Monday, September 08, 2008
The Journey Prefaced
Sorry for being late to the party - The Journey Abandoned event, that is. Also, sorry for being absent from the Valve of late. But here I am. I was very excited and eager to read Trilling’s abandoned, unfinished novel. Well, truthfully, I did worry that those adjectives might not be without purpose in this connection. But Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination is really an important book for me, personally. I read it in graduate school - in the throes of doing picky-picky analytic philosophy stuff - and it inspired me to get back into literary criticism and literary theory. It made me realize that I liked reading, hence would like writing, a certain sort of essay. (Do you know why I picked it up? I bought it for the Edward Gorey cover. Maybe you didn’t even know that was an Edward Gorey cover. Funny old world.)
I don’t really write much like Trilling, do I? A story for another day.
I don’t really like The Journey Abandoned much. But I think it’s an interesting sort of trainwreck - as only a few abandoned journeys can be; so let me talk about that. For starters, let me concur - in the most disputatious way - with Eugene Goodheart’s remark:"At times the novel brings to mind Eliot’s famous remark about James’s “mind so fine.” Yes. But only because Trilling maybe had a mind so fine that only ideas could violate it. And, at the same time, he felt a certain reserved contempt for the ideas that seduced him. That’s a recipe for what makes his essays great. I love a thinker with reserved contempt for his own ideas. That’s why I love Wittgenstein. But, when a mind like that tries to write a novel - well, it’s awkward to watch as ideas have their way with the man.
Now I’m going to disagree with another contributor, Mark Schechner, who says to ignore the prefaces and just read the novel. I read ‘trilling’s preface’ - that is, the thing the editor has seen fit to give that title - first, and it was a bloody pleasure. Especially compared to the novel that followed. Why was that? Because the condensation of ‘the Landor story’ (that is, the actual biographical incident that inspired the novel) down to its ‘in essence this is what happened’ is such an inspired piece of incomprehensibility. “She was only sixteen, she was not very bright and she had been put into Mrs. Yescombe’s care as a paying guest by parents who were not able to cope with some sort of emotional difficulty from which she suffered.”
That’s one of the greatest first sentences ever. Too bad it’s not a first sentence, or even in the novel. This gift for inspired (dare I say it: Donald Barthelmean) approximaticity extends beyond the realms sexual. Consider the following paragraph:
HIs entry into the story is effected by a character as yet unnamed - call him X. In his late thirties, X is brilliantly established in the world by a complication of professions; it is at least a question if he has not made his success by some compromise with his best talents. (This presents a nice problem of invention to suggest something Time-ish and Fortune-ish, with something of an anonymous nature.) He visits the city of our young hero, who is sent to interview him.
But the trouble is: the nice problem was just solved, in the very act of conceiving it. That is, I love the idea of X, and - for the sake of this love - am instantly willing to grant the premise about there being ‘at least a question’ about a possible compromise. I’m not saying that no flesh you could hang from the crossbones of this X wouldn’t beautify them further. But they’re nice. It’s delightful the way Trilling spins out rarified situation-configurations like breathing. But then, but then ...what?
What is needed now is the filling out of the social picture (there are, as yet, it will have been noticed, no women in these notes) and the adaptation of the Landor story to suit the requirements of the novel and of modern sensibility.
You could grumble about the presupposition that women amount to ‘social filler’. But that is not really the problem (though it is a problem). Trilling really does find the filling out to be a necessary burden, after the formulation of the ideas. And the thing about these ideas is: they are not the klunky, pot-banging allegorical nuisance messages that people complain of, when they deplore novels that are illustrated ideas. Trilling’s ideas are subtle enough things. And then Trilling goes and packed them around with a tennis match, or something suitably social. And the ideas are unimproved by these field trips. They don’t learn anything from them that they didn’t already know from just being in the highly distilled preface.
Let me quote at length from the opening of chapter 1. Condemning first sentences to death is an old game. So I’ll skip the first paragraph and start in with paragraph 2, still securely on page 1. We’re at the Tennis Club. That is all paragraph 1 teaches in this world, and all you need to know.
Vincent Hammell could usually beat Toss Dodge, but not always. Dodge was really the better player but he was in a relation to Hammell that hurt his game. He could play very well against an opponent who did not make him feel stupid. Even with Hammell he sometimes forgot about himself and then his real game came through. When that happened, Vincent Hammell played far below his own real game because he felt unhappy at having up to then beaten a better man by what amounted to guile.
Now: that was almost incomprehensible, no? Therefore it rings false, unless this Hammell character is truly a superfine neurotic specimen. Which he is not, really. When you get to know him. No, the author got bored watching nothing but tennis for a whole paragraph and compulsively started folding ideas back in on themselves, for something to keep his hands busy. Speaking of over-occupied hands:
Tennis was always important to Vincent Hammell and the bad days and the good days were alike significant. There were certain days when some newly-gained sense told him just where the ball was going. On these days it was as if a small brain had established itself in his wrist - without any conscious intention, his racket sent the ball where, if there had been time, reason would have suggested.
But that’s just not what it’s like at all. (I’m not that good at tennis, but I know that much.) Reading on: “Usually such days were also the ones when he had before his eyes the correct pattern of the service and could make his body conform to it.” Again, Trilling seems compelled to deal with any sort of complexity by positing hyper-intellectualism in everything. To make a wrist interesting, you put a brain in it.
Today he had been granted all the magics. He kept very much to himself on his side of the court, protecting the mystery of his skill from any interruption by his opponent. He also had to protect it from any interruption by himself. If he became too conscious and interfered with it, the favor of this beautiful coordination would vanish.
But this free indirect discourse is flagrantly self-refuting. Anyone who is standing there on the court reflecting on the need to protect himself from the commission of conscious acts of self-reflection cannot be an example of what it is like to NOT be doing that very thing. A bit further on:
Vincent found that with the racket in his hand and the heavy sweat on his face he did not have to make any answer. He took is position at the baseline. It was not often that all the parts of his young mind and body made so perfect a whole as they did at this moment. Suddenly he felt the impulse to put the inspired moment to some larger use. He decided to believe that if he beat Toss Dodge he would gain smoething momentous from his interview with Harold Outram. The letter from Outram, sufficiently momentous in itself, was safe in his jacket in the locker room.
He did not know what he could possibly gain from Outram, but he needed help and perhaps Outram was the man to give it. There was enough chance of Toss’s beating him to make the game a true hazard. Toss was really the better player but Vincent knew that he could beat Toss if he went about it right. if he allowed Toss to beat him, it could only mean that his intention was not strong.
This wager that Vincent Hammell made with himself was partly fanciful but also partly serious. Young men who consciously thirst for greatness often keep the superstitions of their boyhood and are sometimes impelled to test the power of their stars.
I submit that everything after ‘perhaps Outram was the man to give it’ needs to be cut. Everything after is compulsively explanatory - professorial, Trillingesque. At the end of chapter 1, having achieved victory, Vincent is singing Mozart in the locker room. Then the narrator steps in with exegesis on the libretto. “It was a song not only about women but also about scope and possibility, about a superabundance that never sated, although the joy was in the mind of the servant who counted up the delights, not in the mind of the master who had had them.”
Trilling’s novel is, oddly ... well, I don’t really even know how to put it. Schechner says it is a “monument to baffled testosterone.” I would say it is more like a novel that treats monuments to baffled testosterone as if they are furniture onstage, which is necessary, but around which the director is tearing his hair, trying to work out the blocking. Trilling’s mind is the servant’s, not the master’s. And he knows this, is worried about it as an aspiring artist. He’s writing this whole novel as a way of wrestling with the anxiety that he’s the servant, not the master. He’s in love with a certain species of subtle idea, and he can wrestle ideas like hell. But he really doesn’t have anything to add to all that, novelistically, except social padding. But the ideas are good. I really liked the preface.
I’m not that good at tennis either, but the brain-in-the-wrist passage didn’t strike me as that bad. Your post and others make it clear that there are more worrying problems here, anyway.
I’m doing my best, while reading this book, not to interpret every detail through the lens of Trilling’s commentary or to relate every sequence to what feels like the novel’s intrinsic unfinishability. But I think it’s especially hard not to make such a move with the tennis match, when one considers, for example, Trilling’s note to himself from page 161:
The first part, after many approximations and failures, did grow into something. And it grew into a kind of unconsciousness. This unconsciousness was very beguiling and reassuring. [...] And I am experiencing discouragement because this kind of unconscious movement of the mind isn’t now going on.
Doesn’t the novel appear to begin with a scene allegorizing this difficulty? If so, I guess, one interesting question would be whether Trilling was consciously representing his own predicament by describing a character who is conscious of the need to remain unconscious. And there is probably something more to be said about The Journey Abandoned as a sort of athletic performance, although I’m not sure exactly what it would be.
For what it’s worth, Google Books confirms my suspicion that there is also an important tennis match, though of a very different kind, in The Middle of the Journey.