During the last century a distinct break in European sensibility affected all the arts and led to a new post-Romantic version of the cult of originality. The artists, poets, and writers who created this new vision were called avant-garde. But where did the ideas of the avant-garde come from? Could it be from a conceptual change within the physical sciences? Roger Shattuck, arguing that it was at least in part, quotes a sentence from Leonardo’s manuscripts that appears in Paul Valéry’s first essay on Leonardo, written in 1894:

The air is full of infinite, straight, radiant lines crossing and interweaving without one ever entering the path of another, and they represent for each object the true FORM of its cause.

Valéry associated this sophisticated natural philosophy of the sixteenth century with the undulatory theory of light that was then in vogue, and also with the discoveries of Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin. “Remember,” Shattuck writes,

this is a disaffected poet aged twenty-three writing in 1894…. He was discovering in Leonardo da Vinci an early formulation of field theory, something that had not yet taken clear shape out of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory published twenty years before.

Science was returning to a visionary and imaginative phase that had preceded the complete dominance of Newton’s mechanics, hitherto thought to be final and unquestionable.

The interesting suggestion that new conceptions of science affected the arts runs throughout the essays and reviews collected here, most of them previously published and four unpublished. It is particularly prominent in Shattuck’s chapters on Baudelaire, Valéry, Apollinaire, Duchamp, and Monet. Shattuck suggests that the abrupt changes in physical theory, which became widely known in the decades before 1914, had a deep, even if oblique, effect on writers and painters during this period, the main subject of Shattuck’s work since The Banquet Years appeared in 1958. Leonardo, as he was revealed in his notebooks after his death, became, Shattuck writes, a “culture hero” to the avant-garde because his wit and invention crossed all the divisions between metaphysics, the natural sciences, and the visual arts. The act of graphic representation was often for Leonardo an intellectual investigation into natural forms; a set of drawings could be placed alongside a hypothesis in hydrodynamics or physiology, and their beauty resided in the underlying structure guessed at and revealed as present in nature. Valéry took Leonardo as a model as much for his own long abstention from literature, which he saw as parallel to Leonardo’s abstention from painting, as for his scattered critical writings and for his philosophical declarations and pretensions.

The same dominating mind, Valéry implied, could proudly turn from poetry to mathematics and back again, and he was continually speculating on the varied powers of thought, both abstract and sensuous, and displaying them to himself. He insisted that if modern artists or scientists were to recapture a lost wholeness, reason and imagination could not be segregated and specialized. The mind is not an assembly of distinct faculties. This was an error of the Romantic movement and of the philosophy that had preceded it. Professor Shattuck thus uses Valéry to argue a historical thesis about post-Romantic art, a plausible one that fits the selective evidence that he surveys.

As a critic he puts forward a related philosophical belief that the faculties of intellect and imagination must be blended, and he illustrates this view in several essays—in long discussions of Monet at Giverny and of Monet’s late canvases, of Baudelaire’s prose poems, and of Apollinaire’s “Lettre-Océan.” He argues that both experimental literature and avant-garde art from the 1880s had an implicit intellectual approach that gave them seriousness and value, even when they were at their most capricious and self-indulgent. The members of the avant-garde, he suggests, were playing on a new consciousness of the discovered irregularities and unpredictabilities and the mysterious chances within natural processes, and on the doubts that these natural mysteries had provoked about the conventional divisions of mind into separate faculties of understanding.

The Romantic movement had derived from Kant and Schiller a psychology of faculties that sharply separated reason and imagination, each with their appropriate objects in the world. The style of intelligence that was embodied in physical theory was held to stand in contrast to the disorderly and unpredictable intelligence expressed in works of literary and artistic genius. After Newton, nature was understood as “adapted to our powers of cognition” because the intellect finds that its disciplined procedures evoke an echo in the starry heavens above, equally disciplined, and in the regular and lawabiding rhythms to be found in all natural processes, great or small. In this universe, rocking to and fro like a metronome, as with the most uniform of heroic couplets, an abstract and ruleobserving intellect was at home.


Sanity was to be saved, and variety and irregularity protected, by the rebellious flights of genius. Whether for Delacroix or Coleridge, such flights were the culmination of the faculty of imagination, a faculty that we all originally, and as children, possess and that is realized again in the creative arts. We can escape with joy from the ironclad recurrences and supposed quantitative precision of natural law into the sensuous regions of the imagination.

This conventional Romantic contrast between the sources of order and disorder in the human mind, each with its allotted function, was undermined, Shattuck argues, in Baudelaire’s poetical prose, itself a hybrid, illustrating in its free form the new post-Romantic style of intelligence, at once sharp and fluid, unpredictable in the natural analogies that it discovers. Principally for this reason Baudelaire became the founder, or at least the precursor, of the avant-garde as it developed in France up to the First World War.

Shattuck’s most important chapter—“Vibratory Organism: Baudelaire’s First Prose Poem”—begins with a passage on color from the Salon de 1846. This is a lyrical prose poem, distantly echoing Leonardo, on the pure play of colors perceived in the sea and the sky and in the air:

…all objects, variously colored according to their molecular structure, changed from second to second by the shifting of shadow and light…exhibit perpetual vibration that makes their outlines tremble and that fulfills the law of eternal and universal movement!

In “Mon Coeur mis à nu,” and throughout his reflective writing, Baudelaire returned to the need of cultivating pathological states of consciousness to match “le merveilleux,” which envelops us like an atmosphere. In normal states of consciousness, we do not notice the analogies and natural correspondences that surround us. For Baudelaire, intoxication, Rimbaud’s dérèglement de tous les sens, is the best path toward contact with external reality. It is not the path of escape. A law of contrast, of variation, a perpetual movement, governs both the moral order and the physical order. A harmony can be found in the dissonances that we hear when we look down on the confused murmur of the city returning to rest in the evening; and there is an order in the dizzying disorders of sexual attraction and repulsion—but only if the mind itself is unnaturally open to a confusion of the senses.

Shattuck emphasizes the subversive originality of this view. The majestic irregularities of the Newtonian universe place the phenomena of color, together with other “secondary” qualities, on the surface of things. Nature was found to have a deep structure placing definitive and solid objects in definite positions in space and time. For Locke and the Newtonians the apparent shimmer, confusion, indefiniteness, and uncertainty to be found in nature, and in our interpretation of spaces, occur only in human perception. For the serious study of physical reality, they need to be argued away and labeled subjective, and then left within the province of the imagination.

This was the “block universe” of Laplace and of philosophical materialists, and it was from such a concept that the music and painting and poetry of the Romantic age turned away, and sought escape into the lands of imagination: in the exotic East, or the medieval Christian past, or in an idealized Italy or Spain, or among imaginary red Indians or cruel and impossible barbarians. Such were the literary and artistic comforts and diversions of the bourgeoisie whom Baudelaire addressed. He wanted, Shattuck argues, to provoke his readers into recognizing a different relation of the imagination to reality. He told them that the real world of the modern city, and of the natural order, of the forest and the sea, are replete with symbols and correspondences and analogies that answer to our reveries. The “marvelous” is the real, rather than rational order.

In a long essay on Monet, Professor Shattuck quotes from Maxwell’s A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) and from the earliest discussions of field theory, and he notes how the physical reality of the lines of force seems to be presupposed by field theory. He believes that Monet intuitively worked in close relation to the most advanced scientific thought of his day. He had trained himself to see in nature the infinitesimal vibrations of particles of matter and the unifying and all-pervasive lines of force that form a dynamic field. The orthodox view of Monet, and of Impressionism generally, has been that he painted, as he put it, the “naive impression,” which is to be contrasted with the independent physical reality of material objects definitely placed and discretely organized. Not so, or not so entirely: Monet in his late, large designs was, Shattuck argues, painting “matter itself.” His waterlily and wisteria compositions are best seen as a representation not of visual impressions but rather of the real dissolution of discrete objects into pervasive fields of interpenetrating light and color.


This is an illuminating speculation, not finally easy to evaluate, but fitting very well into the characterization of the avant-garde elsewhere in these essays. The distinct faculties of the mind, scientific intellect and free imagination, were being broken down and dissolved together with the distinct disciplines and genres with which they had been conventionally linked. In the work of the later avant-garde artists Shattuck discusses—in Dada and Surrealism, in the paintings of Duchamp and Magritte—the degree of specialization implied by the distinction between the different arts and genres was rejected. Instead they conceived perplexing mixtures like Apollinaire’s “poem” “Lettre-Océan,” printed on a great wheel as if the poem were literally magic. The true representation of reality for these artists required a disordering of consciousness; and this depended on a continuing destruction of expected borderlines.

The bourgeois concept was that art had to be set against science and positive knowledge; it presupposed its own quite different, inherited, and familiar repertory of skills and restraints. This was the Romantic liberation that Apollinaire and the Surrealists felt must itself be liberated by bursting its boundaries and by insulting the connoisseurs. As ideas of the necessity of randomness and of creative chance passed into the arts from the physical sciences, only bureaucrats and librarians were to be left believing that literature must remain within the normal forms of literature, that painting must remain painting and music, music. In making this historical argument, Shattuck is not blandly descriptive. He remarks on Artaud’s protest against “the Surrealists’ blind march toward Communism” and concludes that Artaud himself “contains a significant quantity of nostalgia for violence along with a tendency to capitulate to undefined collective forces that speak in an unknown tongue.”

In his two concluding essays Professor Shattuck turns to a quite different topic and attacks the new theory-laden approach to literature that has crossed over from Paris and settled into American universities, where much of European literature is collected and stored and, on appropriate occasions, displayed. His chapters, called “Two Polemical Asides,” are headed “How to Rescue Literature” and “The Poverty of Modernism.” He has added an afterword, “The Innocent Eye and the Armed Vision,” which asks for an “ulterior innocence” in the approach to literature. He defends the test, and the pleasure, of reading aloud and of the auditory imagination. He asks for an “ideographic approach,” a stiff phrase that means listening very attentively to the rhythms and pauses that are the distinctive marks left by a particular author. He wants to ask (or to train) readers to listen to a peculiar voice and to a peculiar tone. He wants to toss general theories of literature out of the classroom windows.

Perhaps an institutional explanation of the search for theory will help. At a time when thought about literature is strongly concentrated in universities, rather than in periodicals offered to the public, there will immediately be a demand for criteria of assessment: not so much because criteria for including and excluding certain works and genres rather than others are convenient for the design of university syllabuses, as because professors have since the age of sixteen been preoccupied with grading and ranking. Standards of assessment, professors evidently feel, need to be supported by some theory of the functions of literature. The habit of grading is not easily discarded, even though it usually distorts understanding in any aesthetic context. Professor Shattuck’s essays and reviews, it is worth noting, were written for this paper, for The New Republic, Partisan Review, and other periodicals, and their personal tone seems itself an implicit criticism of academic prose.

Another kind of explanation of the search for literary theory is the survival of bad philosophies, specifically, unrecognized Platonism and rancid Hegel. The sour leftover from Hegel is the claim of totality—that the mind’s, or Spirit’s, various activities form a rational, and therefore a coherent, whole, each in its place contributing to the totality, with art and literature fulfilling their function alongside, and finally subordinate to, philosophy. The World Spirit turns out to be, in this as in other respects, a reflection of the University of Berlin. There is no good reason to believe in any spiritual totality or in any final summing up of the activities of the soul. Professor Shattuck, for his part, rejects any such subordination of literature. He shares the Wildean belief that surfaces are not, in the metaphorical sense, superficial, and that the exact perception of rhythm and manner is at least as important in any art as the analysis of structures. In one essay he suggests—somewhat tentatively—that Stravinsky’s characteristic rhythms should be linked with physical gestures and that much of his music should be understood as embodied movement, even apart from the music Stravinsky wrote for the ballet.

The theoreticians to whom Professor Shattuck objects are, like most of his authors, French, specifically those who have adopted Saussure’s linguistics in order to support critical theory. But, apart from an allusion to Barthes, he is not very definite in his references. He thinks naturally as a historian-critic and he is evidently rather bored when he turns to contemporary theorists of language.

The intellectual interest and the enthusiasm that he communicates is for the great years when Paris was the acknowledged capital of the world of thought and feeling: the years of Proust, Picasso, Matisse, Laforgue, and Joyce. How did this greatness happen? What were the influences? Was the change in the “paradigms” of physical science, in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, felt throughout the intellectual community, as it had been at the beginning of the modern period in the Renaissance? To the historian of 2010 Shattuck’s guess that it was will perhaps seem right. In the meantime the cult of linguistics is, I agree, a depressing successor to the cult of originality and of experiments in chance and in the destruction of the conventional genres that he celebrates in The Innocent Eye.

Twenty-two essays are collected in Shattuck’s book, including studies of authors from Balzac to Meyer Schapiro and Malraux, and up to the contemporary writer Michel Tournier, whose novels, Shattuck finds, “acquiesce in the widely announced disappearance of the avant-garde” and “leave behind the preoccupation with originality that has propelled the arts for the last two centuries.” Professor Shattuck cites Roland Barthes’s claim that his quest is for “the absolutely new” in literature, which alone can give sensual satisfaction (jouissance), a new thrill; but he does so only after he has given a summary of a very different attitude, which he associates with Tournier’s: “At our best we are capable of a finely tuned demeanor I like to call ironic conformity.” This is surely a descent from the great years, but it has a certain charm at a time of interval, or lull, in the arts.

This Issue

May 9, 1985