonably serious way. And I certainly was anxious to establish that Renoir’s purposes were sometimes propaganda, polemic, aesthetic playfulness, or popular entertainment; I never implied that the results were inevitably first-rate artistically. The problem is that the continuity of the thinking runs through them too.

Mr. Mazzocco seems to see Renoir as, at his best, the sort of universal humanist that every civilized man should love. I’d have expected him to take issue with my repeated dissent from that currently fashionable view of Renoir; yet he doesn’t even mention my constant placing of Renoir’s work in the context of socio-political polemic, that I lay more emphasis than any critic except a French Catholic on an undercurrent of amorality, irresponsibility, instability and anguish, and that the magnanimity and love of life involve very painful obliteration of the ego. Mr. Mazzocco’s Renoir is much too much a creature of sweetness and light for me—I think he’s prettying him up just like the Eng. Lit. establishment prettied up Shelley, Keats and Blake, and in passing he’s done the same to my book too.

Raymond Durgnat

Columbia University, New York

Robert Mazzocco replies:

The spell that Renoir casts is complex but never solemn: as sensibility it suggests innocence toughened by practicality; as drama the idealist’s need to escape confounded by the realist’s need to endure; as philosophy the knowledge that life is ringed round with risk and that “risk is always bathed in toil, the commonplace frustrations and fatalities of age, the traumas of an era.” These aspects, along with a “shrewd pessimism” and a “playfulness,” seem to me the essence of Renoir, which I thought apparent in what I wrote: a portrait not of “sweetness and light”—though certainly I’ve nothing against such qualities which, after all, for Swift meant “nobility,” for Arnold, “culture.”

Durgnat’s letter, besides being a testimonial to his book, is I’m afraid a bit disingenuous as well. The “radical flaws” he speaks of concern less the intellectual pretensions of Le Testament du Dr. Cordelier—to which I was objecting—than its failure as “aesthetic experimentation.” The majority of his remarks tell us either of a hero who “through fear of ridicule” dares “love only unconscious bodies (en-soi not pour-soi!)” or that “philosophical anthropologists like Rollo May might claim the later Renoir for one of themselves,” that “renouncing American optimism and Calvinism alike, Renoir turns to a more Goethean balance,” that “from his vitalist angle, Renoir refuses to condemn a Bergsonian, or a Blakean cruelty,” and so on.

Paris Does Strange Things, Lunch on the Grass, and virtually every other work, whether pro or con, are discussed in the same admiring terms: characters are called, among other things, Hobbesian or Dionysian; and the book concludes with a parallel between Renoir and Tolstoy, who share, according to the author, a similar “artistic stature.”

Understandably Durgnat would have preferred that I thought his book profound, but it seems to me largely as I described it: “thoroughgoing” in its inventory and full of “grateful and pleasant words”—though somewhat intellectually meandering, muddying the waters to make them appear deep, as in, especially, “the context of socio-political polemic.”

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