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More Kicks than Pricks

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

by Marvin Mudrick
Ticknor & Fields,, 299 pp., $16.95

Writers stung by criticism are seldom shy about retaliating. Hardly a month slips by without some disgruntled author coughing into his fist on “The Dick Cavett Show” and denouncing critics as whores, leeches, or—that old wheeze—eunuchs (invariably: “They like to watch because they themselves can’t Do It”). Other epithets are always in fashion. To some, critics are a scurvy band of cutthroats swarming upon unprotected vessels; to others, they’re—we’re?—careless surgeons, splitting open the tender skin of prose with scalpels rusty and blunt. But perhaps the most popular hostile image of the critic now is that of the thug—the hit man. A decade ago in Commentary, Gore Vidal did an entertaining burlesque in which he depicted a number of critics as black-gloved gangsters, “edgy hoods hanging around the playgrounds of the West Side.”

But tough guys work both sides of the street, and one man’s hood is another’s righteous enforcer, which perhaps explains the contestable reputation of the critic Marvin Mudrick. When Mudrick’s third collection of criticism, Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?, was published in 1979, Mudrick was dubbed by one reviewer the “Mickey Spillane of Belles Lettres.” It’s a compliment which seems to have captured Mudrick’s stony heart, for the writing in his new book Nobody Here But Us Chickens is even more brusque and combative. Tattoos snaking up his brawny arms, Mudrick has taken to patrolling literature’s waterfront, tossing undesirables (Shakespeare, Flaubert—scum like that) rudely into the drink. He doesn’t seem to be in a mood to brook any back talk.

Unlike Mudrick’s previous collections, this new volume has a loosely threaded theme as evidenced by the jacket blurb, “A Book about People in Books.” In a singularly sober and unpugnacious essay from On Culture and Literature (1970) called “Character and Event in Fiction,” Mudrick argued that in prose fiction “the unit is not, as in poetry, the word, but the event….” Characters, he argued, are forged and shaped by events, “and events have their own internal cause, duration, magnitude, and consequence.” However, he now writes about fictional characters as if they popped out of the toaster full-grown and ready for action. “The people I write about in this book come from history and fiction, i.e., from books,” says Mudrick in his preface. “Nevertheless they speak for themselves in their own words, they live their own lives, they look to the mind’s eye just like you and me and give the impression of being just as free to choose, hence I needn’t pretend they’re only an historian’s abstracts or a novelist’s inventions.”

But can that pretense be given up so easily? True, literature’s most boisterous characters—Falstaff, Balzac’s Vautrin, Faulkner’s seedier Snopeses—seem to slip free of their creator’s reins and boldly bolt, but this freedom is simply the spill of genius, the writer letting his imagination have a romp. In chitchat, characters can be talked of as if they were real people, but critically they can’t be discussed apart from the intelligence guiding their action, the dramatic context, the demands of genre; can’t, that is, be discussed as if they woke up each morning and wrote their own scripts. And, despite his preface, Mudrick doesn’t hold fast to his fanciful notion that literary characters “speak for themselves in their own words.” One of his kicks against Shakespeare is that he stuffs rubbishy wads of rhetoric into his characters’ mouths.

Comprised mostly of essays first published in The Hudson Review, Nobody Here But Us Chickens briskly shuffles together chapters on real people and fictional characters: Solzhenitsyn and Trotsky brush shoulders with Coriolanus, Johnson and Boswell find themselves trailing after Lady Murasaki’s Genji. A few of the chapters—like those on Jane Austen’s precocious efforts—are minor curiosities that might as well have remained in the thimble drawer. Others are large puzzlements, like the one called “The Publicity Hound” in which Mudrick rushes with amphetamine haste through Solzhenitsyn’s recent career, his portrayal based on the dubious premise that Solzhenitsyn’s denunciations of the West are wowing pieces of razzle-dazzle. “What a one-man act! not only would it play in Peoria, it would be a smash in Las Vegas,” he writes, and one can only wonder if Mr. Mudrick has ever been to Las Vegas, where forced smiles and boosterism rule. (Solzhenitsyn’s righteous tirades wouldn’t last five minutes under the pulse of Vegas’s pink neon.)

However, through the surface rush and bustle of Mudrick’s writing, familiar patterns begin to emerge. Readers of Mudrick’s previous collections know that he isn’t a critic who holds art in sacramental awe; indeed, he argues that literature has often failed life, cheapened it with irony and smart derision. In a review of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield in Books Are Not Life, Mudrick observed, “It’s helpful to be reminded now and then, while novelists persist in their noisy betrayals of human dignity, that living has a longer history than reading, and truth than fiction.” Mudrick strikes a similar note in Chickens when he takes Joyce and Flaubert to task. “What they can’t admit is that art is overrated: which artists, faking and fumbling it together out of spit and toothpicks, should know best of all.” Not for Mudrick the arbors and mists of Nabokov, the world as shimmer and soap-bubble. He has no truck with trick mirrors or transcendence; he’s interested in the earthbound here-and-now.

Nobody Here But Us Chickens takes its title from the sarcastically flip chapter on Jesus in which he quotes Jesus fuming, “…how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” But, adds Mudrick, suppose “it’s all a cock-and-bull story and there isn’t even a mother hen and there’s nobody here but us chickens?” Then, fellow critters, we’re on our own and we might as well make the chirping best of it.

Mudrick’s literary heroes include Jane Austen, Johnson and Boswell, Lady Murasaki, Chaucer, D.H. Lawrence—writers who don’t wrap themselves in mysticism or abstraction (well, Lawrence as always is a prickly exception) but write about the vigorous particulars of “life direct.” One of the reasons Chickens carries a muffled impact is that Mudrick has generously aired his enthusiasms in previous collections: appreciations of Jane Austen appear in The Man in the Machine and Books Are Not Life; essays on Lady Murasaki and Chaucer appear in On Culture and Literature; and so on.

Of course, a critic is free to reinvestigate his enthusiasms, but Mudrick doesn’t really have anything revealingly fresh to say about his heroes’ accomplishments in Chickens; he’s simply taking the trophies out of the display case and giving them an affectionate buff. He also tends to be too possessive about his passions—he sometimes clamps poor Chaucer in a bear hug, spiriting him away from all other suitors. He gets an even tighter hold on Jane Austen. In a chapter on Austen’s heroines, he breathlessly dotes on them as if they were squeezable dears:

Jane Austen’s honest-to-goodness heroines are honest and good without ever being lollipops or prudes or shrinking violets or—even lovestruck Catherine the bonny babe-in-the-marriage-market—Desdemonalike doormats and mattress-pads to masterful (uxoricidal) husbands or, most surprisingly, at all similar to one another or (except that they’re as beautiful as heroines have every right to be) otherwise reminiscent of any other heroines in the world.

Revealingly, Mudrick manages a mere half-sentence on Jane Austen’s most difficult and complicated heroine, Emma Woodhouse. The abrasive edges of Emma’s manner don’t lend themselves as easily to fan-magazine gush.

If Mudrick has his darlings in Chickens, he also has his pet ogre: that old fraud, Shakespeare. It’s almost nuttily obsessive, Mudrick’s contempt for Shakespeare. Shakespeare floats through this book like a majestic battle cruiser, with Mudrick (slipping on dusty goggles) strafing his reputation in a series of swoops and dives. To Mudrick, Shakespeare isn’t a lion-spirited poet but a shameless sensation-monger, his tragic heroes little more than a succession of strutting wankers.

Mudrick’s disagreeableness isn’t without its simmering humor. Perhaps the funniest passage in Chickens comes when Mudrick works up a full head of steam and—to shift transportation metaphors—creams Hamlet with his cowcatcher:

All right, so there he is, our representative to the world, Mr. Western Civilization, in codpiece and pantyhose up there on the boards, firing away at the rapt groundlings with his blank verses, not less of a word-slinger and spellbinder than the Bard himself and therefore not to be considered too curiously on such matters as relevance, coherence, consistency, propriety, sanity, common decency.

Impudent as this riff is, Mudrick’s complaints about Hamlet are basically a hip reworking of T.S. Eliot’s and Tolstoy’s strictures on the play, and not surprisingly the Shakespearean tragedy Mudrick most admires was also the one Eliot considered the culmination of Shakespeare’s “tragic successes”: Coriolanus.

The trendier charge Mudrick brings to his indictment is that Shakespeare was—well, a chauvinist jerk, a writer who lacquered his fear of and revulsion toward women with a lot of sticky-pretty language. Investigations of Shakespeare’s troubled attitudes toward women aren’t entirely new: Leslie A. Fiedler, who, like Mudrick, might be classified as an antiacademic academic, devoted a chapter to Shakespeare’s crypt-haunted view of women in The Stranger in Shakespeare (1972), and in these pages recently Anne Barton subdued Shakespeare’s most determined feminist assailant, Marilyn French.* But no one to my knowledge has gone after Shakespeare with such reckless violence. Eschewing fine discriminations, Mudrick closes his eyes and lets swing, depicting Shakespeare as a saloon blowhard spinning out tales of women’s treacherousness between belts of ale (“routine barroom misogyny” is his exact phrase). Having a whack at The Winter’s Tale, he writes,

Hermione is a friendly sort and though she’s pure as the driven snow she’s dumb as a post too, or at least Shakespeare needs to keep her so till he wraps her up in his net of elementary propositions: Women may be as icy as the chastened snowiness of pure drivel, but circumstances or sheer stupidity may make them seem as oozy as a dip in a hot tub, and often they really are! the nasty things, so it’s hardly surprising that men go bonkers and threaten to chop them into messes trying to figure them out and hem them in.

Dismissing Desdemona as a “doormat” is bad enough, but the breezy confidence of this passage is enough to bring on an earache. If you’re going to topple Shakespeare’s reputation, you have to chip carefully and relentlessly at the foundations of his work, not sit off in the corner banging on the bongos like a coffeehouse beat.

Since Mudrick is provost of the College of Creative Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, it’s distressing to see him phrasing his pokes at Shakespeare in the language of a surly undergraduate—as when he refers to passages of Timon of Athens as “the usual Shakespearean bullshit and hot air.” Surely Mudrick knows that Shakespeare’s reputation will prosper long after his spitballs have caked on the chalkboard, so why is he making such a commotion? Again, I think Mudrick has become overly smitten with his image as literature’s fearless enforcer; he’s taking on Shakespeare as a show of nerve. One can almost hear him boasting in an Edward G. Robinson rasp, “I don’t take nothin’ from no one, see? Flaubert, Jesus, that highfalutin Shakespeare—they get in my way and they’re Swiss cheese, nyah.”

It’s a pity Mudrick never removes his brass knuckles in Nobody Here But Us Chickens. Not only does he bruise even those writers he admires, but his unvarying sarcasm robs his rudeness of its surprising comic force. Bad manners have their place in literary criticism, after all. V. S. Pritchett is an invaluable critic, but if every critic worried a pipe and tried to imitate his sage tones it might be necessary to heave bricks through windows to let in drafts of freshening air. In his earlier collections, Mudrick was often an expert brickheaver, letting fly at the happiness-is-a-warm-puppy pieties of Robert Coles, the coziness of the Trilling-Podhoretz clique, the pretensions of structuralism (including this killer line about psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan: “Lacan is doubtless an inept wizard down on his luck, having inmixed a few too many othernesses between the fading gaps of desire….”). Indeed, Mudrick won my cheers in Books Are Not Life when, after quoting a woolly paragraph from Anthony Powell’s interminable A Dance to the Music of Time, he cut loose:

Cobwebs and dishwater, condescension, malice, inertness, tics, false specification, simpering imprecision, endlessly unsorted gossip, on and on and on, not preliminaries or bridge-passages but the staple, the thing itself, the world as a closetful of baseless opinions….

Irritable excess is what makes the passage so effective: you can feel Mudrick’s exasperation snowballing over every rocky comma. The best of his praising essays in the earlier books—on Casanova, Lord Rochester, Harold Rosenberg—also have this spinning zest and momentum. The problem with Nobody Here But Us Chickens is that humor and malice alike have thickened, become forced, encrusted. For a man who cherishes the goodness that breathes so cleanly through Chaucer and Jane Austen, Mudrick himself seems awfully tense and tetchy in Nobody Here But Us Chickens, even bullying. In the absence of a mother hen, is Marvin Mudrick trying to set himself up as head rooster? We chickies can only dart behind the straw, and hope that the mood passes.

  1. *

    Was Shakespeare a Chauvinist?” NYR, June 11, 1981, p. 20.

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