JOHN HAWKES’S CONTEMPTIBLE IMAGINATION
“Fog of course and he should have expected it, should have carried a torch. Yet, whatever was to come his way would come, he knew, like this—slowly and out of a thick fog. Accidents, meetings unexpected, a figure emerging to put its arm about him: where to discover everything he dreamed of except in a fog.”
—John Hawkes, The Lime Twig
“I began to write fiction,” John Hawkes once said, “on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.” Friends and foes alike cite this statement as evidence, respectively, of the courageous or the misguided nature of Hawkes’s work. And what friends, what foes! The critical schizophrenia toward Hawkes reached its most fevered pitch with the 1970 publication of The Blood Oranges. In the New York Times Book Review, Thomas McGuane called it the “most accessible novel by, feasibly, our best writer,” while John Sale, writing in the New York Review of Books, began, “John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges fails because it is the work of a contemptible imagination.” Sale concluded, “When people stop mattering to the novelist, the writing will suffer and the writer should stop.”
The criticism here is twofold. Sale believes that Hawkes, in his commitment to a personal vision, sacrifices what others have termed literary “engagement,” that connection with humanity that many insist is the ultimate end of all great literature. Hawkes himself would concede—no, he would insist upon—the premise of this argument. “I’m only interested in fiction,” Hawkes said, “that in some way or other voices the very imagination which conceives it.” He has firmly stated intentions. “I want whatever one creates out of words to be so clearly something made, so clearly an artifice, artificial.” Hawkes depends for this on what he calls, after Bernard Malamud, “psychic leakage.”
Sale’s other objection is with the vision itself, which he finds “contemptible.” We must grant him at least that it is dark and deeply strange. But in this Hawkes is far from unique. His use of violence and the grotesque recalls writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Nathanael West. The ends to which Hawkes uses these effects, however, are drastically different. About her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor writes, “This story has been called grotesque, but I prefer to call it literal. A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion.” In fact, she believed that all writers hoped to be, “in some crucial and deep sense,” realists.
O’Connor was first and foremost a Catholic writer, one who believed the world was fallen. Her work is ultimately about men and women engaged in a struggle for their souls, and it is this that gives the stories their darkness. Nathanael West was more satirical in his approach, but in many ways similar. In his masterpiece, Miss Lonelyhearts, a newspaper reporter takes on an advice column and is swamped with letters from the forlorn. West is merciless in the composition of these letters, but he mediates the brutality. The letters are never too much for the reader, precisely because they are too much for Lonelyhearts. He despairs over the suffering of the world and comes to recognize himself as an “emotional cripple.” Grotesque portrayals like O’Connor’s and West’s, then, are a kind of engagement. They are dark because, as Nietzsche once wrote of Wagner, they “show us where the hands have reached on the clock.” As V. S. Pritchett noted in a review of Miss Lonelyhearts, West “was not a political writer in the literal sense. He explored the illness behind the political situation.”
On the other hand, Hawkes would seem to be an exception to O’Connor’s belief that all novelists are, at heart, realists: “I’m not interested in reflection or representation,” he says. We are left to believe then that he finds the grotesque interesting, regardless of what it may or may not reveal to us about humanity. “I eat my lemons as others eat oranges,” says one of his characters. This must in some way be counted true of the author himself. He finds sweetness in what is bitter to most. He believes, he has said, in “the beauty of the nightmare.” It is his refusal to examine the moral implications of this nightmare that separates him from writers like West and O’Connor, and it is this refusal that makes his work odious to readers like Sale.
Hawkes published more than twenty books over fifty years. A good half dozen of these, beginning with The Lime Twig in 1961 and continuing through The Passion Artist in 1978, must be counted among the most startlingly original and beautiful of the postwar era. Hawkes has long been considered a “writer’s writer,” and certainly it is his peers who have most lavishly praised him. Saul Bellow has called him “an extraordinary writer.” Edmund White once ranked Hawkes as “America’s greatest living visionary.” William H. Gass said that his “lines are alive like few in our literature are.” Is it possible to grant Sale his premise—that John Hawkes singularly pursues a personal vision and that this vision, if not contemptible, is certainly an oddity—and yet deny the conclusion that the work fails? May we still appreciate the beauty of these novels?
The results of Hawkes’s methods, I should note, are not as inaccessible as one might suspect. There are, in fact, characters and plots, some of which are examined below. Too, there are settings but, as in Second Skin, they are “wandering island[s], of course, unlocated in space and quite out of time.” As for themes, Hawkes is never more than a half-step away from sex or death or both, though he does not seem interested in saying anything about sex or death. He merely wants to imagine them for a time, revel in the images, and invest his words with their dark power.
In Travesty, a man drives through the countryside of southern France. His passengers are his daughter, Chantal, and Henri, a poet who has been a lover to both Chantal and the driver’s deceased wife. The novel takes the form of a dramatic monologue—
Yes, it seems to me that one of the strongest gratifications of night driving is precisely that you can see so little, and yet at the same time see so very much. The child awakes in us again when we drive at night, and then all of those earliest sensations of fear and security begin shimmering, tingling once again inside ourselves. The car is dark, we hear lost voices, the dials glow, and simultaneously we are moving and not moving, held deep in the comfort of the cushions as once we were on just such a night as this one, yet feeling even in the softness of the beige upholstery all the sickening texture of our actual travel.
This, then, is the world of John Hawkes. No effort is made to alight simply for the reader’s illumination on that which doesn’t interest the author. The headlights point where he wants to go. “As children,” he writes, “we had absolute faith in the driver.” As readers, this childish faith feels justified. Though we remain in the landscape of dreams and the imagination, there is none of the surrealist’s automatic writing. Everything is crafted, nothing left to chance: “You cannot know how often I have driven this precise route alone and at the fastest speed I could achieve. You cannot be aware of those innumerable late afternoons each of which contained this car.” We can take comfort in the fact that he has done this before in the light of day. But one more thing—the narrator is an “aesthetician of death at high speed,” and the destination he is so carefully pursuing is a crash that will kill them all.
Such are Hawkes’s ironies. His works are largely populated with artist figures and yet there is something—and I wish there were a better way to say this—contemptible about these men. Travesty’s “aesthetician of death” gives way, in The Blood Oranges, to the “sex-singer.” The book is in part a retelling of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, where the sexual entanglement of two vacationing couples leads to tragedy. Here, the narrator, Cyril, is the driving force behind his wife’s affair with a one-armed man named Hugh, as well as his own conquest of Hugh’s wife, Catherine. Ford’s novel depended on its narrator’s naïveté for its ironic power; the characters in The Blood Oranges are at once knowing and strangely innocent. “Sex-singing is hardly possible,” Cyril says, “without the presence of the frail yet indestructible little two- or three-note theme of innocence.”
Cyril’s motivation is deeply aestheticized: he sees all four as figures in “Love’s tapestry,” himself as “the white bull brightly fired in Love’s kiln.” In the creation of this tapestry the artist Cyril, like the driver of Travesty, is open to the same charge that might be leveled against their creator—that he is willfully ignorant of the effect on others of his pursuit of aesthetic bliss. A sort of answer comes in the character of Hugh, himself an artist of a more passive though equally sexual kind, engaged in a photographic series of “peasant nudes.” Hugh meets a disturbing death by means of an autoerotic suicide. The suggestion seems to be that his refusal to fully participate in the tapestry, and not Cyril’s creation of it, bears the greater responsibility for this act.
Hawkes has said that Travesty and The Blood Oranges form two thirds of an imaginative triad, the last part of which is Death, Sleep and the Traveler. Once again the partners in an “open” marriage are brought face-to-face with fatal violence as a result of their behavior. But here the necessity of the link between sex and death is made more explicit. Ursula and Allert have married in a chapel that hosted a funeral that same morning. The third member of the triangle, Peter, suggests “that a man remains a virgin until he commits murder… The destruction of unwanted purity depends not on sexual experience but on the commission of what is generally called the most heinous of crimes.”
The narrator is the Dutchman Allert (“clearly a receptacle for the English word ‘alert,’ as if the name is a thousand-year-old clay receptacle with paranoia curled in the shape of a child’s skeleton inside”). Allert’s particular aesthetic métier is dreams. He is constantly recounting his own to Ursula. Alluding to Goya, he says, “The sleep of reason produces demons, as Ursula once said. But I love my demons.” She believes he is wallowing in this darkness. His response expresses what bothers many people about Hawkes; it is also an embodiment of what makes him so endlessly interesting to others. “‘It’s simply that I am in love with Psyche… I am not afraid of Psyche’s slime. I do not find it distasteful. As a matter of fact, without my periodic buckets, I could not survive.’”
Ursula’s primary response to Allert’s dreams is amusement “that apparently even the rich life of sexuality shared by the two of us was not sufficient to make unnecessary the psychic siphoning.” She asks him, “‘How can you tell the difference between your life and your dreams? It seems to me that they are identical.’” If not identical they are certainly for Allert of a piece, and the boundary between them is fluid. This has as much to do with the strangeness of dream’s encroaching on life as with the reverse. For Allert, “even normality is a perversion.”
As in The Blood Oranges, a second character—in this case Ursula’s lover, Peter—offers a critique of the narrator’s dark vision:
“Allert,” he said then, as the sweat came out on the back of my neck, “has it ever occurred to you that your life is a coma? That you live your entire life in a coma? Sometimes I cannot help but think that you never entirely emerge from your flickering cave. You must know things the rest of us can never know, except by inference. But I do not envy you the darkness and suffering of your coma, my friend.”
Like Hugh before him, Peter does not survive the novel.
This should not, however, be taken as an endorsement of the narrators’ attitudes. Both Cyril and Allert ultimately lose their wives in the face of this violence. Before she leaves, Ursula sends Allert away on a cruise ship that, he says, “was carrying us not towards any place but away.” A lover Allert takes on the ship will die mysteriously, leaving him accused of murder. It is also on the ship that Allert’s central dilemma is reframed:
No doubt the problem concerned two cosmic entities, I told myself: the sea, which was incomprehensible, and the ship, which was also incomprehensible in a mechanical fashion but which, further, was suddenly purposeless and hence meaningless in the potentially destructive night. Eliminate even the most arbitrary of purposes in such a situation, or from the confluence of two cosmic entities, I told myself, and the result is panic.
As these summaries suggest, Hawkes’s work has more than its share of people and events. What then are we to make of his own remarks about his novels? Was he somehow misguided about the nature of his work—or perhaps even putting the reader on? Some clue can be found, I believe, from examining a broad history, not of the novel, but of pictorial art.
For centuries, painters struggled to render properly the realities of human experience. Where there were disagreements of intent, they were over what such “realistic” rendition entailed. For a period a kind of Platonism reigned, and painters worked to break through the veil of appearances to the reality of the ideal. Certain compositional techniques to achieve this goal naturally developed. This idealism was displaced by efforts to capture the world as actually observed. New techniques, including the minute study of physical objects, followed in the wake of this change. Later, artists questioned how true such detailed study was to the manner in which we actually perceive the world. The innovations of the Impressionists, their use of color and brushstroke, were meant to capture more honestly the subjective perception of reality. But it was only in the twentieth century that technique became an end in itself. One result was nonrepresentational painting. But even painters who continued to represent reality in some way—that is, continued to refer pictorially to some content outside of the picture—no longer felt that form must be chosen to better serve content.
While the analogy is far from perfect, a similar progression can be traced through the history of fiction. The techniques of writers like Proust, Woolf, and the early to middle Joyce were aimed at mapping consciousness, tracing the subjective way in which we experience reality. For Hawkes, however, the features of experience serve as mere occasions for composition. Thus, though his books contain elements of plot, character, and the rest, he can honestly call them “enemies”: they are enemies wherever they usurp priority from language and form. This is why, though his novels bear more surface resemblance to those of O’Connor or West than to the metafictions of John Barth or the fabulisms of Robert Coover, he is generally regarded among the earliest of the postmodernists. It is also why, though Hawkes’s work is populated by recognizably human characters, Sale is mostly right to suggest that people don’t much interest Hawkes the novelist.
The comparison to painting, however reductive, raises more interesting questions. By the time Hawkes was writing, after all, abstract expressionists were appearing in the pages of Life and Time. Why then this controversy? Must people matter to novelists in a way they need not to other artists? If Sale seems to suggest as much, he would certainly not be the first. In fact there is a long tradition, famously marked by Sartre’s What Is Literature?, that defends this assertion.
Sartre begins, in a section entitled “What Is Writing?”, by establishing a distinction between prose and all other arts. “It is one thing to work with color and sounds,” Sartre writes, “another to express oneself by means of words. Notes, colors and forms are not signs.” The primary significance of music and visual art, then, is self-contained. Even an artist who paints houses, Sartre writes, “makes them, that is, he creates an imaginary house on the canvas and not the sign of a house. And the house which thus appears preserves all the ambiguity of real houses.” By contrast, “the writer deals with meaning.” Words are tools used to convey a message, no matter how neutral the message is. When words are treated instead as ends in themselves, Sartre believes, the result is poetry. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language.” On the other hand, “The empire of signs is prose.”
The treatment of language that Sartre insists is poetic is precisely what certain of the modernists, chief among them Gertrude Stein and Joyce in his later years, tried to claim for the novel. At the time that Stein and Joyce were writing, one might well have anticipated that their work would one day be accepted in much the way modern painting has been. Not so—if Ulysses is a novel more respected than read, Finnegans Wake is not either, particularly. Many would argue to this day that it’s not even really a novel.
This last point is more than just semantic. When Sartre went about distinguishing prose literature from all other arts, he did so on the way to answering two other questions, “Why Write?” and “For Whom Does One Write?” He meant ultimately to establish the novelist’s responsibility, above all other artists, to be “engaged.” Because the writer deals in signs, his work will always signify something beyond itself. The writer, says Sartre, necessarily references the world in a manner that other artists need not. Thus, “the function of the writer is to act in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world.” Aesthetic pleasure is only “thrown into the bargain.” The suggestion, of course, is not that all authors need be overtly political or have a “message,” but that they be aware that their work points outside of itself, that it is “engaged” in society and history.
For Stephen Dedalus history was famously the “nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Joyce was notoriously indifferent to politics; he would support whatever government would leave him alone to do his work. Such an attitude was myopic at best when the Wake was published in 1939. By the time Sartre wrote What is Literature? roughly a decade later, it seemed unconscionable. It is often remarked that Theodore Adorno suggested there could be no art after Auschwitz. What he said, more specifically, was that, after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric. The distinction, in part, is of a piece with Sartre. There is something noxious about language that says nothing when spoken in a time when there is much to say.4
And yet, in 1950, John Hawkes—still an undergraduate but author already of a novella, Charivari, and a novel, The Cannibal—told the Harvard Advocate that he “was only interested in language and the work itself.” In 1984, he affirmed that “this has been my attitude from then to the present.” By all accounts he appeared unreconstructed up to his death, in 1998.
There is a familiar argument to be made here in Hawkes’s defense. It goes—the internal structure of the mind mirrors the external structure of the world; the personal illuminates the general, etc. But he will not have our clemency. In an early story, “The Grandmother,” a man learns his brother has nearly died of sunstroke while on vacation. He reprimands his wife—
“Didn’t you dream, didn’t you get a message? Didn’t you know that Justus was slipping from us? Metze never fails, Justus, she is a receiver of the sparks from beyond. We rely on her, Mauschel and I, to interpret for us, to tell us… Didn’t you know, Metze?”
“I did not,” she said.
“You must not have been listening for me, Metze!”
Hawkes is not interested in what dreams say; he is interested in the dreams themselves. The spark, he knows, is his own—it comes not from beyond but from within. Besides which, he is not listening for us. The obscurity, the shadow that hangs always over his work, is not to be transcended with the torch of interpretation. It is the work. In this way, he reminds one of Sartre’s explanation of how a painter differs from a novelist:
Since there must have been motives, even hidden ones, for the painter to have chosen yellow rather than violet, it may be asserted that the objects thus created reflect his deepest tendencies. However, they never express his anger, his anguish, his joy as do words or the expression of the face; they are impregnated with these emotion; and in order for them to have crept into these colors, which by themselves already had something like a meaning, his emotions get mixed up and grow obscure. Nobody can quite recognize them there.
We are back, then, to painting. It is a comparison, I think, of which Hawkes would have approved. Beyond the sheer force of the language, so much of his power is visual. Near the end of Death, Sleep and the Traveler, Allert finds Ariane, the woman he has taken up with on the cruise,
girdled only in what appeared to be the split skull and horns of a smallish and long-dead goat.
It was as if some ancient artisan had taken an axe and neatly cleaved off the topmost portion of the skull of a small goat, that portion including the sloping forehead, the eye sockets, a part of the nose, and even the curling horns, and on a distant and legendary beach had dried the skull and horns in the sun, in herbs, in a nest of thorns, on a white rock, preparing and polishing this trophy for the day it would become the mythical and only garment of a young girl.
In The Blood Oranges, the foursome, traveling through old ruins on the island where they are staying, come upon what proves to be a chastity belt:
… the delicate and time-pocked iron girdle was lying on the gray stone and, I saw in this hard light, was the brown and orange color of dried blood and the blue-green color of corrosion. I… studied the small and rusted hinge, the thumb-sized rusted lock, the rather large tear-shaped pucker of metal and smaller and perfectly round pucker of metal that had been hammered, shaped, wrought into the second loop and that were rimmed, as Catherine had just noted, with miniature pin-sharp teeth of iron…
The images are so striking, so vivid and yet so disorienting, that it hardly occurs to one to ask what they “mean.” This, I think, is part of what is behind the withered limbs, the tattoos, the imperative: “See me as a small white bull lost in the lower left corner of that vast tapestry.” Stein with her repetitions, Joyce with his portmanteaus, they are making words into something self-contained, nonreferential. Hawkes’s way is different. There is a picture created with his words, but it is so singular that, to use Sartre’s formulation, it retains all the ambiguity of the real house.
The least then we can say: Hawkes ranks among the great stylists of the postwar era; he makes language constantly new to us; his vision, sometimes awful, is always original and strange and exciting; it is also beautiful more often than not. All this is no small achievement. But is it enough? To write as if history, politics, the very world outside the book—the readers who occupy that world included—did not exist, is this a luxury we can afford?
It is instructive to remember the words of another twentieth-century master who guarded the firewall between art and life. In a lecture entitled “‘Real Life’ and Fiction,” Vladimir Nabokov writes:
We shall do our best to avoid the fatal error of looking for so-called “real life” in novels. Let us not try and reconcile the fiction of facts with the facts of fiction. Don Quixote is a fairy tale, so is Bleak House, so is Dead Souls. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenin are supreme fairy tales. But without these fairy tales the world would not be real. A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader. On the other hand, what is this vaunted “real life,” what are these solid “facts”?
Nabokov was hardly immune to the vagaries of history. Royalists assassinated his father and Bolsheviks forced his family to flee Russia. He landed eventually in Berlin, where he and his Jewish wife, Vera, took up just in time for the rise of the Third Reich. On a smaller scale of injustice, the twice-exiled American émigré fought censorship and puritanical accusations of perversion over his finest novel. More than anything, he seems to have come out of all this with a deep suspicion of fictions that insist upon their own truth. So too John Hawkes notes the provisional nature of reality: “The problem is that people don’t know that life is a kind of fiction that we create and we accept as ‘real.’”
We might finally say that, if there is a value in artists like Hawkes, outside the pleasure of the art itself, it is precisely in their detachment, their works’ refusal to be about something in a way that can be judged as true or not true rather than just imagined. It is in their status as “supreme fairy tales.”
The fiction of John Hawkes is forever taking the reader “not towards any place but away.” We must forsake illumination for a further drifting into the dark. Contemptible? This is for each to judge. “… But setting all this aside, as I say, there is still the undeniable world of our night driving, and it is alluring, prohibitive, personal, a mystery that is in fact quite specific, since it is common to child, to lovers, to the lone man driving from one dark town to the next.”
- Hawkes was blessedly eager to talk about his biography, his intentions, his method, etc. Perhaps he understood that the nature of his work resisted reduction along these lines, fear of which so often turns writers mum. John Hawkes quotes not taken directly from his novels are from two sources: a very long interview with Hawkes which appeared in the Fall 1983 volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and is available for general consumption at www.centerforbookculture.org; and his commentaries in Humors of Blood and Skin: A John Hawkes Reader. The exception is the opening salvo, quoted (approvingly) by Robert Coover in his introduction to Penguin’s single-volume edition of The Lime Twig, Second Skin, and Travesty—incidentally, a pretty good place for interested readers to start. ↩
- To wit: “I am sixteen years old now and I don’t know what to do… I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.” ↩
- The three have been taken here out of order. The Blood Oranges first appeared in 1972, followed by Death, Sleep and the Traveler ↩
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