Nomen est omen. Christened Morse, he was likely to find himself in semiology, sign behavior. (The Morse code surfaces in his arguments.) The intellectual experience which he offers has its similarities to that offered by another polymath professor who has chafed his way out through the confines of the English Department: Marshall McLuhan.
But first the gists and piths of Morse Peckham’s five books. Beyond the Tragic Vision (1962), for all its boisterousness, stayed more or less within the bounds of the known-to-be-daring; its subtitle, at once vibrant and academic, is “The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century.” Its agonized heroes pass by, not with the hard-won pain of stations of the cross, but with the brisk illuminations of subway stations. (“PART FOUR/ILLUSION AND REALITY, XIII Transcendentalism in Difficulty, DISRAELI—CARLYLE—BALZAC.”). Its closing pages announce assuredly: “Thus Nietzsche solved the problem of the nineteenth century.” Biting back the flippant impulse to murmur Tiens one may yet prefer Peckham wry.
Schematic yet hasty, preoccupied with value but casual and even willful in its own valuations, this first book already located what have been Peckham’s crucial concerns: “man’s drive to dominate, control, and master his environment” and “the gratification of the orientative drive.” “The true dialectic lies in the eternally transvaluating encounter between the mind’s instrumental constructs and reality in a continuous restructuring of orientations.”
The argument was extended and modified in the next book, Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts (1965). Peckham gives a lucid and impartial summary:
It seems to me that a primary drive of human beings is towards order, that is, to perceive the environment as comprehensible and to make successful predictions about the future. I am convinced that to every situation a human being brings an orientation which is not derived from that situation but already exists in his perceptual powers before he comes to that situation. Such an orientation works only because it filters out from the situation any data which is not relevant to the needs of the moment. This orientation is the manifestation of the drive to order. However, the successful employment of the orientation means that much of the data of the situation is ignored or suppressed. But since an orientation does not prepare an individual to deal with a particular situation but only with a category, or kind, or class of situations, much of the suppressed data may very well be relevant. Moreover, every successful use of an orientation reinforces the tendency both to use it again and to do so without correcting it by relevant data. Thus arises the paradox of human behavior: the very drive to order which qualifies man to deal successfully with his environment disqualifies him when it is to his interest to correct his orientation. To use an old expression, the drive to order is also a drive to get stuck in the mud. There must, it seems to me, be some human activity which serves to break up orientations, to weaken and frustrate the tyrannous drive to order, to prepare the individual to observe what the orientation tells him is irrelevant, but what very well may be highly relevant. That activity, I believe, is the activity of artistic perception.
Man’s Rage for Chaos explores the implications (“Rage for Order,” “Art and Behavior,” “Signs,” “Art: the Semantic Aspect,” “Art: the Formal Aspect,” “The Relationship of the Arts,” and “Rage for Chaos”). Vivid and versatile, it exposes to justified ridicule some important absurdities in aesthetics and literary criticism, and what it offers as an alternative is (mostly) much to be preferred. The line of argument is not swathed, and it puts itself properly at risk; we are not offered a wily cipher.
Peckham’s next book, Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (1969), seems to me altogether his best, for reasons which are worth coming back to. It exploits—in the best sense—all his previous thinking; its advances and qualifications are scrupulous and supple, and its argument is strong, central, and novel. “Because of the privacy and the semiotic immediacy of genital behavior, the sexual role is admirably suited for presenting nonsexual interests in a purity and saliency virtually impossible in other situations.”
Victorian Revolutionaries (1970) is Peckham’s worst book, for reasons which are the counterpart to those which elevate Art and Pornography. These “Speculations on Some Heroes of a Culture Crisis” are disparate and repetitive, indulging the wrong sort of risk on the subject of Tennyson, Carlyle, Browning, the Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Tylor and anthropology, and Swinburne. Peckham is here lured into the airy and the resonantly preposterous: “Reading Browning is not different from reading Wittgenstein, and their conclusions are remarkably similar, as are their methods.” Moreover Peckham is required (he does not meet the requirement) by the undertaking to do two things for which he has virtually no gift: the first is literary criticism, and the second is getting the small facts right. Easily the best thing in the book is the Swinburne essay (“Eroticism = Politics: Politics = Eroticism”), but even this is somewhat vitiated by Peckham’s profound lack of interest in how any particular poem uses any particular words.
Lastly, there is The Triumph of Romanticism: Collected Essays (1970). The twenty-three essays date from 1950 to 1969. The group on Romanticism doesn’t lack blur. But there are some good polemical energizers (Peckham is sharp on Wellek and on Wimsatt),and more importantly there are some pieces which extend and modify the “art and disorder” argument by newly thinking about fiction.
Like McLuhan, Peckham is hung up on (depends from) the word “heuristic.” It isn’t always made precisely clear how this magniloquently dignified procedure differs from the indolent cunning of the old-style lecturer (“I just throw this out”) or from the entrepreneur’s cynicism, sending a Jamesian idea through Central Park to see if anybody violates it.
A heuristic proposition about Peckham would be that he is the McLuhan of aesthetics. Like McLuhan, he is repetitious and even obsessive. Like McLuhan, he is on to something. Like McLuhan, he has a grasshopper’s spring. “The Enlightenment invented upholstered furniture and discovered sentimentality, and did both at about the same time.” Would it be Peckham or McLuhan who saw that the Polaroid Land Camera had revolutionized pornography? Or who grasped that anything which is “not accidental” is probably grist?—“Hence it is not accidental that France, in which scientific interests were very powerful from the early seventeenth century, and China have developed what are recognized by our culture as the only two truly great cuisines.”
Like McLuhan, Peckham is sensitive (hyper?) to the revelations that lurk in fashion. Like McLuhan, he can be laughably unlaughing, as when, having chosen “a rock” as an example of a “concrete universal,” he makes things worse by announcing that “the genitals and genital sensation are concrete universals.” (Why no footnote about Freud and Medusa’s head?) Like McLuhan, he can be tamely inaccurate; Peckham cannot get right the names of authors or books, let alone their words—“the lines that everyone quotes,” whether from Tennyson, Yeats, Orwell (no prize for guessing which line), or Pater (ditto), come out sadly bedraggled.
As with McLuhan, it may be best not to know much about the terrain; justified irritation at the inaccuracies can blind one to the felicitous or lucky acuities. Almost all the matters of fact referred to in Peckham’s chapter on Tennyson are, as a matter of fact, wrong. So that when—in two of Peckham’s books—Mary McCarthy gets excoriated for having said that “the white race is the cancer of mankind” (“Mary McCarthy with her usual penetrating silliness, her quite extraordinary ability to grasp the situation but miss the point…most contemptible and most dangerous”), I can’t help wondering if the anger ought not to be aimed at the person who wrote that “the white race is the cancer of human history”: Susan Sontag.
Then there’s the question of valuation, which Peckham—like McLuhan—loftily claims to eschew. “The principal difficulty with statements about whether this work of art or that is good or bad is that they are all so excruciatingly uninteresting.” True, if they have to be such blunt instruments as Peckham wields. “Browning’s four greatest works are Sordello, The Ring and the Book, Fifine at the Fair, and the Parleyings, something like 30,000 lines of poetry, in itself one of the more formidable bulks of poetry in English.” “The Scarlet Letter is the only novel to which I would ascribe the word ‘perfect.’ ”
But then Peckham’s theory is (rightly and inevitably) evaluative; its evaluation is based not on moral discriminations, but on the biological and adaptational value of art, but even so Peckham would still—if he were to bring the theory more specifically to bear—need to reckon with the possibility that some works of art are greater (adaptationally better) than others, and that as it stands the general notion of “disorientations” is a squaring up rather than a setting forth.
But the principal likeness is that both McLuhan and Peckham are rebounders. McLuhan, confronting an intellectual world which was indifferent to media and therefore imperceptive about how they affected messages, has furnished an intellectual world which is indifferent to messages and therefore imperceptive about how they affect media. Nothing but message?—nonsense, it’s nothing but medium. The accusation against McLuhan is that which his masterly mentor G. K. Chesterton invited: that of crucifying truth head-downward. The culpable advantage of the handy-dandy is that it is more immediately and dramatically appealing, and easier, than the true feat, which would first of all be to explore precisely what the relationship of medium to message might be in a particular case. (McLuhan early got badly bored with that.)
In the same way, Peckham was confronted by an intellectual world which inordinately identified art with order and which was therefore imperceptive about the subtle importance of discontinuity, disorder, and disorientation in art. Rebounding, he adopted the vivid, but ultimately untaxing, notion that it isn’t the order but the disorder which matters. He is now honorably clambering back (hardly shamefaced at all, and anyway we should be grateful, not vengeful) to the sane unthrilling nub: the relationship of order to disorder in art.
He still has relapses: “The important thing about a variation is not its resemblance to the theme, but its difference” (1966). This is as much arsy-versy as handy-dandy. Better to invite the truthful yawn, and admit that the important thing about a variation is neither its resemblance to the theme nor its difference, but its unique relationship of resemblance and difference. As constituted by Peckham, the argument is vacant to the point of daftness, since it fantasizes an opposition between those who say “what matters is how far” and those who say “oh no, what matters is how near.”
Peckham would wish to claim that his adaptational theory of art properly gives primacy to the disorder of art, since it is such an experience of disorientation (an experience neutral, insulated, and to be entered upon without certain kinds of anxiety) which is art’s necessary counterpoise to life’s—perception’s, indeed—ruthless drive toward order. You might say in support of Peckham that man is persistently obliged to construe, and that to construe is to construct—you can’t see the multifarious lights in strange night driving until you construct and construe them. But it is precisely on the matter of primacy that Peckham’s theory seems weakest. The prefatory summary in Man’s Rage for Chaos began with the proposition that “a primary drive of human beings is towards order” (and hence into “successful predictions”). But what began as a drive, leaving open the possibility of an equally strong counterthrust, is subsequently converted, silently, into the drive.
Peckham is excellent (compassionate and sane) on the potent perils of imprisonment within our orientations, but his argument rests on premises which are obdurately exclusive. “Man desires above all a predictable and ordered world, a world to which he is oriented.” But what if it is part of the wearisome condition of humanity that above all refuses to stay in place up there? Much might be said for the opposite proposition, that man fears above all a predictable and ordered world, since he knows that tedium, repetition, growthlessness, and death are aspects of the altogether predicted and the altogether ordered. “The values of life are all reducible to the effort to make experience predictable.” I see no reason to believe it. “The central interest of all human beings is to create a predictable world”—even from Mount Olympus, is the view so clear? A central interest, no doubt; but the grimness of predictability is something which is manifest in life, and not just because art makes much of it. “For I have known them all already, known them all.”
What central does on one rhetorical occasion, really is asked to do on another:
It is only the predictability of experience that we really care about and cherish, for the most part, particularly when it comes to other people. Only love and friendship make such violations acceptable, and thus love and friendship may be seen as strategies for tolerating unpredicted behavior.
This is unscrupulous. Only love and friendship? No doubt they may be seen as such strategies, but they may also be seen—and to my mind with better reason—as evidence not that men need to have recourse to strategies in order to “tolerate” the unpredictable in human relationships, but that men expressly need and value the unpredictable. And not just in art.
The importance of the later essays in The Triumph of Romanticism is that Peckham intermittently calls himself to heel, an unflamboyant albeit weird activity but a valuable one. “Order and Disorder in Fiction” (1966) can say on its last page:
I come, therefore, to my final paradox that the telling of stories, and the listening to stories, is motivated both by the desire for order, for cognitive and perceptual and interpretive continuity, and by the desire for disorder, for cognitive and perceptual and interpretive discontinuity. I hope I have made myself clear enough so that it will be seen that this is not a paradox at all.
Well, yes and no. The argument has honorably shifted back to the unmelodramatic crux—not art as disorder, but art as relationships of disorder and order. But some of what goes for the telling of stories will have its analogies or equivalents in other forms. Peckham himself insists that “the very notion of fiction is unacceptable, since all language is equally fictional”—I don’t myself think that the two halves of that sentence are as bonded by since as Peckham does, but anyway it seems clear that he will have to modify the bald insistence that “art is characterized not by order but by disorder.” (1967) now that he is talking subtle sense about fiction.
And Art and Pornography? In his first book, Peckham had brooded: “Pornography serves an important social function of some kind or other.” His recent “Experiment in Explanation” is witty, various, and handsomely idea’d. Instead of seeking an elusive or illusory definition, he considers the various roles played by pornography, especially within that hateful siege of contraries which constitutes society: stability and innovation. He is persuasive about the extent to which it is exactly the non-genital interests which pornography is so strongly equipped to dramatize, and he is shrewdly humane in his insistence that much which is deplored in pornography (its repetitiousness, for instance) is a feature which a particular work possesses not as pornography but as belonging to a certain cultural level.
The book is surprisingly good, but there is—so to speak—nothing surprising about its being so good. The subject suits him down to the ground. The proximity of biological and adaptational interests; the subject’s amenability to his concepts of social management and of policing; the absence of high literature (such as would have asked high literary criticism); the indirect or at any rate unusual responsibilities which the subject has toward evaluation; the absence of any insistent pressure toward polemical partiality (there being very few ideas about pornography extant, and none regnant); the assurance that however much he rightly stresses the non-genital interests at work, his readers are not likely to forget, or be talked out of, the genital ones: all these help to assure an acutely distinguished book. Plus the fact that pornography is a realm where even the most severely hostile theoretician might hesitate to press the accusation that Peckham is a deluded victim of the affective fallacy.
May 20, 1971