The Innocent Eye

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Roger Shattuck, presently Commonwealth Professor of French at the University of Virginia, is a distinguished literary scholar whose specialized territory is late nineteenth and early twentieth century French arts and letters, but who is also at home in the history of Western ideas.

In his first and best-known book, The Banquet Years (1958), Shattuck examined France’s pre-World War I period through the contributions of four notable artists: the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, painter Henri Rousseau, composer Erik Satie, and playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry. These four eccentric but seminal figures either originated or deeply influenced such significant modern movements as Primitivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, stream-of-consciousness writing, and the Theater of the Absurd.

In two later studies, Proust’s Binoculars (1963) and Marcel Proust (1974), Shattuck demonstrated in clear and lively fashion the maturation of France’s greatest modern novelist from shallow social climbing and narcissistic hypochondria to heroic enlistment in the service of literature. The second text is particularly valuable as a succinct and illuminating introduction to one of the most intricate narratives ever written.

In 1980, Shattuck departed from the arts to publish The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. It recounts an episode famous in European history: In 1880, a frightened, half-naked, savage boy was captured in the woods of Aveyron, France. He was named Victor and examined in Paris as a specimen of natural man, relatively untouched by civilization. After many researchers had concluded that Victor was incurably imbecilic, a compassionate physician, Dr. Itard, took the lad into his home, worked with him for five years, and developed his mental faculties to a limited extent. Victor never fully mastered language and died, half tame and half mute, in 1828. He has haunted modern consciousness in its ceaseless debate between the relative influences of nature and nurture. Shattuck deals with the case, humanely and gracefully, from contemporary perspectives on psychology, linguistics, and philosophy.

The Innocent Eye collects more than twenty essays written by Shattuck between 1960 and 1983, many previously published in The New York Review of Books. The range of this assemblage is impressive: analyses of literary and dramatic theory, poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, choreography, musical composition, politics, and contemporary history. As an erudite and frequently eloquent cultural historian and critic, Shattuck has few contemporary peers: Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Harold Rosenberg are the only names that come to mind; none of them exceeds the versatility of his confidently assumed learning.

In three articles grouped in the book’s concluding section, “How to Rescue Literature,” “The Poverty of Modernism,” and “The Innocent Eye and the Armed Vision,” Shattuck outlines his conception of literature and attacks, with considerable verve, several recently fashionable critical methodologies. He wants readers to look at an author’s work “with as innocent an eye as one can attain,” always aware that literary art uses the codes and conventions of language to depict the urgencies of life; that it is first of all a humanistic discipline; that a text removes readers only temporarily from the ordinary tracks of their lives, as a country road diverts a traveler only temporarily from a highway, returning them to their main journey renewed, enlightened, and filled with astonishment at their discoveries. He agrees with Matthew Arnold that literature is not a refuge from but a criticism of life:I would maintain against strong intellectual currents flowing in other directions that the central purpose of literary study continues to be the reading and discussion of the masterpieces of literature. In doing so, one also participates in the gradual revision of that canon of works. Ideally, the reading begins simply, without elaborate critical apparatus, and moves toward a fully informed understanding. The innocent eye precedes the armed vision.

What, then, is the armed vision? Rather vaguely, Shattuck calls it “a critical method” in one place, “systematic analysis” in another, and not only fails to define it clearly but also delights in savaging such armed visionaries as structuralists, semioticians, and linguists of all varieties; his particular foes are Roman Jakobson, Ferdinand Saussure, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes. He holds them responsible for a “growing scientism among literary critics” which subordinates literature to sociolinguistic philosophy by limiting its nature to “a set of myths that rule us through a strong binary logic,” for myopically sealing literary texts away from both their authors and readers in order to recircuit them into structures of myths and language, with words accorded a loftier priority than the individuality of their creator. Shattuck is sometimes indiscriminate in his assaults on his targets, but he leaves no doubt regarding his fundamental convictions about the nature and study of literature: It embodies the firm imprint of a talented, singular individual anchored in and representing in his work a unique culture. It is to be encountered pragmatically, through “stages of wonder, exploration, and discovery” rather than subjected to rigid preconceptions or confined to grids of theory. Shattuck has yet to meet a critical system that he likes.

Nevertheless, he does consistently employ one major premise in his essays: that the arts are significantly influenced by concurrent developments in scientific thought. In an ambitious article on Claude Monet, he correlates the four major manners of the painter’s art with major changes in the physical sciences. Shattuck insists that Monet “trained himself to see in nature values that loosely correspond” to the quantum theory of energy and the discovery of the unifying and all-pervasive lines of force that form a dynamic field. Thus his first level of vision gives readers his famous garden representative and recognizable, “not dissolved into pattern or flux.” Later, he deemphasizes representational and pictorial form in favor of “forces behind or beyond appearances,”...

(The entire section is 2592 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XIV, December 30, 1984, p. 4.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, January 4, 1985, p. B8.

Library Journal. CX, February 15, 1985, p. 169.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 3, 1985, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 9, 1984, p. 53.