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.

What neither side wants, the argument goes on, is for art to give pleasure. Both sides find the idea that art is there to help you get happy ‘scandalous’, because the pleasure produced by the free play of the imagination is intrinsically subversive. As Frank Sinatra puts it, ‘Imagination is silly, it goes around willy-nilly.’ For Steiner, it is the willy-nilliness of imagination that makes it dangerous, and our readiness to indulge that willy-nilliness that makes art matter.

Steiner believes, to use an antique formula (of whose antiquity she does not seem to be entirely aware), that art also instructs through pleasure. The virtuality of art offers us examples of weird ways of behaving, which we can then reenact privately in our own imaginations. This imaginary experience can then be duplicated, altered, dismissed or applied to our lives as we choose. You get carried away only to get carried back to the classroom. ‘What art can do and very well,’ she writes, ‘is show us the relation between what we respond to and what we are, between our pleasures and our principles. As a result it inevitably relates us to other people whose pleasures and principles either do or do not coincide with our own. Comparing one’s pleasures with others’ makes one compare ideologies.’ Elsewhere she writes that ‘art is an inherently paradoxical phenomenon whose meaning is always open to varying interpretations. Those interpretations, though always historically grounded, are also personal, proceeding from a primal yawp of pleasure.’ She adds that ‘to engage with an artwork’s connection to ideologies – benign or hurtful – and still feel the work’s brilliant virtuality: this is aesthetic experience at its fullest.’ In plain English, you don’t have to put a bullwhip up your anus to know what it is like. Art is there to do it for you.

This idea is not so much developed as re-iterated throughout her book, and shown to apply in very different contexts. The first two chapters are the best, since they are devoted to a relatively focused, well-argued demonstration of the philosophical symmetry between the puritanical American Left and the fundamentalist American Right. She shows that the Right in America simply couldn’t imagine any sense in which Mapplethorpe’s photographs might be explorations, fantasies, over-statements, hyperbole – pictures – but could only conceive of them as campaign literature for one or another kind of sexual politics. The literalism of the Left, in her view, entails an equally shallow fear of fantasy, expressed in the insistence, most notably in debates about erotica, that the fantasy of an act is the same thing as the act itself. She points out that the Left has made its inquisition so far-reaching that any traditional writing can be shown to be implicated in the violent suppression of women (or gays), since all art made by middle-class people is inherently seeking sexual mastery. It isn’t just the content of novels or movies but their form that is patriarchal. The Left insists that ‘the experience of art is necessarily pornographic, sadistic and ultimately destructive of women.’ Every novel oppresses women, just by being a novel. The swoon of beauty is another name for rape. (She quotes a po-faced reviewer who has actually discovered that in old Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth movies a woman is ‘coded for strong visual and erotic impact ... to connote to be looked at ness’.) Steiner’s point is, again, the sensible one that we can surrender to the spell of a work of art without surrendering our reservations about its moral. ‘There is no way to experience art – however minimalist it may be – that does not involve both mastery and submission on both sides. The wonder that overtakes us in great art need not diminish women nor preclude political relevance.’

It might have been better had the book been restricted to this debate, and these subjects, since the points are clearly scored, and the hidden symmetry between Left and Right well revealed. But Steiner then moves on to a larger, or less strictly academic, canvas. She takes up the Rushdie case, where she sees the same kinds of failure to keep life and art separate. The Ayatollah was a poor reader, failing to grasp the open-ended, indeterminate structure of The Satanic Verses. Yet here the argument gets a little odd, for it seems that you can only vindicate Rushdie by asserting the universality and plain-old-fashioned rightness of liberal values, and you shouldn’t do that either, for fear of becoming an ayatollah yourself. ‘Liberalism wants everyone inside, allied by a premise of solidarity overreaching unlimited, non-violent disagreement. The novel is an artistic structure with specifically these liberal traits,’ she writes. (Whose novels? Dostoevsky’s? Evelyn Waugh’s?) Liberal tolerance, she sees, precludes fundamentalist action, and this she thinks is unfair, since it posits an ‘absolute’ which is the one thing that Post-Modernism has forbidden us to posit. ‘Rushdie’s position is a matter of dogmatic faith. From my way of thinking it is an especially good faith. But as I say this, I cannot deny the fact that I am affirming liberalism as a faith militant, and this does not make me happy.’

She then moves on to a discussion of the debate on the ‘canon’ in American universities, a debate which has already taken up more print than is necessary. She defends her profession in an unusual way, saying, basically, that if you think English professors are dumb, wait till you see everybody else: ‘Every field of professional, from bankers to oil painters, has only a small percentage of practitioners who perform at an optimal level.’ She reviews the debates occasioned by the Hegelian-Marxist revival in literary criticism, debates about whether you can approach poems as poems or only as repositories of interests, and concludes: ‘One must take an analysis of form and meaning wherever it leads, which is always to the realm of the social and always to the realm of the aesthetic.’ (Sam Weller: ‘This here’s what I call a self-evident proposition, as the dog-meat’s man said when the housemaid told him he warn’t a gentleman.’)

The penultimate chapter is on the Blunt, de Man and Heidegger cases, which are all supposed to have still one more art-life division in common. Critics of all three invoke their lousy behaviour in an attempt to prove that they were lousy thinkers too. Here the case seems hopelessly confused, since, first, Blunt wasn’t a thinker at all in the sense that Steiner means, but a connoisseur – a list-maker – while the kinds of lousy behaviour that distinguish de Man and Heidegger are as different as night and day. Heidegger, after all, was not just a louse but a rat, and the point his critics make is not that his becoming a Nazi throws a retrospective light on his philosophy but that his philosophy cast an anticipatory glow on Nazism. Only the de Man case seems to make Steiner’s point. The enemies of deconstruction are using the wrong weapons in singling out his wartime anti-semitism as in some way devaluing his literary criticism. She also attempts a complicated argument, in which de Man’s ‘swoon’ for the aesthetic appeal of Nazism made him ever after allergic to other kinds of aesthetic appeal – that of poetry, for example. This would make deconstruction, rather attractively, into a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for repentant romantics (take it one text at a time).

At the end we are invited to attain a position of ‘Bewildered Enlightenment’. No, it’s ‘Enlightened Beguilement’. But the idea is roughly speaking the same: we are to be in love with literature, constantly carried away by its transgressions – but we are to remember all the time that it’s all trickery and power, paper moons and cardboard seas.

Throughout, one has the impression that Steiner would be a lot better placed if she got off campus more often. Although she can write well, she often falls into pointless academese: ‘Different people read the same stories in different ways’ becomes ‘the paradoxical nature of the artistic icon destabilises its meaning, opening it to ever new contexts of interpretation.’ Worse, the relentless march of projects, movements and abstractions makes one feel, as so often with professors’ books, that The Scandal of Pleasure is a lot more about literature than it is about writing. Writing as it is experienced by writers, after all, isn’t an attempt to explore issues, or succeed at ‘projects’, but largely a horrible, depressing attempt to make a small piece of experience concrete enough to sound convincing. It is typical of Steiner that she dismisses Hemingway out of hand: ‘by our day, his virile chest-thumping and despair have become clichéd, and both gender debates and existentialism have developed beyond where he took them.’ Even someone who isn’t much of a Hemingway fan has to feel for poor Papa, who was at least trying to say how the weather was, and now ends up being tossed aside for not getting far enough in ‘gender debates’, a three-time loser in a game he didn’t even know he was playing.

This same inability to understand that for writers writing is nine-tenths description has a more serious consequence. It makes Steiner an easy mark for the kind of literary theory which doesn’t believe that description is even possible. Although she is careful to go after Right and Left equally, you can’t help but notice how successfully she has been intimidated by the dominant American academic strain of Marxist Post-Structuralism. Right-wing idiocy is treated as idiocy: left-wing idiocy is treated as argument. She is hard – devastating – when she takes apart Dinesh D’ Souza or Roger Kimball’s ignorant idea that the ideal university of Newman or Arnold once had something in common with actual American schools. But when she quotes Fredric Jameson’s statement that since beautiful writing promotes ‘acquiescence to, and even identification with, the relations of domination and subordination peculiar to the late-capitalist social order ... nothing can be more satisfying to a Marxist teacher than to break this fascination for students’ – words which could be the motto of the English Department at Pol Pot University – she takes it seriously as serious thought.

The worst consequence of her inability to disentangle herself from the dominant Hegelian fashion is not that she accept its politics – these she rejects emphatically – but that she accepts its crude and unreal model of works of art. There is, after all, nothing contradictory, or even particularly surprising, about her central contention, the thing she calls ‘the paradox of art’. Really, it’s just the notion that highly formalised, socially constructed, contingent, historically ‘bound’ systems can also offer you a picture of the world that makes permanent sense. But surely this is not a paradox nor peculiar to works of art. If old, constricted, historically determined texts didn’t also offer endlessly applicable insights into new circumstances, we couldn’t add up a column of figures, study Darwinian theory, or make a rocket go off. (For that matter, if virtual experience didn’t always have something more than an abstract, contemplative academic relationship to real experience, no one would buy Playboy.) The fact that people can find new meaning in old notions doesn’t really look like the Paradox of Art at all. It looks more like the Fact of Life.

Yet the academy, at least in English departments, is committed to ignoring that fact. Either books are supposed to offer a free play of signifiers or they are archaeological dumps, whose real meaning can only be found by placing them back in the cultural context from which they sprang, with all the spaces filled in which the author left deviously blank. They are either up here or down there; and the discovery that they are right here alongside us is amazing. So the obvious point – that we decide on the value of a work not by chasing down its sources but by comparing its claims to the world’s – is regarded as bizarre and even daring, ‘paradoxical’. Only by means of ‘primal yawps’ and ‘paradoxes’ can Steiner make a point so basic that in a sane academy it ought not to need making: that books and pictures propose hypotheses about the world that other people can judge for themselves, independently of the origins of those hypotheses.

In Steiner, the essential act of reading, of comparing the book and the world, gets lifted into an abstract empyrean where irrational pleasures somehow nudge us onto the comparison of ‘ideologies’. Judgment becomes a mystical act. The obvious companion fact that works of art can be both exciting to contemplate and still have dumb ideas – that we read for the story and the moral, and have different feelings about each one – is, in this context, only recoverable by recourse to a kind of aesthetic mysticism.

But surely reading doesn’t draw on some aesthetic swoon, or on any special expertise. It isn’t that comparing pleasures makes you compare ideologies: it’s that reading something interesting makes you ask whether or not it’s true. We make the judgment, for instance, that Dickens is wonderful on lawyers and bad on women not because of some elaborated primal yawp, but because lawyers are like that and women are not. Of course, all the questions buried there – including how we know – are complicated. But it is the job of literary theory to figure out how this happens, not to pretend that it doesn’t. After all, the same processes are at work when we read a book as when we read a map: you figure out what the scale is supposed to be, learn what all the little symbols mean, and then you go out to see if the place resembles the picture of it. Trying to come up with a theory of literature without seeing that the world is there to help you judge is like trying to come up with a theory of road maps while remaining locked in the boot of your car.

Constrained by airless, windowless theory, Steiner also tends – and I almost used the word ‘paradoxically’ here – to overrate the space between virtual experience and the real thing. Once upon a time, after all, Church liberals were prepared to let Galileo teach the Copernican hypothesis as long as it was held only as a hypothesis. The conservatives understood that if you let people say that the earth went around the sun, just for the virtual pleasure of the thing, then pretty soon other people were going to think it might be true. Word gets around. The conservatives were right. Hypothetical experience has a way of becoming real experience. From their point of view, the fundamentalists are right to fear virtual forms even more than they fear real acts, since it’s the virtual form that spreads. The implication throughout Steiner’s book is that there are no bad people, just bad readers. But the problem with Jesse Helms and the Ayatollah Khomeini isn’t that they confuse symbolic acts with real ones. They get the ‘playfulness’ of Rushdie or Mapplethorpe as well as anybody. It’s exactly the playfulness that they hate. Openly declared infidels you can live with: it’s the wise guys you have to watch. There’s no point in saying to such people that they ought to become more skilful readers. All you can tell them is that they’re going to have to keep their readings to themselves.

Steiner, like many decent, literature-loving people who find themselves caught up in the Hegelian revival in literary studies, can only find a way out of one kind of romanticism by trying to trump it with another. In her case, the romanticism of cultural determinism is supposed to be trumped by the romanticism of aesthetic bliss. Certainly the second kind has done a lot less damage to the world than the first; but it’s just as irrational. Wanting to reconcile liberal values and romantic art, she still takes it for granted mat the romantic account of art is the only kind there is. Art transgresses, art shows us alternative worlds, art takes us elsewhere. Since liberal society depends on not transgressing and accepting that we are all going to stay pretty much where we are, this reconciliation is going to be hard. Steiner’s solution is to insist that romanticism is just liberalism on a spree. The sleep of reason begets monsters – who in turn are, somehow, going to beget more reason. The last jump in this sequence has always been the tricky one.