ROGER SHATTUCK, professor of French at the University of Virginia, is best known for a book published in 1958 and titled The Banquet Years. It was a study of the avant-garde in France just-before the first war (1885 to about 1913). Since that first book, Shattuck has written on Proust, published some poet"ry, and done a good deal of translating as well as a lot of occasional reviewing. It is the occasional essays and reviews that are mainly represented in The Innocent Eye, along with four new studies written expressly for this volume.
Without putting aside his interest in Jarry and Apollinaire, Shattuck has embarked here on a wide-ranging survey of "modern literature and the arts." His book includes, in a partial accounting, essays on Dada and Surrealism, on Malraux, Stravinsky, Artaud, Duchamp, Magritte, Baudelaire, Val,ery, Balzac, Meyer Schapiro, and a cultural congress of 1935 -- as well as more general discussions of the histrionic ego, modernism, and critical methodologies.
Culturally, his concerns are France (primary) and the United States (secondary); chronologically, he is mainly interested in "middle-distance" modernism. Within these generous and indefinite limits, he casts a very wide net; and as Shattuck is a man of great ingenuity as well as copious reading, few careful readers will depart from these essays without mental enrichment. The prose is mostly clear and effective -- not always as economical as one could want and on occasion more allusive than will appeal to unprofessional readers. But in the main Shattuck sets forth his subjects with the lucidity and order of a good teacher; he is at the same time a stiff polemicist, who does not hesitate to make known his own point of view toward the topics under discussion.
Yet in the end a reader is likely to emerge from the book with the sense of a curious ambivalence in the author's mind -- an ambivalence that reflects back to an expression in the subtitle of his first book, and which is almost, if not entirely, absent from this one. The term is avant-garde; and as a metaphor it practically radiates implications and directives. The avant-garde is an elite band of advanced thinkers; the fact that they are ahead of everybody else implies a general sense of direction, perhaps even progress. That some are ahead and some behind at least implies that everyone is going in more or less the same direction. About a quarter of the essays in this new collection directly challenge such an assumption, and a number of others intimate major doubts. "The Demon of Originality," "The Histrionic Sensibility," and "The Poverty of Modernism" -- such titles speak for themselves.
EVEN MORE STRIKING is the central thesis of "How to Rescue Literature": the way, according to Shattuck, is to read poetry (and presumably prose as well) aloud. This seems an extreme, not to say a simplistic position; and it leaves open to question the rationale for reading, not to mention writing about, the sort of intricate and privately allusive texts that Shattuck has hitherto made his primary business. This isn't just a matter of French literature or modern literature; analysis and exegesis are required if one is to understand, even in the most rudimentary way, poems like Milton's "Lycidas" or Verlaine's "Resignation." Until one has learned something about the poem's background, its patterns of association, the specific charge of what it does and does not do, to hear it recited is like hearing a poem chanted in a completely unfamiliar tongue. You can get something from it, but not much; and as for "rescuing literature" . . . poor literature!
But Shattuck thinks her in desperate straits. His phrases "the poverty of modernism" and "the demon of originality" seemed to this reader elements of a much larger argument than Shattuck has allowed himself to embark upon. Originality is certainly, in the late 20th century, a matter of sounding new variations on old themes -- but so it was for Propertius and Vergil, and probably for Homer too. As for the poverty of modernism, no doubt the word and the concept have proved themselves empty (as, for that matter, the word and concept of "youth" are self-devouring); but that human nature and the resources of the alphabet have been exhausted is as much an article of private faith as the contrary belief.
Still, one doesn't have to find Shattuck's dispiriting new conclusions convincing, to find his arguments stimulating. The Innocent Eye is not half as innocent a book as its title suggests; it will contribute, indirectly as well as directly, to the sophistication of its readers -- and a good thing, too.