Thursday, June 2, 2016
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature
I have been reading Cooper's The Spy, enjoying it, and wondering why. Cooper is certainly vulnerable to criticism yet even D. H. Lawrence whose scorn could be withering devoted two chapters to him (as he did to Hawthorne and Melville) and declared he loved the Leatherstocking books dearly.  Writers like Cooper and Scott (his most significant model) are sometimes today dismissed as children's authors, though it would be an odd twenty-first century child who would relish their prose. Other popular novelists such as Dickens can rise to true greatness through capacious imagination, sophisticated imagery, and melodious rhetoric. Even the rapidly produced best-sellers of Trollope are richer by far and, for all the author's acceptance of received ideas, develop more complex characters (though the scene be fuzzed by genial rose-colored glasses). What motive, then, beyond literary history and American nationality, attracts me to this author whose very writing career is said to be accidental?
Quite clearly Cooper's heroes are unalloyed in their heroism, his damsels fainting and compassionate, his villains irredeemable. The descriptions of nature are conventional and workmanlike, but, for all the desire to establish a distinctly American literature, never very individualized or memorable. His themes are utterly reductive. I would readily agree that the ambiguous and the mysterious define a particular realm for literature inaccessible to other forms of discourse, and that one function of art is to unsettle preconceptions and to suggest new insight. Innovation and novelty are surely essential to the development of fiction over time, and a beauty that makes the reader weak in the knees is a characteristic of the highest prose.
Yet these qualities are characteristic of only a portion of worthy fiction. Though the Romantic era and the Modernists celebrate novelty, art also seeks to transmit a culture's matured ideas, its preconceptions, if you will. For most readers a competence in a recognizable style is preferable to idiosyncrasy and obscurity. Familiarity is more appealing than originality which may strike the consumer as nothing but gratuitous obscurity. For millennia oral narrative was predominantly of the "conservative" sort, understood by everybody, and this remained true until very recent times in folk stories, religious stories, and legends. Under contemporary capitalist conditions most people consume mass art in movies, television shows, best-selling novels, comic books and the like, all of them highly conventional forms. Surely hundreds of Americans could retell the story of Breaking Bad for one who might know about Harvey Birch, the double agent of the American Revolution. Yet the fan of HBO and the admirer of Cooper have a great deal in common despite their separation in time. The student of literature, in particular the literary theoretician, can ill afford to ignore the bulk of fiction to focus only on the elite transgressors and code-breakers.
Lawrence was typical of many artists since the Romantic era in his rejection of the typical. To him the social consensus is inevitably a lie. Thus to him Cooper is that thing despicable because conformist and conventional, a “gentleman.” He describes Cooper's work as “a wish-fulfilment” and the author as “a correct, clock- work man,” who “stayed very safe inside the old skin.” Lawrence, of course, was a Modern, one of those whose entire program is rebellious and contrarian. Such values are neither the whole of art nor necessarily characteristic of the finest works.
A great many texts confirm readers' expectations not because of the audience's lesser intellectual powers but because in this way they fulfill a function of art at least as important as the criticism of assumptions, the laying bare of contradictions, irrationalities, and mysteries, and the forging of new literary techniques. Indeed, the concentration of prestige on works that strive for the new and contentiously condemn the ordinary has led to the marginalization of literature itself in contemporary society. Though I am a lifelong admirer of Rimbaud, Pound, and the Dadaists, I realize that they are grouped around one end of the spectrum and that literature as a whole comprehends the entire range from conventional to unconventional. If Cooper has a low reputation among such of the Mandarins as have not specialized in the study of his work, the fact is due to the fact that his work is located rather far toward the less currently fashionable side of the spectrum.
There is a pleasure to hearing the relation of what one already thinks one knows. All works are a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the more conventional are more clear and easily read, their comparative predictability and simplicity requiring less mental work. Just as in relation to physical exercise, one would scarcely care for either constant languor or constant exertion. The traveler may relish new sights and contacts, but most people prefer those the friends and scenes they have seen countless times best of all, and in all eras the most widely read works have relied heavily on convention.
Furthermore, there is an unquestionable aesthetic pleasure in iteration itself. One may be delighted by the unexpected, but in life and in art, the deep pleasures of the familiar are far more common. Listeners prefer mediocre musical works with repetitions, themes and variations, to the most sophisticated modern non-repeating compositions. People applaud the mere appearance of a favorite character in television situation comedies because they know what will follow. In a sense they are cheering for their own competence. Popular art, oral narrative, religious ritual, and the like all appeal specifically because of their familiarity. We never entirely lose the child's welcoming reception of the words "once upon a time." It is a promise of what will follow including, in modern times at least, a satisfying happy ending, implying that all is right with the world. Lawrence would have sneered.
The pleasure in formal iteration is paralleled by a similar pleasure in having one's opinions confirmed by a story’s themes. The values and world-view of a culture are codified and transmitted through art that stresses what many have in common. In oral cultures through Homer stories regularly suggest the ideas on which all agree. Perhaps the most dramatic expression of this fact is n religious scriptures, accepted as absolutely true and taught to every successive generation.
Though associating with those of similar views is a universal habit, its opposite occurs as well in modern culture: the enjoyment of peculiar or perverse ideas which the reader does not in fact share. This taste is the basis of the popularity of the antihero in the modern era and the celebration of bizarre yet talented artists such as Artaud and Burroughs.
Even if one does not share the author's opinions, the mere fact of encountering easily decoded values persists. A non-Christian may read George Herbert or even Aquinas and enjoy knowing an odd doctrine such as the Trinity without in the least believing in its truth. I love decoding familiar iconography in Christian and Hindu more than encountering enigmas. Though my values are not those of Dr. Johnson, I savor his sympathetically.
What does this mean in practice? Cooper's prose style, though it displays the elaborate syntax and lengthy periods characteristic of the educated Latinate mode of the day, has very few figures of speech apart from a few so conventional as to be barely perceptible. His writing has, in fact, little individuality; indeed, a unique or unexpected turn of phrase would be out of place.
Characters have few traits, but those few are constantly repeated. This Wharton père is invariably concerned about his estate and, secondarily, about his daughters. The girls' lovers are exemplars of honor, manliness, and courtesy. Caesar is always the loyal servant except for those occasions when he is rattled or superstitious. Birch is never mentioned without making a point of his enigmatic behavior. One learns nothing new or surprising about any following an initial appearance.
In terms of theme, as well, Cooper could hardly be simpler. The American revolutionaries are in the right, and Frances is more acute than her sister for her partisanship. Yet British and Americans alike may be honorable, may be in fact “gentlemen,” though it is the higher classes that possess most virtues in either case. The Cowboys and Skinners and Nancy Haynes are fair examples of the meanness of society's lower ranks.
Clever and rich as it may be, few people are likely ever to read Finnegan's Wake, whereas the more mildly innovative Portrait of the Artist will always find readers, recreational as well as academic. The disparity does not arise from the public's laziness, nor is the more elite work necessarily of higher value. Indeed, it is only though convention that many of the ends of literature are obtainable. If Cooper is to a considerable degree an imitator of earlier models, he is no different from artists of all times and places. The stigma attached to convention has been so magnified in the last few hundred years that it has come to seem self-evident and natural. Oral and popular literature have enjoyed a resurgence of serious consideration in recent decades. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the second-rate status assigned to writers like Cooper.
1. References to Lawrence are to his masterful and entertaining Studies in Classic American Literature which, for all its foibles, I find to be virtually always on the mark.
2. The spy of the title is an exception. In his case, though, he is presumed to have only mercenary ends, and it is precisely the unlikeliness of his heroism that allows his subterfuge to succeed. George Washington who appears disguised and then overshadows the action like a deity is no perfect because his social status is so high.