Saturday, May 22, 2010

Savage Aesthetics: Coherence and Ethics Then and Now

I can’t decide whether it’s David Shields’ courage I admire, or that of his publisher. You know Shields, I think, at least by reputation: after writing four novels, he’s having his moment of basking in the full glow of the media, promoting his manifesto-as-collage-of-quotations, Reality Hunger. It’s a collection of quotations from all manner of sources, plus passages he’s written, with no attribution given to any of the passages except in a tiny-print section at the back, a concession to his publisher and their lawyers. Shields’ attitude to the inclusion of this section is pretty clear: he’s added dotted lines along the left-hand margin, with a little picture of scissors: he’d prefer you cut the pages out, and have the experience of reading the book without any sense of who wrote what.

For those of us who live on the tiny moon of experimental poetry, none of this is really shocking: collage and the death of the author have been the air we breathe for some time. But on the larger planet of fiction published by New York conglomerates, where the atmosphere contains some trace elements of money and fame, Shields’ book has caused some trepidation (and on the great glowing sun of pop culture, he’d find himself in real danger of lawsuits).

Anyway: I’m glad Shields’ book is out there: someone needed to make a big, visible move in the direction of intellectual freedom at a time when property rights threaten to dominate in all creative fields. While some very sharp lawyers are at work on this, too, Shields has achieved the kind of notoriety around which people might rally. He’s caught some flak for taking his stand, of course. As he puts it, “numerous bloggers appear to think I’m the anti-Christ because I don’t genuflect at the twin altars of the novel and intellectual property,” but none of this seems to bother him. I like that.

For all of Shields’ admirable audacity, though, some of the things he says still drive me up the wall. It’s not the fact that he refuses to genuflect before the altar of intellectual property that bothers me: it’s his worship of another false idol, one which I suppose we could call presentism, or perhaps (following the poet and philosopher Owen Barfield), chronological snobbery. In History in English Words, Barfield defines chronological snobbery as the belief that, intellectually, “humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century.” While Barfield was thinking about early twentieth century scientism, the kind of chronological snobbery he describes seems to be an occupational hazard for a certain generation of guys who teach postmodernism — just as the equally boneheaded idea of American exceptionalism afflicts a certain generation of literary Americanists, and just as the utterly odious, ahistorical, notion of favoring "native species" rots the souls of the less-enlightened breed of eco-critics. (Am I going overboard? I am, I am. Forgive me, and think of all the lunches with colleagues during which, outnumbered and tongue-tied, I’ve sputtered in graceless frustration over my enchiladas).

Anyway. Consider what Shields says in the recent essay "Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps":

We live in a post-narrative, post-novel world. Plots are for dead people. Novelly novels exist, of course, and whenever I’m on a plane, it’s all I see everyone reading, but they function for us as nostalgia: when we read traditional novels, we get to pretend that life is still coherent.

Oooh. Argh. I mean, here’s a guy who thinks that life (and the art that represented it) were simple, coherent things, until our own time, when a great postmodern enlightenment broke like long-awaited sunlight over the stricken land. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and to be literary was sheer heaven. Now, in our enlightened age, even the casual airborne novel reader thumbing this week’s James Patterson title knows in his deconstructed soul that coherence of life and form are quaint things to be appreciated with nostalgia for the time when they were all that the simple groundlings knew, and all they needed. “Art, like science, progresses,” says Shields, leaving no doubt that he feels we’ve moved on from a naïve sense of coherent life and art and into something better, and more knowing. Listen carefully, and from far beneath Shields’ airplane a spinning noise can be heard from Owen Barfield’s grave.

It’s not that Shields is ignorant of literary history. When he writes about the freedom of authors to quote with or without attribution, and to creatively incorporate the work of other writers into their own creations, he appeals to a long tradition. As he says near the end of Reality Hunger, he’s “writing to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted.” But this sense of history is excruciatingly limited: Shields certainly seems to take for granted the notion that the past was a time when aesthetics were guided by a sense of coherence.

Of course there have been moments when the idea of coherence has been a predominant aesthetic principle. In antiquity, Horace’s idea of decorum was all about the fitting of parts to a whole; in the neoclassical theory of, say, Alexander Pope, coherence was one of the guiding principles of art, and his “regularized” edition of Shakespeare attempts to save the bard from roughness and irregularity. Coleridge’s notion of organic form is a very sophisticated attempt to reconcile the variety of art to a notion of coherence, and Coleridgean ideas entered the American academy under the New Critics. But this is only one side of the story. There’s a long tradition of art full of incoherencies and dissonances, and an accompanying set of aesthetic theories justifying and explaining such art.

Consider the greatest and most popular of nineteenth century English aesthetic theorists, John Ruskin. He despised what he saw as the oppressive regularity, coherence, and formal perfection of classicism and, in his famous ragbag of an opus The Stones of Venice held up against it his own version of gothic aesthetics. In one of the most famous passages of that work, he defines the qualities of mind and form that constitute the gothic in contrast to the classical Greek:

Formal Qualities of the Gothic
1. Savageness
2. Changefulness
3. Naturalism
4. Grotesqueness
5. Rigidity
6. Redundance

Gothic Qualities of Mind
1. Savageness or Rudeness
2. Love of Change
3. Love of Nature
4. Disturbed Imagination
5. Obstinacy
6. Generosity

There’s a lot to work with here, but since what we’re concerned with at the moment is the idea that incoherence as an aesthetic principle is not just a quality of our own times, let’s look at what Ruskin says about savageness as an aesthetic principle, and its relation to ornament. After going on for a while about the northern origins of the gothic, Ruskin moves on to an appreciation of the gothic relation of whole to part in a work of art (here he’s talking architectural as art):

If, however, the savageness of Gothic architecture, merely as an expression of its origin among Northern nations, may be considered, in some sort, a noble character, it possesses a higher nobility still, when considered as an index, not of climate, but of religious principle.

In the 13th and 14th paragraphs of Chapter XXL of the first volume of this work, it was noticed that the systems of architectural ornament, properly so called, might be divided into three:—1. Servile ornament, in which the execution or power of the inferior workman is entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher;—2. Constitutional ornament, in which the executive inferior power is, to a certain point, emancipated and independent, having a will of its own, yet confessing its inferiority and rendering obedience to higher powers;—and 3. Revolutionary ornament, in which no executive inferiority is admitted at all. I must here explain the nature of these divisions at somewhat greater length.

Of Servile ornament, the principal schools are the Greek, Ninevite, and Egyptian; but their servility is of different kinds. The Greek master-workman was far advanced in knowledge and power above the Assyrian or Egyptian. Neither he nor those for whom he worked could endure the appearance of imperfection in anything; and, therefore, what ornament he appointed to be done by those beneath him was composed of mere geometrical forms,—balls, ridges, and perfectly symmetrical foliage,—which could be executed with absolute precision by line and rule, and were as perfect in their way, when completed, as his own figure sculpture. The Assyrian and Egyptian, on the contrary, less cognizant of accurate form in anything, were content to allow their figure sculpture to be executed by inferior workmen, but lowered the method of its treatment to a standard which every workman could reach, and then trained him by discipline so rigid, that there was no chance of his falling beneath the standard appointed. The Greek gave to the lower workman no subject which he could not perfectly execute. The Assyrian gave him subjects which he could only execute imperfectly, but fixed a legal standard for his imperfection. The workman was, in both systems, a slave.

But in the mediæval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. That admission of lost power and fallen nature, which the Greek or Ninevite felt to be intensely painful, and, as far as might be, altogether refused, the Christian makes daily and hourly contemplating the fact of it without fear, as tending, in the end, to God's greater glory. Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.

Servile ornament is the realm of coherence, but the gothic is the realm of revolutionary ornament, the triumph of part over whole, an aesthetic that allows for imperfection in its celebration of freedom. Was this really what mediæval gothic was like? I’m no expert, and my go-to mediævalist has skipped town for Cambridge, but anyone who’s spent much time wandering around a period cathedral will know there’s at least a strong measure of truth to Ruskin’s view of the middle ages. And his views were deeply influential in his own century — on Preraphaelistism in visual art and literature, for example, and on the Arts & Crafts movement in ceramics, woodworking, furniture design, and architecture.

I don’t mean to limit this aesthetic of incoherence to Ruskin and the gothic, either. As Daisy Fried (who hipped me to Sheilds’ essay on Facebook) pointed out, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for example, also courts incoherence. As does the Romantic genre of the deliberate fragment, And the tradition continued in all sorts of ways throughout the twentieth century, from Dada to, say, the atonal serial music of a guy like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Anyway: the point is that this notion that the past was a time when aesthetic coherence was always lauded is false.

So Shields is a presentist, a chronological snob, at least in the essay in question. But what’s bothersome is not just his sense that he’s on to something new when, in fact, he’s not. It’s that the version of the view he offers is, in fact, a kind of reduction of stronger versions of the view offered in the past. Consider Shields’ reasons for championing an aesthetic of incoherence and multiplicity. He turned to such an aesthetic, he says, because he found the alternatives “predictable, tired, contrived.” That is, he wanted novelty. Okay. But that’s a pretty shallow rationale, especially when compared with some of the deeper thinking on the issue from thinkers predating Shields. For Ruskin, there’s an ethical quality to an aesthetic of savage incoherence. In his view, it is the way to honor individuality, and not just that — it is the way to accept the individual in all of his imperfection. And this ethical dimension continues in whole swathes of thinking about those kinds of art that eschew coherence. Let’s come back to Stockhausen for a moment. Stockhausen said that his refusal to give his compositions clarity, wholeness, and accessible coherence by subordinating the parts to a dominant tonality was in essence a reflection of his ethical stance. To take the elements of music and “use them all with equal importance,” rather than subordinating some to others, was nothing less than “a spiritual and democratic attitude toward the world.” Stockhausen would no more subordinate musical parts to the whole than he would sacrifice individual lives to an abstract cause, or expropriate one person's labor for the benefit of another. For Stockhausen, the emancipation of musical dissonance is, at a formal level, a kind of parallel to the emancipation of the oppressed in the world. It doesn't actually free anyone, of course, but it exemplifies a way of thinking that could have ethical implications for those who appreciate it.

So: it’s not just that Shields sees novelty where, in fact, there’s a long historical tradition. It’s that his version of an aesthetic of incoherence in “Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps” is attenuated in the ethical dimension that was so thoroughly elaborated by earlier thinkers. Shields’ version of the aesthetic of incoherence isn’t a triumphant break with an impoverished past: it’s a pale echo of an old idea. It's weak tea that thinks it is nitroglycerine.


  1. great stuff Bob--Barfield has it right on so many levels in terms of our anti-history culture, including the experimental poetry scene...

  2. Thanks, Tyrone -- Barfield's a smart guy. I discovered him last year, when I read his book on Coleridge.


  3. Coming to this late -- but that Shields quote is too irritating to let lie. To read a "novelly novel" today is to "pretend that life is still coherent"? Well, what did it mean for, say, Dickens's contemporary audience? -- were they revelling in the fact that life was coherent? Ockham pipes up in the back, suggesting that the fantasy of the coherence of life might have had just the same appeal 150 years ago as today.