No other writer has made me think about the short story and short fiction as William Gaddis has; that is maybe because his novels JR and The Recognitions are as far from the form of the short story as a novel can be, and for this sort of novel to succeed, it needs to remind itself, and remind us, of why it is not something else, namely a short story. In the same way, any short story needs to know why it is not something else: chiefly a novel.
The difference is one of magnitude only, but the magnitude is itself a response to the situation at the outset, the materials from which the work springs.
Though I distrust them, I like generalizations about aesthetics, or I like spending a few hours in their company; we all have friends like that. We aren’t the worse for knowing them, but might not want to live in the same house.
I have recently been thinking then about what all narrative must do–and then expanded it to what poetry does too, and then art even more generally, when we consider it to be aesthetically pleasing.
It is easiest, though, to express in the form of narrative. A narrative begins with an occasion–a situation, a phrase, a color, a hint, which then is given momentum and directed to a resolution, be it an impasse, an escape, a unity, or a collapse…the list could go on. For poetry it is the same; for music, too, I think. Even in the most fragmented works of art, the initial situation must gain some momentum, which in turn explains why another fragment has been attracted to the piece, even if the attraction is arbitrary, and so on, until it finally ends, dissolving or breaking under the burden as its chance may be. The three movements, then, are occasion, momentum, resolution.
The challenge at the start is insight and foresight: recognizing what can take on momentum, sensing the potential in an occasion or situation. Henry James’ notebooks are filled with attempts at finding the right situations; the situation is everything.
The challenge for the duration is of structure and form, as well as invention, balancing elements, introducing new elements, and setting up a scheme for elements and scenes in which they can play out, and then deciding how to break into new scenes, all with the intention of generating momentum and sustaining the momentum that has already been generated.
The challenge at the end is one of perspicuity and awareness: when could this resolve, and when should it? Is it worth continuing onwards, seeking more momentum or does this resolution resolve something that has been developed? There is no right answer, and the instinct of a short story writer and a novelist may deviate at this crux, but the novelist is not the greater author because of any decision to carry onwards; it might be the recognizing a final resting point for a narrative is just as difficult, and it might be anyway that the mastery of a short story writer depends on the ability to direct the momentum more rapidly or efficiently to a resolution, seeking, along the way, to get as much of a world into the story as possible.
That is to speak formally. From the side of content, the initial challenge is recognizing how many situations can arise out of any one moment in life; the challenge while generating and sustaining momentum is in recognizing how lives may interfere, touch, gather in a world around them, or not; and the challenge of the resolution depends on understanding what a collapse or impasse is.
I am speaking in terms of narrative, but it is not difficult to extend the principle to poetry, or to music; in arts whose relationship to time differs, painting and sculpture, the explanation might run differently, but not so very differently, and trying to explain how it is possible for them makes greater sense of what happens in narrative.
Somewhere in the second half of JR, the narrator, Jack Gibbs, praising the human form, quotes the nineteenth-century American sculptor, Horace Greenough. I did not know Greenough until reading Gibbs’ words, but he quotes Greenough saying that beauty is the “promise of function.” Apparently it is among Greenough’s well-known quotations and comes from his book, Form and Function: Remarks on Art, Design, and Architecture.
Here are selections from the pertinent passages:
When I define Beauty as the promise of Function; Action as the presence of Function; Character as the Record of Function, I arbitrarily divide that which is one…If the normal development of organic life be from beauty to action, from action to character, the progress is a progress upward as well as forward; and action will be higher than beauty, even as the summer is higher than the spring; and character will be higher than action, even as autumn is resume and result of spring and summer.
For Greenough, art and life alike are falsified when beauty pretends to action or when action pretends to character:
The sensuous charm of promise is so great that the unripe reason seeks to make life a perennial promise…the dignity of character is so great that the unripe reason seeks to mark the phase of action with the sensuous livery of character. The ivy is trained up the green wall, and while the promise is still fresh on every line of the building, its function is invaded by the ambition to seem to have lived.
Greenough’s words are evidently relevant to JR, where the most sustained narratorial descriptions, aside from those narrating sex, take up the decay, the rapid rot, and the transience of American building; the falsified claims to dignity and age; the cheapening mimicry of tradition in the urban settings.
But the three phases also, much to my delight (though I realize that finding confirmation for a thought in a nineteenth-century American sculptor suggests the sort of tenuous hold on reality possessed by a Nabokov creation), resemble the three movements of narrative: the potential in the initial scene, a potential which also must be recognized in every subsequent step, where further momentum is contained; a sweep of action as the potential is realized; a conclusion, in which the action is resolved. On the other hand, it might be that either description is so fundamentally basic, superficially Aristotelian in heritage, that resemblance should not surprise.
What does surprise is that Greenough is thinking in terms of sculpture. He also suggests what it is that art does, and how art is doing something that is fundamentally, in its formal dimensions, ethical–or perhaps meta-ethical: it is recognizing what counts as a complete action–what counts as potential for action–and what counts as action. It is alerting us to the look and feel of fundamental categories of ethical thought.
The contemporary American philosopher Michael Thompson takes as the starting point for his work Life and Action the view that the fundamental concepts upon which ethical thinking depends have been poorly or insufficiently thought-through by philosophers. Works of art cannot undertake that task; but they might perform an equivalent function, which is to let us see what those things might be, quite variously; they offer exposure to concepts-in-action that is distinguished from our experience of those concepts in experiential life by their being set apart, made somewhat alien, somewhat abstract, in the respective mediums and forms in which an artist works.
Character emerges from the resolution of art because character depends on understanding what an action is, when an action is complete; because a notion of flourishing, of virtue, depends on understanding the measure by which a life’s actions are measured. Viewed mid-surgery, without understanding of the scope and aim of the task, a doctor might seem cruel.
Greenough’s main target in the pages I have quoted is “embellishment,” of which the ivy on the newly built wall is but one example. He suggests instead that the artist should be concerned with the essential. Though he resembles in some respects Ruskin, in others James, in others Wordsworth, I do not think it is helpful to historicize his demand, since some version of it is found so many places. It is found, I am fairly certain, in Gaddis’ JR, which might be understood as affirming that voice is essential, that voice can provide occasion, momentum, and resolution, if not entirely on its own, then as a central principle of each:
The aim of the artist therefore should be first to seek the essential; when the essential hath been found, then, if ever, will be the time to commence embellishment. I will venture to predict that the essential, when found, will be complete.
Those are Greenough’s words, not Gaddis’, and though the earnest gravitas of the nineteenth century is off-putting and foreign to Gaddis’ work (the form of Greenough’s expression does not seem to have sought the essential), it is relevant for the intensity of commitment that Gaddis’ novels suggest. The key word is not “essential,” but “seek,” suggesting, though Greenough might not have intended it, that the essential cannot already have been found, that standards of art change (and clashes of opinion break out even among the most committed and intelligent) because, paradoxically, or necessarily, there is not one essential, and something else essential can be located, depending on the occasion, depending on the promise it presents; depending on the action, and the momentum it requires; and depending on the resolution, on the character that manifests.
In The Recognitions, the essential is what is seen and what is surface (depths are not discounted; they are distrusted or denied); In J R, the essential is the voice itself. Both are essential given what Greenough calls the “multiform demands of life,” where that word, “multiform,” suggests why the essence of any one work, any one style, mode, or medium, is insufficient. But more surprisingly, both are essential despite being dismissed, either as superficial or else as transient, irrelevant background noise and chatter; Gaddis finds the form in both.