The Alibi of Art
Twenty centuries ago, Horace in his brief and celebrated lines in “The Art of Poetry” suggested that art at its best fulfills a double purpose: to instruct and to delight. These two factors lived and worked together for centuries. Today, however, a third factor--art for art’s sake--complicates the picture. We now have to deal with three positions that, taken together, have presented us with a most peculiar and difficult moral predicament.
First, through both its infectious and cathartic powers, art can be didactic, not only in the domains of knowledge and morality but also politically, through engagement, social reform and bearing witness. Second, through its treatment of beauty in a very broad sense, now encompassing the grotesque, the comic, the unexpected and even the ugly, art can please and entertain us. And third, through its capacity to lift us out of ordinary selfish interests and to refocus our attention on the purely sensuous and formal qualities of a poem or a painting or a piece of music, art can assume for its own sake alone an autonomous aesthetic condition independent of all other considerations.
The harmony to which we respond in, say, the works of Moliere and of George Eliot are rooted in Horace’s twin factors, delight and instruction. When, in the 19th century, the third factor--art for art’s sake--entered the picture, it demanded superior rank. Oscar Wilde gave perhaps the most haughty pronouncement of this principle when he declared that “aesthetics is higher than ethics.” The conflict among the three elements can be seen, to choose among many possible examples, in Charles Baudelaire’s writings, in Vladimir Nabokov’s contradictory statements about “Lolita,” in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and in our stumbling debates about violence and obscenity in the media. We shall not rest until we find a new balance among these three elements. For, in some areas, the aesthetic has usurped the kingdom of art.
How did we come to this pass?
Our story begins in 1830 in France. Two contrasting revolutions jarred the nation that fateful year. In the preceding 40 years, the country had lived through the Great Revolution, the First Republic, the Terror, Napoleon the Emperor and his wars, humiliating defeats and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815. Then, 15 years later, France was bubbling again, culturally and politically. In February 1830, at the first night of Victor Hugo’s Spanish melodrama “Hernani” at the Comedie Francaise, the troops of the young liberal faction out-shouted the conservatives. Romanticism won its first major battle in France, thanks in part to the dedicated antics of a 19-year-old painter-poet with long hair and a flamboyantly red vest. Theophile Gautier soon published his first collection of poems and a volume of stories about the new generation. “Les Jeunes-France,” as he called the volume, something like “France’s New Generation,” both celebrated and satirized romantic excesses in a style more impudent than that of Murger’s “Scenes de la vie de boheme,” which appeared 20 years later. In the 1830s, there was no Puccini to immortalize Gautier’s tales of artists in their garrets. “Les Jeunes-France” left little mark. But Gautier was on his way.
The second 1830 revolution came in July--violent, political and very brief. It established Louis Philippe as king of the French with a liberal constitution in writing and with a furled umbrella in his bourgeois hand. Among other changes, censorship was lifted. But when the citizen-king began to betray his liberal principles and when the great cartoonists Philipon and Daumier filled the popular press with devastating lithographic caricatures of a pear-headed monarch devouring and then evacuating his own people, the royal victim could not take the heat. And the conservative press was crying out for the disciplining of the young Romantics; their manners, their morals and their dreadful versification could not be tolerated. By 1834, censorship loomed again. Gautier, not yet 23, found himself under bitter attack for having written a sympathetic essay on the late medieval poet and thief, Francois Villon. One critic called Villon “depraved and lubricious.” Gautier replied with spirit, calling his own essay “a work of art” and proclaiming that whatever is adopted by art and science “becomes chaste.”
But Gautier had greater reason to worry. The novel he was writing in 1834, called “Mlle. de Maupin” contained anti-religious declarations, perverted and transvestite behavior and graphic sex scenes exceeding anything else then sold on the open market. Both the aristocratic aesthete-hero and his mistress fall in love with an ardent young woman, like Shakespeare’s Rosalind masquerading as a man, and both enjoy her favors in passages Shakespeare would never have written. A pretty pageboy adds the theme of pedophilia to that of androgyny.
A little-known scholar, Eric Deudon, has demonstrated how far the religious and sexual content of “Mlle. de Maupin” ventured beyond any so-called immoral works of the era. The very month the novel appeared in 1835, Louis Philippe’s government reestablished censorship of the theater and the press. Daumier and Philipon were muzzled. Books by Beranger, Bordeaux, Gercourt, Parny and others were suppressed, usually for “outrage a la morale publique.” But none of their works held a candle to “Mlle. de Maupin” in respect to that offense. During the same period, works by Stendhal, Hugo, Lamartine and Balzac were put on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.
“Mlle. de Maupin” escaped scot-free in France from any form of suppression. The 1835 crackdown somehow left it unscathed, and the immunity continued under the Bonapartist Second Empire, which took to court both Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (unsuccessfully) and Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” (successfully). But in other countries, “Mlle. de Maupin” was either refused publication or stripped of offending chapters. What, then, protected Gautier’s novel from prosecution in France at the exact moment when every circumstance had marked it for censorship?
The answer must be partly conjectural. It appears that Gautier had the astuteness to grasp the danger his novel faced and to deploy his defense in advance. A year earlier, he had heatedly written a 50-page polemic attacking the journalists who criticized the Romantic group for immorality and for breaking all traditional literary rules and decorums. Gautier’s tract berates conservative critics as prudes and envious hypocrites and summons Moliere, La Fontaine and Rabelais as witnesses for the defense. Gautier proceeds to excoriate the critics who expect a novel to serve a useful social purpose. He was thinking mostly of the followers of Saint-Simon’s and Fourier’s versions of socialism, who wanted art to serve their cause. In reply, Gautier mounts a powerful barrage against utility of any kind in art and draws up a complementary defense of beauty. The central passage ends with a famous substantive that is usually mistranslated:
“Nothing is truly beautiful except that which serves no purpose. Anything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and human needs are ignoble and disgusting, like his pitiful and feeble nature: The most useful place in a house is the latrine.” (“Lavatory” and even “toilet” provide lame euphemisms for the explicit French term, les latrines.)
This tract never mentions government censorship, only the baying conservative critics. And it never mentions by name the nascent doctrine of “Art for Art’s Sake” even while making a vehement and striking case for it. Toward the end, in a maneuver that resembles pure effrontery, Gautier urges Louis Philippe to muzzle the prudish and conservative critics as a menace to the true beauties of Romantic art.
“Mlle. de Maupin” and the tract were written separately. But when the time came, Gautier saw that, with a few small changes, they were made for each other. The latter would provide the preface for the former. After this joint publication, the preface was soon accepted as the manifesto of the art for art’s sake movement and a milestone in the history of French literature. Ironically, Gautier, the converted painter, yearned before all to gain his reputation as a poet. After this explosive novel, he was obliged to devote most of the rest of his long career to journalism. Meanwhile, his preface served as the magic garment, the censor-proof protection for what looked and still looks like the generic filthy French novel.
In 1950, a European writer living in the United States finished his third novel in English and his first with an American setting. Four publishers rejected it as lewd, if not frankly pornographic, even though the action was veiled in euphemisms, and the prose was free of four-letter words and of the cliches of low-grade pornography. Finally, an English-language publisher in Paris issued the novel with a three-page “Foreword,” numbered as part of the novel and signed by a fictional doctor of psychology. The foreword presents the allegedly posthumous novel as a scientific case history, a transcendent work of art and a moral tale. The controversy provoked by the book moved its true author to write a six-page afterword for the many later editions and translations. We have not left Gautier behind.
“I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and [despite the assertion to the contrary by the psychologist in the foreword] this novel has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.”
“No moral,” “aesthetic bliss,” “art as the norm"--these are unexpected yet tactically astute claims to make about a book called “Lolita.” The debate whether “Lolita” is a dirty book or a classic continues to rage after 40 years. Before his death in 1977, Nabokov went on to publish five less controversial novels in English.
The book “Lolita” offers us the memoir, or alternatively the testimony to a jury, of an idle cultivated Frenchman turning 40, obsessed by prepubescent girls and having been several times institutionalized for mental instability. Humbert Humbert comes to the United States and marries a widow in order to gain access to her 12-year-old daughter, whom he names Lolita. When the mother is killed in an accident, Humbert can carry off his ward, the not entirely innocent Lolita, on a great journey into the hinterlands. He has in reality terrorized her into becoming his sex slave until she escapes into the clutches of another pedophile, whom Humbert tracks down and elaborately murders. Humbert’s telling of his own tale rides on irresistibly satirical descriptions of small town life and of the world of motels and inns, mixed with Humbert’s pleas of self-exoneration and self-inculpation. He employs a versatile literary style that blends the uproarious, the terrifying and the moving. Certain readers are carried so completely into Humbert’s mind and mood that they come to sympathize with this criminal rapist and murderer. Only a decade earlier, Camus’ “The Stranger,” using a hypnotic first-person narrative, had convinced many readers of the sincerity and fundamental innocence of Meursault, who drifted like a zombie into murder. I believe that “Lolita,” a dazzling exercise not unrelated to “The Stranger,” was written as a four-fold wager.
First, Nabokov wagered he could surpass James Joyce (the “Ulysses” trial is referred to in the foreword) in composing a work whose literary qualities justify the incorporation of strong pornographic content as essential to the story. Second, Nabokov wagered he could write graphically “aphrodisiac” passages without using the conventions and obscene terms of commercial pornography. Third, Nabokov, the Russo-French European, wagered he could succeed in finding a literary style in English for depicting American characters and settings both convincingly and satirically. Fourth, Nabokov wagered he could, by taking on the three previous wagers, produce a best-seller, earn financial independence from teaching and return to Europe.
Nabokov won all four bets handily. But at a steep price. In order to get “Lolita” past the gates of taste and the law, Nabokov, like Gautier and like Judge Woolsey in the “Ulysses” case, invoked the aesthetic alibi. But he didn’t mean it. First, Humbert himself constantly lays claim to the sanctuary of art for his memoir and even for his behavior. “You have to be an artist and madman” to discern the true nymphet. Later, "[t]he artist has been given the upper hand over the gentleman.” “The gentle and dreamy regions through which I crept were the patrimonies of poets--not crime’s prowling-ground.” And in the closing words of the novel, Humbert claims that “the refuge of art . . . is the only immortality you and I share, my Lolita.” Refuge from immorality and psychopathology. And refuge, he hopes, into the immortality of art. We call this topos “perpetuation by poetry.” Sleep with me, and I’ll make you famous forever. In other words, Humbert’s superior account of these events represents the work not of a madman but of an artist, not of a criminal but of a poet. Here is “Lolita’s” magic garment to protect the book against censorship.
By now, however, Humbert’s status as unreliable narrator with a mad imagination has been, or should have been, fully established. Therefore, his bogus claim to artistic status as a privilege for his crimes and falsehoods discredits both the status and the privilege. Nabokov’s own parallel claims in the afterword to “aesthetic bliss” and “art as the norm” are undermined by Humbert’s preening as artist in the novel we are reading. Later in the afterword, Nabokov makes a concession to potential reservations about the moral effects of his book. “That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children.” Nabokov grants, therefore, that this book should not fall into the hands of children. Furthermore, we have evidence to contradict the declaration that “Lolita” “has no moral in tow.” To an interviewer, who found Humbert “touching,” Nabokov replied, “I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching.’ ” To his friend and rival, Edmund Wilson, Nabokov wrote in 1956: “When you do read ‘Lolita,’ please mark that it is a highly moral affair.” Nabokov wrote these words 10 months before he composed the afterword claiming the alibi of art and the refuge of aesthetic bliss. A change of mind? I doubt it. Literary tactics? Probably, yes. Like Gautier in the preface to “Mlle. de Maupin,” Nabokov found it wise in his afterword to construct a defense for his novel.
Humbert, the character, makes a few unconvincing gestures toward undermining civilization and its constraints. But grasped as a complete work, which gradually reveals Humbert’s true character, “Lolita” the book comes down on the side of civilized constraints and not in favor of cruel exploitation and perversion masquerading as art. Therefore, it is appalling to find on the book’s front cover as a laudatory blurb a sentence from Vanity Fair expressing an obtuse and perverse misunderstanding of the novel: “The only convincing love story of our century.” Humbert loves no human person and only lusts for the total possession of the unformed demonic nymphet imagined by his insane mind. Lolita, not daisy fresh but not depraved when Humbert finds her, despises her stepfather and lives in terror of him. For she knows “she has absolutely nowhere else to go.”
Unlike “Mlle. de Maupin,” “Lolita” can stand on its own as a literary and moral creation. It does not need the alibi of art to protect it. Nabokov was nourished on a highly developed European tradition that values art as a special category, and he was impelled by what I am calling a wager to test that tradition by injecting into it a strong dose of elegant pornography. He costumed “Lolita” carefully and, I think, mistakenly in the doctrine of pure art, of aesthetic detachment. The book does not need that protection. In referring to “a general lesson” that lurks in the story, the fictional author of the foreword, John Ray Jr., PhD, speaks truer than the real author of the novel when he claims in the afterword that “Lolita has no moral in tow.”
A few pages of literary history will enlighten us now on why, more than a century after the 1830 revolutions, Nabokov behaved like Gautier and why the alibi of art looked so appealing to both of them. I shall cover the ground in two rash simplifications--first the ancients and then the moderns.
The ancients agreed generally that the arts, particularly music and poetry, have real and lasting effects on our behavior. These works do not remain in an autonomous realm, to be contemplated at a distance. In the 10th book of “The Republic,” Plato settles the ancient quarrel between philosophy based on reason, and poetry based on imagination and inspiration in favor of philosophy. Poetry exists at two removes from reality and, by watering the passions, it leads us into trouble. Except for hymns to the gods and a few restful modes in music, the arts for Plato have the effect of dangerous infection. Better do without and rely on philosophy and physical exercise.
For Aristotle, on the other hand, the effects of true art, particularly great tragedy, are quite different. In the “Poetics” and the “Politics,” Aristotle suggests that art may have healthy consequences, comparable to medical purge (catharsis) or to religious purification. But the most important outcome of ancient approaches to poetry and drama was the emergence of a satisfactory and durable synthesis. Horace’s lines in “The Art of Poetry” are ordered in such a way as to suggest that painting and poetry at their best meet a double goal: to instruct and to delight. This affirmation of the didactic principle along with the hedonistic principle was accepted by the Christian tradition as a defense against the iconoclastic impulse that dominated in Judaism and in Islam. The 8th century Christian Council of Nicea decided in favor of images in spite of the Second Commandment, which prohibits idolatry. When the English Puritans revived the spirit of image smashing and iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries, Sir Philip Sidney’s influential “An Apology for Poetry” cited the Horatian double formula of delight and instruction as an important argument in favor of the poet’s work.
The modern period, roughly since the 17th century, offers far less opportunity to simplify the picture. As the middle class emerged in England and Scotland, 17th and 18th century authors like Hobbes and Mandeville selected human motives of self-interest and personal advantage as primary. Through the desire to possess pleasing objects and through the vanity of fashion and conspicuous consumption, these motives of selfishness threatened to discredit the cultivation of taste and the pursuit of the arts. Shaftesbury and Hutcheson defended the arts by associating them with a nobler self and a higher sense of beauty linked not only to selfish pleasure but also to morality and truth. And each of them twice puts forward very tentatively the word “disinterestedness”: It excludes personal advantage and appeals to the public good. Thus the arts and taste were rescued from ordinary self-interest.
At the opening of Part I of the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” Immanuel Kant picks up the tune from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and proposes a form of “mere contemplation” apart from self-interest. Kant’s state of “pure disinterested and free delight” appears at first to exist independently of all other values and interests. But further reading reveals that Kant tied the aesthetic imagination of beauty to morality, human knowledge and the general happiness of mankind.
And now the swift action and the confusion begin. Taking the new name of aesthetics from Baumgarten, Kant and Schiller developed the discipline of aesthetics as implying a certain independence and superiority for art yet tying it still to the paired hedonistic and didactic functions of Horace’s formula, dulce et utile, to entertain and to instruct. Then, these ideas about the status of art traveled rapidly across the Western world in an extended diaspora whose history remains to be told in full. Gene Bell-Villada’s recent book, “Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life” (1996), though incomplete and pulled off course by political tendencies, gives the fullest account. Kant and Schiller inspired Coleridge traveling in Germany and Mme. de Stael living in exile, and also Victor Cousin teaching philosophy in Paris. The French Romantics and particularly Gautier adopted and adapted German aesthetic ideas freely. They modified abstract “disinterestedness” into a flashy slogan, l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake. This form of pure art went beyond Shaftesbury and Kant to demand full autonomy from morality and the public good. Bell-Villada calls this further stage “aesthetic separatism.”
There is also a less recognized itinerary to take account of in this dispersion and regrouping of ideas. Coleridge’s works reached across the Atlantic and struck deep into the mind of a brilliant and lonely American writer. In an essay called “The Poetic Principle” (1850), Edgar Allan Poe carried Kant’s ideas to their logical extreme. Poetry at its noblest dissociates itself from Truth and from the Good--from what Poe calls “the heresy of The Didactic.” The supreme work is “the poem per se . . , [the] poem written solely for the poem’s sake.” Poe’s bold thoughts were not by any means the end of the line.
In the mid-1850s, Baudelaire in Paris discovered Poe and recognized his literary and moral alter ego. While translating Poe’s stories, Baudelaire plagiarized whole paragraphs of “The Poetic Principle” for his own literary criticism. And it was in great part Poe who turned Baudelaire from his early scorn of art for art’s sake as a “puerile” attitude leading to “unknown and monstrous disorders” to a second stage, at which Baudelaire accepted the independence of art from “teaching” and from “great ideas.” But Baudelaire continued the debate with himself and his contemporaries in his powerful “New Notes on Edgar Poe” (1859). He grants that poetry has the power to ennoble humankind and to raise us above the level of vulgar interests. But a result does not prove a corresponding purpose on the part of the poet. Here, Baudelaire is categorical. “I say that if the poet has pursued a moral goal, he has diminished his poetic power. It is not imprudent to wager that his work will be bad.” Baudelaire never stopped meditating about the correlation between poetry and morality.
The flow of ideas continues with the transfer of Gautier’s and Baudelaire’s thinking on art for art’s sake back across the English Channel into the works of Ruskin, Pater, Wilde, Swinburne, Yeats, Joyce and Eliot. These exchanges have been treated by a number of scholars, including Richard Ellmann, Bell-Villada and the historians of Decadence as a movement. The best generalization one might venture about this remarkable two-century migration of ideas from Shaftesbury back and forth across Europe and the Atlantic is that we must now add a third term to the two that Horace successfully linked and even fused for more than 20 centuries.
Consequently, we must reckon today with the three rival functions of art that I sketched in my opening. Art can be didactic in that it has real effects on the social and moral behavior of living people. Art can also entertain us and, through mixed devices including beauty, suspense, comedy and the grotesque, divert us from the cares of life. And finally, art can claim aesthetic autonomy, art for its own pure sake, by basing itself on disinterested formal principles removed from the contingencies of life. In the strand of history that connects Gautier and Nabokov, the third art-for-art’s-sake position has pushed ahead of the other two to claim its superiority over art as mere propaganda or moralizing, and over art as mere entertainment.
That claim to superiority of the aesthetic position furnishes an alibi for works such as “Mlle. de Maupin,” which needed it, and such as “Lolita,” which did not. Let us now examine how other works have criticized or taken advantage of the alibi of art.
In his “Preface to Shakespeare” (1765), Dr. Johnson did not shrink from keeping Horace’s double formula at the center. “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.” A modern author of novels known in part for their licentiousness, D.H. Lawrence wrote very plainly about an American poet who celebrated the flesh, Walt Whitman. “The essential function of art,” states Lawrence in that essay, “is moral.” But some 19th century artists had already begun to reach for art as an alibi for certain kinds of conduct. When Edouard Manet’s huge painting and small lithograph of Emperor Maximilian’s execution in Mexico were suppressed by the censor in 1869, Manet protested in vain that he had treated the subject “from a purely artistic point of view.” Under Napoleon III, however, the aesthetic plea could not yet protect or exculpate a work that had strong political content.
In the past half century, we have given almost limitless authority to the aesthetic alibi. The new dispensation has properly rescued Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Nabokov’s “Lolita” from repression, even though the “Lolita” case has ragged edges not adequately acknowledged in the adulatory paperback edition, “The Annotated Lolita.” But the gates have now opened so wide that pornography has begun to claim vanguard or fine-art status. One example, which I have addressed in a long chapter of my book, “Forbidden Knowledge,” is the rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade as a great literary artist and thinker.
A different example turns up in an eloquent defense of the category of aesthetic experience in “The Scandal of Pleasure” (1995) by Wendy Steiner. In a lengthy account of the case of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography exhibit, “The Perfect Moment,” Steiner documents how Mapplethorpe’s defenders published in the New York Times the statement by Hitler, “It is not the function of art to wallow in dirt for dirt’s sake,” and how Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his allies aimed to redefine American culture along such lines and to eliminate art “experts” as the final authority.
Then Steiner opens a new section:
“This was the conflict that was to be enacted in the Cincinnati courts--some version of ‘Hitler Meets the Marquis de Sade.’ As so often happens in fairy tales, the fascist bully was defeated by the refined aristocrat.”
In other words, prosecutor Frank Prouty was a fascist bully to find obscenity in this work, and the expert witnesses who defended the photographs as works of art and as therefore by definition exempt from the charge of obscenity were refined aristocrats defending civilization and freedom--presumably like the Marquis de Sade. I find it hard to say whether it is ignorance, naivete or bad faith on Steiner’s part when she sets up Sade as the representative of freedom and civilization opposing Hitler. Sade was on the same side as Hitler. The only freedom and the only culture Sade could care about was his own, systematically arrayed against everyone else’s, even his best friends’. Sade wanted his own fascist state. In attempting to defend art against some of its benighted enemies, Steiner has overlooked others, like herself, who take the position that anything can call itself art and that art can do no wrong because it has only “virtual,” not real-life, effects. Art, however, is too powerful to be confined to the realm of the virtual. Genuine art touches us and leaves its mark.
In the face of these confusions, we should not be surprised that a few authors have expressed irreverence and distrust toward the category of the aesthetic. During his brief editorship of the Westminster Gazette in 1818, Thomas De Quincey displayed keen journalistic concern with German metaphysics, including Kant’s category of the aesthetic, as well as with lurid crime stories, particularly those victimizing beautiful young girls. A decade later, he combined these two interests in an essay called “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827). With deadpan humor not unrelated to that of Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” De Quincey writes about various London clubs and associations that discuss the purpose, grouping, lighting and timing of certain famous crimes. For even murder has “two handles”: a moral handle and an aesthetic handle. One takes care of moral concerns by paying one’s taxes to have the murderers apprehended. One can then proceed to the second concern, aesthetics. Accordingly, De Quincey reports that Mr. Williams, a notorious multiple murderer of 1811, “has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity, and as Mr. Wordsworth observes, has in a manner created the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” According to this logic, “Cain must have been a man of first-rate genius.” A series of preposterous examples leads De Quincey to his final sweeping claim. “For the final purpose of murder, considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it: viz. ‘To cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’ ”
A follow-up essay of 1839 carries the same title, “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Here, De Quincey stages the 19th century equivalent of a well-funded, widely publicized academic conference in our day on “The Aesthetics of Crime and Violence.” He describes a dinner at a gentlemen’s club for the communication of new ideas, a dinner at which the narrator is principal speaker. He favors the discussion and careful study of the general principles of “our art"--namely, the art of murder. But any lapse into practice of that art is counseled against. Such conduct would fatally decline into inferior crimes, such as robbery, drinking, Sabbath-breaking and procrastination. De Quincey sustains his irony without a misstep. A series of increasingly frenzied toasts to great and beautiful murders leads to a final tribute: “To Thugism in all its branches.” The evening ends in drunkenness and song.
This second version of De Quincey’s prank has more punch than the first. He shows the aesthetes and dilettantes at work transforming crime into art. Their elevation of actual behavior into the virtual realm of art diddles with the firm line of demarcation stoutly defended by Gautier and sometimes by Nabokov and unreservedly by Steiner. De Quincey’s send-up of the aesthetic alibi relies on reductio ad absurdum, which he attributes, tongue in cheek, to “the logic of a sensible man.” De Quincey’s subject (the philosophical squishiness and moral risk entailed in carrying the aesthetic category too far), his mock pompous tone and his satirical club-dinner setting are still pertinent and tonic today.
De Quincey’s manipulation of the essay form into satire displays a number of similarities with a much-discussed 1995 movie that manipulates the genre of the violent crime thriller. A loose set of narrative strands in this movie picks out a pair of killers, one black and the other white. The black killer believes a divine miracle has saved his life; he wants to abandon crime for holy vagabondage. The white killer tags along, blows a man’s head off in a car by mistake and loses his life because he goes to the toilet without his gun. Vapid small talk and cinema allusions frame scenes of hideous violence--or rather, they defang and routinize violence to the level of small talk and jokes. “Pulp Fiction,” as the film is called, asks for total suspension of disbelief, attempts no psychological exploration of character and turns its back on law and justice. No moral sense or center emerges anywhere in the story. The much-repeated magic word that explains and endorses the characters’ behavior is “cool.” Cool means seeing outrageous actions as routine and inconsequential. The most enthusiastic reviewers tended to present the film as a brilliant and original satire of our tired media culture.
“Pulp Fiction” does not satirize our media culture. It succumbs willingly to that culture, celebrates it, exploits it and successfully spreads its meaningless violence and jokeyness across all human lives shown. Even the black killer’s incipient religious conversion is assimilated to the general affectlessness, best expressed by the prolonged comedy of cleaning up the blood and brains scattered everywhere by the white killer’s inadvertent mayhem in a car. “Pulp Fiction” succeeds in doing what Alfred Appel Jr. mistakenly believes Nabokov was doing in “Lolita,” and it succeeds in performing the operation De Quincey was caricaturing. It aestheticizes crime. Tarantino’s sustained portrayal of an amusingly violent world leads the spectator--particularly the cool, detached spectator--to a loss of the sense of reality. The cinematic attitude that everything is a spectacle, a camera shot or a dream sequence now applies to all life, even our own. No clue in the movie sends any different message. Look, it says, you could live this way.
In De Quincey’s deadpan, even cool, essays we can soon detect the butt of the joke. He mocks the aesthetes who would brush aside the responsibilities of reality by affirming the sublime value of “beautiful” murders and by frenziedly toasting heroic crimes. In “Lolita,” Humbert’s evident insanity, his own claims to have “solipsised” the nymphet Lolita, and his final uncompromising verdict against himself (35 years for rape) give us an unambiguous fix on where reality lies. Appel, the postmodern annotator, would have us believe that, because Nabokov sometimes puts “reality” between quotation marks, his book implies the “collapse . . . of the authenticity of the larger world” outside the book. Appel does a disservice to his friend in making this false claim. “Lolita” gradually wins its way back to reality.
“Pulp Fiction,” on the other hand, does set out to eliminate the reference point of reality. In that affectless world, coolness reveals itself as a form of autism. Members of the audience not repelled by this emptiness respond with compulsive laughter. Everyone comes through desensitized to violence and a little more detached from one’s own encounters with real life. “Pulp Fiction” has a message: What a lark crime can be! Inadvertently blowing someone’s head off is not murder in this icy universe. It’s merely a movie sequence and a mess to be cleaned up. The message that “all is film” provides an extreme twist to Gautier’s plea that “art is harmless.” And De Quincey’s elaborate joke, that murder can be considered a fine art, turns into a cool conspiracy in Tarantino’s movie.
Horace counseled us that poetry should both delight and instruct. We stayed fairly close to this principle for many centuries, even after the invention of a new category of experience: the disinterested, autonomous contemplation of a world of pure art. As my examples may have shown, I believe that this allegedly new form of experience, when isolated from the demands of “real life,” can lead us to a new idolatry--the idolatry of art. We are tempted, not religiously but commercially, to accept the alluring category of the aesthetic whose cool detachment is made to look as if it will wash away everyone’s sins and excesses. The consequences of that illusion will be very destructive.
On the other hand, art as a category of responsible experience that sustains us by a reciprocating relation to life belongs to the metabolism of our culture and possibly of all culture. It deserves to be protected with all our powers from those who would borrow its mantle to protect and ennoble displays of unredeemed depravity and violence.
THE ANNOTATED LOLITA. By Vladimir Nabokov (Edited by Alfred Appel Jr. Vintage: 544 pp., $19)
ART FOR ART’S SAKE AND LITERARY LIFE: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology and Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990. By Gene H. Bell-Villada (University of Nebraska Press: 352 pp., $18.85 paper)
BAUDELAIRE: Selected Writings on Art and Artists. Translated by P.E. Charvet (Cambridge University Press: 464 pp., out-of-print)
LES JEUNES-FRANCE: Romans Goguenards. By Theophile Gautier (French and European Publications: 266 pp., $26.95)
PULP FICTION. A film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino