Art, Life & Dr. Williams

William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America

by Robert Coles
Rutgers University Press, 185 pp., $8.50

William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey

by Reed Whittemore
Houghton Mifflin, 404 pp., $10.95

William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams; drawing by David Levine

The current admiration for the “interdisciplinary” is probably no more permanent than any other educational whim, but it has led to a certain ridiculous appropriation of the arts. I think of things like a foundation-funded course where first the kids learn what a biologist can tell them about “Nature and Man,” and then what an ecologist can tell them, ditto, and then what Wordsworth, etc. Nobody spoiled the game by suggesting to the kids that Wordsworth wasn’t telling them about Nature, he was telling them about Wordsworth. And there the whole enterprise founders. It doesn’t founder in the sciences, whose working interdisciplinary teams were observed (by “humanists”) and taken as models; it may not so founder in the social sciences (which have, however, fewer common languages than the natural sciences); but it can and must founder whenever the arts are involved, and for good reason: however much art may make reference to a variety of subjects, its importance is fundamentally nonreferential.

Most “interdisciplinary” commentary on art sins by using the arts for information-retrieval, with a few bows in the direction of something it calls “technique.” (Music, except for opera, resists such use, but the other arts are fair game.) Information-retrieval varies, of course, according to the “discipline” the retriever comes from. Historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and philosophers can all return from the same novel carrying different bones. The bones bear odd and hardly accidental resemblances to the retrievers. Whether they bear any resemblance to the novel or its author (or tell us anything valuable about either) is a matter for pained reflection.

The retriever in the case in point, Robert Coles’s lectures on William Carlos Williams’s stories and trilogy, is a psychoanalyst; the art-object is fiction that is honorable and decent, but not major; and the attractions of the art-object for the retriever making his interdisciplinary foray are multiple. First, identification: Williams was a writing doctor, Coles is a writing doctor. Second, specialization: Williams was a pediatrician, Coles too works with children. Third, method: Williams was an old-fashioned house-call doctor, Coles also makes “house-calls” on his children in crisis, and thinks analysts should see their patients in situ. Fourth, polemical cause: Williams was angered by social conditions in industrial New Jersey, and Coles deplores the social conditions by which children are brutalized. Fifth, a defiant pragmatism: Williams was no theorist of medicine or research physician, Coles is antipathetic to theory that does not descend to the lived life. Sixth, “understanding”—but perhaps the list should stop there.

Coles’s attachment to Williams is real enough: he wrote an undergraduate thesis on Paterson, met and corresponded later with the poet, talked to him about the prose, even confided to Williams that he would some day like to write or talk about the fiction.

He said he hoped I would…because by then few people were paying much attention to either people…

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