Verbal Artist at Work


MAZES by Hugh Kenner, San Francisco: North Point Press, 320 pp., $19.95

MIDWAY through this stunning collection of Hugh Kenner's mostly nonliterary essays, there's a short piece titled ``Rectitude and Certainty.''

Kenner's headnote sketches in the context: A managerial shake-up at Harper's Magazine (many of these pieces appeared there first), an editor bumped upstairs to a new periodical which pulls in a writer (Kenner) from the old one, who takes credit for whatever success the new editor turns out to have.

Kenner is no newcomer to the culture of art. His essay brilliantly argues against the trend that defines art as an object that doesn't mean anything (his example is a stuffed sheep wrapped in a tire) in itself, but means a lot to Art: It gets the attention of the public and stimulates ``the whirl of greenbacks.''

Kenner contrasts Art with art as defined by William Blake, who once asked, ``What is it that distinguishes honesty from knavery, but the hard and wiry line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and intentions?''

Kenner explains: ``Burin in hand, Blake the engraver could leave no line's whereabouts in uncertainty. A Blakean line was here or it was there, it was straight or it was wiggly. It was what distinguished ox from horse, oak from beech, angel from thug. So it was a moral line: exactly what people mean when they say you must draw the line somewhere. Unlike Heisenberg's electron, beloved of sixties explicators, it proclaimed location and energy level together.''

Quintessential Kenner. Throughout his work, Kenner focuses on what he elsewhere calls ``accuracies of moral perception.'' Artists may be seers, but they should be accurate ones. The accuracy of the artist's perception is the basis of the morality of his work. The morality of art has something to do with the personal honesty of the work that went into the work of art.

Kenner's feel for work can be traced back to his great-grandfather and his grandfather. Masons and carpenters, they made a living measuring, fitting, joining, and smoothing. Morality and art, each informing the other, make a whole work. Kenner's acknowledgment of this stands out at a time when critics seem to have lost touch with the work of art as well as the artist.

Kenner could have taken the other critical path, the one that debouches on large visions of history. He could have gone the way of Marshall McLuhan, his first mentor. In several essays included here, he explains why he did not. It was the later '40s, ``pre-media days'': McLuhan was a professor of English and noticed Kenner's brilliance. He introduced him to Ezra Pound.

``Half of my subsequent life was derived from that visit,'' he says in his obituary for McLuhan. Kenner went on to write his magnum opus, ``The Pound Era.''

And he went on to write the essays in this book. They come from an amazing breadth of sources: from National Public Radio, to Art and Antiques, to Harpers, to The American Spectator, to Life magazine, to The New York Times Book Review, to the National Review. An equally amazing range of topics: from computers, to Georgia O'Keefe, to the Dictionary of American Regional English, to R. Buckminster Fuller.

It's difficult to say what he does best. He's very good at openings: ``Others look at plywood and see the wood. Bucky Fuller sees the glue.'' He's very good at middles: In his essay on Winslow Homer, he meditates on his work as an illustrator before he discusses some of the great paintings; whether illustration or work of art, ``always the moment of action.'' He's very good at endings: A hysterically funny ``review'' done for the Baltimore PBS station of Mortimer Adler's ``Great Ideas,'' is essentially a dream vision: Adler is at the gates of heaven discussing some key concepts with the Recording Angel, whose face has a ``disorienting resemblance to Howard Cosell's.'' The whole piece is a blast, but the ending is even funnier.

``Mazes'' opens with Einstein and ends with Thomas, the Kenners' dog. Even the essay on Thomas touches ever so lightly on matters that echo down Kenner's long career. In a book full of portraits (the amount of information about the times makes these portraits somewhat cubist in construction), this portrait of Thomas is among the best.

Whereas the Kenners saw in their half-wolf ``something big and glumly hearty: a German truck driver, perhaps,'' the poet Louis Zukofsy saw Thomas as a ``contemplative,'' even mentioning Thomas Aquinas.

``Louis was right, and Thomas in his new role commenced to look, at times, not only sad but anxious. Once a master taxonomist has fixed you, you are responsible.''

The story is charming, but the word ``taxonomist'' has a long echo. That's what Marshall McLuhan, defending his ``metaphysics,'' was likely to brand Kenner. McLuhan wrote in a letter that Kenner was just a commentator, a categorizer.

Maybe. Kenner's writings are full of people and things, each lovingly displayed in the dry light of day. He had the courage to say that the ``rectitude and certainty'' should be in the work itself, and if it isn't, one has other things to do, like walk the dog.

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