Archive for March 2012

Love on Earth   Leave a comment

The historical persecution of the Jews delineated in Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio (2002), from forced conversions through to the Holocaust, is depressingly familiar to most readers. While doing research on this novel, however, I came to realize the importance of another, almost forgotten period of religious persecution that took place in the region of southern France where Pears’s novel is set: the Albigensian Crusade, in which the Catholic Church ruthlessly exterminated the “heresy” known as Catharism.

While this period has become, in recent years, a popular setting for historical fiction, it seems to me that the fundamental challenge that the Cathar belief system presented to the Church has often been poorly understood. Ruthless and bloody inquisitions, after all, can be gruesomely entertaining without readers of historical fiction having to understand the deeper nuances of the victims.

I was struck by just how subversive the Cathars were, however, during a recent rereading of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ (1888). In that book, Nietzsche examines what he calls the “type of the redeemer,” a mindset he attributes to Christ and which, he argues, was subsequently distorted and twisted by St Paul (p.167). Christ’s message, says Nietzsche, has thus been profoundly misunderstood. The core of this message was that God has already forgiven humanity for its waywardness, and as such the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, at hand – not, as Christianity would later understand it, as a posthumous reward for faithfulness. Nietzsche writes:

“The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart – not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept – the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’.… The ‘kingdom of God’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ – it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere…” (p.159)

Christ posed an obvious threat to the Jewish religious establishment with this message, for its implication was that the priests, together with their Mosaic system of atonement through sacrifice, had fulfilled their purpose and were now obsolete. The Kingdom of Heaven is not to be found in external rituals, but in one’s heart, with life becoming an expression of this divine goodness in a way that abolished the infrastructure of symbolic atonement.

While Catharism borrowed liberally from other strands of religious and philosophical ideas – gnosticism, for instance, as well as the neo-Platonist thread that Pears identifies in The Dream of Scipio – what is particularly noticeable about its debt to this “type of the redeemer” is its joyful announcement that divine mediation is no longer necessary. The Cathars therefore also did away with the role of the priest, believing that its adherents could be “Good Christians” whose lives reflected the goodness and mercy of God. For the Cathars, this aspiration was not tainted and limited by the “fallen” nature of humanity. Forgiveness had been granted here on earth, and as such it was their duty to become a “parfait” (“perfect being”) who practices the divine principles here on earth, not after the purification of death.

The response of the Catholic Church to the rise of Catharism reads like a blueprint for the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Like the Pharisees, like the Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s story, the Church rightly saw Catharism as a threat to its own political power. In the name of Christianity, therefore, they mercilessly hunted down and exterminated a movement that came closest to replicating the original teachings of Christ.

That ideal of a loving community has not been lost – think, for example, of the Abbey of Thélème that appears in Rabelais – but its conception has evolved in crucial ways since the time of Christ. While love is important, it cannot be the sole foundation for a community. “Love,” writes Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ, “is the state in which man sees things most of all as they are not. The illusion-creating force is there at its height, likewise the sweetening and transforming force. One endures more when in love than one otherwise would, one tolerates everything” (p.145). Christ failed because his conception of love, in its refusal to draw boundaries, made him both inherently weak and unwilling to acknowledge the harsh political realities around him.

The contrasting idea of a strong love, one that understands politics and protects itself from its pitfalls, is what drives Pears’s investigations in The Dream of Scipio. Manlius fails because he is too hard, displaying political strength and acumen, but sacrificing his friends and family in the process, while Julien’s fault, by contrast, lies in his recurrent willingness to compromise and negotiate at those moments when he ought to be drawing a line in the sand. Only Olivier understands that love must be forceful and effective, pragmatically cognizant of the political realities that impact on it, without ever losing the ability to be tender.

The source of humanity’s communal misery and inability to love thus arises from a double failure. The primary fault, as the story of the Grand Inquisitor illustrates, lies in our weakness, in our refusal to take responsibility for our own lives and freedom. This failing is then compounded by the way we rationalize our weakness. Our beliefs are built as a complicated excuse for why we cannot take action. This is precisely the deflective function of religious institutions: no institution has done more to put off the realization of Christ’s vision of love on earth than the church.

While I don’t subscribe to the creation of any kind of religious community, I do think there is a valuable lesson to be learned from these earlier examples about the difficulties of putting into practice what we believe. The prevailing philosophies of our time actively discourage the cultivation of a personality that radiates power, and yet this strength is the basis on which true love is constructed. Any other kind, as the example of Christ demonstrates, is weak and ineffective, passively allowing itself to be tortured and even killed. True love must face up to the unjust realities of political power with intelligence and clarity, not moral illusions. There are a thousand excuses for not loving, for not putting into practice the principles that are closest to our hearts, but they inevitably begin from a place of weakness.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Review: Transmission (2004) by Hari Kunzru   Leave a comment

Having now read both The Impressionist (2002) and Transmission (2004), Hari Kunzru’s first two novels, I have to admit that I am torn between mixed emotions. You see, I really like these works – a lot – and yet, at the same time, I get the feeling that Kunzru is an author who has not quite fulfilled his talent to its greatest extent. So while Transmission is very good, especially for a second novel by a young writer, I get the feeling that Kunzru may yet go on to bigger and better things.

Transmission is the story of the havoc wreaked on society by a computer virus named Leela, named after a fictional Bollywood star named Leela Zahir. At its center is a young Indian computer programmer, Arjun Mehta, who releases the virus when his tenuous, exploitative job with a Silicon Valley antivirus company comes under threat.

Kunzru interweaves this main story with several other threads: the rise and fall of Guy Swift, a British new-money entrepreneur who runs a company called Tomorrow*, which seems to specialize in marketing empty rhetoric to various multinational businesses; the career of Gabriella Caro, Guy’s girlfriend, who works as a public relations manager and suffers from her family’s old money; and briefly, Leela Zahir herself, who has been thrust into the world of show-business by her pushy mother.

Kunzru has a brilliant eye for satire. Guy Swift’s proposal, for instance, that Europe be rebranded as a sort of “VIP zone” for elites in the same way that certain nightclubs market themselves toward the rich and the famous is comedy gold, especially given what happens to him later in the novel. The only problem, in my opinion, is that most readers are a little too used to having their hands held: that is, they often want authors to reveal the satirical facade, just for a moment, to drop a wink after delivering a piece of searing irony so as to say “hey, it’s just satire, I’m only kidding.” What I admire about Kunzru is that he doesn’t do this, and so those who don’t get joke, well, they miss out. It’s a daring strategy, one that, as a quick perusal of the academic criticism about Kunzru’s novels suggests, leads to some overly literal interpretations of his work.

The main shortcoming I found in Transmission was that Kunzru struggled to find a consistent range for his considerable comedic talents. A deliberately flat character like Guy Swift, for example, seems better designed for a much broader kind of comedy than was on offer. Mostly, I think this problem had to do with how Kunzru deals with social class, since the grand conceits of those in charge generally make them a perfect target for the kind of humorous poetic justice which is conferred on characters like Swift or Darryl Gant, Arjun’s passive-aggressive boss at Virugenix. The strategy works less well when it comes to the more difficult aspects of society, for disillusionment, poverty, and exploitation are much harder to laugh at from the bottom up.

Kunzru usually manages to address such issues without seeming preachy, but it does make it seem as though the novel proceeds at two different speeds that don’t quite gel with each other. Thus, there is the touching story of Arjun, who seems like a kind of holy fool, on the one hand, on whom is conferred a mixture of innocent sincerity and frustrated pathos, and on the other hand, the broad satire of the delusional Guy Swift, who could easily have wandered out of the pages of a Martin Amis story. The result is an entertaining but uneven novel, one in which the various threads are tied together competently but a little too glibly for my taste.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted March 26, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Outside the Institution   Leave a comment

When was the last time you read a piece of literary analysis published in an academic journal and felt moved and inspired by what it had to say? My guess is that, if you engage in this torturous exercise, probably not very often.

Most papers are written and published, primarily, out of obligation. Academics have to show the universities that employ them that they are active in their fields, and universities, in turn, are ranked according to the productivity of their faculty. Since the squeeze for academic positions has become tighter and tighter, the situation has become increasingly worse.

How perverse it is that we allow the humanities to proceed in this manner. In the sciences, one must follow the scientific method or else the work undertaken would be declared invalid. In the humanities, by contrast, people are encouraged to write in an inhuman way. Academics in the humanities seem to lack the courage of their convictions – this idea is interesting, they say, but usually neither we nor they truly believe it.

Perhaps the most honest and perceptive assessment of this scholarly problem appears in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“For this is the truth: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the door behind me. Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I have not been schooled, as they have, to crack knowledge as one cracks nuts. […] If one takes hold of them, they involuntarily raise a dust like sacks of flour; but who could guess that their dust derived from corn and from the golden joy of summer fields?” (p.147)

Nietzsche wrote those words in 1883, before the academic field of English literature had even been founded, but the prevailing attitude toward intellectual activity is remarkably similar. The joy of learning is reduced to a mechanical exercise, a matter of pedantic precision, automatic rather than dynamic.

It’s easy to be negative. Anyone who has worked in academia knows that it can be a demeaning path, even when you are part of the lucky minority who manages to find full-time employment. It’s a structural problem in which people are intimidated into a particular way of thinking. If they don’t follow the rules in graduate school, chances are they won’t finish their degree. If they don’t write in the accepted style of their field, chances are they won’t be published. If they don’t meet the research quotas of the university, they won’t get rehired or tenured. And so on. It’s an endless cycle of intimidation that ends up creating a culture whereby most academics lose any of the radical visions or creativity they might once have possessed. They become, as we say of prisoners, institutionalized.

There will always be a minority of academics – including, I hope, myself – for whom no amount of institutional pressure will change our approach to the humanities. Yes, the university will continue to require us to publish, but we write and teach and read, at base, for the love of it.

But it’s not enough. Society needs the humanities because they are the foundation of its emotional maturity, but the contemporary trend is to restrict such benefits to the elite classes. The emphasis on technical and vocational skills is the increasing curricular emphasis at your average low to middle ranking university at the expense of a liberal education, but the humanities will never disappear, for instance, from the Ivy League.

There is a surprising number of people outside that privileged elite, however, who are open to the idea that literature and the humanities have something to offer them. It is for that reason that humanities needs to consolidate its future by establishing roots outside the institutional tentacles of the academy.

Over the last few years, I have seen this approach work, for instance, with the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. The MSCP was founded in 2005 by a group of thinkers – some of them my good friends – as a way of promoting a neglected area of study about which they are passionate. While they rely on the local university for certain practical support for some things, the MSCP is able to run courses and seminars entirely on its own terms, without interference from the institution. Hopefully this autonomy is allowed to last.

The great challenge, as always, is economic. To work outside the institution inevitably means little or no remuneration. It also carries with it the possible future challenge of becoming institutionalized oneself, and thus closing down the openness that formerly drove the mission. But this step, I believe, is a necessary one for the future of the humanities. We must take the future into our own hands.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Review: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

I have to admit that The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, was a book that I found difficult to get through. I picked it up the first time, read about a hundred and fifty pages, then put it down again. A year later, I picked it up again with greater determination, started over, and managed to finish it, in spurts, over the course of five months.

Perhaps that admission will not surprise those who have read my scathing review of his latest novel, Freedom, but the two works, in terms of both difficulty and reward for effort, constitute a night and day difference. Where Freedom is pointless, angry, and worst of all, self-pitying, The Twenty-Seventh City is a complex and insightful look at the state of modern politics.

What is it, then, about The Twenty-Seventh City that makes it such a tough read? For many readers, it will be the difficulty of the prose. Despite the fact that Franzen is supposedly stepping away from the postmodern games of someone like Thomas Pynchon (who is briefly, gratuitously, mentioned in passing in the novel) toward a greater sense of realism, the fact is that his debut novel reads in many ways, like a throwback to modernism – one could easily imagine, for instance, that Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913) was a model for this text.

I’d like to think, though, that I have enough literary muscle to handle difficult prose, so I don’t think that was the only culprit. No, the thing that made the novel such a hard read for me was the way that Franzen continues to introduce new characters, even up until the very last pages. The sheer amount of names becomes impossible to keep track of, and this problem is compounded by the fact that Franzen doesn’t provide enough signals from the outset as to which characters are important and which are not. Everyone is named and described in with seemingly equal importance, giving no indication about whether they will continue to be important to the plot or not.

In the end, there are two characters are elevated above the rest: Martin Probst, a local developer and community leader, and S. Jammu, an Indian woman who was unexpectedly hired as St Louis’s new police chief. Once the reader realizes that these are the two figures that stand above the cacophony created by such a dizzyingly large array of characters, the novel starts to click. I am sure that rereading the novel with that knowledge would be a different, more rewarding experience.

That’s not to say that other characters aren’t important, including: Barbara Prost, Martin’s wife, and their daughter Luisa; Luisa’s older boyfriend Duane Thompson, whose relationship with Luisa begins the process of fragmenting the Prost family; Rolf Ripley, who is obsessed with Barbara despite the fact that he is married to her sister, Audrey; Jack DuChamp, an old buddy of Martin’s who acts as a barometer of the “man in the street;” RC, a black cop who plays an important role in the novel’s denouement; General Norris, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who smells something fishy in Jammu’s dealings; Asha Hammaker, an Indian princess who marries one of St Louis’s richest men and conspires with Jammu; Shanti Jammu, the police chief’s controlling mother; and Jammu’s various goons and pawns, most notably the handsome and ruthless Balwan Singh and the drug-addicted Barbara Prost lookalike, Devi Madan. There are more characters, many more, illustrating just how difficult it can be to keep track of which character is which in the novel.

While the pitfalls of such an approach are obvious, this vast canvas on which Franzen lays out his story also has its strengths. His deep knowledge of St Louis and its culture comes from the fact that he grew up there, but the skill with which he portrays the city in all its complexity is quite extraordinary, with the diverse array of characters on display a reflection of the city’s multifaceted nature. In spite of its particular context, however, The Twenty-Seventh City has a much broader scope that transcends both its time and location. Franzen states early on that “all cities are ideas, ultimately” (p.24), and thus St Louis, itself defined by the symbol of the Arch and its connection to Manifest Destiny, is also transformed into an idea.

So it is that The Twenty-Seventh City unfolds as a political novel of ideas, a “textbook dialectic” that pits “absolute freedom” against “absolute terror, the French Revolution à la Hegel” (p.198). Probst and Jammu are the opposing terms in this dialectic, which contrasts his rigid sense of ethical “decency” with her utter ruthlessness. Probst and Jammu thus find themselves on opposite sides of the fence in the political fight to unite the city and county of St Louis, only to find in their opposition a hidden attraction that perversely brings them together.

It is when Franzen engages with these grand political ideas that The Twenty-Seventh City rises above its limitations and truly soars. Franzen does not allow himself to get carried away, in contrast to so many other American writers during the 1980s, with railing simplistically against the conservative Reagan years. There is no easy dichotomy between freedom and tyranny, for it is the sheer apathy of the St Louis public that saves the day. There is a beautiful but sad irony in the fact that this lack of interest in their own political future is what eventually saves them from the traps that Jammu lays.

The Twenty-Seventh City was published, coincidentally, in the same year as Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and in many ways the appointment of Jammu in the novel addresses a parallel dilemma to what Spivak is describing. The faults that Franzen delineates in Jammu’s character, however, seem to me more incisive, more penetrating than Spivak’s analysis, suggesting as he does, through comparisons of Jammu’s character to Napoleon and Lenin, that the advent of revolutionary discourses of freedom is always endangered by the practical necessities of seizing power. Franzen’s key insight is that these apparently counter-revolutionary forces are not anomalies, but an integral part of the revolution itself, an inherent problem that easily inverts the original relationship between “theory and praxis” in such a way that “praxis dictate[s] that theory, in the short run, be its apologist” – that is, the ends come to justify the means in the most vulgarly Machiavellian sense (p.394). It’s a complex, clear-eyed view of politics that Franzen delivers in his debut novel that, sadly, he has been unable to sustain in his most recent work.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted March 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Moral Insight   Leave a comment

Mozart wrote some of his most famous music at the age of five. Music has a long history of child prodigies – Mozart, of course, like Handel before him, as well as Beethoven, all fall into this category. There are other fields that have produced stunning early talent, from chess to mathematics to computer science.

There is a distinct common element to all child prodigies. They arise in fields where the emphasis is on technical and mechanical precision. That is not to say, of course, that there is no art involved in chess or mathematics or music – indeed, one might say that it is the introduction of a newly arrived-at artistic insight into these technical fields that often creates the work of genius. But the fundamental groundwork is technical.

It is instructive to contemplate the lack of child prodigies in the field of literature. There are, I acknowledge, many writers who began, early on in their lives, to pen stories and poems. That is not what I am talking about here. Such works count only as juvenilia, for the criterion must surely be whether a work could today be considered for canonical status. The music that Mozart composed at the age of five is still being played. No one, by contrast, is reading the stories that H.P. Lovecraft wrote at that age. So what is it about literature that bars the possibility of a child prodigy?

The answer, I believe, is contained in a single phrase from Honoré de Balzac’s short story “The Atheist’s Mass,” in a passage where the narrator is contemplating the qualities that separate a great man from a merely talented one. “Genius,” observes Balzac, “always presupposes moral insight.” Such an observation not only establishes Balzac, by that same measure, as a great man, but it also gives a clear rationale as to why children cannot be geniuses in the field of literature. Moral insight is something that comes from experience, from loss and failure, from realizing the fallibility of the human condition. Such wisdom is rarely gained early on in life, never in childhood.

Consider the case of Thomas Chatterton, an eighteenth-century English poet who from childhood was fixated on books and literature. He started writing his own pieces at the age of 11, finding success a year later with a series of dialogues and poems in the medieval style he admired. Taking on the pseudonym of “Thomas Rowley,” he successfully fooled – albeit temporarily – Horace Walpole with his Rowley’s History of England. Chatterton’s great gift was as a mimic. He could imitate medieval poetry with as much skill as he could the styles of contemporary writers like Alexander Pope or Tobias Smollett. As a teenager, Chatterton had clearly mastered the technical side of literature, but his writing is not read today because it lacks that crucial ingredient: moral insight. Chatterton could echo others, but he never found his own voice. He never had the chance to, dying from arsenic poisoning at the age of seventeen.

So why do we remember Chatterton still, if he was little more than a talented mimic? Because Chatterton was subsequently venerated by the English romantics, who turned his tragically short life into a symbol of unfulfilled genius. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Keats – in his “Sonnet to Chatterton” (1815) – all immortalized Chatterton as a “natural” genius cut down by a cruel and unforgiving world. Perhaps the most influential of all these tributes is Henry Wallis’s painting The Death of Chatterton (1856), a work that sentimentalizes the poet’s death, accentuating its tragedy by juxtaposing the beauty and youth of the model (a young George Meredith, who went on to become a famous Victorian writer) with the torn, scattered remnants of the poetry he has destroyed, as though his life and work were inextricably connected.

While the romantic prism remains the dominant perspective through which we look back at Chatterton, there is an emerging counterpoint to that view. It can be found, for instance, in the following rant from Henry MacAlpine, protagonist of Iain Pears’s novel The Portrait (2005):

“D’you remember that appalling painting by Wallis in the Tate, The Death of Chatterton? Pretty young poet lies sprawled in an elegant pose across the bed after taking arsenic. Ha! That’s not what you look like if you swallow arsenic! You’re covered in filth, you stink, you lie crouched on the floor from the agony, your face screwed up, hideously disfigured as the poison eats away your intestines. You don’t look as though you’ve just dropped off for a nap after too many cucumber sandwiches. But he couldn’t paint that. That wouldn’t have made people think sentimental tripe about doomed artists dying before their time. That’s what I wanted to get away from, and not by painting landscapes or the poor enjoying themselves at the music hall. Real death—which is the stuff of life, after all.” (pp.48-49)

While MacAlpine is a notoriously unreliable narrator, I think there is more than a grain of truth in this particular observation. The romantic idealization of childhood as the locus of genius, at least in the field of literature, is simply not borne out by the evidence. Chatterton, it seems to me, was chosen by the romantics for the convenient fact that death imposed silence on him, leaving us to speculate endlessly about what a genius he might have become.

That there will someday be a child prodigy in the field of literature – that is to say, someone capable of possessing the moral insight required to write a great work, as opposed to merely mastering the necessary technical proficiencies – is impossible. Certainly, there have been writers who have gained this moral insight at an exceptionally early age, from Arthur Rimbaud to Lautréamont to John Keats, but never, ever in childhood.

It is William Blake who, in his dissection of the qualitative shift from innocence to experience, illustrates this point best. The division between these two states is not symmetrical: true innocence is not aware even of its own innocence, so that only its loss, the entry into experience, makes it possible to write and think about the meaning of innocence. Experience, in other words, is the entry-point into moral insight, a shift that comes only with the advent of adulthood. Blake makes the quest for moral insight into the centerpiece of his poetry – and that, of course, is why he is a genius.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Review: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) by A.S. Byatt   Leave a comment

A.S. Byatt is one of those writers that has grown on me over the years. I first encountered her work, as most of her readers do, through her highly-decorated novel Possession, only to come away from it disappointed by a sense that an opportunity had been lost. The recurrent fault that I found in Byatt’s work was that she has a tendency to overwrite, with too many superfluous details and ornaments (think of her pastiches of Victorian poetry in Possession, for example, which were masterly yet, for me, void of interest) that distracted from the story she was trying to tell.

While I haven’t yet returned to Possession to gauge whether my initial impression was correct or not, I have nonetheless continued to read Byatt’s other works with an ever-deepening sense of appreciation. What I like most about her fiction is her sense of intellectual adventure. Byatt may be the most intelligent writer in British literature today. She is an author who demands from herself – and thus, in turn, from her readers – a rigorously honest and complex appraisal of whatever issue is at hand. While this determination sometimes leads to a tendency to overreach her skill as a storyteller, when it works, as it does in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, the results are outstanding.

As its subtitle suggests, Elementals takes the classic metaphorical opposition between hot (passion) and cold (rationality) and plays with it in new ways. There is, of course, an implicitly Blakean twist to how Byatt goes about doing this, in which hot and cold are never simple oppositions, but are instead made to depend upon each other in order to understand fully their meaning. This idea gets its fullest treatment in the allegorical story “Cold,” a full-blown modern fairy-tale that confirms Byatt’s long-acknowledged debt to Angela Carter.

While Byatt, in treating the opposing symbols of hot and cold in these stories, nods several times toward the Romantics – the narrator of “Jael,” for instance, remarks on her appreciation of Jane Eyre, a novel that gives particular weight to this metaphor – she also targets them repeatedly for critique. The Romantics, after all, privileged emotion and passion in their work, whereas Byatt urges the reader to consider the other side of the equation by pondering the pleasures and rewards of coldness and detachment.

Although this thread runs through the entire collection, Byatt makes her most articulate plea in “A Lamia in the Cévennes,” the underlying message of which forms an implicit riposte to John Keats’s poem “Lamia.” At the center of the story is Bernard Lycett-Kean, a painter who moves from Britain to France in order to pursue his rigidly solitary investigations into the problems of color. There he is visited by a lamia, a mythological, snake-like creature who promises him that, should he kiss her, she will be transformed into the woman of his dreams and love him eternally. Bernard, wary of such a pact and wary of giving up his solitude, proposes to paint her instead.

The story’s message hinges on a key couple of lines from Keat’s original poem: “Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” This Romantic suggestion that we should not look too closely at things, that we ought willfully to blind ourselves for the sake of preserving an illusion, is vigorously opposed by Bernard. Instead, Byatt shows that, rather than leading to a simple opposition between science and art, Bernard’s rationality possesses an artistic impulse with a beauty all its own.

Byatt thus makes a repeated argument in Elementals for qualities such as coldness, rationality, and solitude – qualities that, while obviously more difficult to embrace than their warm, emotional counterparts, nonetheless have their own rewards and advantages. Byatt is not, of course, opposed either to Romanticism or emotions as such, but champions this cause out of a sense of balance. Today’s culture is unthinkingly sentimental, it seems, and so Byatt prescribes the qualities of coldness as an important corrective.

Byatt’s occasional tendency to overreach means that sometimes her work can be a bit hit and miss, but Elementals is impressive in its consistency. Byatt also helps matters by concluding the book with “Christ in the House of Jesus and Mary,” one of her best stories, in which she imagines the story behind a Velasquez painting of the same name. Speaking to the distraught cook Dolores, who will later become the model for Martha in Velasquez’s painting, the artist says: “You must learn now, that the important lesson… is that the divide is not between the servants and the served, between the leisured and the workers, but between those who are interested in the world and its multiplicity of forms, and those who merely subsist, worrying or yawning” (p.226). There are few statements with which I can agree more wholeheartedly. It encapsulates why it is that Byatt, whatever her occasional faults, is truly a great writer: for her, art and literature are not merely intellectual pastimes, they are intimately bound up in the living, breathing moments of living one’s life.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted March 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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