Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Re-reading _The Apes of God_

THE APES OF GOD was the second or third Lewis novel I read; I know I read Tarr first, but I no longer recall whether I read The Revenge for Love or Apes second. This was a good long while ago, I should mention, back when I was in graduate school. I'd rather not say exactly how many years--let's just say it was during the Reagan administration, and the Black Sparrow edition by Paul Edwards had just appeared. I remember, too, that I was curious about it partly because it had been cited in Fran Leibowitz's essay "Notes on 'Trick'."  That's how long ago it was.

I would say that out of every, say, thirty people to whom I mention that I'm deeply interested in Lewis, perhaps one asks for a book recommendation. I usually say Tarr, or The Revenge for Love, or Self-Condemned; at least a few times, I've suggested Snooty Baronet. To one particular, very unusual young man, I recommended The Childermass. I would never, ever recommend The Apes of God--too long, too strange, too plotless, too devoid of the usual kind of pleasures novels provide. Nonetheless, The Apes of God is what hooked me. After reading it, I had to find more Lewis, and figure out what was going on.

I've meant to reread it for years--well, now's the time. At the moment, I'm about 300 pages in.

The premise on which the satire rests in The Apes of God--that the wealthy and powerful have forsaken the role of being the patrons of art for the more stimulating and glorious role of being artists themselves--can be partly elucidated by Jacques Rancière's conception of the "aesthetic" regime in the history of art, which emerges about the era of the French Revolution and English Romanticism.  In Rancière's aesthetic regime, artists break with what had been prevailing notions of what art ought to represent (and what it ought never to represent)  and how it ought to represent it, even break with the prevailing notions of what counted as art, what registered as art, what could even be seen as art. Fragments, ruins, the drawings of children or the insane, folk ballads--efforts that might have registered earlier as incomplete, primitive, unfinished, defaced--began to seem to have an authenticity and immediacy that made them more completely "art" than conventional art could be.

If important art was that which departed from what art had long been supposed to be, the artist was almost necessarily in opposition--to society, to patrons, to his or her audience. So the 19th century becomes the century of the artist whose biography is a record of struggles against incomprehension and rigid expectations: Beethoven, Wagner, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Manet, Cezanne, Dickinson, Whitman. 

Under earlier "regimes" (early modernity, basically--say, 16th to 18th centuries) an individual (or institution) made visible his or her (its) power, wealth, influence, intelligence, and taste by commissioning the most skilled available craftsman to paint, carve, design, or compose something that could body forth his/her/its vision of what mattered. In the 19th century, though, the power, influence, intelligence, and vision being made visible were increasingly those of the no-longer-so-humble craftsman--that is, the artist. The patron was, almost be definition, someone who did not get it.  In these circumstances, why settle for being the patron?  Why not be the artist? Why not use one's wealth, if one had it, to support one's own art?

Lewis had so firm an idea of the seriousness and importance of art and so strong a conviction that only a few individuals in any generation were truly artists that the proliferation of wealthy amateur artists in 1920s London struck him not as merely ridiculous, but as an outrage. Since to be an artist was to create, a divine prerogative, those who were only pretending to be artists were aping God.

All right.  But can this idea support a novel that runs 650 pages? An essay, certainly--the Lewisian "encyclical" that in the novel is given by Horace Zagreus to Dan Boleyn. A novella, certainly.  But is it too much a phenomenon of London High Bohemia, circa 1925, to sustain so long a fiction?

The answer seems, obviously, "yes," so I was amazed to come across this passage in the last n + 1, in an essay (another one) on the dismal prospects these days for artists and intellectuals:

One possibility, and the worst, would be to see the next decades exacerbate the class character of culture.  In this scenario, since very few people not already wealthy would risk careers as writers or artists, certain vital strains of culture would become, more exclusively than today, the expression of an upper-class stratum. A basic relegation of literature, art, and philosophy to pastimes of the idly rich (as, say in prerevolutionary France) doesn't seem impossible. (page 14)

Prerevolutionary France and 1920s London, my young friend, although I don't suppose the lit classes at your university included The Apes of God.

Lewis! Thou shouldst be living at this hour!  Your audience has at last arrived.

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