Art and Nature

Time of need: forms of imagination in the twentieth century.
by William Barrett.
Harper & Row. 401 pp. $10.00.

William Barrett believes that in the headlong pursuit of technological advantage we have deserted our true nature and are increasingly dead to its directives. Those directives he reads in modern literature and art, the collective voice of the human imagination in our time.

However much it has been pushed to the margins of our social life, however much we may have—in the words of Lévi-Strauss—placed art on a reservation, it still hangs on by the skin of its teeth. Yet that survival has exacted a heavy price from the artists themselves. It required nothing less than a destruction of forms in order to make a prodigious return to the sources of art itself, back beyond the bourgeois phase of its history, which we now recognize to be that of realism. Modern artists have dared to enter once again that world of the imagination, more encompassing than the boundaries of realism, where their works struggle to live beside Easter Island and Stonehenge as well as Ingres and Courbet. Beyond the glut of documentary journalism, literature survives only where language and the word retain the primordial resonance they had in the sagas and myths of early man.

Mr. Barrett’s book is written out of a belief that Western man has exhausted his dynamo, that the time of need is now. The pride which once drove us to place the human alongside the divine—even if in the process the divine must give way and crumble to dust—has turned into sickness and self-doubt. Man’s journey away from the primitive began with the Enlightenment, which promised to rid him of superstition and fear. At the same time the scientific revolution began to put into his hands the keys of the physical world. He has, so far, used those keys only for robbery and blasphemy. It was all right as long as man could see himself as being in cahoots with God, but when in the 19th century this partnership dissolved, man looked round and found himself alone. The shock was a profound one, and with the passage of years the situation has grown no easier. Hence the phenomenon of nihilism, of which Mr. Barrett offers no formal definition but to which he reverts continually.

Nihilism is that state of intellectual and spiritual heebie-jeebies in which the human spirit defines itself against the void and realizes that there is nothing to stop the void from swallowing it. Since modern man carries at the back of his mind the suspicion that all his feverish activity is either random competitiveness (“a blind man battering blind men”) or an empty exercise of the unanchored will, urging itself on toward dissolution against a background of eternal night—since he carries within him this question, the art which speaks for him has made it a central concern. The characteristic modern artist either rubs our noses in the futility of human constructions (Beckett) or strives to set up some counter-principle that will hold us steady in the face of the fathomless threat. And on the whole Mr. Barrett is satisfied that he has identified this counter-principle. It is the “primal, primordial, primitive.”

“The major problem of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality.” The words are George Orwell’s, but the thought is everyone’s. The historical situation of the modern artist is that he has now finally moved from the notion of art against a background of eternity to the notion of art against a background of death. To some, the only response to the ultimate triumph of death will be silence, and perhaps in the non-statements of Samuel Beckett and the cut-up books of William Burroughs what we are hearing is a kind of silence which oddly persists in making a noise. Mr. Barrett says, kindly, of Beckett that he “seems to inch laboriously toward a dead end, from which nevertheless he—and his characters—are always reborn irresistibly like so many phoenixes from the ashes.” This is because Beckett states his pessimistic loathing of life with “vitality, humor, and intense pathos.” This would imply that style is a preserving ingredient, and indeed, earlier on in the book, Mr. Barrett has represented both Hemingway and, to some extent, Camus as holding this view. Life may be an empty game, but if we play it with style then we cannot complain that we have nothing; at least we have style. This of course is Yeats’s view that “Hamlet and Lear are gay,” restated in prose. So perhaps the spirit of man is not, after all, entirely naked; it can (as William Empson put it in one of his two or three famous poems) “learn a style from a despair.”



Style, however, is not the only positive which Mr. Barrett discerns. There is another and more fundamental positive, which he defines at one point by invoking the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. These two survivors of the Flood were commanded to throw their mother’s bones over their shoulders. They interpreted this, correctly, as referring to the stones that were lying on the ground; they threw them; they sprang up as men and women. The Earth as mother, the Earth as provider of life and source of the generations—here, Mr. Barrett sites the main argument of his book. He sees in the imaginative utterance of the past fifty years a hunger to be reunited with the “primal, primordial, primitive.” In the Greek myth, stones came up as men and women; in Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure,” the human form seems to be settling back into the loam, its features only faintly discernible, its contours worn into smoothness in the way that Nature works on stone.

Mr. Barrett follows this leitmotif through many books and authors. He sees it in Hemingway’s preoccupation with the concrete, in the revolt of Camus from the abstractions of urban intellectual life and his kinship with “the world of the sea and the stars,” in the blood-and-kinship rituals of Faulkner, in the mythopoeic imagination of Joyce. The display of examples is cumulative. It ends with a clear warning. We, as a species, are making for the first time a determined effort to cut free of Nature, to enclose ourselves in an envelope of technology from which we exclude the remnants of primitive consciousness within us. “To accomplish this,” Mr. Barrett ends, “would be a step more audacious than the mere physical leap into space. It would probably be man’s most daring adventure yet. Will it succeed? Art seems to say no.”

That “no” is the last word in the book, as “yes” is the last in Ulysses. And with something like equal force. Beneath his reasonableness and the moderate tone of his voice (very welcome in this bawling epoch), Mr. Barrett is uttering a strong warning. He wants to arrest the lemming-rush of modern man by the most effective means in his power, namely, by calling into testimony the collective voice of the imagination, man’s own wise heart speaking against his foolish head.

On these terms, I find Time of Need true and moving. In matters of detail—sometimes quite large detail—I think it can be faulted. The choice of examples is, as Mr. Barrett himself says, necessarily random. But I think it should have included one or two, at least, of those writers whose defense against Nihilism is stated in the terms of this world, whose answer has not been transcendental but rooted in the nature of man as a social being. Pasternak in Dr. Zhivago, for instance, comes close to stating a satisfying doctrine of immortality in terms of the flowing river of the human race; his view is not in conflict with the official Communist view that the society transcends and includes the individual, but it is a sweeter, cleaner, stronger version of that view; it interprets history as something living rather than as the blind power-appetite of the party. An even more serious omission is the absence of any but the most tangential mention of D. H. Lawrence, who after all made one of the first complete and overt statements of the thesis that man must be true to the “primordial” in himself. Perhaps the anarchic and disturbed Lawrence jars uncomfortably with Mr. Barrett’s personal view of England as “traditional, conservative, and unshaken in its institutional life over these troubled years.” (As an Englishman I am glad that there is still somebody to whom we seem like that.) Again, Mr. Barrett’s account of the quarrel between Sartre and Camus does not really succeed in clarifying the differences between them, as we might expect a philosopher to be able to do. But no book on a large scale is without some “looped and windowed raggedness.” As a whole, Time of Need is thoroughly valuable. It is written with passion, lucidity, wisdom.



+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link