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The innocent eye.

Of the twenty-two pieces collected in Roger Shattuck's The Innocent Eye, only one, an attempt to define an early essay by Baudelaire as his first prose poem, is academic in the sense of being more interesting to specialists than to a general audience. For Shattuck, Commonwealth Professor of French at the University of Virginia, is an academic who chooses to write--drawing effortlessly on a dazzling range of reference--for a nonacademic audience. He assumes an intelligent general readership willing to share his delight before such works as Apollinaire's "Ocean-Letter," a typographical extravaganza in the form of a great wheel, the paintings of Magritte and Monet and the "jokes and quiet scandals" of MArcel Duchamp, and to share as well his impassioned attention to attacks on a broadly humanistic culture. The subtitle of the collection, On Modern Literature and the Arts, is in fact inadequate; Modern Literature, Politics and the Arts would be better. Shattuck's politics, I would say, resemble those of Edmund Burke, adapted for the 1980s by a playful mind. (But then, Burke had nothing to play with of the order of Christo's eighteen-foot-high nylon fence, erected between 1973 and 1976 over a twenty-four-mile stretch of Northern California while the cameras of the Maysles brothers looked on. Shattuck, with amused respect, recounts the history of the "Running Fence" in his essay "The Demon of Originality.")

With conscious bravado, Shattuck uses a vocabulary that younger critics, less secure of less belligerently humanistic, would never dare employ for fear of sounding naive. We can read Madame Bovary, he tells us, to "learn about nineteenth-century provincial life" and to follow a "moving" story which we may "share with other readers as a point of reference for our sense of reality and moral values." Literature, itself scrupulously to be removed from the grid of ideology, can nevertheless "help us decide what to encourage and what to denounce." This way of talking about literature, of course, will not sound at all odd to readers unfamiliar with state-of-the-art literary criticism in our day. To practitioners and aficionados of that criticism, Shattuck will sound incorrigibly moldy-figgish. He knows exactly what he's doing.

Quoting the French novelist Michel Tournier with approval, Shattuck praises sophia, an ideal of wisdom, a "personal compound of knowledge and experience" that can never be reached by the shortcuts of theory or fashion; it is a virtue or quality that can only be acquired slowly. The pleasure of reading The Innocent eye--apart from its colorful profusion of anecdote, its enlightening and witty commentary on the arts and its sharp polemics--is the pleasure of being in the presence of Shattuck's own considerable sophia. We can see at once the depth of his maturity as a critic and cultural historian if we contrast his recent work with the book that established his reputation a quarter of a century ago, The Banquet Years. Informative and entertaining, that account of avant-garde high jinks before the 1914 war was a young man's book, delightfully intoxicated by its subject. The Innocent Eye is wiser and less innocent by far.

There is a twofold political thrust to these essays, especially the ones written in the last four or five years. First, there is an Orwellian expose of "bad faith" on the part of those intellectuals who have subordinated art and reason to ideology, a sort of update of Julian Benda's La Trahison des Clercs. Second, there is an attack, both sharp and dismissive, on post-structuralist, or "postmodern," linguistic-epistemological literary theory for its radical divorce of language from reality. (Here Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes are marked for disfavor.) This divorce is yet another kind of bad faith, one that has, for Shattuck, a dark, totalitarian potential.

The opening essay, with its tendentious title, "Having Congress: The Shame of the Thirties," is a brilliant re-creation of a chapter in modern cultural history. In the summer of 1935, 230 delegates representing thirty-eight countries were assembled in Paris for the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. Gide presided (this was one year before he published his disillusioned Return From the U.S.S.R.). Among those participating were Louis Aragon, Andre Malraux and Romain Rolland; a number of exiled German writers, including Bertolt Brecht and Anna Seghers; E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxley from England; and Mike Gold and Waldo Frank From New York. The Soviet Delegation included Ilya Ehrenburg and a reluctant Boris Pasternak, whose name was not on the program and who was "brought to Paris on the last day, under duress and under guard." With what Shattuck notes as "bad faith that makes one wince," Henri Barbusse's Monde reported Pasternak's appearance as follows: "In spite of an illness from which he has been suffering for two months, the great Soviet lyric poet insisted on at tending the Congress. He recited two poems, beautiful examples of the blossoming of the new socialist realism." Socialist realism, which was long to trouble left estheticians and artists, had been promulgated just a year before, in Zhdanov's famous speech to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow. The Parisian Congress was an offshoot of the one in Moscow and one of the first major manifestations of the Comintern's new Popular Front policy.

Shattuck's reconstruction of the secret history of those turbulent five days in Paris is, of course, distinctly revisionist. His essay is based on extensive research, aided by the lucky find of some obscure newspaper clippings and press releases, as well as interviews with some of the survivors, including Aragon and Malraux. The participants recall it only as "anti-Fascist" and (Malraux) as an "impassioned confusion." They appear to have forgotten or to have been deliriously blind to the careful, sometimes brutal, stage-managing of events, and to the generally successful attempts to control who spoke, when they spoke--Brecht was abruptly shuffled into an obscure three-minute slot--and what they said. The scandal of the arrest and deportation to the Urals of the revolutionary writer Victor Serge in case in point: every effort was made to suppress any mention of Serge, and indeed anything that might be taken as a criticism of Stalinism. For Shattuck:

This was one of the most thoroughly rigged and steamrollered assemblages ever perpetrated on the face of Western literature in the name of culture and freedom. . . . There sat some of Europe's most distinguished men of letters presiding over a meeting that systematically swept into a corner any dissent from the prevailing opinion that the true revolutionary spirit belonged to the Soviet government. Did they know better? Could they have known better?

These are indeed "sore questions," as Shattuck says, and the language in which the events were wrapped and reported seems particularly ripe material for George Orwell, who, in the summer of 1935 was not yet well enough known to be invited.

Shattuck's polemical history in "Having Congress" is, of course, part of a larger prophetic, antitheoretical and anti-ideological stance, adopted in defense of the ideographic uniqueness of the work of art and the "presumably bourgeois category of autonomous individual self." In the collection's afterword, "The Innocent Eye and the Armed Vision," he draws his own connection between his prophecy and Orwell's. The contemporary attack on traditional humanistic claims for the priority of acts of individual speech or writing--an attack deriving from what Shattuck sees, and he is not alone here, as dubious extrapolation from Saussurian linguistics--is often carried out through a celebration of autonomous text or language. What frightens Shattuck is a fashionable position that "incinerates the whole humanistic tradition of persons and scatters the ashes across a landscape composed of language . . . and other collective entities." The implications of such theories are enormous and verge on the political. If language need not correspond to any reality of nature or of history and is merely a manipulation of conventions, we have come to the threshold of Orwell's newspeak and doublethink in 1984--language prone to domination by a party.

Shattuck's intelligent reader may well be puzzled to hear that his defense of liberal humanism, of the individual author and the unique work, will be read as impossibly old-fashioned, if not reactionary, by more advanced members of departments of French and English.

Now, I'm by no means suggesting that Shattuck's treatment of the theoretical issues involved here is at all fair, or makes even a pretense of being thorough. His guerrilla attacks on Barthes, for instance, by way of selective quotation, hardly suggest, nor are they meant to, a just sense of the richness and ironies of one of the most engaging and vif writers of this century. I claim no more for Shattuck's essays than that they are informative and lively; they leave space, like the best conversation, for the reader/listener to question and object. Outrageous as he can be, Shattuck's voice is valuable, for a truly cultured and sophisticated conservatism is rare enough. Between the political bookends, as it were, are original essays celebrating the uniqueness of character, literature and painting that Shattuck relishes. The figures and works are mostly French, mostly modern: Alfred Jarry, whose 'Pataphysics "allows each person to live his life as an exception"; Marcel Duchamp, whose last ready-made may be the solemn scholarship that surrounds his reputation, "uproariously funny to a reader with his wits about him"; or Antonin Artaud, the subject of a refreshingly antiromantic and demythologizing study.

Brecht remarked in 1938, and it could not have been a new thought, "There is no longer any doubt--the struggle against ideology has become a new ideology." Roger Shattuck is perfectly aware that his own antitheoretical, anti-ideological positions are forms of theory and ideology. He knows, too, that the innocent vision has long ago been lost and is only partly to be recovered. "The important thing is to be able to find it again, and not by going back."
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Author:Kearns, George
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 16, 1985
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