Vermeer’s Patch

By Bruce Serafin | June 27, 2004

A while ago I read Dale Peck’s attack on Sven Birkerts. It tired me out: Peck took Birkerts’ weakest book as representative of his work and savaged it, a tactic I’ve recently seen applied to Naipaul and Coetzee. Not long afterward, a friend sent me a copy of an article by B. R. Myers that had appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. This article, written in journalism-school prose, attacked, among others, Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx (who in "Brokeback Mountain" has written a classic American story) and the United States’ greatest living novelist, Cormac McCarthy.

After reading Myers’ attack I became intrigued. How had this piece made it into The Atlantic? In the next few weeks I read similar attacks by the Canadian critics Stephen Henighan and David Solway. Like Peck and Myers, each of these reviewers wrote a prose that was prissy and rigid with dismay: they practiced a kind of linguistic neo-conservatism. And I thought: Where have I seen this before?

There was F. R. Leavis, of course, who in a furious act of exclusion reduced all of British fiction to less than a dozen really classic books and thereby became a star. But no, I thought, it wasn’t Leavis.

Then I remembered. In his much-publicized book of a few years back, Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature, Philip Marchand had written as a disciple of John Metcalf. But while Metcalf puts on a flamboyant act, slashing his Zorro-like mark into the stony wall of Canlit, Marchand, I discovered, looking again at his book, resembles the awkward boy who has made it to the big desk and now sits impassive behind it, exerting his authority by making sure that feelings of exuberance, outrage or delight never appear.

Not that he doesn’t express opinions; you couldn’t ask for a more judgmental book. But his lips barely move. Listen to the tone of the following:

No one who has read the classics at all widely can read, say, Margaret Laurence or Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies and not recognize that they are, when all is said, minor writers…..

Certainly in 50 years time both Away and The English Patient will be badly dated, like the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay….

It is unlikely that the Atwood persona will fascinate future generations, and her literary reputation will have to undergo the scrutiny of readers who no longer find her thoughts on social issues bracing and revelatory….

Atwood’s satirical inventions, her wit? Vindictive. Ondaatje’s rich prose and unique vision? Unreadable. Margaret Laurence’s sexually daring books, more daring even than those of Alice Munro? Too earnest. Robertson Davies’ novels, including the best novel English Canada has produced, What’s Bred in the Bone? Old-fashioned. Again and again, with his finger placed carefully on the laziness and resentments of his audience, Marchand expresses the Canadian literary scene’s default position. The default position – here, as in other times and places – always dislikes what goes beyond the popular norm. Like every book reviewer who has expressed his period’s default attitude, Marchand shows no feeling for literature’s need to be marvelous and new; in particular (and in common with the herd now in ascendance), he assumes that journalistic realism is the summit of literary creation.

Hence his praise of Mordecai Richler, one of the three Canadian writers he admires more or less unreservedly. (The other two are Douglas Coupland and Russell Smith.) As it happens, I recently read Richler’s Barney’s Version, one of his better books. I like some of it. I like the sex, the blunt depection of getting old. I especially like Richler’s embrace of public life, his willingness to write about Canada as a real country in the real world. He doesn’t offer a romantic or “personal” Canada (which is so often a timid, small Canada), but the country you and I live in, faced head on. And I like his use of invective, that voice which appears in all his books – colloquial, breezy and with a whiff of belligerence always behind the breeziness.

But Barney’s not a character. He’s Richler. He loves his kids and they love him. And he adores his wife Miriam, who has hair like a raven’s wing and is perfect in every way. Miriam is a big lacy valentine to Richler’s actual wife. She hardly exists except as a vehicle for Richler’s emotion. And it’s the same with the kids. They’re too good to be true.

And the oafs that speckle the book like dandruff – the stupid Quebec separatists, vengeful feminists, shallow Torontonians, academic hacks, ugly women and weepy men – these oafs and idiots are too bad to be true. Like the spasmodic alternation of sentimentality and sarcasm which muddies the tone of the book and finally detaches the reader from it, the characters in Barney’s Version – and with a very few exceptions this could be said of all of Richler’s characters, except for the one Duddy Kravitz “character” who is Richler himself – the characters end up seeming unreal. They dance around like those puppets in the TV ad about back pain. They seem animated only because the author is visibly twitching their strings. No internal impetus pushes them, no motivation that comes from their circumstances.

Worse, the book lacks a shape. Architecturally, as a novel, as a long story, it is a mess; it doesn’t point to something beyond itself, the way a really fine story does. It relies on news, on jokes, on set tidbits of writing; it relies on cheap pathos; apart from the section set in Paris, it lacks narrative momentum and emotional force.

Marchand likes Richler because he writes like a journalist. He’s “real,” like a journalist. Neither his prose nor his vision of life gets genuinely complicated. Marchand enjoys that: he understands it; it contents him, which is why he praises Smith and Coupland, two other authors who also essentially write as journalists. In Marchand’s universe, journalistic realism rules.

Hence the weakness he shares with the other attack critics I’ve mentioned and which helps explain their current celebrity. As book review sections become ever more feeble, their editors try desperately to bring them to life through scandal, in particular the kind of invective even the most absent-minded reader can respond to.

But the invective mustn’t reveal itself as such. Oh no. This isn’t Fox News here. It has to be wrapped up in a defense of culture: our culture, our national culture, our literary culture. Hence these tailormade prigs, Solway, Marchand and the rest, with their combination of middlebrow piety and an ironic or "sorrowful" or prissily angry dismissal – take your pick – of whatever is either truly subtle (Anne Carson) or genuinely vulgar (Stephen King). Writing in a provincial, enfeebled milieu, these critics show absolutely no appreciation of literature’s need to be imaginative. Liking what they’re familiar with – liking the conventional, the already done – they don’t understand that literature absolutely depends on newness; they show no feeling for the extraordinary element which alone makes literature.

The creator (or would-be creator) delights in the object that goes beyond the quotidian, the object whose way of phrasing, use of paint or sequencing of images and music makes him think: I want to do that. You could say in fact that the most defining characteristic of a work of art is its appearance of total freshness which makes others want to do likewise. Marchand seems not to recognize this. His stodgy prose says more clearly than anything he actually tells us how little he cares for what is marvellous.

When Marchand turns to Northrop Frye and his two books on the Bible this limitation becomes offensive. He patronizes Frye, treating him as a kind of effete mandarin who suggests “that it is slightly vulgar or unsophisticated for anyone even to raise the issue of what `really happened’” when it comes to the events described in the Bible. Reviewing Words with Power, the second of Frye’s two studies of the Bible, Marchand sarcastically sums up Frye’s viewpoint :

So, to get to the nub of the matter, the question of whether the God of the Bible really exists – or, as Frye might put it, “really exists” – is silly. Of course, He exists. You can imagine Him, can’t you? The whole of Words with Power is an argument that a reader’s imaginative absorption into the myth and metaphors of the Bible leads to the dissolving of the “antithesis between a human subject and a divine object.”…

The argument….will not be convincing to those who believe that reality is even richer than the human imagination. This may seem a bizarre or trivial example, but at one point, while reading Words with Power, I thought of the case of Elvis Presley – a mythical, almost godlike figure in the making, if one can judge by his omnipresent icons. If a chronicle of Presley’s life were preserved for generations hence, what would the Northrop Frye critic make of it? Such a critic would note that Presley had a twin brother who died at birth, and probably say, as Frye does in Words with Power, that the twin motif, applied to heroes and gods, runs all through folklore and literature…..

There is a great deal more that this Frye critic could do with the life of Presley. All of it would amount, in the end, to less than the fact of Presley’s existence, to the terrible importance of a life that "really happened." Christians no doubt feel the same way, in a case of infinitely greater moment, about Frye’s treatment of Jesus.

"The argument…will not be convincing to those who believe that reality is even richer than the human imagination." Marchand makes two mistakes here. First, he assumes that Frye wasn’t interested in what "`really happened.’" Second, he assumes that he knows better than Frye how the imagination relates to reality, something which especially shows itself in his pompous final paragraph, in which he implies that Frye treats Christian belief frivolously.

I’ve emphasized this passage because it shows the pettiness of Marchand’s sense of the imagination. Once again, journalistic realism rules. To show how deeply Marchand’s "realistic" approach deforms Frye’s work, let me give some sense of the scope of Frye’s two studies of the Bible.

Frye treats the Bible as a book instead of as a collection of discrete texts. And he does so because he finds that it coheres as a structure of words. This coherence Frye calls the Bible’s typological pattern and a large part of his work is concerned with it. You quickly see why: once the pattern is recognized the whole Bible seems transformed, revealing an order remarkable in its scope and pervasiveness. From the level of individual characters to the level of overall form, Frye’s Bible is dominated by a principle which is maybe most familiar to us in the call and response pattern of work songs and religious meetings. One statement (the type) is answered by another (the antitype); the result is both a powerful sense of communion and a powerful sense of order – powerful because the call and response pattern produces a self-enclosed world, a kind of double mirror in which language reverberates as it moves back and forth and so becomes a group voice instead of a collection of individual voices.

This group voice Frye finds everywhere in the Bible. Three consequences ensue.

First, to read the Bible rightly you should read it aloud. The call and response structure of typology not only foregoes the sequential nature of modern prose (the way it unrolls like a thread on a bobbin); it also foregoes modern prose’s silence. Public and ceremonious, the Bible’s language asks to be voiced. This explains why its segments are numbered; it explains why it contains highlighted words showing where spoken emphasis should go; and it explains why to the modern reader the Bible seems so archaic.

Second, the Bible’s typology induces a very special conception of history. Just as Christ is the antitype or realized form of Adam, and the New Testament the antitype or realization of the Old, so those who are saturated with typological rhetoric will perceive the future as a realization of the past and the past as a prefiguration of the future.

In other words, typology isn’t just a form of rhetoric. It is also a mode of thinking that structures time. The type exists in the past and the antitype in the present; or, alternatively, the type exists in the present and the antitype in the years to come.

Thus, those who have a typological cast of mind will feel that a deeply comforting order exists which has nothing to do with causation, the thing usually associated with historical change. And this is true whether what is being considered is the existence of the individual or the existence of mankind. In the case of the individual, the type of life here on earth will have its antitype in a life thereafter; in the case of mankind, the type of the present will be realized in an antitypal time to come.

This cast of mind Frye finds especially noticable in Marxism. But to bring up Marxism is to bring up the third and revolutionary consequence of Biblical typology – the theory of history it poses.

A self-enclosed world, the Bible provides a representation of existence stretching from creation to the end of time. In a sense there is nothing outside its double mirror – the Beginning is reflected in the End and the End in the Beginning. This makes the Bible autonomous (it stands by itself and refers to nothing outside itself); but it also makes it global (it contains everything). These characteristics become especially interesting when you consider the Bible’s relationship to science fiction, arguably the most important form of writing today. The tremendous yearning in science fiction for a visionary complement to history – or rather to the nightmare which the causal conception of history has placed on humanity’s chest – has led it to be dismissed as an escapist, marginal form. Yet taken as a whole, science fiction is nothing less than the Bible secularized.

Think of the famous cut in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the type of the bone thrown into the air yields to the antitype of the docking spaceship. As so often in science fiction, these two images that reflect each other, that call out to each other, are connected causally only in the most superficial way. What is really at work here is a kind of magic, in which instead of endlessly unrolling, like a wound-up thread, history suddenly unfolds, like a blossom. And it is the double mirror of typology that both here and in the Bible makes this sudden blossoming of history realizable.

Now, by representing time and space as it does, the Bible simultaneously miniaturizes the universe and subjects it in its entirety to narrative – the very process which distinguishes science fiction. More importantly, in doing so it holds out the promise of an end to history, an apotheosis which is to be humanity’s permanent and ever-renewed consolation.

Again and again Frye alludes to this. This is where the Bible becomes revolutionary, he says, where it promises a definite point at which earthbound time stops and Paradisical time begins. Permeated with the image of Eden, this promise shows us a cosmos which is no longer subservient to the pain of history but instead is in complicity with liberated man; and it is this very promise – hungrily seized on by its readers – which surfaces in science fiction today.

Narratives of the future that end with the transfiguration of humanity and the replacement of history by cosmic time are at the heart of the genre, and it seems to me no accident that a number of its works – all those three- and four-volume epic series – have tried to achieve the same all-encompassing quality which characterizes their precursor.

I mention all this for one reason. Frye is drawn to the Bible precisely by the gargantuan hope it proposes. Though he was no Communist, Frye had at least this much in common with that other great 20th-century literary critic, Walter Benjamin: his reading of the Bible (and indeed of literature and human work in general) was entirely bound up with the concept of redemption. From his study of Blake on, the image of a redeemed mankind was central to Frye’s work. And his studies of the Bible aren’t exceptions. In the final analysis they are visionary books. True, their arguments are substantial. A more subtle and tenacious reading would be hard to imagine. Yet time and again Frye’s thinking brings to mind Pope’s great couplet:

Thence, by a soft transition, we repair
From earthly vehicles to those of air

as in mid-page and sometimes in mid-sentence he lifts off from a concrete examination of his subject to what seems like less a reading of the Bible than a meditation on what the Bible points to: a vision of humanity no longer lost in the hell it has made for itself.

Here I come back to Marchand’s dismissal of Frye as "unrealistic." Like Walter Benjamin, Frye had an enormous range of interests. His thinking on literature was grounded in scholarship. And for exactly this reason – and again, like Benjamin – he concluded that the relation of art to reality was far more complicated – far deeper – than that suggested by the kind of “realism” Marchand favours.

Marcel Proust felt this too. A scholar in his own way, and a brilliant observer of reality, Proust remained, like Frye and Benjamin, an idealist. In Volume 5 of his great book, Bergotte, suffering from an attack of uraemia, looks again at Vermeer’s little patch of yellow wall. Proust writes: "He was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter."

A few minutes later Bergotte suffers a fresh attack of uraemia. He rolls to the floor from the circular settee he has sunk down on; attendants and other visitors come hurrying to his assistance. "He was dead," Proust writes.

Dead for ever? Who can say?…. All we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must for ever remain unknown and who is barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this, which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, knowing not whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only – and still! – to fools.

Marchand apparently cannot understand this. Though he kow-tows to Frye’s “brilliance,” he clearly thinks him a dreamer. Running with the herd, he sniggers at Frye; he scoffs at the great critic for not being more like himself.

Like others book reviewers before him (and, no doubt, others who will come after him), Marchand presents Frye as a mandarin, too precious to matter on the street. Yet when I go into The Granville Book Company and watch the punk rockers and unhappy teenagers and older men and women like myself as we review the science fiction and the rows of poetry and avant-garde literature, I know that the comforting presences at our sides aren’t Marchand and Dale Peck; they are Frye and Proust. They understand our need for wonder, for the excessive, unprecedented image in which the true surrealistic face of existence breaks through. They know what literature is for.

3403 words, June 27, 2004


  • Bruce Serafin

    Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

Posted in:

More from Bruce Serafin: