by Perry Meisel
The aesthetic of difficulty lingers on, though it belongs to another age
"Why don't you write sensible books that people can understand?" Nora Joyce complained to her husband, James, when he was composing Finnegans Wake, in 1927. Joyce's indirect reply (for he seldom discussed literature with his wife) came in a confession to his publisher, Harriet Weaver, to whom he had been explaining the new book for weeks: "Now, patience: and remember patience is the great thing . . . . I want to teach everybody how to do everything properly so as to be in the fashion."
By "the fashion," Joyce meant the intricate difficulties of Finnegans Wake and how a reader was to negotiate them. Neither the book nor the advice was meretricious. They expressed the conscious, deliberate condition of Joyce's art - an art of intentional obscurity, ellipsis, and allusion, one designed to put the reader to school rather than to sleep.
The contemporary reader is accustomed to these Joycean demands on one's concentration. Indeed, they have become the values by which we assess and bestow literary reputation in an age still dominated by the achievement of Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's The Waste Land, and Pound's Cantos. Thick with learning and dense in surface texture, the novels, poems, and critical self-pronouncements of the great moderns more than set a period standard. These works have convinced us that the criteria of difficulty and inaccessibility by which they demand to be judged are universal ones for the judgment of literary art.
Chief among the priests of modernism, Eliot summed up the period aesthetic in 1921, giving it the implicit authority of an "objective" theory of poetry. The italics are Eliot's own:
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
This description of what a work of literature should do has become an aesthetic tenet. It tends to be the starting point for the young poet or novelist with serious literary ambitions. It has acquired the character of reflex rather than reflection, of instinct rather than reason. It is something that ought to make us suspicious. Despite our hesitation to quarrel with it for fear of exposing our intellectual inadequacies, we balk at its demands, consciously or not, even as we acquiesce. We assume too easily that we should at least appreciate what we cannot enjoy.
This assumption has its influential proponents. George Steiner's 1978 essay "On Difficulty," probably our most notorious defense of the aesthetic of obfuscation, insists that difficulty is paradigmatic of all literary experience. Steiner argues that an "ecumenicism of receptivity" towards past literature is "spurious," and goes on:
The authentic poet cannot make do with the infinitely shop-worn inventory of speech, with the necessarily devalued or counterfeit currency of the every-day. He must literally create new words and syntactic modes: this was the argument and practice of the first Dada, of Surrealists, of the Russian "Futuro-Cubist" Klebnikov and his "star-speech." If the reader would follow the poet into the terra incognita of revelation, he must learn the language . . . . We are not meant to understand easily and quickly. Immediate purchase is denied us. The text yields its force and singularity of being only gradually.Steiner's position represents an exact reversal of what used to be the prevailing attitude. "Trash," wrote the anonymous reviewer for The New Monthly on the publication of Browning's Sordello in 1840. "If Mr. Browning will write, we wish he would write something comprehensible. Sordello is full of hard names, and nonsense." Less than a century later, however, in 1932, an anonymous reviewer of W.H. Auden's The Orators declared Auden's verse "exceedingly difficult to understand, but in spite of this extraordinarily stimulating." By 1979, Hugh Kenner, Pound's most authoritative critic, hailed Gilbert Sorrentino's almost incomprehensible Mulligan Stew as a primer in avant-garde aesthetics, and did it in a style almost as gnomic as his mentor's.
Complicit with this appreciation of unintelligibility is another familiar trait of modern art: its maker's plea that he is "misunderstood," that the meaning he's after - even if it augurs the end or the endless plurality of meaning - is, by its very nature and quality, impossible to fix in any authorized way. That our greatest writers cannot be understood is the whole point, Steiner insists, for no understanding is possible in world driven mad by the events of the twentieth century: "At certain levels, we are not meant to understand at all, and our interpretation, indeed our reading itself, is an intrusion."
Difficulty, then, can even become a strategy intended to disarm all readers, whatever their inclinations, by a sort of trap or double bind. If a work is impenetrable or elusive, there must be something to it. If a work is unreadable, it must be a moving illustration of modernist angst. And a good writer, it goes without saying, is one who cannot be readily understood.
As our distance from the moderns begins to widen, it becomes clear that the literary criteria of difficulty and "being misunderstood" add up to little more than the defensive, self-sustaining myth of a period of literature now past. The historical record alone shows how isolated, even embattled, Eliot's requirement is. The college freshman who thinks Shakespeare is difficult soon finds him the soul of lucidity. It is a question of catching on - of learning the idioms of Elizabethan English and spotting the literary and mythological allusions.
By the time of Romanticism, poets themselves were in revolt against classical poetic diction, and went about a housecleaning so thorough that it produced a century whose virtues and vices alike reflected a determined clarity bred by a determined security. The Victorians, after all, were Romantics in action, and the public strength of their literature reflects it. Except for the Decadence, what we consider great Victorian writing today - Dickens, Trollope, Tennyson, George Eliot, Hardy - was mass-market stuff.
By contrast to what preceded it, then, modernism looks more and more like a special, and specialized, condition of literary culture. Its aesthetic - and its motivations - are far more programmatic in their influence than its protestations of revolt would suggest. Our "post-modern" aesthetic of difficulty takes as its authority the texts of High Modernism - and with no small irony, since modernism's ineluctable agenda is to be direct and original, to "make it new," in Pound's famous words. "The late-comer," asserted Virginia Woolf, "improves upon the pioneer."
It was not until well after the Decadence of the nineties had spent itself that the cult of modernist difficulty began to dominate the literary scene in a serious way. The annus mirabilis of modernism was 1922. It marked the publication of Ulysses, The Waste Land, and Virginia's Woolf's Jacob's Room, the first of her post-realist novels. All three works, it should be added, were published by private presses - the latter two by the Woolfs' Hogarth Press (Virginia set type for Eliot's poem with her own hands), Ulysses by Sylvia Beach's Paris bookstore and printing establishment, Shakespeare & Co.
That they were privately published is symptomatic of the kinds of difficulty posed by all three works, for they deal, in both form and meaning, with the response of the private soul to the encroachment upon it of mass or public civilization. This sense of crisis provided modern literature with a poetics of difficulty that it could claim was a necessity. Hence the traditional - and by no means false - defense of modern fiction and poetry as a literature whose difficulty replicates on the level of style the modernist's specific and programmatic intent to represent a world in pieces, devoid of meaning. The reader of Conrad or Kafka experiences the vertigo characteristic of the world they depict in his very attempt to read about it; the reader of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier even discovers that the book's narrator has been wrong throughout, and that he has heard nothing but lies for hundreds of pages.
In some instances, an elaborate style is simply the reflection of a subject that resists clarity. Henry James is difficult because what he describes - the circuitry of mind and heart - is complicated. Freud is difficult not only because what he sets out to map - the unconscious mind - is complicated but because it is in our very nature to resist understanding it. And, of course, T.S. Eliot is difficult because one must share the poet's assumptions about symbols and what they mean if one expects him to cohere. Without Eliot's own rather mocking notes to The Waste Land, the poem will not only not read right: it will barely read at all.
But what in the early part of the century was a genuinely radical attempt to renovate literary language has devolved into the irony of an institutionalized, even classical kind of post-modernism. While Eliot's reappraisal of Donne and his heirs depended on the criterion of difficulty or "toughness of mind," there is no such payoff in the case of our post-moderns. With William H. Gass, we come to the heart of the problem. Considered by many the most accomplished stylist in America, Gass won fame in 1966 with his novel Omensetter's Luck. Gass's prose, like Faulkner's, seemed to be poised between realism and the diction of a modern literature that could elevate regional life, as Joyce had done, to the level of myth. But its real affinities were more literary than vernacular. The novel imitated Faulkner and Ulysses - and Samuel Beckett - far better than it captured the spoken idioms of the Midwest. Its highly metaphoric, insistently literary language outstripped its subject, despite Gass's effort to reproduce the rhythms of American speech. Gass's short stories (collected under the title of his most famous, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country") turned out to have the same problem: they showed that Gass was more interested in technique than in talk, and had forgotten Joyce's injunction to realize a world as well as to celebrate the word.
Gass's writing represents a trend. Among our principal "post-moderns," it is John Barth who remains our most honored veteran, though just how much he has accomplished would be hard to say. Barth's career largely rehearses the development of the English novel itself. His early books - The Floating Opera and The End of the Road - were exercises in discipleship on the order of Keats's imitation of Spenser or Milton's Latin sonnets, although the models here were modernist: absurdist drama and existentialism. With The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Barth became a historian of the English novel - and the English language - as well as a practitioner of it. But despite his greedy inventiveness, he was destined to grow more willfully imitative in the years to come. To be sure, Chimera signals a considerable progress in the understanding of language and how it functions, especially compared with the undigested, rather vulgar modernism of Lost in the Funhouse. But it wasn't long before his exuberant inventions gave way to an impulse to instruct us in the nature of narrative instead of simply getting on with it. Of course, we already know how narrative functions - not only from the experiments of modernism but, in a far plainer style, from structural linguistics, psychoanalysis, and French criticism and historiography. And then there is Barth's Letters, full of punnish wisdom about the quest for meaning and its ultimate elusiveness. Even George Steiner had to complain, in a New Yorker review of December 31, 1979: "Alas, Pirandello was here first, and with mastery. . . Barth is out of luck. Titans have been there before him, and on his exact ground."
Another veteran experimentalist, Gilbert Sorrentino - a more generous, and more genuinely experimental, writer than Barth - found himself, with the publication of Mulligan Stew, in 1979, canonized in literary circles virtually overnight. Interviews, dissertations, a three-pound issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction examining him from every angle: it's as though a new "difficultist" hero were required every now and then by the contemporary machinery of taste and arbitration. Sorrentino has too often been associated with those infinitely inferior obscurantists labeled by Hugh Kenner the "schlock avant-garde." It is, however, precisely Sorrentino's ability to provide us with an aerial view of avant-garde writing as a whole that has brought him to prominence; and it is his determination to both mock and emulate the aesthetic of difficulty that makes Mulligan Stew such an irritating yet endearing document.
As usual, it is the allusions to modern classics that give the tale away. Like Gide's The Counterfeiters, Mulligan Stew contains a novel within a novel, and aspires to mirror in its narrative design the incessant revisions we impose on our lives. Like The Waste Land, it purports to imitate the chaos of life by presenting us with a puzzle of random pieces, a bric-a-brac of the common and the patrician, the ignorant and the overeducated, held loosely together by the tendrils of innumerable literary modes. And like Ulysses, Sorrentino's novel mixes popular and classical forms by having the author's novelist-hero, who is called Ned Beaumont (also the name of one of Dashiell Hammet's creations), write a detective novel that develops into a parody of a "difficult" avant-garde novel. This is surely a step beyond institutionalized avant-gardism, since Sorrentino raises - even if he does not resolve - a question that Barth and Gass overlook entirely: the clash between the popular and the recondite, between the detective novel and the "art novel," between public and private forms. It is the divorce between mass and minority culture, between society and letters, between life and art, that the modernist credo insists upon, and Sorrentino is right to identify it as both the cause and the effect of the aesthetic of difficulty.
The critic's great fear, of course, is that he may be missing the point. Yet ours is a very different period from the genuinely revolutionary era in which the classics of modernism were produced. The difference is that our "post-moderns" tell us what we already know. False to its own demand for originality by virtue of its discipleship to an earlier canon, post-modern difficulty is a contradiction. How indeed can you make something new by copying something old?
If we must still look to the moderns for our answers (the post-moderns surely won't provide any), let us at least choose Joyce's vision instead of Eliot's. The Joycean spirit of openness to society that is evident in Leopold Bloom's gregarious sociability is, of course, inimical to a view of the modern world as a wasteland. And it remains the only sensible - and civilized - vision of modernity. The intricate texture of Joyce's language, unlike the texture of Eliot's, is derived from a loving attentiveness to the world of everyday life - a world modernism too often disdains. The adventure of difficult style grows hollow when it represents a retreat from the quotidian, and exposes the failure of the modern imagination rather than of the modern world.
Originally published in The Atlantic, Volume 219 No. 3, March 1982