We Want to Be Moved : ESSAYS : ART OBJECTS: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery,<i> By Jeanette Winterson (Alfred A. Knopf: $21; 192 pp.)</i>
It was a sign of lonely maturation for me as a reader when I came to understand that the writers I most loved, whose poems or stories I read talismanically over and over, whose language helped me construct the truths by which I lived, were often people I would not want to spend five minutes chatting with, let alone engaging in any conversation of social or personal substance.
First this made me sad.
Then it made me brazen.
I had learned that I could love the work and not the writer, I could love her language but not her life or, even, her ideas. I could love the triumph of one writer’s book and the difficult failures of his next book. In essence, I had learned not just to read but to be a reader.
But, despite my maturation, wasn’t there in me still a desire to feel cozy, to feel camaraderie with a writer whose work I admired?
And I have admired the work of Jeanette Winterson. “The Passion,” her second novel, is a terrific book. It is a book of remarkable invention and mystery, a book of surprising and gorgeous language. Her other books are less great, fall apart more quickly, adore themselves a bit too much. And yet, I don’t care. I don’t care that “Written on the Body” flattens out at what should be the height of its thrill. I don’t care that Winterson preaches too much and sometimes too obviously and seems to think herself better than everyone else on the block. I know that whatever the disappointments of one book, I will read her next book. Why this exhibition of patience? Because Winterson is trying hard, as few writers I read today do, to invent herself authentically with mind and heart on the page.
So it was with excitement and fear that I dove into Winterson’s first book of essays, “Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery.” The book approaches many of the themes that Winterson has been exploring in her novels and ultimately does so more successfully than she has in her most recent fiction. “Art Objects” is a book to be admired for its effort to speak exorbitantly, urgently and sometimes beautifully about art and about our individual and collective need for serious art. It can absolutely be argued (no doubt it will) that the book is all one note; however, the note is a vital and important one.
The essays in the collection are closely connected, taking as their linked concern the need for us to need art. And, Winterson fiercely points out, not the development of a consumer’s taste for art of the past with its “cozy patina of tradition,” but a willingness for us to need the difficult, the bafflingly new that does not necessarily “convince ourselves about ourselves.”
In the title essay “Art Objects,” Winterson asks, “When was the last time you looked at anything solely and concentratedly, and for its own sake? Ordinary life passes in a near blur.” By turns, these essays argue, reason, implore, invite, beg, demand and cajole the public into slowing down, looking, learning to look, being willing to be uncomfortable with something that initially feels raw or rough or even bad. There is a payoff, Winterson claims, for our willingness to work hard. It is a major payoff and not one that easy, fast-food art can yield. It is nothing less than the sublime that Winterson claims true art can give us in the face of our daily insignificance.
It is Winterson’s argument that all of us--despite our fear of reckoning with a painting or novel that is different and difficult and inventive--are really desirous of the experience of being moved deeply. Yet Winterson certainly knows how few people want to stick around and struggle with a novel when there is the faster thrill of television. While Winterson yells at her readers to do their reading, she maintains that great art--even if mostly unread--"puts down its roots in the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise lie out of reach of shallower bedded plants.”
“Art Objects” is important not only as a plea to the public to read serious literature and to read it seriously, but it is a terrific book of instruction about writing. I am not speaking of instruction of the writing exercise variety, but a book that teaches that a “writer will have to make her words into a true equivalent of her heart.” Winterson has much that is useful to say about syntax and style, but most particularly about language, which she claims should be like Virginia Woolf’s words--"cells of energy.”
The book is, in fact, jampacked with enough good lines to fill the notebooks of people wanting to write. This for example: “It seems to me the intersection between a writer’s life and a writer’s work is irrelevant to the reader. . . . The question put to the writer, ‘How much of this is based on your own experience?’ is meaningless. All or nothing may be the answer. The fiction, the poem, is not a version of the facts, it is an entirely different way of seeing.”
This way of seeing is a central concern in the book, and Winterson is at her best as she takes on the question of art as an imitation of life--particularly the public’s urge to read everything on the page as fact, as autobiography, as a mirror of the writer’s life. She looks at Wordsworth, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and herself as four writers whose work is often read as biographical truth when, Winterson claims, all four are up to a very different--and more significant--adventure. Winterson is terrific in these sections, showing how “a writer is a raider and whatever has been made possible in the past must be gathered up by her, melted down and reformed.” Of Gertrude Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” Winterson comments, “She made no attempt to clothe herself in a thin veil of fiction, she became the fiction.” In contrast, Winterson adamantly wants to separate the art object from the biographical facts of the artist.
It is the reforming of everyday facts into language, that makes, according to Winterson, the ecstasy of art. This notion is applied across the board for Winterson (no exceptions made for sexual orientation or social difference). No one gets to call their social complaint art unless they take the dangerous road of making art. This is not a popular belief. It will score Winterson no brownie points with any side of the social agenda when she reprimands readers and reviewers for looking at work too entirely as documentary--sociological or otherwise.
Art for Winterson lives in another realm, it lives in “the language of rapture.” Anyone who dares to glory in what the sculptor Richard Serra calls the important “uselessness” of art can easily be pegged as reactionary. I think this is too reductive, too facile and, most important, a wrong way to read Winterson. To situate, as she does, the merit of art into its position as visionary makes me love Winterson and makes me continue to want to go with her onward through her next success or interesting failure. At the end of “The Passion,” Winterson says, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
Whatever her antics, whatever her social behavior and misbehavior, this is a writer whose words I trust.