Man of many snipes, - I will sup with thee, Deo volente et diabolo nolente, on Monday night the 5th of January, in the new year, and crush a cup to the infant century.
A word of my progress. Embark at six o'clock in the morning, with a fresh gale... land at St Mary's light-house, muffins and coffee upon table ... snipes exactly at nine, punch to commence at ten with argument; difference of opinion is expected to take place about eleven; perfect unanimity, with some haziness and dimness, before twelve. - NB My single affection is not so singly wedded to snipes; but the curious and epicurean eye would also take a pleasure in beholding a delicate and well-chosen assortment of teals, ortolans, the unctuous and palate-soothing flesh of geese wild and tame, nightingales' brains, the sensorium of a young sucking pig, or any other Christmas dish...
Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning
27 December 1800
CHARLES LAMB is looking forward to a wonderful dinner with lots of drink and talk, but he introduces a term - "unctuous" - that was current among his friends and which they applied to works of art they admired. Nowadays, this word is wholly negative - anyone described as "unctuous" or "oleaginous" is clearly unpleasant, like Dickens's "large, greasy, self-satisfied" Mr Chadband.
But for Lamb and his friends, a poem, painting, novel or play that was oily, unctuous, marrowy, juicy, was utterly admirable. They knew that the word traditionally carried the idea of deep spiritual meaning and also signified real enjoyment, acute pleasure. So they employed it as a term of the highest praise, just as kids now use "safe" of someone they really like and admire.
Unfortunately, unctuousness has had its day. As Chaudhuri argues in his brilliant study of Lawrence, Western critics use a restricted language which excludes the physically immediate senses, touch and taste, or admits them only in order to express disgust - eg "tacky". Quoting Jacques Derrida, Chaudhuri shows that because we only talk about "seeing" and "learning" in criticism, we wall off "sensation, collision, eroticism, and the surface"; we are governed in our appreciation of art by "distancing, clarity, logic, perspective, and the ideal". Thus we banish the body and exclude desire.
Is it possible to achieve a more integrated appreciation of art? Or must we be forever missing that "erotics of art" which Susan Sontag recommends? Which is a way of asking if it's possible to make critical prose aspire to the grace and movement of the human body. When Hopkins discerned "the naked thew and sinew" of the language in Dryden's verse, he was making this connection with the body. Yeats was always searching for a "sinewy" style, and though it now seems dated, perhaps rather macho, "muscular" used to be applied to prose. Before they were called "clauses," sentences had "members"; "articulate" is applied both to expression in words and to the body's joints.
There is an idea of wholeness here which we find also in Walt Whitman, the genius who inspired much of Lawrence's best writing: "The smoke of my own breath/Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine./ My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs."
Recently, the body has begun to be invoked by critical theorists, possibly as a reaction to the highly technical language which theory has - I won't say "begotten" - which it has keyed into its restricted internet. Indeed, there is an academic critic who now concludes his lectures by stripping off in front of his audience. This is body language taken to a final absurdity, more an expression of disgust than of Whitmanesque exultation. The critic Hlne Cixous has written: "Woman must write her body, must make up the unimpeded tongue that bursts partitions, classes, and rhetorics, orders and codes." This is a cry against abstract or distanced language. A rejection of the idea of refined connoisseurship which accompanies the word "taste" in Britain.
Praising the "quiet flow of touch" in Etruscan wall paintings, Lawrence says: "The sense of vigorous, strong-bodied liveliness is ... somehow beyond art ... as if this were the very life of the Etruscans, dancing in their coloured wraps with massive yet exuberant naked limbs, ruddy from the air and the sea-light, dancing and fluting along through the little olive- trees, out in the fresh day."
Perhaps this is the dream of criticism - to go beyond art into the dance of life itself. Lamb invokes Rabelais in his letter because he wants to exaggerate pleasure, take it to extremes, so that it's orgiastic and uncontrolled. Though critics have said farewell to "unctuous", the term "carnivalesque" is now used to praise a wild, liberated, exultant style which celebrates by crushing as many cups as possible.
After carnival (the putting off of carne, the body) comes Lent, and that lean time isn't a good season for criticism, or for what Rabelais called "fine and most juicy books". So we're back to breakfast talk: big big breakfasts with sizzly rashers, sunny slippery fried eggs and champagne with orange juice.
8 This is the last in the present series.Reuse content