BY PHOEBE ADAMS
“We know today,”ANDRÉ MALRAUX observes in THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE GODS (Doubleday, $20.00), “that the spirit of an art is best evaluated in terms of the specific field of reference to which it is related, by its correlation of the elements employed, and not by the fidelity of its imitation or its achievement of illusionism.” This point of view, put into active critical practice, forms much of the basis of Mr. Malraux’s book on the evolution of religious art from the Great Sphinx to Masaccio, and it has produced a fascinating work.
The metamorphosis to which Mr. Malraux’s title refers is, as readers of his The Voices of Silence will foresee, the metamorphosis of men’s attitudes toward their gods, attitudes which dominated European art until the Renaissance. The sacred mysteries of the East were succeeded by the Greek divinities, more rational but still inaccessible, and these by the Roman passion for unlikely demons constructed with the utmost literalmindedness. It is Mr. Malraux’s opinion that the artist who attempts to depict the sacred reality underlying and controlling the world of appearances can do so only by denying appearance. The artist cannot show what no man has ever seen; he can invent a symbol to represent what no man has ever seen before. The animal-headed gods of Egypt and the unhumanly confident gods of Greece are, by realistic standards, equally impossible, but both evoke the suprarealistic world in which their makers believed. It was possible for a Roman artist to concoct a three-headed dog of comically plausible anatomical structure because the patron who wanted it for his doorstep didn’t believe in Cerbents any more than the artist did. It was not only possible, it was necessary. Once the belief in a magical world beyond the world of appearance had disappeared, the artist had nothing to offer but increasingly ingenious imitations of appearance, and personal, secular art as we know it today was born.
Mr. Malraux traces this process twice, for he follows Christian art through a similar development, from the awesome remoteness of Byzantine mosaics through Romanesque and early Gothic sculpture to that point in the later Gothic period when the saints, the prophets, the Virgin, and finally Christ himself began to resemble real people moving in a world of identifiable landscape and time of day, a thing previously inconceivable. “The living God ceased to be shrouded in awesome mystery and could now be loved through the intermediacy of Jesus.”As Mr. Malraux here describes the change of attitude, it sounds harmless and possibly even beneficial, but it ended in God’s “annexation by the world of man.”
Religious works that had once expressed the worship of all Christendom were replaced by ornaments lor private chapels, things chosen with a sharp eye to the skill of the artist and probably valued as much for their power to arouse sentimental daydreams as for any other quality. Once the fancy of the individual artist and the taste of the individual patron began to determine the shape of a work of art, it was a short step into “a world of pictures in which Venus could meet on equal terms the Virgin, nymphs compete with angels —and the Unreal with the City of God.”
This is the point at which Mr. Malraux’s discussion, which he has carried on with a bewildering wealth of reference and illustration, stops. He announces the death of the religious spirit in art but does not trouble to display the corpse, and readers who have been made uneasy by the implication that certain works long revered as pious masterpieces are no more than decorative frolics can throw the whole case out of court as unproved.
“Theoretical” would be a fairer description of Mr. Malraux’s findings, which can hardly be otherwise unless it becomes possible to call up the ghosts of a thousand years and survey their opinions. The author relates works of art to the temper of their times and simultaneously to certain constants in the human disposition, and uses art itself to illuminate both human disposition and the temper of a particular time. This ping-pong game in a hall of mirrors is a subtle affair, often difficult to follow, but worth the trouble. Mr. Malraux writes with His usual brilliance. He shifts from eloquence to aphorism to scholarship and supports each point in his line of reasoning with references to specific objects or events.
The author implies that his book would not have been possible a hundred years ago and is possible today only because “we are now confronted by the art of the whole world. And, as a result of that confrontation, appearance has come to seem no more than the inexhaustible libretto of an interminable opera.”
There is another reason why The Metamorphosis of the Gods would not have been possible before this century. It depends on appearance. Sculpture and painting are made to be seen, and not even Mr. Malraux can describe the quality of successive styles in art as effectively as photographs can display them. An author’s word may be doubted or misunderstood; the visible difference between an archaic Greek kouros and a Roman imperial portrait is incontrovertible. The book therefore includes an enormous number of illustrations, very good in the sharp-cut style that suits the author’s purpose. That is to say, the plates are designed to reveal the form of the subject, not to arouse interest in the art of photography.
ART AND THE ARTIST
KENNETH CLARK’S LOOKING AT PICTURES (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $10.00) is quite another sort of book about art. It consists of a series of sixteen essays, each concerned with a specific painting. They were originally written for an English newspaper and have since been somewhat expanded and reinforced by numerous halftones and a handful of color plates.
Sir Kenneth’s introduction to this book begins, “No doubt there are many ways of looking at pictures, none of which can be called the right way,” a statement that makes it impossible for anyone to take issue with the author’s way. His way is in fact a good illustration of the method of studying each picture as a thing in itself, beginning with the subject matter and proceeding through a consideration of the artist’s intention, his technique, and his character. After these topics are out of the way, Sir Kenneth briefly considers the picture’s relation to the painter’s other works, and sometimes to the general output of its period.
The emphasis on each of these questions varies from essay to essay. Sir Kenneth is much interested by what he can deduce of the mind of Velasquez, but far more intrigued by Vermeer’s methods than by his motives. He has a historian’s soft heart for painters like Delacroix and Courbet, who considerately wrote, and wrote well, about their work. Sir Kenneth’s method of discussing paintings is solidly practical, but it has certain limitations. An ignoramus in painting would come away from Looking at Pictures with the impression that Picasso was some obscure fellow who copied figures from other people’s pictures.
The book is better to rummage in than to read at a sitting. Each piece is interesting and gracefully written and almost certain to yield some odd insight or unexpected bit of information. Taken together, the essays show their newspaper origin. Sir Kenneth assumes that all his readers are unshakably convinced that painters are a dissipated and disorderly lot. When he comes upon one of those artists who led lives of positively dreary respectability, he hammers the truth like a man driving a railroad spike. And when he finds it necessary to mention the habits of Titian, he makes several circles around Robin Hood’s barn before sidling up to the facts, evidently fearing to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty.
GREEK MASTERS AND ARTISANS
MASTERPIECES OF GREEK ART (New York Graphic Society, $12.50) is as pretty a thing as anyone could ask for, a collection of color photographs and brief explanatory texts by RAYMOND V. SCHODER, S. J.
Dr. Schoder, a classical scholar who translates Sappho and plainly dotes on Keats, has worked and traveled over a wide area, exploring museums along the way. His pictures cover Greek art from Mycenaean daggers to Roman wall paintings, which he approaches with great nonchalance. That Roman noman’s-land infested by imported Greek works, the works of imported Greek artists, the works of Greektrained Romans, and the productions of local hacks confuses Dr. Schoder not at all. If he likes it, it’s Greek.
Dr. Schoder is an accomplished and conscientious photographer, whose work must have involved a great deal of patient effort. He is frankly proud of his pictures and has every right to be, for they capture delicate detail, the texture of stone and bronze, and the faint traces of color still clinging to some statues.
The book’s text is good as long as it sticks to facts about where the objects were found, what school they belong to, what purpose they served, and the probable circumstances of their creation. Beyond this area, Dr. Schoder tends to wax lyrical. He loves these beautiful things dearly, and in his fear that others may fail to appreciate them, he resorts to romantic guesswork and to reiterated claims for the naturalness with which each subject is represented. The method may have its merits at that, as a means of stirring up the reader. If Dr. Schoder had not described the knot at the back of the headband on the bronze charioteer of Delphi as “charmingly natural,” I would never have examined it closely enough to reach my own conclusion, which is that it wouldn’t last out the first lap.
The questions of “reality” and “naturalness” eventually become embarrassing, unless one is prepared to grant the author the right to use these words as abstract terms of approval conveying no specific qualities. I am not. It seems absurd that Dr. Schoder, describing a mosaic panther, should claim for it “extraordinary realism,” when the animal is represented as having legs as long as its body, a neck as long as that of a horse, and spots in the shape of crescents and triangles. Everything else Dr. Schoder has to say of the panther is true; it is full of energy, it does have a magically terrifying quality, it is indeed a most wonderful creation. But it is not in the least realistic and cannot have been intended by its maker as an accurate picture of an ordinary leopard. Why in the name of all the gods at once would Dionysus be riding on a merely ordinary leopard? He deserves the quintessential essence of the ultimate ideal leopard, and he has it.
Whether Dr. Schoder clings to “realism" and “naturalism” out of carelessness, contempt for his readers’ intelligence, or the old-fashioned conviction that any good work of art must be literally representational, I do not know, but his ramshackle devotion to these terms is a serious blot on what might easily have been a better book.
ALL ABOUT ROME
ROME FOR OURSELVES (McGrawHill, $15.00) is a large and luscious picture book of the city, combining a text by AUBREY MENEN, who lives there and loves the place, with photographs by practically everybody. Mr. Menen is a learned man, but not a scholar in any of the fields where books on Rome normally spring up. He is not a historian, or an art critic, or a theologian, or an archaeologist, or a biographer, or an architect. He is a clever fellow who hates bunkum. He has discovered that Rome, as traditionally presented, is full of it.
Mr. Menen attacks the jungle of popular misconception and official misrepresentation about his city with such exuberant joy that I am sure he must have been subjected, in his youth, to one of those schoolmasters who insist that the pupils believe what they are taught instead of simply remembering it. Rome for Ourselves is Mr. Menen’s revenge on this tiresome pedagogue, and his readers should be grateful to the man who provoked it.
The book, Mr. Menen explains in a foreword, is to contain a little of everything. It will be about history, for “I have seen a lot of history made in my time. I do not think much of it.” It will also be about great men, for “I know a good deal about great men. They bedevilled all my younger years.” It will be about Christianity: “To be a Christian is a matter of faith. I have found that to be especially so when I study its history.” It will be about the classical Romans: “Our forefathers thought very highly of them,” observes Mr. Menen, flexing his claws, and shreds the classical Romans to tatters in one dazzling paragraph.
After dismissing the Etruscans as happy boobies of no possible importance, Mr. Menen works his way onward through history, smashing idols, demolishing myths, and discrediting traditions. He discovers that the dome of St. Peter’s was not designed by Michelangelo and that one of the major, though unpublicized, tasks of the officials charged with the investigation and preservation of all antiquities unearthed in the city is to avoid learning that anything has been unearthed at all, since attention to their supposed duties would bring every activity in the district to a standstill. He observes that Roman boxers “were expensive to buy . . . and often enjoyed long careers,” from which he deduces that “the sport was about as honest as all-in wrestling.” He proves that classical Roman ruins are not classical at all and that the wave of learning that swept across Europe as the Renaissance came not from Byzantium but from the Arabs.
Some of Mr. Menen’s revelations are practical jokes; some are semantic sleight of hand; some depend on a rather exaggerated notion of public gullibility; but a great many of them are sound, genuinely exciting reestimates of old convictions, presented with a firm foundation of footnotes and authoritative sources. All of them are immensely amusing, and with the illustrations they make a lively, handsome book quite unlike anything else.
ISAK DINESEN’S SHADOWS ON THE GRASS (Random House, $3.00) is a sequel to her Out of Africa, but not in the usual sense of a book that continues or develops the material of its predecessor. Shadows on the Grass is a catching up, an afterthought, almost indistinguishable in tone and style from Out of Africa, and three of the four episodes it describes could have been worked into the earlier book with no trouble if the author had chosen to include them. The fourth one, about the later histories of her African servants, is another matter, since it involves a considerable lapse of time. It is also related to the author’s preoccupation with the interlocking of dream and reality as much as to her experiences in Africa.
The other three pieces I suppose must be called reminiscence, although the acuteness of Baroness Blixen’s perceptions and her ability to find an undercurrent of wonder in any situation make the term quite inadequate. They are reminiscences in which the events of real life are probably not reshaped but in a subtle way relighted, so that meanings invisible in the confusion of everyday business are suddenly picked out by highlights and underlined by shadows.
One of the pieces is a sketch of the Baroness’ indispensable Somali servant; another concerns the marvels worked by a letter written to her by the King of Denmark; the third, her doctoring of the Africans living on and around her farm. They all have a casual air, as though bits and pieces had drifted to the surface of her memory and had been scooped up and tossed together on impulse rather than by plan. But every detail counts, and each piece builds up a picture of one aspect of the Africa that Baroness Blixen knew, and all of them are summed up in the final “Echoes from the Hills,” where the memory of Africa, and the dream, and the fact come gently together.
FOR INNOCENTS ONLY (Houghton Mifflin, $4.75) is the second novel by RICHARD DOHRMAN, whose first was called The Cross of Baron Samedi. It is a large, solid book, a study of moral responsibility, undertaken with great seriousness by the author and carried through with no concessions to whimsey.
Mr. Dohrman is a follower of James Gould Cozzens. He has mercifully given up the master’s habit of never using a two-syllable word if a five-syllable synonym can be dredged from the Complete Oxford Dictionary, but he clings to the doctrine that repetition and elaboration will make almost anything plausible. Oddly enough, they do, if the reader makes the initial concession that what the characters truly mean to say is more important than the style in which they say it. The dialogue spoken by Mr. Dohrman’s people is as artificial, as thoroughly unlikely, as that spoken by Congreve’s, but artificial in a completely opposite way. Mr. Dohrman has achieved a dead level of literalness, a lack of imagination and individuality so complete that the dullest speaker on earth couldn’t equal it, even with practice, for five consecutive minutes. Meaning nevertheless emerges from this austere desert of words, and by sheer persistence in belaboring each point, Mr. Dohrman makes the reader believe that his people are real and that what they say is true.
The hero of For Innocents Only is a conscientious man whose attempts to do the right thing and be fair to everyone around him almost always end in damaging someone he loves. His wife, his friend, his daughter, his mistress, and his right-hand man all suffer from Peter Guild’s good intentions. He always sees the results of his actions too late to remedy them and never fails to comprehend his own responsibility for the disaster.
Guild is counterbalanced by a normally unprincipled and self-centered old ruffian who also spreads havoc wherever he goes, but does it with a clear conscience because he can always dismiss the effect of his actions as unfortunate accident. With these two loose in the same territory, everybody has a hard time.
If Mr. Dohrman has in mind any more complicated thesis than that responsibility undertaken without a real understanding of the situation involved is as dangerous to those included in the situation as the refusal to admit responsibility at all, he does not make it clear to me. Long before the end of the book he has convinced me of the absolute reality of Peter Guild and his ménage. He never quite persuades me that Guild is worth all the care that Mr. Dohrman has expended on him.
DESPAIR, FRENCH STYLE
A MONKEY IN WINTER (Putnam, $3.50) by ANTOINE BLONDIN is a sporadically funny, essentially melancholy novel which has had a great success in France, where it is now reportedly being made into a movie. Its attraction for a film maker is understandable, for it is full of set scenes that express the author’s meaning through action, and it is little encumbered by mental monologues 9 and psychological hairsplitting.
It has to do with the general hopeless incompetence of mankind and the boredom of properly civilized life. The notion is exemplified by a chronic souse who drifts into a Norman resort town out of season and presently leads the local innkeeper, a reformed alcoholic, into a wild night of backsliding riot. The author doesn’t succeed in doing anything profound with this story, but the ingenuity with which one contretemps follows another and the delicate balance of sympathy and exasperation aroused by the characters make the book steadily readable. The people involved are drawn lightly, almost as caricatures, and the quiet desperation against which the author is protesting is skillfully conveyed to, but never actually inflicted on, the reader.
SHAKES PEARE’S PROGRESS by FRANK O’CONNOR (World, S3.50) is an ingenious speculation about Shakespeare’s temperament and works. It is partly based on research but depends, in its livelier moments, on pure instinctive hunch. As a creative writer with some experience in the theater, Mr. O’Connor is willing to risk a guess about the operations of a colleague whose plays he admires and enjoys, but not to the point of blind idolatry.
Much of what Mr. O’Connor writes is improvable by academic standards, but since he offers it as interesting conversation rather than instructive truth, this is no drawback. Among other things, he believes that Macbeth has survived only in a horribly mutilated form and that the final scenes, in particular, have been massacred by some producer (presumably the same idiot who introduced the Hecate business because he had a good deus ex machina rig) to make use of a particularly fine papier-mâché head on a pole. Why is it impossible that Shakespeare himself didn’t succumb to the lure of a good head unemployed? Because no leading tragedian of a respectable company would have consented to be done out of his death scene, says Mr. O’Connor firmly, and this reasoning has a beguilingly persuasive quality, a recognizable smell of grease paint.
The same kind of practicality underlies Mr. O’Connor’s approach to most of the plays. He is fascinated by Measure for Measure, partly because there is much in it that he admires, partly because he discovers in the confusion another case of tampering. He assumes that the tampering was done by an extraneous hack charged with converting a play written for the circular stage into one that could be performed in a three-sided box. This fellow, whose efforts Mr. O’Connor detects in a number of other places, gradually assumes a shadowy character of his own. He was a lunkhead who didn’t know how to get characters on and off the stage, and when at a loss, always resorted to having A shove B into the wings, assuring him meanwhile of future revelations of a beneficial nature. Shakespeare, Mr. O’Connor points out crossly, was a better technician than that on his first try. The hack was also a fussily disorganized type, fond of fine poetry, hating to part with it, but seeing no reason why a good speech wouldn’t be just as good in a graveyard as in a ballroom. One can fairly see the man, chopping out ten lines here and a dozen there, and laying them thriftily aside on the grounds that they might come in handy sometime. And sure enough they did, to the confusion of all subsequent directors, actors, producers, and readers. Mr. O’Connor has done such a splendid job of recreating this hypothetical nuisance that it only remains for somebody to prove he was Robert Greene hiding from his creditors or Queen Elizabeth picking up a little extra pin money.
Shakespeare’s Progress is a delightful, stimulating book if the reader is willing to allow Mr. O’Connor the elbow room he demands. It will, I suspect, be quite maddening to readers who do not share the author’s conviction that Troilus and Cressida is a splendid play and that Prospero does not in the least represent Shakespeare’s benign farewell to the theater.
A MUSLIM CRUSADE
THE SABRES OF PARADISE (Viking, $6.75) is LESLEY BLANCH’S reconstruction of a fragment of Caucasian history, the nearly thirty years of ferocious guerrilla warfare by which a Muslim chieftain kept the Russians in check. It is romantic history, not in the sense of being inaccurate but because the people who enacted it saw themselves in a heroic light, and Miss Blanch accepts them almost exactly at their own evaluation. From a common-sense point of view, the whole enterprise was quite mad; and from a classical point of view, it lacked proportion, besides involving unseemly quantities of dirt and blood; but as an exhibition of individual courage and determination, it was magnificent. It may also have kept the Russians off the frontiers of British India.
Shamyl’s war against fate, the czar, and the modern world finally ended in 1859, having involved an enormous number of Russian troops and half the distinguished figures of nineteenth-century Russia. Its ramifications extended from London to Delhi. Miss Blanch, who has clearly done a formidable amount of research on the subject, presents the whole picture with great clarity, a most difficult undertaking since, in addition to the complicated facts, she is determined to describe character, elucidate background, and recreate the manners and beliefs not of one Muslim sect but of a whole conglomeration of tribes. The sympathy and skill which have gone into The Sabres of Paradise can hardly be overestimated, and the book is altogether a fine example of picturesque history.
A CIVILIZATION THAT WAS
THE WEANS (Knopf, $1.50), by ROBERT NATHAN, may be a horrid warning against atomic war, but it looks like a wicked spoof of archaeology. It is a summing up, in a properly earnest tone, of the discoveries of the Kenya and Uganda expeditions in the mysterious debris of the great Western continent. It seems that the expedition’s scholars have learned much about the incomprehensible people whose capital was called Pound-Laundry, and what they have learned is likciy to shake any reader’s faith in all contemporary diggings. They have undermined, if not destroyed, the previously accepted theory that these Westerners had some relation to the tribes inhabiting a group of northerly islands, by determining that certain glyphs, meaning “lift” and “elevator,” are incompatible. They continue to be puzzled by the plethora of local goddesses (are they local manifestations of one goddess, or a whole female pantheon?) and by references to a “hofa.” The hofas may have been public officials, they conclude, or possibly a class of war lords. There is also a suspicion that mistranslation is involved. And the expedition gets quite bored with digging up bathtubs.
The book is illustrated with superbly meaningless photographs of people in pith helmets holding in their hands small fragments of unidentified objects. Who posed for these pictures is not revealed, but Mr. Nathan must have had almost as much fun writing this silly thing as I had reading it.