1 Order and energy
Energy and order are the two great things in both art and life. In art energy is imagination, and order is form, and a great work is imaginative force organized into permanent shape. Order is frugal, sober, chaste and austere. Energy is extravagant, irregular, promiscuous and self-delighting.
Order obeys, imagination rebels. ‘Good is the passive that obeys reason,’ Blake says. ‘Evil is the active springing from energy.’ God works by order, and the devil by energy, and whoever lives by imagination can’t help being of the devil’s party. ‘Order,’ as Pope wrote, ‘is heaven’s first law.’
Some of the angels of order were the egyptians, the greeks, Johnson, Mozart, Cézanne, Mies van der Rohe and Brancusi. Some of the demonic imaginers are Milton, Melville, Hugo, Beethoven, Pollock, Le Corbusier. Shakespeare was unique in fusing the solidity of controlling order with the force of uncontainable imagination.
Disruptive imagination springs from the downtrodden celts and gauls, regulation is enforced by the legions of Rome.
Art must realize its energies in form, and animate its order with imagination. Writers spend half their strength to discipline their energies, but then they have to task half their discipline to temper their discipline, to make words sing in their chains. It may be made by exuberance, but beauty is calmness and control, though control may be so assured that it looks like exuberance, as it does in Matisse. Intensity makes one sort of force, and restraint another, and power is manifest in both.
Imagination is electricity, order is gravity. Order builds in stone, imagination writes in flame. It is the god that answers by fire. Shape sets out plain symmetrical motifs, imagination works up a lavish palette of effulgent colours. It knows the joy of speed, while regularity has the serene dignity of stillness.
Order coheres and unifies, imagination disunites and disaggregates. Imagination is a centrifugal force that spurts out in a myriad sparkling fragments which never coalesce to form an unbroken unity and coherence. Why else would Shakespeare’s plays be such prodigal anarchies of lushly embroidered episodes? A single page of a great writer’s book is worth as much as the whole, and its sidelights disclose as much as its pith. ‘Digressions,’ Sterne says, ‘incontestably, are the sunshine, they are the life, the soul of reading.’ If we set all our mind to grasp a few lines of it, we would learn far more than we do from all our hasty devouring of their copious volumes. Only a dull work adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Imagination is lexical, order is syntactic.
Greek and roman writers used a convoluted syntax but a penurious vocabulary. Their verse is literal and rhetorical, and their prose is turgid and baroque. The hebrew Bible used the plainest diction and syntax to make a rough music. French writers have stripped and polished both their vocabulary and their structures. English ones have set the most copious and exuberant lexicon in the simplest arrangements.
Art, like nature, is force made form. It calls on disorderly imagination to rival the earth’s feckless prodigality, and subjects it to laws just as stern and immutable. It reminds us of all the splendours of the world, by conjuring into existence kinds of splendour quite unlike the world’s.
2 Order makes like, imagination makes different
Form shines clearest where it shapes uniform patterns out of elements that are similar, but it works most potently where it frames dappled patterns out of elements that are different.
The mind delights in similarity of structure and diverseness of hue. It loves forms when they are repeated, and colours when they are varied.
Creators have to use both the veneration which prompts them to emulate and the imaginativeness which spurs them to deviate. Their task, as Hopkins said, is to ‘admire and do otherwise.’
Artists don’t see what no one else has seen, they make what no one else could make. They are fabricators, not observers, as a poet is a sayer, not a seer. They don’t glimpse similarities that have not been glimpsed before, but shape things that contrast with those that have been shaped before. They don’t find beauty, they find formlessness, and make of it a lovely work.
Creators use their style to model a new earth, not to look at this one. It is not how they view the world but how they want the world to view their work.
A metaphor doesn’t bring out the latent analogies that join two objects, but applies the words used of one to manifest and enrich the other. It is not discovered but invented. It does not assimilate things, but differences language. It is a substitution, not of one thing for another, but of one set of words for another. It’s the verbal energy which is released when one entity is forced to take on the form of another. It doesn’t show that one reality is like some other, but transfigures speech so that it resembles no other. It doesn’t clarify but complicates. We owe to our flair for substitutions both our craziest swervings from what is and our most fertile dreams of what might be.
Mathematics proves rigorous equivalences between interchangeable quantities. Metaphor spins improbable parallels between incommensurable qualities. ‘Each thought,’ Nietzsche says, ‘originates through equating the unequal.’
Pattern and repetition are the essence of beauty. Variation and strangeness are the seed of originality. Coloured writing must justify its exacting strangeness by its lush suggestions. Plain writing must justify its plainness by the grand truths which it reveals. Similarity manifests the form, difference discloses the sense. Form iterates, force varies.
Orderliness, grown to an excess, stiffens into autism. Imagination riots into schizophrenia. Form congeals into ritual, force flares into rapture.
Artists must use visible forms to give shape to invisible imagination. They haunt us with unseen things, and delight us with stark and vivid ones. ‘The imagination,’ Joubert says, ‘has made more discoveries than the eye.’ It lends a brief reality to unreal things, so as to show them as they are at their most real.
Shakespeare, like the Bible and all true poets, is great sentence by sentence, line by line, phrase by phrase, and not by his overarching plots and designs, which he stole from others. As a storyteller he is derivative, naive and inefficient. As a poet he is deep, original and all-knowing.
‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.’ What does it matter if you curse or bless, praise or blame, so long as you do it all with gusto and relish? ‘Energy is eternal delight.’
Some art is charged with a stored potential energy, which strains with a vast pent force, though outwardly mild, sedate and masterly. And some has a kinetic power, erupting into excess, gushing and tumbling like a waterfall of delirious volubility, as it does in Milton, Hopkins, Faulkner or Joyce.
‘Write the vision, make it plain.’ A visionary imaginer, such as Dante, Bunyan, Blake or Yeats, must use the simplest style, as Coleridge said. A verbal imaginer, such as Shakespeare, Melville or Conrad, generates a varied, profuse and elaborate dialect.
Imagination breeds thoughts that are worth remembering, and form stamps them in your memory.
Imagination is essentially material. It grants the power to realize the maximum possibilities of its elected medium. It is morally wayward, but embedded in its sensible form. Shakespeare makes a world of pure words, Mozart of notes, and Velasquez of paint. And if words, notes or paint had been taken from them, they would have ceased to create. As the soul lives in this flesh and would die outside it, so a prolific mind can find its own thoughts by immersion in its own medium.
There is more imagination in Le Corbusier’s austere modifications of the medium than in all Gaudi’s grotesqueries There is more vision in one of Cézanne’s unobtrusive still lives than in the bizarre hallucinations of Fuseli or Piranesi. Imagination is perennially revolutionizing its means of representation.
Intelligence beams like white light, pure and limpid. Imagination shivers into the rainbow’s scattered hues.
The sweetness of life lies all in the imagining, be it anticipating what’s to come, or recalling the past, or creating works that are not prey to the havoc of time.
We need forms and institutions, to force us to curb our worst appetites and to aspire to our best achievements. Break the capacious vessel of tradition, and the wine of imagination spills out wasted. Its fruit buds and ripens on the tall tree of form, which we have now sawn down, as it stood in the way of our automated ascent. Nothing without imagination, but no imagination without tradition.
Imagination is the wings which we have not yet grown.
4 Invention and imagination
Most people take imagination to be the same thing as invention, visualization or empathy. But these are only its mongrel likenesses which are prized by those who have no imagination.
Fantasy and invention are low stand-ins for imagination. ‘Imagination, not invention,’ Conrad wrote, ‘is the supreme master of art as of life.’ Invention is the mechanical substitute for imagination, and this age excels in ingenuity as it has run out of fresh ideas. Both realism and fantasy are sure signs of its atrophy. We now crave titillating and unctuous impossibilities dealt with in a flat naturalist manner. Inventiveness mints new stories, but it requires a visionary power to raise their plain prose to poetry. Invention belongs to the mere tale, imagination to the telling. True writers don’t dream up new worlds. They recast speech to bring out the richness of this one. They make form strange and truth vivid.
Literature begins as ritual and myth, and it ends as fantasy and realism.
Good fictions draw their plots from life or else invent them, great ones take them over readymade from previous fictions. Shakespeare was able to find fresh words for all things, because he was not distracted by the need to make up new stories. He sourced his plots from second-rate historians, chroniclers and romancers. Only his words are his own. But now storytellers have to surprise us with their clever plot twists, because they lack the capacity to reimagine their medium. ‘It is,’ Wilde says, ‘only the unimaginative who ever invent.’
Dreams are phantasmal but not imaginative, art is imaginative but not fantastic.
5 Imagination defies belief
Knowledge must settle in certitude, but imagination bursts out into the possible. Truth has one god, poetry a whole pantheon, ‘many gods and many voices.’ ‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion poet.’ A poem glows, not by the one sense that it states, but by the hundred that it darkly hints. There are a plethora of gods, and Shakespeare is their prophet.
‘For the life after death,’ Butler says, ‘it is not necessary that a man or woman should have lived.’ To the imaginative mind existence is the drabbest attribute that a creature can possess. The gods, like the rest of the beings of fiction, mean no less for not having lived, and the stage of our dreams shrinks when they cease to play on it. A literary persona, like a deity, has life without incurring the taint of being real and human. The figures of art, like those on Keats’s urn, gain the one brief immortality that this world can grant to anything. The work of art is the city that Tennyson wrote of, which ‘is built to music, therefore never built at all, and therefore built for ever.’
Before the gods came there was art. Now that they have gone there will be nothing but kitsch.
Belief petrifies imagination, and paralyses reason. What is faith but frozen vision? The intellect is at its best when it imagines, but it is at its stupidest and most dishonest in what it believes. Imagination can dare to tell the truth, because it has no wish to be believed. Dante or Chaucer show that an orthodox creed is a good point for poetry to set sail from, but neo-christians like T. S. Eliot show that it’s a dull port in which to come to anchor. The gods were one of our most fertile fictions, though also one of our most fallow convictions.
Art is produced by the decomposition of conviction, when the old gods are departing, but reason has not yet arrived to fill their thrones. ‘Art rears its head where creeds relax,’ as Nietzsche said. It is a gas exhaled by decaying faith, and the christian one festered more luxuriantly than the rest. No kingdom has been the source of more art and thought and science than the worldly kingdom of Christ, since none has been rent by such gory civil brawls. It gave rise to the finest civilization, as dung breeds the sweetest roses and lilies.
Philosophers dissolve faith with their corrosive doubts, art eludes it by its imaginative plenitude.
Art is a dance of ravishment and disillusion. Poets dream visions as sensual and tormenting as an unrequited lover’s. They imagine as aboundingly as they think severely and stringently. They make us drunk with their pure and fresh distillations, but sober us from the flat confections of life. They dry up our trust in the lies by which we live. They may not have enough faith to doubt, but we lack the imagination to be disabused.
Some writers rouse you from your sleep, and some call you back to dream again. They wake your mind to its proper glory, and show you the world as it is at its most real.
Only an audience of infants suspends its disbelief, and is transported out of its own world, and tries to play a part in the show.
6 Causes of art
Too little civilization, and art won’t germinate, too much, and it goes to seed. Art is at length killed by the same conditions that give it nourishment. Emerson forewarned that our race would die of sophistication, and, as the Goncourts said, it needs a periodic jolt of barbarism to revive it. But now that the earth is smothered with global kitsch, where will the scythians come from, to reinvigorate it with their untamed sap and sinew? There are no barbarians left, but only avid consumers. ‘If mankind does not perish through passion,’ Nietzsche says, ‘it will perish through debility.’
Nature will hatch the egg of genius, but culture must fertilize it. Penury may not keep a Milton mute and inglorious, but it and any number of pitfalls may stall him from becoming a Milton. ‘It needs a complex social machinery,’ Henry James said, ‘to set a writer into motion,’ and it takes an apparatus of class, syllabuses, snobbery and institutes to set a reader on to read great books. But they need no prompt to read bad ones. ‘For even the most trifling revelations of art need preparation and study,’ as Nietzsche points out. ‘There is no immediate effect of art.’
If art couldn’t bank on the good will and patronage of people who don’t much care for it, it wouldn’t last from one year to the next.
If there were no serious readers, there would be no serious writers. And so great authors can write up to the top of their talent only by overestimating their readers.
A book has no hope of lasting through the centuries, till we have been trained to read it as if it will. Had we not been lessoned to revere Shakespeare as the most sublime of poets, we’d laugh at him as a pompous windbag. As Thoreau wrote, ‘We do not enjoy poetry unless we know it to be poetry.’
The children write the stories that their parents lived. A book is dunged by the flesh and bone of a file of generations, and watered with the blood of a host of lives. The towering dead come back as the native characters of fiction. They haunt our writing and our reading.
For lack of brutality art will die. ‘The modern artist must live by craft and violence,’ Pound wrote. ‘His gods are violent gods.’ Like some savage idol, art will have blood. The consummate artist would devote one half of life to the making of music and the rest to making war. Such a fierce creator would be half dandy and half thug, not an artistic Socrates, as Nietzsche claimed, but an artistic Caesar, still at work in art’s old vocation of decorating the slaughterhouse, and singing a song ‘as if he had a sword upstairs.’ Art is a priesthood, as Cézanne said. But it is a blood-steeped one that still practises human sacrifice.
How but in fret and tumult could you shape an art of tranquility and poise? The one place that you can write from is the end of your tether. The mind works most forcefully not in rest and composure, but in weariness and despair. It must come to the brink of disintegration, before it can build up a whole. Insomnia keeps a fatiguing but instructive night school. Even debt has been the relentless muse of some of the best writers, such as Balzac, Dostoyevsky or Scott, chivvying them into inspiration.
Art is what we make of what we’ve lost. Why would a soul that was bathed in a tranquil bliss need to make beauty or find truth? Force thrives on all things adverse. If you would set the artist going, make their lot a touch less propitious. Dante was reborn by banishment, and Machiavelli by his fall. Paradise is decked with the works that artists make in their purgatory. The art ascends to a cool Elysium. The artist stays below in the flames, burning and unregenerate. The work preys on the artist, to feed the art. A flawless piece is reared up on the wreck of a life. The artist need not have lived through a catastrophe. Life itself is catastrophe enough. Each cruel day takes from the artist and adds to the art, for both of which the artist gives thanks. The work gains for all that its sad maker has lost.
Neglect and obscurity, though they mar the artists, make the art, which blooms in the shade, where they would wilt and wither. They work, as Proust said, in the abyss of the primeval fears of silence, solitude and the dark.
An artist must keep vigilantly on the watch for inspiration, and just as vigilantly on the watch against it. We might have more faith in it, were it not so undiscriminating. It throws up all the duds as well as all the marvels. The best authors may write from the subconscious, but so do the worst. Scribblers of the most dull-witted ditties or chirpy lyrics don’t doubt that a trance takes possession of their soul when the muse visits. In those rare and blest hours when the flame of inspiration hovers over me, all I make is lacquered trash.
Creators are sure that what they make is such a miracle, that they must disclaim ownership of it and shyly ascribe it to some higher power, such as a god, or to some deeper source, such as the id.
Art works by a conscious mastery of deliberate form, not by the momentary indulgence of unrehearsed feeling. The spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion breaks out not in poetry but in pop tunes and kitsch. An age of great poetry is not an age of strong feeling but an age of rich forms. ‘All that is beautiful and noble,’ Baudelaire says, ‘is the product of reason and calculation.’ Strenuous form counts for far more than slack sincerity. Inspiration is the ease and fertility that comes with the prolonged and tensed application of a strong will. It heaps up measureless wealth, not because it yields a higher proportion of gold, but because it mines more ore. Centuries of inherited practice steer the spontaneous strokes of all true designers. They owe their instant inspiration to the long craft and tradition which they boast it lifts them above. They carefully fill a pot with water, light a fire under it, and then call it inspiration when it boils.
An inspiration is the sudden detonation of a long and deliberate obsession.
Poets don’t write because they have rich thoughts, they have rich thoughts because they write. They don’t create because they are inspired, they grow inspired by creating. A poet comes to be a poet by the habit of composing poems. The poem is the parent of the poet. Inspiration, as Renard said, is ‘the joy of writing. It does not come before writing.’
Most of us speak with glib and hackneyed candour as poets create with glib and vivid artifice. They think as frivolously as the poem thinks profoundly. By patient craft they raise their shallow frankness to the dispassionate veracity of art. The poem leads a more resonant and spacious life than the cramped and insubstantial poet. The poem has a wisdom that the poet lacks, and poetry has a wisdom that the poem lacks.
You don’t write because you need to, you write because others have written. And then you go on writing because you have written. ‘All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate,’ Wilde wrote. ‘No poet sings because he must sing.’
It feels as delightful to be inspired as it does to be drunk, and it’s just as likely to lead us to the truth. Artists claim that they are inspired, in the hope of validating what they make by the state of mind in which they made it. But how does the warmth that you feel when you form a thought vouch for its truth? Is the euphoria of conceiving a child a pledge that it will tell no lies?
9 The effects of art
The great heresies of aesthetics are that style should mimic its content, that a fiction means no more than the tale that it tells, that art has a strong emotional effect or ought to have a strong moral effect, and that a work of art should express the artist’s personality.
The effects of art and imagination are cognitive and not emotional. But they have so little cognitive effect on most of us, that we conclude that they must be made to stir our feelings.
Art is the most genuine thing that we have, and so most of our responses to it are fake.
We don’t doubt that what is precious, good or beautiful must touch the bottom of our hearts, and that what fails to touch the bottom of our hearts can in no way be precious, good or beautiful. But we know a profound work by how insipidly it affects us, a genuine work by how spuriously it affects us, and a priceless one by how cheaply it affects us. We can tell a strong work by how limply it moves us, and a shoddy melodrama by how evocative it seems. Don’t the hollowest tales stir in us the most piquant effusions, be they tears or laughter, horror or condolence? It’s the hokiest rigmarole that sparks the most genuine thrills. A good book knows how to play on our feelings, a great one doesn’t care to. Art is cold and affectless. Kitsch is eager to please. The spectators go through a far more impressive range of passions at a football game than they would at a play or piece of music. The distillations of pure thought or pure poetry leave us stone-cold sober. It is hack style that intoxicates, dull art that improves, and phony affects that fire the soul. The only verse that evokes instant tears or smiles is on greeting cards. The songs that heal our hearts are sure to be treacly, and the truths that warm them are sure to be lies. Music is better at stimulating a fake grief than at assuaging a real one. For every one who has been touched by a poem, there are a thousand whose souls have been saved by a pop song. We are soothed or roused by mere dross, and thrilled by the cheapest tricks. A fake is in every case more convincing than the real thing.
We feel a genuine enthusiasm for fake things. But we can muster only a lukewarm respect for real ones.
Our response to a work of art is at best a pale reflection of the intensity of its vision.
We don’t laugh at great comedies. We don’t sob at great tragedies. ‘The wittiest authors,’ Nietzsche says, ‘elicit a scarcely noticeable smile,’ while the coarsest joking or the most asinine farce gives rise to gales of hilarity.
Nine laughs in ten are cued by the occasion and not by the joke.
How bland and unaffecting a piece of art looks, when set alongside the dazzle, blare and sensationalism of kitsch.
Imagination wells up from the depths of hell, kitsch springs straight from the soul, which craves crass fun and diversion, but can flourish with no help from truth or beauty. When the heart was freed to ask for what it yearned for, kitsch was born. ‘All bad poetry,’ Wilde wrote, ‘springs from genuine feeling.’ Kitsch is naive in its form, but calculating in its effects. We take in art half-heartedly, but flock to kitsch in fads and crazes. Kitsch gives us far more pleasure than art. Art is for the long ages, kitsch is for the crowded now. The art that appeals to us straight off must be kitsch. We love what we can grasp or what grips us at first sight. Our famished hearts, which would be wearied by a poem, lick up the syrup of a pop lyric, and are moved to unseal their deepest moods in crude and trite scribblings. They are stuffed with stale images, jellied sentimentalism and panting phantasms, and so how could they be touched by anything but kitsch? Like Madame Bovary, we swoon at sensations more than art, from which we have to squeeze some private service. We welcome only those works that thrill us or amuse us or tell us how fine we are.
There is a bad poet in each of us, and it comes out when a true poet would be lost for words.
Life stirs us so much more feelingly than art, since life is pressing and personal, while art is cool and ageless. We are untouched by art’s bland perfections, but we are delighted by life’s squalid gaudiness.
Most witty writing, such as Dorothy Parker’s, is too palpably pleased with its own wit to please us much.
What impotent books ravished our youth.
Most people assume that art at its most potent ought to work on them like an emotional pornography, titillating them with an unceasing arousal of their worthy passions and climaxing in some happy ending. Though even this would seem insipid if there weren’t some villain caught in the cogs of its moral machinery.
You must be blind and lost indeed, if you need a painting to teach you how to see, or a book to teach you what to feel. It’s not art but kitsch that makes us see or hear the world in a new way. Art does so only if it gets turned into an advertisement. If art could change the way we see the world, it would make artists of us all. Art doesn’t modify how you see anything save art, and then solely if you are an artist. A painter looks at each thing with the cold impassioned eye of a professional, on the alert for anything that might be of use for art.
We pay choice art the tribute of tawdry emotion which is due to cheap melodrama. Like Proust’s Madame Verdurin, we greet with unearned feeling works which were conceived with abounding poetic fire, and we deem that we thus confer on them the highest praise. Vermeer’s restful scenes melt the hearts of meretricious sentimentalists. They were much loved by the nazis.
Art holds out to you nothing but the frail and makeshift consolations of perfect and permanent form. It falls short of our pretend praise, but outstrips our real one. We don’t grasp how rich it is till it’s remade us, and that would take more than a whole life. How mortifying, that great books find me so facile, trite and forgettable when they read me. And I don’t improve on a second reading.
A good artist makes you feel more at home in the world, a golden one makes you wish that you were and content that you are not. Good art soothes us with its predictable satisfactions, great art desolates and exhilarates us, ravaging us with its lacerating truths, and delighting us with its intrepid imagination.
A book acts like a virus which must infect a long column of unaffected carriers till it at last latches onto the one victim that it was meant for.
Good writers amuse you by contriving highly-wrought tales, great ones awe you by revealing the bare truth. They forgo the crude and evanescent shocks of plotting for the enduring marvel of fresh insights illuminated in fresh forms. Real surprises go on astonishing us over and over, and yet they don’t startle us, but pour new light on things that we have long been used to the sight of. Surprise is to wonder as lust is to love. Surprise craves unremitting variation, wonder is content with the simple and unshifting. Surprise fades with familiarity, but wonder grows in radiance.
We read stories in the same way that we consume all that we desire, so avid for the next thrill, that we miss the wonders that are unrolling right in front of us. And the one kind of surprise which we don’t like is that of a new truth.
We keep on the watch for surprises, since they corroborate our predetermined views, which prime us to keep on the watch for surprises. ‘In the playhouse,’ Tristan Bernard says, ‘the onlookers want to be surprised, but by what they expect.’
11 Bright surfaces, false depth
‘It is only shallow people,’ as Wilde says, ‘who do not judge by appearances.’ Why are we so reluctant to rest our senses on the surface where surfaces are grace? Why prefer treacherous clefts to translucent shallows? Surfaces alone are fathomless. ‘The less it means,’ as Warhol said, ‘the more beautiful it is.’
Form rescues us from the depths. And yet in order to love art, we feel obliged to pretend that it goes deep. A painting or a piece of music may seem to mean something, but don’t they mean only on the outside? Deep within they are pure form, and it’s this that is their true significance, and why they are so hard to make sense of. ‘Form and colour,’ as Wilde says, ‘tell us of form and colour. That is all.’ But we are too superficial to see the wonders that stare us in the face. Beauty doesn’t dive to a hidden depth, but basks on a boundless surface which dazzles our eyes. Beauty is skin deep, ugliness is soul deep. What heart is as handsome as a handsome face? What soul is as beautiful as a beautiful body and its lovely covering of flesh?
The body is our Eden. The soul has learnt to know good and evil, and so has corrupted it.
Those who have suffered from false profundity like an infection are glad to douse their wounds with the antiseptic of shallowness. The sole way to stay clean in this filthy world is to make yourself all smooth surface, so that its slime will slip straight off you. ‘How much good sense lies in superficiality,’ as Nietzsche said.
12 Art is antinomian
The creatures of fiction inhabit a spacious country of the imagination. So why do we persist in judging them by the stifling moral protocols of the low cave in which we lodge? Pious writers pardon their villains, to tout their own generosity, and to show that the villains have not earned it. Peerless writers, like Shakespeare, Milton or Dostoyevsky, don’t indulge their malefactors with cheap clemency. They charge them with their own demoniac force. They send their rain on the just and on the unjust. They show us kinds of justice that lie outside our suburban codes of right and wrong.
Imagination, like the body, is free from sin because it has no conscience.
Moralizing writers such as Dickens draw much more interesting villains than heroes, since they’re not tempted to turn them into whitewashed portraits of themselves.
Any facile storyteller can make the good prevail, but only one as fine as Austen can make it fascinating.
We relish fictions that show the triumph of the fine qualities which we assume we possess. I am touched by tales of people like me, who choose love and integrity instead of lucre, and are then recompensed with a fortune. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you,’ and when they are added unto us, we take this as sign that we must have found the kingdom. Sermonizing writers, like Dickens, sense that a bald moral victory will not do. They must show you the good gaining the world, and the wicked forfeiting their souls and their loot. They guarantee that if you leave off jostling to get what you want, it’s bound to fall in your lap. They excoriate greed, yet make their heroes millionaires, and they rail at vengefulness, while devising a crafty retribution for the culpable. And though they paint hypocrisy as the one unforgivable sin, their own art works by devious indirection. Their narration makes use of all the wiles which they so righteously condemn in their villains.
A great poet such as Milton dares to assert as an artist the same overweening pride that he condemns in Lucifer.
Mawkish critics presume to deliver art from its inhuman flawlessness, and graciously vest giant writers with their own lilliputian virtues.
The world is in such a state, that if poets are in fact its unacknowledged legislators, would we not do well to burn their books?
Only inferior artists care so much for the world that they want to reform it, though some of the best, like Dickens or Picasso, still fancy that they do. Only dull ones could improve us and crop us to the shape of the latest moral stamp. ‘All bad art,’ as Wilde said, ‘is the result of good intentions.’ Art is strong enough to live down its producer’s best purposes or worst prejudices, but it can’t fulfil the former or fix the latter. Art doesn’t care enough about our prejudices to want to undermine them, and our prejudices are too coarse to be touched by art.
A poem that could change the world would have to be doggerel.
A true artificer treats categories of good and evil as part of the external furniture of the age. It’s the ones who don’t know their own trade that try to renovate or reconfigure them. Moral seriousness in a work of art would be a frivolous shirking of the real seriousness of art. ‘The morality of art,’ Wilde says, ‘consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.’ Right and wrong are nets which enmesh small souls.
13 Art is pitiless
Arctic hearts have ardent imaginations. Those who live for art, as Keats says, ‘must have self-concentration.’ They conceive so fervently, because they sympathize so coolly. They are moved not by a generous and dissipating compassion, but by an omnivorous and focused self-will. ‘I value people for what I can get out of them,’ said the saintly Beethoven. Their iron integrity is one kind of ordinary egoism. Their sympathies are profligate and not ethical, always on the watch for scenes or feelings that might fertilize their art, be they ever so insalubrious. They take ‘as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen,’ creating without risk, and destroying without responsibility. They are at once unworldly and unscrupulous. They have an icy fascination with the lives of others, and we mistake their fascination for pity and their iciness for impartiality. Art, like the deities of Epicurus, sits uncaring and unruffled. Its makers are like the bright gods, moral infants with more than mortal capabilities. The few who aspire to build a work for the ages must, like the ages, be patient and inexorable. The finest, as Flaubert said, are calm and pitiless.
The artist’s imagination is as likely to flash out in playful cruelty as in heart-rending pity. Shakespeare could see the jocular side of Gloucester’s blinding as well as its horrors.
The sterile sympathies of art don’t move us to share the sorrows of live men and women. I gorge myself on pity in literature, as I’d choke on it in life. Have we learnt to pity by simulating bad art? Or have bad artists grown maudlin by mimicking us? We assume that we feel for characters in books because they seem real, but it may be that we feel for people in life because we’ve got used to viewing them as if they were characters in books. We are vigilant to see justice done at every turn, save where it might do some real good. History or fiction lack the power to make you care for what lies outside them. They may sway you to feel for others, but only for the others of history or of fiction.
We feel a pathos for great characters, not because they are like people in life, but because we know that life would have no place for such as they. They belong to an eternal country.
What we learn by reading fiction is not to pity the afflicted but to feel that we must be as grand and as significant as its heroes and that others are as unreal and as marginal as the bit parts.
Why do we assume that the best use that artists can make of their imagination is to train it to view the world as the rest of us who are not artists and have no imagination view it? They don’t feel the same as us, but think quite differently from us, and are able to shape forms which we would be at a loss to conceive. They work not by empathy, which stays behind to nurse aching hearts, but by audacity, which dares to dart on and leave them uncared for. Sympathy sees likenesses, art makes differences. Empathy is a mirror, imagination is a torch.
We are now so incurably ill, that we mistake artists for healers, and look to them to relieve us. But they have the ruddy carelessness of the healthy, while those who write for therapy make their readers sick.
14 Art makes more evil
Art owes more to evil than to good, both for its content and for the alienated energies which fire its production.
Scrupulous writers don’t waste their evil or their truth on life. They save their justice for their style, and their mischief for their works. They teach their malice to think, and their virtues to dance.
The artist moulds celestial shapes from infernal fires, marrying calm harmony and wild fantasy.
Writers are the sort of people who would eavesdrop at keyholes and then make up what they have heard.
A work of art, like the resurrected flesh, ‘is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.’ How is it born, but by debauching innocence? An artist is an undiscovered traitor. They are so eloquent in broadcasting their love for our sad dust because they have left it so far behind them. The only compromises that they make are with the prince of sin.
Art is indirect, egotistical, ineffective and devouring. It’s more like vindictiveness than sympathy.
I have no doubt that it’s myself that art improves, and my neighbours that it needs to.
Reading won’t make you better, but read as well as you can, and it might at least make you worse. A great book ought to leave you happier and more evil, more open to adventure in mischief, and more mistrustful of your own fine feelings.
Hold fast to your integrity, but don’t allow it to taint your work. As Catullus wrote, singers ought to be chaste, but not their song.