Sunday, January 23, 2022

we'll see...

In an email from the NYRB, reminding me why my parents subscribed from the start, adding each issue to a pile in a room on the third for of our house, in the apartment of our imaginary maid.

V.S. Pritchett on Stendhal and his contemporary critics in 1969

Mr. Peter Brooks’s essay comes in a learned book with a good subject; worldliness in Crébillon, Marivaux, and Laclos; and since Laclos particularly was Stendhal’s master, this is a study of great importance. The balance of scholarship and discernment is admirable. Mr. Brooks is very subtle and exact about the double attitude to social absolutism and “le monde“:

Stendhal then both regrets the loss of le monde, a public system of values and rules, gestures and codes, and sees a liberation in the demise of an enclosed, monolithic, ethically conformist order.

This is obvious, but then comes the finer point:

It follows that “worldliness” from a natural and inevitable stance in life and literature, becomes one among many view points, one conceivable attitude in the world, one possible style in what Stendhal, in a very eighteenth-century definition, liked to call the pursuit of happiness, la chasse du bonheur. Worldliness…is no longer the style of life, it becomes a problem in Style. In his own existence, Stendhal tended to respond with the pose of the dandy, the stylized social being who insists that life meet him on his own terms, who creates his own history and his own milieu by his personal style—a figure that was to have importance throughout the 19th century [Baudelaire, I suppose] as more and more writers sought to set the imaginative creation against life and history, and to affirm the autonomy and superiority of the artifact.

In his life Stendhal’s preoccupation with style as a form of tactics was a stumbling block; but in his novels he achieved an eccentric blend of humeur à l’Anglaise, comedy, and High Romance which has never been equalled. His interest in Fielding is not so astonishing as it seems at first.

It's hard to be precise and plain in descriptions of sense and perception. To be sensitive is to be receptive, but to be social is to be armored (and it helps to be rich). Pritchett says one of Stendhal's strengths was "the vast pride of the timid." All humility is false humility. 

In "age of disenchantment", self-invention is a given, at least among the professionally disenchanted. It all comes down to how you handle it. And it's up to others to gauge self-invention and self-enchantment.

In a passage from one of the Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis Freud says that as the result of a successful treatment repression is replaced by 'a condemning judgment'. He doesn't explain the difference between the two. What's the difference between "I don't want to kill my father and sleep with my mother" and "I don't want to kill my father and sleep with my mother." Is the first, louder and more nervous? More declarative? More cocksure? I don't know but it's a question conceptualists can't answer. 

Pritchett: "This is obvious, but then comes the finer point:...  'Worldliness…is no longer the style of life, it becomes a problem in Style.'" And then "[Baudelaire, I suppose]". For Pritchett, a bridge too far.

If the first point is no longer obvious, it's because being obvious it was taken for granted, and the foundations of the argument were lost.

We can’t re-fight old battles every time a subject comes up; there are limits to the human capacity for recall. Years after spending time and effort to come to a conclusion it’s the conclusion not the process that sticks in the mind. But that means that no matter how hard we once fought our response now is based on received opinion, even if received from our younger selves. So it’s good occasionally to revisit the past in detail, especially in cases where our relation to the past is the thing under debate. 

Brooks' eighteenth-century terms go back to the seventeenth century: je ne sais quoi,

'Worldliness…is no longer the style of life, it becomes a problem in Style." Aristocracy devolves into fashion: style once denoting substance, now replaces it. For those who claim substance as such, it becomes the opposite of politics, of perception: the realm of reason. And for judges of character, gauging self-invention and self-enchantment, a world becomes worlds apart, a free-floating game.

Stendhal (and Baudelaire and all of us) live in a world where pedantry is winning out over judgement, and a new social absolutism, more inflexible than the old. The pose of the dandy is a social armoring, the affect of self-awareness and indifference. Pritchett's manner is a pose, staged over many years  of a kind of stability. 

This is all varieties of repeats, but the one-sided exchange between Pritchett and Brooks set me off. What was obvious to them was obvious to me, like a joke among friends, or between the two of them and my imaginary parents. And as long as I'm repeating myself...

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