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Watchman, What of the Night?

Literary Themes

Watchman, What of the Night?

The novel as a perpetually-remade form of high style and sophistication is, in our commerce, scarcely recognized, let alone understood.

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?
The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night …

— Isaiah 22, 11-12 (King James)

My generation still had certain literary residues from earlier ones to latch onto: father-son problems, Antiquity, adventure, travel, social issues, fin-de-siecle melancholia, marital questions, themes of love. Today’s generation has nothing in hand anymore, no substance and no style, no education and no knowledge, no emotions and no formal tendencies, no basis whatever — it will be a long time until something is found again.
— Gottfried Benn

I have pondered Gottfried Benn’s statement since I first read it in the early 1950s. Still a young scribbler who had started to write fiction and verse in 1945, I was upset by his assessment of the situation in Europe following World War I. It took the heart out of aspiration; it gutted ambition. If that was the case a generation before I was born, so much the worse for ambition today. Benn’s lament proposed an insuperable challenge, particularly when viewed in the glaring light of the fallout from two nuclear bombs over Japan and accompanied by the ghastly opening of the Germany’s extermination camps — the shocking parts of my 1945’s “enlightenment.” It suggested that the enterprise I’d been imagining for my life, an ascent of Helicon in hopes of glimpsing the Muse of Literature dancing around the sacred pool of inspiration, was worse than hubris: it was merest folly.

Not that the graduated and glassy slope of that mountain had been blown away and become so much more acute after the eruptions and convulsions of the 20th Century (though it now seemed precipitous), making the thought of scaling one of its flanks rash indeed. In point of fact, the thing had been blown to smithereens, leaving behind but a wavering, blurred rack of cloud. Perhaps it was now its negative: an inverted mountain, an abyss too profound to be fathomed. One saw that the post-World War II Existentialists had plunged into its depthlessness and were lost in free fall. The situation for the 1920s Benn had aptly described was replaying in the decade after 1945; it was no mere coincidence that their core philosophical conception was The Absurd, by which the earlier postulate of Heidegger — that of our Geworfenheit, or “thrownness,” our consciousness that we have been arbitrarily set down as we are, where we are — had been advanced by some incomprehensible magnitude. As Marx once observed, when a history repeats itself it plays out as farce. What made it disgustingly grotesque was the turn by someone like Jean-Paul Sartre from the Limbo of Anxiety onto the path of materialist power in search of salvation, joining the grim marchers on the wide path laid down by Stalin’s Soviet despotism. For Sartre in despair philosophy’s answers now came from the apodictic barrel of the gun. As though one had not seen that very solution — call it serving State, Fatherland, or Motherland — expressed a generation earlier! What else was the flight of Hans Castorp in 1914 from the illusory Olympus of Mann’s Magic Mountain, where people perishing in tuberculosis lived out a fantasy of health renewed and vitality restored, as if they were so many lost gods? Recall that Castorp is seen last rushing down to the plains, in pursuit of freedom through action on the fields of glory as a soldier in the Kaiser’s army — what a debacle! Mann had delineated in 1922 what Benn formulated as one pathetic consequence of the Great War to end all wars. And the neophyte writer of 1950 in America smiled with a sense of Joyce’s rueful irony at Stephen Dedalus’ pre-WW I image of himself as “flashing his antlers” upon the heights; for by the 1950s that once-upon-a-time heroic Zarathustran notion of an “under-going “and an “over-going” was transmogrified, an unspeakable, putrid absurdity. Beckett was soon telling us so; shortly it would be laid out and plain to see in Europe by an artist like Beuys, for example, and in the United States by one like Rauschenberg.

So Benn’s observation seemed accurately, exactly, dolorously true. What little remained — though really nothing had remained, as Benn put it — after the Modernist excitement of “The Lost Generation” had been écrasé by the cataclysmic 1930s and 1940s. If one thinks of Fitzgerald’s TENDER IS THE NIGHT, one sees that the love story he tried to tell commences with the case of father/daughter incest, which resulted in Nicole’s insanity, the curing of which cost Dick Diver his talent, breaking him and his career: surely a metaphor of the artist’s confrontation with a world that had lost its traditional forms of reason. Furthermore a light overview of Faulkner’s novels from the late 1920s through the 1930s bears out Benn’s summation, for his work deals with the pulverized elements of the South’s literary “residues.” Even a late failure like A FABLE (1954), offers sub-plot that’s a reworking of those themes, centering its obsession upon the vainglory of valor in 1917-1918, which comes to a climax with a powerful metaphor of loss and disappointment: the False Christmas Armistice prompts a young airman ambitious of heroism to don his flying suit and lock himself in a latrine stall, where he sits down and blows his brains out. Faulkner’s penchant for grotesquerie can be understood as awareness of its suitability after 1945; it gives expression to despair at not ever having found something after 1918. Perhaps the most positive utterance of his career was his Nobel Prize Award speech, and even that can be read in the red glare of 20th Century history as a cri du cœur: “Man will prevail ….” Words proffering solace to the hearts of desperate politicos on the long, long eve before Armageddon Day.

In a sense, because the pre-WW I “literary residues” were all the Moderns had to work with, one can learn what Modernism was. Joyce, who was of Benn’s cohort, finished dealing with those residues in ULYSSES, which contains inserted into it a history of the English language (which narrative pastiche dissolves in a drunken rout even as a baby is being born … in 1904); the work ends with a catechism written in a language at degree zero (which ends in Bloom’s sleep, a full-stop, a period marked as a big black dot; after which we are in a zone of reverie and nostalgia, Molly Bloom’s unvoiced flow of words falling into the silence of sleep as well. It might be said that Joyce’s message to generations following him and Benn is the long one of FINNEGAN’S WAKE that starts with “riverrun past Eve and Adam’s door” remains to this moment scarcely read, despite the assiduity of its myriad explicators — of words, phrases, and things signified — explicators who have not yet put Finnegan together again, although he has been waked. Although it’s all there, Humpty Dumpty-wise, after the Fall. Recall the Dedalus of ULYSSES: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Where are we now? Contemporary criticism, that of our post- and post-post-Modern legionaries, has concluded that literary creation was always an unlikely enterprise, merely an undertaking of irreality. Perhaps one unexpected benefit of the Deconstructionist revelation arises in the suggestion that its impossibility defines genius, what masterpieces are. Rather, what they were! After the by-now banal, de rigueur critical operations have been performed upon a text, and it somehow stands firm against the lability of its uncertain and mere “textuality,” it may be considered a candidate for entry into that Pantheon where only the gods, ghosts of heroes, and relics of past utterance are enshrined.

Gottfried Benn died in 1956. What strikes one still about Benn’s litany of lost literary themes is his declaration that “today’s generation” (the one he addressed about 85 years ago) had “nothing in hand anymore.” It is noteworthy that the bulk of what’s produced for the market today, especially in the United States, is subsumable under the rubrics he categorized as literary residues. How depressing that so many issues developed in women’s and minorities’ writings continue to take up the old, too-familiar love/family/adolescent, Bildungsroman, mother-daughter, father/son, gender-identity, class struggle topics, etc., themes worn out and exhausted in Western societies by 1914. The trajectory of writers like D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf tells us they knew those matters were useless to them after 1918. Hemingway knew it after 1929. Mary Butts tried to deal with it in her (finally republished) “Taverner” novels in the same decade when Faulkner did his best writing. Notwithstanding, it seems not to have been taken into account by most writers in English today, long after Nabokov and Beckett.

Well, worn out for white writers in Europe and America. And for those who once read them. But it follows, or should, that for those coming after those very topics were obliterated long ago. At least that’s what one could perceive in the 1950s. While it might be “incorrect” to mention it, these same attenuated themes walk our corridors like zombies, constituting the curricula of contemporary relevance in today’s university and college literature courses, pouring from “creative writing seminars” and dripping season after season from the blurbs of the catalogues of publishing houses large and small. So much for scholarship and history! Teachers and students alike are condemned to peruse what is simply not only dej? lu, but fourth, fifth…tenth pressings left from ancient harvests, lacking sustenance, sans substance. A brief glance at the cultural concerns manifested in our schools’ writing “workshops” by Asian-Americans, say, or Hispanic-Americans, or Afro-Americans shows us how the infamous wheels of cliché are invented for the Nth time. From the standpoint of newly-arrived ethnic groups, heavily-politicized and indoctrinated, it’s natural to imagine their United States was born yesterday just as they were; that Western Civilization never existed (or never should have), though most of them have but the faintest idea of the ancient societies their parents and grandparents recently came from. It would be comical were it not bathetic: a century of popular culture runs on, and is running out of reruns.

Ezra Pound in his flaming youth remarked that the history of an art is the history of its masterworks. At the turn of the 20th Century, he was attempting to clear out the fustiness of what passed for the teaching of Literature. Where are we today? What are writing and teaching now? Not only is most current verse and fiction meant as “serious” fading echoes of the lost “great themes,” Benn’s “residues,” but self-admiring pretension to be taken for novelty. Poor, benighted Pound. He wanted to “make it new.” And what have we today? Productions thinner than the ectoplasmic emanations of 19th Century “residues.” Is there a fable in Æsop illustrative of our plight? I seem to recall the miser who offered a starving wayfarer a generous bowl of soup made from reboiled stones.

In short, what seems Benn’s “long time” has already passed. Benn’s hope (if hope it was, not somber prophecy) that something should be found again may have been in vain. Will it, can it, be found? Must we wait another century? Of the making of books there is no end, as Ecclesiastes sighed well over a thousand years ago. The writer dreams of making a new, and a true book. The writer reads and reads, always hoping for such a thing. Is that dream vain? Vanity of vanities, Ecclesiastes returns. Yet if we glance again at Benn’s catalogue, can it not also be said in answer that what he terms “literary residues” were and remain precisely the perennial topoi of Literature? Seen in that perspective, could it not be asked, Was Benn simply dismissing, with a wave of the nihilist’s wand, the very subjects closest to the heart of humanity, Humanity with an “H” majuscule?

That question could be answered by a Yes, a Perhaps, or a No. One may say, Yes — if his proposition is seen against the final catastrophe for humanity that the 20th Century endowed us as its legacy, a catastrophe presently being realized on every continent, in every aspect of life, collective and individual. One may say, Perhaps — if his proposition led to the realization that the 20th Century, as seen from the future, is recognized for an “interregnum,” a trough between two huge waves of history’s turbulent ocean, a transition between everything exalted and magnificent that went before, civilizations with their permanent discoveries, and promise of something yet unrealized as the fruit of a consolidation of a world society of some lofty peak of a techno-scientific kind, a braver new world than ever Huxley predicted (and mocked) in BRAVE NEW WORLD, his 1938 novel of dystopia. One may say, No — if Benn’s proposition were taken, as I believe it was profoundly intended, matter-of-factly and simply: that indeed it “will be a long time before something is found again.” To that, one must add today, not merely some “something,” but, please — anything whatever, any thing at all!

True, the arts of different peoples and nations around the globe follow discrete developments of their own, patterns of change, of development and decay, expressing their traditions and histories. In many places, Benn’s list of “literary residues” do not seem residues, but fresh discoveries. Perhaps “new” and “old” have become terms empty of meaning. What with the instantaneous communication available around the world today, together with the domination of the media that make forms, materials, and expression a thing of immediate transmission, we seem to be witnessing and experiencing what Malraux conceptualized two generations ago as a worldwide museum-without-walls. Museums, like libraries, used once to be mostly archives, repositories of cultural objects and records into which were gathered, and impounded, works considered worth preserving, creations not merely ephemeral, and/or sub-artistic consumables like comic books or mass-produced diversions like romances, crime and spy thrillers, popular and didactic manuals of history, journalism, social commentary and so forth. Today such products are uncritically preserved regardless of quality, as part of “the record.” All popular materials, the productions of the performance arts, film and television, music, dance and drama, whatever constitutes the texture of daily life, diversions and entertainments, stored and made digitally available.

Nevertheless, what were creations of the “high” arts, sublimations of custom and tradition, tend to sink into popular expression, absorbed, and then elaborated into mechanically-varied banalities disseminated with the speed of light by the mass media.

What results however is that a permeation in the populace of etiolated forms, the “residues” or vestiges of the once-difficult to achieve, the quality of art that was but strenuously attained, if at all, debases even an accessible form like the written narrative, for example, which was what Benn considered, because it is easily manufactured to feed presses and pulping machines. What was the novel as a perpetually-remade form of high style and sophistication is, in our commerce, scarcely recognized, let alone understood. Joyce demonstrated that with FINNEGANS WAKE. John Dos Passos, who had sought to make something really new in his complex trilogy, USA, threw in the towel in 1932, protesting that it was all over with his expectations for the art of fiction in our culture (in the brief essay he wrote as an Introduction to the republication of his early novel, THREE SOLDIERS). It is not really that language itself tends to be abridged, reduced, and all thought rendered out of it, as Orwell supposed. In fact, that may not be the issue, despite the evacuation from language of meaning and thought by the media and its inevitable leveling down of quotidian human reality. Language persists in a vivid life of its own, changing and replenishing itself by neologism and pleonasm, argot and nonce words. The paradox seems rather to be taking this path: Language multiplies its lexicon, accounting for the most minute as well as immense instances of matter and life, fissiparously, as it were, while at the same time there is steadily less community of discourse. A universe of blogsters is no community. A world of “personal” videos —, or, and their many cloned avatars — may seem to offer millions whatever a “community” once was; yet the only thing its members share is a universe of advertisements, as is shown by their buyout or buy-up values, billions of instant dollars! Whatever was once, community is coming to live a global if but virtual life dictated to and broadcast by torrents of information and tsunamis of sensation. Community must both endure and integrate messages whirled through the maelstrom of a cultural universe explained perhaps by fractal and chaos theory — but not by the novel, which was once Henry James’ “loose and baggy monster” and Lawrence’s “great book of life.” That is no longer probable under such conditions, were it even possible. The community is in process of transforming itself into some sort of multiplicity-in-unity, a mosaic teeming with novelty, an everywhere at once here and nowhere, like the Scholastics’ definition of the Deity, whose center was everywhere, and circumference nowhere. Or, to coin an Orwellism twenty-three years after 1984’s 1984: WEALTH IS POVERTY.
Which leaves “Literature,” and the “literary” artist, just where? May one prophesy, may one even hope, that writers today and tomorrow, whether conscious of such a goal or not, persevere in the Sisyphean effort to reverse Gottfried Benn’s gloomy oracle, to make it read instead: Tomorrow’s generation must take in hand even nothingness, discover substance and invent its style, take up new matter for our education by apprehending and comprehending tomorrow’s information and knowledge (which perforce can contain the old); reinvent fitting belief and emotion; and design original formal structures upon a new basis, here or wherever, no matter how long a time must pass until some things that are something may be found again.

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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA

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