Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gass on knowledge

I don’t distrust the artist as artist at all. I distrust people, including artists, who make pretentious claims for literature as a source of knowledge. This was the half of Plato’s complaint against the poets which I accept. I see no reason to regard literature as a superior source of truth, or even as a reliable source of truth at all. Going to it is dangerous because it provides a sense of verification (a feeling) without the fact of verification ( the validating process). Plato was simply too exclusive about his values. He took knowledge to be the supreme good. Consequently he had to banish the poets (for the most part). The appeal to literature as a source of truth is pernicious. Truth suffers, but more than that, literature suffers. It is taken to be an undisciplined and sophistic sociology, psychology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., etc.
William H. Gass Well, that might be true if you accept, firstly, that knowledge and truth are synonymous terms; and secoondly that they are absolutes, capable of representing a single, all-encompassing iteration of actuality. But they aren't, and they aren't.

Of course literature can be a source of knowledge. It may even be a source of truth, although that may be more problematic. But knowledge? Of course. Moby-Dick teaches us of vanity. Bartleby the Scrivener of conformity. Crime and Punishment of guilt. Candide of gullibility. Blood Meridian of evil. What are those lessons, if not the imparting of knowledge?

Gass then presents a baffling leap of logic to assert that looking for truth in literature is pernicious and that, as a result, literature somehow suffers. That simply does not bear scrutiny. It's meaningless. But it allows him to present, as a fait accompli, the notion that reading literature for understanding of the human condition is akin to sophistry and pseudo-science. So, let's return to Captain Ahab, or his close companion Kurtz. What textbook could illustrate the dangers of vanity more profoundly than Moby-Dick or Heart of Darkness? What textbook could explain the essence as well as the actuality in the way those novels do? It's impossible to conceive.


Jim H. said...

Have to disagree with you there, Herr Doktor Professor. Mainly because of my background in philosophy. For Gass, Truth and Beauty are not the same. Literature's ideal is the latter, not the former—and Gass has a ample sense of Beauty. As with Whitehead (whom I've written about on line), Beauty is capacious enough to include Truth.

Beauty is a value (or virtue) ascribed to the formal properties of a work of art. It involves a judgment.

Truth is a value ascribed to statements that have verifiable (or better falsifiable) criteria in the world. Think Tarski:

'The grass is green' is true if and only if the grass is green.

We articulate the criteria for what would make such a statement false.

It's not that Ahab is vain. That's merely a hermeneutic understanding, an interpretation of what the book is about. Rather, it's how Melville portrays Ahab's vanity that counts. His all-consuming obsession, his single-minded woundedness and desire for revenge. And, of course, now we get way beyond mere vanity.

It's not that Bartleby is a non-conformist, or Raskolnikov guilty, or Pangloss naive, or even the Judge purely evil. It's how these features are shown that counts. For Gass.

There are more ways, e.g., of being vain than Ahab or Kurtz, though, agreed, they are supreme examples.

Welcome back!

Tom Conoboy said...

Hey Jim!

Good to hear from you. And it’s great to be back! Great to be reading and writing again and, in particular, talking about reading and writing.

I can see a lot of what you’re saying here, and agree with it, too. Where I lose it slightly is the notion that literature’s ideal is beauty, not truth. Even taking for granted that when we say beauty we do not mean some romanticised vision of “loveliness” but beauty in a deeper sense, this still seems unnecessarily reductive to me. I don’t think literature, or art, aspires specifically to beauty. There’s nothing beautiful in Blood Meridian, or Moby-Dick, for example. And this is the problem I have with Gass: he’s framing the debate in a particular way which means the logical extension of his argument is correct; but it’s the initial premise that he bases it on that I can’t quite reconcile.

Many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate my thesis was on “Illustration in transition: the changing role of illustrations in illuminated manuscripts, block books and incunabula”. The title was given to me by my tutor and for about three months I didn’t even understand what it meant, let alone know how to address it. Then I read John Ruskin’s quote that “Illumination is only writing made beautiful” and it clicked. Ruskin was a fine man, but impossibly naïve (even if accounts of him fainting on his wedding night on seeing his new wife’s hairy pudenda are probably apocryphal). Illumination is much more than writing made beautiful. It is about power, influence, prestige. It is about religion – the promotion of the sacred word as the most important thing of all, and therefore requiring exquisite detail. And it is about truth – the spreading of the true word of God. All illustration at that time played a similar role, and it extended into the new mechanical era of block books and early printing. Works like the Nuremberg Chronicles from c1460s are historically significant because their block illustrations are genuine depictions of the cities of the time: they are, effectively, the first travel guides, and the cities of Nuremberg et al stand in for Bethlehem and Rome etc. This is a version of truth, too: they suggest that we are all Children of God, wherever we are. So there are different levels of artistic sensibility at play in these works. And that is the glory of all great art. And, for me, Gass is in danger of losing some of that.

However, I’m no philosopher. Now that I’m finished the PhD (or will be when the viva is over), I’ll be looking around for something else to do, and philosophy might well be the thing. It certainly does intrigue me…

Jim H. said...

Don't have time for a full reply. Some notes, tho'.

Don't know much about Ruskin. And the extent of my knowledge of illustration in transition would extend from early Superman comics to The Watchmen. Maybe the Book of Kells. Were those early monks merely making pre-Guttenberg comic books?

I will venture that there is much that is sheer beauty in Blood Meridian. And not just McCarthy's magisterial use of language, his sentences—which for Gass, as you know, is the locus of an initial aesthetic inquiry.

First, random page (120) I opened to:

"They parleyed without dismounting and the ciboleros lighted their small cigarillos and told that they were bound for the markets at Mesilla. The Americans might have traded for some of the meat but they carried no tantamount goods and the disposition to exchange was foreign to them. And so these parties divided upon that midnight plain, each passing back the way the other had come, pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men's journeys."

From a brief, tense, random standoff of two groups of uncivilized men on the high plains of Mexico to "inversions without end". No one else composes such magnificently beautiful sentences or takes us on such surprising journeys in the course of a mere three sentences—'cept maybe the old dog Gass himself. Know Omensetter's Luck? Jaw-dropping, breath-taking beauty (of evil) in almost every sentence.

But, beyond that, think of the absolute beauty of how BM ends: the unforgettable, almost unbearable beauty of the judge triumphant dancing naked "in light and in shadow", "light and nimble", "a great favorite". It almost makes me weep even now to read it again. After all he's done, the terror he's inflicted—from the lies he tells about the revivalist to the rapine and terror to the murder of the boy in the filth of the jakes. He's immortal. No moral comeuppance here. That's its power and its beauty. To me.

Which is what beauty does. It moves us. It is an emotional experience. If literature aims to move us, beauty (or morality) must be it proper frame. (And I suspect we'll agree that dogmatism or preaching or propaganda is something neither of us appreciates in literary works.)

Truth, to the contrary, is an intellectual feature. Something we argue about, analyze, and resolve. And that may be, from Gass's POV, a result of its having been at the absolute center of rational, philosophical inquiry for millenia. I don't think we go to literature for intellectual rewards. Yes, they are there to be found. But the good stuff ultimately operates at another level altogether.

Tom Conoboy said...

Fantastic post Jim. Can't argue with it.

Beauty and McCarthy is an odd thing. You're absolutely right that there is mesmerising beauty in McCarthy's language. The paradox is that, in the universes McCarthy creates, no such beauty exists. In The Orchard Keeper there is beauty in nature, perhaps. The only beauty in Outer Dark is in the grace of Rinthy. In Child of God there is nothing. Suttree is deliberately located among the detritus of Knoxville. In Blood Meridian whatever is beautiful the judge seeks to destroy. The objects of beauty in the Trilogy - the wolf, horses, the girl, are lost. The loves of Carla Jean for Moss and Loretta for Bell are beautiful, but so fragile. In The Road, the beautiful brook trout are lost, as is everything else. In everything he writes, McCarthy seems to eschew traditional notions of beauty, and yet his writing is undoubtedly beautiful. Cormac McCarthy the man, the creator of those beautiful words, would seem to have no place in his own novels.

Jim H. said...

Didn't mean to go off on a rant, it's just that after years of reading philosophy a very narrow technical definition of 'truth' sticks. In college, I studied English Lit and Philosophy primarily and constantly felt myself on the battlefield between Eng. profs who had a somewhat romantic (for lack of a better term) view of truth (the truth of human nature or the truth of experience, etc.) and the more rigorous Phil. profs. Call it shell-shock or PTSD.

What it comes down to, sometimes at least, is differing definitions, meanings, and uses of the term. And absolutely nothing gets even an amateur philosopher going more than a good dust-up over the nature of truth.

Now, about your equation of the term 'knowledge' with 'truth' ...

Good to hear from you again. Look forward to seeing more frequent posts.