Writing Against Time
Is art different than life? According to an emerging consensus, our experience of a description of a house, person, or landscape in a novel or poem, and our experience of an actual house, person, or landscape, are not essentially different. Critics and philosophers have drawn on recent neuroscientific research to argue that the brain processes the images prompted by literature in much the same way as it processes any other image. Thus Alvin Goldman describes a study in which subjects responded to a verbal description of a beach by robustly enacting vision, manifesting eye movements and neural signals as if they were examining the real thing (42). Blakey Vermeule and others have argued that we relate to literary characters using the same mechanisms deployed in our negotiation of actual social situations.1 Timothy Schroeder and Carl Matheson, in a summary of the past two decades’ work on aesthetics, write: “Insofar as the imagination causes the same feelings as the real, it does so by using the same structures in the brain as those used by the real world” (30). An event causes sensory stimulation; various mental representations are formed; signals are sent to affective centers. Whether the event is a thunderstorm or a description of a thunderstorm does not appear to make any fundamental difference. Thus “fictional stimuli entrain neural consequences similar to nonfictional stimuli” (28).
To say that our brains process fictional images in much the same way as they process actual images is not, however, to say that there are no differences. Three are particularly salient. First, the experience of a novelistic description of a thunderstorm, unlike the experience of an actual thunderstorm, requires interpretation. The reader draws on various linguistic and cultural competences and assumptions in order to turn the marks on the page into the image he understands the author to intend to project.2 The second obvious difference between real and literary experiences is that the latter do not typically entail the same kinds of actions as the former. I will not run even from Shirley Jackson’s ghosts. This may be, as some speculate, because my belief that an image is fictional severs it from action consequences—running for my life—but not from affective consequences—I shiver, my hair stands on edge.3 Or my failure to run may be due to the third difference between life and literature: literary images are less vivid than actual images.
This is Elaine Scarry’s assumption in her classic study Dreaming by the Book, and recent neuroscience supports this intuition by suggesting that the impulses triggered by fictional images are similar, but less robust, that those triggered by actual images.4 Scarry describes works of literature as containing “sets of instructions” for creating images (244). Beset by what Aristotle calls “the feebleness of images,” writers struggle to copy those dynamics of actual perception muted by imaginary perception (4). This “counterfictional” drive gives rise to ingenious techniques designed to give literary images something of the vivacity of the flowers, skies, and faces we encounter in everyday life. Scarry illustrates some of these techniques by quoting a passage from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where Marcel, describing the effect of the magic lantern on his bedroom wall, exclaims that “the anaesthetic effects of habit were destroyed” (11). Scarry comments: “But more fundamental than Proust’s philosophical speculation on habit is what he does not openly remark on: the perceptual mimesis of the solidity of the room brought about by the impalpable iridescence” of the magic lantern on the walls (11). A weakly imagined wall combined with the equally weak, dream-like image of magic lantern light, combines to create an image of surprising solidity. Proust’s “philosophical” ruminations about habit are merely a “distraction,” something to draw our attention away from the trick by which two feeble images are folded on top of one another to give the effect of solidity.
Writers want to create vivid images. But is philosophy really so extrinsic to this work? I want to call this assumption into question by first questioning another of Scarry’s assumptions. Is it true that everyday perception is vivid? The color of the sky on my way to work, the flowers in my neighbors’ yard, my neighbors’ faces—is this really what writers seeking vivacity seek to imitate?
I don’t notice the sky on my way to work. I couldn’t say what colors my neighbors’ flowers are. In fact, I’m not even sure that they have flowers. I will shortly present evidence that the feebleness of everyday perception is not my private tragedy. But if, as Scarry argues, the flowers in books are in constant danger of dying for want of the solidity of real flowers, then what is killing the real flowers? And what is the medicine? The analysts of literary effects from Edmund Burke through Viktor Shklovsky, from Scarry to the latest cognitive critics, have been distracted by formal features, structures, and techniques. The sickness of literary flowers may be a problem for literary technique. The sickness of living flowers is a problem for philosophy. And this philosophy, as I will argue, has been the constant practice of a literature that doesn’t want to imitate life, but to transform it.
Time poisons perception. No existing technique has proven effective at inoculating images against time. The problem is familiar. The more we see something, the duller and feebler our experience of it becomes. In a review of recent neuroscientific studies, David Eagleman describes strong evidence for a process that will be intuitively obvious to all readers. The first time we encounter an image, our perceptual experience tends to be richly vivid. Repeated exposure leads to a dramatic drop-off in vivacity. “With repeated presentations of a stimulus, a sharpened representation or a more efficient encoding is achieved in the neural network that codes for the object” (132).5 Once the brain has learned to recognize the image, it no longer requires the high “metabolic costs” of intense sensory engagement.
This efficiency has clear evolutionary advantages, but it means that we are subject to an incessant erasure of perceptual life. No sooner do we catch a glimpse of the shining colors of the world, than they begin to darken. Time’s threat to perception may seem less pressing than the death and aging with which time menaces the organism. But from the first reflections on experience, writers have been consumed with how time poisons even the brief life we possess.
Sixteen centuries ago Augustine, in the first phenomenology of human time, describes time as introducing a fatal distortion into experience. Man is “stretched” between past and future; temporal succession means that we are denied the fullness of the present moment. “A person singing or listening to a song he knows well suffers a distension or stretching in feeling and in sense perception from the expectation of future sounds and the memory of past sound” (245).6 The familiar object has become a cognitive whole practically sealed off from direct perceptual contact. Familiarity thins out sensory engagement nearly to the point of evaporation. The “stretching” of memory and anticipation replaces listening, seeing, touching. We are buried alive in time. “Who can lay hold of the heart and give it fixity,” Augustine cries, “so that for some little moment it may be stable, and for a fraction of time may grasp the splendor of a constant eternity?” (228) Augustine does not long for the inorganic eternity of the statue or pyramid. He prays for the splendor of a heart stopped but not dead, for a “fraction of time” lifted out of succession.
But if humans lack the power to stop time, we can slow it. Time seems to slow when we perceive something for the first time. The moment of perception swells; the “fraction of time” expands. “Subjective duration,” writes Eagleton, “mirrors the amount of neural energy used to encode a stimulus” (132). The “first appearance” of an image seems to last out of all proportion to chronological time; a gap opens between the time of the clock and neurobiological time. “These dilations of perceived duration have been called a subjective expansion of time” (132). In such moments we get a glimpse of the splendor of eternal life, of unfading color, unerased sensation. But these dilations don’t last. What if they could?
In his sonnet “Bright Star” Keats expresses the desire for the complete arrest of neurobiological time with the paradox its illogic demands.
Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou art!
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night;
Not watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s devout, sleepless eremite […]
No;–yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death— (338)
The poem’s stark fusion of geologic and organic time scarcely mitigates the unimaginability of the desired state. How can one even imagine the stasis of the star fused with the beating of a living heart? The “soft swell and fall” of breath, the rhythm of circulation, the tingle of sensation: life is intertwined with time. To try to imagine disentangling them, to try to imagine introducing the stillness of the star into a living heart, is like trying to imagine a melody of one note.
Like Augustine’s image of a hand laying hold of a heart, Keats’ desired state is supernatural not just because its achievement seems beyond any technology known to him or to us. It is supernatural because it seems to require some greater mental force to make what is desired comprehensible. How can a heart be stopped without killing it? The beat is life itself. How can a heart be stopped without stopping? Such a state is unimaginable at every level. How can you even want to “feel for ever” the “soft swell and fall” of your lover’s breast? Wouldn’t your neck start to ache? Wouldn’t you get bored? Wouldn’t you soon simply stop noticing that regular rise and fall and start to daydream?
I doubt anyone reading this will claim never to have thought of some experience, “I wish this would last forever.” But we seem to know instinctively this is a desire that does not bear reflection. If a genie suddenly appeared, ready to grant our wish, we would be wise, remembering the fate of the oracle, not to wish this. Would anyone really want any moment to last forever? But then what do we wish for when we wish it?
In the absence of clarity about what is wanted, Keats’ wish for endless life collapses at the touch of a thought. But the desire for immortality is by no means condemned to the difficulties it faces in this sonnet. The history of religion shows the concept of a kind of consciousness that might slip free of the body to be a great help in fashioning comprehensible and attractive images of immortality. But Keats rigorously identifies consciousness with bodily sensation. To be “awake” is to “feel” and to “hear.” Life is perception.
Keats wants a sensation that is exactly like the sensation of resting his head upon his lover’s rising, falling breast. This ideal sensation is just like the actual sensation in every way but one: It is timeless. It is static. It is “unchangeable.” What does this ideal sensation look like? The poem has no answer. The star and heart are not ultimately fused; they break up against each other. There is no object of desire here, no image for what is wanted. The poem ends in despair. Despair of life: What I most want I cannot have. And despair of thought and of language: I cannot even say what it is I want. This is the problem time represents for writing. Technique is powerless to solve it.
But perhaps this is going too far. Surely not all writers frame the problem of time in the extreme terms of this sonnet. In fact, we can’t even take the paradoxes of this sonnet as representative of Keats’ poetry. Several of the “Odes,” for example, express confidence in the power of art to renew, prolong, and intensify life. Perhaps “Bright Star,” like “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” is emblematic less of art’s relation to time than of the dying Keats’ mental state. No one can deny that some art successfully changes life and defeats time. What about Shakespeare?
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (19). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, expressive of an abundantly justified confidence in the power of artistic form over time, is the antithesis of Keats’ sonnet, and represents a tradition of artistic immortality that runs counter to the romantic tradition explored by this book. As Aaron Kunin has shown, Shakespeare’s sonnets are the central examples in English literature of the ancient tradition of the artwork as technology for defeating time. The poet creates a beautiful form. Its beauty is the hook that attracts generations of breathing, seeing readers, and the poem passes through them like a virus, its immortality parasitic on the mortal taste for beauty.
But what exactly is preserved in Sonnet 18? Not Shakespeare’s life, nor the life of his subject.7 Only that part of living bodies that can withstand translation into an unliving object survives. Simple logic animates this tradition. “That which is only living,” as Eliot puts it, “can only die” (19). Therefore only that which can’t die can be preserved. This tradition, which I will call the classical, is older than the one I explore, and it depends on three assumptions that the writers I study reject. The first is that the most valuable aspect of a person is the object that the person becomes in the public eye. That one’s name shall be remembered, that one’s deeds shall be celebrated: this is the ambition of ancient heroes and poets. Sensation is not subject to preservation. Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most powerful modern theorist of this tradition. “Nothing,” she writes, “is less common and less communicable, and therefore more securely shielded against the visibility and audibility of the public realm, than what goes on within the confines of the body” (The Human Condition, 113). The evanescence of sensation is the source of its low value in the tradition. What lasts is valuable.
The second assumption is that lastingness is procured only at the cost of a sacrifice of life. The glorious death of Achilles is the western prototype of a tradition that has not disappeared from our literature. A modernist example, Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” gladly exchanges the sensual rhythms of life for “monuments of unaging intellect” (80). “Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing.” The speaker envisions a golden bird as emblem of an artwork that preserves a version of the self purged of what “Byzantium” calls “the fury and the mire of human veins.”8
Roberto Bolano’s fiction is a particularly compelling recent example of and meditation on this tradition. At the end of By Night in Chile, the narrator, surveying the human wreckage strewn across his story of Chilean literature during the Pinochet regime, exclaims: “That is how literature is made, that is how the great works of western literature are made. You better get used to it” (128). When Bolano associates the violence that nurtures literature with “time’s giant meat-grinder” he makes explicit a dark secret implicit in Arendt (127). The immortality of art is not opposed to time at all. Time is not defeated. Art simply fashions human experience into a lasting form by performing time’s work beforehand. Everything that goes on within the confines of the body is cut out. The action survives, the name, the durable form, the bone beneath the flesh. All else is burned out.
The refining violence that the work performs on human bodies is simply the violence of time itself. Earlier in the novel, the narrator relates the parable of the shoemaker who spends his life and fortune constructing an elaborate shrine for the heroes of the empire. Decades later, the soldiers who prize open the shrine’s padlocked gate find the shoemaker’s skeleton inside, “his jaw hanging open, as if he were still laughing after having glimpsed immortality” (48). Bolano’s sense that art is a tomb that preserves a dead body finds pointed expression in a joke from the same novel. French Archeologists visit the pope in Rome, saying they have good news and bad news. “The good news is that they have discovered the Holy Sepulcher…The pope is moved to tears. What’s the bad news? He asks, drying his eyes. Well, inside the Holy Sepulcher we found the body of Christ. The pope passes out” (79).
Bolano’s ambivalence about literary immortality in no way signals its rejection. We find the same ambivalence in the Illiad, in Achilles’ hesitation at the prospect of exchanging life for immortality. The preservation art effects is tragic. It is always difficult to say whether the ultimate victor is the being whose name, words, or actions are preserved, or time, which takes everything else. Yeats’ golden bird, after all, survives only as a plaything for “lords and ladies of Byzantium.” Is it better to be an undying toy or a living, breathing, dying animal?
The third assumption of this classical tradition is that the beneficiary of the immortality conferred by art is the author or subject, not the audience. When the audience is visible at all, as in Sonnet 18, it is as the mortal engine that powers the work’s immortality device. The eyes and lips wear out and are replaced; the name they pass on endures. In contrast, the romantic tradition that “Bright Star” represents is concerned with renewing and preserving sensation, and this effort is often described in terms of the effect the work produces on an audience. Nietzsche, for example, writes that “art is…an excitation of the animal functions through the images and desires of intensified life;–an enhancement of the feeling of life, a stimulant to it” (802).
We have now passed over into consideration of the romantic tradition, but note that Nietzsche’s statement has none of the doubt that tortures Keats’ sonnet. Art produces excitation, enhancement, stimulant. Art serves a different end than in the classical tradition; these writers reject the effort to ensure the “survival” of a thing across gulfs of chronological time. For Nietzsche, art aims not to preserve an object but to enhance and prolong life. As Georges Poulet writes, in the romantic vision “eternity is not endlessness.” It is a “full and perfect possession of interminable life” (Romanticism and Timelessness, 6). Yet Nietzsche and Poulet share Shakespeare’s confidence in art’s power to achieve its end. And they are hardly alone in their testimony of art’s power to awaken sleeping senses. In “Richard Wagner and Tannhauser in Paris,” Baudelaire exclaims, “From that very moment, at that first concert…I had—or at least it seemed to me I had—undergone a spiritual operation, a revelation. My thrill of pleasure had been so powerful and terrible that I could not prevent myself from ceaselessly wanting to return to it” (117).
For Baudelaire, the first encounter with Wagner produces a feeling of intensified life. The richness and vividness of the first experience figures prominently in the romantic tradition. This tradition seeks to counter experiential time, and thus becomes involved in the paradoxes which Keats articulates with such painful clarity. By comparison to the relatively straightforward classical concern with lastingness, the desire to counter time’s negative effects on ineluctably time-bound human experience creates deep conceptual and practical problems. There can be no question of simply cutting life free of time altogether. Rather, in Schiller’s phrase, art’s problem involves “annulling time within time” (97).
Romantic and postromantic writers discover in the peculiar temporal structure of first impressions a strategy for pursuing this paradoxical goal. Thus the effort to counter neurobiological time typically finds expression in an effort to achieve two experientially related but conceptually distinct states. The first is the felt slowing or stopping of time that accompanies an intensely vivid perception. The second is the persistence of this perceptual intensity across chronological time. Since in everyday life the most vivid perception of a thing tends to be the first impression, the persistence of the qualities of the first impression across the second, tenth, and hundredth impressions signals a countering of time’s effect on the feeling of life. And in fact, as we shall see, a central criteria for artistic success within this tradition is the extent to which a work produces and preserves the effect of a first impression.
By inventing structures to prolong the first impression, the artists I study attempt to arrest the flow of neurobiological time, the tendency of the brain to reduce sensory engagement with repeated exposure. “Our failure is to form habits,” Pater writes. “To burn always with a hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” (152). Shelley claims that “poetry makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (642). Coleridge argues that Wordsworth’s poetic aim is “to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us” (313).
The theorists of this tradition typically associate the successful arrest of neurobiological time with specific techniques that, in Shklovsky’s famous term, “defamiliarize,” restore our perception of things to the vitality of the first sight. The founder of materialist aesthetics, Edmund Burke, invents the template for subsequent criticism. Aesthetic experience for Burke does not simply illustrate the natural workings of the brain, but consists in the effort to suspend or override neural tendencies in pursuit of something unnatural.
“Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little,” Burke writes (56). “When we accustom our eyes” to an image, it ceases to affect us. And we become accustomed more rapidly to more clearly delineated images: “A great clearness is an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever” (56). The introduction of fuzziness, vagueness, or shadow forestalls the familiarization that reduces impact. Thus verbal images are more effective for Burke because they are more obscure. As an ideal description of the encounter with an obscure image, Burke quotes the Book of Job: “It stood still, but I couldst not discern the form thereof, an image was before mine eyes” (58).
Vagueness and indefinition thus operate to separate the image’s affective impact from that aspect of the image—clear delineation of visual shape—that enables familiarity. Burke’s aesthetic identifies an aspect of perception abundantly confirmed by recent research—the tendency of the brain to automatize the processing of familiar images—with a view to overcoming this tendency. He then identifies a particular artistic technique—obscurity—which forestalls familiarization and prolongs intense perceptual experience.9 Subsequent materialist critics have added to the repertoire of habit-defeating techniques. Shklovsky, for example, alternately points to Tolstoy’s use of the perspective of a horse to estrange familiar objects, and to the complexity of futurist poems that prolong and intensify the experience of reading itself (1-14).
But now, given Burke’s, Coleridge’s, and Shklovsky’s confidence in the capacity of the artwork to renew our constantly decaying perceptual life, Keats’ sonnet looks like an outlier. Is Keats’ sense of the impossibility of freeing feeling from time simply an overly pessimistic, even hysterical view of the problem? Shakespeare promised the survival of an object; the object survives. But can art “lay hold of the heart and give it fixity?” Can art reliably return us to the intense duration of the first impression? This question transfixes Proust, and his reflections will help us decide whether to credit Coleridge’s confidence or Keats’ despair. Here is Proust’s description of Swann’s most profound experience of art.
The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul… Perhaps it was owing to his ignorance of music that he had received so confused an impression, one of those that are none the less the only purely musical impressions….an impression of this order, vanishing in an instant, is, so to speak, sine materia…impossible to describe, to recollect, to name, ineffable—did not our memory, like a laborer who toils at the laying down of firm foundations beneath the tumult of the waves, by fashioning for us facsimiles of those fugitive phrases, enable us to compare and to contrast them with those that follow…When that same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer impossible to grasp. He could picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical arrangement, its notation, its expressive value; he had before him something that was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual music to be recalled. (204)
The phrase recurs a third time, “bringing him, indeed, a pleasure less profound.” This artwork seems constructed according to the exacting technical specifications of Burke and Shklovsky: it is both obscure and difficult. And at first it does indeed “enrapture” Swann. Yet the work stops working almost at once. As the phrase becomes more familiar, he gradually discovers in it “some disenchantment” (214).10 At a certain moment, “a phrase or harmony—he did not know which” took ecstatic possession of his senses, of his being. But as the form of the work becomes clear, the magic dies.
Swann has discovered something quite simple: repeated exposure to a work of art operates just like repeated exposure to anything else. The achievement of cognitive mastery over form, the ability to recognize the object, simultaneously causes a precipitous drop-off in sensory intensity. The experience of art is not immune to the relentless erosive force of neurobiological time, but is simply another instance of it. Eventually Swann’s sensory engagement with the phrase drains utterly away; it becomes a “token of his love” for Odette, a love which has the same structure as his experience of art: an initial, mysterious, formless beauty, followed by disenchantment. The phrase stands for Odette, who stands for the decay of life and love. Art has become mere meaning. Music has become writing. It has died.
Music, as we shall see, occupies a special place in the tradition that concerns us. But for Proust it is simply the most striking instance of a phenomenon that corrodes all artistic objects, as it corrodes all other objects. Consider, for example, the narrator’s reflections on how the works of his favorite writer, Bergotte, have lost their magic. After long familiarity, Begotte’s “sentences stood out as clearly before my eyes as my own thoughts, the furniture in my room, and the carriages in the street. All the details were easily visible, not perhaps precisely as one has always seen them, but at any rate as one was accustomed to see them now… From then onwards I felt less admiration for Bergotte” (603).
Of course not everyone feels as Proust does; not everyone prefers the first time listening to a symphony or reading a poem to the result of further acquaintance, when experience is illuminated by understanding. In fact, one way of determining whether a writer belongs to the particular romantic tradition considered by this book is to ask how he evaluates the initial experience of a work of art. Contrast the following statement by Winckelmann from 1764 with the passages from Proust above. “The first view of beautiful statues is…like the first glance over the open sea; we gaze on it bewildered, and with undistinguishing eyes, but after we have contemplated it repeatedly the soul becomes more tranquil and the eye more quiet, and capable of separating the whole into its particulars.”11
Interestingly, Proust and Winckelmann do not disagree about the phenomenology of the initial exposure to the work of art; they both compare it to the formless dynamism of the ocean. (To Swann the music is “multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea.”) But where Winckelmann values the knowledge of form, the “quiet” eye that accompanies the ability to grasp structure is for Proust precisely the symptom of perception’s sickness that art must counter.
The juxtaposition of Proust and Winckelmann might suggest that the tradition I am describing is roughly coextensive with a period: traditional romanticism, extended into the modern. But things aren’t so simple. Consider the contemporary philosopher Alva Noe’s description of the phenomenology of music.
You play a record through. The music is unfamiliar, strange; the album exhibits a kind of opacity. As you become familiar with the music, you begin more fully to experience it. Your experience becomes richer. Where the songs were thin and meaningless before, they are now structured, complex, and motivated….Without acquaintance with the music itself, you were, in effect, unable to hear it. (31)12
For Noe, as for Winckelmann, the richness of aesthetic experience is bound up with the ability to decipher the relations of the work’s parts. To hear music, for Noe, is to know it. But to say that Noe and Winckelmann value the understanding of the art object while Swann values raw sensation would be wrong. Proust shows Swann straining to understand the “phrase or melody.” Indeed, as the studies surveyed by Eagleman suggest, this straining is precisely what produces the heightened sensory intensity. Winckelmann and Proust pick out two points on a continuum as the ne plus ultra of aesthetic experience, but it is the same continuum, and the points are related as before and after. Proust’s ideal listener is inexorably becoming Winckelmann’s ideal listener.
And yet, with only a little inventiveness, Swann could surely expose himself to a music or noise so utterly devoid of pattern that it would completely frustrate his effort to make sense of it. The absurdity of this suggestion to anyone familiar with In Search of Lost Time shows how little the desired experience consists of raw sensation. Proust’s listeners, viewers, and readers seek out recognizable forms in which novelty is in tension with a familiarity that provides some foothold for understanding. No one in this tradition is drawn to cacophony, and they tend not be drawn to the overwhelming alteirity of the objects associated with the sublime.13 Without seeing how Proust’s listener strains toward understanding we will miss the tragic paradox of his conception of artistic experience. The effort to grasp the work’s form triggers the intense sensory engagement that its success destroys.
If the romantic listener is always being carried from enrapturing intensity towards quiet Winckelmannian comprehension, then all that distinguishes him is the desire, fast turning into nostalgia, for the former state over the latter. And yet even this desire betrays him. Baudelaire, in the passage on Wagner I quoted earlier, supplies an instance. After describing his ecstasy at the first time he hears Tannenhauser, he writes: “The experience that I had had doubtless contained much of what Weber and Beethoven had already taught me, but there was also something new which I was incapable of defining, and this incapacity caused me a rage and a curiosity mingled with a strange delight….I resolved…to transform my pleasure into knowledge” (117). Possessed by this raging curiosity, he roams Paris looking for anyone who will play him some Wagner.
There are two ways of reading this passage. We might say that for Baudelaire the knowledge of the music’s form is the antidote to an experience the intensity of which he finds intolerable. The disturbing ecstasy brings a longing for tranquility, and knowledge is the tranquilizer. This sentiment is not hard to sympathize with. Imagine you are suddenly struck with a feeling of intense pleasure. It is likely that a desperate anxiety to know why—did I just have a stroke? did someone slip me something?—would snuff the desire to remain in the mysteriously pleasurable state.
On this reading, Baudelaire’s intense joy inspires a longing for soothing knowledge. But there is another interpretation. The passage suggests that Baudelaire’s “rage and curiosity” are in fact identical with the “strange delight” the new music inspires. Perhaps the desire for knowledge doesn’t succeed the pleasure; perhaps to feel the delight just is to be driven to understand the form. Intensity of perception is what desire for knowledge feels like. The prospect of prolonging this intensity introduces another form of Keats’ paradox, pitched now in the key of desire. How can one want the feeling of wanting knowledge without wanting knowledge? How can one even imagine arresting a process that is essentially teleological without destroying what it is?
John Dewey, whose Art as Experience remains the most sophisticated account of experiential aesthetics, believes that one cannot, and one should not, arrest this process. In terms very like Proust’s, Dewey describes how in the encounter with art “the total overwhelming impression comes first…the effect upon us of entrance into a cathedral when dim light, incense, stained glass, and majestic proportion fuse in one indistinguishable whole….There is an impact that precedes all definite recognition of what it is about” (145). Quoting Delacroix on first seeing a painting, he writes, “Before knowing what the picture represents you are seized by its magical accord” (145).
And yet Dewey warns us not to be seduced by the magic. “Not only, however, is it impossible to prolong this stage of aesthetic experience indefinitely, but it is not desirable to do so.” The “impact” is only the first step in the temporal unfolding of the work’s form. To wish to prolong it is alien to art, and belongs rather to “such things as narcotics, sexual orgasms, and gambling indulged in for the sake of immediate excitement of sensation.” In artistic experience, as in everyday experience, “a sensory quality is related to other qualities in such a way as to define an object” (126). We want to understand the object, to grasp its parts and their interrelations. This understanding “takes time” (55). He is insistent on this point, writing that some readers may think that he “exaggerates the temporal aspect of perception….but in no case can there be perception of an object except in a process developing in time. Mere excitations, yes” (175).
Yet the dismissal of “mere excitation” conceals an ambiguity in Dewey’s account. After all, he writes with feeling and longing of the first impression. Maybe an element of psychological self-protection enters into his theory. Perhaps his belief that prolonging the magical moment of perception is impossible dictates his belief that such a prolongation is also undesirable. As we shall see, other writers will not shrink from an impossible desire, nor will they hesitate to send art to the school of “narcotics, sexual orgasms, and gambling” in hope of achieving it.
But to return to the problem of periodization, the contrast between Noe/Dewey/Winckelmann and Proust/Keats suggests that the period in question is rather small. It is a question of preferring the beginning or the end of a process of aesthetic attention that seems to have neurobiological, rather than historical, determinants. The “classical” writer prefers the end, when knowledge of the enduring form has been achieved; the “romantic” prefers the beginning, when subjective time swells and slows, and the senses are enraptured. As support for this view, one might point to the example of a contemporary writer like Bolano, who clearly sees himself extending the classical tradition of literary immortality as the persistence of form across time. At the other end, Arendt’s picture of classical antiquity as indifferent to inner experience has been complicated by the work of Pierre Hadot, who has written persuasively of the effort to intensify the experience of the present moment in ancient philosophy (217-237), and Martha Nussbaum, who has excavated the complex attitudes towards mortality in the Epicurian tradition (192-239). Finally, in Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity Andrew Bennet has shown the extent to which the classical concern with the immortality of the text persists in Keats and Shelley, suggesting that both impulses might be found within a single authorship.14
Perhaps, then, it is better to think of the opposition “classical” and “romantic,” as I have been referring to these two distinct efforts to defeat time, as attitudes equally present in all periods, roughly analogous to Nietzsche’s “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” dyad. But this would be to distort both the contents of this book–which draws all of its examples from after 1800, and most from after 1945–as well as the tradition it analyzes. I do not think it can be denied that artistic efforts to stop experiential time multiply exponentially around the dawn of what has been traditionally identified as the romantic era, even as they expand into the modern and postmodern. But these efforts are by no means definitive of any of these periods. Many, and perhaps most, nineteenth and twentieth century writers are unconcerned with the obsessions of the tradition I delineate here.
Nevertheless, the clustering of examples after 1800 undoubtedly has historical causes. Scholars looking for such causes might start with the consolidation of consumer capitalism, the rise of medical science, or the waning of traditional religion in the intellectual classes along with the version of eternal life it promised.15 But this book is concerned to describe the key features of the romantic quest to defeat time, in the hope that its most powerful examples can teach us something new about art and life. While the chapters that follow attend to social, political, and economic contexts when necessary to make sense of a given work’s dynamics, this is not a historicist study, and I make no attempt to enumerate and analyze the historical causes of the impulses animating the tradition as a whole. Nor, for the pragmatic reasons I elaborate in my conclusion, do I think such an investigation is especially urgent. At this moment in the history of the disciplines, literary criticism’s best opportunity for creating new knowledge lies not in the description of art’s embeddedness in contexts recognizable to historians or sociologists, but in the description of the forces by which art attempts to free itself of such contexts and such recognitions.
We have begun to see how art is not immune to the temporality of perceptual experience. What do we make, then, of the confidence expressed by Nietzsche, Shklovsky, Shelley, or Coleridge? These writers celebrate the techniques by which poets, painters, and composers renew our fading senses. But they are not ignorant of the process described by Proust, whereby the perceptual vitality of the first encounter with the work quickly cools into understanding. In fact the proponents of art’s efficacy at renewing and transforming our experience are acutely aware of this problem. The solutions they propose fall into two general categories: reasonable and unreasonable. While I will be primarily interested in the latter, we must first survey the reasonable response to art’s entanglement with time.
Proust’s unreasonable solution will in part serve as the subject of my first chapter, but he can also be reasonable. Immediately following the passage in which the narrator reflects on his disenchantment with Bergotte, he describes the new writer who has succeeded Bergotte in his admiration. This writer “had begun to publish work in which the relations between things were so different from those that connected them for me that I could understand hardly anything of what he wrote….only I felt that it was not the sentence that was badly constructed but I myself that lacked the strength and agility necessary to reach the end. I would start afresh, striving tooth and nail to reach the point from which I would see the new relationship between things” (603). Through the process of struggling with the new writer, he discovers “a charm similar to those which I had found long ago in reading Bergotte” (604).
Marcel concludes these reflections by declaring that “Art is like science” (604). He shifts the burden of renewing our senses from the individual artwork to the history of art, which tirelessly discovers new forms. Even the most powerful works become old. We might discover new significance in our twentieth reading of Macbeth, our thirtieth examination of “View of Delft,” but the “magic accord” of the early encounter will have fled. So from Shakespeare we proceed to Ibsen and Beckett, from Vermeer to Monet and Matisse, from Beethoven to Wagner and Debussy. “Art is like science” in its constant invention of new techniques. But art runs to stand still. It is simply the case that to keep our perceptual clock at first sight requires continual innovation. A narrower and more precise analogy might be to the project of countering the tendency of bacteria to develop immunity to antibiotics. Like artists, chemists search for new formulas that will produce the effect the old formulas no longer can.
Many of the strongest theorists of art’s experiential value reproduce Marcel’s logic. Shklovsky’s “Art as Device,” for example, also deploys the scientific metaphor, and envisions ceaseless formal innovation as necessary to the project of defamiliarization. Michael Fried, who in “Art and Objecthood” famously praises the “grace” of “presentness” achieved in the viewer’s absorption by great art (168), in the trilogy that begins with Absorption and Theatricality describes the history of french painting as driven by the inevitable decay of the techniques that produce this absorption. What works for Chardin will no longer work for Courbet, and so the artist must try something new. Even Dewey, who, as we have seen, is more ambivalent about the value of presentness, has a version of the reasonable solution. “Advances in technique occur,” he writes, “in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical but that grow out of the need for new modes of experience” (141).
These solutions are reasonable because they accept that perceptual vitality, the subjective expansion of the present moment, is a consequence of the mind’s attempt to grasp form, and vanishes at the conclusion of that process. So one has two sensible choices. The first option is to seek art’s value in understanding rather than in experience. This has the great advantage of preserving the shelf life of old works, since, as is well known, there is no limit to the new ideas one can get from Shakespeare. If, however, you are committed to art as a technology for the renewal of human life, then you are condemned to read new books, see new paintings, listen to new music. Once you have understood one work, you must start over with a new artifact in which the interplay between novelty and familiarity will once again strike the senses with the “magic accord.”
All reasonable criticism holds the tacit belief that the experience of art is subject to the same limits as all other experience. Art is not different than life. Recent work in experiential aesthetics has tended to rely on models drawn from the cognitive sciences to specify these limits. In their different ways, critics like Mark Turner, Lisa Zunshine, Gabrielle Starr, and Blakey Vermeule apply scientific models of everyday cognition and perception to describe literature and literary experience.16 Science tells us what the brain can do, and the critics show how literature does it. Here reasonableness shades into disciplinary modesty. Literary scholars take models from the sciences, but have little to give back. Zunshine, for instance, describes this new work as the “appl[ication of] insights from cognitive science to cultural representations” (Introduction to Cultural Studies, 1).
One problem with some of this criticism, as both the critic Jonathan Kramick and the scientist Paul Bloom have recently pointed out, is that the science applied by these critics is often dated and inaccurate, and the critics represent models as authoritative without acknowledging the scientific debates. But for my immediate purposes a more serious problem is that this critical approach lacks the capacity to describe literature’s unreasonable efforts to do something the brain can’t do. And yet, as I will attempt to show, it is by attending to this effort that a truly interdisciplinary relation between literature and science becomes possible.
This book examines the unreasonable approach to the problem of stopping time. The reasonable romantics respect the temporal constraints of perception. They transfer the desire to enhance life through art from the individual work to the historical succession of forms. The unreasonable romantics seek the creation of a work that will permanently arrest perception at the moment of the first encounter.
By now we have some sense of the scale of this problem, enough at least to know that Scarry’s attempt to explain the literary effort to achieve vivacity by cordoning off philosophical speculation from technical innovation is untenable. To even imagine what a life undimmed by time would look like requires no ordinary philosophy. Literary form can do many things, but it can’t do this.17 The writers I examine invent virtual techniques, imaginary forms for arresting neurobiological time by overcoming the brain’s stubborn boundaries.18 The mode is ekphrastic. These writers create images of more powerful images; they fashion techniques for imagining better techniques. Poems by Keats and Ashbery, novels by Proust, Orwell, and Nabokov are not works so much as workshops in which the shape of an ideal artwork is pieced together from blueprints and models. Fragments of the real world are brought inside and scrutinized for any hint, any insight. Like an airplane designer examining a bird’s wing, the artist studies life to overcome its limits.
My hope is that this study, by reading central works of the past two centuries in the light of their shared ambition, will produce a revisionary understanding of some of our most important writing. But I have another aim. These writers, voracious in their appetite for any knowledge that will further their goal, find help in unlikely places. Totalitarian regimes, obsessive compulsive disorder, and global commodity exchange furnish them with tools and models. By attending to the thinking animated and distorted by literature’s extreme ambition, literary criticism might fulfill its ambition to produce new knowledge of its own.
“A striking new object arrives, you get used to it, and then you hardly ever see it” (26). This is what Michael Clune describes as art’s hard problem: how to remain vital for a single spectator—how to resist “the deadening effects of habit on perceptual vivacity” (35).
Clune describes two approaches to the problem. The “reasonable” approach, championed by Viktor Shklovsky and Michael Fried, among others, recommends constant stylistic innovation to “ameliorat[e] the limited ability of individual works to make time swell and stop” (27). This approach drives the history of art, but does little to protect individual artworks from time’s influence. “Time’s poison attacks our senses,” Clune remarks in a discussion of Proust; “switching styles is just switching deck chairs on the Titanic” (27).
The “unreasonable” approach, by contrast, attempts to maintain the vivacity of individual artworks. The approach is unreasonable, Clune argues, because its effects are “virtual.” “I use virtual,” he explains, “to refer to the tendency of artworks to project blueprints for a kind of conscious experience that we can’t yet actualize” (35). Chapters on Keats and Proust, Nabokov, Orwell, and Ashbery describe these blueprints, which often present plans for fictional artworks. “The writers I examine,” Clune writes, “invent virtual techniques, imaginary forms for arresting neurobiological time by overcoming the brain’s stubborn boundaries. The mode is ekphrastic. The writers create images of more powerful images; they fashion techniques for imagining better techniques” (20).
In Writing against Time, Clune presents brilliant readings of texts from two continents, spanning two hundred years of literary history. The chapter on Keats and Proust examines depictions of “imaginary music.” (Proust imagines a septet that allows him to “see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees…” (28).) The chapter on Nabokov describes his desire to captivate readers in the same way that nymphets captivate Humbert Humbert. The chapter on Orwell, which is the strongest in the book, reads Big Brother as a work of art:
In Oceania, Orwell shows us what a world organized by Shklovsky’s radical redefinition of art in terms of function might look like. Particular methods don’t stop time for very long; the endless work of the regime keeps it stopped. This work makes the hardness of rocks and the wetness of water the kind of news that, in Oceania, stays news. This ceaseless activity accounts for the fact that Winston drinks the same gin every day for years and never gets used to it. (108)
Finally, the chapter on Ashbery details “the poet’s painstaking, cunning, and obsessive labors in attempting to familiarize the unfamiliar object” (116). The result: a “blueprint of an image that will forever solicit the invigorating desire to know, and forever defer pacifying knowledge” (130). Clune ends the book with a brief discussion of contemporary literary criticism and the value of explicating such unreasonable literary inventions.
Writing against Time is a book about an important topic in romanticism. (Clune contrasts the romantic desire to stop time with the classical desire for literary immortality.) It is also a book about utopianism—about the desire for a perfect, yet impractical state of affairs. (“Quixotic” is a synonym for Clune’s “unreasonable.”) Many of its most compelling arguments tackle a defining feature of utopian literature: the tension between figure and ground—between a writer’s political context and his or her political ideal.
This is why the chapter on Orwell is so good: it interrogates the tension between Orwell’s actual artwork (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and his conception of an ideal artwork (Big Brother). Clune points to a troubling connection: “Artistic mastery is the preserving agent for Orwell the writer and reader, while totalitarian control serves the same function for Winston the party member” (101). Should this connection cause us to reassess art’s social significance? Should we be grateful for art’s limited efficacy? The answer, for Orwell, is yes. According to Clune, “Orwell suggests that it is acceptable for art to aim at timelessness only because we know art isn’t strong enough to achieve it” (112).
The book’s less compelling chapters ignore this tension between figure and ground, and treat complex novels and poems as instruments for solving art’s hard problem. For example, Clune reads Ashbery as a science fiction writer whose main achievement is to depict “fantastic commodities” (137). There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, and Clune presents some excellent readings—including an ingenious defense of the homogeneity of Ashbery’s late poetry. But the approach often overlooks the meaning and texture of individual poems. A case in point: Clune’s reading of Ashbery’s “Outside My Window the Japanese…” Clune cites the poem’s “Japanese driving range” as one of the poet’s fantastic commodities. But what’s so fantastic about a Japanese driving range? The poem begins:
Outside my window the Japanese driving range
shivers in its mesh veils, skinny bride
of soon-to-be-spring, ravenous, rapturous. Why is it here?
A puzzle. And what was it doing before, then? An earlier
puzzle. I like how it wraps itself
in not-quite wind—
the time is up.1
A speaker looks out his window (perhaps from a hotel in Japan) and sees a driving range (perhaps like this one). The mesh netting reminds him of a bridal veil, which suggests the image of “skinny bride.” “Why is it here?” he asks himself, half in jest, mocking his predilection for metaphysical questions. The poem is funny and smart. But it would probably work just as well with a different setting (Chile) or a different object (a batting cage). The Japanese driving range is one of the poem’s least fantastic features. Yet even when Clune gets it right (pointing to the oddness of Ashbery’s “thigh-bone guitar” and “money fish”) he rarely discusses literary form—the tension between the poem and the objects it represents (120). In Writing against Time, poems are delivery systems for ideas about aesthetic objects—not aesthetic objects themselves.
Writing against Time has other weaknesses. Its summaries of philosophical texts are often superficial. (A long discussion of the Critique of Judgment quotes mainly from Henry Allison’s Kant’s Theory of Taste.) Its claims are often needlessly polemical. (Frederic Jameson is a favorite target.) More significantly, it does not adequately address a number of questions related to its central concerns. Why do artworks by Keats, Proust, Nabokov, Orwell, and Ashbery remain vital (or at least somewhat vital) on repeated readings? Why do we read and reread Keats and not, say, Robert Southey? Does time’s poison attack everyone’s senses equally? Might some writers and readers resist (or learn to resist) time’s influence more successfully than others? “Reality is a very subjective affair,” Nabokov once remarked in response to a question about his inexhaustible interest in butterflies. “You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.”2 Is the desire to create an endlessly interesting artwork a manifestation of the desire to create a natural object?
Writing against Time concludes with a powerful critique of contemporary literary criticism. Clune asks: How can literary critics influence disciplines outside the humanities? How can literary criticism create new knowledge? By explicating extravagant literary projects, he suggests: “The virtual work of art is a kind of thinking, a kind of tinkering, a kind of engineering. […] The critic’s work is to give this free thought a form by which it can be brought into contact with the disciplined thinking of the research institution” (140). Literary criticism, in other words, can offer practical insights by explicating impractical literary experiments. “At this moment in the history of the disciplines,” Clune argues, “literary criticism’s best opportunity for creating new knowledge lies not in the description of art’s embeddedness in contexts recognizable to historians or sociologists, but in the description of the forces by which art attempts to free itself of such contexts and such recognitions” (17).
This program (which I endorse, but which Clune needlessly opposes to historical and sociological analysis) has a long and prestigious history. Sidney believed that poets alone have the ability to make “things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.”3 Shelley believed that only poets behold “the future in the present.”4 Pound believed that artists provide the best “data for ethics” by revealing what individuals “actually desire.” 5 For these writers, the artistic imagination is central to intellectual inquiry—to life itself. Art renovates the possible—that is why it matters. Writing against Time, at its core, is a defense of this position, and a convincing and vital account of why literary critics (and research universities) should take extravagant, quixotic literary projects seriously.
Michael Clune’s exquisite new book asks how literature might arrest time’s erosion of perceptual vivacity. Ordinary perceptual experience dulls with familiarity. At first glance, maple leaves curling against the wind are astonishing: such slender green films, so thick a tone. But habit takes the edge off what I see and hear. Only art, Clune tells us, can “prolong the first impression” or return its “intense duration” (11). Writing Against Time pays some eloquent attention to works that consider such prolongation, and it does so to advance some surprising, revisionary claims. For one, Clune would like literary studies to contribute to interdisciplinary conversations about the mind with resources drawn from the study of literature rather than those taken from other fields. For another, he wants to move beyond the historicist orthodoxy that has so dominated literary study for the past twenty years and ask big questions about a range of authors from Keats to the present. I’m in broad agreement with both goals, and I applaud the stylish, lapidary prose in which they are pursued. Most of all, I applaud Clune’s commitment to a Shklovskian version of the Romantic Imagination, on which view literature always strives to make and keep something new. I’m going to root around in some of this, but not before registering this general approbation.
Probably the nearest book in the vicinity to Writing Against Time is Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book. Both look closely at how writers use silent black marks on flat white pages to ponder three-dimensional objects in vivid sound and color. There is however an important difference between the two. Scarry asks how works of verbal art achieve the vivacity of genuine perceptual objects. Her focus is on the mimesis of our “freely practiced” acts of seeing or hearing or touching. Clune says in contrast that real sensory perception becomes less vivid or even noticed over time; so he is after works that try to sustain the novelty of seeing the world as something new. The verbal arts on this view are or aspire to be something other or more than descriptive; they “seek the creation of a work that will permanently arrest perception at the moment of the first encounter” (19).
For this reason, the unlikely hero of Writing Against Time—referenced in every chapter—turns out to be the great Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky. “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” Art exists so that “one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” That’s Shklovsky intoning the twin morals of Writing Against Time. Experience dims by the minute; art returns the luminosity to things. “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” Clune helpfully clarifies that such “defamiliarization” is not one of meaning, as Jameson, Perloff and others argued, but rather experience. Art scrubs the habit off perception, not signification. And it is a great virtue of Clune’s book that in elucidating this point it makes Shklovsky relevant again to our critical moment, with its preference for the naïve over the suspicious, the aesthetic over its debunking. In fact Clune goes one further. Some works of verbal art he says want “artfulness” to last for all time; they want the vivid never to become familiar, for stones always to be stony. So Clune writes not of an historical procession of strategies designed to make experience strange for as long as possible, as Shklovsky did, but of the philosophical work done by texts that aspire always to be so vivid. Once again, this work should not be understood as semantic. Intended or deconstructed meanings are beside the point. Art might allow us to hear the call of the loon at night always for the first time. And that is more than enough.
For Clune, the literary form of perpetual novelty is ekphrasis, a written representation of an impossible perceptual image. The fascinating prominence of ekphrasis in the book, however, raised for me the nagging question of Shklovsky’s formalism. For reasons that elude me, Clune wants to distance his practice from the so-called “fetishism” of form, and he declines to align his study with formalisms either old or new (33). This is a real puzzle. Where else is time stopped—or imagined to stop—but in the formal features of the poems and novels to which Clune attends? There are strange intimations that such imagined stopping is going on in “hallucinated” places outside of the words on the page (33-34; 146-147). This intermittent mysticism is a bit of a distraction, however, and I sense the presence here of some unarticulated commitments cutting against the grain of the (Russian) formalism to which the study really is or ought to be devoted.
A related question concerns the state of academic play Clune describes. Clune presents two alternatives for interdisciplinary work today, “at what is perhaps the lowest point of [literary study’s] postwar prestige” (139). The first is to take on board research done elsewhere—like, say, in the cognitive neurosciences—and apply it to the interpretation of literary works. Clune has little interest in this sort of practice. The second is to focus on what cannot be seen from the third-person, objective view of science, namely, what it is like to be the subject of this or that experience. A professor of geophysics can tell me about the mineral composition of the rocks that line the lake outside my window, but her telling me this won’t say anything about what they feel like at the end of my fingers. Even a complete account of the creation of rocks from stardust doesn’t provide the stoniness of stones. For that you need to look to the humanities. So on this picture literary study adds phenomenal facts to the physical facts provided by science. This alternative is closer to Clune’s heart (and mine, for what its worth), but it is still not sufficient for his purposes. For one, Clune is something of an eliminativist when it comes to phenomenal consciousness. Most of the time, he thinks, we run on automatic pilot, and don’t really perceive much of anything. It’s only at first blush and then (maybe) in the presence of artworks that “experience remains alive” (59). So it can’t be right that literature or the other arts provide access to the phenomenal, experiential facts left out by the physical facts since, strictly speaking, most of experience isn’t really experienced. For another, phenomenal facts might simply ride along with the physical and not have much of a causal relation to anything anyhow. Clune wants the humanities to touch on questions of genuine human behavior, not simply describe functionless qualia. So in the chapter most directly engaged with this goal he turns to the study of addiction to show how, contra to scientific wisdom, literature reveals addiction not to be a compulsive following of one’s drives in spite of how they feel, but rather an excess of consciousness, the dream that the filter in your lips will always be so rich, so heavy.
I admire this stance, and I value all that comes with Clune’s sinuous case for the knowledge that literary reading might bring. But to make his argument stick, Clune has to redefine consciousness in the functional terms of attention (he looks to Baars for this and then in the footnotes to Prinz). This is a familiar move, to which there is a familiar response: why does attention have to come with an attached experience? By wanting the study of literature to touch on behavior, Clune has to bracket and put aside some of the famously “hard” perplexities of consciousness. I won’t belabor this point—neither of us are professional philosophers after all—but I do think it bears on the place of our discipline in the division of knowledge. If the literature of addiction or anything else provides knowledge, it seems to me that that it is of the phenomenal sort: the facts about what it is like for a smoker to smoke or a stone to be stony. Cut out the literary humanities and you arguably lose knowledge of these facts.
That is how I read Shklovsky at least, and that is also why I think you can’t get past the Russian’s formalism. Form makes experience less familiar on Shklovsky’s account and thus allows us to see it as experience. So it could be that we are conscious more often than Clune thinks, but that literature provides an account of what that entails or feels like, and it could be that it is able to do so because it has a form. If that is true, we might have something to contribute, in our own terms, to larger discussions of mind after all. And if that is true, it would be by means of books as critically innovative as Writing Against Time.
What I admire most about this fantastic book is its admiration for literature’s “unreasonable approach to stopping time” (19). The term “unreasonable” sets up a distinction between time in literature and time in the mind—or, rather, between the literary theorization of timeless perception and that which a cognitive theorist might advance. Clune has discovered what is essentially unsatisfying about the cognitive approach to literary study so popular just now: it “lacks the capacity to describe literature’s unreasonable efforts to do something the brain can’t do” (19). Cognitive theorists tend to presume that literary texts give us insight into how the brain works. But Clune knows that they are more important and more interesting for what they do when the brain fails to work. Some cognitive theorists have in fact taken this approach, as Clune notes. Those who study “gaps in nature” have tried to explain how and with what effect works of the imagination attempt to fill those gaps. But for Clune this attempt is not simply some para-cognitive measure. Works of the imagination are not secondary for their non-actuality, but valuable precisely for their “virtual techniques,” their “imaginary forms” for “overcoming the brain’s stubborn boundaries” (20). If these forms are unreasonable, they are not therefore irrational or groundless; indeed they improve upon the brain, making up better minds.
Eager for this result I find myself wondering how—and how far—we ought to pursue it. What might Clune recommend for the actualization of these virtual techniques? He writes that people wanting to know how to stop time should “come to us” (to literary criticism) and though “we won’t be able to stop it for them” we will send them back to the relevant disciplines (psychology, biology, economics) with “new motives, and a new sense of what is imaginable” (140). But can there be no more immediate benefit to the work Clune has done, if his virtual techniques are literary forms themselves?
In any case Clune has certainly charted a very welcome new direction for literary criticism. He is surely right to note that our current moment calls for a shift from vulgar historicism (“the description of art’s embeddedness in contexts recognizable to historians or sociologists”) to the approach he has taken to the problem of literature’s virtuality for stopping time. We do need to describe what art does to “free itself” of recognizable contexts, not only to return valid attention to the thing itself, but because literature’s efforts to overcome cognitive boundaries are actually the best focus for historicism of a better kind. Clune does not himself make this last claim—he more soundly keeps to his assertion that his is “not a historicist study,” just one that amounts to a critique of historicism—but his study could have the further advantage of revitalizing a historicism of another kind. When writers invent virtual techniques to supplement the brain, their inventions have historical status, as Clune’s marvelous analyses of Nabokov, Orwell, Proust, and other writers amply attest. If they draw our attention, they become our mental properties, and time itself does change, and history along with it. Clune doesn’t have much use for the theoretical tradition that has tried to account for this circularity; he rightly doesn’t engage with narrative theorists including Paul Ricoeur for whom literature and “human time” dialectically enhance each other. But I see in Clune’s work an exciting chance to reframe that tradition by locating the actual occasions upon which the arts react to temporal opportunity.
Ricoeur’s aporias are so theoretical. Clune’s versions of them are practical in the best sense: they get involved in the real praxis by which artistic minds improve upon our brains in such a way as to make a difference to how our brains might work. But isn’t that difference a historical one? Surely the necessary improvements change over time, and surely the uses for stopping time are also specific to the moment—unless Clune believes that human beings always have the same regret about the temporality of perception and the same uses for stopped time? For good reasons, Clune characterizes literature’s historicity as an indexical relationship to the times (“literature as an index of actual social, political, cultural, and historical forces” (139)). But his work seems to indicate another option: historicity as defined by what would provoke a text’s virtuality and, more importantly, the difference it would make. Not entirely unlike New Historicism’s deconstruction of the difference between historical background and literary foreground, this other option would allow the virtual to be historical. It could actually ascribe greatest historicity to the virtual. “How the literary object differs from the actual” (146) might be the measure of its historical significance. Couldn’t Writing Against Time help us innovate or reenergize this non-indexical historicism?
Art can be wish fulfillment. But art can also be so much more. Art and aesthetic experience may teach us not just to live in art—in a state of transport, immersion, and enrapturement—but art can teach us to live in and beyond art as well. Exploring what life in and through art might mean—what aesthetic experience is, how it happens, when it happens, and what makes it different from the everyday flow and color of life—is one of the best ends that can come of the study of aesthetics. I think, however, that in pursuing these questions the study of aesthetics can be something yet more; it can give us purchase on a huge swath of human life and human consciousness; it can teach us about our motivations and our values; and it can help us understand the ways we make sense of the world beyond what is purely or primarily aesthetic. And when it comes down to it, I think that such goals rank not just among the ultimate aims of humanist thinking—the reasons that humanist thought might be said to matter and matter deeply—but I also think that humanist goals like these can be furthered by scientific method. Indeed, I have also found that these humanist goals can further scientific inquiry and scientific understanding.
The question of the province of the humanities in the modern disciplinary landscape haunts Michael Clune’s Writing Against Time, as it does the conversations of faculty members across the country (as well as budget offices and state legislatures). Clune is a gifted critic, and it is a pleasure to watch his mind at work, even when you disagree with him. He argues that humanist criticism is too often “parasitic” on other discourses—especially for him, the discourse and research of cognitive science—and he seeks to offer a way out of that relation: “When literary critics describe actual states of affairs, our claims are necessarily parasitic on the methods and models of other disciplines” (139). In essence he suggests that because the literary is the province of the imaginary or the virtual, literature and literary study offer us access to the virtual in a way that the study of the real (in science or social science) cannot. He claims “the radical autonomy of literary thinking” (140):
If someone wants to know how humans experience time, they will probably consult a psychologist, if they want to know how people have measured time, they will consult a historian of science. If they want to know how people value time, they will consult an economist or sociologist. But if they want to know how to stop time, then they will come to us. We won’t be able to stop it for them. But we will send them back to psychology, biology, and economics with new eyes, new motives, and a new sense of what is imaginable. (140)
This sounds a compelling story about what literary thinking might offer; it sounds a compelling story about of what the philosophy of art, literature, the aesthetic, or consciousness might offer, too.
I don’t think it is a case for the radical autonomy of literary study. Before defending this claim with more precision around the linkage between the aesthetic and the everyday (these terms are not ideal, as I will describe), I want to move outward from the case for an autonomy of literary study to the question of the humanities more generally. I don’t believe that the humanities themselves are anything approaching a natural kind; indeed, I suspect that only the sciences can be understood in terms of their inherent relation to one another. The idea of the humanities as a distinguishable group of related fields (and the social sciences, too) is largely the result of the continued evolution of the university as an educational construct. “The humanities,” thus, are radically contingent, not radically autonomous.
Contingency is radically human. Let me be clear. By calling the humanities radically contingent I am not suggesting that they have little value. Indeed the term “contingent” applies to just about all of the knowledge human beings produce. I would go so far as to say that, to take one example, while there is a class of pure mathematical knowledge—that of topology, for example—that is universally true and autonomous in that Kantian sense (and there are logical truths that are autonomous in the same way), just about everything else we’ve got, from statistical inference onward, is contingent. We still know: Descartes was right! And while we know some things with as much certainty as is available to humanity, some things that are scientific—evolution is real; we know the big bang happened, and when; we know the age of the earth (approximately 5 billion years old)—some that are humanistic—poems stir the imagination; beauty is subject to decay; the emergence of the modern disciplines of knowledge profoundly changed the ways humans encounter the world—but none of what we know with certainty gives the humanities or any piece of them radical autonomy. And that shouldn’t be what we strive to achieve.
This becomes particularly clear for me in the case of aesthetics. I think, in fact, that aesthetic life is a key point of contact between the imaginary and the real, to take the terms that seem operative in Clune’s book, and we lose a lot if we forget that. The book takes as its premise that aesthetic power fades. For Clune, this is a struggle of beauty against time. This is a common intuition, but it is a complicated one. From the earliest moments of the tradition of the Sister Arts in classical antiquity, writers have theorized that there is a different time course of appreciation for the arts than there is for other sensory experience: take Horace, for example, “A poem is like a picture: one strikes your fancy more, the nearer you stand; another the farther away. . . . This pleased but once; that, though ten times called for, will always please.”1 The idea that the pleasures of art may be transcendent is one root of the concept of aesthetic value, as putatively durable and transhistorical. But we don’t need the critique mounted by postmodernism to remind us that the experience of beauty is not stably transcendent: tastes change; pleasures fade, and so do beauty, sublimity, delight, and every other aesthetic experience. Just pick up Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, (as does Clune) and follow the young Marcel as he seeks to maintain the power of a work of art or of a beloved face against the force of time’s passing; or see, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, how the very mutability of beauty becomes the premise for not just the endless of pursuit of the beautiful but the very transmutation of form as the lovers of beauty—men, gods, women, nymphs—seek, continually, something that can belong with them forever. We can never attain this kind of stable, continuous, durable and intense aesthetic experience, because no matter how much aesthetics pervades everyday life—and indeed it does, from our experience of the cute, sweet, pretty or grotesque to that of the beautiful, sublime, awful, and inspiring—as emotional, perceptual and imaginative experiences, aesthetic responses are events. And most events have a beginning, middle, and end.
Clune argues, however, that there is a vein of authors, most notably Keats and Proust, who see literature as a way to offer an imaginary aesthetic object capable of defeating this temporal structure. His exploration of aesthetics and of individual texts is fascinating; but I don’t think he’s entirely right (and who is, anyway?), when he makes the provocative claims I cited above, namely, that some literary works seek to model in imagination something that is impossible in reality—to stop time in the moment of aesthetic intensity—and that radically autonomous criticism can help us to see the inner workings of this enterprise.
Clune faults criticism that he sees as parasitic, especially criticism employing cognitive neuroscience, because it explores imagery in reference to the everyday, not specifically to the aesthetic. However, there is a complex story here. First, there certainly is work in the neuroscience of aesthetics that explores imagery and begins with music, visual art, and fictional narratives, rather than everyday perception, though to date much of the work on narrative remains relatively rudimentary, while work on music and visual art is much more developed.2 There is a lot to be done, but that does not mean it isn’t doable; and critically engaging in dialogue with a field in which there are new discoveries that drive an evolving understanding of human experience can be exhilarating, even if risky. The world of knowledge changes, and we should seek to engage it and shape it.
As we do so, we must go with eyes open. It is not clear, thus, that work on imagery, emotion, and perception that isn’t specifically focused on artwork should be dismissed, as Clune does, when the goal is to explore the peculiarity of art (19). For example, the study of imagery by psychologists and neuroscientists has shown us the degree to which imagery influences “actual” perception; we now also can measure both the way that individuals differ in their abilities to construct imagery but also how they approach and interact with the images they create.3 Understanding individual differences in imaginative strategies seems important to consider in making claims that a “simple [introspective] experiment will decide the issue” of whether “the creation of imaginary music really count[s] as an achievement,” for example (23). And understanding the relationship between imagery and perception can help us begin to understand how layering imagery and perception in aesthetic experience might have surprisingly powerful effects, as I will describe below.4 More than this, a range of research has shown not only that there are both connections and subtle differences between aesthetic and everyday emotions, but we are now able to model some of those differences in ways that could help us understand emotion more broadly and to understand how the arts change our emotional landscape.5 Neuroscientific investigation has also shown intense aesthetic experience is not only categorically different in some ways from mere liking, but there is a remarkable neural substrate that helps us to differentiate it. The default mode network, a distributed set of brain regions that is involved in imagery, internally focused thought, and the conceptualization of both the self and its relation to others is also selectively activated in intense aesthetic experience, as I and my colleagues discovered.6 I argue elsewhere that understanding the neuroscience of imagery and of aesthetics as we are now able to do can lead us to understand why imagery may grant privileged access to powerful aesthetic experience, and why the blendingof perception and imagery in aesthetic experience may be the hallmark of aesthetic power in music, visual art, and poetry.7 And far from believing that such a mixture of neuroscience, aesthetics, and criticism is a sign of a parasitic discourse, or more strongly, a lack of faith in the humanities, for me it is the sign of the power of the kinds of questions humanists want to ask—for questions I brought to my collaborators helped begin our forays into the neural intricacies of why art moves us, and as we came to a meeting of the minds, we learned about each others fields, we shaped one another’s views and helped test each other’s intuitions. They questioned me, too, and have taught (and continue to teach) me now.
Ultimately, if the humanities or literary study needs “saving,” salvation is not going to come by way of an “outside.” What will keep the humanities and literary study thriving is interest; it will be our ability to engage and to provoke conversations. It will be our ability to make claims that resonate beyond our own walls. It will be when we cannot just provoke conversation, but prolong it. In that register, Clune’s book is a great success. Let’s keep the conversation going.
Battaglia, Fortunato, Sarah H. Lisanby, and David Freedberg. “Corticomotor Excitability During Observation and Imagination of a Work of Art.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 5 (2011).
Freedberg, David, and Vincent Gallese. “Motion, Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience.” Trends in Cognitive Science 11, no. 5 (2007): 197-203.
Halpern, Andrea R., and Robert J. Zatorre. “When That Tune Runs through Your Head: A P.E.T. Investigation of Auditory Imagery for Familiar Melodies.” Cerebral Cortex 9, no. 7 (1999): 697-704.
Holmes, Emily A., Anna E. Coughtrey, and Abigail Connor. “Looking at or through Rose-Tinted Glasses? Imagery Perspective and Positive Mood.” Emotion 8, no. 6 (2008): 875-79.
Holmes, Emily A., Andrew Mathews, Bundy Mackintosh, and Tim Dalgleish. “The Causal Effect of Mental Imagery on Emotion Assessed Using Picture-Word Cues.” Emotion 8, no. 3 (2008): 395-409.
Horace. “Ars Poetica.” In Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica, 450-89. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Isaac, A., D. F. Marks, and D.G. Russell. “An Instrument for Assessing Imagery for Movement: The Vividness of Movement Imagery Questionnaire.” Journal of Mental Imagery 10 (1986): 23-30.
Mar, Raymond A. “The Neuropsychology of Narrative: Story Comprehension, Story Production and Their Interrelation.” Neuropsychologia 42, no. 10 (2004): 1414-34.
Olkkonen, Maria, Thorsten Hansen, and Karl R. Gegenfurtner. “Color Appearance of Familiar Objects: Effects of Object Shape, Texture, and Illumination Changes.” Journal of Vision 8, no. 5 (2008): 13-16.
Starr, G. Gabrielle. Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming 2013.
———. “Poetic Subjects and Grecian Urns: Close Reading and the Tools of Cognitive Science.” Modern Philology 105, no. 1 (2007): 48-61.
Umilta’, Maria Alessandra, Cristina Berchio, Mariateresa Sestito, David Freedberg, and Vittorio Gallese. “Abstract Art and Cortical Motor Activation: An Eeg Study.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (2012).
Vessel, Edward A, G. Gabrielle Starr, and Nava Rubin. “The Brain on Art: Intense Aesthetic Experience Activates the Default Mode Network.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (2012).
Zentner, Marcel, Didier Grandjean, and Klaus R. Scherer. “Emotions Evoked by the Sound of Music: Characterization, Classification, and Measurement.” Emotion 8, no. 4 (2008): 494-521.
Where I live—Northern California—the phrase “monkey mind” is often bandied about. Monkey mind refers to the highly distracted gibbering tweeting jumping flubber-like fizz-bomb that can apparently be settled by yoga, mindfulness exercises, and long slow breathing. Or so I’ve heard. My own monkey mind is a bit incorrigible. He (she?) isn’t the sort of sober animal who gets together with his fellows and sits in a room typing up the plays of Shakespeare. Instead the little rotter seems to have hooked himself up to an IV-drip of Red Bull and teleported to a 1980’s-era arcade where he plays Space Invaders on an infinite loop. Still, my monkey mind is not yet too far gone to appreciate a bittersweet historical irony. The very same part of the world that now bats around the phrase “monkey mind” was, in the 1960’s and 70’s, most highly receptive to eastern mind-calming techniques. Yet since the 1980’s, Silicon Valley has spawned an industry that is waging total war on the human attention span. No Yin without its go-to Yang. Or as a friend of mine likes to say: Namaste, motherfucker.
Michael Clune’s book is about how artists have found ways to stop the mind in its tracks, to suspend it in a state of ongoing presence (the word has Heideggerian resonances but Clune takes pains to distinguish his approach from phenomenology). There are many shoots to his argument, but at its core is a romantic, optimistic, even brave commitment to the power and danger of aesthetic forms. In Clune’s telling, the mind thirsts for outrageous stimulation not because it has been trained to check its Twitter feed every few seconds but because of its own evolved architecture. The sensations we hold in short-term memory fade rather quickly. Vividness is a fleeting affair. And we can’t easily get the experience back. The more often we are exposed to a stimulus the more quickly we process it—an effect called priming. Priming can have two opposite effects. Either we more easily detect instances of that stimulus later on or we become somewhat immune to it as the novelty wears off.
Clune is interested in the immunity problem. He describes it powerfully and precisely: “Time poisons perception….[W]e are subject to an incessant erasure of perceptual life. No sooner do we catch a glimpse of the shining colors of the world, than they begin to darken. Time’s threat to perception may seem less pressing than the death and aging with which time menaces the organism. But from the first reflections on experience, writers have been consumed with how time poisons even the brief life we possess” (3). The all-too brief life of our vivid perceptions is thus made tragic, a story of loss and falling off. But the tragedy can be healed or at least recast. Writers and artists, especially in the Romantic tradition, grasping that we lose our battle with time the poisoner, fashion art to slow time and stop the slippage: “[b]y defeating the habit that turns us into machines, by defamiliarizing, literature creates a vivid phenomenal experience where none exists. Writing’s operation is fundamentally transformative, not descriptive.” (59)
Let me just pause here to note that Clune’s argument, which I love, has a familiar and satisfying cognitivist shape. Our brains have some feature—in this case, sense impressions lose their vividness over time. Artists are struck by that feature and look for ways to counter it. One of the first names to appear in Clune’s book is the neuroscientist David Eagleman, whose lab runs experiments on time perception and synesthesia. Eagleman, says Clune, “describes strong evidence for a process that will be intuitively obvious to all readers. The first time we encounter an image, our perceptual experience tends to be richly vivid. Repeated exposure leads to a dramatic drop-off in vivacity. ‘With repeated presentations of a stimulus, a sharpened representation or a more efficient encoding is achieved in the neural network coding for the object.’ Once the brain has learned to recognize the image, it no longer requires the high ‘metabolic costs’ of intense sensory engagement” (3). This seems to me a straightforward appeal to neuroscience to illuminate some feature of aesthetic practice. I mention this only because Clune takes such pains to position himself against what he calls “cognitive approaches 1.0” and to introduce his alternative, which “clears the way for a more balanced and genuinely interdisciplinary sense of the place and value of scientific research for humanistic scholarship” (151-2). He has some valid criticisms of the early research, including my own. While taking his (and Jonathan Kramnick’s) point that the science itself is always changing and is shot through with its own debates, I nonetheless find his academic position-taking against the very critics who would be most interested in and sympathetic to his approach rather puzzling. Especially since I fail to see a large gap between 1.0 and 2.0. After all, whether one is drawing on cognitive neuroscience to try to clarify some widespread feature of aesthetics (the sort of thing Zunshine or Scarry might do) or to explore the underlying mental dispositions against which artists feel the need to push (the sort of thing Clune in fact does), the arrow of explanation runs quite directly from brain science to aesthetic effects. And why shouldn’t it? Nothing about the aesthetic effects is thereby lessened or reduced, nor is their majesty and fascination undercut. Our discipline suffers not a jot—its knowledge, arcana, traditions, obsessions, lore, conventions, norms, topographies, sophistications, self-justifications, neuroses, defenses, and sheer vibrant comic life are far too strong to be undone by the somewhat bemusing fact that science is finally catching up with literature in shining its flashlight into the mind’s stranger reaches.
“Unreasonable” is one of Clune’s key words. By attending to “literature’s unreasonable efforts to do something the brain can’t do”….”a truly interdisciplinary relation between literature and science becomes possible” (19). “Unreasonable” signifies not just cognitive approaches to literature 2.0 but Romanticism against Classicism, the living image versus the dead form, the unfolding tale versus the finished maxim, the “evanescent intensification of the feeling of life” versus “the knowledge that comes at the end of the process of grappling with an art work” (164-5).
Clune has done something intellectually thrilling—he has made the old story of Romanticism versus Classicism come alive again, turning it from a somewhat hoary topic in literary history into a vital means of talking about the experience of art. This is a great achievement (and the book itself is serious and written very much with its readers in mind). For what Clune so sensitively describes is the very difficulty and intensity of the sort of “[c]ognitive engagement [that] amounts to a striving to understand, to grasp the form of the work” (38)—not to kill it off and dance triumphantly on its grave but even just to render it conversable while staying open to its effects.
Clune clearly prefers the Romantic to the Classical mode–the intensity of the sensuous present to the fully articulated, processed, broken down, and grasped–Shklovskian immediacy and excitation to the calm summing up of Winckelmannian Classicism. His worry is boredom, the dulling of fresh experience. And I admire his skill in parsing a long tradition of writers who have had not only the worry but found an antidote for it in certain kinds of literary experience. While reading, however, it struck me viscerally how complex this whole question is, but I can no more fault Clune for his preferences than, if he told me he liked chocolate ice cream, I could point to a tub of butter pecan. All the same, I recalled that several years ago I had a new and to me utterly strange and unaccountable experience of a work of art. Time stopped. I was, to borrow Clune’s resonant phrasing, bewitched by an image, in the grip of an aesthetic disease (66). It certainly felt unreasonable and I badly needed time to start up again. One day I was nosing around on Google Earth and I discovered that Google had made available eleven masterpieces from the Prado, photographed in such high resolution that one could actually see hairline cracks in the paint. I became instantly entranced. I started by looking at Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” and, even though I’d studied the painting before, I don’t think I had ever really taken it in. I had, for instance, never noticed the presence of birds, both menacing and vaguely maternal, feeding swollen berries to sinners out of their lowered beaks.
Then, clicking along to the next image, I found myself suddenly confronted by the bewitcher, Mari Barbola, the achondroplastic dwarf in Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” Mari Barbola was also perhaps overly academically familiar—I’d seen her in a medical school slide show on dwarfism, in an art history class, in so many illustrations I had stopped paying attention, and of course in graduate school when I read the first chapter of Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses where Mari Barbola and her fellows are hailed as symbols of a new episteme, midwives at the birth of modern consciousness. But this time, Mari Barbola’s look—subdued, dignified, utterly penetrating–struck me like a blow to the stomach. I felt shaky, dry-mouthed, and a bit panicky. Why? What was going on? I simply had no idea and it would take me an actual trip to the Prado to look at her directly before I could begin to harness my response. But in order to harness my response, I had to increase my knowledge. It took me a while just to work out what is going on in “Las Meninas,” to see it as a meditation on the relationship between an official story and the forces that swamp it—to recognize the painting as capturing a moment in which a group of people are collectively freaking out. Only Velazquez and Mari Barbola (towards whom he is intensely empathic) seem to be holding themselves together. Velazquez doubles their kinship by dressing them both in the same colors and placing them in postures that mirror each other. And once I began to see that, I could also see that Mari Barbola’s relationship to the people around her shone a spotlight on a predicament in which I then found myself and for which I had (yet) no language. (My predicament was that somebody I deeply loved and admired was subtly and quite possibly unconsciously making me feel like an outcast, like lumpy Norse Fafnir weirdly transposed to Middlemarch and made to drink tea from tiny china cups in Rosamond Vincy’s living room.) I finally found the words to describe my predicament but they came along much later than the feelings of gross discomfort. If you are of a psychoanalytic bent, you might call my reaction to the painting a case of transference, but that word has gone stale from overuse. Maybe we can pierce its rotten diction by tracing transference back to its etymological roots. What happened to me that day was transport, translation, metaphor.
All of which is to say that Clune shows how Classic and Romantic are live wires rather than dead letters. They mesh together in ways I don’t yet understand. Far from being poles apart, both positions seem open for any critic to inhabit, even at the same time and in utterly self-contradictory ways.1 Like Silicon Valley and the Green Gulch Zen Center, they require each other. And this seems true as well for the writers Clune takes on. Even Humbert Humbert, who in Clune’s wonderful chapter on the addictive image, lives in a traumatized nympholeptic present tense, can seem positively Winckelmannian as he battles his nemesis Aubrey McFate. Meanwhile sad Lo is a most unwilling and inarticulate Romantic:
“Dear Mummy and Hummy,
Hope you are fine. Thank you very much for the candy. I [crossed out and re-written again] I lost my new sweater in the woods. It has been cold here for the last few days. I’m having a time. Love, Dolly
‘The dumb child,’ said Mrs. Humbert, ‘has left out a word before ‘time.’”2
Michael Clune Responds
I am fortunate to have these generous and stimulating responses from critics I admire. Indeed, I couldn’t have written my book without the benefit of Matz’s work on literary impressionism, Kramnick’s account of the limitations of literary darwinism, or Starr and Vermeule’s achievements in bringing brain science into meaningful relation with literary art. I conceived Writing Against Time as a test case for a new kind of criticism, and I am grateful that these five scholars chose to focus on my book’s most ambitious claims. They ask why I insist on discerning the outlines of an ideal, unrealized aesthetic object within each actual work of art I consider. And they wonder why I believe those ideal objects to be the source of a kind of knowledge superior to that offered by the dominant critical models of the past three decades.
Kotin targets my belief that the literary works I consider are “delivery systems for ideas about aesthetic objects—not aesthetic objects themselves.” And Kramnick wonders: “Where else is time stopped—or imagined to stop—but in the formal features of the poems and novels to which Clune attends?” My answer is that all the works treated in Writing Against Time—with a single partial exception to which I’ll return—do in fact imagine time stopping somewhere outside “the formal features of poems and novels.” I don’t deny that each work constitutes an example of actual literary form—and without exception an unusually powerful example. But each work sets up a goal for aesthetic form that is explicitly or implicitly distanced from what the work’s actual aesthetic form can possibly achieve.
To take just one example, we know from Orwell’s essays and letters that he feared the slow erosion of the sensible surface of the earth by habit. Orwell understood art as a technique for arresting that erosion. The peculiar vividness of the descriptions in 1984 clearly have a Shklovskian artistic aim: to make the reader see and taste the world anew. But this is a science fiction novel, and these sentences have two sides. From one angle, they are actual art objects to be experienced by actual readers. From another angle, they are transcriptions of the preternaturally heightened senses of Winston Smith, the inhabitant of an imaginary world. Winston’s world is constituted by a totalitarian prohibition against perception—don’t see what you see, don’t hear what you hear, don’t feel what you touch—the effect of which is to endow perception with an intensity of interest it lacks in our own. In Oceania, ordinary sensations are endlessly fascinating; the “wetness of water” and the “hardness of stones” never grow dull with familiarity. In this world time, as Winston reads in the forbidden book, has stopped.
One side of the Orwellian sentence is an actual aesthetic object designed to deliver an aesthetic experience to a reader, an aesthetic experience understood in terms of the countering of habit. The other side of the same sentence is the representation of an imaginary character’s time-resistant sensations. These sides are not equal. The time-stopping power of the fantasy regime is infinitely stronger than the time stopping power of the actual aesthetic object. This difference fascinates Orwell; it is, I argue, the secret subject of his book. We see a version of this difference between a relatively weak actual art, and an impossibly powerful ideal art, in the other works I examine. Swann regrets the way Vintieul’s sonata dulls with time; Marcel is fascinated by “the fountain of youth” of an imaginary music that allows him to experience the world through the composer’s sensorium. Keats’ “Hyperion” obsessively marks the distance between the speech of the poet and the speech of the gods, and between the music of lesser (Clymene) and greater (Apollo) gods. Humbert Humbert continually forces us to notice the gap between the way the always-new image of Lolita works for him, and the way his fantastically inventive verbal images of Lolita work for us.
Writers like Peter Burger have long associated the desire for the work of art to extend beyond “the formal features of poems and novels” with the historical avant-garde. But what the tradition I study suggests, is that as soon as the generation of Kant and Burke define art as a technology designed to produce a certain effect, the rationale for restricting those effects to artworks vanishes. This is why Burke and Kant fail to distinguish between natural and artificial aesthetic objects. Catching a glimmer of this logic, Kotin wonders if Keats and the others are perhaps trying to create artworks that would have the properties of natural forms. But the particular effect the writers of Romantic immortality pursue means that real mountains are no more useful than real poems or sonatas in permanently arresting habit. Actual art forms become valuable as labs in which effective affective solutions to the hardest problem—the problem of human time—are experimentally probed.
So when Kramnick and Kotin wonder why I focus on the distance between actual and ideal form in reading the representatives of this Romantic tradition, I can reply that I am only following the lead of Kant, Keats, Proust, Orwell and Nabokov. My interlocutors might well, however, be dissatisfied with this answer. After all, I have chosen to write about these writers, and I have selected from their work only those examples which stress the ekphrastic gap between actual and ideal form. (I have nothing to say in this context, for example, about Animal Farm, “To Autumn,” or even Pale Fire.) So the deeper question is why I value ideal form over actual form.
I chose to write about the works I did because I believe that the distance between ideal and actual form is a source for a new kind of literary knowledge. I certainly don’t think it’s the only such source. But I do think that the special qualities of romantic ekphrasis make possible an economical exposition of the properties of this new knowledge and the procedures by which it can be secured.
But before proceeding to address the question of literary knowledge, I want to take up Matz’s somewhat different question about the ideal forms projected by Romantic and post-Romantic writing. “What might Clune recommend for the actualization of these virtual techniques?” How can we use the strategies developed—but not realized—by Proust, Nabokov, Keats, or Orwell to create time-stopping forms we can actually use in our lives?
My first response is that one of the things we learn from these writers is that there are good reasons for wanting to keep effective time-retarding technologies in their virtual condition. Orwell is the most emphatic proponent of this skepticism, and I’ve argued that he appreciates actual aesthetic form for its very weakness at arresting psychological time. (No one could imagine, after all, that Orwell secretly loves Big Brother!) Similarly, Nabokov presents his ideal aesthetic object by imitating an addictive object. I argue that this instance of romantic ekphrasis has the potential to enrich our understanding of actual addiction. But I imagine few readers will want to find their very own Lolita. (Nor, despite a notorious passage in Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ New Yorker review of my memoir, do I think many people will be eager to catch the strain of timelessness with which I’ve been infected).
And yet, in writing this book I’ve never been able to entirely rid myself of the suspicion that Nabokov and Orwell paint effective time-killers in such dire colors out of a barely repressed resentment. What if, in other words, their hatred of the prospect of effective time stopping is a result of their hateful sense of the failure of their own writing to touch its lofty goal? Keats and Proust, on the other hand, express a relatively uncomplicated desire to halt neurobiological time. Let’s kill habit! And so my second response to Matz’s question is, well ok, maybe we can use some insights from this tradition to design really effective anti-habit techniques. I sketch one possibility in my discussion of Keats’ imaginary music, when, with the help of recent research in the psychology of music, I identify the phenomenon of “nuance ineffability” as an area for practical research on this question. Proust’s unique conception of how empathy might unexpectedly play a time-defeating function in music offers another avenue for exploration.
I have no musical talent; if someone pursues these Romantic hints, it won’t be me. But Matz’ question encourages me to be more explicit about a set of literary works I hesitated in my book to identify as the exception to the rule of Romantic ideal form. John Ashbery’s poetry, it seems to me, does in some measure succeed in producing genuinely habit-resistant images. To summarize my final chapter’s complex argument, I think that Ashbery’s late poetry shows us the kind of form possessed by an object removed from its context in another culture, but described as it is seen from within that culture. I realize this formula is somewhat obscure. A simple archeological example helps to clarify what is essential about the type of thing Ashbery shows us.
Say an archeologist digs up a bit of rock in the desert. Now, if she believes that bit of rock to have a natural origin, she has no problem giving a complete description of the thing’s shape. But if she instead believes it is an artifact, then the stone’s cultural context prevents her from describing it completely. Questions about its shape arise that could never occur for a natural object. Which way is up, for instance, and which way is down? It wouldn’t make sense to ask this of a rock, but it does make sense to ask it of an ancient stone tool. Insofar as the archeologist does not fully understand the cultural matrix from which the artifact derives its shape, something curious happens. It’s not quite right to say the context is missing. On the contrary, the archeologist is keenly aware of that context. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the context is present. The missing context is present in the formlessness of the thing. And so we have a wonderful paradox: a delimited object that refuses to resolve into determinate shape. And this is exactly the kind of thing that defies habituation.
The things Ashbery introduces into his poetry are generated by a two-step procedure. First, an alien artifact is assembled by combining words or images in unfamiliar ways. Second, the artifact is presented using the literary conventions for representing culturally familiar objects—the poem incorporates the forms of dialogue, the ritual, the saying, the colloquial-sounding expression. Thus an unfamiliar object is presented to us as it appears to those familiar with it. Like the archeologist, we are left gazing at an object rendered permanently multiform and unstable by the presence of its unknown context.
Vermeule wonders at the absence of phenomenological aesthetics, and of Heidegger in particular, from most of Writing Against Time. Yet I rely on Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricouer in my analysis of Ashbery. This fact does not answer Vermeule’s question, but broadens it. I can’t say I didn’t notice that I suddenly dropped reference to post-Kantian aesthetics when it came time to write about Ashbery. But I didn’t stop to reflect on the significance of that decision until receiving Vermeule’s response. When writing about how artworks project imaginary forms, I make use of a Kantian/Shklovskian aesthetic. But when writing about literature with an interest in the capacities of actual form, I turn to phenomenology. What does this half-conscious decision reveal about my critical commitments? This question may point to the major unfinished work of Writing Against Time. But I will try to articulate some initial thoughts.
I think my choice to drop Kant for Heidegger reflects my suspicion of Kantian affective aesthetics as an account of the operations of actual art works. While I share this suspicion with critics like Todd Cronan and Walter Benn Michaels, I don’t go quite as far as they do. I am perfectly happy to accept that much of the pleasure of art consists in the interplay between familiarity and novelty that Kant and his successors illuminate, a pleasure that’s always been strongest for me in music. But I think it undeniable that much of the power of art has to do with meaning. The magic of Ashbery’s poetry, for example, derives from his deep insights into our cultural meaning-making practices. It is the strange meaningfulness of his images that fascinates. And in this sense, Keats, Nabokov, and Proust aren’t so different. Writing Against Time treats their work as engines generating new ideas about experience, its temporal limits, and the chances of overcoming these limits. This is why my introduction refers to this literature as a kind of “philosophy,” and why I present Kant and Keats as engaged in similar practices.
My reluctance to accept that our literature’s most powerful work consists in creating actual affective responses, also suggests an answer to Vermeule’s larger question about the basis of my disagreement with much cognitive aesthetics. Put simply, cognitive criticism generally investigates the actual effects literature produces; it is thus methodologically blind to literature’s thinking about these effects, and about the perceptual and cognitive structures that underlie them. And yet I think much of what literary studies can contribute to science lies in the identification and development of this thinking. In the Romantic works that occupy the first three chapters of my book, this thinking takes place in the space between the kind of experiential effects form plausibly achieves, and the kind of effects the artist desires.
But before pursuing the question of literary knowledge in depth, I want to emphasize that even Ashbery’s things have a virtual side. Kotin appears confused by the fact that I draw from Ashbery’s poetry examples that deal with artifacts from imaginary cultures, as well as artifacts that derive from actual cultures, such as Japan or South Korea. The late Ashbery substitutes Japanese or Korean things for the kind of object the origin of which he previously presented as fantastic, mysterious, science fictional: objects that are like “the temple of an unknown cult.” I argue that with this substitution Ashbery tries to provide us with a way of encountering the artifacts of our own globalized world. As I also argue, this attitude must remain virtual in our actual world, because the capitalist market positions foreign commodities in a way that forecloses the peculiar mixture of mystery and familiarity on which Ashbery’s magical time-cancelling effect relies.
The final example of Writing Against Time thus resembles the final example of my first book, American Literature and the Free Market, in which I point to the dual status of the hip-hop practice of tinting the windows of expensive cars. On the one hand, this technique can be seen as disentangling economic form from social recognition, by making the inhabitant invisible to others as she drives past. “You can’t see me.” But on the other hand, a cultural context ruled by recognition might simply focus on the moment in which the car’s owner emerges from his hyper-exclusive world onto the street in front of the club. “Look at me.” In both Ashbery and gangster rap, the transformative potential of the aesthetic object is clearly discernable, but it remains only partially and intermittently actualized.
I’ve always been interested in literature’s extreme ambitions, its Romantic aspiration to transform life and thought. As a graduate student, a decade ago, I felt oppressed by the arguments of the literary demystifiers. Those masterful critics made frequent reference to economics, sociology, and psychology in rejecting literature’s transcendent, transformative pretenses, and showing it as confined, in various ways, to more or less boring or repellent social and historical contexts. I wanted to think about literature in a different way, but what could I do? Arguments like Bourdieu’s or Jameson’s just seemed so hard-nosed, so sober, so technical, so…scientific.
Since then the economic, sociological, and psychological claims of the literary demystifiers have been exposed as the withered fruit of that strangely autonomous realm, literature department “interdisciplinarity.” In the eighties or nineties, the critic could cast himself as a “tourist,” making economic claims without taking the trouble to discover whether or how his economic ideas differed from economists’. The critic could declare aesthetic experience a social illusion, without feeling the need to argue with the psychologists or neuroscientists investigating aesthetic experiences, (or, for that matter, philosophers from Kant through Adorno). For a time, this attitude protected critics from having to examine their interdisciplinary assumptions, even as it foreclosed the possibility of making meaningful interdisciplinary interventions.
Those days are gone. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who will confess to feeling a secret delight at the erosion of the older critics’ authority. After all, the much-discussed crisis in what Michael Berube calls the “prestige” of literary studies is, from a generational perspective, an intellectual opportunity. My sense of this opportunity took a form that initially seemed perverse even to myself. The sober claims of the demystifiers turned out to the wildest nonsense, I thought. What if that dynamic were reversible? What if the wildest claims of literature turned out to be the source of hard-nosed, institutionally viable, knowledge?
I can’t think of a better phrase to describe my view of literary studies than the one Kotin generously uses to describe my book’s central argument. I think criticism should aim to “renovate the possible.” Starr finds my account of what this critical renovation can offer other disciplines “compelling,” but she questions my commitment to literature’s “autonomy.” She argues, persuasively, that what is needed is engagement, not isolation from the work going on in other departments.
Perhaps my decision to use the term ‘autonomy’ in the book’s closing argument was a mistake; the word carries associations that are confusing in this context. So let me be clear: I am all for engagement! Key parts of the second chapter, after all, were written with the collaboration of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, and I took the (considerable) trouble to publish a portion of the argument in one of the top neuroscience journals. I would not have done this—nor would I have taken pains in the other chapters to engage recent work in musicology, philosophy, and psychology—had I not been committed to literary criticism’s robust engagement with cutting-edge research in the disciplines which our investigations lead us to broach. Indeed, this imperative is largely responsible for the polemical attacks on influential critics which Kotin finds superfluous. But it’s important to highlight the incompatibility of my way of investigating addiction or commodities from the way these topics were pursued in the eighties and nineties.
If all this is true, then what was I thinking when I used the word ‘autonomy?’ And how could a commitment to autonomy be compatible with a commitment to interdisciplinary engagement? Put simply, the lingering weakness of literary studies in the university’s economy of knowledge means that much engagement takes the form of literary critics applying the methods and models of other fields in analyzing literary works. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of engagement, and much important work has come out of it. But to fashion a viable place for literary research in the contemporary research university, we need to show that critics can generate knowledge that can’t be found elsewhere. I advocate engagement, but I don’t practice engagement for its own sake. Rather, to identify what is new in literary thought requires intensive engagement with the work of other disciplines.
If the Romantic tradition I explore concerns itself with escaping the limits of the actual, and if I believe there is value to this effort to create alternatives to the real, then I need to demonstrate this value. One way is to show how this effort generates new perspectives on familiar topics. And so, for example, I argue that the literary practice of imitating addictive objects in the process of imagining ideal form, shows us something about addiction we didn’t already know, and enables us to make connections between existing neuroscientific studies that haven’t yet been made. To do this, I identified the aspects of the addictive object that writers like De Quincey and Nabokov took as distinctive. Then, with the help of collaborators, I familiarized myself with the past two decades of scientific research on addiction. Using the literary image as a kind of flashlight, I then searched for something new, something missing in the science. Having found it, I submitted my findings to the review of a science journal, and to the criticism of leading practitioners. Finally, as my argument developed, I shared my work with a neuroscientist and his lab, and made corrections based on their feedback. The ‘cue fascination’ I argue literature shows us in addiction may play a relatively small role in the disease; certainly I don’t think it’s the whole story, or even the largest part. But it is new, there are good reasons to investigate it further, and its nature gives it potentially wide philosophical significance. Based on the experience of composing this chapter, I can offer an updated definition of literary autonomy. Today, the distinctiveness of literary thinking is not an assumption, but a goal, to be won only at the cost of serious and sustained engagement with the work of other fields.
Noticing the extent of this engagement in my book, Vermeule wonders whether my practice is as distinct from that of other cognitive and neuro-inflected criticism as I claim. Certainly this field has grown more diverse even in the couple years since I finished my book. But I think the tendency I associate with the groundbreaking criticism of what I call “cognitive studies 1.0” is still visible. Perhaps I can best bring out my sense of the distinctiveness of my approach by contrasting my treatment of empathetic identification in Proust with the account of “mind reading” in the book many of us think of as one of the most powerful and original cognitive criticism has yet produced, Vermeule’s own Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?
Vermeule does a wonderful job showing us how the innate human ability to imagine the mental lives of others underlies both realist novelists’ depiction of social interaction and calculation, and the consumption of those novels by a world of socially mobile individuals eager to school their mind-reading capacities. One of her book’s achievements is to show how eighteenth and nineteenth century writers knew things about empathy that cognitive science has only recently discovered. But the literary critic’s work comes after those scientific discoveries. Wouldn’t it be nice to sometimes try to make discoveries about the mind before science does? Vermeule’s work ingeniously shows how literary writers make use of capacities science describes, and her work often consists in the application of those scientific descriptions to literary texts. Again, I think this is valuable and necessary work. But I also think we can go a step further.
There are two kinds of things literary criticism can discover about the mind. First, it can identify aspects of mental life that science hasn’t yet seen, but that can be described in a way that enables scientists to learn from literature. I tried to provide an example of this in my account of what literature knows about addiction. Second, criticism can identify new functions for mental capacities science has already described. Vermeule is on solid evolutionary ground when she associates empathy with the “Machiavellian” function of trying to get ‘one up’ on social competitors by trying to predict their choices and behavior. But when Proust imagines that empathy is useful for defeating time, in that it enables us to see through another’s eyes at a world thereby made fresh, he has discovered a plausible use for empathetic identification that, to my knowledge, has gone largely unsuspected in the scientific literature. I would never argue that empathy evolved to defeat time. But when Proust suggests that empathy may in fact be able to defeat time, then we have an opportunity of learning something about this brain function that we may not have had if we restricted ourselves to the science. That a Romantic writer should discover this time-killing dimension of empathy instead of scientists should come as no surprise. Romantic writers are obsessed with defeating time!
Kramnick’s question helps me to further articulate the difference of my approach from that of much cognitive criticism. He worries that I sacrifice too much of the distinctiveness of literature in my effort to bring my work into contact with other disciplines. In particular, he questions the way I treat phenomenal consciousness in my account of addiction. By following the lead of influential scientists and philosophers of mind in equating consciousness with attention, he thinks I give up on the “hard problem” of consciousness, the mysterious way experience is associated with attention. Kramnick thinks that it is in capturing the qualities of this experience that literature’s true epistemological distinctiveness lies.
Here also I need to clarify my position, which the compression of the pages in question perhaps renders slightly obscure. I do not in fact give up on the hard problem, nor do I neglect phenomenal consciousness in describing attention. Rather, I argue that the experience of cue fascination that literature shows us is a cause of sustained attention to the addictive object. In other words, the feeling of perceptual freshness when encountering the addictive object serves to prolong and intensify attention to it.
This is the most extreme claim in my book, precisely because it goes against the grain of current research by attempting to identify a causal role for phenomenal consciousness in behavior, two realms that have, as Kramnick intimates, generally been kept utterly distinct. I develop this argument after delineating my theory of ‘cue fascination,’ and one does not have to accept the former to accept the latter. I realize the skepticism with which many will greet my claim about consciousness, but I have not yet heard arguments sufficient to make me abandon it. Sometimes experts in other fields disagree with my ideas in ways that make me abandon them without looking back; other times I don’t find the grounds of their disagreement persuasive. Engagement, after all, doesn’t mean aquiescence. In my experience, not the least of what we can offer other disciplines is a little of the Romantic spirit.
The scientific and philosophical arguments of my first two chapters suggest one of the ways the study of ideal form can generate real knowledge. But perhaps the most important knowledge offered by my book is of the literature itself. I hope to have shown what is to be gained by taking these works seriously. I wanted to suspend disbelief in writing’s effort to free itself of actuality just long enough for my reader to catch a sense of the interest and value of that effort. Jesse Prinz confesses to a certain ‘embarassement’ in bowing to the evidence about aesthetic experience and identifying himself as an aesthetic “romantic.” While I am obviously interested in experiential aesthetics, I retain serious reservations about its claims. But I have had a similar shyness about embracing my own romanticism. A number of readers have noted my reluctance in the introduction to my book to straightforwardly express the implications of my argument for literary history. But there’s no point in concealing the fact that my aim has been to show how the romantic impulse animates some of the central works of twentieth and early twenty-first century literature.
Earlier I said that I don’t think the literary effort to defeat time is the only source of a new, more institutionally and culturally viable form of literary knowledge. One need only glance at brilliant new work by critics from Sianne Ngai to Irene Tucker to see the obviousness of this. But I do think that the ekphrastic gap—the gap between actual and ideal literary form—provides a useful way of showing how Romantic literature generates knowledge. In this gap, we see an allegory of literature’s instrinsic interdisciplinarity. In fantasizing an ideal timeless form, literature flees its status as a delimited object of specialized study. We see literary thought in flight from literature, from its own most basic social and material actuality. As it crosses and recrosses disciplinary boundaries, the wildly improbable literary effort to defeat the fundamental human limit describes a flight path that critics, facing our own historical and institutional limits, might want to take.