The Center Doesn't Hold

Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski will visit EIU on October 2, dropping in on classes and giving a public reading at the Doudna.——JDK


he late Kenneth Clark says in his essay "Provincialism in Art," which I've found in his book Moments of Vision, that there are two main currents, or lines, of Western artistic tradition: a central (or, as he calls it, metropolitan) tradition and a provincial one. This doesn't mean the provincial artists are no good — Kenneth Clark calls for instance the entire British art provincial. His other examples include Edgar Degas, standing for the central tradition, and, on the other side, Alfred Menzel, German artist. The characteristic of provincial art is its emphasis on illustration, interest in the factual, an insatiable curiosity in front of the world. By contrast, the metropolitan tradition stresses and perfects, changes and reinvents, the rules of representation itself.

Degas, says Kenneth Clark, wouldn't go beyond a rather narrow circle of themes — the way he saw human beings and material objects was more important than what he saw; what mattered was the perfection of how, not the colorful multiplicity of what. Artists, sometimes truly great artists, whom Clark calls provincial (another case in point, widely admired in our time: Caspar David Friedrich) are supposedly not diminished by being classified as such. Of course Clark takes for granted a rather Hegelian vision of the existence within the European tradition of a current that represents the frontline art and another one which is more a courtyard art. Nevertheless, apart from any political or philosophical misgivings this may entail, our experience of museum goers would rather confirm this observation, I think.

Kenneth Clark invents also an intermediary term: micropolitan artists; these artists have one leg in the universal, one in the local tradition, and contribute thus to an enrichment of both of them — one of his major examples is Paul Klee.

Let's move to literature now, our proper subject. Gustave Flaubert, a writer looking for le mot juste, a martyr of precision, is of course a perfect nineteenth- century embodiment of a metropolitan writer, standing in the very center of things and words. If we ask the question, who would be the counterpart for Flaubert, many names may come to mind. In France it would be, perhaps, Victor Hugo. And then in each country we would easily find examples for "provincial" writers, fascinated with local reality. Probably even Dostoyevsky, the giant of the nineteenth century novel, would be labeled as a "provincial" novelist.

A bit nearer us we see James Joyce, who certainly out of Irish provincialism entered the universal scene and dictated some new aesthetic rules (which later have been abandoned or forgotten).

Still, even if we agree with Kenneth Clark in principle, there's a phenomenon in world literature (the very notion "world literature" was used for the first time, it seems, by the writer who was metropolitan and provincial at the same time, Johann Wolfgang Goethe) that would suggest an important difference between the visual arts and literature. I can't pretend to speak as an academic historian of universal literature, but it appears that exactly at the time of Gustave Flaubert's life, something did change in the seemingly immutable structure of the metropolitan versus provincial literature. Suddenly there was an explosion of provincial literatures of such a magnitude that the old, venerable hierarchy started to tremble. There came great Russian writers, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; Gogol was discovered, Chekhov and Gorky followed, and much later a group of eminent poets — and Russian literature had certainly been regarded before as absolutely provincial, exotic even. There also came Scandinavian writers, with Henrik Ibsen (young Joyce, you will remember, admired him; and when the aging playwright visited Vienna, Hugo von Hofmannsthal paid him a visit in his hotel and spoke with great enthusiasm on behalf of the "young generation" of writers and admirers — Ibsen was old and tired and rather silent), but also with the Danish prose writer Jens Peter Jacobsen (Rilke worshipped him). Bjornsterne Bjornson, a Norwegian writer largely forgotten these days, won the third Nobel prize for literature in 1903. (The first one went to a French writer, somebody from the metropolitan tradition, of course — but who will be familiar today with the name of Sully Prudhomme?) Then appeared Selma Lagerlof and Knut Hamsun, whose early novels are still wonderfully readable — even his politically incorrect memoir from the last years of his life, On the Overgrown Paths, reads well.

Later came the Irish, the Germans, the Americans; the writers of the Latin-American boom came also, less massively, with many other smaller literatures, and history continues even as we speak. Literatures of countries having serious political problems — Ireland some time ago, Central and Eastern European countries, South Africa, Israel, Turkey — more or less suddenly entered the global limelight. These days we also have so-called postcolonial writers, who use the main languages (English, French, German, Spanish) in a supposedly subversive way — and if not subversive then, as we tend to think, perhaps more creatively than the legitimate (if this means anything) owners of the language. We also have languages — like Catalan — which justly claim their right to free artistic existence. We also have languages of some new Eastern-European states, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian—this is also to some extent a postcolonial literature, a coming to terms with the unpleasant heritage of the Soviet empire.

I don't think I can say a lot about this — I don't know enough about these new developments. But wait, I was once on a panel in New York whose subject and title was The Post-national Writer; the idea was to consider a fresh occurrence — the emergence of writers operating in a new space (the prime example here would be Salman Rushdie, but certainly he's not the only one), within a language which cannot be linked to one country only, to one tradition, one nation and in a vein that can't be reduced to a simplistic notion of post-colonial critique. English is a perfect home for such writers, also French and Spanish, maybe Dutch. This was a very interesting subject, but I mostly remained silent. I felt I was hopelessly old-fashioned, pre-post national (but not noisily national, nationalistic — no, nothing like that), still writing in a rather small language spoken, if we forget Chicago and its suburbs, in one medium-sized country only.

If it is true — and most likely it is — that there's a slowly growing population of "post-national writers," then we face an inevitable tension (or at least a telling difference) between this new category of authors and some of the writers using their freshly liberated or ennobled languages (Catalan, Estonian, Ukrainian, etc.) who are — again, at least some of them — ferociously, or ironically, language-and-territory-oriented and thus very far from embracing the New York post-national perspective. I'm not saying that they dream of building an empire, no, quite the contrary; I guess they want to dwell on the local and probably to protect the local, the idiomatic, the regional, the palpable as opposed to the abstract, cosmic, virtual and global — and, they would probably say, the oppressive.

One thing seems to be beyond doubt: the old scheme (the center preoccupied with form, with norms of representation and, on the other side, wild, emotional, provincial artists having much more interest in facts, events, and history) is not valid any longer — or is much less so than even fifty years ago. The impact of all the ex-provinces has been too powerful for the center to hold — and I'm not quoting Yeats at this point. It seems to me also that literary Modernism, initiated by writers among whom there were fanatics of artistic purity and formal search, striving to write the last novel and the last poem and to impose new aesthetic rules, shying away from historical events, may have contributed to making the very center of the "metropolitan" literature a slightly boring place, a rather empty one, or at least threatened such a predicament (the example of the nouveau roman comes to mind, a literary current that just a few years after a huge political catastrophe - the Nazi occupation of France - claimed a total lack of interest vis-à-vis the recent historical reality).

I can well imagine somebody who'd say at this point: but look, wasn't the struggle over the centrality versus provinciality a local French affair? Most of the examples of the "central" come from the French tradition. And, which is even more striking, didn't the Parisian school of neo-structuralists represent the last, almost farcical episode of this fight? They also dealt with the norms of representation; this time the debate shifted to the critical jargon though...

There may have been yet another factor in the process during which peripheries have vanquished the metropole: some of the projects of literary Modernism seemed to reflect a rather quiet mood of the long epoch of European peace between 1871 and 1914. The tumult and horror of the twentieth century had, to some extent, surprised European literature (poetry reacted rather feebly to the awfulness of World War I). There was such a huge amount of a new human reality born from new forms of suffering and new methods of oppression, from the war of trenches, the Holocaust, the Gulag, wars of decolonization, terrorism, that the more classical vessels of literature may have suddenly appeared as not quite sufficient.

So where is the center now? Is it formed by the flourishing American (US) literature which, as far as the numbers go, is so energetically present at any book-fair and in almost every bookstore? Or is the very notion of a center simply obsolete? This is an interesting question as the polemic concerning the very place of a center within postmodern aesthetic is a relevant one.

And yet, there is always a price-tag on every significant evolution — so that the victorious march of the provinces against the center has also produced some problems, created some difficulties....Literature, both fiction and poetry, seems to be a very complex entity, built on numerous contradictions and equilibriums. So much so that a writer, a poet, can be visualized as sitting within a gigantic wheel of oxymorons (this is also why writers' theoretical pronouncements tend to be binary in form: writers restate contradictions that nourish and oppress them). One of the many tensions, I think, is that between the contemplation of things belonging to the realm of history and society and the contemplation of things that don't change — or almost don't — like the sun and death, as La Rochefoucauld put it in one of the most famous of his aphorisms: those two things that we cannot look in the face.

I'm not saying that literature should consider only the sun and death and the ocean and love and other eternal, mostly immobile objects. This would be ridiculous. I'm only saying that an equilibrium between the two has been largely modified and the societal themes have gained the upper hand.

A microcosm in which the very balance can be studied is the work of Czeslaw Milosz, who moved all the time between the contemplation of nature (which sometimes gave him solace, as in his poem "Mittelbergheim"), and, on the other hand, the consideration of historical and societal issues.

This is what Milosz said at a poetry festival in Montreal in 1967:

The real domain of poetry is contemplation. It's not accurate that contemplation, by virtue of directing us toward eternal truths, toward the unchangeable, turns us away from our earthly obligations. The subject of contemplation is the entire human reality, which, although governed by perpetual demands of love and death, is not ruled by the law of never-ending repetition. On the contrary, it — human reality — is always, each year, each month, new and unnamed. Contemplation invites us to grasp, through permanent modification of our language, the strange interplay between what's stable and what's liable to change. If poetry doesn't consider the double nature of our experience, it can be exposed to false dilemmas — for example, it can fall prey to an exaggerated opposition of the individual and the collective. If it turns to the unchangeable only, it's threatened by becoming academic. Then, when it feels guilty and embraces merely social and political themes, it's menaced by becoming hysterical.

You will say: OK, but isn't it an opinion concerning only poetry? Does it address problems of fiction as well? I think it does; it's true, Milosz turns his attention to poetry, but similar rules govern the entire field of literature. Even if we concede that fiction by its very nature is more prone to handle the "changeable" subjects, themes taken from the current situation of society, it still has an obligation vis-à-vis the more "cosmic" questions.

Saying this, Milosz echoes an important intuition expressed some hundred years earlier by Charles Baudelaire in his classic essay Le Peintre de la vie moderne, or The Painter of Modern Life:

Beauty is composed of an element that is eternal, invariable, and exceedingly difficult to measure, and of another element that is relative and circumstantial, such as period, fashion, morality, emotion, taken either one by one or all together. Without this second element which is, so to speak, the amusing, titillating, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be indigestible, inappreciable, unadapted and unsuited to human nature. I defy anyone to discover any example whatsoever of beauty that does not contain these two elements.

And then Baudelaire adds: "The duality of art is the inevitable result of the duality of man. The eternal element may be considered the soul of art, if you wish, and the variable element its body."

It goes almost without saying that the newly established predominance of the peripheries, of the provinces (if true and lasting — perhaps we should be more cautious while claiming this epoch-making transformation!) has brought about a surplus of literary material having to do with the collective man - with politics, oppression, society, etc., etc.

It's quite obvious: peripheries won't come to the capital saying: look at the moon, look at the ocean, look at nature, time, and aging, look at human soul, at the starry sky. Of course not; peripheries enter the capital of the world saying something quite different: look at my suffering, look at the land mines in my country, at the barbed wire, look at violence, at AIDS, at political persecution, at corruption, poverty, at terrorism, or, in a different mode, look at the specifics of my country, look how different we are. And it should be like that—these topics deserve our attention, they invade literature and don't need any theory to justify their validity.

But — if we trust Baudelaire and Milosz — shouldn't we be preoccupied to some degree with the other side of the equation as well, with the immobile things, with solitude, with some barely definable substance which has been for centuries the main fuel of art and literature and which, perhaps, contributes to making us human much more than the strong voice of politics?

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