Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fluctuating reputations

Van Wyck Brooks was an American literary critic and historian who flourished in the 1920s and 30s. As David Brooks (no relation) tells us in his NY Times column, Van Wyck advanced a dichotomy of "two publics, the cultivated public and the business the public of theory and the public of activity, the public that reads Maeterlinck and the public that accumulates money."

Who is this Maeterlinck guy that everybody reads? Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) was a Belgian dramatist, poet, and prose writer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. Most of his works were translated into English, some appearing in illustrated editions that were probably, in their day, collector's items. Today it is hard to come by many of his works even in French. Maeterlinck survives with but a single work, Pelleas and Melisande--and that is usually credited to Claude Debussy, who set it to music. Maeterlinck was a Symbolist who emphasized the uncertainty and indeterminacy of the perceived world. One might think that he would appeal to the Postmoderns and Deconstructors. As far as I know, they have sedulously avoided him.

Ethnically, Maeterlinck belonged to a vanished world of "fransquillons," Flemings who wrote in French. This group includes such one-time luminaries as Emile Verhaeren, Georges Rodenbach (who also survives through an opera, Korngold's "Die tote Stadt"), and the artist Fernand Khnopf. With the rise of Flemish nationalism, these figures became personae non gratae in their native land. The French do not care for them, because they were not French. And indeed their writings convey a subtle foreign quality, not unlike that of Joseph Conrad in English. Moreover, Symbolist theater seems a contradiction in terms, as it is deliberately vague and undramatic.

I like what I have read of Maeterlinck, but cherish no hope that he will ever make a comeback. Still, who is right--Van Wyck Brooks and a host of Maeterlinkians of yore, or today's Indifferents? Surely it cannot be (as some Postmodern relativists claim) that there are no objective literary or artistic values.

There are a number of intermediate cases. I mentioned the sculptor Henry Moore in the previous posting. He does retain some reputation. But a colossus striding the whole history of art, that he seems not to be. Maybe he can make a comeback.

Another intermediate case is Jean-Paul Sartre. When I first came to NYC fifty years ago it was obligatory to display Being and Nothingness on one's coffeetable. While it was a fat volume, the reprint sold for a mere $2.98. Today Sartre still survives in France, where he is thought to personify a whole era, as did Gide before him. In English-speaking countries, I suppose, people who care for this sort of thing go for Heidegger and Husserl, Sartre's Germanic preceptors. Then too, the French writer's long flirtation with Stalinism (combining with recent revelations of his ambiguous position in World War II) count against him. Today, I suspect, the only thing one reads of J-P. S. is his scintillating little autobiographical memoir, Les Mots.

Some reputations fade, sometimes irreparably, sometimes only partially or temporarily. A sure predictor of such fading occurs when an intellectual mirrors t o o c l o s e l y his or her age. This fate seems to be catching up to Susan Sontag. As this example shows, the figure's death often provides an opportunity for reassessment. Dare we hope in the case of the mountebank Jacky (as Jacques Derrida was known to his intimates)? Two other prime candidates, IMHO, are Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin.

Off with their heads! It isn't so easy--and perhaps fortunately so, as there should be some limits to fluctuation, and some enduring landmarks in cultural reputations.


Blogger Stephen said...

There's also The Blue Bird and No Exit in some circulation (and the de Beauvoir industry; like Frida Kahlo vis-à-vis Diego Rivera, de Beauvoir now overshadows Sartre, it seems)... And The Blue Bird is outselling The Flowering of New England, according to Amazon rankings. No Exit and Being and Nothingness are selling better by several quanta.

The film "Derrida" made me almost sympathetic to him, though not to his ideas or their pernicious influence.

5:27 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home