The public domain. It is a peculiar place. A man-made construction existing all around us but whose foundations are invisible to the five senses. We know it is there. We see its signs. Read its words. Hear its voices. While numerous pictures pop in and out of our memories. And yet… when he look too closely it dissolves before our all too piercing, our all too empirical, eyes. Of course there are places where public activities occur - the Houses of Parliament, a local town hall, the lecture halls of Cambridge University; the secondhand bookshop, the unsung hero of Western culture. But it is in not these buildings where we will find the public domain. Look for it there and you will never stop looking; for always it will be just out of reach; even when, miraculously, you find it. Or you think you do. You enter an office. You are puzzled. It sounds like home or a local cafe; an official touching you on the arm tells you about her pension rights, the increased hours, the clients who complain when they have no right to complain - “I’m doin’ my job aren’t I?” You are surprised. You do not know how to respond… “Oh, would you like a tea?” She praises your dress, she likes its delicate pleats; loves the long sleeves, and the filigree work around the cuffs. She asks where you bought it….
Thursday, 12 June 2014
Sainte-Beuve’s great work does not go very deep. The celebrated method which, according to Paul Bourget and so many others, made him the peerless master of nineteenth-century criticism, this system which consisted of not separating the man and his work, of holding the opinion that in forming a judgement of an author - short of his book being “a treatise on pure geometry” - it is not immaterial to begin by knowing the answers to questions which seem at the furthest remove from his work (How did he conduct himself? etc.), to surround oneself with every possible piece of information about a writer, to collate his letters, to pick the brains of those who knew him - talking to them if they are alive, reading whatever they may have written about him if they are dead - this method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart. There must be no scamping in the pursuit of this truth, and it is taking things too easily to suppose that one fine morning the truth will arrive by post in the form of an unpublished letter submitted to us by a friend’s librarian, or that we shall gather it from the lips of someone who saw a great deal of the author. Speaking of the great admiration that the work of Stendhal aroused in several writers of the younger generation, Sainte-Beuve said: “If I may be allowed to say so, in framing a clear estimate of this somewhat complex mind and without going to extremes in any direction, I would still prefer to rely, apart from my own impressions and recollections, on what I was told by M. Mérimée and M. Ampère, on what I should have been told, had he lived, by Jacquemont - by those, in short, who saw him often and appreciated the actual man.”
Why so? In what way does the fact of having been a friend of Stendhal’s make one better fitted to judge him? For those friends, the self which which produced the novels was eclipsed by the other, which may have been very inferior to the outer selves of many other people. Besides, the best proof of this is that Sainte-Beuve, having known Stendhal, having collected all the information he could from M. Mérimée and M. Ampère, having furnished himself, in short, with everything that according to him would enable a critic to judge a book to a nicety, pronounced judgement on Stendhal as follows: “I have been re-reading, or trying to re-read, Stendhal’s novels; frankly, they are detestable.” (Marcel Proust, By Way of Sainte-Beuve)
Friday, 6 June 2014
It’s all there in the description. These facts speak to us, now that we have learned their language. The differences between Innstetten and the von Briests - his seriousness against their light-heartedness, their cultivated inertia against his prosaic careerism - are precisely elucidated for us; while dull Kessin, a provincial town that squeezes the spirit out of Effi’s lively soul, is described with unforgiving accuracy. There they all are! We remember the words we have recently written; see an old Saxony castle collapse under the demolition men; and watch a new government building rise out of its ruins; a dull rectangle built in stone and brick, with a folk dance of decoration over its lintels and in its friezes. A porch, a huge mouth smothered in a walrus moustache, waits patiently to ingest us. We ruminate on our decision. To enter or no… Then…shouting; a young girl yells out a vulgar comment; a crumpled man talks politics… An old woman, slim and attractive and dressed in a short red dress, walks past us and tells him to shut up - she stamps her high heels: alles ist scheisse -; a mob surrounds us… There is a false note; solecisms slide into the sentences; phrases become incomprehensible, and we find ourselves stumbling through paragraphs searching for words to grasp. Professor Roy Pascal has started to speak a different dialect. He is talking of an outmoded Junker class struggling to survive in a new Germany. Our hand grabs a nettle, and we yell out in pain.