AFTER THE FOX: FICTION IN THE MODERN AGE
By C. A. McGhee
I recall a college professor of mine who, having the question put to him one day, contemplated the greatest novel ever written. He promptly nominated two candidates and held a debate, entirely with himself, over Tolstoy's War and Peaceand Joyce's Ulysses. For some minutes no clear victor emerged, the question being very close, until Tolstoy finally prevailed by a nose, because, if memory serves, this particular professor was partial to a "good read" at bedtime.
Having since taken the time to read those novels, I have come to regard the closeness of this contest as extraordinary. These books are so diametrically opposed not only in style but, more importantly, in outlook that regarding them as closely matched candidates for greatness is impossible. One might as well say, of slightly different matters, that liberty is the grandest of states, but slavery runs a very close second. The camps of Tolstoy and Joyce are two and separate: One cannot join Joyce's, yet keep a foot in Tolstoy's; only a believer in art for its own sake could regard these two men as equally great in kind. They are altogether different: One is, in a sense, rather like a hedgehog, the other like a fox.
Isaiah Berlin first offered the zoological analogy in his essay on Tolstoy's philosophy of history, The Hedgehog and the Fox.A poetic fragment by Archilochus inspired him: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin notes that these few words may, in a figurative way, "mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general." A chasm lies between those who believe in one coherent, organizing truth and those who pursue life in its particulars, pragmatically, without the benefit of any unifying principle. Berlin offers the hypothesis that Tolstoy was by nature a fox who believed in being a hedgehog. This is a wonderful insight, but one too narrowly confined to Leo Tolstoy. Rather, we are all, by nature, foxes confined to this world and limited to our particles of imperfect knowledge. Yet some, like Tolstoy, believe in being hedgehogs while others, like Joyce, believe only in themselves; indeed, men like Joyce insist emphatically on being anything but hedgehogs.
At the turn of this century the great Russian, near the end of life, and the Irishman, young and obscure, drew battle lines for the soul of art to come. Tolstoy sought faithfully, albeit erratically, after one great truth; Joyce, master of manifold techniques, explicitly eschewed that search and denied any ethical or religious element in his work.
The hedgehog looked west from Yasnaya Polyana and saw in the art of the past century a burgeoning degradation. Urgently, he sat and wrote of things once taken for granted, the destruction of which he now feared: that art should have an ethic, that it should teach, uplift, be clear, moving, and entertaining. The clarity of his vision is startling. In the artistic air of his day, in the free-floating strains of Richard Strauss, Debussy and their like, in the nascent fuzziness of the Impressionists and the egotism of contemporary poets, he sniffed out the coming musical absurdities of John Cage, the pointless dribblings of Jackson Pollock and, worse, the erosion of "serious" literature into petty self-consciousness and technical gymnastics. He wrote What Is Art? and it was promptly denounced and thereafter thoroughly ignored. (Criticism of Tolstoy and his What is Art? is not without merit of course, because, as usual, Tolstoy came out hard: emphatic, fanatic, and too often didactic. As in other areas of his thought, his fervor led him astray, especially in his assessment of particular artists: he panned, for instance, all the works of the deaf Beethoven.)
Then came the fox: Unknown to Tolstoy, a young Irishman sat in strange self-exile in Pola, Italy, writing, writing, writing interminable notes to himself about how to write without the very things Tolstoy was trying desperately to preserve, penning the very heresies Tolstoy despised. Joyce was the artist alone, the exile, who fled the vulgar crowd of Dublin even while Tolstoy went to the fields to sweat with his peasants. That Tolstoy, in What is Art? and Joyce, in his Critical Writings should expound contrary philosophies is, then, hardly surprising. But their contrariness is more poignant-and more important-than an abstract clash of separately recorded notions, for Joyce's banishment of ethics from art was only a part of a larger banishment of ethics from life. Alasdair Macintyre has said that we now live "after virtue": In literature we live not only after the death of moral fiction but also after the coronation of its executioner-we live after the fox.
Modern literary criticism regards only technique and, measured by this narrow standard, Tolstoy and Joyce did, indeed, each possess great technical skill. But if reduced to technique, the question of greatness is barren. A similar inquiry in politics would rank Stalin and Hitler with Lincoln and Churchill. Yet the political question posed solely as a matter of power tells us nothing about what a statesman ought to do with his power. Neither does reference to technique tell us what a novelist ought to write. The question is never one of greatness alone, but of great goodness. Leaving art to the assessment of specialists who report only on technique, we end by celebrating nothing more than brilliance of form.
Of course, the foxes pre-empt this inquiry by assuming that there is nothing that a novelist ought to write. For the fox there are only descriptive statements and never prescriptive statements. From the modern critic's point of view, therefore, ethical efforts are naive, almost childish attempts to deny the unpleasant prospect of reality. This literary myopia is a result of the victory of Joyce's philosophy over Tolstoy's. The critical inquiry is not neutral. Joyce's aesthetic has won: what is said means nothing; how it is said means everything.
In art, such shallow thinking seems harmless enough, but written large across all of life, it often reaps disastrous fruit because it presupposes the existence of an elite class that understands, as all others do not, the enslavement of men to forces beyond their control. The elite have discovered that only form matters: Common folk labor under the illusion of substance. Influenced by the dominant intellectual trends, we tend, therefore, to mistake sophistication for profundity, intellect for virtue, and brilliance for true greatness. Further, by looking to form, we develop not only a disregard for the common things, but also for human nature in general and for the idea of free will in particular. This is a simple-indeed, an obvious-truth, for if life has substance, if, in other words, it is by nature moral, then men must be free in some significant sense, but if life is form alone, if it is an incidental consequence of colliding matter, then free will is irrelevant or, at best, trivial. For his part, as W. H. Auden wrote, Joyce "declared that we are lying in the swamp of the Accidental all together."
The hedgehog and the fox, then, compose their art according to two competing conceptions; that is, does art assume as its foremost axiom the equality of men before God, or the diversity of men on earth? Art produced upon the former assumption tends toward the convergence of diverse ways; art produced upon the latter tends toward atomization. But whereas the hedgehog's unifying vision accommodates and embraces the individuality of free men on earth, the purely empirical vision of the fox can never rise above its constituent parts. The abstract "systems" of foxes, whether imposed in the political, economic, personal, or literary realms, are, therefore, wholly arbitrary and artificial efforts to make somesense of chaotic diversity. Every attempt to rule from the philosophical base of the fox is an invitation to tyranny, as the grand tyrannies of Marxism and the petty tyrannies of Freudianism demonstrate. Though more subtle and less dangerous, Joyce's literary regime is no less tyrannical than the regimes of Marx and Freud. So long as we accept Joyce's aesthetic axioms as our own, we will never recognize him for what he is: a grand and brilliant failure.
Instead, Joyce remains triumphant: His aesthetic philosophy, sundered from ethics and God, is now enthroned as the touchstone of the literary age.
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it . . . [O]ne man laughs, and another who hears it becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. (Tolstoy, What Is Art?)
So ran Tolstoy's basic definition of art; but he also took care to warn against seeing "the aim and purpose of art in the pleasure we get from it." This is like arguing that the purpose of food "is the pleasure derived when consuming it." Art is not a construct for pleasure, for the indiscriminate enjoyment of beauty; it is a part of man's nature, a peculiar form of communication with special purpose perhaps as essential to man's moral being as food is to his physical being. Touching their religious and moral nature, true art moves men; it is infectious. Tolstoy therefore recognizes, as Plato did, that bad art may do great harm. Although Tolstoy argues that Plato was wrong to ban poets from his republic because art is indispensable to man, he nonetheless goes on to assert that those who "favor any art that serves beauty" are also wrong. The problem arose, as Tolstoy saw it, in the Renaissance, which presented the "assertion that religion is unnecessary." With the gradual loss of his religious perception, man lost also his moral perception and both faded from the arts. Auden saw the same diminishing faith pointing in the direction of Joycean philosophy. Modern man dispensed with the notion of sin and, consequently, with the notion of free will, the necessary prerequisite to all moral thought and action. This opened up the modern artist to virtually any possibility. Since the traditional and divine points of reference were obliterated, all directions were equally likely, equally noble-or base. By denying moral choice to men generally, artists gained complete artistic license.
In this state, the modern artist has no need to be intelligible to the vulgar crowd. Art becomes "more involved, affected and obscure," unlike that of the Greeks and the Biblical prophets. The modern artist is thus a self-styled demi-god, who says to himself, "I create and understand myself, and if anyone does not understand me, so much the worse for him." It is the wild, uncertainty and the natural tendency of such art toward "perversion" that Tolstoy so despised: "[I]f art may be art, but unintelligible to one of sound mind, there is no reason why an 'artist' should not compose works honoring even perverse principles and feelings and call it art."
Does not Tolstoy's unwelcome vision hang today on the walls of our museums?
That Joyce did triumph is certain. George Anastaplo, in The Artist As Thinker, calls Ulysses a "literary monument of our age" that has replaced Paradise Lost as "the book which all subsequent books in English take for granted." But Anastaplo also sees Joyce as representative of the "more or less steady retreat from the grand public world of Shakespeare into the intense, intimate, the all too often disturbed private world of the modern artist-that private world in which neither old-fashioned nobility nor genuine philosophy nor the deepest piety can be taken seriously."
Joyce's assault on nobility, philosophy, and piety began with his modification of Aquinas's more or less passing remarks on aesthetics in the Summa Theologica. Three things are required for beauty, the Angelic Doctor said, integretas, consonatia, claritas-wholeness, harmony, radiance. Beautiful things, he also said, are those which please when seen:pulchra enim dicunter quae visa placent. In the Portrait, Joyce chooses to translate the phrase as, "that is beautiful the apprehension of which pleases," precisely because visa ("see") translated in the larger sense of apprehension "is clear enough to keep away good and evil which excite desire and loathing."
For Aquinas, of course, beauty radiates from a divine source. But Joyce discounts God-and good and evil-from the notion of beauty. Thus stripped, beauty as mere pleasant perception becomes the sole object of art. Joyce reduces truth to raw candor, crystallized as descriptive accuracy. For Joyce there is nothing of radiance in claritas: He translates it as clarity, which connotes not a radiant, revealing light, but a quality of perceptive precision. Indeed, in the Portrait he substitutesquidditas, whatness, for claritas.
Claritas and beauty-thus conceived-do not move, illuminate, or reveal some other thing; they are simply the most precise possible presentation of a thing in itself, without reference beyond itself. A work of art need do homage to nothing. Reflecting on Joyce's aesthetic, Maurice Beebe wrote that "Joyce exalts the artwork as a world in itself . . . rather than as a fragment or a symbol of a broader, more extensive Unity."
Despite his great technical skill, Joyce's work is stuck on the level of pleasant perception. The result is a peculiar beauty, visible and pleasing only to the erudite, to the scholars and critics who are charmed and amazed by his astonishingly sophisticated technique.
From Joyce's aesthetic, a strange image emerges of the artist as both scientist and god, at once. On one hand, Joyce describes the ultimate data of subjective experience, often in minute detail, but always without judgment, with, instead, the wholly detached eye of a cold empiricist marshalling his facts. Not for nothing did Joyce object that a work of art must not be "solved according to an ethical idea," but "according to indifferent sympathy with certain pathological states. . . ."
On the other hand, Joyce does not, like the scientist, merely discover and record. Instead, he also acts as the master of all that he discovers; he is both Grand Inquisitor and Grand Technician, imposing complex systems of allusion, symbol and style on the indifferently perceived "drama" of life. Upon Ulysses he imposed a variety of forms, here a fugue, there a play or the brash style of journalism. And, of course, he imposes the skeleton of Homer's tale atop his own.
Thus, we may understand Joyce's formulation of his chosen art, drama, as "strife, evolution, movement in whatever way unfolded; it exists, before it takes form, independently; it is conditioned, but not controlled by its scene." Joyce the scientist discovers the uncontrolled actuality of drama; Joyce the god conditions it arbitrarily. In the concept of gnosis, Joyce's functions as scientist and god are met. Possessor of a secret knowledge-the heretofore unknown laws of drama-he manipulates those laws to his own end. Like Marx and Freud, so is Joyce: like them he exercised his will and applied his intellect to observed phenomena in order to declare, ironically, a proof that man has no free will, and no moral capacity worth considering.
In every modern gnostic system the common folk, as opposed to the gnostics themselves, are directed by forces of which they are unconscious. Where the stuff of Marx's gnosis was economic, and Freud's sexual, the stuff of Joyce's secret truth was "drama," in which the moving force may be many things, including delusions, but never ethics, the free choice of good. All earlier-that is, pre-Joycean-forms of art, including Greek and Shakespearean drama, he relegates "to the department of literary curios." Any attempt at ethical drama he variously derides as "funny," "amazing," "piteous," and "absurd."
Joyce displayed a complete contempt for received ideas, all of which he lumped together as "convention." Accordingly, he condemned traditional literature for flourishing in convention and announced that "drama will be for the future at war with convention." Joyce's aesthetic logic leads to an ineluctable conclusion: Drama is at war with "convention"-with moral fiction-because drama is truth and ethics a lie. And ethics are false not only in art but in life because, for Joyce, the new drama is the presentation of life unfiltered; it "arises spontaneously from life and is coeval with it."
Joyce objects to ethics because, while they assume a certain and significant freedom among men equally before their Creator, they also imply necessary restrictions on the good, true, and beautiful paths men may choose. Ethics, therefore, limit the political or poetic tyrant who craves not only a power to rule, but philosophical justification. Any such limitation is, of course, anathema to the fox. Consequently, Joyce attacks not only moral and religious principles, but also any principle that might render life, that is, drama, understandable to laymen. He wrote that "when the mythus [religion] invades the temple (art), the possibilities of drama lessen considerably." In other words, when a truth that discriminates and distinguishes good from bad enters, infinite possibility is reduced.
The fox insists, therefore, on chaotic uncertainty and undeciferable, arbitrary systems, while refusing categorically to recognize any reality higher than his own creation. Only in an arena thus defined can the artist prevail as both scientist and god. Like a false anarchist with concealed ambitions to a throne-like Lenin-he agitates for the collapse of all natural, divine, and conventional institutions, knowing that atop their chaotic rubble he can impose a system of his own. But the system imposed is impenetrable, for the modern artist is the creator of his own reality, understandable, if at all, only to those initiated in the gnosis.
Again, the logic of Joyce's literary gnosticism is inescapable, and Joyce himself draws the appropriate conclusion: "drama is of so unswayed, so unchallengeable a nature that, in its highest forms, it all but transcends criticism." The Joycean form of drama, then, admits not even dissent. How can a scientist, presenting only facts, be questioned-or opposed? How can a god? And though Joyce's statement may seem merely, if titanically, arrogant, it is, in another sense, mundanely true. Free of all received tradition, open to infinite possibility and governed not by a divine or natural truth, but by misconceived actuality and relativism, an artist's work cannot be meaningfully criticized.
In contrast to Joyce's thoughts on the nature of "drama," Tolstoy's are brief and unassuming. For the hedgehog, drama is but a part of storytelling, and storytelling, in turn, is but a part of life. Drama is open and obvious to all-artist andaudience. In What Is Art? he synopsized a theatrical performance among a savage tribe of Voguls, contrasting it, favorably, with modern drama. A reindeer-doe and her fawn are pursued by a hunter: Tension and suspense build as he closes on them and draws his bow, but they escape. Again, the hunter stalks and closes, this time wounding the doe, and the drama builds to a climax as the fawn licks its mother's wound and the hunter draws another arrow. . . .
For Tolstoy this is drama enough: An art that critics rarely experience, "the simple familiar feeling, compelling us to joy in another's gladness, to sorrow in another's grief, and to mingle souls together-which is the, very essence of art."
Simply put, for Tolstoy art is the imitation of life. But for Joyce, whose personality is virtually indistinguishable from his work, life and art are coextensive and, therefore, life may as well be the imitation of art.
Only in our twilight era could such an unnatural inversion of the relationship of art and life be not only accepted, but honored. In the dusky light of modernity, the worn, scattered shapes of traditional ethics and virtue are still dimly visible. But this generation has never seen or known them well. We desire them vaguely, nostalgically, for like a landscape at sunset, they are beautiful with the bittersweet sadness of a passing. This twilight, like any other, is a time of uncertainty, of misconception, when the dying light plays magically with distance and form.
In such a time anything is possible, as Joycean critics and scholars have labored mightily to prove. Behold, with astonishment, the critical dissection of the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" segment of Finnegan's Wake, in which Joyce included thinly veiled references to some five hundred rivers of the world, in order, apparently, to enhance the "riverness" of the piece. The vision is compelling: Joyce with atlas in hand for days, weeks, months on end, bastardizing the names of rivers to fit his original, ordinary words in an exercise of exquisitely meaningless allusion. Among the ornaments of such overwrought composition, critics can find anything they please.
Still, all the work of Joyce's critics proves nothing so well as Chesterton's observation that the more an expert looks at a thing, the less he sees of it. Modern critics, whose only guide is technique, have named Joyce not only great, but good. For some of these, the only standard of morality lies in standardlessness, and of this, Joyce, by his own admission, is the epitome. But more enlightening than the critics of relativism are the critics who call Joyce morally great by traditional standards, for they reveal the ultimate, contorted consequences of amoral art. Surely there can be no better proof of the infinite mutability and inherent meaninglessness of a philosophy of art that regards only technique than to see Joyce and Tolstoy lumped together as brothers in the fight for moral fiction. Such critics illustrate our present bondage not only to the aesthetic philosophy of Joyce, but also to the larger modern philosophical movements, of which Joyce's philosophy is a part.
Witness Stanley Sultan, who in 1964 wrote a weighty monograph titled The Argument of Ulysses and dedicated to the proposition that Ulysses is a "literally and explicitly" devout and religious novel, a vast moral fable, advocating God, family, and everything upright. Forty years after publication, Sultan discovered, apparently, the ethical essence in the maze ofUlysses. And, indeed, by modern critical standards, Sultan's means of interpretation are quire impeccable. But because the meaning he assigns to various symbols and allusions have reference only to Ulysses itself, the truth of Sultan's propositions can never be tested. The critic, like the artist, is free to establish his own moral system. The result is an absurd syllogism in which the argument is valid, but unsound. Therefore, if Sultan wishes to see that, when Bloom and Stephen relieve themselves in the garden beneath Molly's window, the movement of a shooting star across the firmament from Vega in the Lyre beyond the Tress of Berenice toward Leo demonstrates Stephen's deliverance from selfishness and Bloom's reaffirmation of wife and family, so be it. One is free, on Joyce's own terms, however, to point out that a shooting star is no star at all, but a bit of randomly floating, burning dust: the false star of a moment. This fact could be employed, quite legitimately, to put a very different interpretation on the heavenly activities above Bloom's urination.
The point is that we cannot, by reference to Ulysses itself, either prove or disprove Sultan's argument. The intentional ambiguity of Joyce's philosophy and technique renders his work susceptible to any possible interpretation.
Even more than Sultan's work, the late John Gardner's On Moral Fiction provides a striking example of our diminished moral faculties. Gardner yearned to see moral fiction restored. Quoting-yes-Leo Tolstoy's What Is Art? Gardner attacks the new criticism, and makes all the right statements about those things Joyce banned from art. And yet, yet . . . Gardner does not even recognize the enemy, for, without explanation, he includes Joyce in the line of great writers of moral fiction.
Gardner was a citizen of the critical world he fought against. He could not escape the grasp of those aesthetic axioms he did not seem to recognize as Joyce's own. Raised in a corrupt regime and therefore corrupted by its-moral ambivalence, Gardner manages to lament his state but understands inadequately what is lamentable. Like an anti-clerical philosophe from the eighteenth century, he denounces "brainless, fat religion," and therefore, like Joyce, he effectively denies the need to come to grips with man's effort to love, understand, and honor God.
Gardner also insists that a novelist, poised over his first draft, must have no preconceived, notion about the course or outcome of his work. He thus accepts, wittingly or not, Joyce's idea that drama must be at war with received ideas. For Gardner, a work undergoes innumerable changes through the process of art, which he regards as a peculiar thought process all its own. Consequently, Gardner argues that the demise of moral fiction results from a "loss of faith in how art works." But, of course, this is wrong. The idea itself reflects the mistaken Joycean assumption that art and life are coeval. There has been a loss of faith, no doubt, but it is a loss of faith in how life works. Faith and ethics arise from life, which art follows and imitates. There never was any such thing as a "faith" in the process of artistic composition. Gardner's assertion that there is or was only reveals his enslavement to Joycean philosophy.
Gardner's urge to restore ethics wavers at the crossroads, and he seems to fear the difficult way to salvation. He is afraid that, if he gives substance to his desire, he will take a misstep and become not moral, but didactic, exposing himself, ironically, to deserved ridicule from the critics he holds in contempt. Having diagnosed the disease, Gardner has not the will to risk the cure. He is content with his sorrow and anger.
But this is precisely the point: We all live after the fox and, to a greater or lesser extent, have abdicated the will to moral action. We are like Gardner, who stands in his twilit doorway, hoping and watching for the return of a lost loved one, but fearing to go and find that one himself. We dare not do right for fear of doing wrong. We are burdened by the weight of a new convention, Joyce's, the convention with but one article: that there shall be no convention.
The anxiety Gardner suffered over the prospect of making moral mistakes is the anxiety Joyce and his followers removed altogether by abolishing the moral will. And this abolition extends beyond art to all of life because if art is the imitation of life, or, even more, if art and life are coeval, then there are no grounds for excluding either the moral or religious yearnings of men from art, except on the assumption that those yearnings are perverse and illegitimate generally.
The twin pillars of modern philosophy, logical positivism and moral relativism, are Joyce's as well. His "scientific" effort to reduce art to the unfiltered regurgitation of actuality is nothing more or less than the application of logical positivism to aesthetic philosophy: It relieves moral anguish and provides, instead, the comforting, false certainty of empiricism. Moral relativism enters when the work of positivism ends by picking up the atomized pieces of mankind and converting moral truth into a system of solipsistic "value" determined by personal whim: each man a god, creating and re-creating truth in the tiny realm of his own psyche. Thus are Joyce's artistic functions as scientist and god joined in a single, consistent philosophy which, by its empiricism, reduces man to dust, but, by its relativism, raises him to imagined godship over his own, and only his own, trivial, dusty concerns. Joyce and his progeny are, therefore, condemned to meaninglessness and exiled to technique.
Caring only for technique, we mistake brilliance for great goodness. Similar mistakes have plagued the last two centuries, and in politics the confusion of greatness and goodness has been especially disastrous. Leo Strauss understood this well and, upon hearing of the death of a great and good statesman, spoke thus to his political science students:
The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence, for we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.
The things that James Joyce did must never be mistaken for, or confused with, true greatness and moral character. A world that can confuse them has lost its moral bearings. But lamentation alone will not restore our sense, or the habit of virtue. We must not only ask the moral questions, but answer them, daring the didactic, brave enough and sure enough to recognize mediocrity in the heart of brilliance.