"Realist Vision" by Peter Brooks. ISBN 0-300-10680-7
Also see Yale University Press (yalebooks.com)
There’s an old joke about an anthro who goes to darkest Africa and meets a chief. The chief likes him and wants to give him a wife, but the anthro says he already has a wife and pulls out a photograph to show the chief. The chief looks closely and says, “She’s very small and flat, isn’t she?”
The point is that we forget that the only true version of reality is another set of reality exactly like the first -- even a photo is a selection, a redaction, a virtual indicator. Though important artists at the first part of the 20th century took a long leave from depictions of reality in order to explore and argue about what might be “realer than real” through cubism and so on, the at least recognizable rendering of reality some way or other has persisted for both artists and writers. This book by Peter Brooks is a collection of essays about that. The first essay begins: “I think we have a thirst for reality.”
What that means in the age of photography, reality television, psychoanalysis and deconstruction (to get at our “real” motives), is what Brooks sets out to explore. His second sentence is “Which is curious, since we have too much reality, more than we can bear... We thirst for a reality that we can see, hold up to inspection, understand.” Like that anthro’s portable wife. An intimacy with the life of another.
The writers considered are Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, George Eliot, Zola, Gissing, Henry James, Joyce, Proust, Woolf. One has to remark that they’ve been considered before and probably will be again, which suggests that they are preserving something important to us. This reconsideration reveals new layers.
A few of the artists are shocking, though the cover art, a 19th century gent on a Paris balcony, is charmingly impressionistic and the “key” engraving from Alain-René Le Sage, which shows a man being tempted by the devil to look into houses with their roofs removed, is conventional in engraved style.
Then comes the unsettling work of Lucian Freud, not just the nudes but also urban buildings. Courbet, Millet, Ford Madox Brown, Ingres, Marville and Braquehais (both photographers), Delaroche, Monet, Manet, more Caillebotte, Degas, Tissot, Estes, Duane Hanson, John DeAndrea and back to a portrait of Lucian Freud’s huge male model, exposed and seemingly dumped on a pile of rags. Some of these are quite charming -- even TOO charming -- and some are, like DeAndrea’s polyvinyl nudes,so disconcertingly real that even an African chief would think they might take a breath. It's hard to think about them because the scramble of the senses in trying to assimilate them. It's beyond apologizing to Duane Hanson's janitor because one thinks he's real, because it puts us smack between reacting and intellectualizing.
Brooks patiently teases out why these works were considered shocking at the time, why some of them have become wallpaper now, and what there is to understand in them yet -- no matter that we are too sophisticated to remark on nudes or even stare if anyone is looking. In the process of considering Brooks’ thoughts we “see again” and our reality is deepened. He writes gently, humanely, and with a huge breadth of background. The discussion is often intimate, about the nudes or even genitals (Nana’s “sexe” as a symbol in Zola), and yet he neither veers into eroticism nor into medical dispassion. He is mature in a world that seems never to value maturity. I have no idea how he got that way, but I intend to use him as a role model.
I was trying to think of a contemporary writer I would consider as writing this quality of fiction -- true but penetrating -- and came up with Ursula LeGuin. I would love to read what Brooks thought about a sci-fi and fantasy author who is more realistic than most New Yorker or Atlantic short story writers. I’ll bet you ten dollars she knows that story about the anthro's small flat wife and has reflected on it. I wonder if she reads Peter Brooks.