- The Name of Action: Critical Essays by John Fraser
Cambridge, 260 pp, £25.00, December 1984, ISBN 0 521 25876 6
The title of John Fraser’s book comes from Hamlet’s most famous speech. ‘The name of action’ is what ‘enterprises of great pitch and moment’ lose when ‘the native hue of resolution’ is ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’: not, on the evidence of this volume, too much of a problem for Mr Fraser himself. His immediate target is litcritbiz, perennially anxious to demonstrate that books mean something other than what they say. He tells us that his ‘argumentative adolescence’, and his ‘apprentice years’ in the Sixties, were sorely fretted by Marxists, Freudians, irony-mongers and other assorted nuisances, restlessly disturbing the plain sense of things, while real life and Mr Fraser (‘human feelings and doings – falling in or out of love, fighting a war, and so on’) were taking their natural strong-willed course. For his own part, he has not, ‘at least since childhood’, been afflicted with that ‘sacred awe’ which is felt in France towards ‘the text’, and hasn’t much time either for ‘talk about non-referentiality and organic unity’. His own view, expressed in what is a fair sample of the delicacy of his idiom, is that ‘in distinguished literature the abstractions of ideologies were tested out in terms of the concretions of individual experience, rather than vice versa.’ He doesn’t like that academic ‘hunger ... for metaphysics without ethics’ which ‘separates intellection from the demands of action’, and believes himself to be inhabiting a ‘Shakespearean world’ in which people derive their ‘images of future bliss or woe ... from their past experiences, including their experiences of fiction, written or spoken’.
Hence the Shakespearean title and epigraph, and two essays on Shakespearean plays: one on The Tempest, which emerges as a cut above some of the other plays, where we are indeed ‘confronted with characters intellecting’ (yes, intellecting) but ‘in a potentially reductive fashion’; and the other on a coarsened sub-Leavisian version of Othello, including that Ignoble Moor’s difficulties with women (‘Desdemona, before anything else, is A Woman’). There are also essays on Scott Fitzgerald, Twain, Emily Brontë, Stephen Crane, Traven’s The Death Ship, and of course Swift. It seems that no book concerned with the idea of the man of letters as man of action is nowadays complete without an essay or two on Swift: an honourable exemplar whose best older celebrants have been men of letters who were men of action, including Yeats, Orwell and Foot, rather than academics who make a preening performance of not really being academics, like John Fraser and Edward Said. Fraser on this author cannot match Said’s remarkable amalgam of souped-up abstractionism and overpowering factual ignorance, though his own species of banality will be felt by some to arrive at a similar state of incomprehension by a less colourful route.
There are also two essays on critics: Northrop Frye, bad because he treats literature as though it were an objective science, though Fraser wants us to know that he himself admires ‘empiricism’ in its proper place; and Yvor Winters, good because of his ‘awareness’ of the relations between thought and action, and because it seems that if there had been more men like him, Edward Kennedy might not have become politically prominent. The book’s final section is a series of heavy-footed divagations on the ‘organic community’ and the theme of country v. city. Its four essays are concerned with George Sturt, the Hammonds, the Parisian photographer Atget, Leavis, and the much-sociologised Mexican village of Tepoztlan. It shows about as much social understanding as a wet sponge, with a literary sensibility to match and a penchant for displays of autobiography.
Fraser is insistent to the point of obsession on the ‘particular’ and ‘definable’, invariably celebrating them with a spacious evasion of both particularity and definition. He is much given to the inclusive ‘like’: ‘writers like Lawrence, Jean Giono, George Eliot, Traven, Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and, of course, Sturt’. The ‘of course’ is part of a bullying knowingness that never lets up. If you don’t believe me, turn to page 69, where you will find all the following phrases: ‘incomparably’, ‘immeasurably’, ‘certainly’, ‘unequivocally’, ‘precisely’, ‘powerfully’, ‘largely’, ‘by no means necessarily’, ‘admittedly’, ‘especially’, ‘and rightly so’, ‘a certain kind of splendour’, ‘a particular kind of romantic-love relationship’, ‘a certain kind of male ego-ideal’, ‘a certain kind of conflict’, and, though my list is not in fact exhaustive and I am still on page 69, ‘there is little more that needs to be said.’ The last phrase belongs to a type, possibly learned from Swift’s bossier dunces, that Fraser is much addicted to: ‘and I think the point doesn’t need labouring’ is what gets said when he’s labouring it, just as ‘certainly’ occurs when he has least reason to feel certain, and ‘I think’ when what he says is so obvious that even he has little chance of getting it wrong (though even these rare accesses of tentativeness are really displays of assurance, ‘I think’ conveying that Fraser is not so much expressing caution as conferring an imprimatur). Like other pedagogue-bashing pedagogues, Mr Fraser is most himself in the emphatic-didactic guise of the classroom windbag, and there’s lots of numbing pseudo-wisdom to match: ‘The history of ideas is one thing, the history of people thinking something else,’ ‘New York is more “real” than Paris, and other cities increase in reality as they move towards the condition of New York, just as Dostoevsky is more “true” than Tolstoy.’
Mr Fraser’s book does, however, raise a serious issue: that of the interplay between literary texts and the lives we lead outside them. He devalues his theme by his own example, not least because the crudity of his discourse forces us to register the effect on his linguistic behaviour of that experience of ‘distinguished literature’ whose interaction with the quality of life he is perpetually asserting. Those who dislike the things he dislikes will be driven to question their sympathies at the first intimation of common ground. When he asserts that the ‘recent Franco-American preoccupation with freedom and “bliss” ’, with its ‘devaluing of social structures and implicit licensing of infantilistic egotism’, makes it ‘easier for the dominators and predators who prosper in a Hobbesian or Sadean world’, one may agree that all these things are as bad as he says, while questioning whether they’re any worse than the intellectual atmosphere revealed by his own bludgeoning style and the vulgar facility of his mental transitions. I wonder, too, whether the connection between literary criticism and predatorial politics is causal in the way he suggests, or whether, if there is a connection, it is one which he might be said to exemplify rather than one he asserts. That hypertrophied conception of the importance of litcritbiz which he shares with the ideologues he is attacking seems to me to reflect a collective stupor of self-esteem so pervasive and naïve as to be likely to neutralise any intellectual defences against political brutalism. It would not surprise me if the institutionalisation of criticism as an autonomous and self-validating activity turned out to have the same predisposition to extremist ideology as did some of the aestheticisms of pre-post-modern times, except that what was then taken to exist for its own sake was art and not criticism.
But what, the unschooled reader may wonder, is that ‘bliss’ with which, along with freedom, Franco-American critics are here said to be unhealthily preoccupied? The answer is that it is an inept rendering of the sexual term jouissance in the translation by Richard Miller in which Anglophone readers regularly misread Barthes’s Plaisir du Texte, though it’s true that no single English word gives the full sense of ‘active pleasure’, with specific associations of orgasm, of Barthes’s usage. Barthes isn’t himself one of Mr Fraser’s topics, but the matter of ‘bliss’ brings me to the one essay in his book I haven’t so far mentioned, on the erotic novel by ‘Pauline Réage’, Histoire d’O.
Here as elsewhere, Fraser is quick to see direct political connections, hinting portentously at ‘certain important truths’ behind the fact that the novel’s interest in erotic whippings preceded by ‘only a year or two’ the use of torture by the French in the Algerian War. But this chapter is of interest in the broader context of Fraser’s argument, because erotic books have a rather special place in questions relating to literature and ‘action’. This is partly due to the fact that their incitements and arousals are likely to be especially immediate and private, but is nowadays complicated by the type of critical chatter which goes in for proposing an ‘erotics of reading’ even for non-erotic books. This introduces new dimensions of tease as to what is and what isn’t meant literally when erotic terms are used to describe the act of reading. Barthes’s jouissance usually suggests some cerebral analogue or textual replay of the sexual, not exactly your real vulgar orgasm. I’m reminded of the military command for marking time said to have been used in the French colonial empire for the benefit of native troops: machi (i.e. marcher)-pas-machi-machi-quand-même. If you think you get more jouissance from a text whose subject-matter is itself erotic, you might be disappointed. Some would say you get less, and Barthes actually lays it down as a law that the true jouissance-producing text is not necessarily (pas forcément) or even, as he varies it in the next clause, never (jamais) one that recounts a jouissance, so that one can’t rely on pornography: Le plaisir de la représentation n’est pas lié à son objet: la pornographie n’est pas sûre (whatever Barthes means, Miller’s translation, ‘pornography is not sure,’ can’t be right).
Barthes’s idea of a gap between an experience and its representation is only superficially similar to that of Fanny Hill, when she comments on the monotony of erotic narrative as compared with erotic experience: her point is that the language and even the actions of love-making have a sameness which cannot do justice to the sensations of pleasure. Her priorities are in other ways the reverse of those of Barthes’s book. He goes on to say that the so-called ‘erotic’ books (Sade, whom Barthes applauds and Fraser deplores, excepted) are less concerned with the erotic scene than with the expectation of it and the leading up. This is what makes them ‘arousing’ (excitants: Miller translates ‘ “exciting” ’). But the quotation-marks are Barthes’s, an additional signal of the imputed spuriousness of these arousals, and when you get to the erotic scene itself the effect is disappointment, deflation: pornographic texts are texts of Desire, not Pleasure, and they disappoint, not in Fanny’s sense because the language is necessarily inadequate, but in some more absolute and abstract or definitional sense. The plaisir du texte is in some ways an idealist figuration or replay, not subject to sensuous limitation, though it may seem to follow the contours of some specialised sexual dispositions when, having announced the Death of the Author, Barthes adds that nevertheless, dans le texte, d’une certaine façon, he desires that deceased creature; or when he posits elsewhere that ‘the writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body.’ Barthes is unlikely to declare a preference for sex over texts in Fanny Hill’s simple way but the certaines façons in which each merges into the other are clearly not subject to the orderly demarcations of simple illustrative metaphor. Analogies and interactions between reading (or writing) and sexuality have an old ancestry, and even jouissance as an image for this is much older than Barthes. But they have become naturalised and indeed ideologised into our academic culture beyond simple parallels, whether in jest or earnest, and beyond the reach of mournful donnish puns (more often in earnest than jest, to judge by some recent learned journals) about ‘textual harassment’ or ‘textual intercourse’. According to Barthes, textual theory is a notably jouissance-producing (texty?) activity, but he thought it had little institutional future: it depends what you mean by institutional.
Fraser doesn’t have much truck with this sort of ‘metaphysical profundity’, or rather he does, in the form of extended bombinations against it: as I said, one sometimes dislikes what he dislikes, suspecting therefore that it can’t all be bad. His remarks are aimed, not at Barthes, but at Jean Paulhan’s prefatory essay to the Story of O, a novel which seems outside the main stream of Barthes’s discussion since its subject-matter is expressly erotic: an account of flagellations and other tortures and abasements, undertaken by the heroine in the service of a lover whose demands include her giving herself to the violence of others. The book’s popular reputation is that of a classic of high pornography, but it is, in fact, studiously unarousing: not in the sense which Barthes applies to most erotic books, but in being unlikely to stimulate even those who might normally be stimulated by such books.
Réage’s novel belongs to a tradition of refined erotic cerebration which includes La Princesse de Clèves and Stendhal’s De l’Amour. That the activities it describes belong superficially to the pornographic domain is an oddity that doesn’t alter the essential point. The book remains an intellectual tour de force whose peculiar combination of verbal stylishness and spiritual exaltation neutralises any likelihood of a sensuous response: a bravura display of what Susan Sontag calls metapornography. It has a metallic cool that suggests containment of incandescent intensities, like refrigerators that use heat to keep cold: the interactions of hot and cold in erotic literature come up for discussion in Régine Deforges’s O m’a dit, 1975, a remarkable record of conversations with the pseudonymous author. O’s intensities are intellectual, not sensuous. Torture doesn’t turn her on. What she cherishes are second-remove states: the ‘idea’ of torture, the subsequent happiness of having undergone it, the abnegation and self-surrender, the devotional and martyrological fantasies. Réage says not only that she is herself terrified by torture, but that her torture scenes have the unreality of detective-story fights, and she insists on bookish origins: lives of saints, dungeons in Gothic novels.
The Story of O adopts in a literal way many themes which figure metaphorically in the literature of love: enslavement, chains, incarceration. That O submits to these literally (though voluntarily) has something to do with the oddly desexualised quality of her book. Events that are mere images to other lovers happen to her circumstantially, but their relation to her emotional existence is probably more indirect and remote than if they had been metaphors. It may be that the true literature of arousal requires that its metaphors should not be literalised wholesale. Fraser says that ‘when Paulhan suggests that love is “really” what has been expressed in a particular kind of love poetry, with its figurative talk of slavery and chains, this seems pretty much like extolling cannibalism on the grounds that lovers often say that they’d like to eat each other.’ He has a point. The late Modernist or Post-Modern imagination has sometimes gone in for literalising these metaphors, with a curiously derealising effect: the cannibal counterpart to O’s slavery is Monique Wittig’s Le Corps Lesbien, in which the sexual gratification implied by such metaphoric endearments as ‘I could eat you up’ is pushed to its ultimate ingestive lengths. The result is one of those defiant fictions of ‘total possibility’ which are really a bowing (perhaps even a cringing) at the altar of the impossible. I doubt if a single lesbian body has ever been turned on by the cannibal allurements of Le Corps Lesbien, just as I assume that amateurs of flagellation wouldn’t go to the Story of O for stimulation. The wholesale literalising of façons de parler in these books tends to gratify the lust for system more than the erotic velleities they purport to be projecting. The jusqu’ auboutiste fantasy of cannibal massacre, like the equally totalistic extension of O’s spiritual aspirations (Réage says O wanted to go jusqu’au bout d’elle-même), has elements of black-humorous imaginative sport, and it contains its own antidote, much as proposals to ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ tend to be discounted in proportion as they are taken literally. ‘A Modest Proposal’ is one of the opening texts of Breton’s Anthologie de l’Humour Noir: who would ever take it seriously if they took it straight?
Death is the completest example of a sexual metaphor which puts an end to all sexuality as soon as it is literalised, as well as being what a complete enactment of cannibalism or torture would tend to bring on anyway. Death is contemplated in the Story of O, and Fraser seems to think of it as a logical conclusion – not in this literal sense but because there seems nothing of interest that can happen to O after she has reached her nadir of self-surrender. But in fact O’s death is only offered as a kind of ‘alternative ending’. The main ending is one in which O returns to Roissy, where Sir Stephen abandons her. This is summarily announced at the end of the book as we have it, and is the subject of a concluding section which was omitted from the novel, but later published as Retour à Roissy (1969), a sequel in which O, like Fanny Hill in the second volume of Cleland’s novel, moves not towards death but towards prostitution. O’s contemplated demise is offered expressly as an alternative not pursued, a self-consciously literary gesture, proto-Fowlesian in miniature, cheekily offered as part of the bookish sport: Il existe une seconde fin ...
Paulhan’s prefatory essay contrasts the small-scale cruelties of sexual bondage with the large-scale technologies of napalm and atom bombs. It’s a version of Montaigne’s famous apology for Amerindian cannibals, which, though not the first example, established the argument as a staple of liberal polemics against imperial and other oppressions. Paulhan’s version is trivialised by a notion that seems from time to time to find favour among erotomanes, that there is a ‘happiness in slavery’ which slaves and lovers cherish: Boswell actually wrote an antiabolitionist poem along these lines, comparing happy negro slaves with poetical lovers happily enslaved by their ‘beauteous tyrant’, and Paulhan cites the example of some freed Barbadian slaves in 1838 asking to be taken back by their master.
The facile ineptitude of this does not invalidate the Montaigne-derived argument about relative scales of cruelty, though Fraser again has a point when he says that it’s hard to escape the feeling that Paulhan ‘can allow himself the luxury of being unpleasant because he takes it for granted that nothing he advocates runs any serious risk of being practised’. There’s no doubt that some of the fantasies of ‘total possibility’, including Wittig’s cannibal fiction, depend on impossibility of enactment as their enabling factor. This is also true in more indirect ways of ‘A Modest Proposal’, by contrast with a more plausibly packaged and ‘moderate’ spoof like Defoe’s ‘Shortest Way with the Dissenters’, which did actually take people in. Swift once warned that, beyond a certain point, our assumption that people know what to discount in the rhetoric of extermination or incitement, ‘and will not take Hyperboles in too literal a Sense’, is likely to be over-optimistic, and ‘in some Junctures might prove a desperate Experiment’. Fraser’s dark hints of a link between O’s torture and what the French were about to get up to in Algeria is a sloppy version of the same anxiety. Réage, who speaks on such questions in O m’a dit with more acumen than either Paulhan or Fraser, says that the people who perpetrate massacres in real life tend to be those who don’t read books of erotic cruelty.
They may both be right, but the real risks are likely not to be those of arousal or incitement, but of a more covert coarsening which books like Réage’s and especially Wittig’s may tend to induce: less by their subject-matter than by the hard brilliance of their intellectual self-absorption, the frosty delight in the jewelled precision of their prose as it sports with the unspeakable, the chic romance of their leather-and-metal stylishness. Could it be that the moral anaesthesia cultivated by these two impeccably liberal authors might have a kinship with that aestheticism for machines of destruction to be found among the cryptofascist sensibilities of early Modernism?
Fraser’s essay on Réage is somewhat disabled by its failure to take account of Retour à Roissy and especially of O m’a dit. His piece was written in 1966, before they were published, when he felt himself to be exploring an ‘uncharted region’; and, anxious not to be modish, he is now disinclined to revise it ‘in the light of ... subsequent sexual revolutions’, or to consider that there might be better reasons than that for doing so. The region was not so ‘uncharted’ as all that, since Histoire d’O had appeared in 1954 and had a well-established notoriety. It had even been available in English, though Grove Press only got round to it in the year Fraser did, and he is a shade too provincial to be troubled by the thought that he was already being ‘subsequent’ himself at the time. In this respect he sounds a bit like the contributor to that hapless and never-to-be-forgotten book, Re-Reading English, who set out to chart the course of intellectual politics in Britain ‘between the early 1960s and the early 1980s: from Hoggart to Gramsci’, the last-named having died in 1937.