“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.
It is an interesting observation, rising out of Mr. Brennan’s book but not discussed in it, that each of these three novelists was properly philosophical only briefly in his career. Mr. Brennan sees their later efforts as a falling-off, in literary as well as philosophic terms. He gives up, not without regrets, on Finnegans Wake, says frankly that the last twenty-five years of Gide’s life were pretty meager and makes no very determined effort to redeem the last novels of Mann This record suggests a certain precariousness in the relation of the modern novelist to his ideas—such, for example, that the ideas come into proper balance with the fictions only once in a lifetime. His problem so defined, the historian of ideas in literature will have to be a pretty agile fellow to weigh the multiple variables (of idea, temperament, mood, technique) which make the philosophically inclined novelist ephemerally philosophic.
Mr. Brennan is not altogether unequipped for a task even of this subtlety and magnitude; his book is thoughtful and informed. But it doesn’t push into the high hard ground of criticism. Mr. Brennan is better always with backgrounds than with figures; one looks in vain for the sort of close analysis of even a limited passage which would convince us that we are dealing with a first-rate imagination. With Gide I suspect Mr. Brennan is on terms of imperfect temperamental sympathy—partly because there isn’t much philosophical background or a single great coherent novel to talk about. The account of Mann, on the other hand, seemed to me the best thing in the book. Schopenhauer is relevant to Mann as no equivalent figure is to Joyce or Gide; and the student who has in mind the massive dialectic of Will and Idea can use it to resolve for himself many of the tonic chords of The Magic Mountain. But even here the book suffers from a certain reluctance to bang up against a real literary problem—and this reader, at least, would cheerfully sacrifice the pages devoted to Mann’s foolish and pathetic opinions on politics for a proper discussion of the ironic structure of Felix Krull.
Gabriel Vahanian is a professor of religion at Syracuse University—and isn’t there something wonderfully nostalgic about that title, recalling as it does the days when a professor was a man who professed something? His book is called Wait Without I dols, and it is written in a vehement, positive, preacherly manner, which relies heavily on such rhetorical devices as the editorial “we,” the obiter dictum, the undistributed middle, the petitio principii, the pronoun of ambiguous reference, the quotation wrenched from its context, a careful avoidance of all definitions, and the ruthless suppression of inconvenient evidence. His general thesis may be put something like this: the official Christian Establishment (I don’t know quite how he defines this, but then there are a lot of things I don’t know how he defines) has been incapable for some time of criticizing its own pious frauds because it has nothing demonstrably genuine to put in their place. Literature, not being committed to any formal creed, has therefore taken over the role of sacred (O.K.) as opposed to egotistical (N.G.) iconoclasm. Trembling Isaacs dragged to the altar of this thesis are Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Eliot, Auden, St. John Perse, Dostoevsky, Lagerkvist, and Kafka. To dispatch them all is the work of fewer than 200 pages, but the task is much lightened by Mr. Vahanian’s unflinching ability to overlook all previous commentary which does not support his own thesis. In fact, he largely overlooks the books proper, taking from each just what he needs and departing from them often for pages at a stretch. The presentation of his own thesis about Our Time never flags, and it clearly means much more to him than any mere literature. When he descends to tussling with the books, they mean just what he wants them to mean, and no nonsense about it. (The poor things can’t talk back.) So the “A” which Hester Prynne carries through life may as well stand for “Adam” (p. 66) as for anything else. The gentle reader will sigh with relief that Mr. Vahanian wasn’t disposed to make it stand for Abimelche, Abednego, Albuquerque—or apple. As for The Sound and the Fury, Mr. Vahanian doesn’t see it as an ambiguous book at all. Why should it be? As it appears in this discussion, the novels ends with the sermon in the Negro church, by which redemption is presented to all who will accept of it; and that untidy business of Benjy clutching his cornflower and being driven around the monument in an orderly manner—that is just scuttled out of the novel without a word said. Submitting to be lectured on genuineness and authenticity by a book of this quality is a fearful test of charity for us freethinkers; really, if I read Mr. Vahanian’s favorite text the way he reads mine, fagot and stake would be altogether in order, and the cause of critical accuracy would be the better for it.
Not to put too fine a point on the matter, Wait Without I dols is one of those “critical” books which rape poor old literature as with the corncob of a preconceived idea. It’s of little interest or value to anyone whose concern is with literary experience rather than a thesis. And yet this isn’t the last truth either. For though he sees literature like a troll, with one eye scratched out and the other one squint, Mr. Vahanian does have something to say about Our Time. His method is that of a whirling dervish, and he does nothing to render his position palatable to anyone not convinced in advance of its merits. But he has the strength of his limitations; he sees everything from one angle, and that is why it seems to me, he sees deeply into some of the narrow paradoxes of the human heart. Much of what he says has to be converted, transposed, translated for the non-theist; many of his best effects are gained negatively, by provoking one into a reaction; but he speaks, in his rather awful way, to a condition which judicious Mr. Brennan knows not. Judging the two books as finished critical performances, there’s no question of which to prefer; but there’s a level on which the worse book will have to be recognized as the more (oh ambiguous adjective!) real.
April 16, 1964