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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 441-443

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Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain. By Sharon Cameron. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press. 2000. vi, 121 pp. $18.95.
Dreaming by the Book. By Elaine Scarry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press. 2001. 292 pp. Cloth, $26.00; paper, $16.95.

Sharon Cameron's Beautiful Work alludes to no literary texts. Elaine Scarry's Dreaming by the Book has a few paragraphs on Uncle Tom's Cabin but otherwise deals with texts created outside the United States. What, then, are their uses for American literary specialists? The answer differs for each book, although the two resemble each other in ignoring (and by ignoring, rejecting) historicist and ideological methods.

Cameron's series of discontinuous reveries about attaining spiritual enlightenment through formal meditation aspires to the status of a literary work itself, in a recognizable American tradition. Scarry writes about universals of perception and cognition that, in her view, explain the ability of at least some literary works to induce imaginings more vivid than anything "we" attain on our own. In short, both books participate in a movement to reidentify literature and literary study with ethics and esthetics.

Beautiful Work's fictitious narrator, Anna, records her meditation practices at three different retreats. She seeks the transcendence so famously expressed in Emerson's transparent-eyeball passage, but she is perhaps more Walden-like in her anticipation that hard work is the route to depersonalized enlightenment: "Anna wanted to investigate the world as she found it, outside of her expectations, but she didn't know how to proceed" (v). The narrator hungers for conditions of absence, of emptiness—for storylessness and conceptlessness, for an expunging of the "self" as we know and treasure it in the Western world.

But a reader anticipating a confessional narrative of spiritual breakthrough will be disappointed; such a narrative would be a concept-controlled story, which is exactly what Cameron hopes to avoid. The book might be thought of as an exercise in memoir-writing from an antimemoir perspective; or it might be thought of as an experiment in writing what cannot, by virtue of its pre- or nonverbal subject, be written. Some readers may nevertheless be enticed by traces of autobiography; evocations of the beloved dead lace the account, suggesting that, Whitman-like, the project desires less to escape desire than to consummate it in endless reunion with those no longer here. Others may be drawn to Cameron's oxymoronic experiments in nonconceptual language, [End Page 441] as she writes down her observations of inner sensation for her instructor in terms she hopes he will approve.

Scarry's approach to the universality of literature offers a semiscientific account of how "we" read. The first-person plural saturates her account, allowing Scarry to assume (at least syntactically) that her readings interpret the passage as we all do. She claims that the "verbal arts"—quite specifically, works written to be read—enable the imagination to produce more vivid pictures than can any other art form or one's daydreaming imagination. Verbal arts achieve this intensity in two ways. First, they mime the neural processes by which brains actually register the real, solid, material world; second, they convey specific instructions to readers about how to perceive. In Scarry's words, the verbal arts come closer than other forms to producing "mental actions that in their vivacity more closely resemble sensing than daydream" because such arts "mime or activate the processes by which objects are sensed" (16). Instructions are key: literature produces more vivid imaginings than daydreams because daydreams contain no instructions, more vivid imaginings than other art forms because other forms have no verbal instructions. Scarry then elaborates a taxonomy of devices through which writers—or great writers, or great sensory writers—mime the neural practices through which vibrant images are produced in readers.

Unlike Cameron, Scarry celebrates the artistic autonomy of great literature. It would be a bad mistake to explain "this element of direction" as "the result of authoritarian motives" on the part of either poet or reader...


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pp. 441-443
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Archived 2005
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