Saturday, January 12, 2008

West's Voice of Authority

I've mentioned before, in a previous post on Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, that West is authoritative in a way we don't see anymore. Her cultural references and some of her witticisms are built upon certainties about what she shares with her audience, certainties no one writing today could possibly share -- but also on an apparent confidence that she knows everything required for the subject, and what she doesn't know, she can learn so thoroughly that there will be no room (or need) for disagreement.

I've been enjoying that voice of hers as I make my way through her book, while at the same time musing on its variability, the way it will suddenly downshift from history lesson to making tender fun of someone, then climb swiftly to scorn for the Hungarians (who had so recently been overlords in Croatia). Consequently, I found Cynthia Ozick's observations on T.S. Eliot's voice particularly relevant:

That charm of intimacy and the easy giving of secrets which we like to associate with essayists -- Montaigne, Lamb, Hazlitt, George Orwell, and Virigina Woolf when the mood struck her -- was not Eliot's. As in what is called the "familiar" essay, Eliot frequently said "I," but it was an "I" set in ice cut from the celestial vault: uninsistent yet incontestable, serenely sovereign. It seemed to take its power from erudition, and, in part, it did. But really this power derived from some proud inner figuration or incarnation -- as if Literature itself had been summoned to speak in its own voice ...

Who could talk back to that? Such sentences appear[ed] to derive from a source of knowledge -- a congeries of assumptions -- indistinguishable from majesty.
What Ozick is describing is a voice of great remove, of a sort I find dry and immensely unappealing. I like West precisely because she is familiar at times (in fact, her notional assumption that her readers share her erudition draws them closer); after all, who wants to tour Yugoslavia with Literature, forever making drearily icy pronouncements? I'd rather go with a human being, someone who can be out of countenance; someone who's amused, sharp and passionate; someone who will do me the courtesy, however undeserved, of pretending that she's providing me with summaries of medieval Balkan history merely to get me up to speed on a subject I used to know a lot about but have since had to neglect in favor of my efforts to sort out the war in China ...

So shove over, Tom Eliot, you old fraud. When Rebecca West says she's driving us somewhere, I call shotgun.

--Quotation from "T.S. Eliot at 101," The New Yorker, November 20, 1989, p. 138.

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Martin said...

I love what you're after here. I know it, too. I associate it very strongly with Orwell, an important writer for me, and I see it also in a couple writers Ozick did not name, namely G.K. Chesterton and D.H. Lawrence (at least in "Studies in Classic American Literature").

I want to take issue with the statement that we don't see this sort of writing "anymore," but of course my take on what constitutes a contemporary analog might be off. I do agree that it isn't necessarily where you would expect to find it.

If we're talking about great erudition and yet an accessible voice, I think one has to mention the names David Foster Wallace, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, and Malcolm Gladwell.

I'd also mention certain critics like Pauline Kael.

Another one that works for me is Bill James, whose incredibly intimate essayistic voice spawned legions of followers who now populate the upper echelons of MLB franchises. James is the most interesting one, for me, as he isn't even really a literati in any way. As I say, you don't find these people where you expect to find them. You have to look in Lawrence, Kansas, for this one.

None of these people are like West, really. And yet the trick of being able to pass off local information as universal, to some extent, through sheer force of rhetoricm without sacrificing anything in the way of intimacy, is something they all have in common.

Benjamin Chambers said...

Once again, Martin, I think we're in basic agreement, though I'd quibble over details.

I completely agree that there are contemporary authors who are both personable and authoritative -- I'm quite drawn to Wallace (though he often gets in his own way, especially in his fiction), Sacks, Gould, and Gladwell. But they are different from West and her generation because they've passed through the postmodern climacteric: they understand the impossibility of final answers, of the comprehensive, defining point of view, even when they're at their most masterful. Almost no one is insensible of it these days, outside of neo-cons. I can't quantify this or back it up - it's just an opinion.

I'm of course aware of Kael, but haven't read much of her (one of the many gaps I expect to plug as I plumb The Complete New Yorker). Thanks for the tip on Bill James, whom I'd never heard of. One of the drawbacks of being entirely idiosyncratic about what I read is that my familiarity with specific authors is fairly random.

It sounds like we prize the same quality in our essayists. (You put it well in your final paragraph.) I like being buttonholed by authors who are knowledgeable but not arrogant or pushy. Sort of like going to a party and meeting somebody who's witty, charming, and smarter than you are without being boorish about it: you enjoy their charisma almost as much as what they have to say.