John Hawkes Hawkes, (Jr.), John (Clendennin Burne) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John (Clendennin Burne) Hawkes (Jr.) 1925–

American novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, and editor.

Hawkes is an extraordinary stylist whose primary interest is the psychic and imaginative processes of human beings. His work is difficult and demanding, full of scenes intended to startle and even repel the reader. By "violating" his audience's sense of normalcy and propriety, Hawkes hopes to jar it into new levels of awareness of the beautiful and dangerous capabilities of the human imagination. Hawkes himself describes his fiction as travels through the landscape of the psyche. He emphasizes its brutal and absurdly comic aspects in order, conversely, to understand what it means to feel compassion.

With the publication of The Cannibal (1950) and The Beetle Leg (1951) Hawkes gained a reputation as an eccentric, avantgarde novelist and a radically innovative stylist. Set in desolate waste lands and full of sadistic violence, these two novels depict the human attempt to impose order on chaotic reality with such things as art, religion, and love. These forces prove powerless, however, against the violence that emerges as the prevailing reality in these novels. Hawkes's theme of the beauty and horror of the human imagination is considered most developed in The Lime Twig (1961). Compared to the earlier works, this novel has a more conventional structure, but the prose is still considered experimental even though it is less fragmented and surreal. Second Skin (1964) marks Hawkes's more extensive use of artist-heroes and their attempts to enforce their vision upon the world.

Hawkes's "comic triad" of the early 1970s—The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep, & the Traveler, and Travesty—helped solidify critical opinion of him as one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century. The protagonists of the triad, in their attempts to simultaneously experience and control reality, reflect the human desire to find order and harmony in the world. The novels are farcical in their portrayal of ambitions fulfilled or denied, yet poignant in their observations of how sexuality defies the control of individuals. Travesty has won special attention for its satire on the human need to organize and explain. Hawkes's recent works, The Passion Artist (1979) and Virginie: Her Two Lives (1982), further his examination of the psychic process.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 14, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Albert J. Guerard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Guerard, often considered the most knowledgeable critic on Hawkes, has had a lengthy literary and social relationship with Hawkes. The two met at Harvard in the late 1940s when Hawkes was enrolled in Guerard's writing class.]

Without question Hawkes has been, like Faulkner, one of the great liberating maieutic influences on contemporary literature, in the astringent bite of his psychology and the audacity of his invention. But I would like to make a case for the primacy of poetry, of language—language in the largest sense to include intricate structure and what Hawkes calls "chordal insistences", but also language as simply rhythm and words, words from which the strangeness has not been rubbed away.

One of the obvious things any academic survey might undertake would be to compare the themes of wartime violence and corruption and degradation, of The Cannibal and The Goose on the Grave and Second Skin, with the intricate ballet—the sinuous repetitive saraband of sexual experiment—in The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, Travesty. Those who feel betrayed, or who feel Hawkes has betrayed his origins, as they look from The Cannibal to Travesty; those who want a writer to be true always to his first vision and first modes of distortion, would do well to consider how often major writers have refused to settle down. There are writers who, like Faulkner and Joyce, begin fairly conventionally and move toward more and more audacious, even perverse experiment. But there is also Melville, writing for a time in nomine diaboli, and ending in classical if embittered serenity.

I know, however, of no such radical innovator as Hawkes in his twenties (very nearly a generation ahead of his time), possessed of an absolutely original style and dynamic vision, becoming such a suave master of the traditional resources of the novelistic art. (pp. 2-3)

In 1948 I wrote, in my introduction to The Cannibal, that it was less surrealist than Charivari, and that I suspected Hawkes would move still further toward realism; and that how far Hawkes would go as a writer "must obviously depend on how far he consents to impose some page-by-page and chapter-by-chapter consecutive understanding on his astonishing creative energy; on how richly he exploits his ability to achieve truth through distortion; on how well he continues to uncover and use childhood images and fears." In my 1962 addendum I could remark that the "predicted movement toward realism has occurred, but chiefly in the sense that the later novels are much more orderly and even in pace, and distinctly less difficult to read." Yet I could also say that Hawkes's position was an unusual one: "that of the avant-garde writer who has imitated no one and who has made no personal gestures of defiance". He could move "toward realism"—in pace, in the timing of scenes, in the subtle manipulation of the reader, in overall control, in language—without becoming banal. And if he ultimately came to parody other writers—Ford Madox Ford in The Blood Oranges, Camus in Travesty—it was with a Nabokovian joy in aesthetic play. Travesty, for all its seriousness, is in the highest sense a playful book. It is well to remember how some of the greatest writers, indeed some of the most ponderous, have ultimately allowed themselves comedy, even farce…. (pp. 3-4)

I would like to stress not the movement toward realism, which is obvious, but rather the movement toward a more conscious and more suave psychology and art. Psychology and art. The movement is from a Freudian wit, deeply dependent on unconscious understanding as well as conscious; from extremely powerful condensation, from multiple instances of overdetermination, to fully conscious,...

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Helen S. Garson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Pornography and the Law, a book written by two psychologists [Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen], eleven "major criteria" for obscene books are listed. Of the eleven, eight are applicable to the work of Hawkes, especially to his plays and to the novels The Time Twig, Second Skin, and Blood Oranges. Those eight ingredients are: seduction; defloration; incest; the permissive-seduction parent figure; supersexed males; nymphomaniac figures; homosexuality; and flagellation…. But although Hawkes does meet those criteria and frequently another requirement that a book is aphrodisiacal which keeps "before the reader's mind a succession of erotic scenes," he does not attain what are considered all the structural requirements of pornography. For example, the "true" pornographer, if he uses background scenery, treats it erotically. Hawkes' scenic descriptions, though sometimes highly suggestive or filled with sexual symbolism, are often also non-erotic.

The plot of a Hawkes play or novel may be simple or complex but almost always sexuality in multiple forms is focal. Plotting in his work is so unlike that of most writers that there are few ways to get a handle on the material. (p. 152)

If motivation for behavior is also lacking, there is yet one instance of the similarity to pornography where character depiction is extremely limited. Once again Hawkes' work falls on both sides of the line. Although Second Skin and Blood Oranges have at least one character, the narrator, who is shown in depth, this is not true of The Lime Twig, in which all the characters possess a flatness, a stereotypical quality that is characteristic of the pornographic film or novel.

The narrator and major character of Blood Oranges calls himself a "sex singer"; his very existence depends on the sexual act, which is intended to obliterate time, to negate dissolution and death. His sexual exploits rival those of any supersexed male of pornography. However, he is not singular in his pursuit and desire. His wife has sexual cravings at least equal to his own. She is the nymphomaniac par excellence. She must have him—and others, just as he must have her and others. Any man or woman in their seasonless, timeless land...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Donald J. Greiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Hawkes occupies a peculiar place in contemporary American fiction. He is one of the few truly gifted writers in the so-called black humor movement which has flourished since 1950, but he lacks the renown enjoyed by less talented authors. In the years since World War II innovative American fiction has turned from the documentation of social forms and the use of realistic technique to an evocation of nightmare and fear. The feeling of disruption left from the war, the specter of atomic catastrophe so vividly objectified at Hiroshima, the tensions of the cold war, and the spread of random violence in everyday life have all contributed to the conviction that chaos rather than order dominates day to day living....

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Paul Rosenzweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the publication of The Passion Artist (1979) John Hawkes completed a decade of writing that marked a clear, if subtle, change of direction in his fiction. Most apparent and controversial was the emergence of a highly explicit and, in a manner, titillating sexual content, dominating all four novels written by him in the seventies [The Blood Oranges (1971); Death, Sleep, & the Traveler (1974); Travesty (1976); and The Passion Artist]. Combined with the gothic strain that has characterized his writing from the beginning—his fascination with violence and cruelty and death—both the explicitness and the untraditional nature of the sexual concerns have tended to overshadow the...

(The entire section is 2527 words.)

Charles Champlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[John Hawkes, a] prolific, well-regarded author of modernist fiction, has in "Virginie: Her Two Lives" written what is at once a parody, pastiche and examination of erotic prose, the literature of arousal.

It is an indubitably original and inventive undertaking, superbly written by a man totally in control of his effects. In one fundamental way it is different from the genre it is founded upon; examining the difference is, I think, the object of the exercise. At its center is an untouched innocence, close to but independent of the prevailing debaucheries. (But debaucheries, I see, is as loaded a word as pornography, which is in turn as dangerous, imprecise and explosive as a sawed-off...

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Bertha Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While most novelists are still slouching down the over marked trails of human experience (including the trail of erotic experience) like bored guides hustling us on to the next souvenir stand, John Hawkes has a seemingly endless capacity to make fresh wilderness out of every new work he writes. The trouble, for his readers, is that wilderness is not like home: there will be natives who don't speak our language; beasts, perhaps, with a taste for human flesh. Almost certainly, we will get lost. And how can we trust a guide who doesn't know how to act like a buddy? Or a lover?…

Most of us can at least nod knowingly when we hear his titles dropped (The Blood Oranges, The Cannibal, The Lime Twig, The...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Angela Carter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is considerable resistance in the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant tradition to the notion that sexuality might involve more than the sum of the relevant parts. Since John Hawkes' novel, Virginie: Her Two Lives, is set squarely in the context of a quite other, Mediterranean tradition of metaphysical eroticism in which sex is seen as a profound metaphor for the more bewildering aspects of the human condition, it is possible that this glittering, tender, extraordinary parable may be misconstrued in our pragmatic latitudes.

Indeed, although Virginie's two lives expose her to a vast number of complicated sexual games and she witnesses all kinds of exhibitions of sexual activity, Hawkes' novel may not...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

James Wolcott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With Virginie: Her Two Lives, Hawkes is once again playing the keeper of the crypt, decorating the sarcophagi with amorous doodles. The novel, narrated by a tremulous waif named Virginie, shuttles like a time-machine from a castle of regimented decadence in rural France (the year—significantly—is 1740, the year of Sade's birth) to a low-rent house of bawdiness in Paris (1945). Under both roofs Virginie flits about on her errands like a nest-tidying bird, bearing rapt witness to the debaucheries and sadistic rites of all these devoted sensualists. She's the Eternal Child, enveloped in a milky glow of unsullied innocence….

[Although] John Hawkes is often touted by his admirers as a comic...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Alan Friedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] conception and execution ["Virginie"] has a certain grandeur and an impressive flaw…. "Virginie" is an ambitious enterprise, an eclectic anthology of erotica, a reckless attempt to embrace irreconcilable forms, from medieval love poetry to modern pornography. The resulting flaw is forgivable. So many "sources and influences" have been assembled here like pearls on a narrative string that even as the author strains to close the clasp, his necklace comes apart. But it would be swinish to complain.

The author tells us in a prefatory note that the book was "conceived in a reverie about de Sade." Immediately thereafter, before the novel opens, we come upon a longish poem, an ancient and pleasant...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Patrick O'Donnell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To "place" any contemporary author in a literary context or tradition is a hazardous affair, especially when, as is the case with Hawkes, that author continues to write novels which intentionally disrupt both the singular contexts his fictions create and the traditions of the novel in general…. [In novel after novel Hawkes] forces us to reassess the role of the artist and the fiction-making process, often rendering ironic the portrait of an artist in an earlier work, so that his fiction as a whole presents us with a fluid, self-parodic, generative vision of consciousness and artistry. (p. 143)

If any one thing can be said to characterize the fiction produced and worth considering since World War...

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Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Hawkes's new novel, Virginie, is a book about eroticism that seems more concerned with doubling than coupling. Taking pains to mirror earlier models—from the troubadours to Georges Bataille—it also offers matching narratives: both recounted by Virginie, a girl in her eleventh year and at the eleventh hour of her innocence….

Between the two narratives, parallels proliferate. Lines and images recur. The culmination—havoc wreaked by an avenging mother—is the same in both. And the women involved in the erotic tableaux likewise seem counterparts across the centuries. In the 1740 story, they are endowed with allegorical names, Finesse, Colère, Magie, Volupté, Bel Esprit: and...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hawkes's Virginie is a series of interwoven erotic tableaux, very deliberate, intensely artificial, conceived as he says in a reverie on de Sade…. In each, an 11-year-old Virginie, little sister of the master of ceremonies, plays the part of accomplice, voyeuse and narrator. And though one narrative is heraldic and archaic, while the other is slatternly and burlesque, Virginie's constant presence draws them into a single focus.

The point being, for Hawkes, that speculations on the art of pleasure can only take place via an 'innocent consciousness,' one that banishes time past and future, and concentrates with ruthless single-mindedness on the present moment. His characters are subsumed into...

(The entire section is 236 words.)