Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Susan Sontag on the novel in 1965, and comics today

This rant might belong here as much as anywhere else.

In a recent discussion (on the comics scholars list) of an article on Dan Clowes, someone objected to the writer's claim that "in fact, [Clowes'] art has gotten so serious that his work is now in a museum."  Now, I'll be the first to say that that is, indeed, a totally fatuous sentence.  But in reply to my interlocutor's questioning of how contemporary gallery art can be considered "serious," I first gave the rather wise-ass reply, "They mean 'by comparison with comics.'  Then it all makes sense."  After a few more ripostes, I felt I had to explain myself:  "I am, admittedly, feeling rather cynical about our chosen medium of interest these days, but maybe that's a discussion for another time.  Read Susan Sontag on the situation of the novel in 'Against Interpretation' (the book, not the essay).  That's about where we are now with comics, and I thought we'd be well further than that."

 Since I guessed I might be called to account on this, I went looking for the book and the passages I was thinking about.  Here is Sontag writing about the situation of the avant-garde in the various arts circa 1965:

Compared with music and painting, the novel, like the cinema, lags well to the rear of the battlefield. A body of 'difficult' novels comparable to Abstract Expressionist painting and musique concrete has not overrun the territory of critically respectable fiction.  On the contrary, most of the novel's few brave ventures to the front line of modernism get marooned there.  After a few years they seem merely idiosyncratic, for no troops follow the brave CO and back him up.  Novels which, in the order of difficulty and of merit, are comparable to the music of Gian-Carlo Menotti and the painting of Bernard Buffet, are garnished with the highest critical acclaim.  The ease of access and lack of rigor that causes embarrassment in music and painting are no embarrassment in the novel, which remains intransigently arriere-garde....
    Every art form works with some implicit standard of what is elevated and what is vulgar--except the novel.  It could accommodate any level of language, any plot, any ideas, any information.  And this, of course, was its eventual undoing as a serious art form.  Sooner or later discriminating readers could no longer be expected to become interested in one more leisurely 'story,' in half a dozen more private lives laid open for  their inspection.... While music and the plastic arts and poetry painfully dug themselves out of the inadequate dogmas of 19th century 'realism,' by a passionate commitment to the idea of progress in art and a hectic quest for new idioms and new materials, the novel has proved unable to assimilate whatever of genuine quality and spiritual ambition has been performed in its name in the 20th century...
    [I]t is hard not to conclude that what the novel has lacked, and what it must have if it is to continue as a generally (as opposed to sporadically) serious art form, is any sustained distance from its 19th century premises....
    This coming-of-age of the novel will entail a commitment to all sorts of questionable notions, like the idea of a 'progress' in the arts and the definitely aggressive ideology expressed in the metaphor of the avant-garde...  But the price must be paid...
    For until we have a continuous serious 'modern' tradition of the novel, venturesome novelists will work in a vacuum... We shall continue to have monstrous hulks, like abandoned tanks, lying about in the landscape.  An example, perhaps the greatest example, is Finnegans Wake--still largely unread and unreadable, left to the care of academic exegetes who may decipher the book for us, but cannot tell us why it should be read or what we can learn from it. (pp. 101-104)

I guess I began thinking of this from seeing, in recent days, a few examples of recent work in comics praised to high-heaven, work that seemed so mediocre to me--that could only dream of being on the level of Buffet or Menotti--as to feel the various encomiasts and I were coming from different planets.  Sontag's mention of Finnegans Wake makes me think of Martin Vaughn-James' The Cage, equally abandoned, lying about in the landscape of today's comics (and, if you've read it, you'll see that the book already contains that metaphor, perhaps as its guiding metaphor).  I guess I dream of a landscape where something like The Cage finally fully makes sense.  But we are even further away from a cultural climate where the myths of progress in the arts, etc, (which Sontag clearly knew were myths) have any power, so I don't see how such a landscape could ever come about.  (In the afterword to the late '90s--I can't find an exact date--edition of the book, Sontag speaks of  a time when "the modern was still a vibrant idea... before the capitulations embodied in the idea of the 'post-modern.'"  Maybe, from the other side of that capitulation, we can't find our way back to that vibrancy--but that's a tragedy.)  

In the meantime, I'm tired of having to make do with half-measures.  I'm tired of well-told stories, of being "expected to become interested in one more leisurely 'story,' in half a dozen more private lives laid open for  [my] inspection."  If that's what you like, fine, there's a lot more work that can be done in that direction.  But I would like to see the medium of comics be much more than what it is.  As I often say, it's the only art form I know whose potential is immensely greater than what any single work made in it has yet accomplished.


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