29 September, 2008

Rodriguez on Greatness

Despite bright spells, the klaxons of winter seem to have arrived early in London. We shiver in the flat, and on the steps of the Embankment, in the gungy puce of an evening, beneath the Needle and sphinges, leading down to the rocks and slippery rubble that pass for a beach under the wall—camera (broken, lens protruding), mobile (broken), fragment of a pipe with valve, bottles (some intact), and a barge of junks moored at the edge—

—at the Library I work and work—I have been tutoring a German lad in the fine arts of feminist literary theory. From the issue desk I collect the books I've been commissioned to read—Shakespeare and Gender, Women's Writing, Erotic Politics, Desire on the Renaissance Stage—and I suffer the shame of a man buying pornography at the kiosk, recalling the time when, as a teenager, I had to purchase an Elton John CD as a gift for my sister. What if someone I know should see me with these books? What should they think? But they aren't for me, I would say—I'm just helping a friend! Judge not, lest ye be judged. Of course, such a shame quails in the agony of reading the damned things.


Paul Rodriguez, Lullist and Ruricolist, has put into more substantial form the essays of his blog's first year. Rodriguez likes his Hazlitt and Quincey, he tells me, but Bacon most of all. With a wry irony, he calls Bacon his 'idol'. Myself, I do not care much for Bacon, at least not for his Essays—but still.

Paul's best reflections excite the possibility of conversation. 'Do masterworks tend to occur at the beginning of an art form only because they are easiest then?' he asks. Which immediately prompted me to wonder why masterworks did seem to occur at the beginning of literatures (Homer, Vergil, Dante, Chaucer, Rabelais) but not at the start of painterly canons—the traditional view of the Renaissance, for instance, or of modernism, is of gradual progress towards perfection. What it is about a literature that requires the seal of greatness above the door? Paul notices the disparity across artforms:
Do we always owe the name of greatness to whomever makes way for the rest? Patently, no—in the history of painting, for example, for any virtue we can name the greatest are not the earliest; not even in primitive vigor, where the twentieth century trumps prehistory.
Only Roger Fry could disagree. But this raises questions again. Why, despite our strong distrust of historical singularities, does the twentieth century appear so singular in its cultural (and technological) production? Why should it be that art changed more between 1865 and 1915 than between 1265 and 1865? Why does modernism feel so convincingly like an irrevocable expulsion from Eden?
More freedom does not make work easier. We follow simple orders with clear objectives: write a novel, write a drama, write an essay. The first followed another order: make a work of genius; and that is always a reconaissance in force.
No, it is not freedom but constraint that makes art easier: I cannot help but read the modernist thirst and struggle for artificial constraints—from minimalism and Duchamp to the OuLiPo—as born of a lazy desire for impact: wit and virtuosity at the expense of lasting beauty. Freedom is, in fact, the greatest challenge to the artist: 'The great are not great by being first or earliest in something; rather, by being great, they start something.' How tempting is this view! How the Romantic in us longs to be a Shakespeare, a Picasso!

Rodriguez is a Romantic, by which I mean—and one could almost take this for a definition, almost—that he polarises the great and the good, genius and skill. He is self-assured enough—easy for a pollos, more difficult for an intellectual—still to valorize Leonardo, Beethoven and Homer. (And, oddly, Archimedes.) Christ, he even admires the Mona Lisa as a 'painting which earned its place'! I am inclined to agree. The Gioconda is, paradoxically, an underrated work of art, among those who do not gawp and snap but rather rate and underrate.


Paul asks, 'is the phenomenon of greatness only a manifestation of the familiar public taste for the bizarre?' No. Greatness is not reducible to taste, ex hypothesi. The great is always confused with the apparently great, that is, with the lauded; but despite that we must not confuse greatness with apparent greatness. Perhaps it would be better to say that the familiar public taste for the bizarre is a necessary corollary of greatness, an inevitable flinch, serving to make the great less painful to the ungreat, because more remote.

Paul is a Romantic because he polarises the great and the good, the 'honesty of genius' from the 'honesty of the camera or the map'. 'Maps lie,' he says, 'for mappability is what all places have in common: maps deny that places are different'. (Cartographic princess Mary Spence, for what it's worth, feels the same way about internet-mapping, which, she reckons, blands out the landscape it purports to survey.)
I will call a depiction of a place honest if it gives me what I could never learn from maps or satellite photos, but know with a minute of its sunlight; the form of a person, what I could never learn from imaging or lab reports or databases, but know with a minute of their conversation. That kind of honesty is the kind found in greatness, even at the cost of the other.
Here again is a fundamental Romanticism: this honesty of genius is in fact what might better be called insight—that which penetrates the surface. To believe in greatness is to believe that greatness cannot be discerned from surfaces. Hence there is an irreducible difficulty in discerning greatness, and consequently, Paul believes that we should humour greatness: 'we often must accommodate the opinions of those whose judgments we otherwise trust without any evidence of our own'. Here I disagree: greatness should never be humoured, always denied for as long as denial is possible, and only then accepted.
Let us have a thought experiment. Consider those ancients whose works survive to us only in fragments—say, Heraclitus or Sappho. Here is greatness we sense and know, yet cannot prove—a promissory note of greatness that we accept only on the word of writers of good credit.
Let us have as well an anecdote. Recently I read a poem that contained the clause, 'As Heraclitus put it in his Collected Fragments'. The words really stung me, not only because they are thoroughly lacking in poetic merit—for nothing else in this or the other sexdecilliard poems of its stock possesses any poetic merit—and not simply because, as I first articulated, Heraclitus did not put anything in a work entitled Collected Fragments, but because— because the poet had dared to sand and polish, to familiarise. Heraclitus was being implicitly cast as some sort of Poundian modernist, the sort who might produce a book with a title as precious as Collected Fragments. Heraclitus was being made less remote, and less great, because less distinctively Heraclitean. He was simply being assimilated into the general tedium. But it is the very fact of his obscurity and fragmentation, the fact of his historical slipperiness—in Gibbon's words, not of Heraclitus, 'a remote object through the medium of a glimmering and doubtful light'—that, for us, must make Heraclitus Heraclitus. Again, our faith that Heraclitus is fragmentary only by chance, by the whim of history—and the consequent necessity of accepting his words half on trust, with a 'promissory note of greatness'—are intrinsic to the peculiar nature of that greatness.


The klaxons of winter have arrived early. We shiver on the steps of the Embankment, in the gungy puce of an evening, beneath the Needle and sphinges, leading down to the rocks and slippery rubble that pass for a beach under the wall—camera, mobile, Erotic Politics, Desire on the Renaissance Stage. Those inglorious words are oozing into the water, and east, out towards the Estuary, to be drunk up as ersatz opinions. From the promontory we look east upon St. Paul's, remote and promissory, as if all else had fallen, like Macaulay's melancholy New Zealander, surveying the ruins of London.

[Update: Paul responds. I realise I have forgotten to say how much I enjoyed his invention of the word 'rebarbicans'.]


pedro e. said...

Well, I won't indulge in cliches like quoting the Ecclesiastes, but a simple answer is that neither Homer, nor Vergil, Dante, Chaucer and Rabelais are at the beginning of anything at all. Homer most of all -- it has been argued that his difference to the rest of the Epic Cycle is evident (I for one wouldn't risk such a supposition), but that doesn't take away centuries of direct poetic practice, possibly quite directly linked to the ''Mycenaean' age, nor the (to me) even less tentative idea of oral epic poetry all the way back to PIE. And for the others mentioned, etc.

Greg Afinogenov said...

Hah! Sounds like the Dunciad was washed up on shore along with all the telephones and pipes.

"The best choose one thing in place of all else, 'everlasting' glory among mortals; but the majority are glutted like cattle."

Greg Afinogenov said...

Actually, I'm not sure why it's useful or interesting to talk about "greatness" at all. As an interpretive category, it dulls criticism and promotes rigid orthodoxy; as a judgment of taste, it is as subjective as anything else (remember Hume and his Addison before you object to this). Is a great work more deserving, somehow, of being relished or critically examined? I'd say that's putting the cart before the horse.

I don't mean that greatness is subjective in the sense that it's perfectly arbitrary. I mean that greatness is a description of the impact a book has had on your life. Or rather, of that particularly satisfying click a book makes when it fits right into the problematic you're trapped in when you read it. For instance, I consider John Le Carré's The Naive and Sentimental Lover a great book, even though hardly anyone would agree with me--it's just that it happened to come around right when I was struggling with the problem of aestheticism/bohemianism. It is useful to talk about books in this sense, because that allows you to extract from them a living tradition rather than a dead canon.

There's a particular sort of trope in discussions of the canon which has always troubled me. It goes like this: I hated my teachers and all those bad people who made me read the Great Books in school, so I was appropriately skeptical of the arbitrarily constructed canon; I resolved to judge literature with free and independent insight, unbound by aprioris of greatness; and I arrived at last at a list of Great Books identical to the first except--independent! There's a certain violence in this argument, a sort of vacuous uselessness and surrender, that I think probably ought to be avoided.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Pedro, I think this response is sort of a clever naivety. "Homer", for instance, did not invent poetry (nobody could argue that), nor did "he" invent Greek or Indo-European epic. Nevertheless, the Homeric poems are the beginning of Greek literature, just as Dante is the beginning of Italian literature, despite Cavalcanti. The writers on the list create literatures, but not ex nihilo: there is always prior hyle to reshape.

Greg: I do agree that whoever wants to talk about greatness must be intensely sceptical or ambivalent towards the notion itself. But the problem has long existed at the nexus between modernist faith and postmodern faithlessness. (It goes back at least as far as Jacobi's "leap of faith", and attendant critiques.)

The value of discussing greatness stems from the fact that it is the Romantic a priori. On a historical level, much of culture and the way people think about culture (both casually and philosophically) is simply unintelligible without it; unless you want to articulate a radical nihilism, you have to accept some significance in the fact that people keep coming back to the Picassos and Shakespeares. Further, as we are now all instinctive Romantics (even those who have been de-programmed), the category of greatness is almost impossible to do away with.

I strongly disagree that the notion of 'greatness' necessarily 'promotes rigid orthodoxy', to a greater extent than any a priori notion. I also strongly deny that a great work is more deserving of analysis; if anything it is less deserving, or rather, less dependent on analysis.

Your last point is interesting. I certainly don't advocate any sort of surrender to canon here.

Greg Afinogenov said...

But surely the question of greatness as it has been imputed to this or that work is a wholly separate one from that of whether a work is actually great? (You seem to acknowledge this when you distinguish between "great" and "lauded"). It seems to me that it's possible to have all kinds of conversations about greatness as long as you privately define "greatness" as "what everyone else thinks is so great." Even if you do not do so, the two concepts will never coincide anyway--somehow their concept of greatness includes Virginia Woolf, but yours does not.

The point about Romanticism is an interesting one--I've been reading Gadamer, and it intersects with some excellent points he makes about Romantic aestheticism. Essentially, the concept of a work created by genius (i.e. unmediated, pure, etc.) is unable to accommodate history (tradition) either in the production or the consumption of the work. To develop that further--because our understanding of greatness (both generally and specifically, i.e. "the greatness of Childe Harold") is a product of the tradition which forms our interpretive horizon, we're not actually able to experience the greatness of a work of art in the way the Romantics would have wanted us to. For them, greatness designated some kind of direct and immediate effect on the viewer (say), and a corresponding tie to the genius of the painter. But for us, even the non-Gadamerians among us, greatness is experienced in terms of art history, in movements and contexts, not simply as the unfettered flight of the creative genius. So I think that the reference to the Romantics contains a kind of equivocation that doesn't square with the rest of your account. Or does it?

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, it strikes me that, in discussing greatness, you lean toward it as a category inhabited by men and women, rather than their works.

I think there is something there. Goethe, to me, to anyone (I step out onto the ledge), is undisputably great. But Reineke Fuchs? The Xenien? Tasso? At the same time, can I say that greatness lies within them?

I think this also lines up with your thoughts on Romanticism and the heroic.

Looking at it this way may also get us out of the tangle of the canon, without diminishing Greg's comments.

And of course, this is not to say that works can only be good and not great, but that this use seems to cause more controversy than anything.

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

I thought this deserved more than a comment.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Andrew, perhaps you are right, that I am leaning towards a greatness of persons, not works. (Which of course would make me most Romantic of all.) It is something I've wondered about before, and want to resist, but perhaps only because contemporary orthodoxy denies the author everything (in literary / intellectual circles, if not in political). Perhaps I would like to return to a heroic conception of the author. I'm not sure.

Greg: Yes, I do insist on keeping apart the great and the lauded: but the notion of 'lauded', still, is unintelligible without that of 'great'. (This does not seem sophistical to me at the moment, but perhaps it is.) I also think that the notion of greatness is probably flexible enough to allow particular differences within a broader agreement.

I'm generally sympathetic to Gadamer's project, although I am not familiar with the nuances of his thought. So I am not fully sure how you defend this point:

"But for us, even the non-Gadamerians among us, greatness is experienced in terms of art history, in movements and contexts, not simply as the unfettered flight of the creative genius."

Greg Afinogenov said...

Well, for Gadamer, very broadly speaking, our interpretations are directly shaped by the tradition to which we are heirs. This of course means that our interpretation of any work is founded in some sense on the history of the interpretation of that work. (Just as a production of a play does not take place in a vacuum, as a direct reflection of that play's text, but rather as a "coming to terms" with the prior history of that play's performance).

We therefore cannot set apart, say, the Iliad, or Hamlet, as a pure and ahistorical object. Our understanding of the Iliad takes place only within our awareness of the Iliad's place within the history of poetry (the history of culture, the history of Europe, etc.). So any greatness we find in these texts is inseparable from their place in history.

As a Romantic concept, on the other hand (according to Gadamer's view), greatness is ahistorical. So whatever it could have meant to them means something totally different to us. This is not to imply that the Romantics had discovered a magical method for interpreting texts without being bound by tradition--it's simply that their conceptualization did not include this circumstance.

Of course, the Romantic view is still prevalent, and it's true that lots of things would be unintelligible without it. But my tentative claim is that the greatness you're looking for only happens to share the name with the Romantic concept and is in fact something entirely different--and if it was truly the Romantic concept you were looking for, you'd never find it. Maybe the fact that you place great works at the beginning of movements is a way of reconciling the two definitions, but I don't think national literatures are really a way out of the problem posed by the fact that history is really continuous through and through.

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, I suppose the fact that I'm doing graduate work in German literature now somewhat innoculates me from the death of the author - how do you say that about Kafka or Benjamin?

Maybe the germanists are just behind the anglos on this front. But it seems pretty gemuetlich to me right now.

Greg, I am intrigued by this ahistorical notion of greatness. My feeing is that the greatness we're all kind of talking about is a product of Romanticism, and that Homer and Dante weren't great in the way we think of them until the late 18th Century, despite the use of the term "greatness".

And although I grant that those interpretive structures have a bearing, Gadamer's position sounds curiously like sense data to me. Can't we have a little unmediated experience?

I tend to see concepts as something that are formed in, and persist through, time. They are real, but we made them, but I'm not sure if our experience of them is mediated in the way you describe. But it's something I will need to think about!

Arthur Crown said...

Conrad, a small point: Giotto and Brunelleschi created masterworks, and you can't blame the masterworks if they're used to represent the early Renaissance. I can't see how these people are different from their literary contemporaries.