PRINT March 1985


The Innocent Eye

The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts, by Roger Shattuck, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984, 362 pp., 11 black and white illustrations.

Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years (1958) remains the unsurpassed work on the great, fecund period of art ferment in Paris before World War I. Rich with anecdote and stories of such exotic artists as Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, and Guillaume Apollinaire, The Banquet Years serves as a model cultural history, a luscious, erudite narrative. “Having Congress: The Shame of the Thirties,” the lead essay in Shattuck’s recent collection of essays, The Innocent Eye, has the same narrative ring, the same fascinating social perspective as The Banquet Years. In this essay Shattuck relates the events of the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture (in Paris, 1935), convened to explore ways to defend culture from onslaughts against it. While Louis Aragon, André Gide, André Malraux, and a few others made their voices heard against Fascism, others, who attempted to draw attention to Stalinist crimes, were shunted off into the wings. Shattuck points to the more sinister aspects of the well-intended Congress and brings into question its effectiveness. “The Congress probably tells us as much about the easily hoodwinked idealism, the opportunism, and the vanity of writers as about the political stresses of the era,” he writes. From this point on, the essays in the collection are cast from a different mold. Less engaging superficially—with less cultural storytelling—they range from explorations of the work of such artists and writers as Monet, Malraux, Apollinaire, Paul Valéry, and Antonin Artaud, to evaluations of Dada and Surrealism, to examinations of the current state of literature, literary and art theory, and criticism.

Although many in the new collection of essays were occasional pieces (several, including one on Meyer Schapiro, were written for the New York Review of Books), there is an underlying thematic thread: we must bring an open, innocent eye to all ventures in art and literature (and life). We must not jettison the intellectual and cultural freight we ship out with, but for first encounters we should come equipped with the innocent eye only. This notion weaves its way through many of the essays, and invades even the footnotes. The call for innocence and freshness brings Shattuck to a new reading of “Lettre-Océan,” a 1914 poem by Apollinaire which, he says, he had long ago treated cavalierly and which he now finds, if not as important as two of the watershed works of the early 20th century, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, 1913, then in some acute relation to them. Leaving the issue of evaluation apart, Shattuck’s stimulating, eye-opening rereading of this poem should stand as an example of the need for and the benefits of keeping an ever-open view. Many of the other essays are impressed with the same informed, intelligent, sharp-sighted, and at times exuberant stamp. He has read much and widely, and he takes into his ken the plastic arts, music, literature, and science.

I am taken with Shattuck’s learning, with the broad and sympathetic and humane approach he brings to his chosen subjects. And for all the erudition, he holds direct, commonsensical views, almost too simple and practical when compared to those of the more recondite and fashionable of his colleagues. Take the essay “How to Rescue Literature,” for example. Here Shattuck sets out his concern for the state of the critical apparatus of our reading of literature, the tendency to treat it as a series of “texts.” Shattuck proposes we return to reading poems and fictions aloud in the hope of restoring life to the word and the word to us. Oral reading, he argues, may also restore some sense of community in the face of television, “a phantom oral culture.” The book lover in me hails this oral-reading strategy, though I have little hope that it will rescue literature from the fate of the buffalo and the dime phone call. Although I also hail Shattuck’s profound concern for a civilization he sees as threatened, I find aspects of his thinking disquietingly narrow.

The trouble for me begins with his essay “The Demon of Originality.” In a lucid analysis of the driving factor of originality in the art of the past hundred or so years—a factor which he sees as “powerful and overindulged”—Shattuck maintains that: “the Demon of Originality drives our research budgets as fanatically as it inspires Christo, or Robert Wilson, who creates ever more grandiose, extended, multimedia spectaculars as if to defy Aristotle’s precept that art should be of a certain magnitude, namely human.” Of course the push for mere novelty and spectacle is a potlatch form of creativity. But the role research plays for Christo in his attempts to solve the technological and engineering problems of creating his constructions is an issue apart from the way we understand or perceive the final artwork produced. Research in this sense is not an anarchic activity but gives range and limit, and serves Christo’s original impulse and design. By the construction of his sentence Shattuck seems to limit his charge to Wilson’s work, but I suspect he is making the accusation against Christo as well. In any event, he ties the question of the human magnitude of a work to the matter of scale. But neither proportion nor scale are assured measures of the human response to a work of art: all art, regardless of scale, is of a human magnitude.

In the concluding essay, “The Innocent Eye and the Armed Vision,” Shattuck’s apprehension about art which seems to lack that human dimension is brought full circuit and put in the form of a (rhetorical?) question: “Is there no way to recognize and reconcile the two undeniable extremes of art: its urgent, realistic depiction of human life and its retreat [italics mine] to a self-reflexive realm of language, forms and ideas?” Shattuck is setting up a false opposition here, but one that is seductive and appealing to a reader, who may immediately grant him the distinction of being for “the accessible”—the recognizable terrain of reality. An art of “language forms and ideas” (Modernism—which Shattuck obliquely attacks here) is as much an address to and of reality as any other art that may appear to have commonplace life for its immediate reference. Shattuck later returns to this theme of “reality”: “Art is free to try all the genres and modes it can imagine; some of them travel a long way from reality. Its responsibility is to return us to reality better prepared to continue our journey.” This call to reality may still pass muster as an inspirational homily to an undergraduate literature class. But its hard to imagine any one form of reality being more real than any other. The issue may seem simply academic. Yet when dogma dictates to artists what is reality and how to realize it in art, the rubber hose and the long exile are not far away.

The general humanistic call to art’s duty is sugared, and it demands of art only that it help us map out life’s tough route. Such gentle appeals move us all, making claims on our vulnerability, on our need for recognizable human signposts. But the humanistic call is also a sticky one, a trap that would perhaps unwittingly set one kind of art in opposition to another and eventually promote the more obvious and accessible, the one with more “human interest.” Art could then be measured by the standard of how effectively it illuminates our immediate road. This could be used for another form of tyranny, another imposition on the artist to perform, through his or her art, direct do-good service to civilization. This is a despotism that many would welcome as a kind of restoration of esthetic law and order amid an imagined Modernist chaos. To ensure that art would behave responsibly and reasonably, that it would be good for its own sake and would benefit others, a sweet humanistic tyranny would haul story line, narrative, and unforgettable “human” characters back into literature (though they never left), and unchanging perspective and human magnitude into the plastic and dramatic arts. Walter Pater understood that art was neither obliged nor responsible to provide us with ideas, moral or practical, about how to live properly or how to ease life’s quick passage. In his conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Pater said it exactly and exquisitely: “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments sake.”

Shattuck’s strategy is to place one kind of art he calls Modernist in the art-for-art’s-sake camp and force upon it the image of its being a mere game dissociated from reality when, in fact, it is just a certain instance of it. Finally, Shattuck’s good wishes for art, the sincere impulses which motivate his concern for its welfare and its fate, need a more tough-minded argument than he has put forward here. It’s worth taking a look, for example, at the major theme, restated in the concluding paragraph of his final essay: “Yes, we have all lost our innocence long since. The important thing is to be able to find it again, and not by going back. We need not despair, for in a few domains an ulterior innocence awaits us. The most exhilarating quality of art in its truest forms is to enable one to come to it again and again and find oneself a virgin every time.” This is a charming sentiment, even though a bit tired; elevating, too, especially the part about “art in its truest forms,” even if, finally, I have no picture of what kind of art that is. The idea of being a virgin again and again in any sort of encounter fills me with apprehension, but the rhetorical tenor of the passage gives me heart in my more relaxed, sentimental moments.

Frederic Tuten is a fiction writer and director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York. He is the books editor of Artforum.