Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"The aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr Johnson"

Auden's nonfiction is all a little "jumbled in the common box / of my dark stupidity," from which bits unpredictably pop out; earlier today, while reading this Andrew Gelman post on "brow inflation" (i.e., the lowering of middlebrow), I was reminded of  Auden's quip about Johnson being the aristocrat of middlebrows. It took me a while to find the quote, which is from a (slightly self-congratulatory) ramble about "late works" in his lecture on Cymbeline -- especially revealing if you consider that the lectures were roughly contemporaneous with The Sea and the Mirror. Here's some of the relevant passage:
Somewhere or other Aldous Huxley makes the interesting suggestion of an anthology of last works, or better, late works: Samson Agonistes of Milton, for example, Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, the last quartets of Beethoven, Verdi's Falstaff, the late paintings and etchings of Goya. [...] The characteristics of such late works include, first, a certain indifference to their effect either on the general reading public or on critics [...] There is an enormous interest in particular kinds of artistic problems lovingly worked out for themselves, regardless of the interest of the whole work. [...]

In the late work of Shakespeare, there is no real resemblance to the real world of time and place. The recognition scenes are fantastic. There are repeated shipwrecks in Pericles and repeated disguises in Cymbeline. Shakespeare is taking up an entirely primitive form-with choruses, dumb shows, and masques. One might think of a modern writer who, after mastering complex forms, takes up the Wild West. The plays show a conscious exploitation of tricks: asides, etc. Late works appeal to lowbrows and very sophisticated highbrows, but not to middlebrows, even to the aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr. Johnson. Critics do not appreciate the pleasure a writer has in consciously writing a simple form-like the masque in Cymbeline.

2 comments:

Jenny Davidson said...

It is interesting, I do not disagree with the underlying thought, but based on my sense of eighteenth-century Shakespeare readings it is heavily anachronistic in a way that slightly irks me (Auden was not in a position to know better, early 21st-century reader might be - this I think is the strain you are picking out in the adjective 'self-congratulatory'): Auden slips with 'consciously' into autobiography/self-revelation...

(I have a total obsession with Garrick's Winter's Tale adaptation, which - it's based on a slightly earlier one by a more intelligent theatrical adaptor! - gives a window into contemporary objections, and puts Johnson's thoughts in context. I love Winter's Tale, but I do not believe there is an indifference to effect going on there, it does not seem to me a clear example of 'late style' in the sense that Adorno and Said use the term...)

Sarang said...

Thanks for the pointer about Garrick, it seems exactly the sort of thing I'd enjoy. I agree that the Winter's Tale is the hardest of those four to shoehorn into the "late style" box; The Tempest is an easier case, as (e.g.) Act I.ii -- the unities-preserving trick -- and the masque are definitely authorial games.

(And what about the Two Noble Kinsmen...?)

I imagine that calling any pre-modernist writer middlebrow is heavily anachronistic and possibly campy. (The term is of virtually no use in talking about any other age; is Middlemarch middlebrow?) It is, however, very much of a piece with Auden's other writings of this time, for instance the poem "Under which lyre" and most importantly the long Tempest "fantasia" S&M -- with that enormous speech where Caliban is given the voice of late Henry James. I call it self-congratulatory -- a better adjective would be self-serving -- because it frames a basically valid distinction in a biased way. I'm not entirely sure this is quite the same strain that you're picking out though it might be...