James Wood and The Visionless Age

Samuel Liu on James Wood’s Serious Noticing

Perhaps there is no essay by James Wood more thrilling than his piece on metaphor in Melville, “The All of the If,” published in The New Republic more than two decades years ago, in 1997. (This essay appears in Wood’s newly published collection, Serious Noticing). Of all his criticism, this is the most alive and dancing in its language, and has the poetic, prophetic fervor that exemplifies Wood’s ideal of criticism; he is channeling Melville’s prose. He comes as close to Melville as a diver traveling perfectly alongside his legendary whale; at times the styles merge like different shades of waters, his prose touched by the stream of quotations, coming out in a cleaner blue. The ghost of Melville clings to his prose, haunting it with the radiance of Wood’s own desire. This is the right picture of literary criticism: the critic captured by the prose of the superior spirit and narrating under its thrall. This criticism plays the score of the critiqued. A writer survives by how many younger poets he inspires; just so, a critic champions a writer by writing like him.

James Wood. Serious Noticing: Selected Essays 1999-2019. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp 528.

For Wood is playful to read for the same reason that he admires Melville: they both write compulsively in metaphor, enhancing their prose immeasurably, punning when they don’t have to, referring to unknown myths:

Soaked in theology, Melville was alert to the Puritan habit of seeing the world allegorically, that is, metaphorically. The world was a place of signs and wonders which could always yield up its meaning like secret ink.

He writes of the way metaphor pushes a thought forward:

Melville chooses the metaphors that then squeeze their return from him. […] But, of all writers, he understood the independent, generative life that comes from likening something to something else. Keats spoke of how language “yeasts and works itself up”—works itself. This was everything to Melville.

One can hear Wood marveling: listen to that word ‘squeeze,’ its sensuous pungency, and yet its intellectual sense: these metaphors, once chosen by Melville, act upon him physically, squeeze out of him their logical continuation, wringing him like a rag. He is forced to regenerate the metaphor along the hidden guidelines implicit in its genes, as if he were the host of its parasite. Who, disagreeing with Wood, does not enjoy reading him? A critic ought to be able to parody his subject, as a way to exalt or diminish; and Wood often employs this as his favorite tool (particularly his legendary parody of Harold Bloom), so why not do this to him? ‘His criticism advocates for itself, displaying its riches by its very style, bribing its critics, spendthrift but always on point. His sentences reach for abstraction, for theory, but always manage to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability.’

For Wood, a sentence, however high it flies, whatever miracles it draws about itself, must also be of the earth, felt, concrete, devoid of artifice. The essential tension of literature, for him, is between that of consciousness and the eye, between the ability for fiction to “hold the ghost” and represent consciousness; and yet simultaneously to balance this character-centric fiction, this dialogue of the accurate ear, with the writer’s eye, his shining desire to see, his musical prose of the inaccurateecstatic ear.

One can get caught up trying to paint everything, and in the process lose the soul of his characters, to have written over the characters, to have made them say things that they would never say, to talk like the author and not the character. And, needless to say, in this a writer would have failed, found himself pinned and writhing under Wood’s pen. He would be accused of running the scale all the way from Austen, who in her genius has no need for the visual world, to unfortunate John Updike, the pure aesthetician who has only the visual world. Whose prose, that mighty  “penis with a thesaurus” (David Foster Wallace’s famous formulation), had managed to destroy the consciousness of his characters. Who, Wood constantly asks, is talking here? Doesn’t the character think exactly like the author, in the author’s powerful language—thus losing his own self? Perhaps it’s for this reason that Wood employs in his first novel, The Book Against God, a failed intellectual, a would-be thinker in Thomas Bunting; he must keep the character separate from himself, give enough distance so that, unsuffocated by an overweening parent, the character has space to breathe and come into his own.

But this is not to say that Wood is entirely happy with an Austenian world. He just likes superfluous detail, rather than Austen’s details which, employed only rarely, always tell something for the sake of the story. Austen’s novels are visualized in the most basic and efficient way possible, so as to get to the next point; the psychological dance has no time for what male writers have disdained about their female counterparts: the prettiness of the dress, the shape of the bridegroom’s lips. It is, indeed, as Wood observes, Flaubert and Nabokov who are obsessed with details such as gowns and lips. Wood is not as much a champion of Flaubert as everyone thinks (he criticizes Flaubert for being too focused on detail); he just rightly observes that Flaubert’s influence is nearly invisible in its omnipresence; but Wood, one feels, is still deeply committed to the visual world that Flaubert’s accomplishments herald. For there is so much beautiful minutiae to write about! The thought might be summed up as follows: By describing the world and giving it ‘this-ness,’ by representing to us and placing upon a museum’s pedestal the formerly boring and unsignifying details of life, like Marcel Duchamp’s toilet, a writer does the job of art; he seeds the sterile earth and in that same movement—as of a fig tree blessed—sees it give forth good fruit. By describing the world, the writer gives us life back to ourselves.

A visual world. For by describing the world and giving it “this-ness,” by representing to us and placing upon a museum’s pedestal the formerly boring and unsignifying details of life, like this chair, like Marcel Duchamp’s toilet, a writer does the job of art; he seeds the sterile earth and in that same movement—as of a fig tree blessed—sees it give forth good fruit. To extend this thought: by describing the world, the writer gives us life back to ourselves.

But there is a tension, here.

Wood’s essential point, so it seems to me, is the differentiation between the observer-author and the character who is, in almost all cases, never as good an observer as the author. Here is Wood observing this tension in the writer he most frequently holds up as a model, Saul Bellow:

A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.

It is a gorgeous, musical phrase, and characteristic of both Bellow and modern fictional narrative. The fiction slows down to draw our attention to a potentially neglected surface or texture—an example of a “descriptive pause.”

But at the same time it is a detail apparently seen not by the author—or not only by the author—but by a character. And this is what Bellow wobbles on; he admits an anxiety endemic to modern narrative, and which modern narrative tends to elide. The ash is noticed, and then Bellow comments: “It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man.”

The Bellow anxiety occurs at the balance between what the character sees and what the author sees. The character seems always to get in the way. The beautiful sentence is in the danger of being continually appended with, “so X— saw.” Then the character thinks something completely banal about the object, “That watch his grandfather had given him, for some reason, not on a holiday or anything,” — which banality, Wood says, is indeed lifelike, since we do not often poeticize about objects, and our common thoughts intrude. But something is lost.


The metaphorical style advocated by Wood in his Melville piece is actually resisted by the character-driven realism that he outlines. This is a tension Wood has discovered, not invented.

The ecstasy of obsessive poetic metaphor suffers under character-driven fiction.

Those interested in describing the world in an ecstatic fashion so often have either to dispense with a character-observer altogether, or make the observer the author (like Proust). Shakespeare bypasses this by making all his characters speak in metaphor, as if all of them were poets. Who actually talks like a Shakespearean character? The influence of Shakespeare in realism is usually in characters who want to talk like Shakespeare but end up being ridiculous; it is through these purposeful fools that the enamored author can play with his love of Shakespeare while still writing a real character. When Queen Gertrude reports of Ophelia’s death, she reports it in Shakespeare’s language—in essence, Queen Gertrude is a better author than Bellow (assuming that we prefer Shakespeare to Bellow). That is how Shakespeare bypasses the description problem; we don’t have an issue with everyone speaking with poetry, because that’s what we already expect—the founder of the canon doesn’t have to play by the subsequent rules of realism.

The grammar of realism has led us to assume normality as the grounds of speech. People do not speak in poetry, but in stutters of prose. This normality pushes out the ecstasy of metaphor, the flights of language for its own sake, or limits such times—when the author wants to run wild and say something profound—to the domain of the ecstatic speech. Only geniuses, usually insane, like Ahab or Ivan Karamazov, are allowed to talk this way. Wood would doubtless point out that there are brilliant instances of peasant-speech in Shakespeare that beautifully use metaphor, and he is right. The prose that Wood prefers involves a dosage of banality, as if a bit of mud were weighing down the airy sentence to give it weight. A drift of thought and feeling: ‘the sublime dapple of emotions.’

But I am speaking of the capacity of the author to describe sensual intensity, rather than for a character to linger comically and beautifully in his own speech. In this, I am not arguing against Wood, but hope to make clear the boundary that he has implicitly determined.

The best kinds of description often involve the disappearance of the observer, in which the author seems to take over. It is correct to say that what I am describing is more like prose poetry than the novel.

For in this kind of thing—let us just call it ecstatic ekphrasis—the character cannot intrude.


Wood’s ‘Serious Noticing’ is the realm of Bellow and Flaubert. But, so I argue, there is a second kind of noticing, one of obsession, ecstasy. In this, the author stands so still he may count the seconds that pass; he perceives the world and all its details within one system of thought.

Consider the visionary child, the narrator of all of Bruno Schulz’s stories. In the story “August,” the narrator stands in front of a wasted garden-yard and sees something violent to his sensitivity, a shock bright as a vision, yet one completely germane to his hometown: the neighborhood madwoman is masturbating against a tree. Here, there is no mere descriptive pause, here there is no time to take out your notebook to make observations with which to later adorn one’s realist novels. Here one’s entire being pauses, and the plot of the story almost comes to a complete halt, is advanced image upon image, beyond the drudgery of conventional action; the prose becomes not just painting but, far superior to painting, an image that lingers like a slow burn in the air.

Only Proust approaches this kind of descriptive power:

And over near the fence a sheepskin coat of grasses rises like a protuberant hillock-hump, as if the garden has turned onto its other side in its sleep and its thick peasant shoulders are breathing the silence of the earth.

And while the tattered clothes slip onto the ground and scatter across the garbage dump like frightened rats, the heart of the dump digs its way out from them, the core slowly unwraps itself and emerges from its shell: a half-naked, dark imbecile slowly rises and stands there, looking like a little pagan idol on short, childlike legs, while from her neck, which is swollen with an influx of fury, from her flushed face growing dark with rage, on which the arabesques of swollen veins resembling primitive paintings are efflorescing, a bestial shriek escapes, a throaty shriek, produced from all the bronchi and pipes of this half-bestial, half-godlike breast. The milk thistles, burned by the sun, are screaming, the burdocks puffing up and flaunting their shameless flesh, the weeds drooling glistening poison, and the imbecile girl in a wild convulsion, hoarse from her shrieking, with frenzied passion thrusts her fleshy groin against an elderberry trunk that, bewitched by this whole beggars’ chorus to perverted pagan fecundity, creaks softly beneath the urgency of dissolute lust.

Here, the child is obsessed with the object, yet the child sees it within the author’s language: it is as if the child himself were a genius. And indeed this is the case, or such is the romantic conception of the child: the child sees the world more vividly than we do. Perhaps this is why this description seems to make emotional sense, even though we know that the child cannot speak in this manner. Think of how much is lost when the child actually takes over the voice of a story, as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which is also his attempt to run away from the prose of Bruno Schulz (some of Schulz’s sentences from his legendary story “Spring” are interestingly replicated in Foer’s book). There the child must literally be a genius, knowing French and Shakespeare, so that Foer can get away with saying cool stuff while still being a realist. The image is destroyed and what remains is the rhetorical. That this doesn’t work, that the novel ends up jerking your tears while making you hate yourself for crying since it’s merely unearned, sloppy sentimentality, should be clear to anyone who has ever compared the romantic-child-as-viewer in Schulz to that in Foer. But this isn’t really Foer’s fault. He’s just subscribed to realism while still wanting to say the profound. In Schulz’s case, the madwoman is reported in Schulz’s language; for this reason, if the banality of a child’s random drift-of-thought were to come wafting through, the entire effect would be lost. That which was revelation in the mind of a child (the mind of the author ‘in his heights’), is ruined by the author thinking to himself: “But what would the child say in this situation?” These are the bad habits of realism that have bled ecstasy from the novel.


In Schulz, the object viewed, when stared at, undergoes transformation of impressions, so that the ‘protuberant hillock-hump’ becomes the ‘heart of the dump’ and finally, within the surroundings of burning milk thistles and shameless burdock, the ‘half-naked imbecile’ rises up and grinds against an ‘elderberry trunk,’ which moves with her in tune, as if they had merged, creaking softly beneath ‘the urge of dissolute lust.’ It’s in the same way that Proust’s child-observer-author, when walking and suddenly stopping beneath a cherry tree, attaches to the tree his gaze, gluing his attention there, so that it’s as if the veins of his own body circulate in a special manner and bring back a surplus of meanings that are fed from the gaze to the tree so that it blossoms by resembling distant shapes. These transformations are the actions of metaphor on itself, the vision deepening, language left to play in its own playground. Then, something occurs that can’t be said; it can only be ‘extremely perceived,’ and we have seen it because of how the author has said it. One has vision. One sees the madwoman. But what this means, is so potent that we don’t know what it is. That is because the written message, or the ‘proposition’ in the image, is conveyed in a climate, an overwhelming mood, rather than straight-forwardly, rather than rhetorically, and consumes the proposition whole, leaving nothing to digest. Some writers have passages where they allow themselves to philosophize, as if setting the scene for a careful intrigue outside of their genre; think Milan Kundera in the opening of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yet there is such a writer who philosophizes by way of weather.

And as soon as we leave the weather of the story, that hail of symbols and signs, we can’t actually say what we ‘learned,’ those searching for information like in Infinite Jest are left disappointed; there is nothing to repeat to show off your intelligence; and yet your sensibility has been so impacted by thought-images, clean and passing through your system, that you have changed, you see the world differently, even your system of values is altered, all without your knowledge.

How can one philosophize with weather? The language must be systematic. Contemporary nature poetry—the weak derivations of Elizabeth Bishop—so often seems to be the presentation of accurate images without any devastation of thought; these are mere pictures, and time will discard them. But there must be a voice, and vocabulary special to that voice; and this is what is rightly called original. Proust will use the word ‘charm’ over and over again until you understand that the mesmerism of charm is fundamental to his way of perceiving the world. Image and language are one. Kafka will give you image after image of K. being slightly humiliated to give you the impression of the speechless, but overwhelming proposition of The Trial: some massif of a becalmed gray rectangle lying on top of you. Schulz’s language is systematic with its concepts, doing so completely unintentionally, simply because his way of seeing the world is idiosyncratic and naturally lends itself to these adjectives, ‘shameless,’ ‘rage,’ ‘fury.’ The motifs recur and pass throughout his prose, he infuses them with meaning, special to him, so that, like he had staked out a domain on these words, planted his flag upon them, no one can use them without accidentally calling him to mind, as if his ghost were summoned by the mere usage of his words, his open sesame; in the same way that American poets summon Whitman just by using the words ‘of this I sing’ or ‘grass’; these words have been connected very firmly, as the focus of the root-system, its very fibrous pulse, where the water cools and passes through the sinews and stems of the underground body, and have become essential to our culture’s language; so that grass calls to mind Whitman, rather than Whitman writing about grass. Here is Stevens singing of the power of the poet greater than the genius of nature:

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing
Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore.

One does not become a stylist merely by observing things very well, or writing accurate images, or even deploying disparate ingenious metaphors, or even sounding very good—this is Bellow. Bellow is musical but his prose is not, as with Kafka’s The Trial, or Proust’s daydream-sentence, a philosophical system unto itself, in the way that Hegel’s prose embodies his dialectic thought. A stylist—in the specific way I propose—as I have been arguing, must also be a systematic philosopher, simply because the usage and re-usage of his “love words,” the words that cause his body and mind to harmonize and enjoy a reverie in the word’s particular color and joy-in-color, are formulaic. People say this as a pejorative: a writer is condemned as copying another, writing merely formulaic fiction. Yet a stylist shows his own formula, his overpowering gene that infects all the writers who come after him and by which he is easily identifiable, like some water-mark, a particular way of lisping that all his children have. For this reason, plagiarism is actually impossible. If you’re a middling plot-based writer, yes, you can be plagiarized. But the originals in language cannot be copied without simply again paying them homage, summoning their ghosts back to life by saying their favorite words. This formula came from nowhere and can’t be beaten. Every sentence of his seems related to the others; when he uses one image on one page, a previous image fifty pages ago is recalled; so that, though his stories may be totally unrelated, they nevertheless occur in the same world because they partake of the same pallet of colors and metaphors: so that what links them is not plot, but an approach, a sensitivity, a way of feeling about certain objects, an impression of a color. To philosophize by way of weather. To change our internal language, shift the adjectives one to the right, so that “degenerate” means “beautiful,” one does so by way of images infused with thought, and when the day clears, and the clouds of the windstorm have gone away, what one thought was his own city has been cleanly swept away without a single movement, renovated without a single house replaced. Yet a fata morgana, a secondary city in the color of rose, has been built up in the air above in the sky, visible only to the one upon whose mind was enacted Weather. This is revelation. This is the last miracle in the long secular noonday.


In realist fiction, because the character’s consciousness is always on the move, forced to move to the next point in the plot, we seldom have time to stop and stare, much less to engage the object before us in an imaginative way, to ask the object to speak or to tell us something—to place ourselves at the disposal of the object. We move on, like a flaneur. Wallace Stevens:

Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

By this Stevens means that our asking the object for its name enhances our understanding of the object, and is indeed our moral obligation, a should, as Kant understands beauty to place a claim upon us, is our real duty to “the Celtic spirit,” (this is Proust):

that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.

In Proust, as with Melville, the metaphor is expertly and yet playfully weaved throughout the paragraph, like rice planted into the clauses before anyone knew what was happening; then it gets lost in its own drift, runaway by delight in its own colors, sniffing out its colors as the intuition, that these colors shade well together. Proust’s metaphors are usually just mini-stories, thereby enhancing the story continually with plot despite there being “no plot” in In Search of Lost Time—and before we know what has happened, in a totally different time and place, transported to the golden clime of Summer, we would recall something, as that day when, sitting in the fields not having realized the heat was here, a little Chinese girl came running by and shouted, “It’s time to go to the harvest, and pluck out the shoots!” announcing summer in the paddling by of her bare feet. There is no plot but the recollection of images. Each of Proust’s sentences enacts its own involuntary memory.


What is lifelikeness in fiction, and in art? What might Proust say, were we, like Wood, to channel the writer under question?

“Sometimes my friend would use the word ‘thin’ to characterize the difference between Strauss and Mahler, in that after listening to Mahler, he felt as if he had read a ‘thicker’ book for the same effort and expenditure in time. By this he meant something like the following. In Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu films, when a blow is landed on someone, the editor repeats it three or four times within the span of the frame, which is obviously counter to reality (since the punch only occurs once), yet it does not remove our belief in its reality not simply because it occurs so quickly as if in the blink of an eye, but also because it enhances the punch in our ‘stomach,’—it feels thicker and stronger. It has more seemingness. It seems right, since it feels right, even though the punch has occurred only one time. It gives more impact to the image.

“Likewise, and Wood is fond of this word ‘slay,’ a detail ‘strikes’ us more when it lands more hits; when it fits the groove of our sensibility perfectly and as quickly as possible, a matching of shapes.

“As also in psychological hedging. —As to say, ‘He did not see that she wanted nothing to do with him, though in an area blind to himself he faintly perceived it’—it performs a sort of over-lapping movement that seeks to cleave to the shaded, shading, partially blind waves of emotion; the author is, ‘as he is writing, searching, though without a real terminus or goal to that search, if only to arrive at what sounded like truth.’

“Every time I match something you feel, I score a hit. The more subtle I am, the more hits I seem to score. Proust achieves great memorability, even without spectacle, because he impacts us subtly in this way, leaving the strong feeling that we have been impressed upon our consciousness many times; the feeling of ‘this is true’ is a correspondence between the shape of the sentence and the shape presented by our internal sensibility.

“This is true of composing something, too. One imagines a composer singing a phrase into the air, listening to it, as if to contemplate a butterfly that he had just briefly frosted there, then discarding it, or, in the next draft, measuring out a butterfly of the same genus and class so—as by an artful artificial selection—to bring into reality more phrases of the type that had pleased him. Such is the pleasure of composition, as continuous, of a rhythm and beat, as fertile and fructifying, as a cow chewing cuds; we speak quietly to ourselves as we write, delight in our better turns of phrase as we fall asleep that night. So the joy of the sentence might have seemed to Jonathan Franzen, who in his despair—in his Harper’s essay—proposed that after the death of the social novel, the end of literature’s relevance, one had only the sentence as refuge. Perhaps better said, to take a step further, that one had only the composing of a sentence as refuge.”


But realism as Wood prescribes—and if the realist novel has seen its proper champion, it is Wood—is for those defeated in spirit, who have ceased to have visions, who write in prose, who have lost the first love, and turn to complexity and its intellectual sentences—like these—as consolation. Those who understand me will understand me—that there is something infinitely higher than Jane Austen, who will never be overcome in the psychological category—never overcome in the representation of consciousness—that it is not just the romantic spirit—though we are not offended by Rilke—but that there is still some astounding thing to the imagination, not merely representative and accurate and merely interesting like realism—but far beyond the imagination and a violence to it. I can only speak mystically, and those who have no interest in hearing me will dismiss me here; for what I describe does not necessarily exist, and is a postulate, or mission. The zeitgeist fiction is “The Cat Person,” which is a one-shot, excellent piece of inspiration, and which is only itself—character-fiction which will never match the acuity of Austen; and character-fiction alone. One should understand how low are the aims of this fiction. We might say that Penelope Fitzgerald has defeated Novalis, in the sense that the comic novelist has taken the romantic poet captive and turned him into her fool-cum-hero. Who will stand before the mounds and truly believe that he sees the spirit of his philosophy standing there in the body of a recently deceased girl? Who will be so deluded? Only a madman will fall under the throe of his metaphor. For the eye is without vision, the imagination small. Of the one whose sandal we are not fit to tie, let us prepare to strike up the banner; he beats by blood the tympan of his mother’s ear—restless in the womb.

Samuel Liu is a writer and an Assistant Editor of Criticism at The Marginalia Review.