[post updated and expanded]
Dan Chiasson did not crib from Isaiah Berlin. The title of this post was posed as a question before, and it was meant to provoke readers, to see what I see as a similarity among two critics’ ideas about writers’ primary tendencies.
It all starts with Chiasson’s ecstatic review of the decidedly un-ecstatic Timothy Donnelly‘s latest book, when he writes that “poets tend to be either lingerers or barrellers.”
Lingerer poets are “contemplatives,” Chiasson writes; they work to “stop the clock” and work from a position of “interiority.” Barrellers poets “ride the tide” in a “frenzied” dash across stimuli and interests. One problem common to both impulses, Chiasson writes, is the ‘passing of time’ in a poem.
It’s an interesting idea, and it looked very familiar to me. Isaiah Berlin begins his own ur-text dichotomy study, The Hedgehog and the Fox, with a liberally translated saying from Archilochus: “The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Berlin uses these rough parameters as a jumping-off point to explore Tolstoy as a fox, Dostoevsky a hedgehog. Writers see the world two different ways of approaching or knowing reality, Berlin says: as the jack-of-all-trades generalist or obsessive specialist.
I’ll quote Berlin’s explanation in full.
Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side,who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.
Chiasson’s barreller-lingerer lede-conceit focuses on both subject matter and, shrewdly and correctly, poetry’s temporality.
“It used to be the that contemplatives were all, by nature, lingerers,” Chiasson writes, turning to the Donnelly book. “But ours is an age of inner barrellers, poets of ultrafast interiority.” These inner barrellers, he writes tongue-tyingly, “find meaning inside the data stream.” Donnelly is “the barreller-in-chief of younger American poets,” with a style akin to a “game-show shopping spree.”
Berlin, too, concentrates on that certain frisson that comes from mixing two competing visions.
Which camp, hedgehog or fox, Berlin asks, does Tolstoy belong to? It isn’t clear whether he belongs in either camp, as a “monist or a pluralist, whether his vision is of one or of many, whether he is of a single substance or compounded of heterogeneous elements who perceived reality in its multiplicity, as a collection of separate entities round and into which he saw with a clarity and penetration scarcely ever equaled, but he believed only in one vast, unitary whole.”
“Tolstoy was by nature a fox,” Berlin writes, “but believed in being a hedgehog.”
Donnelly’s “inner barreller” coinage is the rough correlate here.
Chiasson’s rather un-mellifluous coinages, it seems to me, could have simply been replaced by the Berlin and started from there. I am left wondering if he consciously decided give a nod to Berlin in the interest of coming up with his own names for poetic schools of Barrellers and Lingerers. (That hurts just to type.)
Donnelly, the “barreller-in-chief,” “demonstrates why the critical cliché of “mixing high and low” is “pushing retirement age.” Here’s the abstract for the review:
What do those categories mean for an American, born in Rhode Island and living in Brooklyn, who, in a given day, reads some Shelley, gets despondent about the news, spends some time thinking about his childhood (Childcraft books, “The Beverly Hillbillies”), takes care of his infant, and has something stiff to drink. You might expect, from contents so miscellaneous, a kind of amorphous blob of a style, phrases splayed across the page. Instead, Donnelly is an acrobatic formalist, albeit one on fast-forward. Donnelly’s style must be withstood before it is enjoyed. The title poem of “The Cloud Corporation” reimagines the Biblical story of Noah, only with the cogs and wheels of corporate machinery where we would expect a rainbow. The language of faith has been transformed into the slogans of commerce. These poems are full of old vocabularies now repurposed for commercial use.
Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:
Berlin on that fox-who-thinks-he’s-a-hedgehog Tolstoy:
This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. And side by side with these public faces – these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid the bleak truths – side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence. When Tolstoy contrasts this real life – the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individuals –with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. Utterly unlike her as she is in almost every other respect, Tolstoy is, perhaps, the first to propound the celebrated accusation which Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation – Shaw and Wells and Arnold Bennett – blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul – the so-called social, economic, political realities – for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitute all there is – which are reality. [emphases mine]
It might be rather unfair to compare Chiasson’s 1000-word review to Berlin’s tome.
As I say in the comments below, tropes are there for a reason.
But when one attempts to copy ape them without acknowledgement or indebtedness or even investigating or reading one’s dichotomic forbears-the fox, whose skeptical perceptions of the “ordinary day-to-day succession of private data,” to the barreller who “gets despondent over the news”–things get kind of tangled. And to replace them hedgehog and fox, with verbs no less (one slang, the other intransitive, respectively), and without any images behind them, all for the sake of a reductionist lede laying claim to one’s own idea? Safe to say we won’t be using barellers and lingerers in the future. Oh wait–we’re doing it here.
But a comparison of these two rhetorical dualities is at least worth bringing up, yes?