Main works discussed: Don DeLillo, White Noise; William Wordsworth, ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’; Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘Beholding’ may seem an oddly antiquated term to use in a book attempting to re-invent a critical vocabulary for a contemporary readership. Yet the idea that literary works involve the special kind of seeing suggested by the word ‘behold’ sums up much of what this book has been about. To behold something is to attend closely to that something. It is to dwell on it intensely enough and feelingly enough and deeply enough to reveal its actual or potential significance for human life. This chapter, then, draws together a number of the principal ideas and emphases of the book as a whole. Widely used in English translations of the Bible – ‘And, behold,’ says

Jesus in Luke’s gospel, ‘I send the promise of my Father upon you’ (Luke 24:49) – the word ‘behold’ is a divine behest to attend to God-given truths, meanings and significances. Transferred to the context of literature, the poet in his or her role as bard, vates, visionary, soothsayer or prophet likewise commands our attention on the basis of the promise that something of significance and/or value may be revealed to us. ‘May’ needs emphasizing here, for these just-listed names of the poet (bard, vates, visionary, soothsayer, prophet) sound just as antiquated as the word ‘beholding’. Surely the time of the prophets has passed? Surely literature in the modernist/postmodern age is about the failure or impossibility of beholding? T. S. Eliot’s circumlocutory, attention-deficient but would-be profound and revelatory Prufrock in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915) is obliged to confess: ‘I am no prophet’ (Eliot 1948: 12). Prufrock is one of modern literature’s iconic representations of the apparent

demise of literature’s power of prophetic illumination. The irony of Eliot’s poem, however, is that it is nevertheless powerfully revelatory of the defeat of revelation by the chaos of reality. This is what the poem, among other things, asks us to behold. To see something we may not have properly seen or to see something

we have not seen before may both be part of the act of beholding, and both can be aligned with two influential ideas about the value of literature: one is that literature constitutes an enriched form of mimesis; the other that literature productively estranges us from what we take to be the real. Theories of literature as a form of mimesis, beginning in the Western tradition with Aristotle, have nearly always been accompanied by theories of literature as a superior or heightened kind of mimesis. Whether the object of mimesis is this-worldly or other-worldly, the writer, with or without divine aid, has frequently been seen as making some significant difference to the way reality is apprehended. In broad accord with Aristotle’s insistence upon the importance of unity and emotional intensity of plot, the later Greek author referred to as ‘Longinus’ argued that one of the ways of achieving sublimity and grandeur in poetry was by ‘selecting the outstanding details’ from real-life situations and ‘making a unity out of them’. ‘Do you not admire,’ he asks, referring to the poet Sappho, ‘the way she brings everything together – mind and body, hearing and tongue, eyes and skin’ (Longinus 1965: 15-16). For Philip Sidney, the poet, unlike all other imitators of nature, is likewise no mere slave to existing reality but ‘lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature’ (Sidney [1595] 1966: 23). Sidney’s poet here is at once the restorer of a pristine prelapsarian reality and the inspired originator of previously unseen things (like Theseus’ poet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Belief in poetry’s capacity to deepen understanding of reality or discover the ‘really real’ behind its shadow, is maintained in the Romantic tradition, by Wordsworth for example, in his characterization of the poet as a man ‘endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind’ (Wordsworth [1798] 1992: 71). Even in realist traditions that champion fidelity to things as they are,

as is the case with the quasi-scientific nineteenth-century mode of novelistic realism known as naturalism, mimesis does not amount to simple copying. The accusation that the desire of ‘naturalistic writers’ is to be ‘solely photographers’ is strongly repudiated by Émile Zola, for example (Zola [1880] 1964: 11). Naturalistic novelistic observation is

not ‘mere’ observation. ‘We start, indeed,’ writes Zola, ‘from the true facts, which are our indestructible basis; but to show the mechanism of these facts it is necessary for us to produce and direct the phenomena.’ ‘I maintain,’ he continues, ‘that we must modify nature, without departing from nature, when we employ the experimental method in our novels’ (ibid.: 11). The above writers and the numerous other writers, philosophers and

schools of literary criticism and theory such as Russian Formalism and New Criticism, which take literature to be a superior form of mimesis or to transport us beyond received reality, clearly do not form anything like a unified group. In each case, art-as-enriched-mimesis and art-as-estrangement mean subtly or sometimes profoundly different things. They nevertheless broadly support the notion that art may be defined by the way it invites as well as confers special attention. The inviting and conferring name two separable aspects of ‘beholding’: literary texts to varying degrees draw attention to themselves in their difference from ordinary communication and/or ordinary reality; and they thereby draw attention through that difference to the significance of what they represent or evoke. The more extreme the emphasis is upon the former, the more difficult it may be to ‘see through’ the artwork to what is being beheld. The more extreme the emphasis upon the latter, the more confidence the artwork will seem to have in its powers of beholding. Relevant to these notions of beholding are the fruitful uses to which

Richard Shusterman puts the notion of dramatization in his discussion of art and approaches to art. To dramatize something is to generate ‘experiential intensity’ and ‘vividness of experience and action’ (Shusterman 2002: 233, 234). This aspect of dramatization is congenial with my own discussion in Chapters 1 and 2 of literature-as-cathexis. To dramatize something, for Shusterman, is additionally to frame it. The concept of mise en scène, he suggests, ‘implies that something significant is being framed or put in place’ (ibid.: 234). Even when there is nothing in the frame – ‘a plain white canvas hanging on a gallery wall’, or ‘John Cage’s 4’33”’ – we ‘automatically project a significant content onto the apparent emptiness’ (ibid.: 236). A further function of ‘art’s dramatizing frame’ (ibid.: 237), which Shusterman places in juxtaposition to its realityheightening function, is to create distance. It is the distancing effect of framing that Shusterman suggests has led historicists – in contrast with ‘aesthetic naturalism[’s]’ assumption that art is ‘deeply rooted in human nature’ (ibid.: 229) – to identify ‘the special, historically constructed institutional framework that makes an object an artwork’ (ibid.: 237). It is by means of this last understanding of framing that Shusterman brings historical context into play. The special domain of art is not natural but

cultural, the creation of the European aesthetic tradition that grew up in the eighteenth century. What art frames from the historicist’s perspective is cultural as well. Shusterman’s multi-functional concept of dramatic framing cleverly accommodates believers and disbelievers in literature’s special powers of revelation. Another way of relativizing and refining literature’s framing or

beholding of things otherwise assumed too unquestioningly to hold ontological significance is through an understanding of genre. This is one of the important emphases of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature (Eldridge 2009). In this book, the literary genres of epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, satire, the novel, autobiography and biography, and experimental writing are explored as different forms of attention to human life, or as Richard Eldridge puts it in the introduction to the volume, for the different ‘interests for human life’ that they represent (Eldridge 2009: 14). This idea is attractive because at once expansive and particular. The human is still clearly in view but prismatically, through specific genres. My own way of relativizing the adjacent concepts of beholding,

framing, attending and dramatizing will be to consider a text – Don DeLillo’sWhite Noise ([1984] 1986) – which throws into relief the problem of distinguishing frames from pseudo-frames, beholders from bogus beholders. How can we tell whether what is being beheld is significant for human life? Do literature’s dramatizing frames merely construct significances? I argued in Chapter 1 that literature can cathect virtually anything and everything. The arousal of emotion contributes to the intensity of beholding, but emotions can be manipulated. When we feel manipulated, we become outsiders and see the frame not as a means of intensifying something but as a ‘merely’ fictional frame (where fictional reduces to ‘made up’). ‘It’s only a story’ is the perspective of the outsider. It is not only when we feel manipulated, however, that we stop being captivated by what is being beheld, for as Shusterman argues, the dramatizing frames of art may not only serve to intensify but to distance, especially when the work in question self-consciously draws attention to its acts of beholding. The distancing may lead us to concentrate our energies on formal analysis and/or upon the text-in-history, including the history of its form. Or it may cause us to ponder the need for special acts of beholding even as these are targeted at possibly undeserving objects, as they are in White Noise. The second text discussed below considers an ‘iconic’ act of literary

beholding: Wordworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ ([1798] 1992). It would be remiss for a chapter on beholding not to include discussion of a Romantic poet, for Romantic poets epitomize

the belief in art’s capacity for special seeing. Not that Wordsworth is by any means a naïve believer, for his faith in the revelatory power of art is put into significant doubt. Wordsworth’s poem is a complex act of beholding that simultaneously places us inside and outside its intensifying frame. The third and final text is Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant

Fundamentalist. This I have chosen to demonstrate how literature’s framing of the timeless human significances of life need not be at the expense of an engagement with the ‘now’ of contemporary issues. The opposite is the case, as I shall argue below, since the framing of such issues in terms of their human import may serve to intensify and deepen our engagement with them. I said in my general Introduction that the literary works I closely read

in the second half of each chapter do not obediently or uniformly serve the concepts I elaborate at the beginning of each chapter. The concepts are stretched in different directions by the texts, and this helps to make the critical frameworks supple. This is especially true of the three texts chosen to exemplify the concept of beholding.