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Robert Penn Warren: the Critic As Artist

ISSUE:  Summer 1977

WARREN’S novels read like essays about themselves. His fictions continually resolve into apologues. It is scarcely possible while reading them to have the experience but miss the meaning. Where commentary does not preempt drama, it quickly intrudes to explicate it. While in “Pure and Impure Poetry” he argues that ideas “participate more fully, intensely, and immediately” in poetry by being implicit, his own work typically incorporates ideas “in an explicit and argued form.” Such a habit of mind stations Warren on the border between two modes of imagination, between the artist who works from experience and the critic who works toward meaning.

Warren’s double career in the creative and critical establishments seems to be the central fact here. There is nothing remarkable about a divided allegiance in a man who set out to devote himself to both worlds. But had Warren never written his major articles on Frost, Faulkner, Conrad, and Coleridge, or his textbooks on understanding poetry and fiction, we would still need some term for a writer so concerned to usurp, within the body of his own fictions, the critic’s task. Warren has revived interest in Wilde’s claim that “it is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it.” His works constantly “talk about” themselves. In the midst of overwhelming adolescent arousal, a Warren narrator can suddenly step out of himself to tell us: “I was lost in the flood of sensations.” How can one both feel and say this? Through the curious doubleness of this sentence, at once both in and out of time, Warren tries to convert self-consciousness into ecstasy.

His characters are placed out of themselves, the bemused or obsessive spectators of their own wayward acts. So his newest narrator tells us:

Something is going on and will not stop. You are outside the going on, and you are, at the same time, inside the going on. In fact, the going on is what you are. Until you can understand that these things are different but the same, you know nothing about the nature of life. I proclaim this.

We abstract; we embody. Warren has dedicated his career to proving the indivisibility of the critical and the creative imaginations. He thus joins that central American tradition of speakers—Emerson, Thoreau, Henry Adams, Norman Mailer—who are not only the builders but the interpreters of their own designs.

The stance of a critic is the stance of a son. Both are fundamentally indebted as both take up their positions in response to prior achievement which surrounds and defines them. The price of understanding is belatedness, a sense of remove in time. If the creative spirit repudiates as much of the past as it possibly can, the critical sensibility conserves as much as it possibly may. Warren’s central character is a son (or daughter) whose only hope lies in not rebelling against father, tradition, home. In 1960 Leonard Casper nominated “exploration of unbroken years of homesickness” as Warren’s central theme. Warren has not been coy about proving him right, A Place To Come To depends upon a place one has come from. Warren’s most recent novel explores once again the psychology of exile and return.

Adam’s first word to Eve in Paradise Lost is “Return,” and it is upon her reluctant but ultimately obedient response to this command that Warren models his plots. The voice of one’s origin keeps calling one homeward. Satan wanders; Eve returns, While Warren’s strongest characters wander also in aimless selfhood (in A Place, through what Jed’s mentor calls the “imperium intellectus”’), none of his readers is left to doubt the pointlessness of such quest. Warren the critic always shepherds us toward the destination the artist knowingly withholds. The best way out is always back.

In the character of Jed Tewksbury, Warren has found his perfect hero. As if in passing a last judgment upon himself, Warren writes a novel about a critic writing a novel. Just after Jed introduces himself by retelling the primal memory of his father’s death—drunk, he fainted while pissing in the road at midnight before the very wagon which then rolled over his neck and broke it—he steps out of his autobiography to tell us how it reads to him:

I wrote that part very fast. It came rushing out, my ballpoint pen rushing ahead—a new experience for me, who am accustomed only to scholarly and critical composition and who, not being of a quick mind or ready to trust my early notions, am inclined to be painfully slow and careful in my formulations.

“Rushing ahead” on into experience is, unfortunately, just what this Dante scholar repeatedly fails to do. Too much the spectator and too little the actor, he prefers telling to doing. Potential ecstasy becomes mere alienation as we read on into this book full of “the passion for the big ideas.” Considerable scorn is heaped, as usual, upon abstractions untethered to fact. But Warren goes far beyond his earlier judgment in World Enough and Time that the world must redeem the idea. It is no longer a question of working from the concrete toward the abstract; there seems little hope here that the two can be brought into any relationship whatsoever. The author of this novel seems to have rejected Wilde’s boast and embraced Faulkner’s dismissal: “those who can do, those who cannot and suffer enough because they can’t, write about it.” All writing comes under indictment here as an evasive sublimation, a criticism of rather than a participation in life. When Warren shares this mood, he tries to make it convincing by reducing writing to a merely critical impulse. This book displays a contempt for learning which is downright redneck. Scholarship feeds on the death of life: as Jed’s first wife dies, his essay on “Dante and the Metaphysics of Death” grows. Never are we made to feel Jed’s work as interesting, let alone valuable. Jed suffers an alienation of word from world which he is never fully allowed to resolve.

This alienation arises from Jed’s attempt to use words as a defense against origins. He begins as sick of home. Jed’s parents confront him in embarrassing postures. His father dies not only drunk but clutching his penis of legendary size. His mother, having worked for a decade to free her son of Dugton, Alabama, is rewarded by having him return from college to find her in bed with a man of somewhat lesser proportions. Such things must be put behind one. When the distancing power of words fails him, Jed tries to escape the continuities of the self through the discontinuous joys of sex.

The best writing in the book is reserved for the return to Rozelle, Jed’s rejected high school prom date who becomes his middle-aged adulteress. A past rejection becomes a future one must inevitably face; through this fateful (and wish-fulfilling) logic Warren guarantees that one must return not only to the abandoned parent but to the spurned girl friend. No other explanation is offered for this highly coincidental reunion other than the implicit appeal to the return of the repressed. Sex proves, however, less a way to redeem time than to stay it. The critic who would return gives way to the artist who will escape. Sex becomes an anti-metaphysic. Making love leads to “the death in life-beyond-Time without which life-in-Time might not be endurable, or even possible.” Jed’s impossible project here stands revealed. Sex, which promises a transcendence of duration, stands defined by the original repression it undoes and the eventual interpretation it generates. The worlds of before and after catch such a moment up to interrogate and place it. Jed comes to realize that a love founded solely on the instant of conjunction is “nothing”:

What had I had of her? Only what I had had, and that seemed, in that instant, nothing at all. It was as though there could be no possession, not even blind and timeless pleasure, unless confirmed by the sight of a sleeping face.

A Place To Come To is Warren’s most ambitious attempt to study “the relation of the concept of Love to that of Time.” Love finally proves subordinate to time; the only abiding love is a repetition, not a revolution. Thus Jed must return to the mother before he can begin to live. The conclusion which has been lying in wait consequently presents itself, and this wandering son of Alabama, standing for the first time since a boy in his dead mother’s front room, not only returns but understands: “after all the years I was returning to my final self, long lost.”

A reviewer of this novel may well feel cheated in having nothing climactic to give away. Surprise endings are impossible in a book which knows from the beginning that there is finally only one place to come to. Home hovers over Warren’s novels like the threat of death—it will get you in the end. What one may come to resent about Warren’s work is not its end but its means. The necessity for return no one will question, but where it emerges as inevitability rather than option, we are deprived of the very chance to wander and even lose our way, which makes arrival seem an achievement rather than a gift.


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