Brigid Brophy

  • Deliberate Regression by Robert Harbison
    Deutsch, 264 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 233 97273 0

Something is amiss with Robert Harbison’s sentences. They seem to consist almost wholly of last-minute additions.

The way out of the impasse brought on by the decay of religion available to Wilson was an authorised version of Ruskin’s symbolic correspondence, authorised by duplicated evidence from the distant past excavated by science, and institutionalised by the artist in specific forms, like the Brighton chalice, also a calyx, a flower on its stem, attempting to work a magic which would inhere in a thing not just in one’s method for contemplating it.

This shock-horror pile-up on the motorway manner of writing makes it hard to sort out what belongs to what. I surmise it was not ‘the decay of religion’ but the ‘way out of the impasse’ that was ‘available to Wilson’. (The Wilson concerned is Henry. To find out his dates, 1863-1934, I had to turn to a good book, Alastair Service’s Edwardian Architecture.) But there’s no guessing whether it was the past or evidence from it that science excavated, let alone whether Mr Harbison supposes Henry Wilson or the chalice Wilson made for a church at Brighton or a flower to be ‘attempting to work a magic’. He never explains in what sense evidence from the distant past was ‘duplicated’. Is he hinting that the archaeologists cooked the books?

Even had he managed his appositional pile-up adroitly, it would be difficult for a chalice to resemble both the calyx, which consists of the green sepals only, and the whole of ‘a flower on its stem’. In fact, however, Mr Harbison makes nonsense of his own purple passage by reproducing the chalice in question. Its stem has nothing to do with a flower stem. It is fashioned in the shape of several tree trunks (clearly recognisable as such because, rather romanesquely, they begin to branch near the top) bound together by a knobbly circlet. Its closest resemblance is to a bundle of asparagus tied up for boiling.

Occasionally one of Mr Harbison’s sentences sets off without a destination in mind and finishes somewhere almost surreally inappropriate.

Ruskin makes legends the way most people give excuses, but extraction of the self-contented skeleton traduces its effect in place.

That one begins as a wisecrack, feeble but welcome in the circumstances. At least, it would have been a wisecrack had not Mr Harbison spoilt the symmetry between making legends and making excuses by changing the verb, at what should have been its second and more idiomatic time round, to give. This botched joke is then opposed, by way of a but, to what I take to be a truism about skeletons. I am rather proud of having (I think) decoded ‘its effect in place’. So long as it remains in place, a skeleton holds the body rigid; remove the skeleton and you forfeit the rigidity. This generally acknowledged truth is, I suspect, what Mr Harbison is repeating in tarted-up terms when he tells us that ‘extraction’ of the skeleton ‘traduces its effect in place’. I can’t, however, conjecture why he calls the skeleton ‘self-contented’ and still less how filleting is relevant to Ruskin.

The most depressing thing about this abysmal and affected book (on which the British imprint is an empty mark – the volume was manufactured in the USA and the spelling is North American) is that it seems, from a note at the front, to have been financed by the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Writing in Britain is in a crisis which only subsidy can fend off. This is an ill-judged and unstatesmanlike moment to import a book that can only bring the idea of subsidy into disrepute.

Quotation will have demonstrated that Mr Harbison’s is not the poetic kind of surrealism, and, alas, only one of his sentences is comic. It employs his full technical resources, namely both surrealism and pile-up, and it provokes anxieties of the kind he usually visits on his readers. This time there is a ‘foreigner’s dream’ that may be a footnote, a preference or cold winds, a ‘countryman’ who may be a rustic or may be a compatriot of the foreigner who has the dream, and a ‘proper source’ that may be the source of the dream, of a mistress or of the cold winds.

But no reader finds in Beowulf the perverse preference of winter to spring Macpherson attributes to Ossian, marveling [sic] in a footnote at the vigor [sic] of imagination which loves unfriendly blasts, a foreigner’s dream of a marriage between the countryman and his violent mistress, whose proper source is the breasts of those who experiment with walks in the rain.

When I had calmed my anxieties I did give a grin over those breasts, wondering what distinguishes them from the breasts of people who don’t ‘experiment with walks in the rain’.(A chill on the chest, perhaps.) But my grin was wiped out by a fresh anxiety. What if Mr Harbison doesn’t mean it to be funny?

The structure he characteristically gives his sentences may be compulsive with Mr Harbison, since it is the structure of his book as a whole. The book consists of a five-page preface, which states his thesis, and then a 221-page pile-up of text (followed by 26 pages of notes) that has surreally little connection with the thesis.

I may, however, flatter the preface by saying that it states a thesis. It begins portentously (and in a sort of historic present tense, which it sticks to not quite consistently) with the promise:

This book tells a disastrous history, how man is willed a stranger to himself and dissolved till not recognisably human anymore [sic].

It continues sweepingly enough: ‘the furthest excess of Romantic individualism’ makes a god of ‘the unconscious and ungovernable’, thus rendering ‘the highest part of the individual no longer individual’, with the result that ‘19th-century subjectivism leads through personality to a depersonalised end.’

When, however, he approaches his main point, Mr Harbison comes over all pussyfoot:

Drawing a parallel between the liberties thinkers began to take with the boundaries of thought and those later taken by rulers with the integrity of persons, one need not find in it an explanation.

All the same, no sooner has he thus hedged his bet than Mr Harbison advances again, though only with the woolly headshake that the determinedly credulous give over their horoscopes:

Still, the coincidence must have a meaning, the fact that the destruction of man in art just preceded his extermination in fenced compounds.

Sweepingness here goes distinctly too far. Man hasn’t been exterminated. Unthinkable crimes have been committed against groups of men, but there has never been an attempt (let alone a successful attempt, which would have left no Mr Harbison to write rubbish about it) to exterminate man as such ‘in fenced compounds’.

As for the ‘liberties taken’ (a phrase I had thought confined nowadays to camp comedy) by 20th-century rulers, the blame simply won’t stick to 19th-century thinkers. The ‘parallel’ between ‘the boundaries of thought’ and ‘the integrity of persons’ does not exist except in Mr Harbison’s purple phrase-book. He might as realistically have hypothesised that the hybridisation of fruit trees leads to the violation of frontiers. Rulers have been taking ‘liberties’ since history began to be recorded, though the more recent rulers have commanded more effective technical means. The tragedy is older and deeper than Mr Harbison conceives, and it is not to be reversed simply by going back on 19th-century romanticism. Even ‘depersonalised’ ends of state had no need to wait to be pioneered by ‘19th-century subjectivism’. There has never been a more systematic act of depersonalisation than that enduring and nearly universal institution of the ancient world, slavery, which propounded a legal and constitutional concept of persons as things. It is one of Mr Harbison’s many failings that he clearly believes the world began in 1700 AD. In 71 BC, after they had defeated the rebellion of the Roman slaves led by Spartacus, the Roman rulers crucified 6,000 captured slaves along the road between Rome and Capua. If only Mr Harbison had known of it, he could have reduced atrocity to a Life of Brian giggle by remarking: ‘What a liberty.’

Only in the blankest ignorance could Mr Harbison assert that, in the ‘rearrangement of human nature’ which he locates in the 19th century, ‘capacities which had always been despised, the least knowable instincts or libido shared with animals, are put first’. Always? Despised? The elders of Troy held Helen holy for obeying her libido. Respect for reason occupies a very tiny area in human history. In culture upon culture and empire after empire the prized capacities have been for reading portents in bird flight or shooting stars, discerning prophecies in dreams (the nightly products of that unconscious which Mr Harbison thinks was not ‘elevated’ until the last century), chewing intoxicating leaves and uttering dark words, detecting witches by sensations in your thumbs and other talents of that kind. It was, after all, the Christian faith, not Christian reason, that was enforced on Christendom for thirteen or so centuries.

Even when he descends from the sweeping to the particular, Mr Harbison gets it ineffably wrong.

The conception of a world beyond subject-matter, and myth as anonymous ambiguity, is met best by music which still bears traces of representation, operas of Wagner, early Strauss, and Debussy.

Still? Still bears traces? Only Mr Harbison could have read the history of western music back to front, seeing it presumably, as a movement from the tone poems of J.S. Bach to the nearly pure abstractions of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.

The text that adjoins this farrago of a preface consists of excursions on some subjects that, I suppose, Mr Harbison felt like writing about. He begins with the paintings of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard and presently gives us a distant glimpse of his thesis when he seems to pin on J.-J. Rousseau’s cult of the primitive some of the blame for mankind’s ‘deliberate regression’. On he goes to the neo-classic (French, German and Danish versions). The thesis comes into sight again when the ‘outstretched arms mechanically generated from each other’ in David’s ‘Oath of the Horatii’ are said to be (or at least have placed next to them, in apposition) ‘duplication which leads through democratic crowds to totalitarian unison’. I thought this was coming it a bit. There are only three outstretched arms in the David. For argument’s sake, I could have made a better case out of Trooping the Colour, the guard of honour at a military wedding or the first violins bowing uniformly. On Mr Harbison persists in going – to the Gothic revival, where he works up something of an impersonation of Ruskin (supererogatory, you would think, with so self-explanatory a writer) and establishes at least a negative link with his thesis inasmuch as he pronounces Ruskin not ‘regressive’. Minor detours aside, the next stop is Nietzsche; then the Grimms and the Finn Elias Lönnrot; on through the Pre-Raphaelites; thence to anthropologists (Levi-Strauss and Malinowski) and D.H. Lawrence; thus to Nazi visual art, illustrated by a sentimental painting of a Hitler youth and a sketch by Hitler himself for a projected triumphal arch; and eventually, via (somehow) Kandinsky, to the heroic workers of Soviet art, whom I cannot read as sinisterly as Mr Harbison does since they seem to me streamlined (in the Thirties fashion) versions of our own dear Ovaltine advertisements.

The whole exhausting though not exhaustive tour is conducted in Mr Harbison’s unique style (not hypnotic, just hypnagogic), which runs to leaving out the definite article where idiom would put it in, and vice versa. Of William Morris he tells us that his ‘interest in religion only began to detoxify itself into an interest in the churches’ qualities as architecture,’ although there are no antecedent churches in his text: yet he says that Morris’s techniques ‘made many processes more monotonous for workmen than they need have been’, where he presumably means ‘the workmen’ (those who worked for Morris), since Morris’s techniques can scarcely have affected workmen at large. I can’t decide whether Mr Harbison is just inept with the definite article or whether he thinks that to reverse the idiomatic usage will make his dicta look graver. Likewise, when he writes of ‘decadence or phosphorescence if descendance at all’, I am not sure whether he thinks ‘descendance’ a more impressive word or has just never come across the word ‘descent’.

Little in the tour elucidates, let alone supports, the notion of ‘deliberate regression’ – a notion that doesn’t make sense, incidentally, unless you believe that art or at least something progresses, which Mr Harbison does not try to persuade us to do. It appears that what he means by ‘the destruction of man in art’ and man’s being ‘dissolved till not recognisably human’ is that Burne-Jones painted knightly armour as though it were ‘translucent like glass or crystal, or soft like a succulent root’ and that Philipp Otto Runge drew decorative schemes that treat babies and flowers as much the same thing. I find it odd of Mr Harbison to blame the visual arts for being capable of metaphor and simile. As a matter of fact, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Milanese painter who died in 1593, went a very great deal further than anything Mr Harbison cites or illustrates. His pictures show humans who are assembled out of fruits and vegetables. Surely Arcimboldo’s turnip heads and parsnip limbs are what Mr Harbison should have perceived as the roots of fascism?

Two of Mr Harbison’s best conjuring tricks are performed during his musings on and around the Pre-Raphaelites. Of Dyce’s painting ‘Titian’s First Essay in Colour’ he says: ‘Dyce sets young Titian in a recognisably English churchyard.’ Once again his own illustration gives him the lie. English garden it may be. Churchyard (of any nationality) it manifestly is not. Should another Foundation be daft enough to stake him to another book, it would be wise to present him also with a scratch pad and insist he write down his descriptions while he is actually in the presence of the objects he describes.

It is Tennyson’s Mariana who provokes Mr Harbison to the most remarkable of the notes that follow his text. He asserts that Mariana ‘could be made mysterious by Tennyson ... because absent in Shakespeare’. In my copy of Measure for Measure Mariana is perfectly present, and indeed speaks, at the beginning of Act Four, Scene One. How did Mr Harbison contrive to banish her from his copy? Can it be that that he means by depersonalisation?