Thriving in the face of perversity

Candor and Perversion
May 12, 2000

Potential readers of these versatile and pugnacious essays should not be deterred by the "19 theses" on the back of the dust-jacket. Stripped to the bone, they do not impress: "Words like 'spiritual' may refer to more than mere yearnings." "It is time for a more direct and less abstract approach to literature" and so on. Too tame to vindicate Harold Bloom's claim for their author as a moralist superior to Camus.

The front is more colourful. A substantial section of the book is devoted to "Tracking the Avant-Garde in France", with chapters on Manet, Picasso, Braque, Arp, Cocteau and Duchamp. Among Shattuck's previous works are The Banquet Years: The Arts in France 1885-1918 (1959) and The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts (1984). He writes on Mallarme and Proust and has translated Apollinaire and Valery. There is not much doubt where Shattuck is "chez soi", or where he finds - as Pound put it - the "nutrition of impulse": it is Paris, c.1880-1930. This is not an epoch devoid of suggestive images for a book with the intriguing title of Candor and Perversion .

Instead, the cover boasts a magnificent painting from 1529 by Albrecht Altdorfer, depicting against an apocalyptic backdrop the victory of Alexander over Darius. It was much admired by Napoleon. Here it has been (silently) cropped to exclude the emperors and their ignorant armies and leave hanging in mid-air a tablet evacuated of its original Latin and replenished with Shattuck's own subtitle. A joke with an edge.

There are plenty of candidates for the Darius whom Shattuck would put to flight: "politics" and "theory", "abstraction" and "textuality", Foucault and other black wizards. He claims Hazlitt, Baudelaire and Edmund Wilson as mentors, but it is Dr Johnson whom Shattuck cites approvingly to the effect that "men are very prone to believe what they do not understand". He praises the long tradition of dialogue from Plato to Dostoevsky, but he is not much interested in parleying across some fundamental differences of belief, opinion and language about the nature of his three-headed subtitle.

Shattuck's judgements are nothing if not candid. Foucault aims - like the Marquis de Sade he likes to glamorise - "to seduce and to pervert, following the doctrine that elevates power above truth"; Martin Amis is "cute or perfunctory"; Pulp Fiction and Angels in America endorse the decadence they portray. He confesses to shame at his failure to walk out of Tony Kushner's stage hit and turn his back on "all this wisecracking intellectually fashionable evil". Shattuck's readiness to use "evil" is bound to get him confused with a political position from which he seeks to dissociate himself when he speaks of reclaiming the middle ground.

Meditating on the relative merits of allopathy and homeopathy, he expresses a characteristic anxiety about the predominance of the latter, in cultural matters if not in medical: "We act as if we do not fear the poison of vice and evil, as if we can use it to inoculate ourselves against it."

Yet it is easy to misrepresent Shattuck by selective quotation as a more rampant moralist and a more illiberal conservative than a close reading reveals him to be. He professes himself to be "liberal in politics and conservationist in cultural matters". He believes in a battalion of traditional virtues temporarily in retreat for the past few decades, in words such as "continuity", "coherence", "classics" and "craftsmanship". Apropos the last, one recalls the title of a book he co-edited with the late William Arrowsmith, The Craft and Context of Translation (1961).

Shattuck's detractors will accuse him of idealising the benefits of "one culture containing many parts" and of underestimating the depth of the fissures that separate the parts. As for the idea of "a nation finally at peace with its diversity" (a piece of dust-jacket hyperbole for which Shattuck cannot be blamed), we can forget the "finally".

What makes the unity of this book (let alone of a culture)? Readers will be struck by the extent to which its passionate concern with American education and culture is nourished by its author's deep engagement with Francophone literature and the visual arts. What is more, this engagement is not confined to artists who share Shattuck's admiration for candour and apparent distaste for perversity. On the contrary, Shattuck's most intimate gifts as a reader are provoked by art that puzzles and imperils him by its shamelessness.

He is drawn to the mockery and self-mockery that masks high modernism from its pretensions while it courts our gullibility. "It is possible to take the court jester of modernism too seriously," he says of Duchamp, or again:

"The hint of a grin hovered on the face of cubism."

He takes comfort from a bit of "blague", from the element of "spoof" in Man Ray's visual commentary on de Sade, for instance. It is an alluring, precarious truce and complicity, before the relentless blatancy that distinguishes its self-appointed successor, "post-modernism". With the latter, Shattuck has no truck.

He relishes an unusually corporeal vocabulary for the acts of reading and writing, speaking of the "almost respiratory" pace of Nathalie Sarraute's prose, of the variation in W. S. Merwin's writing between "the succulent and the lean". Proust has a beautifully suggestive verb, " miroiter ", which he appropriates to lyrical effect: "A shimmering, a glistening, an iridescence, an alternation, a reciprocation between states of mind belonging to reality and to the imagination." He writes that Sarraute's novels "alternate between clumsy, pregnant silences and the impasse of freeze-dried clichés".

He is at his most characteristic when his alternations are vexed by a deep but divided attraction, for instance to the American artist in Paris who provides him with his title. He reflects thus on what Man Ray's image says to him: "Nothing could be more candid than my self-portrait. Nothing could be more perverse than some of my works."

Shattuck does not ignore the writing and art of his American culture, referring to Twain, Faulkner, Stevens, Mailer and others. He gives more extended accounts of Mary Lee Settle's historical roman fleuve , The Beulah Quintet , and the fiction of Renata Adler, to Arthur Miller's autobiography, to the lives and works of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, and Man Ray.

But what is his (my, our) culture? Shattuck's calls for cultural continuity and coherence make curious reading beside the miroitement of his commitments to an alternative language and culture. But, he says, we do not merely tolerate contradiction: we thrive on it. This may help to explain why the two words of his title do not fly apart as promptly as a casual reading of these essays might suggest, into the camps of virtue and vice, or good and evil, absolutes in which one of the parts that make up Shattuck's unity would like to believe.

Better perhaps to think of "candour and perversion" as one of Blake's enigmatic doublets, like "innocence and experience" - as I sense that another part of Shattuck intends.

Adrian Poole is reader in English and comparative literature, University of Cambridge.

Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education and the Arts

Author - Roger Shattuck
ISBN - 0 393 04807 1
Publisher - Norton
Price - £22.00
Pages - 415

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