The Chronicle Review

The Quest for Permanent Novelty

Matt Manley for the Chronicle Review

February 11, 2013
The Quest for Permanent Novelty

Matt Manley for the Chronicle Review

I doubt anyone reading this will claim never to have thought, regarding some experience, "I wish this would last forever." But most of us don't take that wish very seriously. We seem instinctively to know that it is the kind of desire that collapses under a moment's thought.

Imagine you're sitting in the sun, holding your partner's hand, thinking, I wish this would last forever. Now imagine that a genie grants your wish. Wonderful! No clouds dim the sun, you sigh happily, the pleasant feeling lasts. Then you begin to feel an uncomfortable pressure in your bladder. Your neck starts to ache. You get bored. Your partner's hand grows sweaty. Soon you're desperately wishing you could get up, get away from this hell.

When we do wish an experience would last forever, we don't wish it for very long. Most of us let go of such impossible, incoherent desires almost as soon as they arise. One might define a Romantic writer as the kind of person who doesn't. Here is part of John Keats's sonnet, "Bright Star."

Bright Star! Would I were stedfast as thou art!
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite [...]
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

The poem's stark fusion of organic and geologic time scarcely mitigates the unimaginability of the desired state. How can one picture the stasis of the star fused with the beating of the heart? The "soft swell and fall" of breath, the rhythm of circulation, the tingle of sensation: Life is intertwined with time. To try to imagine disentangling them, to try to imagine introducing the stillness of the star into a living heart, is like trying to imagine a melody of one note. And in fact Keats cannot imagine this. The poem ends in despair. The star and heart are not ultimately fused; they break up against each other. The poet can't have what he wants; even worse, he can't even say exactly what it is he wants.

In this sonnet, Keats struggles with an ancient problem. He knows that in time the vivid experience of being with his lover will fade and grow dull. But to freeze the moment, to stop time, would also be to kill the feeling, which after all depends on the rhythms of bodily life. "Who can lay hold of the heart and give it fixity," Augustine cried 16 centuries ago, "so that for some little moment it may be stable, and for a fraction of time may grasp the splendor of a constant eternity?"

Augustine's image suffers from the same problem as Keats's. A stopped heart can't feel. How do you stop a heart without stopping it? Augustine needs divine help not simply to achieve his desire, but to make the desired state imaginable. A giant hand grasping a heart without killing it, a lover fused with a star: These are the crazy images generated by the primordial human desire to stop time in time.

The first step to solving Keats's and Augustine's problem is to bring the goal into focus. If we're not yet able to understand what stopping time in time might look like, we must begin with something slightly less ambitious. We have all experienced moments of slowed time. The neuroscientist David Eagleman describes strong evidence for a process that will be intuitively obvious to all readers. The first time we encounter an image, our perceptual experience tends to be richly vivid. Time seems to move more slowly.

But it doesn't last. "With repeated presentations of a stimulus," writes Eagleman, "a sharpened representation or a more efficient encoding is achieved in the neural network coding for the object." Once the brain has learned to recognize the image, it no longer requires the high "metabolic costs" of intense sensory engagement. This efficiency has obvious evolutionary advantages, in conserving human attention for new threats and opportunities. But it means we are subject to an incessant erasure of perceptual life.

Augustine feels this erasure. He writes that the experience of a person listening to a song he knows well becomes thin, ghostly. The listener feels himself "stretched" between the memory of the notes just played and the anticipation of the notes to come; he hardly hears the present notes as they pass. But the first time he hears that song, the listener's experience is rich and full. Time swells and slows. His mind, trying to grasp the complex form of the song, comes alive. And then, almost at once, the richness fades. As he beings to understand the form of the song, the song's magic begins to disappear. This is the tragic paradox of our perceptual existence. The effort to grasp the object's form triggers the intense sensory engagement that the success of that effort destroys.

But what if what you felt the first time you heard a song could last forever? What if you discovered an immortal song, a song that never gets old? Listening to it provides you with an experience of unfading freshness, of unending novelty. To imagine such music is to imagine a device for stopping time within time. This music would be like a hand grasping your heart, like a lover's kiss, fused with a star's immortality.

Over the past two centuries, Romantic and post-Romantic writers have discovered in the peculiar temporal structure of first impressions a strategy for pursuing Keats's and Augustine's paradoxical goal. The effort to counter neurobiological time finds expression in an effort to achieve two experientially related but conceptually distinct states. The first is the felt slowing or stopping of time that accompanies an intensely vivid perception. The second is the persistence of this perceptual intensity across chronological time.

I divide the writers, artists, philosophers, and critics engaged in this effort into two camps. The first I call the "reasonable" camp. These writers recognize that no actual artistic object can retain its freshness after repeated experiences. Critics from Viktor Shklovsky to Michael Fried see in the continual innovation of musical, literary, and visual forms an attempt to counter the effect of time on experience. Once we become accustomed to Cézanne's way of arresting our senses, we move on to Picasso. After Joyce's verbal explosions, we take up Beckett's minimalism.

Not just any new object will do the work of pleasurably extending intense perception. The object needs to be balanced between familiarity and novelty; the new thing must give the mind some foothold in the known, otherwise we just tune it out as noise. And the history of art—with each new artist taking up and transforming the forms of the old—provides a perfectly reasonable process for delivering time-slowing artifacts poised between old and new.

Very reasonable—but the true heirs of Augustine and Keats adopt the unreasonable approach. The reasonable writers respect the temporal constraints of perception. They transfer the desire to enhance life through art from the individual work to the historical succession of forms. The unreasonable writers, those who want the impossible—writers from Thomas De Quincey through Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Ashbery—seek the creation of a work that will permanently arrest perception at the moment of the first encounter. The simple logic of children and utopians drives them. We want to stop time. Only through the persistence of the intense perception of the same object can we be assured that our ancient ambition has been achieved.

The works these writers produce are not works so much as workshops. Unlike those in the reasonable camp, artists in this camp seek to provide us not with images to vividly experience, but with images of more effective images. They create a space for testing the dimensions of an ideal art. In their poems, novels, and essays, they make blueprints for an immortal image. Like an airplane designer studying the wing of a bird, these writers carefully examine life's response to time, alert for any clue that might aid in escaping its gravity.

Each of them creates a new research strategy. In his late fragmentary epic, "Hyperion," Keats imagines an ideal music that fuses stasis and duration in a "family of rapturous hurried notes, that fell, one after one, yet all at once." Thomas De Quincey and Vladimir Nabokov take the addictive object as their model for an effective time-killing image. George Orwell draws the principle of a total artwork from the heightened sensations erupting under a totalitarian regime. And some of John Ashbery's recent work uses alien artifacts in a science-fiction mode as poetic forms fiercely resistant to habituation.

None of these strategies have yet fully succeeded. What Friedrich Schiller called "annulling time within time" presents a truly hard problem. It may be that no one ever will succeed. But examining the effort to create a forever-new image casts a surprising light on familiar things, giving us new perspectives on art, life, time, and perception.

The quest for the ever-new object takes many forms. Sometimes a writer identifies a new possibility for a familiar human capacity. Marcel Proust's effort to counter time, for example, involves empathy.

Marcel, the protagonist of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, is acutely sensitive to the tendency of works of art to wear out, to become dull and lifeless with familiarity. So he seeks out new novels, new music, new paintings. But soon he begins to suspect that a dark problem shadows the reasonable solution to renewing our perceptual life.

"If we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses," he writes, "they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth." Perhaps, Marcel speculates, the code of habituated perception eventually becomes too hard for the artistic code-breakers to crack. He adapts the metaphor of travel to point to the all-too familiar truth he suspects may apply to the artistic realm: Wherever I go, there I am.

But perhaps art can do something other than present an object for our experience. Perhaps it can transform the subject of our experience. "The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth," he continues, "would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another." Marcel thinks that we have the ability, when studying some works of art, to identify with, to empathize with, the creator's thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Art can function as a special kind of communication; and what is communicated, he suggests, is the way the world appears to the artist.

In a late septet of the fictional composer Vinteuil, Proust imagines a work that enables Marcel to experience things through the composer's mind. Vinteuil belongs to a class of artists who have the ability to "exteriorize" the "intimate composition" of their private worlds. These works grant an experience of "permanent novelty." Instead of dragging our own tired eyes to see another object, we see the world made new through another's eyes.

Proust here relies on the capacity which enables millions of readers to slip inside the minds of fictional characters every day. This capacity, which the philosopher Alvin Goldman calls "mind reading," enables humans to impute subjectivity to certain kinds of objects—human faces and hands, but also poems, pictures, animals, and dolls. Marcel's encounter with Vinteuil's septet relies on this empathetic capacity to identify with another's point of view. But Proust offers a very different vision of the value of seeing through another's eyes. For critics like Blakey Vermeule, we identify with literary characters because we are naturally (genetically) inclined to be interested in what other people are feeling and thinking. Vermeule and others argue that a "Machiavellian" ability to get inside other people's heads and figure out their plans confers an evolutionary advantage.

Unlike Vermeule's and Goldman's description of the natural desires that animate empathetic readers, Proust's mode of art appreciation is not human but vampiric. The fountain of youth gushes in other people's skulls; art opens those skulls to us. Through the long straw of the work, Marcel sucks new life from the artist. Our innate ability to imagine the internal life of others is a slumbering power that will enable us to defeat time.

In his experiments with imaginary music, Proust thus casts a new light on a familiar mental feature. His description of Marcel's experience of the septet meshes with what recent psychological and neuroscientific research tells us about how "mind reading" operates. What he adds, however, is a plausible account of a new role for empathy, of its potential usefulness in the struggle to defeat time.

Writers animated by this struggle often help illuminate mental processes. To take another example, Thomas De Quincey finds in the special properties of the addictive object a model for an image that never loses its vivid intensity. As with Proust's perspective on empathy, De Quincey's special interest in addiction shows us something about the link between addiction and novelty that has the potential to augment the findings of science. "I feel," he writes in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, "a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters." He claims that the images associated with his first ingestion of the drug are "immortal" in the sense of remaining forever new. For De Quincey, to encounter the addictive object is always to encounter it for the first time.

De Quincey's insight allows us to draw connections between neuroscientific studies that pair drug cues with increased levels of dopamine, and other studies associating increased dopamine with novelty. This suggests that the experience of the drug cue for the addict is a very special kind of experience: the experience of an object that never gets old.

If attending to Proust's and De Quincey's unreasonable ambition to defeat time shows us new aspects of a familiar process, empathy, in other cases placing a familiar work in the tradition of the struggle against time transforms its meaning.

George Orwell's 1984 is arguably the most popular and influential work of fiction of the last century. Most critics have read the novel as a warning about the totalitarian tendencies Orwell saw in the early postwar atmosphere. "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears," says Orwell's hero, Winston. "It was their final, most essential command." This prohibition elicits the peculiar form of Winston's rebellion. He pays close attention to the evidence of his senses. "Stones are hard," he cries, "water is wet."

As Hannah Arendt argued in her classic study of totalitarianism, published two years after 1984, there has never been a political system—not Stalinism, not Nazism—in which pointing out the hardness of stones could count as a meaningful act of resistance. Still, making the stoniness of stones vivid has been a goal of art's struggle against time.

"In order to make us feel objects," writes Viktor Shklovsky, "to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art." Shklovsky's essay, published in 1917, presents art as a technology for countering the tendency of things to grow dull with familiarity. In our world, the hardness of stones is commonplace. The surest way to add life to the commonplace is to prohibit it. The simple logic of Orwell's state will be grasped by anyone who remembers the hilarity that a single off-color word can evoke in the disciplinary setting of a high-school classroom. Outside that space, the word elicits a mild reaction or none. Inside it, the prohibition imbues it with vivid power.

Similarly, a world prohibiting attending to the life of one's senses enhances that life. Oppression and suppression accentuate the very things they would deny. Winston's characteristic reaction to sensations is "incredulity" and "astonishment." He is constantly noticing commonplace things with interest; his senses are always alive and alert. The novel's gigantic art-state has solved the problem of habit for him. "Nothing exists but an endless present." Like Proust, Orwell has invented a fictional device for arresting the effects of time on the human sensorium. And so the book's political message conceals an aesthetic one.

Having noticed these features of the novel, we can trace Orwell's complex motives for composing his work through his other writings. "Why," he writes in an early novel, "don't people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk around looking at things?" In "Why I Write," an essay composed around the time he was finishing 1984, he writes that he will always "continue to feel strongly" about "the surface of the earth." But, in a letter, Orwell expresses an anxiety that he may not "continue to feel strongly" about things he sees day after day. "I always feel uneasy when I get away from the ordinary world where grass is green, stones hard."

In 1984, Orwell created a world where the individual remains attentive to the surface of the earth because his government has defined and emphasized the value of that awareness through its prohibition. That doesn't mean that Orwell secretly loves his artistic totalitarians. Rather, it shows us his profound ambivalence to the prospect of actually achieving the arrest of human time, an ambivalence shared by nearly all the writers engaged in this paradoxical struggle.

The problem becomes acute in an exchange between Winston and Julia. "We are the dead," says Winston. "Oh, rubbish!" Julia replies. "... Don't you enjoy being alive? Don't you like feeling: ... I'm real, I'm solid, I'm alive!"

Winston and Julia disagree about what to call their timeless state. Winston calls it "death." Julia calls it "life." And it's clear to anyone who's read the book that Orwell sympathizes with Winston's perspective. Orwell hates his imaginary regime. During the cold war, when we believed that Oceania was simply a figure for the totalitarian nightmare, Orwell's position was easy to understand. But when one considers Orwell's position against the background of his writings on literary art, writings that suggest that great artists like Shakespeare aim at what Orwell's fictional state has in fact achieved, his position becomes newly interesting.

Orwell's original title for his novel was The Last Man in Europe. The timeless form of life the Party's prohibition creates, and which Julia embraces, is perhaps no longer a human life. When Orwell actually brings himself to imagine a world in which habit has been defeated, he recoils. Why? Perhaps he feels a nostalgic commitment to "natural" human life, even if it entails freedoms that jade our senses and dull our perception.

Here is another way to present the deep question 1984 raises: Why does Orwell love it when a poet like Shakespeare renews a reader's sensation of the surface of the earth, but hate it when Big Brother does the same thing to Winston? I've suggested that the weakness of actual art—its lack of permanent novelty—is something many writers dream of overcoming. And in the very act of wrestling with the fading of aesthetic freshness, Keats, De Quincey, Orwell, and myriad other artists, literary and otherwise, have done some of their most powerful work.

But ultimately, we need to consider the possibility that art's weakness—the fact that even the greatest work is immeasurably less effective as a means of arresting time than the oppression Orwell imagines—is part of what we love about art. The art of the unreasonable Romantics offers us a rich vein of insight into the operation of time in human life. Their writing also suggests that art is where we experiment with technologies for stopping time that we know—or hope we know—will never work.

Michael W. Clune is an assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. This essay is adapted from his new book from Stanford University Press, Writing Against Time.