Yawping

Adam Gopnik

  • The Scandal of Pleasure by Wendy Steiner
    Chicago, 263 pp, £19.95, January 1996, ISBN 0 226 77223 3

The Scandal of Pleasure has all a good teacher’s virtues: enthusiasm, a contagious love of books and learning, and the ability to hold up three or four dissonant ideas for tender inspection even if a couple of them are obviously cracked (‘Well, what does the rest of the class think of Marcie’s description of the relationship between Beth and Marmee as “murderously Oedipal”? Anyone disagree?’). The book’s faults are a good teacher’s faults, too: the belief that a lively digression is as worthwhile as a conclusive argument; a tendency to confuse energy with lucidity; a desire to please, or at least not offend, as many people as possible; and the belief that citing a lot of instances is the same thing as covering a lot of ground. Steiner wants to let a hundred flowers bloom in the American academy at a moment when the amateur reader, on the evidence of her own book, may have the feeling that the weeds are taking over the garden. This is a shame, because the points she makes in The Scandal of Pleasure seem not just right, but indisputable: books and pictures are not newspaper leaders and shouldn’t be treated as if they were; good stories can sometimes teach bad morals; bad people can often write good books. Her ideas are all reasonable. They just aren’t very closely reasoned. Worse, the unreality of contemporary literary theory, to which by a déformation professionelle she seems unduly respectful, forces her to make elaborate and unreal arguments for what ought to be obvious truths. It is always good to hear sane common sense being spoken about books and readers, but it is depressing to see a prominent academic having to twist herself into rhetorical knots in order to get it said.

Steiner offers a grand tour d’horizon of the current state of debate in academic and cultural life in America. Her subjects range from the attempts to suppress Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs (the famous print of Mapplethorpe with a whip inserted into his anus is reproduced in evidence) to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, to the way the exposé of Paul de Man’s early anti-Semitic writings has been used to discredit his literary criticism. These examples sprout sub-examples, often weirdly illustrated with helpful photographs. To bolster the uncontroversial claim that Salman Rushdie’s style includes an element of pastiche, for example, she feels compelled to make a larger case that Rushdie’s London is already a pastiche culture:

Still surrounded by remnants of its imperial past, England is obsessed with fakery, revival and historical disjunction. In recent years the British Museum has run two major exhibitions on aesthetic fakes scrutinising ‘the art of deception’. The largest development schemes in the capital are mock Venetian piazzas and Roman squares. A night at the English National Opera may feature Macbeth warbling Verdi with a chorus of pixies and storm-troopers, or Xerxes (Fig. 25) set in an 18th-century French tea garden with everyone sitting in deck-chairs reading the papers.

Would the point about Rushdie’s style have been weakened or altered if, say, the ENO had done Xerxes in togas? Inevitably, too, some elements of this tour d’horizon are going to be in better scholarly focus than others. When she writes, in a not entirely self-explanatory section on ‘the fetish’, that Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon ‘was inspired by fetish objects – the African masks that he first saw on a trip to Spain in 1905’ – the fact that the date, the location and the influence are all wrong doesn’t, I suppose, much alter the larger point she is trying to make. But it diminishes your confidence that this stream of intellectual association is the right way to make it.

Nonetheless, an argument does emerge from the book: at the heart of all these scandals and controversies is a single, reiterated mistake. The ideological pressures built up in America over the past twenty years have ruptured the wall that ought to separate the virtual realm of art from the real realm of life. People have got into the habit of confusing the speculative fantasies of made-up stuff with things that actually happen – they have come to treat books and pictures as though they had the same presence and consequences as real experience. They have forgotten the hypothetical, ‘what if’ quality that makes art art. The people who want Mapplethorpe’s pictures off the wall, like the people who want Rushdie’s head off his shoulders, fail to respect the ‘virtually’ of art, its ability to entertain a human possibility without necessarily proposing it as an absolute virtue. In this failure, the fundamentalism of the Right is matched by the literalism of the Left: the Right thinks that all descriptions of difference should be treated as endorsements of perversity; the Left thinks that any work of art can be reduced to its political content, including everything it doesn’t say.

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