Taste as Virtue
Pictures from an Institution.
by Randall Jarrell.
Knopf. 277 pp. $3.50.

 

Pictures from an institution is a comedy of manners about that summit of the American educational dream, the progressive college for girls. At Benton, an orange and black mobile tinkles in the president’s waiting room, the air is saturated with democracy so that the students may more freely breathe in the beliefs of their teachers, and polite chubby girls write stories about bugs that turn into men. (“ ‘It’s influenced by Kafka, ’ she said, looking down shyly.”) The logic of the Benton staff, their furniture, even their attitudes toward food, are described by Randall Jarrell with a kind of tightrope cerebral wit that is hard to find in America, where most of our humor still twangs with the influence of Mark Twain or Ring Lardner.

Especially at the beginning of the book, Jarrell goes on a real jag of puns, epigrams, twisted clichés, recapped climaxes, and wild irrefutable exaggerations. He says the voice of President Robbins “not only took you into its confidence, it laid a fire for you and put out your slippers by it, and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable . . . that voice did not sell itself to the highest bidder, it just gave itself away to everybody.” About bony, tweedy Flo Whit-taker, who felt that private life was petty in comparison with what you read in the Nation or voted for, he writes, “Sometimes it seemed to you that she was not a person, not a thing, but an idea, and a mistaken one at that. . . . She was, surely, the least sexual of beings; when cabbages are embarrassed about the facts of life, they tell their little cabbages that they found them under Mrs. Whittaker.”

One of the characters says about the acidulous novelist, Gertrude Johnson, that her bark is worse than her bite. “This was foolish—Gertrude’s bark was her bite; and many a bite has lain awake all night longing to be Gertrude’s bark.” Jarrell’s attention moves like an enchanted though pre-warned moth toward the callous light of this omniscient woman who writes like the Spirit of Geometry and who makes sure that if someone rejects her it will be for the slap in the face she has already given him. He keeps quoting her, goading his style to approximate her soulless wit, and mourning for her. Possibly, her kind of impatience, her scrupulous accounting of people’s faults, her talent for sliding personal deficiencies into some particular social or cultural category, are meant by Jarrell to represent a withering tendency of the critical intellect today.

At any rate, most of the intellectuals at Ben-ton—the bland liberals, the genteel English instructor, and the detached composer-in-residence—are suffering from some failure of the vital, wholesome impulses. Only Constance, a young girl who works as a secretary and studies music, is different. She is all radiant expectation, the instinctive embodiment of Jarrell’s feeling that life and people are open, accessible, and indefinable. “All of us reason about and understand what people necessarily must be; we dream about and are bewitched by what they accidentally and incomprehensibly are.” Since Jarrell has assigned himself the rather simple and clean-cut role of “merely pointing” (I suppose he means to the odd and varied possibilities that exist even on an uneventful, complacent campus), it is not in place to attribute allegories to him. But it doesn’t seem accidental that Constance, with her glowing American spirit and conviction, should be adopted by the Rosenbaums (a composer of atonal music and a singer of Lieder), who, with all their European wisdom and experience, are themselves beyond much hope or faith for the world. Whether or not this episode has any larger meaning, these three people’s admission of their need and respect for one another is the only real story in Pictures from an Institution.

The rest is a complaining, brilliant monologue, sometimes irritating because of its tête-à-tête intimacy; the first-person narrator seems to reject a good many ways of thinking and behaving, but not, he implies, yours and mine. He inveighs against the cant and limitation of modern progressive dogmas, but isn’t above occasionally accepting for himself a smug and self-contained set of values in which taste determines virtue and lack of discrimination becomes the unpardonable sin. The addiction to . wrought-iron furniture or Dust Bowl Ballads sums up a Jarrell character as finally as the mustache on a silent-movie villain, just as someone’s proper appreciation of Lotte Lehmann’s voice or Alban Berg’s music puts him on the side of the angels.

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One of the guesses as to who Gertrude Johnson might be in real life—and there isn’t a very wide choice—hit upon Jarrell himself as the likeliest suspect. He certainly has some of the same love of gossip and caricature as Gertrude Johnson. As many cutting things are said in the author’s own right as in the voice of the novelist whose heartlessness is made the minor tragedy of the book. But he makes a deliberate effort to be warmer and more reverent, he gives himself up to certain ideals—youth, vigor, and originality—and is ready to praise any signs of them wholeheartedly.

Still, among the conventions of novel writing that he has willingly discarded, like plot, character development, and magnanimity of outlook, it is the last we most want reinstated. Jarrell’s precision makes us feel that though he may have hit people off accurately in terms of culture and perhaps nerves, he has missed one important thing, their saving grace. It is not his strong notion of the absurd that bothers us, but the obvious pride he takes in the correctness of his taste, and the lengths to which he goes to demonstrate it. Jarrell’s unconscious emphasis on taste as the supreme criterion of the individual’s value makes everything else he has to say suspect. And a writer so anxious to proclaim the manifold wonder of the world should not allow the impression to slip in that if you haven’t lived like him you haven’t really lived.

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