There is a painting entitled The Musicians by Caravaggio that obsesses John Plotz. It shows at its centre, looking out from the canvas, a lute-player wholly absorbed in his music-making: a figure ‘at once soliciting my gaze and gazing past me, as it were, staring at the (invisible and inaudible) music his fingers made’ (p. 9). Plotz loves the shifting doubleness of this painting: it flickers between material space, for the viewer looking at the plane surface, and the extra representational dimension of virtual space, offered by the player looking out into our world, but with an inner sightless gaze. It goes with another reproduction in the book, Hans Memlings’ Christ Blessing which shows Christ’s fingers resting on the very edge of the picture’s own wooden frame. Or (I might add) it is like a Rembrandt portrait of the aged, when one finds oneself almost simultaneously looking at the lined face and imagining what it feels like to see and think from behind its eyes. On the very boundary between art and life, such paintings make the viewer’s mind almost turn round within itself. They are images for what Plotz calls either ‘semi-detachment’ or ‘partial absorption’ or, perhaps better still, ‘the experience of living inside two worlds at once’ (p. 15). He quotes Ford Madox Ford on the strange double impression that a person may have when speaking to one person whilst thinking of another, when being in the present but thinking of the past behind or the future ahead of it. ‘The whole of life is really like that: we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite another’. And the book is full of wonderful pocket-sized examples of this phenomenon, like variations on a theme. So: J. S. Mill on being the sort of person to excuse himself from a dinner with Bentham to go upstairs and read some Bentham, without irony. Or Willa Cather admiring Dutch paintings in which one can make out through a square open window the masts of ships, a stretch of grey sea, a sense of world beyond. Or Cather, again, taking a stroll outside the opera house during the intermission of Wagner’s Die Walkure only to overhear, in the different context of life’s streets, the strains of the singer rehearsing the next part. Or Henry James signifying within moments of apparently continuous reality micro-seconds of ‘disguised and repaired losses’ and ‘insidious recoveries’. Or John Locke pointing out that when a chessboard is picked up and moved without disturbing the pieces, we say the pieces are all in the same place and unmoved, though at another level that is also untrue. These are like little nuggets of thought, to take away and ponder, and it is a considerable gift to be able to find and offer them in this way. Semi-Detached is in this way a generously suggestive book, which goes hand in hand with the not-so-generous reservation that its variations may not always be on quite the same theme, or that the theme is not so wholly single. I am not even sure that it has the right title. Semi-detachment suggests something much more casual and much less dialectical than the experience it best exemplifies. For the book is at its best when it sites itself in an in-between area where involvement and detachment are not separate so much as reciprocally independent. That is the felt paradox that generates a reader’s excitement and purpose. In just a few pages, for example, Plotz can find room to offer densely dialectical insights into George Eliot and Henry James and their ‘experiments’ in realism: ‘Eliot is grappling with a subjectivity that, though formed out of a social self, struggles intermittently or continually to retreat from the social world’ (p. 132); ‘Middlemarch took on its final form (the merging of two pieces of fiction that Eliot had worked on separately) when characters antipathetic to one another were forced into contiguity and coexistence’ (129); ‘Henry James is acutely interested in what it may mean … to be aware that one’s life is as much virtual as it is actual’ (p. 141). The book is full of such brilliantly compressed insights. There are six fine pages on the fiction of that under-rated novelist, Margaret Oliphant, better than anything else on her, including a defence of her ‘middle way’ against the strictures of Henry James that is also related to Plotz’s defence of Willa Cather against Adorno’s charge of ‘moderate modernism’ as self-contradictory. And the insights go on and on: a stunning account of how H. G. Wells’s science fiction is related to the experiments across different small worlds in George Eliot; the value of Free Indirect Discourse in ‘half’ entering into characters’ minds; the relation of short story to novels in the mid-Victorian incorporation of short stories ‘within’ novels; or again in the visual arts, a striking sense of the relation of the frozen moment to onrushing life in the paintings of Millais, or the combination of old and new in William Morris. But that reminds us that the Caravaggio dates from around 1595 and the Memling from 1481. So Plotz finds himself beginning his conclusion with the acknowledgement that ‘I meant this book to be straightforwardly historical’ (p. 238), only to report that in it, unlike his earlier work in which he sought to give the reader ‘sturdy finished objects’, the subject matter became less contained both historically and psychologically. ‘There is no justification for abandoning historicism’, says Plotz, ‘in favour of a hunt for timeless truths’ (p. 239). Heaven forbid that sin. But ‘timeless’ offers Plotz something easy to dismiss. The truth is that Semi-Detached has grown beyond its own containing structure and intent, 1820–1922, such that one finds oneself at the end asking, like its author, what is this book actually about? My own view is that it is about what in Chapter 5 Plotz calls a life of ‘literary subjectivity’, sited dynamically but tensely between fiction and the world, between text and self, and between immersion and reflection. These are formally Kantian concerns that connect literary reading and thinking to what, beyond as well as within literature, Wordsworth calls the mind as ‘witness’ and the mind as ‘judge’. But what is further at stake is this book’s exemplification of a generic crisis in literary study that threatens to marginalize and diminish its purposes. That is to say: there is, even from within the evidence of this fine and flawed and generous book, a need to find for literary criticism and scholarship a new and stronger ‘form’ for unabashed thinking. A literary thinking ‘in between’ art and life (as Semi-Detached could and should argue) that, adding to what abstract philosophy or psychology can do, is neither coercively historical and institutionalized nor timelessly and indulgently belle-lettrist but is intent still on reading with great care from within books all that cannot possibly just stay there. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 27, 2018
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