James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is about comedy, yes, and the meaning that stands behind comedy, and the comedy that stands behind meaning, and so on in a potentially infinite loop. Like all his work, it is also about paradox: how words can become how real, and how the interior shows the exterior and vice-versa, and others discussed below. At one point, he says, “What seems to be a fleeting triviality is actually very important—this is both Verga’s subject and his mode of writing his banalities, like those of his characters, are never unimportant.” The seemingly trivial and banal become important, and the seemingly unimportant becomes exalted and majestic. Wood asks, and makes us ask, “why?”, searching for an answer that can never be had and yet also never seems futile. It’s a neat trick—call it the paradox of criticism, to go along with the paradoxes of the novel. If what we read isn’t significant in and of itself, perhaps we imbue it with significance through the nature of our interaction with the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the character, the story. Wood does, and in the process he sees what is too often missed.
What I like about Wood is how he doesn’t feel researched—he feels organic, inevitable, so natural that most critics and academics are closer to the harsh screams of heavy metal than to Moonlight Sonata. Not even Amis’ Wagnerian bombast compares. This organic-ness can only come, I suspect, from long and deep engagement with a narrow body of reference texts—for Wood, they seem to include Flaubert, Chekhov, Henry Green, Shakespeare, and a few others—complemented by wide breadth and an extraordinary comparative faculty. Once such conditions are in place, one has the potential for great criticism. Converting potential to actuality is hard. Few accomplish it, and few have the sight to discover what is so obviously there and yet that I have so often missed. It is a puzzle almost as significant as the many paradoxes of realism and idea in the novel itself, or in any form of representational art. The simultaneous merging and yet standing outside a character, discussed in Wood’s introduction, is one such example too long to quote at length and all the more incredible for the inability of one to slice a part out; this is a pie that can’t be cut without destroying the whole. This might be part of the organic effect I tried to describe above.
In contrast to Wood, consider a section from Geoffrey Hartman’s essay called “Christopher Smart’s ‘Magnificat:’ Toward a Theory of Representation,” which I began immediately after The Irresponsible Self. Smart writes writes:
What if someone cannot be presented [from one person to another]? The sense of distance has been thrown out of balance: either the self feels defective vis-a-vis the other, or the other appears magnified, unapproachable. The someone can be a something: certain subjects may not be introduced into discourse, certain taboos restrict or delimit the kinds of words used.
I introduce the example of words early, because word commonly help present us.
The idea Smart is trying to present is a reasonably good one: the psychology of social order, or interactions among people, and the individual voice addressing itself might be limited by our thoughts (incidentally, Paul Graham writes about both in What You Can’t Say). But the metaphor isn’t a very good one: how could a person not “be presented” to another real person? If I’m in the room with someone and wish to introduce them, there isn’t some way that such a person “can’t” be presented. If the “someone” is a “something,” that makes more sense, as some forms of social convention discourage contentious topics, although it’s also worth noting that some forms, like graduate student parties, encourage superficially contentious topics. And if we’re aware of taboo topics, or make an effort to become aware of them, then we’re no longer not mentioning them to ourselves because we’re aware of them. Notice too Hartman’s use of the term “vis-a-vis,” which seems showy and ostentatious; it’s a struggle and brings his sentence to a halt. It feels like the slash of a sword instead of the stroke of a brush: forced, not inevitable. If Smart’s essay hadn’t been assigned, I might’ve discarded it after that false note in the second paragraph, but I’ve continued, and though I might buy parts of his argument, that argument as a whole is so hard to follow that I mostly want to give up the attempt.
Now, back to Wood; in “How Shakespeare’s ‘Irresponsibility’ Saved Coleridge,” he writes:
Kant offered Coleridge a way of making the self both passive and active. One the one hand, the world was phenomenal: we gather and order the phenomena of perception. Coleridge called this the faculty of understanding, and in the Biographia it becomes, roughly, the “primary imagination.” On the other hand, said Kant, the world was noumenal: there were transcendent things-in-themselves, unknowable, and this domain is grasped by the practical reason or will. This practical reason asserts itself not by argument but by command and precept; it is how we believe in God. Coleridge bent and expanded Kant’s category, stripping it of its philosophical restraint and making it something closer to free will, and at other times closer to the decisive and controlling activity of the imagination.
Seldom have I read a better concise explanation of sophisticated, important ideas with as few sampling or compression errors. The passage moves according to its own logic, graceful as a dancer and yet purposeful, an economy of precision that Orwell could envy. Ideas I hadn’t perceived as connected I suddenly do, and in that moment something happens—a sense of distant has been thrown out of balance, maybe, but if so, it’s only to be regained better and stronger than before. And if it is a sense of distance, it is the distance between Coleridge, Shakespeare, and myself. I’ll happily be thrown out of balance by someone who knows how to pick me back up.
It’s not entirely fair to hold up these two passages, each on tremendously different topics, as comparisons, and yet I think they do demonstrate the difference between the two writers and the larger difference between Wood, who works so hard for intellectual depth and engagement, and many other critics, who sacrifice the latter in phantom pursuit of the former. Wood has a nearly perfect power curve, and even where I disagree, as with Tom Wolfe, I’m still dazzled by the clarity of his thinking and writing, to the extent those can be separated.