The time has come to take a fresh look at the achievement of Roger Shattuck, who died in 2005 at the age of eighty-two. From his first book, The Banquet Years, published exactly half a century ago, to his last major work, Forbidden Knowledge, Shattuck was one of America's most adventuresome students of modernity, at once a celebrant of some of the wildest reaches of artistic experiment and a critic of the twentieth century's dream of unlimited, ever- expanding horizons. In The Banquet Years, he saluted a quartet of fiercely independent, indomitably idiosyncratic figures--Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire--and brought a rapturous, almost cinematic eye to his evocations of the social exhilaration of fin-de-si ècle Paris. In Forbidden Knowledge, a book composed in a beautifully dry and even laconic manner, he wondered if there are dimensions of experience, whether scientific or sexual or moral, that modern men and women, for all their overwhelming desire, cannot usefully absorb.
Shattuck combined the impishness of a trickster with the stringencies of a moralist. He was a Yankee skeptic with a taste for French hedonism. If his books, though often published to considerable acclaim, have rarely been seen as presenting a consistent vision, it may be because he continually eluded the theoretical litmus tests and tried-and-true scholarly approaches by which intellectuals tend to feel constrained. The author of three books about Proust also wrote The Forbidden Experiment, a study of a child who was discovered living without human contact in the woods in southern France in 1800, and whose story had already become the subject of Truffaut's movie The Wild Child. In his later years Shattuck became deeply troubled by what he believed was the lack of a strong curriculum in America's public schools, and was elected to a school board in Vermont, and published on the subject of education. One of his last projects was a new edition of Helen Keller's The Story of My Life, a best- selling account of the against-all-odds triumph of this woman who had become blind and deaf at nineteen months. Keller's memoir, generally regarded as a good old-fashioned celebration of American moral determination, was not a book that many people would have expected to hold the interest of one of America's most enthusiastic students of art-for-art's-sake and absurdism.
Shattuck always followed his curiosity, his instincts, his hunches. The subtitle of his last book about Proust, which brought together many of his earlier writings on the novelist, was "A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time. " Shattuck liked the idea of a field guide, a book that supplied a non- professional with all the information necessary to master a fascinating subject, whether birds or mushrooms or a great French novel. He explored quite a few different fields of knowledge. Before writing about Satie, he studied music with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Although not trained in developmental psychology or in theories about the care of the blind and the deaf, he gained a solid grasp of these subjects in order to prepare for his work on the wild child of The Forbidden Experiment and on Helen Keller. To the end Shattuck retained some of the quality of an autodidact, and it hardly seemed to make a difference that he had been a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard and taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia, and Boston University. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had started out with ambitions to be a novelist, and he never entirely gave up on fiction. A volume of poems, Half Tame, was published in 1964, and near the close of his life he was looking for a publisher for a second collection of verse. One feels that to the end Shattuck was wondering what kind of a writer he ought to be.
Taken together, Shattuck's work composes a field guide to the modern imagination--an imagination that, for better and for worse, continually questions its own nature, what is inherent and what is learned. Few students of modernity have roamed as widely as Shattuck, offering penetrating analyses not only of literature but of the visual arts and music as well. As an admirer of modern works ranging from the oceanic intricacies of Proust's novel to the sly asceticisms of Satie's piano compositions, Shattuck is fascinated by the freshness and the variety of forms that the human imagination dreams up. Yet avantgardism carries Shattuck back to the demands of tradition, which for him is not a canonical arrangement of masterworks so much as a cluster of ideas about how culture enables us to understand the world. To compose a classically logical paragraph is one way of understanding the world--and to break up that paragraph, to write episodically or with collage-like juxtapositions, is another.
It is while writing about Apollinaire's poetry in The Banquet Years that Shattuck announces his abiding theme: the never-ending struggle that Apollinaire calls "that long quarrel between Order and Adventure." For Shattuck, order and adventure are at once human principles and artistic principles--the values that a person ought to live by and the formal principles that artists shape to meet their needs. Unlike most critics and thinkers, who tend to be more strongly drawn to one value or the other, Shattuck believes, with Apollinaire before him, that there is no final resolution, and that the quarrel itself, if truly and honestly pursued, can teach us a great deal--even everything we need to know. What sets Shattuck apart from most students of the outer reaches of artistic invention is his conviction that such experiments must always be tested against some core of habit or perception. Artistic experiment becomes, in this sense, an extension of the larger experiment of being a person who lives a full life. The more I read Shattuck, the more impressed I am by his rejection of any particular ideology of aesthetic experience, whether conservative or revolutionary. Artistic expression, in his view, provides a range of forms through which artists convey their experience of the world, and without such forms we are blind and mute, locked in the marble prison that was said to have been Helen Keller's fate before the extraordinary Anne Sullivan became her teacher.
For Shattuck, the artist who comes closest to resolving the quarrel between order and adventure is Proust. He refers to In Search of Lost Time as "this ultimate monument to the artistic vocation," the work of a man who is absolutely alive to the unpredictability and variability of life and to the ordering possibilities of art. What Shattuck loves about Proust is that for him nothing is one way. The Search is at once a dazzling celebration of quotidian experience, animated by life in all its variegated aspects, and a formal experiment of the most extreme and relentlessly singular kind, in its own way as strange as a poem by Mallarme. What Proust asks, according to Shattuck, is "how much of one's multitudinous self can a person reveal or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense: it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once." So it is no surprise that "the scope of action and reflection encountered in the Search exceeds the capacity of one mind to hold it all together at one time." The book must embrace many forms of order--and for Shattuck, who is by nature a pluralist, this is at the heart of its greatness. Proust becomes "the portraitist of an expiring society, the artist of romantic reminiscence, the narrator of the laminated 'I,' the classicist of formal structure--all these figures have been found in Proust.... All are present as discernible components of his vision and his creation." The work of art as a formal invention must keep shifting and transmogrifying so as to respond to the changing nature of experience. And the process does not end even when the work of art is completed, for the greatest works, as Shattuck observes at the end of Proust's Way, affect readers in different ways at different points in their lives.
Shattuck's refusal to see the work of art as existing in splendid isolation does not mean that he is any less attentive to its freestanding value. The fascination of his standpoint is that he eludes the pieties of both formalism and anti-formalism. For Shattuck, works of literature and art are fixed points in a fluid universe, products of experience that stand apart from experience, which we see in different ways, depending on our own circumstances. In The Banquet Years, his interest is in how extreme ways of living can provoke extreme forms of artistic expression, and each of his four cases is peculiar for different reasons. Henri Rousseau is perhaps the strangest of all: a man with scattershot academic training who began as a Sunday painter and pushed his own style, with its smoothly finished surfaces and powerfully stylized animal and vegetal forms, into paintings of luscious jungles and twilit deserts and dreamy Parisian suburbs that have the capacity, like certain dreams, to be simultaneously disquieting and consoling. The paintings, Shattuck observes, have a coherence that "can be regarded as the all-absorbing presence of Nature, or, better, as the singleness of Rousseau's internal eye." And the particular poetry of the paintings, so Shattuck wants us to understand, is somehow an emanation of the man, about whom a close friend later observed that "Rousseau always remained an enigma for me. Was he a man mystified by everything, or was there something of the mystifier in him?"
As we follow the protagonists of The Banquet Years, we can see that for Shattuck each of their fiercely idiosyncratic lives becomes the staging ground for the alternative reality that is a work of art. Of Satie, Shattuck writes: "Greatness was not a quality Satie valued, and he was not a 'great' musician. For being singular, for being humble and joyous and wise, both man and work are unforgettable." As for Alfred Jarry, who was thirty-four when he died in 1907, his life and legend centered around the character of P ère Ubu, an obese and wildly scatological figure who first appeared on the stage in Ubu Roi in December 1896, a performance so scandalous that it was not repeated until after Jarry's death. Jarry, a willfully stylized and eccentric personality, regarded his life in Paris as every bit as much of a Rabelaisian act as Ubu's appearances on the printed page. Shattuck likes the comic dimension of Jarry, the side that produced volcanic, manic figures, human beings who are little more than primitive marionettes. And he admires 'Pataphysics, the absurdist science that Jarry dreamed up--the study of "the laws which govern exceptions," which would interest Shattuck for much of his life. "He lived a contortion," Shattuck writes, "and twisted himself inside out. His soul was, after all, an assemblage of tics." Shattuck is not indifferent to Jarry's belief that "anything can be its opposite," although he will also admit that "Jarry frequently becomes inaccessible. That is to be expected. The true source of astonishment is that the apparently disparate elements of his career should finally mesh. His biography, his legend, and his literary work are so organically combined that, strange to say, no sustained effort to isolate one from another aids in explaining him." For Shattuck, Jarry may have had some of the dark fascination of a doppelganger, pointing toward a fusion of art and life so total that it shatters all the recognizable categories, moving ineluctably toward obscurantism if not downright incoherence.
For readers who were provoked by The Banquet Years, Shattuck emerged in the 1960s as an avatar of bohemianism and the avant-garde. In a powerful early chapter, "Four Men: Four Traits," he celebrated "the childlike and absurd, dream and ambiguity," as the keys not only to these four men but also to the new century--the century that would shortly give birth to Dadaism and Surrealism, "surrealism" being a term coined by Apollinaire. But even in The Banquet Years, a young man's book published when Shattuck was in his mid- thirties, there is a tempered edge to the analysis, a sense of the limits of the very traits he has set out to celebrate. Writing of Apollinaire, Shattuck compares him to "a surfboard rider who balances in easy triumph on the crest of a wave," and observes that in a time when great ideas came less easily or were institutionalized or were conventionalized he would not have seemed so much in control-- "he would sink in a flat sea." While Shattuck admires Apollinaire's "flexible sensibility," he does not imagine that the power of such a sensibility is unlimited. And if he recognizes that "the childlike and absurd, dream and ambiguity are means of reaching inside ourselves to extract what education and society have buried," he is under no illusions as to where we would be without "education and society." The heroes of The Banquet Years are not na ïve, not by any means. If they reject sophistication, their acts are the acts of sophisticated men.
After the publication of The Banquet Years, Shattuck might have been expected to follow the story of modern experimentation deeper into the twentieth century, and by his own account he did work on "an unfinished book on Dada and Surrealism," parts of which were later gathered in an essay collection called The Innocent Eye. He certainly never lost his avidity for experimental art. The Innocent Eye includes a forceful defense of one of Apollinaire's most vehemently unconventional works, the picture poem "Ocean-Letter." Shattuck freely admits to having treated this work "in cavalier fashion" earlier in his career, dismissing as unreadable Apollinaire's words arranged in circles and rays, but now the poem strikes him as bearing comparison to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Shattuck's last essay collection, Candor and Perversion, includes a spirited celebration of Arp, the artist who began as a Dadaist and turned into something of a classicist, and whose art and life he describes as a felicitous fairy tale, "forever new, and forever the same," at once "alive" and "old-fashioned."
If Shattuck left his investigations of Dada and Surrealism unfinished, it was because he knew that he needed a wider canvas on which to explore the relationship between order and adventure. In this context, it is fascinating to turn from The Banquet Years to The Forbidden Experiment, the study of the wild child discovered in southern France in 1800. For if The Banquet Years focuses on men such as Jarry, Apollinaire, and Satie, who were rebelling against their training, The Forbidden Experiment explores the extent to which we must be trained to become expressive human beings. The case of the wild child of Aveyron, discovered at the age of eleven or twelve after living in the woods by himself for some period of years, electrified the educated classes in France, who were already immersed in Enlightenment ideas about man's natural state. The boy was taken to Paris, where he eventually came under the guidance of a medical student named Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard. For a time Itard dedicated all of his energies to teaching the boy, now named Victor, the rudiments of language. He wanted Victor to be able to communicate with others and live in society. But Victor's progress was never as great as Itard had hoped it might be. The book is a tragedy, the story of a young man who cannot become fully human. Shattuck leaves us with the conviction that the ability to think deep thoughts, to communicate, to love--the capacities that we regard as fundamental to our nature--are to some not inconsiderable degree acquired behavior. It turns out that there can be no human adventure without a very strong dose of human order, which suggests that those modernists who reveled in the rejection of tradition and convention were indeed playing with fire.
Shattuck's most sustained investigation of the significance of tradition and convention is in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, published in 1996. I find it significant that the word "forbidden" appears in the title of two of Shattuck's essential books. For Shattuck, a fundamentally liberal spirit, liberal pieties may have been the forbidden realm, which he explored with a care and an intelligence very rare in our time. "Are there things we should not know?" Shattuck asks on the first page of Forbidden Knowledge. "Can anyone or any institution, in this culture of unfettered enterprise and growth, seriously propose limits on knowledge?" Shattuck does not even attempt to supply definitive answers to these questions. He prefers to proceed in a speculative spirit. He begins by underscoring the ancientness of these questions in Genesis and the Garden of Eden, in Paradise Lost, and in the various versions of the Faust legend. In part, Forbidden Knowledge is a work of literary criticism, with studies of Melville and Camus. Shattuck explores the question of whether there should ever be limits placed on scientific inquiry, discussing the development of the atomic bomb and the potential of DNA research to alter the makeup of human beings. He looks at the work of the Marquis de Sade, and examines the arguments as to whether sexual predators have been emboldened or inspired by reading such works. And he considers the work of literary artists who were sexually celibate or abstinent, especially Emily Dickinson, and reflects on her ability nevertheless to create works that penetrate to the deepest recesses of human feeling. The book does not quite come together, but perhaps that is the way Shattuck meant it to be. This is a study in which lines of inquiry are opened up, in which we are led in certain directions and encouraged to think further on our own.
Forbidden Knowledge might be said to be The Banquet Years turned inside out. In The Banquet Years, creativity depends on the rejection of conventions or limitations. In Forbidden Knowledge, the workings of the imagination are sometimes strengthened by the acceptance of those same restrictions. Dickinson emerges as almost the opposite of Apollinaire or Jarry. She is the writer who gains access to the unlimited uses of the imagination by accepting a straitened way of life. "Free of prudishness," Shattuck writes, "Dickinson's exultant abnegation contained a strong component of aestheticism. The pleasures she sought tended not toward paroxysm that overwhelms the mind but toward a heightened awareness that mediates between intensity and moderation." I do not think that Shattuck had any intention of choosing between Apollinaire and Dickinson; he recognized the power of both their positions. And although he has grave doubts about the value of De Sade's writings, he is clearly opposed to the censorship of literature. What worries him is the line of thinking that celebrates experimentation for its own sake, in science or in art. Experimentation to what end? Experimentation in relation to what? These are his insistent questions. "I suggest," he writes toward the close of Forbidden Knowledge, "that the lesson of the history of curiosity is one of pace and timing. Can we still control our own velocity? Our rate of change? Are we courting the fate of Icarus?" The question is whether we can sustain the headlong, exuberant spirit of experiment that was kicked off by the Banquet Years, and do so without allowing experimentation to degenerate into nihilism.
While there is surely an underlying unity to Shattuck's widely variegated thoughts, he was a man whose positions struck some people as shifting--and not always in the most productive direction. Scholars who, early in their careers in the 1970s, had looked to him as an apostle of the French avant-garde reacted with unease, if not dismay, when they heard him in the 1980s sounding off like an old-fashioned humanist or preaching against the perils of experimentation. Some might have been surprised that at Boston University, where he taught in the 1990s, this connoisseur of bohemianism helped to create a Great Books program. He was also an important figure in the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a organization created in 1994 as an alternative to the MLA, which has had the reputation of being neoconservative or reactionary in its outlook.
What Shattuck himself thought about all this we cannot know. He was a reticent man, and I imagine that he counted on his reticence to carry him through many a bumpy time. Shattuck had been an army pilot during World War II, and there was about him a physical aplomb that many will associate with the aviator's skills, a connection between the craft of flying and certain personal qualities that he himself acknowledged in an essay about the Wright Brothers that he published in The New York Review of Books toward the end of his life. You might not quite see how Shattuck could get from Erik Satie to Helen Keller, but somehow he proved that it could be done. With his elegantly etched features and trim athletic physique, he had the aura of a cool customer, and nobody without that kind of inner confidence could have kept his head after the success of The Banquet Years, a book which in the decade after its publication came to be associated with the yeasty, unpredictable, improvisational, anti- formalist side of the modern movement. The Banquet Years fit right in with a new mood that was overtaking American campuses and theaters and museums in the 1960s, and was reflected in the fast-growing enthusiasm for Duchamp, in the performances of the Living Theater, and in the essays collected in Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. The art-collecting protagonist of B.H. Friedman's novel Whispers, published in 1972, picks up a copy of the paperback edition of The Banquet Years at LaGuardia Airport and reflects that the 1960s are the Banquet Years all over again, only new and improved.
Shattuck went to Yale before the war and was a junior fellow at Harvard in the 1950s. Those were the decades when the New Criticism was at the height of its influence, and if Shattuck never lost his feeling for the freestanding value of the work of art, the value upon which Eliot had most insisted, he could still see that art and life fed off each other, nourished each other. In some unpublished notes made in the early 1950s, when he was beginning work on The Banquet Years, Shattuck acknowledged that "the new critics have made their point and we will no longer with impunity walk from the text into the man." And yet he worried that "literature begins to become something of an orphan." He compared a work of art to "a fallen comet, come down blazing and wonderful," and he wanted to find a way to write about such works of art that "will serve to give us insight not merely into a work of art--a fallen, cold, heavy stone, awesome but dead--but into a human mind."
Where this thinking led Shattuck was toward a way of writing about art that could not do without the biographical dimension. His approach already had a strong tradition in the United States, in the work of Lewis Mumford, Van Wyck Brooks, and Edmund Wilson, and Wilson remained one of Shattuck's heroes throughout his life. Like Mumford and Wilson, Shattuck had a horror of specialization. He believed that a writer ought to be able to tackle any subject--whether a poem's structure or an author's love life--in the same direct and intuitive manner, using the same analytical tools. Like Mumford and Wilson, who took such pride in tackling difficult sociological or philosophical topics without any particular training in those disciplines, Shattuck was eager to plunge into questions of moral philosophy or medical ethics with nothing but his own gut sense to guide him. It is not surprising that Shattuck received an especially warm response among non-specialists, who valued the flexibility and the immediacy of his thought.
Shattuck was sometimes accused of backing away from aesthetic innovation as he grew older--an accusation, incidentally, that was also leveled against Wilson. In neither case was the accusation fair. At the end of his life Shattuck was writing about Pierre Michon, an innovative contemporary French writer with a strong following among the young. In Vermont he spent his tenure on a local school board pushing for a curriculum based on classic texts and a solid grounding in the fundamentals of Western culture. At the same time, he was collecting in his home all the curious, quirky, sometimes exuberantly anarchic publications of the Coll ège de 'Pataphysique, the French organization that celebrated Jarry's absurdist "science of imaginary solutions" and with which he had been involved for much of his life. Forbidden Knowledge might be said to tackle some of the themes that had interested the neoconservatives in the 1980s, especially the question of the centrality of convention to the creative act. Yet Shattuck always avoided the neoconservatives' biggest mistake, which was to deny the beguilements of experimentation.
Shattuck confronted, more honestly perhaps than any critic in our time, the paradoxes that are inherent in the freestanding integrity of the work of art. The formalists believe that art is a moral law unto itself, and this idea has turned out to have a polemical power for thinkers on the right and on the left. For neoconservatives, formalism is all too often a way of insulating art from the confusions of life, and this can lead to an art that is not only autonomous, but lacking in energy and point. On the cultural left, the formalist argument can become a way of boosting the salacious or nihilistic or polemical quality of a work of art, which is understood to be beyond the reach of criticism. In Forbidden Knowledge, Shattuck proposes a far more subtle approach to formal values: that although they do exist, they can never be entirely separated from other values--that, indeed, we would not want them to be. His argument is gradualist, exploratory, speculative in the best sense: profoundly liberal.
I find it significant that the book of poems Shattuck published in the 1960s is titled Half Tame. Shattuck takes his poetry very seriously. And when, in the concluding poem, he confesses that it is the poet himself who is "half tame," he comes as close as he ever will to defining his own place in the argument between order and adventure. The work in question, "Nora's Poem," is an offering to the poet's wife, who had danced with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in the 1940s and to whom Shattuck was married for some fifty years:
I do a wicked lindy when I'm drunk
I limp like a crippled lobster
so I fell yes fell for a dancer
to spite my feet and spoil my pride
and the rest came tumbling
to see me
you might even think I was easy
to live with
The poet sees himself as a man of contradictions who struggles to reconcile his contradictions, as a man who, like most "normal" people, is "half tame." And the critic sees art in the same light. Nobody would want an art that was entirely tame. Then again, most of us would not want an art that was entirely wild. But how wild is wild enough? And how tame is tame enough? These are the questions that Roger Shattuck never stopped asking. They are the questions that true lovers of art and literature and music and theater ask every day of their lives.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.
This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.