Vision animates: John Harvey, ‘The Poetics of Sight’

John Harvey, The Poetics of Sight. Peter Lang, Bern, 2015. Paperback, 309pp. (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, 25)

I have recently written here about the excellent literary-cultural studies by John Harvey of the colour black and here about clothes. Last year I included several pieces on his novel about Ruskin, Millais and Effie Gray, The Subject of a Portrait.

Harvey Poetics bk cover Lang siteThe Poetics of Sight is ‘an intermittent history of culture’s “visual turn” through the last four hundred years’, during which time the subject of sight itself has become, until quite recent years, of primary literary and artistic concern. This book is mostly about the visual life of poetry and prose fiction and ‘about the poetic life of pictures’. Writing within the tradition of comparing pictures with poetry – ‘Ut pictura poesis’ – that stretches ‘from Horace to Hagstrum’, Dr Harvey focuses on the hitherto relatively neglected ‘human sense of sight’ in this debate, and in particular on the concept of the ‘visual metaphor’.

 

In his Introduction he mentions how memories (like dream images) are often ‘momentary and fragmentary’ – the Proustian epiphanies of memory evoked initially by that novelist’s famous childhood madeleines, but then more revealingly by paintings and visual representations in the sequence of novels.

Neuroscientists point out, Dr Harvey explains, how our way of seeing isn’t static but ‘saccadic’: our eyes dart here and there over what we perceive in order to create and maintain an understanding of what it is: this enables us to identify what we see. This is a consequence of evolution – it’s of great advantage to a predator (or predator’s target) to be able to distinguish quickly and accurately what’s dangerous from what’s edible.

In a short review I can’t possibly do justice to the detailed and scrupulous consideration Harvey gives to a wide range of visual and literary artefacts; his analysis, to give just one example, of Titian’s paintings of Venus – two of the nine colour plates in the book; there are 36 monochrome illustrations — is inspiring – though I’d recommend accessing the images online: it’s helpful to be able to zoom in on the details he assesses.

He begins with a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘visual imaginings’ and the pictures by artists inspired by the plays. Then he turns to the uneven art of Blake, with its ‘element of wilful deprivation’ which is ‘a challenge to taste at any time’ as he strove to ‘keep his vision pure and Eternal’– but which is, at its best, sublime, like Blake’s best poetry.

Here we encounter one of the most interesting recurring themes in the book: the role of the metaphor in art. It is part of Blake’s extraordinary and eccentric genius that he ‘makes the poetic part of visual art stronger and easier to see.’

In his next chapter Harvey carefully examines the ‘migrations of satire’s scurrilous muse [wonderful phrase!] back and forth between visual and verbal art’, with attention to such figures as Gillray and Cruikshank, Pope and Dryden. Here too the ‘slow historic change’ involved the ‘visual or the pictorial “turn”’ that satire took over the centuries, in line with the growing fashion for the ‘picturesque’. When the fashion for satiric verse died out, it re-emerged in the novel, and subsequently in film.

For me the most interesting sections of the book are those which deal with the novel (and there’s a superbly perceptive chapter on ‘metaphor and modernism’, and the ‘double metaphor’ of visual representation in the flat two-dimensional plane of a painting or photo).

The early novelists ‘saw no reason to tarry over a sight unless it was remarkable, and in reading them one’s auditory imagination is at least as busy as one’s visual imagination.’

It’s only in the early nineteenth century that the novel ‘opens its eyes and aspires to a continuous visualization.’ Harvey shows how Austen pays little attention to the visual compared with Dickens, Thackeray and the high Victorian novelists, about whom he writes with subtlety, authority and insight: he moves from fictional landscapes in words to the importance of portraits on the walls of fictional characters’ houses – initially those of the aristocracy, then increasingly in those of the bourgeoisie. The wealthy figure in the portrait intimidated its viewer with its complacently land-owning gaze.

Dr Harvey has published extensively on the illustrations in Victorian literary works, and it is not surprising that he is particularly strong on this topic here – Dickens’s illustrators’ achievements, for example, are explored for their symbiotic relationship with the narrative. But it’s not an academic study for its own sake: he is able to show how they reflect the growing interest of novelists in the concept of watching and seeing, and of related themes like clairvoyance and blindness, light and dark (literal and metaphorical):

Because Dickens’s feeling is more laden his visual details work as emotional metaphors.

George Eliot, we see, is acutely sensitive to the ‘the physique’ and the body of her characters, a visual awareness he calls ‘the classic optics of the novel.’

The modernists became uneasy with this highly realist visual approach, both in painting and its sister art, literature. The move from impressionism through to abstract expressionism is traced alongside the novel’s development, which began to show more affinities with the metonymy of photography and film than with painting (‘I am a camera’), with movement, a ‘visual dynamic’ found, for example, in Harvey’s analysis of Virginia Woolf’s work, where the ‘point of view’

dances from consciousness to consciousness in an almost cinematic way, swooping and zooming, tracking one person till they pass another when all the individuals are themselves in motion, while also slipping rapidly between outward sight and inner picturings.

As I did with his other non-fiction works, I particularly liked Harvey’s ability to argue his case in lucid, elegant prose, as I hope the extracts I have briefly quoted so far indicate. Notice his wittily revealing (nuanced, not ostentatious) use of visual metaphors in his exposition (the novel ‘opens its eyes’; POV ‘dances’; Dickens’s ‘laden’ feeling), for example. And there’s his usual mastery of prose rhythm and the well-turned sentence to express his argument with considered authority.  His scholarship is judiciously deployed.

He’s especially good at showing how writers ‘examine the nature of memory and time’; this resulted in the most recent generations of writers favouring the present tense. Given our tendency in real life to look with ‘fugitive, almost subliminal glimpses’ at the world around us, in literature this results in ‘durable, examinable’ public forms. The Poetics of Sight doesn’t explore the short stories of Raymond Carver, but I find this American writer is a master of the narrative of glimpses, the sideways look or oblique point of view, what in this book is called ‘fiction’s long tradition of indirect visualization.’

I’d be interested to see a lengthier account by Dr Harvey of Henry James’s place in this discussion of art and literature: there are a few tantalising glimpses that whet the appetite for more.

For now, I commend this book to you: it’ll change the way you read.

 

Mine was a review copy sent by the publishers, from whose website the image of the book’s cover is taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Cheever, ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.

In Cheever’s story ‘O City…’, about which I wrote last time, the protagonists are not his usual cocktail party circuit suburbanites, but working class. The story showed his ability to blend light humour with a darker moral purpose: Evarts comes to the big city not just to try to become a successful playwright, but really to make his fortune – without necessarily doing much to merit it. This is a theme found in other Cheever stories. We saw that Evarts’s story was a sort of inverted Country Mouse fable.

This time I’d like to respond to Michael Pucci’s recent post on The Mookse and the Gripes website on Cheever’s story ‘Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor’.  He really nails what the story is doing, and how the themes are conveyed. So not much to add on that score. I’d just like to offer here a few extra thoughts, but would strongly recommend you check out his post: it’s first rate.

As Michael and those who comment on his post point out, this is a story, first published in the Christmas 1949 edition of The New Yorker, that takes Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and other sentimental stories like it (‘Miracle on 34th Street’, perhaps), and subverts it, just as Cheever did with Aesop’s fable in ‘O City…’

There are frequent echoes of the Dickens content and style. This is Dickens:

Mr Fezziwig's ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

Mr Fezziwig’s ball: 1843 illustration by John Leech. Wikimedia Commons

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled…etc. (Fezziwig’s ball, Christmas past)

There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts… There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions…There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes…[this goes on for some time] (Christmas present)

And here’s Cheever’s description of Charlie’s haul from his tenants:

There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crab meat, whitebait and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies…etc.

The stylistic similarity is clear; so is the intent. When it comes to the booze Charlie is plied with, there are ‘Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds’…etc.

It’s a cornucopia of food, drink and gifts. Unlike Scrooge, however, Charlie is the recipient of this anxious generosity; he’s given his wealthy tenants a sob-story and they’ve salved their consciences by showering him with gifts.

The plot and circumstantial detail are carefully presented in Michael’s post, so I won’t repeat them here. I’ll look instead mostly at style.

The theme is the problem of charity: how do the comparatively rich deal with the problem of the ‘worthy poor’, and what leads them to show liberality and benevolence? Conversely, what’s to stop the poor from tapping the rich meretriciously, and if they do who’s to say they’re to blame in a capitalist world of inequality?  Cheever uses the brilliant phrase ‘licentious benevolence’ for the murky impulse to be selflessly charitable on just one day of the year. Does the upper-class person with wealth and a conscience pass by the beggar on the street without taking pity and putting money in their cup on the patronising grounds that they’ll probably spend it on booze or drugs? But what if they have, like Bob Cratchit, a hungry, disabled child at home who relies on them to bring food to the table? It’s an enduring dilemma.

Both stories belie Cheever’s reputation as the Chekhov of the suburbs, and deal with the working-class poor; in both cases their straitened circumstances are highlighted by contrast with the immoderate wealth of the rich, who live in opulent luxury. I’m not sure he fully understands them.

The imagery throughout the story places heavy emphasis on the opposing binary fields of dark and light: ‘the sky outside his window was black’ appears in the first paragraph. In paragraph two there’s this:

…the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten…The neighbourhood was dark…[there’s a]wall of black windows.

On the next page, as Charlie starts work, we read that the heating system didn’t

lighten his loneliness or his petulance. The black air outside the glass doors had begun to turn blue, but the blue light seemed to have no source…It was a tearful light, and as it picked out the empty street, he wanted to cry.

We’ve previously noted how Cheever isn’t shy of using pathetic fallacy – maybe too heavy-handedly. Here ‘a tearful light’ strikes me as a little forced – though it links neatly with Charlie’s desire to cry.

Like ‘O City’ this is a parable, a fable, a fairy tale. It’s also, again, very humorous, despite its darkness and sombre undertones.

There are some typically fine turns of phrase that stand out in their lyricism in relief against Cheever’s otherwise characteristically unshowy style. As early as the second paragraph – he does like to start and end his stories with panache – there’s a terrific description of Charlie’s grumpy, grudging, misanthropic journey to work on Christmas morning:

Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

Ignorance and want, same illustrator, A Christmas Carol. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve noticed Cheever’s predilection for images introduced by ‘as if’; this is one of several in the story, and he makes frequent use of the device elsewhere. Here the language in the simile soars daringly, and the author shows a preparedness to reach for magniloquent, lofty philosophical , even spiritual heights (and depths) that complicate the otherwise jocular narrative. Like Dickens, Cheever isn’t afraid of taking risks with such juxtapositions, of flirting with sententiousness; both writers at times therefore fire duds, or lapse into sentimental or overcooked prose, but when they get it right, as here, they’re breathtaking.

What I find interesting as well here is the way Cheever’s narrative voice shifts in and out of the protagonist’s consciousness: whose ‘impression’ is this? Surely not Charlie’s, who’s too full of self-pity at this point, and lacking in introspection and vocabulary, to entertain such thoughts. Although he’s sorry for himself, he doesn’t come across as the type to have notions of eschatology like this.

So: I intended keeping this post shorter, and find I’ve rattled on at length yet again. There are other outstanding features in this story I’d like to explore, like the wonderful thumbnail sketches of the varied tenants Charlie taps for gifts. I can’t resist one: Mrs Hewing, who Charlie ‘happened to know, was kind of immoral’ – note the comical use of Charlie’s own idiom within the narrative there, that modernist technique Genette calls focalisation (but Jane Austen also uses it with aplomb)– and when he first takes her down in his elevator ‘hadn’t been to bed yet’; later she calls him to her floor to give him his gift and appears

Standing in the hall, in a kind of negligee…She had been crying and drinking.

There’s a whole novel compressed there.

And there I’d better stop.

In his Journals Cheever expressed a desire ‘to disguise nothing, to conceal nothing, to write about those things that are closest to our pain, our happiness’. That polarity – pain and happiness – I’d like to have shown more clearly in my previous post. It’s central in this story.

Beneath the veneer of sly humour this is a grim, furious fable again, like ‘O City’, about the potential for inhumanity in people, of our capacity for selfishness and hypocrisy, and for convincing ourselves that taking a course of action that serves our own purposes, even if it costs others, is justifiable.