Minds that are free to doubt

On Trust
March 17, 2000

Art can help us to understand the force of being, writes Kenneth Gross.

The trust at the centre of Gabriel Josipovici's absorbing book is no fixed entity. It is a way of responding to literature, to language and to experience, a capacity that belongs at once to writers and readers. It is a gift, yet also something put to the test, as love (writes Wittgenstein) is put to the test; it is a form of wonder, a lightness or innocence that binds us to, rather than severs us from, the ordinary world.

The author's heroes are figures such as the biblical Jacob, inescapably full of guile yet inescapably blessed, and Homer's Odysseus, the man of many turnings, whose trust in his craftiness keeps him alive in time, facing the real. They include authors such as Dante, with his readiness to ground his epic project in the specific gravity of the vernacular, and Shakespeare, binding himself to the endless buoyancy of his theatrical craft, and through this to contradictory forms of human desire. The great moderns, and the radical forms of trust at work in them, concern Josipovici even more urgently: Proust, overcoming his writer's block by opening himself to the discoveries of involuntary memory; Kafka, the hunger artist, finding matter for stories by dwelling within his own resilient shame and fear of failure; Beckett, perhaps most of all, in his sustained will to face up to his own darkness, which meant keeping company with the "dear incomprehension" of writing itself. Such answers to doubt find freedom "in what for others would be unbearable constraint".

This book is a testament of sorts. Central to its unfolding argument is a critique of the styles of doubt that characterise much post-modern fiction and criticism. Josipovici does not question that we live inescapably in an age of suspicion. But he argues that influential critics such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Paul de Man have succeeded in making suspicion itself into a frozen gesture, a perversely exclusive pleasure and "triumphant" ideology, something like the envious, aggressive doubt of Blake's "idiot Questioner". If Josipovici's account of these critics sometimes seems schematic, his primary aim is an essential one: to remind us that suspicion has a history, that it is part of an ongoing practice, something with its own shifting rhythms, masks and responsibilities. A critic's failure to understand this circumstance is, for Josipovici, a failure of seriousness about life, at best self-blinding, at worst corrosive.

Kierkegaard, who insists that we must keep open the wounds of the negative, is one "master of doubt" for the author. Another is Wittgenstein, whose On Certainty so trenchantly probes the killing seductions of unframed scepticism, insisting "somewhere our doubt must come to an end". For Josipovici, some invitations to trust are a peculiarly modern inheritance - Wordsworth's solitary wanderers and beggars, for instance, creatures who show us a radically human life that is yet at the verge of the inanimate, the unknowable, "murdering impossibility". Other forms of trust belong to an unrecoverable past, and remain "naive" in Schiller's sense - for example, the breathless lightness with which the warriors in The Iliad face death, understanding in it a loss that is "never to be made good". Yet for all its apparent distance, Homeric trust is not so entirely beyond us. Josipovici finds it surviving, if only in surmise, as a gift of memory and imagination, also a gift of scholarship.

It may not seem strange that Josipovici (with the help of Proust) offers us, as one of his central emblems of trust, a late medieval image, Giotto's allegory of Charity : a plain yet strangely noble woman, at once gravid and buoyant, bearing aloft a hand holding a heart, a heart that touches the hands of a tiny bearded figure. Looking with candid, wondering eyes, she seems to be at once taking up and donating her heart. She is at once giver and receiver, at once mother and child; she is also story-teller and listener, writer and reader. Such a figure helps us understand even our vexed modern trust as a dynamic relation, an embodied stance in the world, a struggle with sentimentality, as much as with doubt.

Blake, who thought that even our most radical scepticism should begin not in negation but with "minute particulars" of representation, would have been moved by this.

Kenneth Gross is professor of English, University of Rochester, New York, United States.

On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion

Author - Gabriel Josipovici
ISBN - 0 300 07991 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 294

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