William (Christopher) Barrett Anatole Broyard - Essay

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "Time of Need," the author is saying, like a teacher to a lazy student, "I'm afraid that's a very superficial reading." And he goes on to prove it. Examining Camus, Hemingway, Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, Hesse and even E. M. Forster—as well as Giacometti, Henry Moore, Picasso and others in the visual arts—he shows them moving beyond rational meaning, which is not the business of art, toward myth, mysteries and perspectives even deeper than those in de Chirico's paintings.

For all the pages that have been written about them, his interpretations of these artists are startlingly fresh and provocative….

With Beckett, [Barrett] has outdone himself—and perhaps the reader as well. Beckett is seen as a "post-neurosis" writer, one whose art may have developed to such a point that it becomes almost self-defeating. He has passed through so many stages of renunciation that we cannot believe that this journey to the end of the void is without issue. Surely, there must be some sort of trash-can beatitude at the bottom of this descent. Perhaps it was not necessary to go all the way back to the primeval ooze, but then Mr. Beckett is not one for half-measures.

Mr. Barrett's reading of "Finnegans Wake" is at once more simple and more complex than most. Camus, according to Mr. Barrett, is rescued from the "nausea" of existentialism by his stubborn provincialism, his refusal to set abstractions above the processes of life itself. He will not be satisfied with Levi-Strauss's remark that "We have put art on a reservation." Although he is known primarily as a literary critic and philosopher, Mr. Barrett is a formidable "reader" of the visual arts as well. He remarks of Giacometti's thin men that the head has sucked up the body's vitality until it is on the point of vanishing. This is the root of the problem. Man, he says, is the being whose being is always open to the menace of nonbeing. Once upon a time, Christianity erected a magnificent myth to protect us against this menace: now, with the waning of that myth, art has taken over the job of humanizing the void for us.

Anatole Broyard, "Between Body and Spirit," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1972, p. 45.