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We Want to Be Moved : ESSAYS : ART OBJECTS: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, By Jeanette Winterson (Alfred A. Knopf: $21; 192 pp.)

March 31, 1996|Victoria Redel | Redel is the author, most recently of "Where the Road Bottoms Out," a collection of short stories from Knopf

It was a sign of lonely maturation for me as a reader when I came to understand that the writers I most loved, whose poems or stories I read talismanically over and over, whose language helped me construct the truths by which I lived, were often people I would not want to spend five minutes chatting with, let alone engaging in any conversation of social or personal substance.

First this made me sad.

Then it made me brazen.

I had learned that I could love the work and not the writer, I could love her language but not her life or, even, her ideas. I could love the triumph of one writer's book and the difficult failures of his next book. In essence, I had learned not just to read but to be a reader.

But, despite my maturation, wasn't there in me still a desire to feel cozy, to feel camaraderie with a writer whose work I admired?

And I have admired the work of Jeanette Winterson. "The Passion," her second novel, is a terrific book. It is a book of remarkable invention and mystery, a book of surprising and gorgeous language. Her other books are less great, fall apart more quickly, adore themselves a bit too much. And yet, I don't care. I don't care that "Written on the Body" flattens out at what should be the height of its thrill. I don't care that Winterson preaches too much and sometimes too obviously and seems to think herself better than everyone else on the block. I know that whatever the disappointments of one book, I will read her next book. Why this exhibition of patience? Because Winterson is trying hard, as few writers I read today do, to invent herself authentically with mind and heart on the page.

So it was with excitement and fear that I dove into Winterson's first book of essays, "Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery." The book approaches many of the themes that Winterson has been exploring in her novels and ultimately does so more successfully than she has in her most recent fiction. "Art Objects" is a book to be admired for its effort to speak exorbitantly, urgently and sometimes beautifully about art and about our individual and collective need for serious art. It can absolutely be argued (no doubt it will) that the book is all one note; however, the note is a vital and important one.

The essays in the collection are closely connected, taking as their linked concern the need for us to need art. And, Winterson fiercely points out, not the development of a consumer's taste for art of the past with its "cozy patina of tradition," but a willingness for us to need the difficult, the bafflingly new that does not necessarily "convince ourselves about ourselves."

In the title essay "Art Objects," Winterson asks, "When was the last time you looked at anything solely and concentratedly, and for its own sake? Ordinary life passes in a near blur." By turns, these essays argue, reason, implore, invite, beg, demand and cajole the public into slowing down, looking, learning to look, being willing to be uncomfortable with something that initially feels raw or rough or even bad. There is a payoff, Winterson claims, for our willingness to work hard. It is a major payoff and not one that easy, fast-food art can yield. It is nothing less than the sublime that Winterson claims true art can give us in the face of our daily insignificance.

It is Winterson's argument that all of us--despite our fear of reckoning with a painting or novel that is different and difficult and inventive--are really desirous of the experience of being moved deeply. Yet Winterson certainly knows how few people want to stick around and struggle with a novel when there is the faster thrill of television. While Winterson yells at her readers to do their reading, she maintains that great art--even if mostly unread--"puts down its roots in the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise lie out of reach of shallower bedded plants."

"Art Objects" is important not only as a plea to the public to read serious literature and to read it seriously, but it is a terrific book of instruction about writing. I am not speaking of instruction of the writing exercise variety, but a book that teaches that a "writer will have to make her words into a true equivalent of her heart." Winterson has much that is useful to say about syntax and style, but most particularly about language, which she claims should be like Virginia Woolf's words--"cells of energy."

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