If we are to believe Deborah Mitford, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, her father, Lord Redesdale, read only one book in his life and that was White Fang. “He loved it so much he never read another. … ‘Dangerous good book,’ he used to say, ‘no point in trying any more.’ ” I also loved White Fang, but instead of desisting from books, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on more of them. Of course, I was barely a teenager at the time, and since then I’ve come across a few novels even better than White Fang—and some worse.
Nonetheless, Lord Redesdale, father of the notorious Mitford sisters, whose daughter Nancy wrote novels that he presumably opened, had a point. Reading ought to be pleasurable, so why waste time on poems or novels that don’t provide any? A plausible enough conceit that becomes bothersome only when we attempt to define reading pleasure. Should we even begin, or is the subject a spiraling Escheresque staircase whose ending is everywhere and nowhere? Pleasure? Surely no sane critic would approach the subject, not anymore, not today.
Frank Kermode was eminently reasonable and almost dishearteningly well read, but he took it on, in 2001, in two lectures delivered at the University of California–Berkeley. The lectures were later published as Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon, boosted by commentaries from professors Geoffrey Hartman and John Guillory and theater director Carey Perloff. All too aware that the canon, as the product of privilege, is suspect by the very qualities that have traditionally defined literature, Kermode uses the word “canonical” advisedly, tapping books known in part because of the pleasure that is “a necessary though not obvious requirement of the canonical.”
Aware, too, that pleasure is a sticky subject, Kermode glances at Roland Barthes’s Le plaisir du texte, which divides the delighted reader’s response into pleasure and jouissance, the latter issuing from a sense of blissful interruption caused by something sensual and unexpected. He also alludes to the Czech critic Jan Mukařovský (previously not known to me), who believed “that part of pleasure … is likely to lie in the power of the object to transgress, to depart, interestingly and revealingly, from the accepted way of such artifacts.”
Kermode himself thinks the term “dismay” nicely encapsulates a reader’s pleasurable response to a text. It’s a dismay predicated on our ability to recognize the interruption, comprehend the revealing departure, and appreciate its implications. What all these interested parties are saying is that a successful work of literature depends on a successful reading of its contents, and that the pleasure involved derives from the text’s power to immerse us, enchant us, surprise us, and teach us. So far so good. But how do I know that you find the same pleasure in the same lines, passages, and books that I do?
It can’t be helped—unanswerable questions have to be asked: Does one kind of literature afford a more refined pleasure than another kind? Can we compare the pleasure induced by Virginia Woolf with, say, that induced by Agatha Christie? Is “Casey at the Bat” potentially less (more) enjoyable than Keats’s “Ode to Autumn”? Is the pleasure of reading Henry James similar to that of reading George Eliot? At what point does a story’s eloquence or lack of it begin to affect people in the same way? Surely, Lord Redesdale would feel little of the dismay favored by Kermode when perusing Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” a poem that Kermode believes holds pleasures for the informed reader.
Pleasure is, indeed, a loaded term, both too restrictive and too vague to convey all the possible responses to art. At times, one may feel David Hume’s disinterestedness in the well made; other times, one might be overcome by Edmund Burke’s awe of the sublime. Instead of pleasure, there are pleasures: delightful, thrilling, reflective, exhilarating, sensual, appreciative, cathartic, and so on. Nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that expertise confers a pleasure withheld by lack of familiarity. Those who skate well, ski well, shoot well, and yes, read well experience a kind of pleasure unavailable to the less proficient.
Remains only to prove that reading is a skill. I mean the reading of prose and poetry where skill is conterminous with the recognition of what not only is well executed (devoid of clichés, shopworn observations, useless modifiers, etc.) but also produces the dismay that depends on knowledge of previous works, the better to discern both originality and difference. This is, one hesitates to say, a more complicated or “higher” form of pleasure, which 50 years ago critics like Kermode took for granted.
In fact, his treatise, whose staid title, Pleasure and Change, belies the dynamism it espouses, is an argument for cogent reading. Drawing our attention to Wordsworth’s use of rhyme royal and his improvisations on Spenser and Thomas Chatterton, Kermode wants us to understand what makes “Resolution and Independence” transgressive. What matters here, however, is not only our ability to spot something old, but the work’s ability to achieve something new while seducing us through metrical proficiency and power of observation. After all, if the gift isn’t worth unwrapping, it really doesn’t matter what departures or references we recognize.
We all have a list of favorite poems and novels, including those that impressed us when we were adolescents and may still raise goosebumps 30 or 60 years later. Sometimes the pleasure fades, sometimes it intensifies: life has a way of changing how we feel about both people and books. So there may come a day when “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” won’t make me smile, when P. G. Wodehouse’s stories will leave me cold, when Dylan Thomas’s “craft or sullen art” won’t produce an admiring gasp. Until then, however, I’ll judge new poems and novels by the sound and sense of books that have become imprinted on my memory.
How one responds to literature depends on what one has responded to before encountering the idea of literature. That is, we read before we’ve been taught what is supposedly good to read. And naturally, we do not all have the same inclination to read, or equal leisure to read, or to be blunt, the same aptitude for reading. Not everyone is meant to enjoy books that require more discernment than White Fang.
Me, I’d like to enjoy White Fang again, but I think it’s a nonstarter. I place the blame partly on temperament and partly on my education. When I was one-and-twenty and studying literature in 1968, I wasn’t given much choice about what to read. It was Shakespeare and—not or—Milton. It was Donne and Dryden. It was as many of the Elizabethans and Augustans and Romantics and Victorians and Modernists as could fit on the syllabus. Writers we didn’t study in class we were encouraged to read in private. Moreover, fiction and poetry were supplemented by a healthy dose of criticism: Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Lionel Trilling’s anthology The Experience of Literature, Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature, as well as books by Ernst Robert Curtius, I. A. Richards, Mario Praz, F. R. Leavis, J. Hillis Miller, M. H. Abrams, Georg Lukács, et al.
I’m not claiming that everything in these texts is indisputable or that literature cannot be understood without them. I’m simply suggesting that these critics—and even those engaged in the New Criticism—saw poems and novels as historically situated, revealing the leanings and swervings and divagations among various writers. What they taught me, what they inoculated in my brain stem, was an appreciation of a literary tradition that evolved as the world evolved, whose fluctuations in style and theme always spoke in some way to earlier works.
In this pre-postmodern world, we focused on a writer’s performance: how he produced his effects, what she learned from her precursors, how he or she made us see the world and literature differently. The starting point was the work itself rather than any theoretical claims the work purportedly mirrored or substantiated. Such a curriculum was not necessarily more rigorous or demanding than what transpired in English departments afterward, but it did produce a bracing aesthetic insularity. Works of literature belonged to something called literature, and if writers didn’t pay their dues—responding to and deviating from precursors—membership was denied them.
In a canon, Kermode writes, “Each member of it fully exists only in the company of others; one member nourishes or qualifies another.” In other words, literature is first and foremost an ongoing conversation, an idea wittily reinforced by Borges’s edict that “every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. … The early Kafka of Betrachtung [his first collection of stories] is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.” In effect, Browning is more Kafkaesque than the early Kafka. How’s that for dismay?
Were we more innocent then? Sure. We did not read in terms of colonialism, sex, race, cultural anthropology, psychological heuristics, or the philosophical precepts that questioned the very act of interpretation. Each of which, I hasten to add, has augmented our understanding of literature. But it’s not an understanding that embraces the idea of dismay except in the condemnatory sense of books’ disappointing us because they hold views we no longer find conscionable or forgivable. Although it’s natural to think that broadening the canon (or dismissing it entirely) increases the store of available pleasure, one has to consider the quality of that pleasure.
Something, I fear, goes missing when the historical particularity of style is dropped from the curriculum. That aesthetic exchange whereby writers strive to outdo their precursors (vividly traced by Harold Bloom and W. Jackson Bate) has taken a back seat to more socially pressing concerns. Although serious writers continue to write good books, interesting books, unusual books, literature itself is now viewed primarily as a cultural artifact defined by limitations of sex, race, and class. It acts more as a critique of society than as a gloss on previous work. To take a well-worn example: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is invariably seen as a racial and colonialist work of fiction. No one is saying that the story is not well told. Nonetheless, it is bad in a way that is more important than the ways it is good.
More recently, the novelist Jesmyn Ward, writing in The New York Times Book Review, gracefully extolled the virtues of The Great Gatsby while focusing on Gatsby’s exclusionary status as though it were the novel’s most important feature: “the idea most invisible to [her] as a young reader [was] that the very social class that embodied the dream Gatsby wanted for himself was predicated on exclusion. That Gatsby was doomed from the start. He’d been born on the outside; he would die on the outside.” But what reader past the age of 14 doesn’t get this? It’s not that Ward is wrong; it’s just that harping on James Gatz’s displacement conveniently lines up with our culture’s need to condemn privilege.
I may be overreaching, but this emphasis on the socioeconomic aspect of the novel suggests that we’re in danger of losing a category of pleasure. If what is most important in a book is its attitude toward imperialism or class or injustice, then we automatically consign good writing to secondary status. Gatsby is great not because James Gatz is an interloper who exposes class prejudice, but because Fitzgerald learned from Conrad (as well as from Booth Tarkington, Sherwood Anderson, and Compton Mackenzie). Wanting to be a great writer, he had to be his own writer, and with Gatsby, he aspired to “write something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.” And part of the pleasure of reading Gatsby is discovering where and how he differed from the writers he admired.
That said, arguments against a purely aesthetic approach to art are legitimate. Not only because canon formation reflected the views of educated white males, but also because when you come down to it, who’s to say what makes a poem or novel truly great? After all, criticism is never absolute and therefore always imprecise. John Gross, author of the excellent The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, tells us that when Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas Carlyle were writing for magazines and literary reviews, their pages were “unashamed vehicles for party propaganda, often of the narrowest kind, and generally too overbearing and coarse-grained in their approach to encourage criticism of much depth.”
So how do we reconcile the idea of the Great Books with the cronyism, personal antipathy, stupidity, spite, and greed that all played a part in sustaining that idea? Simply put, you take note and then move on. Because whatever built-in bias prevailed in canon formation, whatever self-interest motivated writers and critics, what really mattered was the act of departure that distinguished one poet from another. Without writers wanting desperately to distinguish themselves, our literature would be, at best, an enjoyably inert affair, summoning neither joy nor dismay.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that a cursory or superficial literary education precludes enjoyment of books. It may even help, as Lord Redesdale intuited. I’m simply wondering whether the knowledge that gleans pleasure from the great books (and let’s just admit that some poetry and prose are great) doesn’t also diminish the amount of pleasure we can mine from ordinary and unoriginal work. “Bad writing,” to quote Tom Waits, “is destroying the quality of our suffering”—in which case, doesn’t it also reduce the quality of our enjoyment?
These aren’t statements I can back up with proof. Tastes differ, and taste dictates. Moreover, cultural and social mores change and older generations continue to find fault with the generations coming up. Loss is the main complaint: loss of innocence, loss of intimacy, loss of interest in what matters, loss of skill in pursuing what matters. Writers in particular like to envision a saner, more stimulating age in which to have lived, but it’s hard to know whether life or art afforded more pleasure in the past.
May I venture something true but not profound? There is nothing doctrinaire about pleasure; it will come when it will. But one thing is certain: you must first love what gives you the deepest pleasure. Therefore, we might tentatively liken reading pleasure to sexual intimacy, where intimacy is heightened by love based in part on familiarity with another person. Analogously, a love of literature (with its own sort of familiarity) adds to the intensity of the reading experience. Precious as it may sound, the more literary the reader (the more he or she knows about literature), the deeper his or her pleasure will be. No one wants to say it, but some pleasures aren’t procurable by everyone. Although I listen to Bach and am moved by the St. John Passion, I’m quite sure I don’t hear his music as well as a classically trained musician. Such a person, I believe, “hears” Bach better, enjoys him more, and appreciates him on a deeper level.
To return to Kermode, I wonder how many younger readers could take pleasure in his little book, whose polished arguments revolve around dozens of poets and writers whose works are referenced by its contributors. This breadth of learning does not so much prove an aesthetic canon as it suggests common reference points that literate people continue to discuss. Simply because there is no aesthetic compass showing true north does not mean that an artistic north does not exist. It just fluctuates when we try to pinpoint its exact location. But that’s no reason to give up the search, for it’s only when we stop believing that it lies over the next ridge that the literary map formed by Homer, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare begins to fade and come apart.
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