Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Zadie Smith and the Academic Tomato-Meter
I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. It seems more mature and better-controlled than White Teeth, and I think part of its success is its relatively narrow focus and frame: it’s a less ambitious novel than White Teeth, and that’s actually a huge relief. Part of Smith’s new humility is her explicit embrace of literary and philosophical precedents. Besides Forster’s Howards End (Etext here), which influences the novel’s structure, theme, and style in dozens of ways, Smith is also clearly thinking quite seriously about current controversies in theories of art and aesthetics. At the opening of one chapter she quotes Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which gives the novel its title and perhaps also provides the bedrock of Smith’s broader argument on academia and aesthetic beauty. And in her acknowledgments Smith cites Simon Schama’s recent tome on Rembrandt, Rembrandt’s Eyes. (Here’s an excerpt) A chapter of Smith’s novel, “The Anatomy Lesson,” is also named after one of his most famous paintings:
I will leave it to the Rembrandt scholars to make sense of the possible self-reflexive commentary on artistic representation in the painting.
This novel is written with startling fluidity; reading it, one feels sure that Smith will, provided sufficient ideas and inspiration, be one of our most important writers in the years to come. Admittedly, I’m one of the book’s ideal readers, a liberal academic schooled in poststructuralism and theories of hybridity. Like Smith’s character Howard Belsey, I’ve been trained to deconstruct cultural keywords that might be discursive masks: whose “beauty,” “truth” for what end, and what “authenticity”?
But I’m also an ideal reader because I’m not satisfied with the aggressive deconstructive posture that argues that beauty is culturally constructed (or that “culturally constructed” is a meaningful or useful phrase at all), nor am I excited by relativism. As a result, I’m willing to keep an open ear to Smith’s character Monty Kipps, a black British cultural conservative, an academic superstar in England teaching for a year at “Wellington University,” a Massachusetts university loosely modeled on Harvard. Following the model of Howards End again, at the core of Smith’s novel are the romantic entanglements that draw the two families together across a hard ideological divide.
Zadie Smith leans liberal politically, but On Beauty encourages readers to take seriously both liberal and conservative attitudes about beauty (which might be more precisely labeled deconstructive and positivist attitudes; it doesn’t really make sense to describe an aesthetic theory as “liberal” or “conservative,” though we often do this anyway). Indeed, despite Smith’s liberalism and her enthusiasm for racial and cultural hybridity, in my reading of the book the deconstructive posture on beauty comes off as a bit absurd. For one thing, Belsey, her main purveyor of deconstructive thinking, appears deeply delusional about his own relationship to beauty and art. While he rigorously “interrogates” the myth of Rembrandt’s “genius,” his susceptibility to female beauty in particular leads him into a series of disastrous affairs, which bring down his marriage. But he is also shown to be profoundly susceptible to beautiful music, particularly choirs and glee clubs, which always provoke in him a kind of promiscuous weeping.
While some of this is played for farce, it does raise a question: is it possible to imagine a nexus of aesthetics and politics that combines progressive politics (and multiculturalism) with a positivist attitude towards aesthetic beauty? In earlier eras (and in the world of Forster’s novel), there was no contradiction there at all. The social divide between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels in Forster is along the lines of liberal, egalitarian art-lovers (the Schlegels) vs. conservative, elitist Philistines (the Wilcoxes). To love art at all is seen as a somewhat liberal-slanted endeavor. Since the advent of postmodernism and the rise of the neo-conservatives, that relationship has been somewhat reversed.
Why can’t poststructuralists admit they love the art and literature they study and teach? Why is the possibility of a sincere affective response to art drained out of “theory”? Smith addresses the question in of the wittiest moments in the entire book, namely Howard Belsey’s refusal to “love the tomato.” The “tomato” is a kind of skeptics’ shibboleth for the rhetorical object that defines various Humanities classes at Wellington:
‘Professor Simeon’s class is ‘The tomato’s nature versus the tomato’s nurture,’ and Jane Colman’s class is ‘To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato’s suppressed Herstory’ . . . and Professor Gilman’s class is ‘The tomato is structured like an aubergine,’ and Professor Kellas’s class is basically ‘There is no way of proving the existence of the tomato without making reference to the tomato itself,’ and Erskine Jegede’s class is ‘The post-colonial tomato as eaten by Naipaul.’ . . . But your class – your class is a cult classic. I love your class. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato.’
Of course, for Victoria Kipps the deconstructive refusal to like the tomato isn’t even a flaw. She goes on to suggest (though it’s possible she means it ironically) that Belsey’s passionate scrutiny of an artist he says he doesn’t like (Rembrandt) is her idea of “rigour”:
‘Because that’s the worst thing you could ever do in your class, right? Because the tomato’s not there to be liked. That’s what I love about your class. It’s properly intellectual. The tomato is just totally revealed as this phoney construction that can’t lead you to some higher truth – nobody’s pretending the tomato will save your life. Or make you happy. Or teach you how to live or ennoble you to be a great example of the human spirit. Your tomatoes have got nothing to do with love or truth. They’re not fallacies. They’re just these pretty pointless tomatoes that people, for totally selfish reasons of their own, have attached cultural – I should say nutritional weight to.’
This sounds like flattery, not mockery, though it’s probably dangerous to take Victoria Kipps’s arguments as truly sincere given that she’s Monty Kipps’ daughter (Monty Kipps being the black conservative superstar mentioned above), who is about to have a disastrous affair with Belsey—her father’s arch-rival. At the beginning of this conversation, Belsey’s refusal to love the tomato was proposed as a challenge; by the end, Victoria’s enthusiasm for Belsey’s “rigour” is closer to flirtation.
However we interpret the tone of the passage, what we’re left staring at is the tomato, a figure of speech that humanities teachers and scholars should take as a serious provocation. It’s hard to be sanguine that such a simple metaphor could provide an effective index by which to characterize our intellectual pursuits. One might be tempted to resist Zadie Smith’s parody on this front, but it might be more productive to see the prevalence of what might be termed tomato-based thinking, and fight the temptation to depend on intellectual shortcuts and reductive formulas in our scholarship and teaching.
Amardeep: thanks for the lovely review. I’ve been wanting to read *On Beauty* but was worried about having to plod through yet another “campus novel.” Instead, you’ve made it sound like a provocative novel of ideas, one that raises questions with all the right intentions (i.e., instead of raising questions just to “interrogate the tomato").
As a graduate student fairly sympathetic to certain strains of poststructural thinking, I’ve never found it difficult admitting to loving art. I’m not quite sure what you mean by a positivist view of beauty, but I do think that one can see beauty both as a result of intrinsic aspects of the art object as well as an effect of culturally specific ways of seeing the world. A simple example: have your students read a Hemingway story from *In Our Time* and Henry James’s *The Ambassadors*. They will on the whole like Hemingway’s style more—and they will like it for its intrinsic, non-subjective attributes: short, declarative sentences; condensed form; immediately digestible plots. But they will like those attributes for culturally determined reasons: Hemingway is more like what they are familiar with today than late James.
That is a thought-experiment, but I can attest to having had the same experience with teaching Spiegelman’s *Maus* versus Sebald’s *Austerlitz*. It’s not so much that *Maus* or Hemingway is “easy,” but rather that such texts are more culturally “available” to my students. Sebald demands a form of reading that isn’t fashionable even among literary scholars anymore, let alone 18 year olds.
But perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you mean by a positivist aesthetics.
I’m not really an aesthetics-wallah, so it’s entirely possible there’s a better way to say it than the phrasing I’m using in this post.
By positivist aesthetics I’m thinking simply of the belief that there must be ‘beauty’ in art for it to be art. Somewhere in the beautiful is a kernel or essence that can’t be relativized or mediated: it has a direct and arresting effect on the viewer. My positivist concept of beauty need not be the same as an absolutist concept of beauty, where there would be no relativism at all.
(There’s probably more to this—along the lines of Elaine Scarry, whose arguments I only dimly remember at this point...)
Zadie Smith actually does a version of your Hemingway/James experiment in her novel. Two paintings of women feature quite prominently in the book. One is a painting of Erzulie by the Haitian artist Hector Hippolyte, and the other is Rembrandt’s ‘Hendrikje Bathing’ (1654).
Incidentally, both paintings, along with all of the other artworks mentioned in the novel, can be found on this extraordinary page, which I only just now found while replying to your comment.
Both are images are understood to be positively ‘beautiful’ in the novel: the Rembrandt brings one character in the novel to tears, while another character (a Haitian woman) is so affected by the Hippolyte painting that she can’t look at it. But their beauty derives from different cultural registers and historical eras: at once positive and culturally relative.
Smith doesn’t explore so much the problem of cultural availability that you describe. Presented to my American students, I suspect the Rembrandt might be found to be beautiful, while the Hippolyte would be a harder sell—appreciating it will always be to some extent dependent on ethnography.
Oh, and I just discovered that Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” is online too, at Utah (PDF). Sadly I don’t have time to reread it just now…
Damn you, Amardeep. I picked up On Beauty and put it down precisely because it seemed a lesser, more limited version of White Teeth. Now you want me to believe that those flaws are actually its strength? Well, back to the top of the pile with that one . . .
No, it’s definitely better than White Teeth—the problems are more interesting philosophically, and less all-over-the-place (no genetics! phew). And there are lots of chewy allusions and references to play with, from Forster, to Schama’s Rembrandt, to Mozart (who takes the place of Beethoven in the Forster), to Vodun painting ... even the occasional Pantoume.
It’s still not a flawless novel by any means. Someone responded to the version of this post on my own blog by saying that the characters look too much like those in White Teeth, which I hadn’t thought of for some reason. Someone else said the book is really a pale echo of Howards End. Both have a point… The book works better if you put those two sources out of your mind.
Does a self-identified poststructuralist really need to reject the idea that there must be “beauty” in art for it to be art? I like Derrida and I like Henry James too. I like the latter because his novels are great and, yes, beautiful. Is this really so contradictory? Won’t our troll friend pop in at some point and accuse me of being an effeminate belle-lettrist aesthete? If I respond to him that, no, you see I like Henry James and Derrida, will that change his mind or confirm his suspicions? Like Luther, I just don’t think that exposing art to a surgical rigor on the hand and appreciating its beauty on the other are mutually exclusive.
Moreover, it seems to me that while people hold cultural relativist views, appreciating the beauty of Hippolyte isn’t an example of such views. In fact, I suspect that cultural relativism is something of a culture war canard. For example, thinking that there’s a place for, say, Toni Morrison on the English syllabus, doesn’t make you a cultural relativist, no matter what the know-nothing who thinks we ought to teach more of the Iliad because it trains our children to be warriors may think.
This is just me playing dumb/Devil’s advocate, Amardeep, but you do bring up some interesting points, I nevertheless apologize for my “affective” response.
Terrific review. I loved On Beauty. Not being a literature person, I didn’t read it with an eye to current discussions in aesthetics. But I was mightily impressed with the nuanced treatments of race and class, particularly in the character of the youngest son of the white Rembrant professor. From where I sit, it seems odd to think that poststructuralist thought is necessarily hostile to aesthetics. Political theorists of a posty bent are quite interested in it.
Does a self-identified poststructuralist really need to reject the idea that there must be “beauty” in art for it to be art?
No, not at all: there are many things written by Derrida, and as many ways of reading him as there are readers.
But quite a number of people dismiss the question of beauty these days as intellectually unserious. ("Theory" is serious; everything else is mere appreciation.) And I have many friends & colleagues who choose to slog through second-rate texts that “fit the syllabus” ... I myself only finally gave up the practice a couple of years ago.
I like Derrida and I like Henry James too. I like the latter because his novels are great and, yes, beautiful. Is this really so contradictory?
Henry James might be a little tricky. Is it beauty that one admires in James, or the kind of quivering, self-cancelling gesture that Derrida also loves to deploy? Aren’t they cousins? Take this excerpt from the preface to The Ambassadors:
Art deals with what we see, it must first contribute full-handed that ingredient; it plucks its material, otherwise expressed, in the garden of life--which material elsewhere grown is stale and uneatable. But it has no sooner done this than it has to take account of a PROCESS-- from which only when it’s the basest of the servants of man, incurring ignominious dismissal with no “character,” does it, and whether under some muddled pretext of morality or on any other, pusillanimously edge away. The process, that of the expression, the literal squeezing-out, of value is another affair--with which the happy luck of mere finding has little to do. The joys of finding, at this stage, are pretty well over; that quest of the subject as a whole by “matching,” as the ladies say at the shops, the big piece with the snippet, having ended, we assume, with a capture. The subject is found, and if the problem is then transferred to the ground of what to do with it the field opens out for any amount of doing. This is precisely the infusion that, as I submit, completes the strong mixture. It is on
the other hand the part of the business that can least be likened to the chase with horn and hound. It’s all a sedentary part-- involves as much ciphering, of sorts, as would merit the highest
salary paid to a chief accountant. Not, however, that the chief accountant hasn’t HIS gleams of bliss; for the felicity, or at least the equilibrium of the artist’s state dwells less, surely, in the further delightful complications he can smuggle in than in those he succeeds in keeping out. He sows his seed at the risk of
too thick a crop; wherefore yet again, like the gentlemen who audit ledgers, he must keep his head at any price. In consequence of all which, for the interest of the matter, I might seem here to
have my choice of narrating my “hunt” for Lambert Strether, of describing the capture of the shadow projected by my friend’s anecdote, or of reporting on the occurrences subsequent to that triumph. But I had probably best attempt a little to glance in each direction; since it comes to me again and again, over this licentious record, that one’s bag of adventures, conceived or conceivable, has been only half-emptied by the mere telling of one’s story. It depends so on what one means by that equivocal quantity. There is the story of one’s hero, and then, thanks to the intimate connexion of things, the story of one’s story itself. I blush to confess it, but if one’s a dramatist one’s a dramatist, and the latter imbroglio is liable on occasion to strike me as really the more objective of the two.
My crude translation of this might be something like this: telling the “story” isn’t the point of telling stories, it’s the “equivocal quality,” the “looking both ways,” and “the story of the story itself” that holds the real charm of writing for James. Forget the subject, forget narrative transparency… He starts by saying art deals with what we see, but he puts all of his emphasis on the unseen, impalpable, processual dynamics behind the curtain.
Neither here nor there… but you mentioned Henry James, and I couldn’t resist.
Gotta disagree. On Beauty is a deeply-flawed novel. It has wonderful moments, but it is inconsistent and rambling. The conflict most reviewers highlighted--that between leftist professor Howard Belsey and conservative intellectual Monty Kipps--never comes to fruition except in a contrived academic meeting in which Monty parries Howard’s lame attacks with brash ease. The dialogue is often forced, and Smith has no ear for American teen speech. Her authorial intrusions (in the mode of 19-c. moralists) usually fall flat, and the narrative concludes with implausible revelations. Like the professors, she glamorizes a street poet, treating him as a 21st-c. Chatterton and his verse as powerful stuff, not as a series of juvenile rhymes and rhythms, adolescent postures, and emotional outcries that run the gamut from A to B.
The strength of the novel lies not in the philosophical/aesthetic dramas but in the portrayal of youth culture and campus life as a world of coarse pleasures and self-deceptions. A scene in the Dean’s office shows all-too-well what a hive of mendacity the administration building has become, as Howard’s daughter uses all the tools of victimology to blackmail her way into a closed course taught by her father’s ex-lover. A scene in Howard’s opening class has him spouting the customary blather about power and bourgeois tastes that teaches his charges nothing but to dump art for a phony cultural politics. Smith reveals well the mediocre sensibility that underlies that approach.
Howard’s poor conduct carries over to his personal life. He goes to bed with Monty’s daughter, a confused and blustering young woman who has enrolled in his class. This takes place, mind you, upstairs in her room while everybody else is downstairs having just returned from the burial of the poor girl’s mother. His mode of relating to his children is one of mockery, and they reply by tossing “fuck” and “shit” in his presence with impunity. It’s a case of his leftist mistrust of authority carrying over to an inability to behave like a respectable father. In the final scene, his children walk away from him giving him the finger, an image reviewer Michael Dirda found touching instead of sad and degrading.
Another reviewer, Robert Alter in New Republic, sums it up:
Finally On Beauty is an odd mixture--alternately amusing, perceptive, even emotionally absorbing, with some of the narrative zest of White Teeth, and then too often schematic, insistent, or simply not quite credible. The American academic setting, which Smith knows but perhaps not well enough, and the emulation of Howards End, which is an interesting idea that does not altogether fit this fictional world, may have led her astray. As a novelist, she can marshal shrewd understanding, stylistic flair, vivid description, and a lively sense of comedy. All this may yet enable her to produce great fiction, but On Beauty is still far from that.
I didn’t mind the teen speech; after all, she quotes Tupac. And these are academic teens raised in a British household in a campus town. There are very few “normal” American teens in the book. Zora Belsey sounds a lot like an ambitious student one might find at an Ivy League university or a place like Swarthmore.
I also thought Smith captured the voice of the chatty humanities academic quite well. I know people who sound like Claire Malcolm and Howard Belsey… I can imagine one might not like the voice of the chatty liberal (ahem), but at any rate I found it quite persuasive.
Also, in the end I think she disavows the street poet to some degree—as feckless in the manner of Forster’s Leonard Bast. He ends up with Victoria Kipps, after all. And Levi Belsey disavows his hip-hop posturing in favor of politicization on behalf of the Haitian underclass in “Wellington.”
This is not a simple ‘celebration of diversity’ type book: I think Smith is arguing that the rhetoric of “diversity” and “race” prevalent on college campuses needs to factor in class. (Benn Michaels might like this book...)
Finally, I disagree with Robert Alter. I actually thought the reference to Howards End was quite appropriate for reasons I alluded to in my post: the mistrust of the idea of aesthetic value associated with Howard Belsey in Smith’s novel would have once been the province of philistines like Forster’s Wilcoxes. Here Smith takes utterances from the (liberal) Schlegels and puts them in the mouth of the (conservative) Monty Kipps. What was once counter-cultural bohemianism has become high culture elitism. It’s hard to read her as championing the cultural conservative cause, but she is at least criticizing the posture of postmodern detachment, which is for her a dead end.
U.S.! (Bloomsbury February 2006) by Chris Bachelder is a key current novel (for the good and the bad, so to speak) that explores some of the aesthetic interests addressed here. From the back cover:
“U.S.! is not only an exploration of American politics and culture, but an investigation into the possibilities and problems of political art.”
I’ll have a review/critique of it up at some point at my site or elsewhere.
Also along somewhat similar lines is my forthcoming (via Mainstay) novel, Master of Fine Arts, a novel of ideas about the struggle of a young political writer in an MFA program to craft powerful political fiction. The writer grapples in part—overtly and otherwise—with painter Ben Shahn’s ideas in his 1957 book, The Shape of Content—
“Some critics consider any mention of content a display of bad taste. Some, more innocent and more modern, have been taught—schooled—to look at paintings in such a way as to make them wholly unaware of content....”
“...again, we must look upon form as the shape of content: with Eakins...form is the right and only possible shape of a certain content. Some other kind of form would have conveyed a different meaning and a different attitude. So when we sit in judgment upon a certain kind of form—and it is usually called lack of form—what we do is to sit in judgment upon a certain type of content.”
Here’s the link to Bachelder’s article on political fiction in the October 2004 issue of the Believer: “A Soldier on a Hard Campaign”—http://www.believermag.com/issues/200410/?read=article_bachelder
And an excerpt from it:
I’ve written a novel about Upton Sinclair and the crumbling empire. The novel is about the serial resurrection and assassination of Sinclair. The death of the Left. The death of the political novel.... Seventy or eighty years ago politicians and public figures could speak openly about the cruelty of capitalism (you could even utter the C-word), and you furthermore could count on educated people to know that capitalism and democracy were not synonymous concepts, and often not really even mutually supporting concepts.
The novel, if that’s what it is, is satirical in nature, but I hope that the satire is not easy or one-dimensional. The book will seem, I hope, as ambivalent as it seems didactic, because the project grows, in part, out of a sincere ambivalence. I’m not ambivalent about the cruel and crumbling empire, but I am ambivalent about how to engage it artistically.... I’ve written out of conviction, anger, and sorrow, because it feels urgent to do so...but I’ve also written from genuine confusion and a grudging regard for complexity because I understand, from Virginia Woolf and others, that that’s what real artists do. We’ll see.
You know, I can only say that you and I read a different novel! I thought “On Beauty” was far inferior to “White Teeth.” It’s true I’m not its ideal reader--BECAUSE I am an academic. The characters and situations she describes are deeply implausible--it is inconceivable, for instance (I don’t APPROVE of this, I’m just observing it), in the status-conscious worlds of a Wellesley or a Harvard that undergraduates should idolize an adjunct professor in his late 50s who has never published a book. His charisma is asserted rather than proven. The Belseys also appear to have few financial worries, a wholly untenable depiction of this five-member family (even with the whole inherited house conceit). And the material unreality of the book’s world is matched by its linguistic unreality, none of the voices (including the narrator’s) feels anything other than thin, with the possible exception of Levi. The thing that most bothered me, though, was the completely undistinguished nature of the moral insights/aphorisms provided. I don’t like that manner, in any case, but it flies or falls based on the quality of the observations, and I thought it fell. If the book was presented to me as a (again, it’s an unfortunate name) slightly above-average example of middlebrow women’s fiction, I could stomach it better. As light reading, it’s OK (just about). But as great literary accomplishment, it seems to me not adequate. Anyway, I blogged more about it elsewhere, here’s the link if you’re interested:
Oh, and I defy you to prove that ZS actually is seriously engaging with the arguments of Elaine Scarry or anyone else!
I’m afraid you unnecessarily confused things with that “poststructuralist” remark, Amardeep. There are as many ways of denying beauty as there are schools of criticism (odd coincidence, that), and also as many ways of celebrating it (even odder). It’s a type of churchgoer, not an aspect of theology, if you see what I mean.
My own critical heroes (who certainly include some “poststructuralist” brand names) don’t refuse or refute their sense of beauty by analysis. On the contrary: analysis is a sign and continuation of pleasure. We attend to what attracts us. Sounds sensible enough, doesn’t it? And what we notice when we carefully notice includes relativism, contingency, and so on.
I share some of Mark and Jenny’s doubts that On Beauty is a fully realised novel. It’s very interesting though. Objections to it as an inaccurate portrait of American academia don’t mean anything to me. But the structural dependence on Howard’s End just seemed...odd.
The book worked best for me when the beauty it thought about was personal feminine beauty, and when it played with all the murky material that goes along with that notion. Cf, all the stuff about sexiness, youthfulness, Black women, White women, fat, aging, personal charisma, radiance, etc: some of this thinking was attached to the women in the story, some to the Hippolyte painting & its contrast with the Rembrandt portrait. I also felt compelled, by certain passages, to flip to Zadie Smith’s author photograph and consider again what a very beautiful woman she is, and how persistent a theme that beauty has been in the reception of her books. I guess that is about wondering what got Smith interested in this subject in the first place. I liked how the novel suggested that ratiocinated theories of the beautiful (approaches to the tomato) may be incredibly knowing and sophisticated but simultaneously be very confused about eroticism and sexual power relations.
I must add that the cover design of the edition I have is fantastically beautiful - tactile, rich, imaginative, sensual - one of the best paperbacks I’ve seen for ages.
Laura, your comment is the first review to actually make me want to read the novel. (It also puts an interesting spin on the choice of “tomato” as object of study.)
It’s true that other things we might notice include power discrepancies, hypocrisy, misogyny, fear…