James Agee wrote of Buster Keaton’s hat:
One can never forget Keaton wearing it, standing erect at the prow as his little boat is being launched. The boat goes grandly down the skids and, just as grandly, straight on to the bottom. Keaton never budges. The last you see of him, the water lifts the hat off the stoic head and it floats away.
Some years later Hugh Kenner wrote The Stoic Comedians, meaning Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett. Flaubert is the Comedian of the Enlightenment, Joyce the Comedian of the Inventory, Beckett the Comedian of the Impasse. In The Counterfeiters Mr. Kenner takes a second look at these matters, but more diversely now with the aid of new metaphors largely culled from mathematics and linguistic philosophy. The metaphors insist upon diverse illustration, so a topical Index, not included, would go beyond the following list set down by Mr. Kenner as an indication of the terrain to be crossed:
This exposition will include, because its subject did, a variety of themes which the Dewey Decimal system (a Romantic artifact) prefers to keep in different parts of the building: the Enlightenment; Buster Keaton (stoic comedian); bad poetry; Albrecht Dürer; Joyce; Swift, Pope; closed systems, mathematical and mechanical; Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines; the late history of Latin abstract nouns; Andy Warhol; Gödel’s Proof; horses, computers, games; a clockwork duck that suffered from indigestion; and a man who wore a gas mask to ride his bicycle.
Keaton is here still the inspiration, the governing figures are still to be found in Agee’s prose, and the book should perhaps have been called The Stoic Comedians, Vol. II.
Reverting to Vol. I, we find that “the stoic is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.” The stoic comedian, like Beckett, “selects elements from a closed set, and then arranges them inside a closed field”:
The Impasse of Beckett’s comedy is a closed field by specification. From the moment when we encounter Murphy upside down,naked beneath the rocking chair to which he is bound, crucified, in fact, on a piece of Victorian furniture, to the long blazing interval during which Winnie, buried first to the waist and then to the neck, discourses of Happy Days, Beckett’s wry adaptations of Christian iconography have immobilized the body of the sage the better to set his mind free, or relatively free, in a freedom guided by limit, number and system.
In the new book Mr. Kenner again surveys the closed field and the comedy of limit, neglecting only one consideration, that the stoic comedian on this reading makes nonsense of the grand axiom of modern literature, the imagination as an endlessly creative force. Let that pass. The theory of the closed system was first expounded for literary purposes by Elizabeth Sewell in The Field of Nonsense, the classic study of Lewis Carroll. Mr. Kenner has ventured far beyond Wonderland on the understanding that modern literature is best considered as Applied Nonsense. The closed field is still his model.
E. H. Hutten has observed that scientists often use models as metaphors. Max Black has examined this procedure in his Models and Metaphors, remarking that while the use of a particular model “may amount to nothing more than a strained and artificial description of a domain sufficiently known otherwise,” at the same time “it may also help us to notice what otherwise would be overlooked,” new relations, new connections. Later he says that perhaps every science “must start with metaphor and end with algebra; and perhaps without the metaphor there would never have been any algebra.” It is enough to say, for the moment, that Mr. Kenner’s use of the closed field as a model, a metaphor, a speculative instrument, is ingenious, brilliant, and very odd. That he is pushing toward algebra is clear. His prose is extraordinarily oblique, difficult to read, sophisticated. But the presence of new connections is indisputable.
The specific origin of The Counterfeiters is a passage in The Stoic Comedians, where Mr. Kenner considers a relation between Ulysses and General Number Theory:
Once we have such a theory we can invent as many mathematical systems as we like, and so long as their elements are delimited and their laws internally consistent, their degree of correspondence with the familiar world, where space has three dimensions and every calculation can be verified by counting, is irrelevant. This line of reasoning sets mathematics free from our inescapable structure of intuitions about that familiar world. In the same way, once we shift the postulates of the novel a little, we can have a book like Ulysses; but as long as we adhere to the commonsense view that a novel tells a story, Ulysses is simply impossible.
Of course Tristram Shandy and the Satyricon are impossible, too. But I want to give Mr. Kenner’s argument as clearly as I can, first, before quarreling with it. He calls The Counterfeiters an historical comedy, reasonably enough because it is enacted in a world of cerebral mechanization, giant brains, and IBM machines. The hero is Charles Babbage, irate father of the Difference Engine and, in the fullness of our time, progenitor of the computer. In The Exposition of 1851 Babbage described, with proper exhilaration, “the prospect of performing purely algebraic operations by means of mechanism.” Chapter XI of his On the Economy of Machines and Manufactures (1832) is called: “Of copying.” Babbage, like Mr. Kenner, is thrilled by the ingenuities of simulation; his Calculating Engines, like Mr. Kenner’s books, are simulating mechanisms, models, metaphors, leading their adepts toward algebra by way of nuts, bolts, and energy. So to Mr. Kenner’s theme: the counterfeiting artist makes something that is like something else, subject to the qualification that it is not what it seems. Language itself is a simulating device; certain words in a certain order simulate a retired ship’s doctor called Gulliver; other words in a different order simulate a gentleman called Robinson Crusoe. Meanwhile the language itself, Augustan English, is laboring to produce its favorite invention, man in the guise of a rational animal. The relation between literature and politics would take account of these matters, if Mr. Kenner were expounding it.
Mr. Kenner’s idiom is reductive, because the point about a machine is that it does something by not aspiring to do everything. As a literary mathematician Mr. Kenner is devoted to fractions. At one point he invokes the ultimate computer which, suitably programmed, can simulate any lesser machine, including a clockwork duck that suffers from indigestion. Again he mentions that from the available virtues the computer chooses one: knowledge. These thoughts are congenial to Mr. Kenner because he has always been fascinated by people who do not quite exist and things that are not quite themselves. His favorite literature, like the Flaubertian novel, delights in parodying itself. Counterfeit persons, he says, “emerge from a language which theory has separated from its speakers.” If we ourselves are fractions, longing to be whole numbers, we make the best of a divided world by learning, stoic and comic, the art of the closed system.
So the villain of Mr. Kenner’s piece is empiricism, the theory that you can tell what a thing is by looking at it. But the difference between a thing and its counterfeit is hard to elucidate. “If a man does nothing with his life but spin threads,” Mr. Kenner asks, “then just how is a thread-spinning machine not a purified machine?” Give your answers in fractions. Eliot’s poems are often concerned with conditions which look alike and cannot be discriminated by empirical attention to their symptoms. “To train the untrained eye which cannot tell hollow men from men self-divested is the business of Murder in the Cathedral,” Mr. Kenner says, paraphrasing a passage in his earlier book, The Invisible Poet.
So The Counterfeiters is, among other things, a parody of empiricism; its sole fault, the price it pays in historical accuracy. The first price is the distortion of Locke, as if there were no allowance in the Essay for anything beyond the senses. For the good of symmetry Mr. Kenner has also to ignore Berkeley, although many of the governing ideas of the book are implicit in that philosopher and neatly summarized in Yeats’s essay on his work. The pages on Swift are also very odd, implying that everything in him may be explained as an anti-empirical game. There is something of Walter Shandy in Mr. Kenner, an inordinate devotion to hypotheses. “It is the nature of an hypothesis,” Sterne says, “when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand. This is of great use.” It is of great use because, at whatever cost, it enables the devotee to see things otherwise invisible. Many of these things are disclosed in The Counterfeiters.
But the most remarkable moment in The Counterfeiters comes near the end, when Mr. Kenner suddenly speaks of his fractions as if they were whole numbers. Unless I have erred, he has broken his own system, opened the closed field. The counterfeiting artists, he says, “restored the person to a blank universe by seeming to suppress the person.” I do not understand. “Assaying for traces of the controlling person whatever offers itself to you as experience, you seek equilibrium in a universe constituted wholly of things synthesized out of facts.” This is the making of another book, for the excellent reason that its personalist idiom is not sustained by the present one. How whole numbers are sustained by fractions, universes by models, persons by figments: it is a mighty theme. I recall the same inserted conclusion in The Stoic Comedians, that while we attend to words on a page in Beckett, we find that topics of no intrinsic interest (buttons, perhaps) are effecting “the intimate deliverances of a human mind,” the mind of the narrator. Because we hear a voice, we know that a person speaks; by attending, we assay for his traces. But this begs the question. Mr. Kenner has a paragraph in The Invisible Poet on the relation between Eliot’s “Prufrock” and certain moments in Jacobean tragedy:
A soliloquy by Middleton or Tourneur arrests a mood for inspection, and by the enveloping assertions of blank verse rhythm protects its vulnerability. And these moods—this was their relevance for “Prufrock”—are affectingly self-contained, the speaker imprisoned by his own eloquence, committed to a partial view of life, beyond the reach of correction or communication, out of which arises the tragic partiality of his actions.
This throws a good deal of light on Beckett and the other stoic comedians, but I am not sure that Mr. Kenner wants the question to be raised in his present context. How can we distinguish between the voice of a whole person and the voice of a fraction, since both issue in words on a page? Mr. Kenner assumes, in Beckett’s later novels, a single narrative voice, testifying to a whole person; but if this is valid, the man cannot be imprisoned in a closed system. Imprisoned, he is fractured, like the Jacobean victim. Prufrock is a voice with a name but are these attributes enough to make him, even by poetic simulation, a person? I cannot see that the ascription of wholeness, by way of voice, is necessary to Mr. Kenner’s argument; or indeed that the argument can entertain it.
I hope I have not botched the book, in this description. I have read all of Mr. Kenner’s books, so I should now be accustomed to the force and rapidity of his mind; but The Counterfeiters is his most difficult book, and I am afraid I may simply have missed an essential link in the argument. Some pages are still dark to me.
Mr. Hassan’s book consists of two long essays on Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett, surrounded by meditative passages which transpose the discussion into apocalyptic terms:
Literature, turning against itself, aspires to silence, leaving us with uneasy intimations of outrage and apocalypse. If there is an avant-garde in our time, it is probably bent on discovery through suicide. Thus the term anti-literature, like anti-matter, comes to symbolize not merely an inversion of forms but will and energy turned inside out. Is the future, then, all vagrancy and disaster for all who profess the Word?
The essays themselves are perceptive in the older ways of biography and descriptive criticism. Many of the questions raised are academically respectable: Beckett “must have pondered” the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, and so forth. The essay on Miller is particularly engaging, though I am not sure that we gain anything by calling him “the first author of anti-literature” if, as Mr. Hassan concedes, his merits as writer and thinker are not remarkable. Mr. Hassan says of Beckett that “his style is the calculus of the void, the system of absence, the ratio of despair,” a triad perhaps more promising than informative. “The solipsism of mind,” he continues, “reduces all its activities to a closed game; it transforms words into algebraic symbols that can carry any reference, depending upon the particular game played.” Claude Mauriac is invoked to support the idea that in Beckett “words all say the same thing.” This seems to me quite wrong; it is yet another attempt to drive discourse beyond the reach of syntax. It is useless to argue that in Beckett the ostensible topic (buttons, perhaps) might well be exchanged for another (bicycles, perhaps): the argument is a tautology, therefore empty. In Watt, for instance, the nostalgic talk of Summer on page 56 and the arrival of Mr. Case on page 241 do not say or mean the same thing.
Mr. Hassan’s favorite idiom depends upon the proliferation of such terms as apocalypse, outrage, silence, radical innocence, alteration of consciousness. I have nothing against this idiom, except the terrorist use to which it is turned, the implication that the categorical modern experience is embodied in the work of Miller, Beckett, and Burroughs. Other values are ignored, and the reader is intimidated. But I am not certain that Mr. Hassan is secure in the possession of his idiom. There is a curious disjunction between the meditative passages and the practical essays. In the essays on Miller and Beckett Mr. Hassan occasionally reminds himself to use this coercive idiom, but its use is not implicit in the particular perceptions, moment by moment. The evidence is in his style. Mr. Hassan is an intelligent and lively critic, but intelligent and lively in traditional ways. Why he is enamored of a fashionable terminology, I cannot say. He does not speak the language as a native. The result is that he drives himself into false positions, as if to proclaim a sensibility corresponding to the idiom in violence and therefore in force. Even on ordinary occasions, many of his sentences have now become contrived and unnatural. The fact that Miller left America and lived for some years in France is translated as follows: “Another Jonah, Miller had been swallowed by the American whale and spewed out on the sunny shores of France.” Of Tropic of Cancer Mr. Hassan writes: “Sordid, depleted, absurd, the cankered world of Miller still swarms with the wonder of profane being.” Excess is Mr. Hassan’s hypothesis, especially in the theoretical pages. Perhaps it is innocent, merely a way of speaking; but the accent is often totalitarian.
Mr. Green’s book begins with Yeats, specifically with the eighth section of the poem “Vacillation,” where the poet accosts the great Catholic philosopher, Baron von Hügel. The section ends, “So get you gone, von Hügel, though with blessings on your head.” In the same section Yeats offers, as a grander example, Homer and “his unchristened heart.” Mr. Green takes von Hügel’s part in this one-sided dispute. So he describes Yeats in terms which I find difficult to concede. Yeats is to speak for all those modern writers who insist upon the autonomous imagination. I cannot reconcile this figure with the author of The Wild Swans at Coole and The Green Helmet, but that is another day’s dispute. Von Hügel is offered for the values he defined, rather than for any splendor of imagination to set against Yeats. This part of the book is extremely interesting, especially as it it written in personal and autobiographical terms. The presentation of von Hügel is particularly cogent. Clearly, he was an admirable man, especially if we judge from his letters to Father Tyrrell, Clement Webb, and Maud Petre. There is a particularly wise letter to Canon Newsom on the occasion of Tyrell’s death in 1909. Among the formal works, the essay on “The Apocalyptic Element in the Teaching of Jesus” is remarkable, and The Mystical Element in Religion has passages of great delicacy and wisdom. Mr. Green sees in von Hügel a Catholic far more humane, more charitable, than any of his contemporaries; though I think more highly of Newman, even in this comparison, than Mr. Green does. I value von Hügel for his sense of the “frictions, obscurities, paradoxes, antinomies” of religious belief.
But the problem arises when Mr. Green applies his criteria. The first difficulty is that he evades the question of the imagination. What are we doing when we say that von Hügel’s attitude to life is better, more acceptable, than Graham Greene’s? We are discussing something important, but it is not clear that we are discussing literature. Mr. Green may reply: So much the worse for literature. It is an old worry, and we may have to live with it. Mr. Green has no patience with those who proclaim literary values in some sense prior to moral values. I would be patient if I knew precisely what is meant by the proclamation. But the cost of Mr. Green’s impatience is high. He is, I should report, a Catholic. Since I share this creed, I should not impugn his possession of it, nor reflect upon its sources; but Mr. Green’s Catholicism strikes me as a rather mechanical construct, though I have no doubt that it is deeply held. When he expresses his faith, it seems to consist of fragments of von Hügel, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Orwell, George Eliot, and other writers, put together with a force sometimes called liberal humanism. Impatience determines the tone, whether religion or literature is in view. In criticism, Mr. Green’s moral concern has the effect of inhibiting his response, even when response is the first question. Abinah Rose once asked Yeats for a message in India’s behalf. Yeats took up Sato’s sword and said, “Conflict, more conflict.” Mr. Green, scandalized, cannot understand that Yeats was offering Rose new metaphors, new visions. The gesture is entirely consistent with Yeat’s sense of the intimate relation between conflict and consciousness. “My instructors identify consciousness with conflict,” Yeats writes in A Vision. Mr. Green seems to think that the poet was urging Rose to go out and cut off a few heads. If we take up a position from which it is impossible to see what a writer is doing, perhaps we should alter the position, if we wish to pursue the matter.
Mr. Green has some excellent essays in this book, such as the consideration of Sholokov. Sometimes he is a little fanciful, as in a comparison between J. F. Powers and Gogol. Sometimes his sensibility is blunt; or it chooses to exercise bluntness as a rhetorical device. “Nabokov so flies in the face of all ordinary usable morality, and so defiantly offers us pieces of beauty as his justification for doing so, that some of us are bound to be uneasy.” This would be satisfactory as a first draft of a sentence, something to be tested and refined at a later stage, before publication. “A novelist like James, in whom there is almost no sense of the body, is a rare exception. In some striking aspects of his style—its abstractness, its infinite inclusiveness, its circumlocutory inconclusiveness—everything that makes it ‘difficult’ and ‘intellectual’—James resembles von Hügel.” The resemblance is not in question. What I question is the impression of James’s style and its meaning. There are passages in James, even in The Ambassadors, which are so alive to body and its vibrations that I am ready to call him a sensual writer.
Again, Mr. Green’s bluntness defaces his essay on Doctor Zhivago. “Our account of the novel,” he concludes, “must then be that it is very interesting as a cultural document, and interesting, often beautifully successful, as an experiment with fictional techniques; but not very distinguished in its handling of human emotion and behavior, and rather inept in various simple matters of narrative and characterization.” On the same page we read:
Pasternak was a typical modern poet even in the way he looked—and perhaps even in the way he made himself look. One surely must suspect that that extraordinary long upper lip and those hollow cheeks were the result of histrionic art. He was pulling his lip down and sucking his cheeks in.
I am not sure that we can praise this, or that it is preferable to its opposite. Which is what Mr. Green calls “aestheticism.” Indeed, this has had a bad press. I would hate to have to vote for its return. But the excess in Mr. Green’s book and, allowing for difference, the hectoring tone in Mr. Hassan’s sentences, have put me on better terms with the aesthetes. In need, we may yet become friends.
February 13, 1969