In response to:
Last Testament from the August 9, 1973 issue
To the Editors:
In John Thompson’s excellent review-essay on Berryman [“Last Testament,” NYR, August 9] a number of important questions are brought up, at least one of which is quite explicit: “Do these artists [the “extremist” poets, like Berryman and Plath] bring absolution to us?”
Why do some people, and presumably very well-educated and intellectually superior people, imagine that they require “absolution”? What is “absolution”? From what must we be absolved? Were the writers and poets and psychologists of the nineteenth century—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau among many others—deluded in thinking that the deathly and ignorant “Christianity” of the New England Puritans had about run its course?
For many years I have been baffled at the contradictory assumptions, most of them unconscious, that seem to be operating in the minds of many of my contemporaries, especially those who (like NYR people) would seem to be most “liberated” in every way from the burdensome and tedious and psychologically indefensible beliefs of one small, unrepresentative group of Christians. Though my contemporaries are generally not “religious” in any conventional sense of the word, they seem to equate the fact of human existence itself with something wrong, sinful, embarrassing, awkward—requiring absolution, from not “God,” but someone or something else. Also, there is a quite explicit assumption (I know all too well, from personal experience) that Art must be produced only at the cost of great Suffering; that it must never be enjoyable, natural, spontaneous; that the “tragic view of life” is incontestably the only view for intellectual” (to the extent to which one worried critic, whose name I won’t mention, wrote of the “strange” rejection by Indian literary scholars and critics of this “tragic view” as it was argued by Westerners at a scholarly convention in India some years ago—they strenuously resisted this missionary attempt, for some unknown reason); that Virginia Woolf’s statement concerning the artist’s necessary “anguish” is taken as a sane, reasonable remark, rather than the personal, limited, and in my opinion totally irrational remark that it is.
In a scolding review in the New York Times Book Review recently, the professor-critic spoke of his subject (John Gardner) as an “over-achiever.” Presumably, from the spiteful point of view of the “underachiever,” anyone who seems reasonably sane, reasonably happy, unburdened by a priori assumptions of Original Sin, and more or less happily involved in writing—in contrast to concocting imaginary “musts”—is an “over-achiever” and must be punished. When Virginia Woolf said she liked it that Tolstoy had to labor so much in the writing of War and Peace, she was speaking for all puritans—whether they imagine themselves completely secularized or not—and what she says is absurd. One may as well say that he “likes it that” Berryman did suffer, in order to have created some good poetry. The Puritan is a sadist.
Mr. Thompson might have suggested, in his sympathetic analysis of an evidently unsuccessful novel, Recovery, that neurosis is not the stimulus for art, but a handicap that prevents the gifted artist from creating the kind of art he knows himself capable of. The neurotic writes only about himself because he can think only about himself; once freed, he can write about anything. But if he is freed only into an intellectual atmosphere of Puritanism, itself neurotic, he will find it very difficult to escape the larger neuroses of the times.
Joyce Carol Oates
University of Windsor
John Thompson replies:
Absolution is remission of sin. The notion was not invented by the Christians, nor is it maintained solely by them, though their myth of the origins of its necessity (borrowed from the Jews) and their ritual for obtaining it are particularly dramatic. This perhaps accounts for the irritating persistence of their sect. But others, including the Australian aborigines, feel the need too. I myself, for instance, am a devotee of St. Freud, and his gospel tells us that human society originated in an act of murder for which we still seek absolution by carrying on all those things we call “culture”—among them, so I believe in my own private heresy, our use of that most distinctive of human faculties, language. Miss Oates could find some of her questions considered in my article “The End of Culture,” Commentary, December, 1969. As for our “extreme” poets, there are recurrent outbreaks of such enthusiasts of suffering, like the penitentes. I don’t know why.
October 4, 1973