These days if anyone were to insist that all “legitimate” paintings had to include the illusion of depth, three dimensions, and a vanishing point they’d be laughed out of school. The only place where such a rule prevails is on the walls of motels, and even the popular press (for the most part, and barring seasonal moral panics) acknowledges that such sentiments are retrograde. So why is the equivalent tolerated in the criticism of literature, or at least what passes for it, in the periodical press such as the New Republic, and beyond? What accounts, when it comes to the reception of fiction, for this lag in cultural sensibility?
One reason, I think, might lie in the different legitimizing functions that have been assigned to the two arts. In the previous century – and especially after WW2 – the visual arts were successfully corralled into ratifying and reproducing an ideology of ceaseless technological modernization. Developments in the visual arts could be co-opted by advertising – and if the line between them blurred, so much the better. In this cultural division of labor, literature was assigned a more traditional and conservative role. Something had to be there to assure us, however speciously, of our ostensible “humanity,” while universal inhumanity reigned. The visual arts could afford their centrifugal advances as long as literature – and especially the novel – was there to act as a centripetal anchor, so that a center might appear to hold.
In the Introduction to his first collection of reviews, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, James Wood makes his pitch for what he terms “realism,” which is apparently based on something prior to it known as “the real”:
It is impossible to discuss the power of the novel without discussing the reality that fiction so powerfully discloses, which is why realism, in one form or another, has been the novel’s insistent preoccupation from the beginning of the form. We respond, as readers of fiction, to a massive variety of realities. Yet in all fiction those moments when we are suddenly swayed, suddenly moved, have to do with something we fumblingly call ‘true’ or ‘real’.
Note that word, “moments,” which I’ve taken the liberty of underscoring here. Wood is very much a critic of “moments,” of miniatures, his critical aesthetic amounting at times almost to kind of a pointillism. What is at stake in his implicit reduction of reality, on the one hand, and literature on the other, to “moments”? This is a question that I’ll explore in future posts; for now I want to take a look at his first example and the definition of the “real” and “realism” that is suggested there:
One such moment occurs in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus hears his father sing an old song [. . .] and then his father exclaims: “Ah, but you should have heard Mick Lacy sing it! Poor Mick Lacy! He had little turns for it, grace notes he used to put in that I haven’t got.” This moves us—why? Because it is like life? Certainly, for although it may not exactly resemble our lives, it brings to our heart a plausible loss, we have all felt our own version of “You should have heard Mick Lacy sing it!” It is moving because an experience that Stephen Dedalus believes is original to him—wistfully hearing his father hear a sad air—is revealed, so gently, to be not original to him, and is actually a much fiercer and more complicated experience for his father. Behind one reality lies a deeper, more private reality, which may be lost.
It’s a rather astonishing misreading of Joyce – not even a ‘strong’ misreading, but a flattening and a straitening, a sentimental reduction, and possibly a mendacious evasion. Wood shrinks the scene, and by implication the informing sensibility of the novel as a whole, to the scale of Simon Dedalus himself, caught here indulging in a personal “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone” moment of the kind which Joyce consistently rejected. In its essence the experience is more fiercely complicated than even Wood imagines, for Simon Dedalus maundering over “poor Mick Lacy’s” grace notes represents his participation in the larger Irish cultural myth of some irrecoverable heroic-romantic past which authors such as Joyce and Sean O’Casey depicted as a futile and besotted compensation for social and psychological paralysis in the present. This father the novel repudiates. Wood leaves out Joyce’s critical framing and urges on us instead a bit of sentiment worthy of Hugh Leonard’s Da. He defangs the Joycean bite and restages the moment in Hummel figurines.
Of course, Wood might respond that his reading of the moment comes with a warrant signed by Joyce himself: it is like that parallel scene in “The Dead,” when Gabriel Conroy observes his wife Greta listening to “The Lass of Aughrim,” oblivious to the ‘private reality’ the song evokes in her – Wood indeed makes the connection himself in the introduction’s next paragraph. Maybe what we have here, then, is one of the problems that come with never getting beyond an aesthetic of (mere) moments. Joyce’s first artistic breakthrough entailed the composition of small, isolated observations of Dublin life that he called his “epiphanies.” But A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man transcends, as much as it includes, the “epiphany” method of Dubliners. In the interests of his own reading, Wood aborts the dialectic of the very text he bases his sermon on.
It’s an interesting and, I think, significant fact that Wood’s first published book begins with this act of misdirection – not only toward his variant of realism but away from modernism and the modernist Revolution of the Word. His opening gambit is nothing other than the contravention of what is after all the trajectory of Stephen Dedalus’ Bildung and Joyce’s own development. Premised on the rejection of all inherited fathers, biological and otherwise, Portrait represents or rather enacts the autotelic creation of the modernist novel out of the stuff of the supposedly ‘real’. The real: that concretion of stale custom, unconscious prejudice, and naturalized ideology, including of course the discourses and institutions of the family, the nation, the church (not to mention the discourses and institutions of the novel as Joyce inherited these from the nineteenth century). I shall try to fly by those nets, announced Stephen. Joyce rejects and repudiates ‘given’ patriarchal authority, the patriarchal authority of biological and social ‘destiny’ (and one might say of ‘realism’), in favor of (modernist) self-creation. His protagonist’s name is Dedalus, after all, not Icarus. But at a stroke James Wood undoes all this and restores the father, patriarchal authority, the family, all the ‘nets’ that Stephen flies by. The reality of Wood’s realism is never innocent; his ‘real’ is always a sediment of ideology. In Blakean terms, he is in the service of Nobodaddy.