Benedict Nightingale

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

[In David Caute's The Confrontation] we have a latter-day equivalent of the Victorian three-volume novel: one volume of aesthetic theory [The Illusion], one of fiction [The Occupation], one of drama [The Demonstration], and all involving the same character, a certain Professor Steven Bright. The first is supposed to be his manifesto: in the second and third he appears as protagonist. Now, this Bright resigned his fellowship at All Souls for political reasons and explained his decision in Encounter, as Caute did. Like Caute, he went to teach at New York University. He has published a novel called The Rise of the East, which, one feels, cannot be very different from Caute's Decline of the West; and there are other parallels. It would be simple-minded and, in view of Bright's more lurid personal habits, perhaps also libellous to conclude that Steven Bright is Caute. Nevertheless, we may reasonably presume that Bright's preferences and dislikes, his aspirations and anxieties, are particularly close to Caute's heart. The function of Bright, perhaps, is to dramatise these preferences and anxieties in an objective and more general way: we aren't in the presence of one tormented individual, but the detached observers of the problems of 'the middle-aged Hampstead pink'.

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'Alienation' is a word much invoked, in both Marxist and Brechtian senses. It must appear an average of twice a page in the theoretical volume, The Illusion, which is an attempt to persuade the more or less revolutionary socialist not to mistrust 'modernist' tendencies in literature…. The subject is more thoroughly explored than one should expect from 260 pages; the argument, often eloquent and elegant; and it goes without saying that more objections throng into the mind than can be dealt with here.

Let's assume what may not be true, that more than a few Western diehards and an admittedly larger number of Eastern bureaucrats still need reconciling with this somewhat vaguely characterised modernism. The Illusion, attacking the simplifications of a traditional socialist outlook, is nevertheless not without its own. It seems that we need more 'public' writers and fewer 'private' ones, since to concentrate on psychology is implicitly to countenance the status quo. But is the distinction between public and private so easy to make in practice? 'Under capitalism,' writes Ernst Fischer, a critic Caute underrates, 'all art above a certain mediocrity has always been an act of political criticism and revolt.' In Pinter's seemingly private Old Times, a husband becomes angry at a visitor's attempt to wrest away the affections of his wife. But he doesn't come directly out and face this intrusive woman with his real feelings. Instead he gets at her in oblique and covert ways, criticising, for instance, her supposed callousness in taking a holiday from her husband. This sort of evasion is often described as a mannerism of Pinter's: in fact it is a mannerism of the British. We accept the habit, and even call it politeness: there are foreigners who regard it as hypocrisy. Caute rightly warns us against reading our own ideas into literature—but isn't some such social critique implicit in Pinter?

Private writing may have public reverberations, then; and, as much to the point, the novel or play that has to truck with obvious alienation effects may provoke a cool and mature debate on public issues. This, too, is disputed by Caute, with the ferocity of a man defending a fundamental position. He despises work that asks us to identify with this or that character; catharsis is mere indulgence of superfluous emotion, counter-revolutionary; naturalism is also to be rejected, since it encourages acceptance of the society it describes. Thus we must (his word) jettison 'mimesis, the myth of representation, empathy, illusion and magic'. Presumably Solzhenitsyn, whom Caute paradoxically admires, must start writing like someone else—Genet, perhaps, who stands just below Brecht in his hierarchy of merit? Everyone must start jettisoning everything that has kept people reading fiction and coming to the theatre as long as either have existed, and, presumably, leave both to such of the intelligentsia as knows how to use them.

The suggestion seems to me at once élitist, philistine and simplistic…. People think and feel almost as a single act, and just can't compartment their responses as easily as Caute believes…. That we sympathise with … characters doesn't preclude us from seeing their predicament objectively as well.

Nor does Caute's creative practice bear out all his theory. The Demonstration, which has Bright as professor of drama in a British university, hedging and compromising during a student revolt, I reviewed when it was performed two years ago and still feel that so poised and cerebral a theatrical debate could only have a dampening effect on the spirits of any militant, however just his cause. (p. 114)

[Caute] dislikes the kind of passionate, glandular protest that characterises many young American writers, and believes that any committed art worthy of the title—any, presumably, which is 'exploratory, tentative, probing ambiguity and multiple levels of meaning'—is likely to have long-term ends only. But he goes too far. How long is 'long' if the ambiguities only serve to paralyse the political will of the reader, as they do that of Bright, the protagonist? He sits in his office, intermittently masturbating, his mind madly awash with memories of his publisher, who represents capitalist decadence, and dread of his students, whose extremism seems mindless to him but whose disapproval makes him feel guilty and apologetic. He is, if you like, the archetypal 'middle-aged Hampstead pink', who wants to keep conscience, comforts and status equally intact, a figure at once more despicable than Caute realises and more pathetic than his aesthetic theory should permit. The final paradox, or contradiction, is that, in spite of alienation effects, the clever, even brilliant writing, it is only unregenerate empathy with this twisted individual that keeps us reading until the end. (p. 115)

Benedict Nightingale, "Art and Alienation," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 82, No. 2105, July 23, 1971, pp. 114-15.

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