Over the summer, the man who sells books on the street across from my apartment had a volume of essays by Theodor Reik, Ritual: Psycho-Analytic Studies, first published in German in 1919. And in the last couple of weeks, the weeks of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’ve taken a look at a long essay called “The Shofar.” I cannot say I understand more than a small part of what Reik is driving at in this elaborate exercise in High Freudian historical criticism. But Reik is a forceful writer, and I find myself fascinated by his dramatic although perhaps finally implausible assertions about the primitive animal gods and the battle between the animal-god father and the son and how all this relates to the sounding of the shofar—which Reik interprets, if I am not mistaken, as a way of assimilating and sublimating these ancient conflicts. Reik, an aggressively secular Jew, has a high time psychoanalyzing the old time religion. Although he has rejected the meanings that religion itself provides, he cannot abandon the search for a meaning, and so he insists that the ritual is powered by some underlying force or idea.
I admire the intellectual heat of Reik’s writing. At a time such as ours, when deep meanings are out of fashion, Reik reminds me of their fascination, their grandeur, even their necessity. I am left wondering if we are now afraid to take all the gambles involved in delving beneath the surface of things. I can understand the reluctance, because the search for deep meanings all too often collapses into excess and absurdity. There are passages in Reik’s writing where the erudition is out of control, so elaborate that he loses track of any reasonable relationship between cause and effect. We have all seen how modern and postmodern theorizing can deteriorate into navel gazing, but a perfectly understandable backlash against intellectual narcissism does not justify our cultural moment when surfaces reign supreme. And anybody who imagines that the belief in deep meanings is only a modern belief—to be disposed along with the modern century just passed—is surely mistaken. All that happened in the modern world was that deep meanings were secularized. They have always been with us. And with any luck, they always will.
It is very strange, this insistence that surfaces are everything. I feel it in the slick cartoon renderings of babes with big breasts in Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings, at the David Zwirner Gallery. I sense it in the opening pages of Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, The Marriage Plot, where the realism is genial and laidback and undemanding. I gather there is nothing but the most superficial nod to romantic conventions in Peter Martins’s ballet, “Ocean’s Kingdom,” with a score by Paul McCartney. Such works, though they have surely received their share of attacks from the critics, are nevertheless expected to have a serious hold on what used to be known as the educated public. Has that public, or whatever shreds of it remain, forgotten that surfaces, no matter how diverting or for that matter how beautiful, can never be enough? Perhaps Freud and the Freudianism that shaped Reik’s essay have relatively little to tell us about the origins of religion—or, for that matter, about the origins of art. Certainly Marx, whatever his many virtues, offers a far less complete explanation of the behavior of classes and cultures than some have imagined. And no doubt Mondrian’s grandest formalist statements, such as the essay “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,” can go only a part of the way toward explaining the emotional impact of a painting or a sculpture. But at least Freud, Marx, and Mondrian believed it was worth digging. Today, everybody just gives a quick look, a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and moves to the next thing. Those who imagine they are reviving the magisterial superficiality of Oscar Wilde are sadly mistaken. Wilde could only stand out in a society obsessed with deep meanings, which he cheerfully proceeded to demonstrate generally amounted to little more than dime store moralizing.
Of course Wilde was right when he insisted that art must give us pleasure. But pleasure itself has its deep reasons, and in our anything goes moment we might do well to think again about what Kant or Hegel or Freud or, for that matter, Clement Greenberg has to tell us about the pleasures of art. We are in danger of mistaking surfaces for superficiality, when in fact the surface of a work of art—the look of the paint, the sound of the prose, the movement of the dancer’s body—is a response to and a reflection of something deep within. I found myself thinking about surfaces and depths all over again as I stood in front of the paintings by Milton Resnick, who died seven years ago, at the Cheim and Read Gallery in Chelsea. Resnick’s obsessively worked canvases, with their crazily thick impasto, will initially strike a gallerygoer as inscrutable behemoths. Soon enough, though, the homogeneity gives way, and I begin to discern an intricate play of differently colored dabs and smears and globs of paint, like glints of sunshine breaking through forest darkness. Nothing is represented. The canvas is all surface. And yet Resnick’s enigmatic abstract terrains are packed with incident and surprise. What does it all mean? I do not know. But surely his golden highlights and chiaroscuro gloom reenact older pictorial dramas, the shimmering metal of Giorgione’s helmets and the chilly shadows enveloping Caravaggio’s tragic heroes. Resnick presses us to understand what we see. And that means seeing beneath the surface. So why not bring in the Freudians, the Marxists, and the Mondrianists and see what they have to say?
Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.