Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this collection of essays concurrently with Winterson’s novel, Art and Lies, and I suspect they were written concurrently, as there is much overlap in both books’ arguments about art and society—and the didacticism of Winterson’s fiction and the lyricism of her non-fiction only increases the similarity. Since I discussed Winterson’s political and social thought at length in my review of Art and Lies—in brief, she is a Romantic anti-capitalist, a radical-reactionary aesthete—I will confine myself here to more strictly literary matters.
This book is in three parts. The first consists of the title essay, in which Winterson transforms the word “objects” from noun to verb. She insists on the actively transformative power of art, a power that requires an equally active response on the part of the viewer/reader. (Which Winterson argues, again, is difficult to achieve in techno-modernity with its materialism and all-encroaching and far too easy pop culture.) She mainly discusses visual art in this piece; it is anchored by her experience of being arrested “by a painting that had more power to stop [her] than [she] had power to walk away,” which forces her to learn more about the visual arts (she rather defensively chooses Bloomsberrie Roger Fry as her guide) and to discover her own capacity to sit silently in front of a work of art for the length of time it requires to unfold itself to her. Eventually Winterson reveals that the painting that so affected her was one of Massimo Rao’s. This is a bit surprising, given Winterson’s otherwise orthodox modernism, as Rao is a figurative if slightly surreal painter, akin to the kitsch school of Odd Nerdrum. (You can see some of his paintings here.)
The next section contains Winterson’s essays on Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. She defends The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a revision of autobiographical form toward abstraction and mocks Matisse, who complained of Stein’s inaccuracies, for expecting Stein to write mimetically when he did not concern himself to paint mimetically. On Woolf, she writes appreciations of both Orlando and The Waves, i.e., Woolf’s most and least entertaining novels. The rollicking and endlessly inventive Orlando—perhaps the most sheerly fun novel in the modernist canon—needs no defense, but Winterson almost makes me want to revisit The Waves, a fiction I found far too rarefied, too willed an experiment, to be edifying or transformative. Winterson throughout the book lauds T. S. Eliot, author of her favorite 20th-century poem, Four Quartets. Faithful to Woolf, she wrongheadedly disparages Joyce as too hermetic (but Joyce is not merely playing word games for the fun of it, he is rather enacting psychological and historical processes in language, just as Woolf was).
She quotes Woolf’s “Four Women Novelists” at length to explain the folly of writing out of personal or political partisanship; I will quote it too since it runs so counter to the dominant literary ideology of our time, which counsels the writer to nurse every private resentment and political fury, and with which Woolf is often seen erroneously as being in accord:
In Middlemarch and in Jane Eyre we are conscious not merely of the writer’s character, as we are conscious of the character of Charles Dickens, but we are conscious of a woman’s presence—of someone resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights. This brings into women’s writing an element which is entirely absent from a man’s, unless, indeed, he happens to be a working man, a negro, or one who for some other reason is conscious of disability. It introduces a distortion and is frequently the cause of weakness. The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader’s attention is directed were suddenly twofold instead of single. The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations…
Winterson elaborates on this to slight the soapbox-preacher working-man D. H. Lawrence, whom she later cites approvingly in his judgement that central heating is immoral.
Hostile to the 19th century and its “toilsome” and somber insistence on mimesis, she faults Dickens and Tennyson for writing too much, for walking when they should have flown. She prefers the 18th century, with its bawdy playfulness and artifice, and the Renaissance, with its experiments in form and metaphor. She insultingly criticizes Conrad for being a Pole who tried to out-English the English: “the disciplined pedant, the Salieri of letters, wanted and wrote a fixed English” and so failed to write a living prose. I take her point about the impediments of Conrad’s style, but the problem, if it is a problem, is not his national origin but his discipleship to Flaubert, who immobilized fictional prose in the name of le mot juste—to which Woolf somewhere correctly replied that the right rhythm is more important than the right word. Her view of 20th-century literary history is probably not wrong, at least as applied to England:
For myself, in the literature of my own language, I can find little to cheer me between the publication of Four Quartets (1944) and Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (1967). Of course I am cheered by Beckett and by Pinter and Orton and Stoppard, but they are dramatists and, with the exception of Beckett, the solid body of their work comes out of the 1960s, as does that of Adrienne Rich.
Objections come to mind, largely American: Nabokov? Ellison? O’Connor? Welty? None of them dull realists, all of them poets in the broad sense. That the only American she mentions is Adrienne Rich puzzles me greatly, as I judge Rich to be a turgid, dreary, and self-congratulatory ideologue of the kind I’d think would bore Winterson.
In the final section, Winterson discusses the relation between art and life. She insists that fiction is artifice and not autobiography; she blames both prurient straight and activist queer critics for a stultifying identity politics that have readers associating her own work with Radclyffe Hall rather than with T. S. Eliot just because she is a lesbian. She understands the paradoxes of art and ideology well:
Communist and People’s Man, Stephen Spender, had the right credentials, but Catholic and cultural reactionary T. S. Eliot made the poetry.
There is a beautiful essay on book collecting called “The Psychometry of Books,” which defends the physical object, the codex bound in space and time, as a bearer of aesthetic presence. An essay on “Imagination and Reality” associates the artist with the priest and the king, with royal presence and the quest for the divine. She waxes nostalgic over the system of church and court patronage, which she sees as kinder to the artist than a market that subjects the creator to clock-time rather than the eternity of creation.
The words to mock Winterson for these views come so readily to mind that it is possible to forget that the mockers would have been thought stupid, coarse, or crazy for most of history. In rejecting any special pleading on behalf of her own social position, Winterson makes it easy enough for the reader to object in her stead that those who deride her unfashionable Romanticism are simply unable to take seriously the spiritual and cultural aspirations of a working-class lesbian from Lancashire. For my part, I will take Winterson’s untimely modernism and timeless Romanticism and her sense of the writer’s divine vocation over contemporary academe’s view of the arts—all those fervorless snide minions of Bourdieu and Foucault for whom art is nothing but a game of social status.
Winterson’s final essay discusses, at perhaps excessive length, her own work, her struggle to write fiction after the superannuation of the realist novel, her attempt to reanimate the modernist legacy and its own links to tradition. I like the part where she defines the writer as one who “lives in a constant state of readiness,” one who reads and thinks every day but who does not need to write every day (I’ve always thought “write every day” was bad advice, as if a work of art were a job you went to and punched a clock).
Complaints? Winterson has a great command of English literary history, but seemingly little outside that. Where are the Continental or Russian or American writers, to say nothing of points further east or south? She is able to make short work of realism by deriding Trollope, but wouldn’t Stendhal or Tolstoy give her a much harder time? Also, this book tends to repeat itself, and to repeat the didactic passages in her fiction. There is a performative contradiction here: in making such strenuous and serious arguments for a lightsome poetry, Winterson too walks when she should fly and betrays a certain Victorian (stern, earnest, sober) sensibility of her own. But there is no fascinating writer without contradictions, and I found this a fascinating book.
[…] wanted to revisit Dickens after reading Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects. Like other British critics who want to keep alive the modernist tradition—see also Gabriel […]
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