“All these possibilities!”

The Last Samurai Reread (Rereadings) BY Lee Konstantinou. New York: Columbia University Press. 144 pages. $20.
The cover of The Last Samurai Reread (Rereadings)

Unlike her character Sibylla, Helen DeWitt did successfully complete her degree. She won the prestigious Ireland Prize for young classicists and might have been able to make a career in the academy. Oxford University Press wanted to publish her dissertation. But DeWitt decided to leave. She didn’t leave, or didn’t only leave, because Oxford failed to live up to her fantastic stan­dards. She also left because she discovered an alternative to the aca­demic pursuit. In graduate school, she recalls, “a British Jew introduced me to Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and Dennis Potter, to the power of imaginary Americas.” That “British Jew” was David Levene, who was also completing a DPhil in classics at Oxford. They would be married for seven years. (He’s now a professor at NYU.)

DeWitt characterizes the difference between Levene and her as a difference between radically different aesthetic preferences—between “spaghetti westerns, Mel Brooks, Wagner, Melville, Faulkner, Aeschy­lus” (his) and “Proust, Euripides” (hers). DeWitt elaborates:

David had this entirely different sensibility. He loves grand, mythic works of art. His favorite composer is Wagner. Among tragedians, he likes Aeschylus, whereas I’m a Euripides person. He introduced me to Sergio Leone and Kurosawa and Mel Brooks. The coexistence of these radically different aesthetic possibilities made me see ways that I could be a writer, things that I could do. He introduced me to bridge, to poker, to statistics, things that to other people might seem completely unrelated. . . . Previously I just thought, What’s the point in writing a novel? Everything’s been done. But now I saw, No, there are so many things that have never been done! All these possibilities! This is so great!

Poker, bridge, statistics, Kurosawa, Mel Brooks: these are all topics DeWitt has written about. She tried to write a book about poker for Talk Miramax, and her second published novel, Lightning Rods, is a satire modeled on The Producers. So, by introducing her to Kurosawa, Levene clearly played a pivotal role in bringing The Last Samurai into the world. 

However, the significance of DeWitt’s encounter with Levene goes beyond her new appreciation for specific artworks and artists. What seems to have most enchanted DeWitt was not only the content of Lev­ene’s sensibility but also the possibility that other sensibilities might exist, that other aesthetic clusters—seemingly unrelated preferences—might coherently hang together. The encounter with aesthetic difference seems to have helped DeWitt recognize her own aesthetic preferences as pref­erences, to see that there were other artistic planets for her to explore, a whole universe of possibility. If the novel still had a mission in the clos­ing years of the twentieth century, she might contribute something to its success. 

An encounter with aesthetic difference is, of course, not guaranteed to expand one’s imagination. Such an encounter might lead one not to appreciate new possibilities—“All these possibilities!”—but to double down on one’s commitments. This is the outcome of Sibylla’s encounter with aesthetic difference. Her encounter with the travel writer Liberace—whose sensibility is, to be sure, vastly different from hers—notably fails to make her into a writer, and Ludo’s later disappointing encounter with his father is what inspires his quest to find alternative paternal role mod­els. But though the major characters in The Last Samurai fail to have the revelation that DeWitt describes herself as having had, DeWitt’s bio­graphical revelation nonetheless drives her novel. The Last Samurai is structured around the pursuit of aesthetic education, the possibility of educating oneself and honing a critical sensibility. 

Halfway through the novel, Ludo confronts Sibylla in a scene that especially highlights the stakes of this education. The boy, who has just turned six, wants his mother to reveal to him the identity of his father. All he knows is that his father is a travel writer. Over the course of several months, he tries with increasing desperation to convince her to reveal his identity, and Sibylla finally responds by saying, “You will not be ready to know your father until you can see what’s wrong with these things.” The “things” in question are works of art. One is a cassette featuring the music of the American pianist Liberace (not to be confused with Ludo’s father, Val Peters, whom Sibylla nicknames Liberace). The second is a postcard featuring the painting Greek Girls Playing at Ball, by the Victorian painter Lord Fredric Leighton. The third is a magazine article by an unnamed American writer.

Exasperated, Ludo asks Sibylla to just tell him what’s wrong with these works. “I won’t say it’s better for you to work it out for yourself,” his mother responds, “le formule est banale.” Then she adds a warning: “Even when you see what’s wrong you won’t really be ready. You should not know your father [even] when you have learnt to despise the people who made these things. Perhaps it would be all right when you have learnt to pity them, or if there is some state of grace beyond pity when you have reached that state.” Why are these works bad? And what does Ludo’s recognizing their badness have to do with his readiness to meet his father? 

Earlier in the novel, we get a few hints. Sibylla has described Liberace (the musician) as having “a terrible facility and a terrible sincerity; what he played he played with feeling.” Liberace’s style of kitsch can also be found in the writing of Ludo’s father; they share a certain “emotional facility.” The boy’s father’s writing exhibits “the slick buttery arpeggios, the self-regarding virtuosity as the clever ring-laden hands sparkled over the keys, the professional sincerity which found expressiveness for the cynical & the sentimental, for the pornographic, even for alienation & affectlessness.” Unlike the musician Liberace, however, Ludo’s father lacks “technical facility.” The travel writer shows himself, again and again, to be “innocent of logic in all his written work” and is no better in person. Here’s a man who, Sibylla observes, “learned to write before he could think, a man who threw out logical fallacies like tracks behind a getaway car, and he always always always got away.”

The Victorian painter Lord Leighton is criticized on similar grounds. His “masterly use of perspective,” in Sibylla’s view, is “shallow and superficial and even artless” when compared to a print by the Japanese woodblock artist Utamaro. “Lord Leighton” is also Sibylla’s nickname for an American writer whom Liberace admires (the writer of the magazine article). This author writes in “a gorgeous train of sentences swathing his poor stupid thoughts.” The breathless vapidity of Lord Leighton (the writer) is evident in the tiniest gestures of his characters, which are freighted with meaning, but a sort of meaning that is finally empty. His prose proffers false beauty. Something similar, we are led to believe, might be said for Lord Leighton (the painter), whose Greek Girls Playing at Ball Ludo has been asked to judge. Sibylla explains that “it is the faultlessness of [Lord Leighton’s] skill which makes the paintings embarrassing to watch, so bare do they strip the mind of their creator.”

As for the writer of the magazine article—the American writer Sibylla nicknames Lord Leighton—we don’t learn much about him, beyond the fact that Ludo’s father is (of course) a fan. Years later, the writer publishes a novel. Now almost eleven, Ludo informs his mother, “According to one reviewer this writer I am supposed to regard from a state of grace beyond pity is the greatest writer in English in the world today. . . . Nine out of ten reviewers gave him a rating of ‘great’ or better.” Sibylla replies, “Anything follows from a false premise.”

After another exasperating conversation, Ludo concludes that “what’s bad about these people is that they are bad artists. Maybe my father was a bad writer—but it could be because he had more important things to think about. . . . Sibylla does tend to take art too seriously.”

Too seriously, indeed. For Sibylla, aesthetic judgment, no less than critical judgment, bears a grave moral dimension. What is at stake when judging art is, on this view, not only whether a work is good or bad but also what its goodness or badness reveals about the character of the person who made it. Nicknaming Ludo’s father Liberace tells us everything we need to know about the man. The kitschy artwork can only be made by the kitschy soul, and the pianist Liberace, the painter Lord Leighton, and the American writer all exhibit a terrible kitschy sincerity, made manifest in a slickly, elegant, buttery artistic style, which exposes their fundamental sentimentality and the shoddiness of their thought. Their sincerity is, ultimately, precritical.

Worse, they make their art in a society that lets them get away with badness, that celebrates them for it. In such a world, critics—“nine out of ten”—cannot be trusted. This is how, as the critic and novelist Jenny Davidson has suggested, style for DeWitt becomes “the repository of character, something we have an obligation to judge: to judge, and to cry out against when we find it wanting.” Sibylla hopes that Ludo might be able to bypass his own bad (biological) father and proceed straight to a better life; she hopes that the male figures in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai might serve as adequate masculine role models. But before he can do so he will have to learn to identify and reject bad art. Before he can understand the inadequacy of his father, that is, Ludo will need to learn to read the moral significance of style.

Excerpted from The Last Samurai Reread. Copyright 2022 Lee Konstantinou. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.