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Hawkes, John 1925–
Hawkes is an American novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Jonathan Baumbach calls Hawkes "something of a naturalist in reverse"; in his experimental fiction he delineates life as a surrealistic, often terrifying, dream world. Hawkes himself has said that his novels are attempts to renew the form of that genre. According to critic Albert Guerard, in whose writing class Hawkes wrote his first novel, The Cannibal, he is "perhaps the most original American novelist since Faulkner." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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The Owl originally appeared in 1954, in a double volume with another short novel, also set in Italy, called The Goose on the Grave. That these two works are of unequal quality has become increasingly apparent over the years. The Goose on the Grave suffers from a murky atmosphere, a lack of focus and coherence, as if indeed it were written by someone who felt (as Hawkes has claimed to feel) that plot, character, setting, and theme are the worst enemies of the novel. The Owl is altogether different. It is tightly organized. It is strong precisely in plot, character, setting, and theme. (p. 2)
The Owl is one of the very best of Hawkes' fictions, and probably the best introduction to his work. His method has always been to work with strong images that can be developed into scenes of nightmarish power and vividness, and then to seek some means of connecting these scenes in a coherent and developmental way. Because he starts with images rather than with a story, his work is different from conventionally plotted fiction, though this is not the same thing as being without plot altogether. Over the years, as his work has developed, he has turned more and more to the unifying voice of a single narrator as a way of giving coherence to the events of his narrative. At the same time, his fiction, which began with an emphasis on terror, violence, and death, has moved from those horrors toward a lush eroticism, initiated in the closing section of Second Skin and continued in The Blood Oranges and Death, Sleep and the Traveller. Even Travesty, which moves toward death, draws most of its strength from its slightly over-ripe eroticism—what the French, in speaking of the decadence that brings the grapes of Sauternes to their highest pitch of sweetness, call la pourriture noble.
The Owl is about rottenness, also, but there is no suggestion in it of what Walter Pater liked to call "a sweet and comely decadence." Only the narrator of the book finds anything sweet and comely in his world, and he is clearly a monster. He is, in fact, the epitome of fascism, at once hangman and dictator, ruling over a decaying little world with absolute and terrible authority. The Owl is an imaginative probe into the heart of Italian fascism, with its deep roots in Imperial Rome and the Roman Catholic church. The novel is localized and historicized, as is much of Hawkes's best work, especially his early novels. The England of The Lime Twig (1961), the American West of The Beetle Leg (1951), the Germany of The Cannibal (1949), and the Italy of The Owl (1954) are imaginative settings, to be sure, rather than documentaries of social realities. But they are attempts to reach a kind of depth, a kind of truth about human experience, which is based on historical and cultural processes. The narrator of The Owl is as much connected to a particular heritage as the speaker of Browning's "My Last Duchess" though he is not so precisely located in time and space. It is relevant to think of Browning here, for Hawkes has come to specialize in the extended dramatic monologue. Like Browning, he is drawn to the strange and the perverse, and he delights in immersing his readers in the voice and vision of a character whose consciousness is disturbing to "normal" sensibilities. The point of this immersion in the abhorrent is to force readers to acknowledge a kind of complicity, to admit that something in us resonates to all sorts of monstrous measures, even as we recognize and condemn the evil consciousness for what it is. As a literary strategy this requires great delicacy and control. Both the horrible complicity and the shudder of condemnation must be actively aroused by the text and maintained in a precarious balance. In The Owl Hawkes manages this feat as well as anywhere in his work.
The narrator, whose voice is our guide to Sasso Fetore (Tomb Stench), is calm, orotund, and self-righteous. Il Gufo (The Owl) has the title of Hangman but is also de facto ruler of his village kingdom. Laws were made in the past and they are not to be broken or revised. They mainly take the form of "interdicts, cried or posted, 'Blaspheme no more. Il Gufo'."… In the extremity and consistency of his ruthless complacency. Il Gufo approaches the condition of ridiculousness. He threatens to become a comic figure more than once in the course of his narrative. We read his words with a repressed giggle, a blend of abhorrence and amusement, tempered with fear. This creature is a construct, obviously, a talking fiction—grotesque, macabre, absurd. But such fabrications have stalked our real world all too frequently. Here—in fiction—it is tolerable, but it masks a reality all too like its own false face. And there is a power and an attraction in this evil. The marriageable women in the village are drawn to Il Gufo and their fathers eye him with hope. But he already has his "tall lady," the gallows, and he is forever true to her. (pp. 2-4)
The story of The Owl is simple and fierce. The town of Sasso Fetore has lost its young men—apparently in a war. As the fathers are reduced to thinking of the Hangman himself as the only candidate for their daughters' hands and dowries, a captured soldier is brought to the town and imprisoned in the Hangman's fortress. The prisoner, who is foreign and never speaks, becomes an object of hope for these fathers and their daughters. But the Hangman has other plans for him. Sasso Fetore is an infertile wasteland; Il Gufo is its king…. (p. 4)
The Prisoner in this novel comes as a potential redeemer, one who might restore fertility to this tomblike and infertile world. But this salvation is not acceptable. The Hangman is in love with death, which constitutes for him the most perfect order of all. He is not a venal sadist. It is the Prefect who plies his hooks and fingers his truncheon. The Hangman is beyond this. He serves the Law and follows the book from which a "hangman knew the terms and directions, the means and methods to destroy a man." He loves not pain but destruction itself. The execution of the prisoner, when it comes, is preceded by a lavish feast, altogether different from the simple meal of fish at the judgment supper—a feast so rare and stimulating that it brings back "the effulgent memory of execution, step by step, dismal, endless, powerful as a beam that transcends our indulgence on the earth, in Sasso Fetore."
To the Hangman, the world itself, the whole earth is Sasso Fetore, a stinking tomb. Behind his hatred of life, of the unruly, the sexual, the natural, is a terrible fastidiousness. Execution cleanses the earth, purifies it…. For whatever appears to threaten order, whether the libertarian politics of a Garibaldi or the apparent sexuality of a girl, Il Gufo has one response: purification by fire. For others, the scaffold will do. But all are guilty, all must be punished, as they were even "in the time when there were men to hang and those to spare, with clemency for neither." What the Hangman hates is life itself.
This portrayal of repressive fascism is, as I have tried to suggest, at once terrible and comic, bizarre in its extremity but profoundly accurate in probing the philosophical and emotional roots of this mentality as embodied in the Hangman. It is of course an imaginative construct rather than a case study, an emblem rather than a portrait. In saying that plot, character, setting, and theme were the enemies of the novel. Hawkes was hyperbolically and provocatively protesting against certain traditional ways of approaching the construction of fiction. But the only true justification for surrealism in art is that it destroys certain surface plausibilities in order to liberate realities that are habitually concealed by habits of vision attuned only to the surface itself. And this is precisely what Hawkes accomplishes in The Owl. It is time to recognize that achievement. (pp. 9-10)
Robert Scholes, "John Hawkes As Novelist: The Example of 'The Owl'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 3, June, 1977, pp. 1-10.
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It is sometimes dangerous to trust an author's comments on his own work, but it is sometimes equally dangerous not to trust him. Schooled in the "intentional fallacy," and wary of authorial pronouncements, modern readers are reluctant to accept uncritically even comments which are accurate and illuminating. Such is the case with John Hawkes. In interviews and essays Hawkes insists that critics have over-emphasized the terror and violence of his novels while underemphasizing their comic form and vision. Thus one of his basic concerns in Second Skin was to clarify the general comic intentions in his writing…. [Hawkes defines] his comic method. "I think that the comic method functions in several ways; on the one hand it serves to create sympathy, compassion, and on the other it's a means for judging human failings as severely as possible." (p. 169)
The reader's reluctance to accept an author's interpretation of his own work extends to Skipper as well as to Hawkes. As author of Second Skin Skipper is just as potentially unreliable, and if critics have ignored Hawkes's conclusions about his novel, they have actively disbelieved Skipper's conclusions about himself. Grasping the fashionable critical handle of "unreliable narrator," critics like [Thomas] LeClair and [John] Kuehl argue that Skipper is a villain, lying to himself and the reader. In some cases, certainly, Skipper is unreliable. One of the major functions of comedy, as Hawkes notes, is ironic exposure of character and society. But Skipper is often reliable as well. The problem with comedy is to maintain the necessary ambivalence of attitude. Dale Underwood's description of the comic hero illuminates Hawkes's attitude toward Skipper:
It is an essential of the comic hero that he have this ambivalence. His attitudes and actions serve, on the one hand, to criticize his society; but they serve on the other to criticize himself. If they do only the former, the character is not comic; if they do only the latter, he is no hero. As an aspect of his ambivalence of character his wit, if he has any, will also be ambivalent. It may sometimes operate to minify his society and then we laugh with him. Or it may serve to minify him—and then we laugh at him. Or it may simultaneously do both, and then the comic complexity and force of both character and language is at its peak.
The definition fits Skipper rather closely. He is comic in his self-exposure—his innocence, his limited perceptual and analytic powers, his unconscious contributions to his own problems; he is a hero in his exposure of his humorous society and in his reflection of the comic values—life, peace, integration, grace, and love. An appreciation of the comedy of the book, and particularly Skipper's role as comic hero, is necessary to a valid interpretation.
From the outset Skipper takes his place in a recognizable comic tradition. He is the comic innocent, the fool or buffoon, who seems constitutionally immune to knowledge. The characters from comic literature whom Skipper most closely resembles are the child-victims of Dickens, James, or Joyce. (pp. 170-71)
Children's innocent perceptions and responses to the adult world are comic in themselves as Dickens, James, and Joyce knew, but in Skipper's case the comedy is intensified by the incongruity between his childish responses and his two-hundred-pound frame, his naval background, and his age. Skipper is too old, and as a navy man should be too experienced, to have retained such innocence. (p. 171)
Like the children in this comic tradition Skipper is exposed to one violent attack after another. Indeed, the piling up of violence itself reflects the exaggeration typical of comedy…. Throughout the novel numerous knives, lizards, snakes, needles, and missiles lacerate, puncture, smash, rip, and otherwise violate Skipper's sensitive skin. And yet, like the fool or clown of traditional comedy, Skipper is resilient, always seeming to recover essentially unharmed. His recoveries fill him with pride, for he is a willing victim, a parodic Christ figure, who is happy to "neutralize" the world's "poison" with his own suffering…. Indeed, Skipper consistently gives the impression that he would not be completely happy if he were not allowed to suffer "heroically." While this attitude elicits admiration from the reader, it elicits ridicule as well…. By having Skipper dwell on his numerous affronts with such curious pleasure, Hawkes may be satirizing the modern pose of despair and anguish. Sympathy and ridicule are thus carefully balanced in Skipper's affirmation of his suffering.
Skipper, then, closely resembles the child-victims of earlier comedy, and the discrepancy between his innocence and his age is doubly comic. Further, Skipper's innocence repeatedly results in his humorous misinterpretation of serious events. In his effort to neutralize the world's poison with his own suffering, Skipper often invents absurd enemies while remaining ignorant of real evil. In six structurally parallel scenes, Skipper's comic misinterpretation exposes the dangers of his innocence. (p. 172)
The pattern is the same in nearly every case. Faced with real evil and an obvious tangible source of suffering, Skipper imagines other and absurd possibilities, feeling relief when those fears prove illusory. The repetitive doubling of scenes intensifies Skipper's comic exposure.
Skipper's innocent misinterpretation of events results in a kind of paralysis or inaction on his part. While claiming to be courageous, he evidences what appears to be inertia at crucial moments when action might seem advisable. Two scenes in particular illustrate Skipper's comic inaction—the bus wreck and the mutiny. In both cases Skipper thinks about conventional heroism but remains unconventionally passive while the violence coalesces around him. (p. 174)
Although Skipper's innocence, his misinterpretation of events, and his inaction seem comically discrepant with his avowed heroism, his childlike response assures a measure or reader indulgence and sympathy. But innocence is often dangerously close to ignorance, a fact which Henry James and Jane Austen exploited in their comedies of manners, and Skipper's ignorance of evil seems itself sometimes evil. When Emma Woodhouse and Isabel Archer, for example, wield their naiveté and innocence like a sword, Austen and James comically expose them. Similarly, when Skipper's aggressive innocence makes him an "accomplice" to the evil forces around him, Hawkes exploits the comedy. According to Hawkes, while comedy serves "to create sympathy, compassion," it is also a means "for judging human failings as severely as possible; it's a way of exposing evil (one of the pure words I mean to preserve) and of persuading the reader that even he may not be exempt from evil." Like the other characters in this comic tradition, Skipper is not exempt from evil, and Hawkes exposes his pretensions to exemption.
Skipper seems most culpable in his ludicrous attempts to protect his daughter, Cassandra, against the loss of an innocence she never had. Wearing his Good Conduct Medal and his Shore Patrol armband, Skipper thinks of himself as Cassandra's "guardian, her only defense."… In his role as boy friend, lover, father, and guardian, Skipper closely resembles the blocking figure, the pharmakos or refuser of festivity, of traditional comedy. In conventional romance comedy two lovers are opposed by a blocking figure, usually paternal, who disrupts the lovers' union. Usually, the lovers manage to overcome or convert the blocking figure and celebrate the integration of society through their own marriage at the end. In Second Skin Cassandra and Fernandez (later Jomo) are the lovers, and Skipper is comically both pander and blocking figure. (pp. 175-76)
Skipper's willing victimization and his effort to "protect" Cassandra seem to blind him to real evil. Emphasizing Skipper's culpability and ignoring Hawkes's comments, critics have concluded that Skipper is himself evil. But while Hawkes obviously exposes Skipper's unconscious participation in his humorous society, and while Skipper's comments are sometimes misleading or unreliable, Hawkes also celebrates Skipper's capacity for love and graceful action, and Skipper's account of himself is sometimes reliable and illuminating…. [Of Second Skin] Hawkes insists "The novel is about a bumbler, an absurd man, sometimes reprehensible, sometimes causing the difficulties, the dilemmas, he gets in—but ending with some kind of inner strength that allows him to live." "We do have, in effect, a survivor. This is the first time, I think, in my fiction that there is something affirmative." Thus Hawkes thinks of Skipper as an "affirmative" character with a capacity for "inner strength" and "graceful action."
If Skipper is comically exposed and ridiculed, even partly to blame for his own and others' suffering, he is also attractive and loving. For one thing, from the perspective of his wandering island he candidly recognizes his earlier failures…. Indeed, from the proper perspective, Skipper's innocence, his misinterpretations, even his inaction, may be viewed as heroic after all. If Skipper is exposed, he also exposes his humorous society and forces the reader to reevaluate his conventional notions of heroism.
To understand Skipper's unconventional mode of heroism it is necessary to examine briefly his alternatives. No matter how bad Skipper may at times seem, his world is so much worse that by contrast his goodness seems irreproachable. His world (our twentieth-century world condensed and concentrated) is a world governed by Pacific War Time, a world in which deathly landscapes predominate: the destructive ocean, the arid desert, the alien and brutal city, the lifeless black islands of the warped imagination. It is a world in which parents and children commit suicide, and wives seduce whole crews of sailors in the U-Drive-Inn. Every time Skipper turns his Christian other cheek, someone or something smashes it in. (pp. 177-78)
In the context of such a world, Skipper's misinterpretation and inaction become, in a curious way, heroic…. If Skipper responded to his enemies with the forthright action demanded by critics and typical of epic heroes, he would be using violent means to overcome violence. But if "means determine ends" the result could only be more violence. What Skipper heroically refuses to do is to use society's methods to combat society. Instead, faced with a world which seems to demand violence, Skipper practices love and forgiveness, relying on his "strength and grace" to pull him through…. (pp. 178-79)
Although Skipper's response to violence thus initially seems comic, in the context of his humorous society it becomes heroic. Skipper's inaction is a refusal to use evil means to overcome evil; his misinterpretation is the first step in envisioning a new and more hopeful world. And the creation of the wandering island at the end seems to confirm the validity of his claim to courage.
Skipper is brave in his refusal to be brave in the classic sense of the word. His heroism lies in his ability to recognize love and to celebrate the rhythm of life, the comic rhythm. (p. 179)
Through most of the novel Skipper maintains this comic perspective, refusing to adopt society's methods of heroism to gain his ends. But on three occasions he does act like a conventional hero, and the consequences of such "heroism" reveal its inadequacy. (p. 180)
With the exception of these three occasions …, Skipper practices patience and passivity throughout the novel. Heroically refusing to become evil himself, he celebrates love, forgiveness, and virtue. This is, of course, not the first time in literature that such action has been celebrated. In The Tempest for example, Prospero responds similarly. With his enemies at his mercy, Prospero renounces vengeance:
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
Filled with "the virtue of life itself" Skipper similarly concludes, "how satisfying that virtue always wins."… From the point of view of conventional heroism—forthright action, manly strength—Skipper is a comic failure. From Hawke's point of view, Skipper's "inaction" is "the rarer action," and his misinterpretations are an effort to dream a better world.
The allusion to Prospero is not gratuitous. In a novel full of literary allusions, references to The Tempest form an important and meaningful pattern. (p. 181)
The allusions to The Tempest serve several purposes. First, standing behind Second Skin, The Tempest establishes the comic norms on which the novel is based, norms reflected in Prospero's and Skipper's "rarer action." While critics complain that norms are absent from much contemporary fiction making judgment of action and character difficult, Hawkes supplies norms through allusion. And second, Hawkes remarks "I think that to write fiction that portrays the nightmarish aspects of the unconscious is simply to say at the outset that the opposite view is equally true and equally valid…. The nightmare simply leads one toward—or the nightmare could not exist without an awareness of—purity." Thus the nightmarish characters in Second Skin imply the existence and validity of their opposites. Behind the evil widow Miranda stands the good and innocent Miranda; behind the sleazy Fernandez stands the princely Ferdinand; behind the terrifying Tremlow stands the foolish and powerless Trinculo…. Behind the ugly modern world lies the possibility of Prospero's and Skipper's magic islands.
Although Skipper compares himself with Ariel, and although he resembles Gonzalo in his innocent effort to imagine a better world, he most obviously parallels Prospero. Like Prospero, Skipper is a betrayed man who, fallen victim to his humorous society, voyages to a magical island where he recovers his control over his life and environment through the use of his art. Like Prospero's, Skipper's voyage takes him from a bleak, inhuman world to a green and fertile realm of possibility and imagination. Both the play and the novel are structured on this movement between two worlds—one ruled by death, violence, war, brutality, and hate, and the other ruled by its opposites, life, love, peace, grace, courage, and creation…. (p. 183)
If Skipper shares Prospero's good qualities of love, patience, virtue, and forgiveness, he also shares Prospero's less attractive qualities. If Prospero is a good man, he is also at least partly responsible for his original shipwreck. By ignoring the affairs of state in Milan, and by innocently trusting evil men he had "Awak'd an evil nature" in Antonio. Similarly, Skipper's innocence seems to awaken an evil nature in his enemies. And Prospero is, at times, as priggish a protector of his daughter's innocence as is Skipper. (pp. 183-84)
But most important, Skipper shares Prospero's talent as an artist, his ability to transform the seeds of death into the seeds of life. Although Skipper often seems helpless, it is important to remember that from the vantage point of the wandering island he is in complete control of the characters and action of the story. Like Dickens' Pip, Barth's Todd Andrews, Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, and Prospero himself, Skipper retains complete artistic control over the story he is in, shaping the destiny of both himself and others…. Like Prospero, Skipper controls both past and future. He correctly predicts the sex and birthday of his child, the traditional symbol of comic continuity, and he displays his ability to transform the black Atlantic island of Miranda's imagination into the blue Pacific island of his own.
Indeed, Skipper carefully transforms every detail of his earlier painful experience into a happy, pastoral idyl…. Darkness, death, and loss of innocence become light, life, and higher innocence. Hawkes insists that "structure—verbal and psychological coherence—is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of my writing." Of course, recurrence, repetition, and symmetry, evident in Skipper's metamorphoses of his experience, are the typical structural devices of comedy.
The basic structural difference between The Tempest and Second Skin is evident in the endings. Whereas Prospero returns from his magic island to participate in the old, but renewed, society, Skipper remains on his island. Prospero's triumph is his renunciation of magic and his rededication to responsibilities he had previously evaded. This is a risk Skipper refuses to take. Having escaped his humorous society and created a better world around himself, he will not return. Prospero gives up his art because his old society is repentant, suggesting renewed comic possibility. Skipper cannot give up his art, for his old society remains unrepentant and deadly.
Even his created world refuses to be completely Edenic…. Second Skin, like "The Tempest," is thus not simply a vision of the triumph of good over evil. Evil still exists, though it is no longer in control or at the center. It is significant that the novel ends with the celebration of a birth in a graveyard, and with a baby who "look like the fella in the grave."… Having spent his life trying to neutralize the seeds of death, Skipper at the end will accept both life and death, will accept the comic rhythm of recurrence.
Skipper thus reflects the ambivalence typical of the comic hero. He is the fool or buffoon, the comic innocent who exposes himself in ways he does not realize, unconsciously contributing to his own and others' suffering. But he is also the hero who exposes his humorous society, and, by espousing the comic virtues of love, patience, and forgiveness, creates a new society around himself. And the affirmative comic movement of the plot suggests the novel's theme. As Hawkes concludes, "comic distortion tells us that anything is possible and hence expands the limits of our imaginations. Comic vision always suggests futurity, I think, always suggests a certain hope in the limitless energies of life itself." (pp. 184-85)
Ronald Wallace, "The Rarer Action: Comedy in John Hawkes's 'Second Skin'," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 169-86.
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Konrad Vost, hero of "The Passion Artist," continues Hawkes's fictional interest in relations between the sexes. Vost's artistry in passion is his ability to walk a thin line between desire and frustration. His erotic passivity and anger are counterweights, each checking the pull of the other from giving in or letting go. (p. 7)
Hawkes seems fascinated by ambivalence as a deadlock between passivity and violence. When Vost permits a young prostitute to beckon him out of his six-year sexual fast, his rage flows with his orgasm. When female prisoners revolt against their guards, he joins the guards, beating the most fragile women the most violently. These events suggest large meanings: Men seem drawn to women because they hold the promise of pleasure and release but are repelled because women make them lose their self-control. When the anger of women is not contained, it erupts in vengeance on men. If male fury is not checked by male passivity, it becomes a murderous force. But Hawkes raises such large issues only to drop them in a series of pornographic, sadomasochistic scenes in which Vost is victimizer and victimized.
Hawkes throws away the force of his vision in episodes that, though striking, go nowhere. Vost seems merely a puppet in the sideshow of a master of special effects. Hawkes is too much the detached connoisseur of disaster; the facile perversions of "The Passion Artist" inspire the dubious admiration one might feel for colorful cruelties described by a supreme stylist. At his best, Hawkes can do much more. He can persuade you that suffering signifies that there is something necessary even in terrible events and attachments. Lacking the haunting fatalism that gives moral and psychological depth to his earlier novels. "The Passion Artist" seems a detour to nihilism.
Hawkes occupies a central place in the fiction of the problematic and troubled. With Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and Joseph McElroy he remains among the most innovative and original American writers. In "The Passion Artist" his virtuosity leads to superficiality. He caresses the symptoms of heterosexual disorder but evades the disease, he stages a fiery show but provides no illumination. (pp. 7, 36)
Josephine Hendin, "A Detour to Nihilism," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 16, 1979, pp. 7, 36.
Leslie Fiedler once described John Hawkes very accurately as "a Gothic writer … one who makes terror rather than love the center of his work." Paradoxically, it is love—or at least sexuality, the core of love—that lies at the heart of The Passion Artist, though terror in all its forms delineates the nature of that beast. In fact, for the protagonist of this disturbing novel (as well as for its author, one suspects), the two constitute the yin and yang of life. (p. 106)
Hawkes's method in this tale is to present incidents as they occur internally, juxtaposing dreams and actuality, metaphor and fact, in such a way that they are indistinguishable. This is, of course, a powerful device if carefully controlled; but here Hawkes seems to have been carried away by the immensity of his imagination. Passages of brilliant writing are followed by scenes whose turgid brutality seems to serve no purpose, not even that of shock value. Unhappily, The Passion Artist never coheres into a consistent whole, despite the potency of its author's vision. (p. 107)
"Life & Letters: 'The Passion Artist'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 244, No. 4, October, 1979, pp. 106-07.
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The Passion Artist is a startling, erotic, terrifyingly honest and stylistically lush achievement, the kind of novel his readers have come to expect from John Hawkes. Once again, Hawkes focuses upon a "traveler," here a "stationary traveler," one Konrad Vost, the typical Hawkes male: the searching self, questing for meaning as defined by his relationships with the several significant women in his life. (p. 278)
Vost's most important journey … focuses upon his attempt to come to grips with his past as an only (apparently) unwanted child. We watch as this "disordered," sensitive "little trumpeter" undergoes various sexual encounters, For him, the past—his insomniac father, his homicidal mother, his lusty, brutal guardian—all that "which is gone" can be summarized by "Shame and grief. Shame and grief."
But Vost knows moments of triumph as well. He can achieve the level of the "passion artist," though, as the novel's second epigraph suggests, the expression of that achievement is as difficult for Konrad Vost as it is for Kafka's "hunger artist." Vost finally knows that experience which makes every man an "artist": "willed erotic union."
Konrad Vost is ludicrous, pathetic, frightening, absurd, self-assured and timid. He is at once sacrificial victim and victimizer. He is Hawkes's most important and successful character since Skipper (Second Skin).
Hawkes has lost none of his ability to overawe stylistically. His descriptive technique and imagistic counterpointing are remarkably effective.
The Passion Artist is a first-rate achievement. (pp. 278-79)
Edward R. Stephenson, "Fiction: 'The Passion Artist'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 39, No. 8, November, 1979, pp. 278-79.
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The novelist's first allegiance is to his art, but it's impossible for me to think of fiction without a moral center. Mine is Conradian. My work is an effort to expose the worst in us all, to cause us to face up to the enormities of our terrible potential for betrayal, disgrace, and criminal behavior. I think that it is necessary to destroy repression while showing at the same time that the imagination is unlimited….
The work that is deeply and truly moral violates conventional morality. The writer who sets out to create his own world in a sense defies the world around him. He has to become an outcast, an outsider. He works in isolation to create something which to him is a thing of beauty, as well as a thing of knowledge and moral meaning. And that act is a risk, an assault on the world as we think we know it, and as such can be viewed as dangerous, destructive, criminal. But I think it is necessary to go to extremes. The writer knows what it is like to rebel, to defy, to be alone in situations of extreme risk, so he has an ultimate sympathy with those who have been judged as unfit for conventional society….
[It's] true that I am an idealistic writer. The word "innocence" is somewhat disturbing but I am afraid that I really can't evade it. I've been trying to destroy my own innate innocence for a long time now, over 30 years, but it still permeates my work. If my novels are experienced by some people as nightmarish, and overwhelmingly dark, oppressive, and pessimistic, I can only say that the opposite is also true: the lyrical quality of my work is a reflection of my preoccupation with innocence. (p. 27)
I have certain obsessive themes or subjects that I keep returning to; I'm obsessed with horses, birds, destructive sexuality, death, children. My fiction is driven from the unconscious; its energy comes from deep psychic conflicts. I don't mean that I'm simply trying to exorcise my personal self: rather, I'm trying to touch on matters that are important to the inner lives of all people.
Most of my work is comic…. I think comedy works in two opposite directions in my fiction. On the one hand, certain kinds of comedy in my work are used to revenge childhood indignities and all we've been made to suffer by the wrong kind of narrow-minded judgments imposed upon us by district attorneys, teachers, parents. This comedy could be called injurious farce. Malvolio in Twelfth Night might be an example. The opposite extreme is the comedy that is lyrical and saving, full of grace, full of harmony. It's a comedy that brings all things together in joyous resolution. Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night, represents this comedy….
I see writing as an act of eroticizing the landscape. I think of myself as a totemic or fetishistic writer. For me, every object, every fictional detail, becomes energized with its own meaning, its own life. I'm a sensual writer and a sensuous writer. If we talk about eroticism or sexuality as being polar sexuality as being polar (as with comedy), lyric sensualizing can't assume its true shapé unless the pain and risk involved in sensuality are also present. My work affirms the imagination, yet I couldn't help but end that triad of fictions—about the relationship between sexuality and the imagination—on a severe note. The dangers of the most joyous of human experiences had to reassert themselves. These are so much at the center of human life that we should know that our clearest impulses toward love inevitably involve pain as well as joy. I wanted the final statement to be paradoxically the most erotic and, at the same time, the most shockingly severe, so that the reader would pause and think about the magnitude of the erotic impulse.
[When] I wrote Travesty, I wasn't consciously thinking about the deplorable nature of the act of trying to commit suicide or trying to commit murder through the deliberate crashing of an automobile. Instead I was focusing on the intensity of purity of concentration that are needed to imagine the unimaginable. The only reason that the narrator drives the car so deliberately toward total destruction is to force himself and his double, Henri the poet, to imagine their own deaths. Death—cessation, annihilation—is the only thing I can think of that cannot be imagined. The only way that the artist-driver of the car can imagine it is through paradox. He conceives of the wreckage before it occurs; he recognizes that in destruction there is always a design for those of us who want to seek it; and he sees that in any design, any created thing, there is always the potential for the loss of its beautiful shape and its collapse into chaos. (p. 28)
I've decided that the three most important subjects are consciousness, the imagination, and the nature of woman. In The Passion Artist I've tried to create the worst possible protagonist I could think of—a sort of Malvolio who is crazed by his ignorance of women. But for once I've tried to deal with a topical theme, by dramatizing the power of women. That's something new for me…. (p. 29)
John Hawkes, "The Novelists: John Hawkes," in an interview with Thomas LeClair, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 19. November 10, 1979, pp. 26-9
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602
The preoccupation with sexual anxiety and impotence may mislead readers into seeing The Passion Artist as a continuation of Hawkes's trilogy: Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep and the Traveler, Travesty. But the new novel has little of their sinuous, suave, playful sophistication, and very few moments of perverse bliss. It represents, rather, an altogether conscious and very powerful return, after 30 years, to the bleak, devastated fictive world and the psychic cripplings of The Cannibal.
[The] pervasive misogyny is that of an intense, dynamic authorial imagination, and it is even more explicit than Faulkner's. The Passion Artist is, whatever its deficiencies, a serious work of art.
The differences in style, as one looks back to the opening of The Cannibal, are radical. Highly controlled statement has replaced metaphor….
It would be idle to demand of a highly conscious and expert novelist in his 50s the primitive, even atavistic energies of a man of 23. But the conventional intellectuality of style of most of the first 57 pages of The Passion Artist is dismaying: periodic, ponderous, even pedantic sentences; a written quality reminiscent of Thomas Mann and even James. This prose faithfully reflects the sluggish mentality and uneventful daily life of Konrad Vost. The quotidian monotony is broken, to be sure, by traumatic events….
The first 57 pages of The Passion Artist convey as authentically as any in modern fiction the listlessness of the commonplace, the tedium of ordinary life. There is, by way of relief, one expertly pornographic section as Konrad Vost submits to fellatio, minutely described, by a child prostitute….
The writing in this scene is precise and coldly brilliant, the sexuality extraordinarily explicit and undisplaced…. (p. 29)
The later portions of The Passion Artist return us, however, to the tension and stylistic power of the best earlier fiction. "Mutilated railway trains were again running according to no schedule on the tracks of silence." The imaginative attraction to decay even compensates for the grammatical formalities; the old Hawkesian entropies have returned. What a pleasure, after those early academic pages, to come upon rotten ribs, underground rivers, excrement! (pp. 29-30)
A second-rate writer merely imitates himself; a great writer has his iconography and, in Hawkes's own words, his "chordal insistences." Hawkes has commented on the recurrence in his fiction of desolate abandoned structures where crucial psychic experiences occur. Metaphor, far more than in most contemporary writers, is meaning. In the crucial pages of The Passion Artist the great energizing fears of Hawkes's fiction reappear, the essential movements of the classic interior journey. There are, for very attendant ears, echoes of Conrad and Faulkner.
How did Hawkes move from the relatively quiet realism of the first 57 pages to the dynamic unrepressed power of the latter sections? Almost certainly, I think, through the mechanism of the dream … specifically the archetypal dream of a train on which Konrad Vost is the sole passenger….
My impression is that Hawkes's imagination had found itself trapped, in the early pages, by the very success with which it had evoked an ultimate drabness, the colorless reality of the almost empty city and the bleak little café across the street from the prison, a dusty world without joy or fantasy. But to take this train, to enter consciously the world of dream, helped Hawkes rediscover his own congenial materials and visionary mode. The later sections of The Passion Artist are among the most poignant and most powerful in Hawkes's now extensive and truly classical oeuvre. (p. 30)
Albert J. Guerard, "Books and the Arts: 'The Passion Artist'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Rebublic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 19, November 10, 1979, pp. 29-30.
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