Is there a monkey in this class?

Lewis Kamm, Chancellor Professor of French Literature and Computer Science
at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth

n previous essays and reviews, I have raised questions about some 
of the paradoxes in the latest trends in literary analytical theory and 
reader-oriented criticism.  Suggesting that we become involved in a 
"nouveau surréalisme," I have indicated that such an acupunctural 
approach to literary criticism would have at its foundation an 
orientation to the East which would necessitate the acquisition of 
a new bibliography (including the Bhagavad-Gita, The Tibetan Book of 
the Great Liberation, and The Tao of Physics) and the development of 
a greater awareness of our own inner space (resulting in an active 
knowledge of such terms as "the higher self," "universal mind," 
"super-conscious life goal," shunyata, dharma, and karma).  This 
assertion arose from my belief that proponents of structuralist 
analysis, semiotics, deconstruction, and reader-oriented criticism 
are so close to re-discovering an "old" truth that the tragedy of 
their missing the point of humanistic orientation is as poignant as 
the human tragedy conveyed by Beckett's Hamm clinging tenaciously to 
his "vieux linge."  Indeed, many contemporary critics not only seem to 
lose sight of the work of art they are presumably trying to explain, 
but often pass over the importance to literary analysis of probing the 
secret of humankind's relationship to itself and to the world in which 
we live.

I maintain that the primary raison d'être for literature and literary 
theory, analysis, and criticism is to provide a means of orientation, 
not merely for the reader, but also, and originally, for the artist, 
whose drive to express the creative spark represents an inner search 
for self-discovery and self-understanding no less important or meaningful 
than the self-reflexive and self-justifying process by which contemporary 
critics seek to understand the contextual concatenation involved in their 
"creation" and comprehension of a text.  Additionally, I am convinced that 
we remain sufficiently ignorant of the processes that allow meaning or 
interpretation to be developed in the first place that further inquiry 
into this (unconscious) area is essential to the development of any future 
theoretical considerations.  Here is one of the axes of the "crisis" in 
literary theory and criticism.  Should we focus on theoretical notions as 
they may be applied to various specific texts or is such an application 
valid or even possible when confronted with the problem of understanding 
the creative process itself?  This is the very kind of conflict that Carl 
Jung sought to resolve when he opted for rejecting the possible 
inapplicability of theoretical considerations in favor of understanding 
the orienting needs of the individual patient.  In fact, the development 
of modern depth psychology has revealed the same kind of limitations found 
in microphysics:  in the face of statistical averages, it is possible to 
develop a theoretical, rational, and systematic description of facts, but 
when confronted with the single psychic phenomenon--which is precisely what 
the creation of literary art is, whether by an author or a reader--we can 
at best present an appreciation of it from many individual points of view.

It is not my wish here to advocate Jungian criticism, nor to call for the 
perhaps indeterminacy of still more interpretations of literary works, 
although Werner Heisenberg's principle of indeterminacy in physics does 
seem to have an application to literary analysis.  Rather, I wish to stress 
that there is sufficient evidence to reaffirm the validity of the human, 
experiential approach to literature, as contrasted with so much theoretical 
criticism, which tends to intellectualize the creative process or response 
to it, thereby distancing us from our roots, our emotions, and our 
instincts.  Wassily Kandinsky, in his introduction to Concerning the 
Spiritual in Art, reminds us of the resemblance between a human being 
and a monkey, the latter being able to hold a book and turn its pages 
with a thoughtful look, without, however, those actions having any human 
meaning for him.  Is it not this very kind of distancing which has produced 
a nightmarish world of ennui and the long list of such "shipwrecked" 
artists as Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, and Artaud or literary characters 
as Folantin, Salavin, and Roquentin?  It is curious that while we tend to 
appreciate the non-representational work of a Picasso or a Miró and their 
sustained efforts to impart to us an alternative view of reality, we 
simultaneously overlook the fundamental lessons of their work and that of 
their artistic cousins.

Whether we are dealing with Rimbaud's dissociation of the elements of 
poetry through the "reasoned derangement of the senses" or with da Vinci's 
gazing at spots on walls, wherein, he suggests, "you will discover wonderful 
things . . . that the mind of the painter can draw profit from" or with Max 
Ernst's "sudden intensification of [his] visionary capacities and . . . the 
hallucinatory succession of contradictory images superimposed, one upon the 
other . . . " or with Poe's "morbid irritability of those properties of the 
mind" or with André Breton's "philosophy of immanence according to which 
surreality would be embodied in reality itself and would be neither superior 
nor exterior to it," always we are observing an essential awareness of the 
importance of creative image-making, for which the reconciliation of 
representation and perception serves as a springboard to the surreal.
The merit of these writers and artists, not unlike that of some of the most 
esteemed individuals in the history of mankind--Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, 
Lao-Tse, for example--is that they recognized the existence of a link 
between our daily lives and an alternative reality--philosophical, mystical, 
religious, new age metaphysical, surreal, or otherwise--beyond the fiction 
of the everyday real.  This is an area in which literary theory and 
criticism can meaningfully probe the significance of literature and literary 
response because it is an area which immediately relates to people in 
general rather than to a highly confined (refined?) community of critics.  
A few examples are in order.

Discussing the work of Yves Tanguy, André Breton writes:
Those who simplify matters for themselves by insisting on detecting a 
"submarine" or other atmosphere in Tanguy's work forget that the artistic 
imagination's capacity for expansion is closely related to the variety of 
cosmic phenomena.  Once in New York, for example, when I witnessed that 
superb phenomenon known as "northern lights," I felt exactly as though 
Tanguy's skies were being unfolded before me at a dizzy speed; since 
neither he nor I had ever seen these lights before, one can only conclude 
that Tanguy's mind is in permanent communication with the earth's magnetism.

It would appear that a similar communication enabled Jackson Pollack's 
Number 23, painted in a trance-like state, to resemble closely the 
vibration patterns made by sound waves in glycerine.  This link between the 
psychological and the physical may also be observed when comparing various 
works by Ernst and the Séguin brothers' first photograph of the sound 
barrier, taken at the incredible speed of a billionth of a second.  Of 
course, when we approach literature, we are often too caught up in the 
materiality of the object or the analysis of our response to it to be able 
to appreciate this kind of high-speed synaptic and conceptual activity, 
which constitutes the very enjoyment of reading Proust.  In this respect, 
we might benefit from reading Nadja, where Breton relates, without 
analysis, "only the most decisive episodes" of his life as he "can conceive 
it apart from its organic plan, and only insofar as it is at the mercy of 
chance . . . temporarily escaping [his] control, admitting [him] to an 
almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and 
reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on a 
piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they 
were not so much quicker than all the rest."   Nadja herself appreciates 
this phenomenon of metamorphosis when she comments on the jets of water in 
front of a Tuileries fountain:  "Those are your thoughts and mine.  Look 
where they all start from, how high they reach, and then how it's still 
prettier when they fall back.  And then they dissolve immediately, driven 
back up with the same strength, then there's that broken spurt again... 
and so on indefinitely."

This tendency of things and thoughts simultaneously to be or not to be 
illustrates how much of our conceptual activity is unconscious and also 
helps to explain the mystical enjoyment in reading, the unity or oneness 
whose understanding we feel or "see" when we read.  Perhaps this is the 
true meaning of John Donne's "No man is an island," of the French Romantics' 
longing for "je ne sais quoi de vague et de flottant," of Proust's 
"remembrances", or of Emerson's "Brahma."

I suspect that many of the proponents of reader-response criticism would 
deride this suggestion for a re-affirmation of a physio-psychological 
awareness and appreciation of literature. Yet we must acknowledge that 
some of the most talented writers and critics of the twentieth century
--Singer, Kazantzakis, Tolkien, Vonnegut, Lewis, Bloom, Eliade, for example
--have written works that reveal a profound sympathy for the mystical, 
speculative, and presumably unseen sphere of life, a sphere which enables 
us to feel ourselves, a fiction which is perhaps more real than today's 
criticism, because it is a fiction which talks to us, which mirrors 
humanity's concern for love, death, fantasy, humanity, imagination, and 
spirit.  These are terms which are significantly lacking in current 
critical jargon and whose moral, social, and perhaps political ramifications 
still need to be examined.  If literary theory and criticism continue to 
avoid these areas and to focus instead on what is a kind of correspondence 
among highly esteemed professors, we may well fail in our task to promote 
the literary experience as part of the humanities.