Wednesday, April 23, 2014

We should gloat over a book - De Quincey and Stevenson make criticism personal

Thomas De Quincey, insists Pykk.  All right, all right.  “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), less than two thousand words.  Here are the first 6%:

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth.  It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account.  The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

To crush De Quincey’s masterpiece, what he is doing is trying to pin down a particularly sublime moment at the end of Act II, Scene 3, sublime in the Burkean sense, the aestheticized fear caused by “Sound and Loudness” and “Suddenness,” the titles of Sections XVII and XVIII of A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), although De Quincey, by making a devious argument about readerly sympathy actually inverts Burke.

We are almost tricked by the immediacy of fiction into sympathy with the now-murderous Macbeths, aided by the difficulties they are having in being evil, and thus experience the sudden, inexplicable knocking at the gate as fearfully sublime with the “transfigured” Macbeths, while at the same time the knocking is a sublime relief to us in our more ordinary human capacity as non-murderers, a merciful restoration: “the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.”

Well, I don’t think my mangling of this little masterpiece was too severe.  But I have skipped the point, and the long paragraph about how De Quincey made the above argument.

… my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected.  In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect.  But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it.

“[I]t is a dream-mystery, and a dream needs someone to dream it,” writes Pykk.  Now that his essay exists as a text, I can treat it as an object composed of an argument and supporting evidence.  But the essay’s insight comes from somewhere else.

De Quincey’s essay is a little too visionary to be a good example for me.  I will close this little series, then with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), which begins:

In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.  The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.  It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood.

What could be more personal?  Reading, says Stevenson, is a continual attempt to recapture a childhood love.  Of course modern readers, amateur critics, and bloggers writing their personal reactions and nothing but, nosirree, want to share that love whenever they are lucky enough to find it again.  Of course they want to gloat.


  1. This idea of a book as something that makes you "rapt clean out of yourself" and infests and pollutes you (restating Stevenson in less positive words), is there in the de Quicey but not, from your description, in the Austen memoir or other books like it; the chapters structured and the lessons learnt on time, etc, whereas de Quincey is performing criticism like an exorcism, the text absorbing the victim, filling his mind, making him incapable of sleep or continuous thought; the criticism performed in order to free him, and the magic act of possession finally identified and named.

    (Where am I going with this? Maybe it doesn't matter so much whether a writer mixed biography with criticism or literature with memoir, what matters is that the reader believes that this criticism is an intelligent struggle against a potentially-overpowering magic.)

  2. Oh so true. Those books had had the gloating and rapture pounded out of them. By whom and for what purpose, well.

    You are right to change Stevenson's terms. To some temperaments, he might as well be making the case against fiction in that passage.

  3. I like De Quincey's passages, his language seems to hesitate, he understands he can't really explain the effect the knocking has on him, but criticism is an invitation to try to make sense of things. Essay of course means attempt, and it takes people into interesting suppositions.

  4. "hesitate," that's good. De Quincey turns to criticism as the only tool he's got.

    The haste or carelessness or - please find some words more positive than those - of book blogs emphasizes that old meaning of "essay." Try and try again. Once in a while something works, although rarely as well as "On the Knocking at the Gate."

  5. The definition of "essay" meaning to test something is really attractive here. My favorite book blogging, at any rate, is less about drawing conclusions than it is about advancing hypotheses and inviting debate.

    The possible weakness of this sort of personal essay about art is that the essayist might be actually talking about some paratextual stuff rather than the art he's allegedly focused on, not realizing that the art reminds him of something he'd rather talk about instead. If you know what I mean. I'm not sure I do. Perhaps I'll try again in a bit.

  6. These two know how to title an essay. I recognize Stevenson's feelings though I disagree that it is an attempt to recapture childhood pleasures. I do agree though that modern readers, etc., do want to share the love and gloat when they find it, it's all part of the fun :)

  7. In 'The Vision of Sudden Death' he repeats the trick of the master with the temporal condition reversed. First you get the soothing normal and then you get the fright.

  8. I'm just sorry that De Quincey and Stevenson had to settle for Shakespeare when they clearly could have gloated more over Gone Girl and The Hunger Games franchise so far has "literature" and criticism advanced since their humble beginnings.

  9. I would link to a 5 year old D. G. Myers piece titled "To Blog is To Essay," but he says too many nice things about me in it, so I can't link to it, because of my humility.

    Stevenson and De Quincey both seem like writers acutely aware of the "paratextual stuff." Their answer is to get it out there, just write about it. Thus Stevenson's constant return to childhood pleasures. Or his oblique references to his lifelong illness ("bright, troubled").

    Like Stefanie, I have some doubts about this childhood business. But Stevenson should be the patron critic of the so-called genre crowd. Sorry, Richard, but Stevenson was a Hunger Games kind of guy. He was a so-called Young Adult writer! And he claimed that his favorite book was the enormous third volume of the Three Musketeers series, on grounds essentially the same as those in the passage up above.

    I had to not just look up but read a bot of "The Vision of Sudden Death," a chunk of The English Mail Coach, to be sure I had read it before. I have such a hard time remembering De Quincey. I am clearly due for a reread.

    1. Ah, now you made me go look for it.

      In case anyone's interested, here it is:

    2. Being so humble, that was certainly not my intent.

      I can hardly believe that was five years ago. I gotta come up with another Golem Week.