Teeth and Sympathies; or, Influence and the Individual Talent (A Wildean Dialogue)

[This’Wildean dialogue’ was created as one of three assignments for a “Queer Theory” module taught by Wayne Koestenbaum at CUNY Graduate Center in the autumn of 1998. Students were asked to impersonate or inhabit the style of three queer writers: Oscar Wilde, Roland Barthes, and Gertrude Stein. Here, I imagine myself (Melmoth) communicating via email with a friend.]

Teeth and Sympathies; or, Influence and the Individual Talent (A Wildean Dialogue)

Harry Heuser

Persons: Mauberley and Melmoth

Scene: Their respective apartments, joined in cyberspace

Melmoth (typing somewhat languidly): I beseech you, my dear Mauberley, treat me tenderly this evening.  None of your cynical incisions, if you please; I am feeling quite lacerated already.  Tonight I require your furs, not your fangs.

Mauberley: If you wish to pull my teeth I shall have to hold my tongue, worthy Melmoth.  A comforter, asked to take his cue from the very creature whose distress he is to ease, performs a rather paradoxical role.  Although expected to project his own personality into that of another in order to understand him better, he is hardly granted any personality at all.  Empathy means being told to bite one’s lip after already having resigned one’s prize incisors.  Yet, as a masticator so thoroughly domesticated, I am prepared to pamper, not pounce; and, an occasional quip aside, I promise to nibble most gently.  Whatever is the matter?

Melmoth (now listening to a favorite tune): Well, I shall certainly give to you something on which you may wish to chew! As you know, the “hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life” (to snatch a line from Samuel Johnson) has long sent me on the prowl, on a ludic pursuit of free-roaming prose and lamb-gentle poetry.  For me, there was always another part of the sylvan outdoors left to explore.  My literary Wanderlust has allowed me to claw myself through the most labyrinthine texts without ever suffering me to lose myself entirely within them.  Proceeding swiftly I left much behind—without ever hovering over my readings in a cirrostratus of critical detachment.  And if my sojourns were commonly not long-lasting, their very brevity allowed me to endure much that might otherwise have seemed intolerable.  

Small doses of Teufelsdroeckh’s “Philosophy of Clothes,” for example, may have taught me to adore metaphors; but only glossing over Meredith’s unconscionable “Book of Egoism” could have convinced me not to abhor them.  From Bleak House and Little Dorrit I picked primarily onomastic morsels, always ignoring the noxious morals; for how appalling is the thought of ending one’s life in the wilderness, reading all of Dickens to Waugh’s Mr. Todd.  Some works remained altogether distant, while others became dinner to me.  I guess I could never sink my teeth into anything that would shrink from me.  To be sure, close readings of poems by Donne I could rarely stomach for long; but the closet dramas of Shelley really called for a lorgnon.  And while I don’t entirely hold with Shakespeare that “brevity is the soul of wit”—how disingenuous my own loquacity would render it!—I have but seldom questioned the sagacity of shortcuts.

Mauberley (his fingers nimbly flitting over the keyboard): In the diet of a prolific reader shortening may indeed prove at once sweet and salubrious.  Yours, fastidious friend, have been the most natural of selections.  That is, they agree most with your own nature.  Why oughtn’t one to select? After all, only because the chef of your favorite restaurant is preparing dishes for dozens, you’d hardly consider yourself pressured into devouring them all.  Let each guest decide upon his selection—yours, I am confident, shall always betoken your exquisite tastes.

You were quite right when choosing Dickens for his contribution of proper nouns, not for his distribution of proper notions (I am still hoping, by the way, that you’ll sit down one day to develop your tale of that villainous prosecutor, Sir Cleveland Streakscandle; there is much promise in the name).  Carlyle—whom we might call the Frankenstein of the lending libraries, since he was forever fashioning his lively, yet thoroughly Victorian essays from the corpses of Romanticism—positively encourages us to be motley; when we enter the Wahngasse, we are prepared to purchase a patch, not apparel.  I am going to refrain from discussing the merits of Meredith; one does not admire him for his writings, but rather for his outright refusal to avow any obligation of rendering himself palatable to his readers.  And Percy Shelley? Well, unless we are content to become as dull as Mahmut in Hellas, it behooves us to withdraw early.  After all, even Ahasuerus walks off rather quickly—and he has got all the time in the world.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that “to digest” means to condense according to a system of one’s own.  And you did well in suiting Donne’s metaphysics to your own metabolism.

Books ought to be considered finished when the reader is done with them.  I, for one, may be grateful to Milton for not having saved the best for last in Paradise Lost, but I am more grateful still to Spenser for not having lasted long enough to execute his Fairie Queene as planned.  Granted, I am placing rather too great an emphasis here on the propitious expiration of the author instead of the inspiration proper to the reader; yet you cannot but agree, dear Melmoth, that the pleasure of reading one owes at least partly to the art of decomposing.  Only consider for a moment how the composition of many an atrophied novel—the limp threads of its tedious denouement dangling toward a predictable, yet insufferably prolonged conclusion—might have benefited from the snipping clippers of an indifferent Atropos.

Melmoth: Yes, but please don’t cut me off just yet.  I am not concerned with the timely departures of certain authors, but with my own untimely ones.  I meant to say that, until now, I have been quite satisfied in scurrying from my readings with only a small sampling of phrases, stored for future use like so many uncracked nuts.  Although it is Byron, for instance, to whom I owe the delightful line “Gone—glimmering through the dream of things that were,” I took it to be entirely my right to decide just what the subject of the sentence might become.  While I was reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, said phrase seemed to capture the spirit of Romantic Hellenism quite neatly; but it soon struck me as a line from which to hang other sentiments as well—and I chose them on my own accord, guided only by my taste and temper.  Hook and string were all my imaginings required.

Yet sentiments are not salamis, you know.  And now I am beginning to wonder whether such text-tampering was altogether meet, whether it was expedient to remove myself thus expeditiously, or whether I oughtn’t to have stayed longer at times, before absconding with my bite-sized prizes.  Have I missed the beauty of art by making a meal of it, like a boar chasing Adonis for the sweat on his thighs?

Mauberley: How morbid of you, Melmoth.  You rescued those hidden prizes out of many a hideous swamp, remember? Indeed, you may be argued to have become their fashioner.  It takes the keen eye of an artist to spot a light entree in a murky everglade.  Surely there is much in literature that repels us; it is our task, nay our art, to find in it that which attracts us.  Reading, for instance, may demand from us the ability to make a home for ourselves in the uncanny; it does not require us to settle or raise families there.  In fact, whenever one begins to feel a certain kinship with a particular work, one does well to depart.  It prevents intellectual inbreeding.  And how can one even think of digesting that which already begins to show the promise of propinquity, unless, of course, one is a veritable anthropophagus.  Besides, as Wagner reminds us in Faust, “Die Kunst ist lang! / Und kurz ist unser Leben.” 

Melmoth (after a short pause, with a volume of Faust upon his lap): Yet not unlike Faust I believed I’d never become desirous to exclaim “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!”—stay, thou art so fair.  Have I merely suppressed this desire? What of “truth, beauty, and “all ye need to know”? 

Mauberley (after having taken a break also): Cannot one enjoy a leisurely conversazione without having to witness a display of that odious talking urn? Let us burn now with this hard, gem-like flame—and worry about our ashes later.  Besides, don’t you think that Keats himself was teasing you here? Instead of contemplating the eternal, would you not rather glory in the thought that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake”?

Melmoth: How readily I would have followed you only days ago.  Believe me, even now I yearn for such ecstasy; but instead I feel deeply removed from the presence of beautiful objects.  Now, far from luxuriating in the thought of a peripatetic existence, I have begun to suspect that the only movens behind my refusal to move in, my inclination to move on, was the fear of failure.  I have been clever only, never knowing.  Taking pride in my cunning, I have been satisfied to gnaw at any tasty phrase that crawled into my all too narrow ken.  I might have, well, gathered so much more; instead, I hardly developed any deep understanding of either the arts or their artificers.

Mauberley (returning after another short pause, pounding the keyboard): Beastly thoughts! Your ken, Melmoth, is not a kennel, and your not knowning is not gnawing.  Knowledge? Understanding? Did not Coleridge, with Reason, appeal to your imagination? Besides, only Friday last you proclaimed your complete indifference toward the artist.  After all, notwithstanding the inexcusable nonsense about poetry not being “a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,” the one sentiment expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” we have always applauded is that “[h]onest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”  If one must cultivate a bias—and one certainly must—let it not be biography! Lest we should all be content to turn journalists, the pursuit of the author is best left unattempted.  The misguided efforts of Christina Rossetti may serve as a deterrent.

Intrigued by the Mysteries of Udolpho, you may recall, Rossetti was tempted to take a peek behind the curtain its author appeared to have drawn before her private life.  The horror, the horror! Like Emily, Rossetti found only a lifeless, waxen figure.  Worse still, she found—nothing.  Radcliffe’s life, as it turned out, had been so uneventful that even an imaginative admirer like Rossetti was forced to abandon such a biographical project for want of material.  Taking up the novel anew, Rossetti found that the terror was tamed; the enigmatic had shriveled into the everyday.  Undoubtedly, when next she encountered the greedy fingers of Montoni, Rossetti could not but picture them busily engaged in needlepoint.  At least, this would have been her just reward!

Why really, Melmoth, I believed us to be in agreement that reading is an art of appropriation, not one of approximation.  When reading Wordsworth’s Prelude, let us rejoice in the thought of turning its “traveller” into the figure of the reader, a reader “whose tale is only of himself.”  Are we not petrified by the very thought of congealing into frigid cubes of meaning the imaginative possibilities of art, of resorting to the cryogenics of intentional fallacy by studying the frozen remains of art’s purported purveyors? Who was it that wrote “A poem must not mean, but be”?—(some American, undoubtedly; or else I’d remember the name).  I shall take the liberty of modifying as follows: A poem must not mean, but become.  And we, the individual readers, are its shapers.  Did not Percy Shelley teach us that a poetic reading “makes beautiful that which it distorts”?

Melmoth: This may be your own defense of poetic license; but you know full well the line of Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry”  you chose thus violently to corrupt.  It was quite clever of you to do so, of course, in order to demonstrate your skills—but was it wise? Are we not finally tiring of the mockery post-modernism has made of the sacred in art? Suddenly I feel as confused as the speaker of Donne’s “Third Satire,” who, in pursuit of truth, finds himself tossed from Scylla to Charybdis: “Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids / Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids; / I must not laugh, nor weep sins, and be wise: Can railing then cure these worn maladies?”

Mauberley: By Jove, it can! The unfeeling art critic, the officious fact-gatherer, secretly envious of your passion, may want to convince you that you have a “heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,” that you can gain insights by subscribing to their celebrated techniques—but you cannot allow them to crush you.  You, too, must choose never to stoop.

Melmoth: I most certainly don’t stoop to critics; nor do I kneel before their altars.  Critics are (and I shall take a Swiftean turn here) the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of a page—provided, of course, that by critic we denote someone who is setting himself apart from art.  Not only is this injudicious and injurious separation at the very core of many a flawed argument about art criticism, including Arnold’s notion that the “critical power is of lower rank than the creative,” but, far from humbling them, it has afforded the self-proclaimed reading elite to assume and justify their ascendancy over the arts.  It is to be lamented that the ignorance of the art-antagonistic critic of his own artistry has proven his most durable armor; for if he ever became aware of his art, he would indubitably turn against himself in self-loathing.  Convinced instead that criticism is not art, but the end of art, the agon-prone critic rarely puts an end to himself by slipping his head into the neologian noose with which he attempts to apprehend art.  

It cannot have escaped you, however, that I am passionately opposed to the idolatry of theory, and that I’d much rather spend any Saturday stretched out with a poem on my pillow than pilgrim to the bedstead of any latter-day Procrustes.  Yet, what is more to the point, you knew perfectly well that I don’t give a fig about critics.  They could never have persuaded me to change my approach to all of literature—only a particular literary work could achieve that! Perhaps, considering the urgency of the thought I longed to bring across, I ought not even to have tolerated being detoured into yet another digression, my most sly Mauberley.  You choose, once again, to misapprehend me.  And so it has often been with us.  Whether conversing with each other or with a work of art, we willfully misread in order to suit our needs.  In this—if we are honest—we are not unlike Lady Eustace, who, Trollope’s narrator tells us, is “false and pretentious” in her readings, always “skipping, pretending to have read, lying about books, and making up her market of literature for outside admiration at the easiest possible cost of trouble.”   Is not there a bit of both of us in this portrayal?

Mauberley (after a longer pause): While I am quite perplexed about the turn this discussion has taken, the delay of my message is not to be misread as a sign of my dismay.  You forced me once more upon the footstool, since I have elected not to keep Trollope within immediate reach.  He is, upon the whole, not eminently quotable.  Be that as it may, if you skip just a few pages, you will also learn that the heroine of The Eustace Diamonds is not only “clever,” but that she has “in truth studied much.”  I am sure Trollope did not brood much over his words, considering that he chose to throw 250 of them onto the page every quarter of an hour; but while he distinguishes between clever and learned, as you are wont to do, he does not argue them to be mutually exclusive.  Nor do I think it wise (to use another term you have begun to favor of late) to make such a distinction if it leads one to diminish the value of cleverness.  

Now, since we have chosen to remain without a face to each other, I know you only through the words that emerge on my screen.  And, having taken you by your every word, I know you to be both clever and learned, my beloved Melmoth.  I know that you are neither fool, nor fop, nor fraud when you profess your literary preferences by indulging, for instance, in the mischief of Edward Lear while remaining indifferent to the madness of King Lear.  I know also that you would not be satisfied in seeking truth or beauty in conformity, which is the death of art.  Some seek the fruits of art by crawling up a trellis on which ornamental shrubs have been trained to grow flat.  Some of us refrain, but develop a secret longing for such conformity, an unfortunate affliction I might call l’esprit d’espalier.  Others still retreat into irony, self-mockery, or camp.  The last approach has been ours, even though we both have grown weary of it at times, even though we sense it to be false when we secretly desire truth, even though it renders grotesque that which we desire to be beautiful.  Yet while I don’t quite possess a Carlylean (let alone Heideggerian) confidence in the efficacy of etymological excursions, I can assure you that any distinctions you make between ken, cunning, or knowing must ultimately fade, as they all reveal our survival to be rooted in the necessity of shaping our existence by means of sheer ingenuity.

Melmoth:  My treasured friend.  At last, after so many revolutions and indirections, we are beginning to sink our teeth into what in Faust we know as the “Pudels Kern.”  Your words make me feel at once humble and proud.  I shall gladly try to share with you that which seems so indivisibly my own.  For most of my life I sensed that art bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back (as you see, I have not altogether given up our games).  Since our last epistolary exchange I have been peeping, once more, into Herbert’s “Temple.”  You will remember that the beauty of Herbert’s verse began to move me as soon as I found myself able to move beyond what has been termed the “false wit” of his shaped verses.  His arrangement of letters on a page may be a clever comment on the Reformation debate over words and images, but, typesetting aside, his words are as sincere as they are profound.

“Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, / The land of spices; something understood.”  Never have I wept more over two lines of poetry—and I have asked myself why this should be so.  These simple words make me want to fling from me every gaudy alliteration and every assonance, every vestige of paradox and paronomasia with which I am wont to masquerade in my prose.  Herbert’s verse made me long most passionately for “something understood”—yet, since I dare not make a home for myself in a temple, I must remain outside.  And so, I find, it is often in art.  And I move on.  Surely I am no stranger to alienation.  Still, some day I hope to gain entrance to the temple of art.  Some day my encounter with literature will be more than a paper alliance; just as the wound I have felt has been more than a paper cut.  After a lifetime of wooing, art will lead me to the altar at last, will rush me to some Gretna Green (in the Pacific, perhaps), and I, too, shall know what it means to be one with beauty and truth.  Let me cling to this hope.  In the meantime, I shall continue to engage in a dialogue with art and in our dialogue, which is art.

Mauberley: It is well past midnight; this shall be my final note for the day.  You know, dearest Melmoth, Percy Shelley once said that whatever “talents a person may possess to amuse and instruct others, be they ever so inconsiderable, he is yet bound to exert them: if his attempt be ineffectual, let the punishment of an unaccomplished purpose have been sufficient; let none trouble themselves to heap the dust of oblivion upon his efforts; the pile they raise will betray his grave which might otherwise have been unknown.”  Since we, being either unknown or indifferent to the world, need not fear ignominy (unless you finally decide to unleash Sir Cleveland Streakscandle), there also need be no fear of failure or shame of sham among us. 

Melmoth, let us teach and delight each other.  Let our art be the dialogue of the moment.  How else, I ask you, can one possibly endure the curse of the cursory!

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