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TheCanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 11,No. 3, Winter 1980 James Agee and the Furious Angel Michael A. Klug Themodern American novelist is usually filled with democratic sympathy for ordinary humanity. At the same time he is caught in a fundamental conflictwith it. This conflict often takes the form of a kind of philosophical allegory.Over and over in American fiction the artist is a symbol of the mindor imagination striving for spiritual being, while the ordinary man appearsas the embodiment of chaos, entropy, death-all those destructive aspectsof reality that the artist must fight against or rise above if he is to achieve his special fate. This tendency of American novelists to draw a sharpopposition between the artist as romantic idealist and the ordinary manas the incarnation of chaos has, of course, deep moral consequences. For one thing it involves a perversion of the traditional idea of the soul. The spirit is debased and becomes "identity." It is no longer the given or inherent meaning which all men possess, but must be achieved as the object of a quest which only the artist or visionary can hope to complete. As the personification of chaos, the ordinary man of modern American fiction is a dead soul. He cannot order his life through dreams or ideals; he does not even have a being separate from his environment with which to resist or despise it. Paradoxically, while he is a product of his world, he has no real connection with it but simply floats around in the arbitrary soup of finite things. With the best of intentions, the American novelists 314 Michael A. Klug of our century have set out to know the ordinary man, stripped of any idealization or mystification. The results have not been altogether in the service of truth. The ordinary man is still "unknown," but his mysteryhas been killed. What remains is chaos, the corpse of mystery. Unfortunately the conflict of creative mind with ordinary life has led not only to the diminishment of the ordinary man but of the artist as well. When the artist denies the soul or inherent meaning of ordinary humanity, he loses his imaginative bond with it. D. H. Lawrence describes this failure of imagination as the loss of "the sympathetic heart," the "instinctive and intuitive sympathy of the human soul" and sees it as the central characteristic of American fiction. 1 With the loss of spiritual sympathy, the novelist loses his capacity to look other men in the eye and see a spiritual reflection of himself. As the faith that other life contains an inner meaning fades, the desperate need to freeze or record it in its fleeting appearances inevitably increases. The "sympathetic heart" is replaced by the "objective eye." As a result, those novelists who have felt the strongest urge to face chaotic reality have also been most tempted to try to make the eye approximate a camera. Owen Barfield and Rudolph Arnheim among others have shown that we are not made to see as cameras do,2 but all the same the camera is the perfect model of vision for a skeptical age. In the past eighty years, objectivity, which began as a narrative technique, has become a condition of general paranoia in modern American ·fiction, a symptom of our spiritual displacement. Predatory characters who want to fix all reality in their vision, to possess the life out of things in their consciousnesses, stalk after victims who live in terror of having their existence drained away in the eye of some unseen seer. This neurotic drama of the eyes, which can be found at the very beginning of the century in Dreiser's Sister Carrie, is played out with increasing ferocity in recent American fiction. Perhaps the purest examples of it are to be found in John Hawkes's The Cannibal and James Dickey's Deliverance. But it isSaul Bellow who best knows the frozen eye. Almost all of his central characters are complusive watchers and at the same time are paralyzed with the fear of being watched. No American writer was more torn by the conflict between art and ordinary life which lies behind this estrangement of eyes than...


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pp. 313-326
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