Buckets of Empathy

James Wood

  • On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion by Gabriel Josipovici
    Yale, 294 pp, £18.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 300 07991 5

If innocence were a family business, a terraced saga like Buddenbrooks, our age would be the sickly generation that abandons the firm and takes up the piano. We would seem to have nothing left in the innocence bank; we are rich on suspicion. In literature, contemporary examples abound. Martin Amis, for instance, offers his own brief allegory of the writer’s modern suspicion in The Information. Richard Tull, a novelist, hears birds singing in his garden, and thinks, mournfully: ‘say birds were just parrots and learned their songs from what they heard: those trills and twitters were imitations of mountain rivulets, of dew simpering downwards through trees. Now the parrot had left its jungle and stood on a hook in a pub shouting “Bullshit!” ’

Of course, for Amis it is not only the bird that has lost its dewy innocence, but the novelist, too. The novelist no longer trills and twitters, but shouts ‘Bullshit’ a lot, something later acknowledged by Richard, when he laments his weakness as a writer, especially the fault that ‘he wasn’t innocent enough. Writers are innocent. Tolstoy was certainly innocent. Even Proust was innocent. Even Joyce was innocent.’

One of the sponsors of Amis’s pessimism, whether he knows it or not, is Schiller’s supple essay, Simple and Sentimental Poetry, written in 1795 (usually translated as Naive and Sentimental Poetry). This, for all its dialectical wariness, is one of the early statements of modern inferiority. Schiller argues that the ancient writers, especially the Greeks, were at one with nature, combining thought and feeling, while the modern writer can only seek or aspire to nature, worshipping or elegising what he no longer possesses simply. Schiller finds in the Greeks ‘a character of calm necessity. Their impatient imagination only traverses nature to pass beyond it to the drama of human life.’ The modern poet, by contrast, is always sentimental about nature, like a sick man yearning for health. Indeed, the sentimental poet idealises nature much as we (including, self-confessedly, Schiller) sentimentalise the Greeks themselves. The problem for modern literature of this loss of innocence is that, in contrast with the ancient simple poet, we never see ‘the object itself’: instead, the modern poet is always reflecting on the impressions he receives from nature, always ‘a spectator of his own emotion’. Schiller’s examples of simple poets are Homer and Shakespeare; of sentimental poets, Milton and Kleist. Goethe is judged, ambivalenly, to be something of a miraculous bridge between the two attitudes.

Schiller is too wise to fall into a general elegy for lost simplicity, since that is the modern condition he is analysing. Nevertheless, he cannot avoid the melancholy of his categories and his lament, and struggles mightily not to produce his own sentimental elegy. This is the theme, and the struggle, of Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliantly suggestive new book. Josipovici would call the simple and the sentimental ‘trust’ and ‘suspicion’, or perhaps innocence and irony, but his language, and his envy of the Greeks, remain strongly Schillerian. Like Schiller, whom he mentions, he feels that the modern writer labours under a disadvantage, which is a loss of trust in his material, his audience and his tradition. Lacking this innocence, the modern writer turns to suspicion, to Post-Modern knowingness, or to an unthinking mimicry of inherited forms.

Josipovici begins his book by confessing the personal nature of his argument. As a critic and a novelist influenced by the Nouveau Roman, he is driven to write yet feels superfluous: ‘it is somehow no longer possible to treat writing as a craft,’ and thus he is often ‘reduced to feeling it as an indulgence’. By craft, Josipovici means something like that of the stonemasons who built the great European cathedrals, or the way Shakespeare treated his own writing, or Bach his composing: as activities related to and requested by the community, often collaborative, artisanal or religious, powered by trust – ‘trust in the material, trust in our abilities, trust in the act of making itself’. He quotes Descartes, breaking with this trust at the beginning of the Discourse on Method (1637), in which he announces that individual making is purer than collective making: ‘There is often less perfection in what has been put together bit by bit, and by different masters, than in the work of a single hand. Thus we see how a building, the construction of which has been undertaken and completed by a single architect, is usually superior in beauty and regularity to those that many have tried to restore.’

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