The digitial revolution has made life a multiple choice, which is why I chose to categorize this post as “literary criticism.” It’s like those awful outgoing corporate phone message trees that give you a set of options, then another, then another — when the one you really want isn’t on the menu. And you think, “The bastards knew it all along, which is why they failed to respond in the first place or just buried the “operator” option beyond the horizon of your patience.
What I’m posting about isn’t high falutin’ lit crit, but just ramblings. Observations about Updike and other authors with whose work I’ve bonded over the years. At 64 I have much less need for pretense about my literary taste. It’s thoroughly middlebrow: Ukdike, R. Ford, Alice Munro — realists, all. Nothing experimental about them. Same with Coetzee.
In graduate school 40 years ago I did take up not so much with the avant garde as with modernists, which gave my an excuse to plunge into the circle of artists around William Carlos Williams. I liked him from the get-go. His work seems to me to exemplify a mission statement I saw in a furniture store window: Mies van der Rohe’s observation that what he sought was an interesting plainness. That’s Williams. His work is words of one syllable — so plain that his red wheelbarrow has inspired and flummoxed and irritated generations of students trying to get his “meaning.” But his meaning is plain enough: So much depends on a red wheel barrow.
True, enough. In so many ways. We all depend on the darned thing, the implement. And because I know Williams was a hobbyist painter, it’s plain enough for me to see the resonant red of that wheelbarrow and the white of those chickens beside that wheel barrow. Williams liked to write poems about painters — Pictures from Bruegel is the title of one of his finest collections — and he hung around with and corresponded with painters who saw the way he saw: Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth. The Ford Rouge plant. Hopperesque painterliness but stripped of the deep dark noir melodrama that jumps out at you in Hopper. Williams liked plain things — flowers in his garden, broken glass in the street, brick buildings, fire trucks. He saw with a child’s eye and he heard fire engines with a child’s thrilled imagination of speed and daring, the way a child looks at a picture book of red firetrucks with big bold numbers across them.
I wanted to love Henry James and Jane Austen and Faulkner, but couldn’t get it up for them. What I like about Conrad is the exoticism, the escape, the redemption — a grownup Robert Louis Stevenson. Really, not that far from Swift’s Gulliver — all those bizarre places. Escape attracted me to literature in the first place. Escape from lies, lies and damned lies. Lies my parents told me, and lies that their evasions and silences told me. So here was Dickens who told the truth about isolation and anxiety and rejection and struggle. And here was Henry Miller who told the truth about desire — the way the outsized absurd outrageous farce of it put into perspective the fear of the body, the terror of social disapprobation, the discomfort over dirty words. Unlike Lawrence, though, he never preached or philosophized or preened. He just catted around and burned the midnight oil and fucked and laughed and burned with ambition to be published and be known and be famous and have enough money to live on the other side of the hell of tedious stupefying ridiculous sorts of work
My tastes are pedestrian, all right. I like plainness well enough. Huck Finn’s my favorite novel because it gets me every time. It’s him — Huck. It’s him, Twain. Nor do I think it’s paradoxical that I was drawn to the phenomenologist Bachelard, with his delicious explorations of “spaces” in literature and life:the infinite tininess inside objects like shoes; the dark and passed-over spaces inside closets; the black and white vastness of the space above earthly space. All those spaces are plain enough. What’s not so plain is the imagination at work uncovering those spaces, those plain places that hide in plain sight.
I would have loved to interview Bachelard, as I interviewed Henry Miller at his home in the Pacific Palisades. So plain spoken and direct and full of good cheer for an 88-year-old guy. And why shouldn’t he have been? He seemed to be in reasonably good health and he had a succession of pretty young women coming in to care for him. He had another year of life and he’d already lived so richly and productively and brilliantly and articulately that he might well have given death hardly a second thought.
Thoreau’s plain, too. Yes, I know: He’s a mystic. But the plainness and humor comes first. Like Churchill advised writers: shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, shorter words.
From this angle of mine, they’re all plain enough, the writers I’ve bonded with. Even Freud. You think I’m kidding? Not at all. I read a handful of his books when I was in high school.The Psychopathology of Everyday Life — the whole idea of that book is about the plain and the everyday. Same with Erving Goffman: The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Forget the “depth” and “profundity” (spatial metaphors, as Bachelardians know). Look to the surfaces of things. As Williams said, No ideas but in things. Wheel barrows. Chickens. Slips of the tongue. Verbal “strategies.” Mies van der Rohe chairs with no arm rests. The Seagrams Building on Park Avenue — all those little window spaces and the boxiness and straight up-and-downness of the pretty building. A squared-off beehive. How Miller looked at sex, as a natural, plain behavior — nothing to take with anything like what must have seemed like the pretentious seriousness of Lawrence with his “peace that comes from fucking” and all that. Dickinson’s plain, too (“I felt a funeral in my brain”; “I’m nobody–who are you?”). Her greatness lies precisly in her plainness; her littleness is her immensity.
So down with pretense and profundity and complexity and chaos theory and all that. The hell with it. Here’s to the exquisite plainness of things and to the artists who recognized it and took the time and had the talent to tell me about it.