I have been reading A Confederacy of Dunces. The story of its publication—rejection by publishers, reluctant discovery by Waker Percy, rapid critical and commercial success—is a familiar one, of course, and one that contains an editorial lesson. Toole submitted his manuscript to Simon and Schuster, where it was read by editor Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb recognized the book's immense merits but viewed it as a little too pointless. He wrote to Toole:
It seems that you understand the problem—the major problem—involved, but think that the conclusion can solve it. More is required, though. Not only do the various threads need resolving; they can always be tied together conveniently. What must happen is that they must be strong and meaningful all the way through—not merely episodic and then wittily pulled together to make everything look as if it's come out right. In other words, there must be a point to everything you have in the book, a real point, not just amusingness that's forced to figure itself out.
Gottlieb's criticism of the book is accurate but is also—how else to say it?—beside the point. How much of Don Quixote has a “a real point”? How much of Dead Souls? A good editor needs a strong mind but a strong editorial mind will sometimes fail by seeking to fit every peg into the same hole, by letting the deficits of a piece of writing obscure its far greater merits.
I recently read Peter Stanford's The Outcasts' Outcast: Lord Longford. Francis Pakenham, seventh Earl of Longford, was Leader of the House of Lords from 1964 to 1968 and leader of one-man crusades until his death in 2001. For his quixotism in public life, he earned special attention from the British tabloids: Campaigning against the commercialization of sex, he was styled “Lord Porn”; advocating parole for the murderess Myra Hindley, he became “Lord Wrongford.” A convert to Catholicism, he had been born to the great and the good but was friend to the low and the bad—never more so than in his backing of Hindley, who remains an icon of evil in Britain for her part in torturing and murdering five kids in early-1960s Manchester. Longford was committed to the corporal works of mercy, including prison visits (he made thousands), and he bestowed on Hindley great personal kindness and abundant legal advice. If other murderers could get out on parole, why shouldn't she? But in Hindley's case, “life imprisonment” was in fact to mean life imprisonment, as it rarely does in Britain’s liberal system—such was the public's animus toward her. (I would call Hindley's life sentence either just or too lenient, but then, I’m an American.) What remains fascinating (see the HBO biopic Longford) is how fiercely the public reviled the “Loony Lord” for his personal mercies to Hindley—for the letters and books he sent her, for his encouragement of her reconciliation with the Church. Longford's goodness to Hindley looked bad—as though only a bad man could be good to a bad woman. This of course is a Gospel crux. If it blew up on Longford, it blows up on his virtuous critics, too. Abounding in tabloid fiascos, the life of Longford makes us consider: When a good man has bad P.R., is it the good man's fault or ours?
Dominic Bouck, O.P.
Simon Tugwell's Ways of Imperfection, from 1985, is an excellent tour through the history ofChristian spirituality from the early church to Thérèse of Lisieux. Not as well known as it should be, Tugwell's British wit and excellent scholarship cast new light on the famous (and not-so-famous) authors of Christian spirituality. Tugwell emphasizes the pure gratuitousness of God's saving work in our lives, and condemns the cataloguing of spiritual progress that can be so tempting in the Christian life.
A man choses to spend an entire year of his life locked inside a cage in his home without speaking, reading, or interacting in any way with the outside world (while a friend assists him with every task necessary to staying alive). A woman fills her blouse with live eels and films herself for hours. A man stands against a blank wall and asks his assistants to shoot at him. Another spends a year physically tied to a woman he can talk to but can have no physical contact with.
This is a little game we could call “Insanity or Performance Art?,” and it is at the crux of Michelle Marder Kamhi’s recent book, Who Says That’s Art?, which offers anyone who has ever left a contemporary art museum scratching his head or muttering under his breath the chance to release a big, therapeutic sigh of relief. Kamhi first appeals to such people by legitimizing this natural aversion to most modern art—that it is not because one is not sophisticated enough, but rather that he is too clear-sighted—and then gets to work on methodically proving her point. She traces the concept of “fine art” back to its roots, then follows it to the present so that she can locate for us the “decisive turning point” at with the concept of art “broke down.” It’s her view that it is ultimately modernism’s rejection of imagery through the invention of abstract painting and sculpture, somewhere in the early years of the twentieth century, that slowly drained art of its meaning and ultimately hypnotized so many—from the media to our educational and cultural institutions—into believing that a man locking himself in a cage for a year is art. Art has become, as Warhol is said to have declared, “whatever you can get away with.”
But hasn’t this book already been written? Not quite, says Kamhi. Many recent books have attempted to bridge the gap between the public and the contemporary art world, but Kamhi says these studies generally begin with the implicit assumption that works in question are art—that virtually anything can be art, even if it wreaks havoc on our sensibilities. Dismantling this assumption, Kamhi says, is the only way to restore our sight.