In response to:

Secrets of the Shell from the June 28, 1979 issue

To the Editors

Gore Vidal’s reference to The Novels of Flaubert (1966) in his review of V.S. Pritchett’s The Myth Makers (NYR, June 28) involves a quotation from Pritchett’s twelve-year-old review of my book (taken out of context), as well as Vidal’s own use of the quotation to launch a violent attack on American “literary criticism.” I assume that Vidal has not read my book. He accepts at face value Pritchett’s observations on my use of language, but does not report that Pritchett’s essay is in fact almost exclusively devoted to my book, extensively draws on the ideas developed in it, paraphrases my arguments, approves of them.

But there is a more serious distortion. Vidal praises Pritchett for not only writing “intelligently” about Flaubert, which “does not take much critical acumen,” but for saying “something new about him,” which “does take considerable intelligence.” As evidence of this newness, Vidal quotes Pritchett (“Flaubert presented the hunger for the future, the course of ardent longings and violent desires that rise from the sensual, the horrible, and the sadistic”). Only he fails to quote Pritchett’s fuller statement: “… proceeding through the novels, Professor Brombert is able to show how, exhaustively and like an infected pathologist, Flaubert presented the hunger for the future, the course of ardent longings and violent desires that rise from the sensual, the horrible, and the sadistic.”

Gore Vidal, in his review, states that the first job of the critic is to “describe what he has read.” This is a precept he obviously chose not to follow in his excessive eagerness to discredit American academic criticism.

Victor Brombert
Department of Comparative Literature
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

To the Editors:

Justly praising V.S. Pritchett’s easy comprehension of writers very different from himself, Mr. Gore Vidal congratulates Pritchett upon his well developed “negative capability.” The famous phrase does not signify what Vidal seems to think.

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects,” wrote Keats to his brothers George and Tom in December 1817. “Several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Then “negative capability” means the ability to contemplate with equanimity questions to which there are no answers. Pritchett may have it, but Gore Vidal was talking about something else.

Irving Younger
The Cornell Law School, Ithaca, New York

To the Editors:

In the course of his review of V.S. Pritchett’s The Myth Makers, Gore Vidal mentions Pritchett’s puzzlement over the ending of Borges’s story, The Circular Ruins, which goes thus: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he, too, was a mere appearance dreamed by another.” Mr. Vidal suggests that Borges got “this solipsistic conceit” from Chuang-tze. This hardly seems necessary in view of the prominence of the theme “life is a dream” in Spanish literature. But since Borges has an immense knowledge of English literature also, I would surmise rather that his brain was tickled by the recollection of Tweedledee’s asserting to Alice that she is merely a “sort of thing” in the Red King’s dream.

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you suppose he’s dreaming about?”

Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”

“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”

“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.

“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out—bang!—just like a candle!”

(Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 4)

As other stories of his show, Borges shares with Dodgson a dangerous fascination with Berkeley’s epistemology, but I fancy that its dramatization in Alice affected him the more vividly.

Peter N. Dunn
Middleton, Connecticut

Gore Vidal replies:

It would appear that Professor Brombert has much the same difficulty reading English that he has writing it. Since I was reviewing Pritchett’s essays and not Professor Brombert’s study of Flaubert’s novels (which I do not need to read as I have read the novels), my obligation was to the text in front of me. Faintly, Pritchett praised the Professor’s book. At length, he denounced the Professor’s prose. At length, I quoted Pritchett, in context and without sly ellipsis. It is possible, of course, that Professor Brombert is a master of English prose and that Pritchett has got it all wrong. Somehow, I doubt this. I fear that I must flunk this letter. Inaccurate. Evasive. Self-serving. Let us hope that there will be improvement in the fall term.

Professor Younger is briskly legalistic. He quotes from part of a letter; and says that that’s what Keats means by negative capability. There is a good deal more to the case than this one fragment. The letter in question was written shortly after Keats had read, with admiration, Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. Of Shakespeare himself (apropos Hamlet) Hazlitt wrote: “the poet appears for the time being to be identified with the character he wishes to represent, and to pass from one to the other, like the same soul successively animating different bodies.” For Keats, as for Hazlitt, the ability to project oneself into other characters, without the irritable reaching after fact and reason, is an aspect of negative capability whose great exemplar was Milton. “What creates the intense pleasure of not knowing?” asks Keats of Paradise Lost. “A sense of independence, of power, from the fancy’s creating a world of its own by the sense of probabilities.”

The means of negative capability are derived from a kind of creative passivity (not unlike the Taoist wu wei, which Keats would not have known about); or, as he put it in his criticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, “Let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at.” The end of negative capability is to create something beyond one’s usual or conscious (affirmative?) capability…like that splendid Satan whose star of morning so outshines God’s sun and son. For Professor Younger a gentleman’s C. Next time close the proposition.

Mr. (surely, Professor) Dunn thinks that Borges’s reading knowledge of English literature is “immense.” I would rather doubt it. On the other hand, Borges admits to a number of enthusiasms for all sorts of Victorian and Edwardian writers of the Chesterton sort; therefore, it is likely that Borges has read Alice in Wonderland and been told about Bishop Berkeley. In any case, until the master sets us straight, I prefer to go back to the first recorded story (as far as I’ve been able to discover) based on that ever-enjoyable notion who-is-dreaming-whom. Gentleman’s C.

This Issue

October 11, 1979