Malcolm Bowie on the shimmer of transcendence

  • A Mania for Sentences by D.J. Enright
    Chatto, 211 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2662 0
  • The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews 1977-1982 by Gabriel Josipovici
    Harvester, 181 pp, £16.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0499 7
  • In the Age of Prose: Literary and Philosophical Essays by Erich Heller
    Cambridge, 268 pp, £20.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 521 25493 0

As I begin to write this, innumerable other reviews are being born. Some are being word-processed in paper-free offices, others handwritten in the Club lounges of intercontinental jets and others still dictated over breakfast on luminous southern terraces. But the reviewer I feel closest to is the lonely midnight scribbler – aching for his bed, dreaming of his cheque and as familiar with his emerging sentences as a ploughman is with his latest furrow. Not for this fellow the long-nursed grievance finding outlet at last in a venomous tirade; not for him the careful think-piece upon which a career may depend, or the glittering parade of witticisms, or the tessitura of erudite references. The night is too short and tomorrow already belongs to another review. What I like most about this companionable creature is his readiness, once his column inches have passed briefly before the public gaze, to bid each of his reviews farewell. Not only does he not impede their journey into oblivion, but he thinks of ephemeral things as having their own dignity. And he will be puzzled and saddened, I like to imagine, by attempts to arrest the flux in which his editors, his readers, his copy and himself are borne along. The turning of reviews into books will particularly appal him. Why place a preservation order upon l’écume des jours? Why delude oneself into thinking a Temple to Minerva can be built from the columns and capitals of periodical literature?

It was at a late point in a long tradition that Lionel Trilling found for the collected volume of reviews a resonant generic name: A Gathering of Fugitives. But although the genre has been sanctified by such outstanding books as Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation or Stuart Hampshire’s Modern Writers, compilations of this kind still often have something raffish and opportunistic about them. And nowhere do they more plainly invite suspicion than in the titles they bear. A Mania for Sentences, The Mirror of Criticism, In the Age of Prose... the titles hover between modesty and grandeur, as Trilling’s did and as do the books themselves. ‘More words about words, for those who have a taste for such amusements,’ each artisan-author says. ‘But perhaps writing is all that we have left, in which case the Book of the World must have its Reviewer,’ each of them counter-suggests. But no matter that the desire to find a unifying ground for one’s fugitive pages should protest a little too much in the present titles. For each of the books is informed by an inventive critical intelligence and each of them is as powerfully reorganised by the author’s obsessions as it is disorganised by all that is accidental and improvisatory about the reviewer’s calling.

In discussing ‘foreign’ literature, as all three authors mostly do, they write not simply against the parochial grain of contemporary English culture but often with sustained exogamous passion. Enright’s reviews are more conspicuously abroad thoughts from home than Josipovici’s or Heller’s, and ‘the British reader’, named or implied, is often summoned up and flattered as a necessary moderating agency in a world where foreign (and in particular German) writers have a seemingly innate tendency to fret their brains with metaphysics or with ungainly questions of historical truth. At such moments Enright clothes his writing in tweeds and brogues and begins to sound like J.B. Priestley at the wartime microphone: ‘In their new books’ Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll ‘have both turned into what in my childhood were called “worrits”. Since we can worry well enough for ourselves, and in any case lack no assistance or guidance from newspapers and television, this may strike us as supererogatory. However, these two are at least distinguished worrits.’ A few more blimpish steps in this direction and these wretched foreign fretters will have become blighters and bounders too. Yet how enthusiastic and unpatronising he can also be, and how tender towards each author’s idiosyncrasies.

Enright’s brief portraits of Goethe, Heine, Mann, Brecht, Flaubert, Hasek and numerous others are sprinkled with biographical curiosities, but derive their entertaining animation mainly from his sense of each writer as a distinctive intelligence inquisitively and acquisitively about its business. For a man who emerges, in his many reviews of books about language, as a caustic moderate, he has an engaging respect for artists of over-reaching imaginative or linguistic ambition. On the ‘brilliant, speculative and untiring’ mind of Musil as displayed in The Man Without Qualities, for example, he concludes: ‘Yet, as we expect novels to have a conclusion, so we expect thinkers to arrive at conclusions. The truth may well be that Musil couldn’t end his novel because he hadn’t arrived at his conclusions, he was still inching ruthlessly towards them when he died. If he had arrived – ah, then we should have more than merely a great novel, we should possess the great secret of life,’ The ‘ruthlessly’ is a typically fine and unenvying Enright tribute: a tribute paid by one who labours fitfully, hemmed in by deadlines and word-limits, to one whose work with words seems to have been an enchanted journey from one fiercely intelligent act to the next. It is liberating to see ‘the British reader’s’ complacencies dissolve in this way as Enright is drawn into his authors’ alien mental worlds. He is an omnivore among reviewers and has his own... if not ruthlessness then at least energetic persistence in discovering new opportunities for pleasure. Add to this a tone that is at once knowing and baffled, a wise irreverence (Goethe ‘failed to conceal his belief that the world was his oyster’) and a refusal to seek the last word on anything at all, and you have a delightful compendium of sentences brought back from the brink of that limbo in which the uncollected 99 per cent of reviews written circulate for ever.

Gabriel Josipovici is a still more mobile internationalist than Enright. He talks his way rapidly through frontier-posts and checkpoints where other travellers might have had their cultural baggage searched for hours. Back and forth across the map of modern literature he goes (Joyce, Kafka, Nabokov, Grass, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Bellow, Malamud...), and back with equal self-assurance to the monuments of the European tradition (Dante, Chaucer, Rabelais, Cervantes...). Although the range both of his current sympathies and of his remembered literary pleasures is astonishing, there is little ostentation in his manner. What most excites him, and is most contagious for his reader, is the kindling by a new book of an unsuspected quality of response in himself. The intensest moment of this kind recorded here was provided by The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse: ‘It is not often that a reviewer can say that the book under review has altered his entire conception of the past. Yet that is what I have to say about this book.’ The three-thousand-year-old tradition of Hebrew poetry revealed in its continuity and variety by the Penguin volume makes the ‘Rome-centred, Classics-centred view of the past’ for so long propounded in the classrooms of Europe suddenly seem an insecure artifice, a bizarre, collectively willed mirage.

Criticism matters most, for Josipovici, precisely when an accustomed paradigm begins to come apart and when alternative opportunities for intellectual work and leisure become available. Although perspectives seldom shift as clearly as in this rediscovery of Hebrew literature, such touchstone moments give Josipovici a clear sense of his own civic task: to transfigure the weeklies, fortnightlies and monthlies for which he writes, by purging them of their loose in-talk and by allowing his readers access to finer and more surprising perspectives of their own. Josipovici is telling us a good deal about his own practical notion of how this can be done when he writes of the contributors to J.P. Stern’s The World of Franz Kafka that ‘they all have a relaxed and sparkling quality rare in Kafka criticism, an exuberance and a willingness to abandon the central argument for the apparently peripheral insight which makes every paragraph exciting and thought-provoking.’ At his best, Josipovici is indeed rather like this. What will make his book exhausting for its in extenso readers, as distinct from its dippers and skimmers, is that its relaxation and sparkle are as much those of the responsible seminar-leader as those of the hedonistic traveller in literary time and space. A patient, informative, improving voice is often to be heard – a voice much needed in the university classroom, no doubt, and well able to lend an air of fact-based authority to a short review: ‘Graham Greene will be 72 this year, and he has been publishing novels for over fifty years. The Man Within came out in 1929, in the same decade as The Waste Land, Ulysses and The Magic Mountain.’; But in a florilegium of such reviews, the reader may feel besieged by such facts as soon as they exceed a certain density and the factual mode itself may acquire, like Graham Greene frozen in his 72nd year, an oddly phantomatic air. To some extent, these are failings of the genre rather than of Josipovici’s book, and there is much that is innovating and provocative enough to be worth retrieving from these pages. The reviews clearly were not written with an eye to their becoming a book and little has been done to disguise their occasional character. The Mirror of Criticism is not, then, a work which offers, as Hampshire’s or Sontag’s did, the portrait of an intellect devotedly at work from one episode to the next upon a recurrent set of critical notions. It is the travel diary of a perceptive and generous-minded explorer, going where the reviewing road takes him and inventing his notions as the journey demands.

Erich Heller is not in this sense a traveller at all. For thirty years and more he has stood as a patient and impassioned negotiator between two major and often mutually uncomprehending cultures. In each of his works in English, from The Disinherited Mind (1952), through The Artist’s Journey into the Interior (1965) and the studies of Thomas Mann (1958) and Kafka (1974), to the reviews, essays and lectures now collected as In the Age of Prose, his task has been to make the major achievements of 19th and 20th-century German culture understandable by a British and North American readership. He has done this in a scrupulous and compelling way: by highlighting rather than masking all that is most resolutely German about his writers’ metaphysical ambitions and ironic subterfuges, and by opening up in his own writing – which is always vigorous, elaborate and clear – empathic channels between readers held to be responsive but untutored and a foreign culture held to be uniquely rewarding and uniquely opaque. For Heller mere comparatism is of little use in these negotiations. To encourage the English-speaking reader of German literature to think of Thomas Mann as Henry James with this quality of mind added and that taken away, or of Rilke as a pseudonymous Stevens or Yeats, would be to abandon the fascinating otherness of the German tradition before its impact had been fully felt. Heller urges his reader to cherish the countless conceptual and linguistic difficulties which modern German styles of thinking raise – to internalise them and use them in his or her own thinking.

Among these difficulties one occupies a central place in Heller’s account, here as in the earlier books. He himself has taught us to hesitate before giving it even a provisional English name. It is the ingredient, the factor, the force, the rallying cry that interconnects Goethe, Hölderlin, Hegel, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kraus, Heidegger and Mann and makes their otherwise disparate works seem the constituent parts of a single timeless enterprise; it is that metaphysical power, both internal and external to the human subject, which no single author can master or be an adequate spokesman for, and by reference to which single authors – even when they produce such artefacts as the Phenomenology or the Duino Elegies or The Last Days of Mankind – may appear almost negligibly small. It is of course Spirit, if we may allow ourselves to use once again, in speaking of modern German thought, this least unsatisfactory but still immensely incongruous English notion.

One main reason why Geist and its cognates and surrogates create so many difficulties for the English-speaker may be stated simply: where he is accustomed by the local habits, religious or secular, of his culture, to think of transcendent metaphysical entities as present within creation in a state of awesome indolence, his German counterpart finds them to be possessed of propulsive powers. Geist intervenes, gets things done, alters the daily face of the world. For the writers in Heller’s tradition, to think about ‘Spirit’ is not to think about the supreme system within which a loosely connected and seemingly inconsequential phenomenal world might eventually, by an exertion of mind, be embraced, although some such sense of system may be one of the incidental rewards offered by the inspirited intellectual mode: it is to confront the mind with an ever-changing array of solicitations and exigencies coming at once from beyond and from within itself. ‘Spirit’ is an agency by turns seductive, consoling, overweening and cruel. And it is this concept, appearing in many guises and with a variety of dialectical partners, that gives Heller’s critical thought its characteristic intensity and verve. If we open his book anywhere we shall find it at work: it has become for him a moral and aesthetic necessity in thinking about modern culture.

Spirit is at work even in discussions of Freud, Heller’s least propitious, because most materialistic, writer. Psychoanalysis is deprived of – indeed wilfully denies itself – all access to a transcendent moral order. But for Heller those who practise such denials put themselves at risk by cutting themselves off from an accredited source of health and hygiene: if man’s ‘existence is not illuminated by any shimmer of its transcendence, then his rejected potentialities (or, for that matter, injuries sustained by the child in his religiously or ethically “agnostic” society) grow into neuroses in the darkness of the unconscious’. Seeing no shimmer within its case-material, being neglectful of Spirit or deaf to its moral promptings, psychoanalysis not only brings a tragic burden of grief upon itself but creates the very objects which as science it seeks to study and as therapy it seeks to treat: the neuroses. Deny Spirit and you will make yourself ill and traumatise your children.

This view of psychoanalysis is a politer and more circuitous version of the celebrated jibe in which Karl Kraus defined it as ‘that spiritual disease of which it considers itself to be the cure’. And Kraus himself, the arch-accuser of a misbegotten 20th century, provides Heller with the occasion for another tribute to the redeeming and reparative power of Geist. ‘What happens when Spirit is withdrawn from the world?’ he again asks. ‘Disaster’ is the answer of Kraus and his critic alike. Sex becomes corrupt carnality, language noise and international politics a sanguinary farce. Even the world of material objects begins to look shabby, mean and much worse than mean: ‘Karl Kraus’s satire relies on the recognition of the infernal dimension of the inferior, the gigantic shadow and freezing chill which the banal can cast over the world.’ Like Original Sin, this modern emigration of Spirit from the affairs of men is a hypothesis which, once accepted, attracts limitless supplies of evidence to itself. Look around you, the lamentable facts are there.

Spirit is that which keeps objects afloat in the world, filling them with sense, suffusing them with value, and that which, as it ebbs away, plunges them into a graduated series of misfortunes: they become banal, inferior and, ultimately, infernal. There is no significant place in this Hegelianised scheme of things – as there was in Hegel’s own scheme – for the sap and the sunlight which ‘swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells with a sweet kernel’, nor for the neurones and synapses which permit feeling creatures to perceive such wonders. But Spirit thus enlisted to explain nature in the face of natural science, and the human mind in the face of psychoanalysis, does not necessarily behave either simplistically or over-ingeniously – as many earlier occult qualities had – and does not offer the philosophising mind any durable exemption from doubt. For the most part, Heller’s criticism handles the conceptual superstructure of his texts with quite exceptional subtlety.

The concept of Spirit runs the risk of solving too much too quickly, of course, or of creating in us a hasty appetite for simple solutions. Spirit is not always present to us. Indeed its visitations are so hazardous and unpredictable that the writer may find himself drawn to the grand simplifying styles of prophecy or nostalgia in order to equip it with an imagined perfect residence in the world. Heller looks forward with Kleist to a future ‘perfection of consciousness’ and, with Nietzsche and an uncomfortably etherealised Freud, to that ‘unimaginable day when men, beyond sickness and illusion, live in the integrity of being’. He looks backwards with Kraus from the maimed and dispirited language of the modern century to ‘the Ursprung, the source, the origin... that mythical garden where man was as good as all the works of God were at the beginning of Creation, and spoke a language which was as perfect as the works of that beginning’. Above all, he looks towards that triumph of Spirit which is Dichtung, and towards that quintessence of Dichtung which is lyric or ‘pure’ poetry – his glance moving backwards to Hölderlin, Goethe, Rilke and even, at moments, Brecht, and forwards to as yet unrealised artistic perfections. Small wonder that a critic of this disposition should use ‘deconstruction’ and ‘Lacan’ as terms of imprecation.

Moreover, in pursuing his writers on their quests for perfection, whether of mind, language or art, Heller does on occasion become merely tetchy and caricatural in his account of the Hegelian ‘age of Prose’ in which we are all now helplessly confined. He is certainly not patient enough to plot the destinies of Spirit in advanced industrial society and is vastly disdainful when it comes to the collective worlds of the demos or the ‘demo’. The objects of his particular disparagement are characteristically ‘a factory or a parking lot’: against the engulfing tide of such things the Spirit runs a desperate race. For Heller there can be no politics of the parking lot, of course, for some infernal municipality has already granted the planning permission required for civilisation at large to become an asphalt waste. Behold, the steamrollers are already moving in.

But Heller’s argument, disappointingly simple and irascible when it is cast in this prophetic vein, becomes temperate and complex again when discussion moves back to human passion as mediated and diversified by artistic labour. In so far as Spirit emits contradictory watchwords, and tempts the artist towards disparate formal and moral goals, it becomes an invisible guarantor of difference and dialectical energy within works of art. Besides, Spirit is not an undisputed good and may threaten to engulf and disable the industrious artistic mind. Its triumph must be resisted and deferred if a mere poem or novel is to result from the writer’s intimations of it.

Heller hesitates passionately upon the threshold of the transcendent realm, as if any hurried crossing of the boundary might precipitate disaster, and has limitless admiration for similarly hesitant writers. Here, for example, is a draft quatrain from Hölderlin’s ‘The Germans’, followed by a response from Heller which is a lesson in suspended animation:

For too long now, too long, I have roamed
In the workshop... of the Spirit that forms.
Only his blossoms I recognise,
His thought I cannot make out.

The very thought of the ‘bildender Geist’, the Spirit that forms and shapes and reveals itself in the beings of his making – his very thought Hölderlin wanted to come to know. But his poetry is greatest when he entrusts himself to the ‘blossoms’, that is, to the forms and shapes from the workshop of that Spirit, the Spirit’s disclosures in things that at the same time are the veils enveloping the Spirit’s thought.

The commentary does not so much explain what Hölderlin means as replicate within itself the movement of exaltation and recoil which informs his lines. In the poet’s wake it unveils and veils again the possible shapes of his possible meanings. For the critic too, in Heller’s view, is best employed in delineating ‘the forms and shapes from the workshop’ of his writers and in re-traversing their uncertainties. Thus may Spirit, and Soul, and Truth, and Being, and Beauty, be prevented from wrecking experience. Thus do the metaphysical categories of German idealism become, in Heller’s hands, precise observational instruments – trained not just upon what artists remotely crave but upon their everyday verbal manoeuvres and upon the worldly modes of desire and aggression towards which their otherworldly intuitions may lead them.

It is perhaps in the splendid central essay on ‘Literature and Political Responsibility’ that Heller’s characteristic rhythm of obedience to, and dissent from, the very notion of a ‘spiritual’ imperative for artists produces its most provocative results. For in this account of Thomas Mann’s letters the question throughout is precisely ‘what does Spirit want of me?’ and Heller’s brilliant replications of his writer’s divergent answers make his argument reverberate far beyond Mann and Modern Germany. These answers are of two broad kinds: first, that Spirit is jealous and coercive and demands my complete fidelity on its own terms; second, that it has largesse and benevolently affects my choices without determining them. In the first view, more visible in Mann’s earlier writings, the creative energies of the artist are defiantly unpolitical: books quickened by Spirit follow their ‘own’ paths, refusing all direct contact with the public world and the drab democratic procedures which have, it seems, been the bane of Europe since the French Revolution. In the second view, emerging in Mann’s letters – if not in his literary works – during the Second World War and its aftermath, ‘nothing alive escapes politics. Refusal is politics too; it is a political act on the side of the evil cause.’

Heller teases out both these views and their hybrid forms with rare insight and looks sorrowfully upon certain of the familiar problems they raise: if politics is to be found merely everywhere, then the edge and the urgency of real political causes have been lost; if the political dimension – and in particular the struggle for social justice – is too readily acknowledged by writers, then they will be encouraged to produce witless philanthropic Literatur rather than the pure irresponsible pleasures of Dichtung. (The terms if not the general direction of this discussion have Plato as their patron.) And above all, for writers who urge the claims of Spirit against those of justice, or beneficence, or utility, how can it be possible to be wrong? For within what Heller calls ‘a Hegelian configuration of History’ Spirit is constantly pressing forward to its perfect realisation. Moral errors may be thought of as misassessments of the point which this Hegelian process has reached at a given historical moment. Emergent Spirit forgives us our lies, our mischief and our treachery. And as no error other than misassessment has occurred, there is no need for apology or recantation.

‘I recant nothing,’ Mann wrote in 1923, ‘I renounce nothing essential. I spoke the truth, my truth, then, and am speaking it now,’ This particular self-justificatory style – in which the fact that one has changed one’s mind is at once exhibited and denied – is of course perfectly familiar from contemporary political cant: one woman’s U-turn is another woman’s straight line. But indemnifying oneself against error by way of a metaphysical insurance scheme may also have terrifying, indeed lethal results. And the case-history of Heidegger, retold elsewhere in the volume, contains a sinister repetition of Mann’s dexterous move. When it came to his public deeds in support of the Nazis, Heidegger, the supreme reader of Hölderlin, did not recant, and this because more than his deeds was involved: ‘it was indisputably his thinking that he had dedicated to what he took to be the regeneration of the German people,’ The ‘spiritual destiny’ of the German people, which had once seemed incarnate in the Reich and was later to migrate again to cleaner regions, is not historically divisible or accountable. The past moments of Spirit, its ‘stations’ as Heller revealingly calls them, cannot and should not be accused. Even the vilest of them has had its appointed role to play.

For Heller, understandably enough, this is an impermissible extension of an attractive intellectual principle. He does not forget where certain of these ‘stations’ have led: to the modern Golgotha of the extermination camps. Indeed a major achievement of his in this superb volume is to have written about recent German culture in such a way that new connections become possible between high art and barbarism. Not facile ranting connections but cautious and profoundly uncomfortable ones. The elaborate texture of his arguments invites us to think about the ‘two Heideggers’ both separately and together, just as it invites us both to establish links between the terror invoked in Rilke’s elegies and the terror practised in the camps, and then to call links of this kind into question. The Hegelian legacy itself is taken and left. Taken because it offers the ‘poet in the age of prose’ his highest calling, and left because it removes the fulfilment of the poetic task from the individual artist’s hands. Heller returns the task to him: ‘Let us meet, as an intellectual and moral challenge, what Hegel – perhaps mistakenly – deemed to be historical inevitability.’ But even here, in this last exhortation of his programmatic first essay, his uncertainty persists and is displayed. For those who respond to his ‘perhaps mistakenly’ with an impatient ‘was Hegel mistaken or not?’ the book provides a further range of strong, complex answers.

There is a price to be paid for this complexity of discussion inside the Hegelian whale, in that other powerful dialectical systems are often summarily relegated to minnowhood. Marxism, for instance, merely intrudes upon the artistic sacrament with talk of ‘socio-economic configurations’, while psychoanalysis, when it is not actually manufacturing neuroses, stands ready to trace all creative achievement back to ‘presumed sexual impediments’. But these hyper-reductive portrayals of alleged reductionism are so thin and self-confounding that no Freudian or Marxist theorist of culture need be alarmed by them. Nor should any such theorist be disappointed to find that Heller takes no account at all of the extraordinarily fertile developments that have occurred recently in both traditions. For he will find in this book a training ground and an agenda for his own analytic skills; in the face of Heller’s intricately idealised accounts of mind and art he will understand afresh what metaphysical seductions any coherent political analysis of ‘artistic rapture’, or any psycholibidinal analysis of ‘Spirit’, still has to contend with.

Reviewing the reviewers is in my experience always an uncomfortable business, fraught with self-doubt and mauvaise foi. But today, when millenarian pronouncements from the White House are giving Kraus’s title The Last Days of Mankind a chilly air of topicality, the writing and reading of ‘meta-reviews’ seems a particularly strange pastime. Other things mattering so much more than reviews, I am tempted to end by saying: ‘Nathanael, jette mon compte-rendu.’ But perhaps it would be more fitting to end by promising simply never to re-publish, or to cause others to re-publish, this review.