The authors of two new and fiercely erudite compilations of essays happen to fall neatly along Archilochus' dichotomy: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The fox is John Leonard, until recently the literary editor of the Nation. The hedgehog is James Wood, the house critic of the New Republic.
First the hedgehog. Putting a spin on an old Nietzschean quandary, Wood asks in his book, "The Broken Estate," whether the novel can withstand the fall of God. The development of the form, he argues, was inextricably tethered to shifts in post-Enlightenment religious belief. The novel presents the paradox of "fictional truth," an inherently strange notion that provided a refuge from the dogmatism of religious truth claims: "Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality." Wood argues that the finest novelists -- Austen, Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Phillip Roth -- capitalize on the tension between two competing systems of good and evil: the author's and God's.
In Wood's scheme, the high point of the novel's development coincided, not accidentally, with the high point of religious skepticism in the 19th century; when skepticism went too far, the novel suffered. He points a finger at the likes of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold, who wrote humanistic defenses of Christian tenets: Christian ethics are good for civilization, they make people happy, they make rational sense. (One hears similar arguments today, e.g., "The real reason Jews should keep kosher is that it prevents trichinosis.")
Such well-meaning defenses, designed to salvage religion by making it palatable to atheists, were doomed from the start; instead of salvaging religion, they led to a confusion between religious and fictional truth. Now religious tenets are often judged by literary standards. (Does the Christ story seem believable? What motivates Judas' character?) Conversely, in abandoning their duty to coax belief from the reader, novels became religious: Novelists set up absolute moral systems and make-believe worlds without expending much effort to make them plausible for the reader (e.g., John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick," Norman Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son"). When religious and novelistic distinctions collapsed, the old estate was broken -- hence the book's title. Wood mulls over the casualties with gut-wrenching sadness.
In doing so, he demonstrates that novels lose their life force when they feign nonparticipation in the Big Questions. He sees Updike and Toni Morrison as having failed to take advantage of what is best and most potent about the novel: the exciting dialectic between absolute truth and the novelist's truth system. Under the delusion of self-creation, Wood claims, these authors try to set up autonomous truth systems that are too contrived, too fantastic and ultimately less interesting than what they purport to define themselves against. Of Morrison's "Paradise", Wood objects, "Since fiction is itself a kind of magic, the novel should not be magical." The problem is not that these novels are insufficiently pious, he argues, but that they are exercising the textbook definition of bad faith, citing Nietzsche (in what is literally the first germane reference to "Beyond Good and Evil" that I've ever seen): "Such people have gotten rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality." In other words, a novel that attempts to ignore the specter of absolutism can become all the more haunted by it.
Wood is the child of evangelical Anglicans, and he discusses the ramifications of his parentage in a poignant epilogue. Even though he has long since lapsed religiously, he admits that he brings to his readings a former zealot's "suspicion of [religious] indifference." I suspect that Wood's book will make even secular readers feel like Goethe's Faust, who desperately covets religious passion even as he disdains religion itself. You can't but be impressed by Wood's gravitas. After all, the reasons we read literature -- to achieve inner stirrings, ecstasy, the Kantian sublime -- are often the same reasons people seek out religion. For what fun is good and evil without Good and Evil?
As for the fox, he knows a great many things indeed. Like Wood, John Leonard finds the world crude; unlike Wood, Leonard seems to relish the rich literary fodder this crudeness yields. In "When the Kissing Had to Stop" (the title comes from a Robert Browning poem), Leonard demonstrates an Umberto Eco-like agility for addressing such diverse topics as Mary Gordon, "The X-Files," Andri Malraux, tabloid headlines, Thomas Pynchon, Hitler's war on smoking and ancient Egyptian civilization. After a gruesome yet impressive litany of castration trivia from Napoleon to Lorena Bobbitt, he casually remarks, "I read this stuff so you don't have to," a statement that may be more telling than he realizes. For it appears that he has taken it upon himself to sift through millennia of literature and cultural artifacts in order to salvage, for our benefit, the most edifying parts.
These essays teem with Leonard's Samuel Johnson style of easy wit. In a chapter bemoaning the decline of public television, he quotes a writer who accuses PBS of "Byzantine complexity and inefficiency," objecting, "This is an insult to Constantinople." Certain parties he damns with faint praise: Describing Brett Easton Ellis' "American Psycho," he winks, "Satire means never having to say you're sorry." Others he praises with faint damnation, as when he considers Melanie Griffith's performance in Adrian Lyne's film "Lolita": "[She] didn't embarrass herself." Leonard is a master of the turn of phrase, though at times he seems too puckish for his own good. (I'm not sure what he means when he says of Jeremy Irons, "He played Claus von Bulow in 'Reversal of Fortune' as if he were Andy Warhol at a slumber party of Scientologists.")
A rarity among contemporary reviewers, Leonard uses his erudition to champion social causes; he has become a sort of Ralph Nader of the intellectual/pop cultural world. "When the Kissing Had to Stop" delivers swift justice to America's continued tolerance for Arab-bashing, to the pusillanimous studios who refused to distribute Lyne's "Lolita" for fear of the religious right, and to those petroleum corporations that seem inordinately interested in backing marine-biology documentaries. He cuts books far more slack than he does people or institutions. When discussing literature he dislikes (such as Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"), Leonard laughs more than he complains; he knows that a few stinkers are par for the course.
The old saw that literary critics are failed novelists doesn't fit either Wood or Leonard. Their reviews are often far more interesting than the books they are reviewing, and they have a far better shot than most of their subjects at assuming a place in the canon.