More or Less Nothing

Michel Chaouli, Something Speaks to Me: Where Criticism Begins

University of Chicago Press, 184pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780226830421

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Michel Chaouli opens his study of the techniques and functions of criticism with a startling confession. Some years ago, while teaching a standard module on the modern European novel at Indiana University, in a lecture focused on Franz Kafka's The Trial, he read out a paragraph from the text and promptly found he had nothing to say about it. Improvising desperately, he skipped to another passage and read that, and another, but always with the same result. The emotional dynamics of the scene were those of a classic nightmare, like an actor's perennial dream of going on stage without having learned the lines. What is the point of a professor of comparative literature who can do no more than read bits out, without the capacity to say anything enlightening? (We must wait until page 109 of his book to find out what the Kafka passage was.)

The chain of thought that this occasioned in Chaouli resulted in the present work, an attempt to investigate where the impulse for aesthetic criticism, what the author also calls in the Aristotelian idiom 'poetic making', springs from, how it works, and what it might be expected to do. There is an existential bravery in this in one rather important sense that Chaouli fails to mention: in an era when higher education is being delivered over wholesale to the imperatives of finance and the ideals of consumerism — a tendency at its present apogee in the United States — a humanities scholar openly wondering what the point of it all might be risks delivering himself hog-tied to the apostles of empirical science and its corporate sponsorships.

Notwithstanding that, Chaouli sets out by turning his moment of perplexity into a speculative triad. When confronted with a significant work of art, we find: 1. Something speaks to me. 2. I must tell you about it. 3. But I don't know how. These propositions are examined with diligent ingenuity, from a number of angles, in short sections that often yield thoughtful insights into the subjective emotional states that all great art — not just literature — can prompt in those who sensitively encounter it. Returning to the pre-eminent figures of German idealism, with passages from Hegel, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, as well as the 20th century's more idiosyncratic voices, including Theodor Adorno, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Chaouli seeds these reflections with the often halting attempts that others have made to isolate what it is about artistic works that produces their resonances, and how the scrutiny of that process manifests itself in the philosophical discipline we call aesthetics.

What emerges is an unreconstructedly Romantic view of the artwork and the relation of its recipients to it, but also a conception of criticism that is strikingly conservative in its social hopes and expectations. Great artworks, says Chaouli, should bowl us over, make us lose our bearings, impress us with that quality of genius, of which Kant observed that, because artists themselves are at a loss to know how they do it, so are we equally bereft when it comes to knowing what to say about it. There is certainly a productive virtue in surrendering to the formal and expressive protocols of great works, so that we can be sure we are responding to them immanently, on their own terms, but Chaouli takes a more prescriptive step in disapproving of any form of dialectical mediation, ideological critique, indeed anything that might amount to a method, or the presentation of what he dismissively refers to as 'the final resting place for research'. It is indubitably true that aesthetics is not a system, because any attempt to impose such a structure would homogenise an artwork's differing effects of signification, and would pay no heed to its evolution through successive historical eras of reception, but where does that leave the inquiring reader?

It is necessary to approach artworks in a spirit of 'tact', Chaouli argues, a demeanour that would have felt uncomfortably close to cringing humility in more subversive eras. The critical process, he claims, seeks to preserve intact that which it addresses and, to this extent, it is avowedly 'conservative'. Nothing must be done that would 'harm the social process', even seemingly where artworks themselves — Brecht, Beckett, Peter Weiss, Kafka — take a wholly malign view of the present social process. Instead, the work must be allowed to transform me, to exceed my prior knowledge and expectations, excavate levels of aesthetic response in me, of which I did not know I was capable. It isn't clear how an entirely desocialised, dehistoricised me would retain any capacity to be seduced by works that maintained a disrespectful stance to the society in which they insist I am still immured, and yet these spiritual transformations are accounted to be as real as any conversion experience.

Chaouli refuses Adorno's conception of the 'semblance character' of artworks, the notion that they operate at an important remove from immediate reality, by insisting on the propitious view that the change they bring about in their readers and spectators is real, and capable of acting on the real world and not a mere imitation of it. 'In poetic acts,' he writes, 'the world, and not its semblance, is transformed. In this way, the world reveals itself as something you can form.' In which case, why is it still a quagmire? Poetic works constitute an indictment sheet against a faulty world, even where they least obviously seem to be doing so, because they represent the helpless impulse to imagine a better state of affairs. That, however, has to be measured against the evidence of the centuries that art is powerless in the face of barbarity. For Adorno, 'Auschwitz demonstrated irrefutably that culture has failed', and yet to do despairingly without it would be nothing more than a surrender to the same barbarism.

In one of the most suggestive meditations of Something Speaks to Me, Chaouli acknowledges that the created work has an external life that, in numerous cases, has long outlived its creator. It can become wiser than the artist who made it. When it does so, though, it is precisely because it still displays, without damage to itself, the live electrical charge that empowers it to speak to a social milieu unimaginable — or perhaps all too direly imaginable, in the optic of Kafka — of the present-day receiver. It is hard to see how this can happen when the advice here, gleaned from an array of sources from TS Eliot to Gilles Deleuze, is to void the self in the poetic encounter. A quote from the young Kafka's letter to a friend, to the effect that great literary art should bite and skewer me, clobber me over the head, take an ice-axe to 'the frozen sea within me', is a call for the precise opposite of emptying the self, more for its rude awakening.

Chaouli finally paints himself into a corner, stressing both the necessity of effacing the imperious self in encounters with art, as well as refusing our habitual social identity, however radical we imagine our insistence on it to be, but nonetheless maintaining that an aesthetic education is all about the self, in an all but therapeutic Schillerian sense, making us better, kinder, wittier versions of ourselves.

The book is marked by an almost neurotic provisionality of tone, the hesitant comportment of somebody who is barely confident of what he wants to say, or even that there is anything to say. This suits its moment of inspiration, to be sure, and its strategy of unstructured thinking aloud has become a highly familiar idiom in American academic practice, traceable at least as far back as the art historian TJ Clark's 'experiment in art writing', The Sight of Death (2006). It is undoubtedly a more congenial style for students than the alienating Esperanto in which continental criticism was written for a good forty years or so in the Anglophone world. What it leads to in the present context, though, amounts to barely more than what Terry Eagleton once called the 'wine-tasting approach', taking in little sips of text and savouring them, as the author does here in an early section with seven gulps of prose from Erich Auerbach to Pauline Kael, about which, with the exception of a thoughtful elaboration on Barthes eating sashimi in Japan, he says more or less nothing. Indeed, any evaluative judgment other than stunned admiration seems wholly unwelcome, although Chaouli does confess to finding Thomas Mann boring.

Opening and closing one's muted mouth while holding a book in front of a roomful of students may inspire the pedagogical prayer, 'There but for the grace of God go I'. It might just be, though, that it would help to have some deeper ambition on the day than simply imparting to them how awesome it is. That, and probably not teaching the same course year after year. The fine edge of seldom pleasure is easily blunted.

Stuart Walton is the author of An Excursion through Chaos; In the Realm of the Senses; A Natural History of Human Emotions; Introducing Theodor Adorno; Intoxicology; and a novel, The First Day in Paradise.