Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Roger Shattuck and ``le merveilleux''

The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts, by Roger Shattuck. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 362 pp. $18.95. One of the paradoxes of literary history is the gradual emergence of Charles Baudelaire on the side of the angels. In August 1857, there was a trial for obscenity against his book of poems, ``Les Fleurs dul Mal'' (``The Flowers of Evil''), that resulted in the banning of six poems. Readers have long enjoyed arguing over whether the censors got the right poems; the consensus seems to be that the judgments were made on the basis of taste and personal attachment to persons and ideas addressed in the poems. Later, when Baudelaire left the hospital in Belgium where he had been treated for the disorder that eventually killed him, the nuns washed the steps after him. Baudelaire was widely viewed as a satanic personality.

But his exploration of synesthesia and irony -- sometimes devilish irony -- in classical meters and in prose poems of enormous subtlety and richness, combines with his contempt for mere daydreaming, whether induced by drugs or underdeveloped artistic willpower, to constitute a legacy of increasing significance. Now Roger Shattuck's collected essays bear witness to, among other things, Baudelaire's current importance.

About these ads

``The Innocent Eye'' takes its major theme from the possibility that Baudelaire spoke for the general reader when he opposed the system mongering of his day (and it is ours) with his own ``impeccable naivet'e.'' Impeccable -- flawless; according to etymology, sinless -- and naivet'e: two qualities one would not automatically claim for Baudelaire! Shattuck rightly pits Baudelaire against Blake in this regard, for Blake, like Yeats, was a system monger, if only self-defensively so (Blake: ``I must create a System or be enslaved by another Man's''). Yeats's interest in the occult, as opposed to Baudelaire's profound critique of the possibilities of the imagination, spawns every year more pretentious and even jaded research in the form of unreadable academic articles and books.

Shattuck's book, a model of modern literary scholarship, is, on the contrary, eloquently attentive to historical fact, morally alert, lucid and harmonious as a testament. Opposing himself to what he calls the Demon of Originality in a brilliant essay that opens with an astonishing critique of Christo's ``Running Fence,'' Shattuck writes: ``We can at least consolidate our idea of ourselves as continuous with a partially knowable history from which we learn much about our condition.''

Note the scruple: ``partially knowable.'' Shattuck sees his own profession (he is a distinguished professor of French literature at the University of Virginia) as vulnerable to the fads of scientism and gnosticism, both of which pretend to a completeness of knowledge about human nature. It is not only the professors that claim omniscience, artists like Christo flirt with totalitarianism too.

A summary of Shattuck's ideas does him a disservice. His concern for a ``partially knowable history'' from which we can learn much about ourselves is inspired by a deep love for what is genuinely human. If he warns against Artaud (``He lacks the third ear of humor, which can detect one's voice becoming obsessed or grandiloquent''), he appreciates Duchamp (``He chose to become the cat that walked alone'') and the whole of what he calls the Dada-Surrealist Expedition. As an export of France, The D-S Expedition is to be preferred, Shattuck argues, to Existentialism, the New Novel, and ``a theory of theories called Structuralism with its wrangling aftermath.'' On these and on other grounds, he is quite convincing.

Shattuck patiently exposes and opposes the intellectual fads of the day. Borrowing the concept of ``bad faith'' from Sartre, Shattuck goes after one sacred cow after another. ``This sentence from George Balanchine might have been said by hundreds of contemporary artists: `Only the new concerns me; I'm not interested in the past.' We must ponder such words,'' he writes, and he has done so, regardless of the cost to himself. Like the molecular biologist Gunter Stent whom he quotes, Shattuck ``asks unfashionable questions.''

On the positive side, there is the recovery of Baudelaire's le merveilleux; Shattuck agrees that ``the marvelous envelops and nourishes us like an atmosphere; but we don't notice it'' (from Baudelaire's ``Salon de 1846''). But ``the marvelous'' is under constant seige from know-it-all scientists and gnostics. There are not enough Roger Shattucks in this world. We salute him. He has chosen to become the cat who walks alone.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.