Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, by Ihab Hassan
Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel.
by Ihab Hassan.
Princeton University Press. 362 pp. $6.00.
The impulse behind Ihab Hassan’s ambitious study of the younger American writers is admirable, but the book he has written about this generation of novelists is in many ways unsatisfying. Mr. Hassan is a critic who looks at literature in a moral perspective—or, to use the more fashionable phrase he himself prefers, he is concerned with the existential meaning of literature. As a result, his consideration of recent American novels reflects a commendable broadness of mind and a sympathetic willingness to follow sensitive young writers through the subterranean windings of their sundry spiritual quests. And the humane spirit of Mr. Hassan’s critical orientation is happily mirrored in the freshness and verve of his style. He has a gift for bringing a novelist’s distinctive qualities into bright focus through the liveliness of his own critical language. Thus Mr. Hassan describes the “nocturnal” phase of Truman Capote’s work: “The liquid, dreamy density of sentences absorbed the shock of action and the thrust of sense.” Or he deftly characterizes the language of Augie March: “At its true best, the style circles round the ragged edge of poetry, refracting a thousand gay and broken lights.”
But beyond such moments of local illumination, Mr. Hassan’s book rarely reveals any new critical insight into the novels it discusses. What is chiefly at fault, it seems to me, is the theoretical framework in which this study sets the contemporary American novel. The writer devotes more than a third of his book to establishing an “approach” to his subject, but the scheme so laboriously worked out is neither very original in itself nor very useful as a critical tool for dealing with the novels. Mr. Hassan begins with a twenty-five-page consideration of “The Modern Self in Recoil,” that is, the emergence of the anti-hero in modern European fiction. Then he backs up to examine the distinctive nature of the hero in the American novel from its beginnings to Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Not quite through with his preparations, Mr. Hassan now presents a sociological view of postwar America in order to determine what is the spirit of the times. Having set himself such an impossibly large task, Mr. Hassan can scarcely be blamed for not saying anything vitally new about Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, Camus, Mark Twain, and Henry James, the impact of Hiroshima, and the rise of the organization man—each of which he feels impelled to grapple with in the space of a paragraph or two. The distinctions he makes are generally intelligent and carefully formulated, yet they seem to hang at loose ends in the sphere of familiar generalities and do not prove very helpful in tying up our understandings about modern literature.
The image of the hero in contemporary fiction which this book presents is, as the title indicates, an individual in a state of “radical innocence”—radical because its expressions are extreme, even violent, and because it goes to the root of the self; innocence because it is a condition in which the self clings stubbornly to some vision of an ideal existence. Since the individual encounters in the world around him an enormous pressure of resistance to his own dream of perfection, one of two paths is left open to him: to become a rebel or a victim. But there is certainly little novelty in the idea that the dominant figure in the serious novel today is a suffering hero or a saintly criminal. The very titles of some of the widely read works of criticism of the last five years—The Outsider, The Vanishing Hero, The Picaresque Saint—indicate what a familiar critical theme Mr. Hassan has taken for his central argument.
The condition of victimhood or rebellion which seems to be the inevitable lot of the hero of our times is usually the most obvious fact about the novel in which he appears; and precisely for this reason, the general concept of radical innocence is not particularly useful in the act of criticism. Because most of the novels Mr. Hassan discusses are clearly about rebels or victims, the critic’s only function, once he has completed his admittedly expert retelling of the stories, is a matter of taxonomy: the protagonist of Novel A is genus, rebel, species, snarling; the protagonist of Novel B, genus, victim, species, Christ-like, and so forth. To be fair to Mr. Hassan, I must say that he carries out this procedure of classification with a great deal of sensitivity and precision; but having begun with the obvious, he rarely is able to get very far away from it.
The drawbacks, moreover, inherent in the theoretical scheme of Radical Innocence, are compounded by the author’s weakness for archetypal criticism. He approaches American literature with a set of overarching mythological concepts: Eden and Utopia, Faust and Christ, the mythic American Self and the aboriginal Self (whatever they are supposed to be). One trouble with archetypes in literary criticism is that their very universality limits their utility in dealing with the specific work of literature, and, like Freudian symbols, they have a way of popping up everywhere once you begin to look for them. In a certain sense, it may be correct to describe Holly Golightly, the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as a “whimsical child of old Faust”; but surely Mr. Hassan gives too much weight to Capote’s slender work by presenting its protagonist at all in Faustian terms.
The literary form of the novel itself is even regarded as archetypal—a kind of Quest for the Grail, or an Orpheus-descent—“a spiritual journey, a process, an existential encounter.” Quite naturally, novels which are not accounted for by this rather special definition are likely to be partly misread by Mr. Hassan. He writes, for example, of The Wapshot Chronicle that “it seeks to capture the reflections of eternity in the eyes of Harlequin.” The imaginative persuasiveness of Mr. Hassan’s prose almost leads us to overlook the element of exaggeration in his statement. John Cheever’s charming New Yorker-weight novel does have something to do with meaning and value because, like all novels, it is about human beings; but it seems a little farfetched to imagine The Wapshot Chronicle as an existential quest in a comic key.
Mr. Hassan, concerned as he is with this figure of long-suffering existential man, not only reads him into novels where he may not be present, but also sees an archetype for existential man where none exists. His quasi-Jungian method clearly demands some mythic prototype for the figure of existential man, and since Adam, Christ, and Faust will not quite do, Mr. Hassan settles on Job. Now, existential man, as Radical Innocence itself uses the term, is a creature who is flung into an utterly meaningless world and who struggles bravely or desperately to create his own meaning. But there is not the slightest hint of a meaningless world in the Book of Job; on the contrary, Job is very certain of the meaning that should obtain in the world, and he protests (but does not rebel) because the just order he knows should exist has not extended itself to his own experience.
In view of Mr. Hassan’s fondness for archetypes, it is not surprising that he should make frequent use of Northrop Frye’s challenging but also highly challengeable Anatomy of Criticism. Working with the broad categories set up by Frye, Mr. Hassan asserts that “In our age, the form of fiction . . . conforms, more than anything else, to the spirit and shape of irony.” We all have some notion of what the spirit of irony is, but the burden of proof is upon Mr. Hassan to show that irony has a shape—detectable in literary form—and to indicate exactly what that shape is. The contours of this shape of irony must possess amoeboid flexibility to take in such divergent works of literature as Malamud’s The Assistant, Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Bellow’s Seize the Day, and the Book of Job. In page after page, Mr. Hassan refers to the ironic form of the novels he is considering, but he is exasperatingly elusive about offering a definition of irony, not to speak of ironic form, in the novel. Finally, in the epilogue to Radical Innocence, we discover a paragraph that deals with the general nature of irony. Irony, we are informed, “intercedes between poles of experience, unites the terrible and the ludicrous. . . .” This is perhaps helpful but not yet a definition. Then, after some interesting if cryptic reflections on the moral qualities of irony, Mr. Hassan at last defines his key term: “irony appears as the response of the human intelligence to absurdity, and, beyond absurdity, to death.” The definition in itself is thoroughly debatable, and, as any reader of Sartre or Camus will recognize, it is precisely the standard definition of existentialism promulgated by the French atheistic school. What Mr. Hassan is saying, then, is that these existential novels are ironic, and have an ironic form, which means, ultimately, that they are existential and have an existential form—whatever that may be.
This sort of circularity of argument, however, merely reflects the central weakness of Radical Innocence: its failure to find adequate connections between its broad moral concerns and the specifically literary nature of the texts it seeks to illuminate. One feels at many points that Mr. Hassan, precisely because he is looking for a moral pattern, does not see deeply enough into the novels as novels. An obvious fault, for example, in Augie March is the curious let-down of imagination once Augie leaves the convincing reality of Bellow’s Chicago for a Mexican never-never land hazy with reminiscences of D. H. Lawrence and hints of mythic quest. But for Mr. Hassan, the Mexican episode of Augie is “a meaningful and symbolic contrast” to the Chicago scenes; “within the compass of a single action. . . Bellow brings to life the ideas of love and death, illusion and reality, city and nature, social power and individual freedom.” Mr. Hassan unfortunately insists on seeking out in fiction these looming categories of moral life: when they are not present, he is likely to overvalue the novel in finding them; when they are present, they usually have been made so explicit by the novelist himself—for these are serious novels, not great ones—that the critic has nothing new to tell us.