Taste, like all the rest of our traits, is disjointed and fragmentary. Try to trace the shape, and you’ll miss the colours. Contemplate the colours, and you’ll fail to catch the form. And few of us have much relish or judgement for more than one or two of the arts.
Imagination is the car, taste is the driver.
Let pleasure guide what you read, but only if you have first learnt to read for some worthier end than pleasure.
‘He that ploweth should plow in hope,’ as Blake urged. Create your work in hope, but judge it in despair. Who of us has not felt the exhilaration of working better than we know, and then the dismay of discovering that what we’ve made falls far short of what we planned?
A writer has a brace of adversaries to tussle with, first the blank page, and then the full one.
We can’t get rid of our prejudices. So we should try to make them as discriminating as possible.
Take care that you don’t allow your quirks, habits and reflexes to do the job of your taste. We raise our prejudices to the rank of principles and our predilections to the rank of taste. We pervert our precepts to rationalize our likes and dislikes. Instead of elevating our taste by undergirding it with our judgment, we contort our judgment by coercing it to ratify our choices. ‘How quick come the reasons for approving what we like,’ as Austen said.
1 Taste begins in disgust
As we grow more discriminating, the more things we see and hear both to delight and to disgust us. Cursed are they who have the taste to see how ugly we have made the world, but not the vision to remake it. ‘Taste,’ Renard wrote, ‘ripens at the expense of happiness.’ Life for the discerning is one long process of getting disgusted.
‘Taste,’ as Valéry wrote, ‘is made of a host of distastes.’ All discernment begins in disgust. A fastidious taste has a distasteful prehistory. Bad taste is made by our desires. Good taste is made by our disgust.
What a swamp of mortifications you have to wade through in learning how to judge cleanly. Shame piques us to acquire a fine taste. Yet we are still vain of whatever taste we have acquired. Taste is honed by shame. Imagination is heightened by pride.
2 Time, taste and tradition
Good taste preserves a tradition, imagination renews and extends it.
God spent only a week on the creation of the world, and so he had no one but himself to blame that he so soon regretted it. Would he not have come to a far less encouraging appraisal of his workmanship, had he not been in such haste to judge if it was all very good? As a creator he was precipitate, as a critic he was fickle. How often he must have said to his angels, What a lovely planet earth might have been, if I had spent a few more days on its making, or else had stopped on the fifth.
God was the first to find out that the bliss of creating is the sole thing that makes up for the bitterness of existing, but that this joy too soon sours. If he is pleased with his work, then he must have as little taste as ability.
Create in haste, and repent at leisure. Time is the best critic.
3 Debauched by success
Each day good taste is stripped of a little more of its influence, but bad taste goes on insensibly gaining ground.
When style seems to have won out over substance, most times it is a crass and self-satisfied manner that has won out over subtle style, as in the case of Chesterton. Gaudy writers boast that they love form, but they are just infatuated with its crude effects. Style too has its hypocrites and pharisees, who confuse it with the frills, flourishes and embroidery which mask its absence. When they think that they’re mastering their craft, they are in fact learning the flashy stunts that will take in their audience.
Years of success had depraved his taste. He had lapsed from plain dignity into purple decoration, and had bought publicity by peddling his judgment. He ‘ruined a fine tenor voice for effects that bring down the house,’ as Auden phrased it. May you be spared the misfortune of success, and die before praise gets a chance to debauch you.
All that cosmopolitan sight-seeing, the brilliant friendships, those fine dinners and great conversations, have gone to make us the complacent mediocrities that we are.
Life is a slow erosion of all our standards. You must abandon them to sink if you want to succeed.
4 Taste and wealth
My taste calibrates its standard to suit the class of things that I have had the means to pay for. Like my conscience, I use it not to weigh what I ought to do or get, but to weave shrewd justifications for what I have done or got.
The rich use their wealth to hide how cheap their taste is or else to show it off. Their taste is their avarice straining to live up to the demands of their coarse or cultivated snobbery. Elegance is the plush luxury that the rich have in place of beauty.
Most people get the taste for the most expensive grade of vulgarity that they can afford to buy.
Most of us don’t doubt that we deserve the best. But we feel sure that the best must be whatever we have been able to afford.
Others lay waste their powers by getting and spending, but I flex and strengthen mine. Their covetousness disfigures life. But if I had a fortune, I could make mine graceful. My plain need is their uncontrolled greed.
Anyone poorer than me must lack the sense to know how to get money, and anyone wealthier lacks the taste to know how to spend it.
5 Fastidious bad taste
Those who have a decided taste are sure that they have an exquisite one. If they prize discernment, they presume that they know what it is. And if they presume that they know what it is, they have no doubt that they possess it.
Lax taste discriminates as fastidiously as finicky taste. And a nice taste is as pleased with itself as a nasty one. A fine palate spurns most foods, but so does a coarse and uncultivated one. People are exceptionally choosey, and what they usually choose is trash. We aren’t deaf to style, but most of us prefer a trite style to a choice one. ‘People do not deserve to have good writing,’ as Emerson said, ‘they are so pleased with bad.’
6 Bad taste is natural
Bad taste is born, good taste is made. Nature will supply you with your fake taste. Your true taste you have to piece together by your own efforts. ‘It is,’ Reynolds said, ‘a long and laborious task to acquire it.’ First you have to learn what is worth admiring, then you have to act as if you admired it, till at last you start to admire it for real, and gather why it has earned the admiration that you give to it.
There is more vitality in vulgarity than there is in good taste.
Our naturally bad taste is further corrupted by convention. It can be cleansed only in the sluice of tradition.
7 Good taste, bad reasons
If you want to gauge the quality of a person’s admiration, don’t ask them what they admire, ask them why. Sophisticates cry up a masterwork for reasons no less fatuous than those for which oafs hoot at it. Cultivated people have no more valid grounds for admiring fine things than bumpkins do for deriding them, though they may have more valid grounds than the perfunctory ones that they profess. They bolt them, and then belch their appreciation in stale patter. ‘A painting in a gallery,’ the Goncourts wrote, ‘hears more ludicrous opinions than anything else in the world.’ Some people’s enthusiasms are good for nothing but to warn you not to waste your time on what they praise.
Admiration knows more than understanding. It’s much easier to acquire good taste than good reasons. We prize the right things for the wrong reasons.
It’s more of a surprise when an uncommon mind is fêted than when it’s vilified, since in both cases it is misunderstood. ‘To be great,’ as Emerson says, ‘is to be misunderstood.’
Popularity is the anteroom of oblivion. An artist who works to win an audience must be content to be forgotten. The book that millions now can’t put down in a few years no one will want to pick up. The most enduring writers have the fewest readers in their own or any other generation.
We think that a work of art will be no good if it’s meant to make money, but that if it is any good it will be sure to make bags of it. Our estimates of value are both mawkish and hard-headed.
Now that we all make more money than we need, we feel contempt for anyone or anything whose sole aim is not to make money. If a thing doesn’t pay, we deem it rank snobbishness to indulge in it for any purpose more ennobling than fun. And yet if we were not nagged by snobbery to prove that we are better than those round us we would all remain contented pigs. We read bad books for enjoyment, and the odd great one for the prestige that it brings us.
A bestseller is a book that everyone buys because everyone else is buying it.
To refer to a book as a bestseller used to be to dismiss it. Now that we fetishize numbers and success, popularity is the sole endorsement that we take note of. ‘Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood,’ Hume wrote, ‘than the approbation of the multitude.’
Most of us know or admire nothing of a rare work save its reputation. ‘The more a work is admired,’ Gourmont said, ‘the more beautiful it grows to the multitude.’
The one way to spruik a thing nowadays is to tell people that a horde of other people have bought it.
9 Taste and fashion
A masterpiece lasts, because it furnishes the passing generations with conceptions which they can misinterpret each in their own way. Tradition links a chain of fecund misconstructions. Time tells you what to value, but fashion tells you why. People keep up in the sweep of the centuries the same catalogue of great works. But they adjust the reasons for which they praise and misread them to dovetail with the prejudgments of their own age. So they end up admiring them for the very traits that they lack. They make them their contemporaries by misunderstanding them.
We read great and desolating books to find the anodyne platitudes which dull and conventional preceptors have trained us to look out for. The one style for which we now have any relish is a debased democratic realism. And so we can praise even Shakespeare only by demoting him to a democrat and obsequious realist. But on the rare occasions that he brought commoners on stage it was to make them the butt of a joke. His aim in writing was not to crack the inherited mould of form by compelling it to make room for real life. He took it over and filled it with more and more imagination.
Where there are no strong rules, there will be no sweet exceptions. ‘The law alone brings us liberty,’ as Goethe wrote. A strong artist must frame strong laws, though it’s all case law. ‘Precept must be upon precept, line upon line.’ By revering rules artists are freed from following fads and trends.
Artists don’t breach the rules, they lay down better ones, to found a new freedom and a new rigour. Genius, as George Eliot said, ‘comes into the world to give new rules.’
Poets must create the taste by which they are relished, as Wordsworth said. They begin by creating their own, to make it both exacting and permissive. And then they have to raise their readers to be the next best thing to poets. They must enable the most impetuous flights, yet build to fit the most stringent specifications.
Artists, unlike moralists, practise better than they preach. Most of them have a theory of art, so it’s just as well that they don’t obey it. Shakespeare’s plays give the lie to most of what he wrote about play writing. Flaubert, if he had paid heed to his own impeccable aesthetic code, would have disciplined his scandalous brilliancy into desiccated correctness. Had he excised his own persona from his books, he would have robbed them of their richest character. Few tellers intrude so unremittingly in their tale.
11 Freedom and decadence
Artists now don’t lack the aptitude to create, but they have lost the power to conceive what a fine work might be. ‘All men can do great things,’ Butler says, ‘if they know what great things are.’ How could they craft a piece of abiding beauty, when they can’t make out the plainest axioms or won’t obey them?
‘Beauty,’ as Alberti said, ‘is the revelation of law.’ But each timid conformist now parrots the platitude that regulations are made to be transgressed. The ordinances of art are as trite and disregarded as the ten commandments.
Our iconoclastic age has smashed art and set up kitsch on its gilded plinth.
In vigorous eras artists make strong works, though they may hold incorrect views on art. In spent eras they can do nothing great, even if they hold the right creed. They glean leaden lessons from golden instructors. We have now swallowed such a crop of faulty postulates, what could purge us but the dawn of a new dark age of unlearning?
We now churn out great reams of shoddy verse, since it’s not the age of poetry, and great reams of shoddy prose, since it is the age of prose.
12 The good and the great
Major artists don’t do better what minor ones do well. They have quite contrary aims, and accomplish quite contrary ends. They differ in kind, not in degree.
The best, as Voltaire said, may be the enemy of the good. But in politics the better is as deadly a foe of the good as the best, while in art the good perverts the best and promotes the dull. A lot of good books are much better than great ones, and the best may share more traits with the bad than with the good. And some of the finest books, such as Wordsworth’s or Hawthorne’s, are not much good, as a woman may have true grace and yet not look pretty. ‘In art,’ as Goethe points out, ‘the best is good enough.’
Good art has an eye for the telling nuance. Great art cleaves to the abstract and elemental. Good art is detailed, fluent and relaxed. Great art is stark, stilted and hieratic. Good art reflects life. Great art imprints on it its own strange vision. A good writer shows you how life looks and feels. A great one shows you what it means. ‘Art,’ as Aristotle notes, ‘does not detail the outward guise of things but their inward import.’
A good artist experiments and innovates. A great one realizes and culminates. ‘Sowing is not as difficult as reaping,’ as Goethe points out.
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.
13 The mind is matrix to the medium
The deepest thinking is neither conscious nor subconscious. Great thought is not unconscious but extra-conscious. It goes on outside the mind in the medium that begets it, be it numbers or words or paint. The mind is the womb which the medium must make pregnant. As Dirac said, the equation knows more than the mathematician.
Genius is not so much a high aptitude for general creativeness as a preternatural affinity for a particular medium. A great mind is a dunce in everything but its chosen métier.
Imagination is a mind spurred to a high pitch of activity by the possibilities of the medium in which it works.
Imagination belongs more to the work than to the man or woman who conceived it. And the work, which is all on the surface, is measurelessly deeper than the soul that gave it birth. Imagination inheres in the medium. It is only an occasional visitant to the maker.
A great artist shapes a world as rich and inexhaustible as its medium. A poor realist makes one as thin and meretricious as life.
14 Imagination is an affinity for a particular medium
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 think only by immersion in its medium.
There is more imagination in Le Corbusier’s austere modifications of the medium than in all Gaudi’s grotesqueries. And 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.
15 The medium is the true muse
A great work of art is born, not when an idea finds its fitting form, but when a form inspires fresh ideas.
The passion that inspires a painter is the passion for paint. And the love that stirs a poet is the love of language, ‘smit with sacred song’. Their true muse is the medium of their art. Writers see visions, but only visions of words and their translucent forms. They labour more to clarify form than meaning.
For the philosopher life is mediated through systems and ideas. And for the poet life is mediated through language. ‘Between me and life,’ Wilde said, ‘there is a mist of words always.’
Form guides a great writer to deep insights, but it waylays a mannered one into the paths of cheap imposture.
16 The muse of language
Poetic souls are a dime a dozen. What is needed is poetic craft. When this is lacking, the poetic soul is stillborn or sterile.
A poem is not a thought struggling into words, but words giving birth to thought. ‘The real artist,’ as Wilde wrote, ‘proceeds not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion.’
Speech has tormented a few men and women to perfect them as the organs of its power. They are the pipes through which it plays its airs.
If tradition didn’t think one third of poets’ thoughts for them, and speech one third, they would conceive no thoughts of their own at all.
The heart of the poet is so thin and empty, that words have space to jiggle about in it and form new compounds.
A poet must be born again into language. In composing a poem, they give birth to a being who is able to retrieve the poem which is already there in words.
17 Language is imagination
Language is hidden poetry in wait for its bright revealer. It is, as Wilde wrote, ‘the parent not the child of thought.’
Language has more imagination than any individual. So the best writers are content to serve as the clear channels of its up-welling. The poet is absorbed in language as the mystic is absorbed in God.
The poem has a wisdom that the poet lacks. And poetry has a wisdom that the poem lacks.
The writer’s struggle is not with the poverty of language but with its plenitude. It holds out to them at every turn a more exuberant range of possibilities than they know what to do with.
Shakespeare’s plays manifest a dancing verbal energy, and speech is their one true hero. There’s magic in each line. They are a perennial springtime of language.
18 The specificity of the medium
Why do people celebrate one form of art for doing imperfectly what another does so much better? Why praise a book for appearing cinematic, or a statue because it seems to move, or a building as if it were readable, or prose for being poetical, or a tune as if it could recount a tale?
A painting turns to pure matter by remaining purely abstract. The sole body that a painter can mould is a body of paint. A painting should be seen and not read, as writing should be heard and not seen. A picture that tries to relate a story is as false to its medium as words that try to paint a picture. A picture is worth a thousand words only to those who have learnt what it means from some other source. Most of us don’t care for a painting, if we can’t turn it or its maker or its making into a corny tale. And many of the most renowned painters, such as Michelangelo, have been mere illustrators.
A sense can tolerate discordance in inverse ratio to how primitive it is, the nose least of all, and the ear less than the eye.
19 Words are not pictures
A book must be feebly written, if it means more than the words that it’s made of, though if it’s underpinned by nothing but its words it will soon crumple.
The standard view holds that writing encodes visual images in words, which we then project as a film on our mind’s screen when we read. So inadequately do we grasp what goes on in our own heads, and so prone are we to mouth borrowed nonsense rather than make our own sense.
Words stand for concepts, not for sense impressions. Their true sensory power lies in their sound, not in the pallid duplicates that they make of the entities that they refer to. In order to take in their glory, you have to shut your eyes and unstop your ears. They become flesh by making their subtle music, not by fabricating crude images. But we have no ears to hear their melody.
Words are not pictures. They impart vague, imprecise and indistinct pictorial images, and bland and watery feelings. ‘Nothing we use or hear or touch,’ Clausewitz said, ‘can be couched in language that equals what is presented by the sense.’ Who would read a description of a peach to find out how it tastes? Just bite its pulp.
For a true artist a genre is a mere incitement to imagine. Order is generic, imagination is impish and perverse. Genres are the bowls into which artists pour their imagination. They fix the outline of the shape it will take, but they don’t determine its quality.
Creative energy, like a people, is real and continuing. Genres, like the borders that enclose them, come and go.
An epic is an essence of one third intense tragedy filled out with a wadding of more or less tedious digressions.
Tragedy is not a particular kind of story. It is a grand character responding to the deepest outrages with a commensurate depth of imagination. So in life there are no tragedies, only mishaps.
Greek and french tragedy is formally frigid, imaginatively impoverished and emotionally incontinent. The sole reason to read it is to grasp how great Shakespeare is, and how right he was to keep clear of its bombastic minimalism, pompous choral insipidities, kitsch mythology, vulgar spectacle, sophistic debates, copybook moralizing, pretentious yet prosaic rhetoric, and formal monotony. All its bellowing has less to say to us than one quiet work of heartbreaking savagery by Conrad or Faulkner.
Great stories of crime, such as Dostoyevsky’s, Hawthorne’s or Hugo’s, tell of the vindication of the culprit’s soul or of the damnation of the detective.
Music arranges formal associations between sound and sound. It does not compose associations of meaning between sound and sense. Though we call it a universal language, it is in fact neither universal nor a language. It gives expression neither to rich ideas nor to complex moods. It communicates no thoughts at all, as Stravinsky argued, or else it communicates none but musical ones. And it evokes a restricted range of coarse, obvious and extraneous feelings, not much more than sad or glad, up or down, sunny or spooky. And it’s the crudest sort that sparks the most intense effects.
Music is how the gods do mathematics. It’s an ineffable algebra for the ears. It is, as Leibniz says, ‘the pleasure the mind feels from counting while not being aware that it is counting.’ It is at once the most sensual and the most abstract of the arts.
It was a great mischance for music that it came of age in the nineteenth century, just as european taste was degenerating into kitsch.
Bad music now sounds like good film music, overblown, mushy and thrusting, cuing our responses scene by scene to lead up to some grandiose climactic fanfare.
22 Savage dance
Ballet is the Fabergé egg of the arts, the over-refined knick-knack of an epicene age. It’s a vain attempt to mime feelings by exaggerated and stereotyped gesticulations, and to rival feline poise by an unachievable bodily control. If it makes music visible, as Balanchine alleged, then it plays it on a sorry instrument. It’s like performing Bach on a kazoo. It should leave off straining for fluid organic grace, and aspire instead to a mechanical, puppet-like and affectless awkwardness. Nijinsky alone by his rigorous anti-ballet gave back to the dance its savage vitality.
23 Painting and sculpture
We assume that portraits can lay bare the depths of a soul, since we know the bare husk of both life and art. Is the heart so thin and transparent, that mere paint can unveil it? The face may be a map of habits and experiences, but only those of its own flesh, and not what lies behind it. The phrenologist Lavater, when asked to differentiate a sketch of Kant from that of an infamous brigand, singled out the markers of the true metaphysician in the robber, and the unmistakable tokens of an outlaw in Kant.
Cézanne is the ideal painter. He framed a style scoured of affect, ornament, history and expression. He kept nothing but the solid and fundamental, and purged his art of all the extraneous seductions for which even connoisseurs love a painting. So he made pictures that hold out to us nothing to flatter, to soothe or to allure, no fable, drama, psychology, sympathy, depth, memory, mystery or meaning.
Sculpture is a more one-dimensional art than painting. A sculpture has more spatial facets, but a picture has more formal ones.
Only the most infamous tyrants deserve to be satirized by commemorative statues.
A building must have a function as a fiction must have a meaning. But whereas a book is able to unroll the whole skein of the spirit, a building’s purpose is the mere lackey of menial instrumentality. Architecture is art contaminated by utility. It fouls pure form with functionality. Literature lights it up with truth.
Sentimentalists claim that no building is worth as much as the acts that take place underneath its roof. But the form of a great edifice is worth far more than what it does, and it doesn’t start to live its real life till it has ceased to work. It’s as great as it is greater than its use. The best structures outlast their function for the longest time, and one that is perfectly fit for its present purpose will soon be pulled down. A pyramid was a tomb for a booby, a cathedral a barn for superstitious cows to congregate in. Is the ruby brightened by the grubby fingers that it adorns?
If form does follow function, then every building ought to be a uniform precast box.
The rest of the arts may despair, but architects must frame an art of hope, since they are building a new world.
Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe shared out modern architecture between them. Wright was merely the builder loved by those who don’t like modern buildings. Le Corbusier made titanic, protean, joyous, southern structures, Mies reticent, cool, sleek and serene ones. Le Corbusier fashioned the fresh morning poetry of the new design, Mies its taut and severe prose. So the complete writer would blend the barbaric force of Le Corbusier and the delicate discipline of Mies.
Cinema is beggared by the wealth of its possibilities. Like Orson Welles, it will do nothing great, since it can do such a spread of facile things so well. Like life, it is vibrant but insipid, saturated but vacuous, raucous but inarticulate. It thrills us with the pap of fantasy and the infantile gratifications of plot. It feasts our greedy hunger for happy endings and our need to identify with attractive idols. A pseudo-intellectual is one who treats films as if they were works of art.
Film is as mechanically precocious as it is aesthetically regressive and juvenile. It is advanced in everything except its sensibility. It is the epitome of present-day art, since it is neither modern nor art but a lucrative branch of the global business of kitsch.
A film is too rushed to paint luminous images, and too stuffed with visual details to make thoughtful drama.
Great novels make poor films. Films may preserve the skeleton of the plot, but they lose the vocal life and glory. But they are so crammed with banal details, that we have to assume that they are awash with symbolism.
Photography memorializes the sadness of time in a medium that claims to prevail against it. It replaces artistic form with gadgetry. And it replaces artistic feeling with sentimentality and self-centredness. It paints the icons of our narcissism.
The camera acted as the cannon of kitsch, which battered down the ramparts of art and authentic experience.
26 The wisdom of tradition
Time is wiser than taste. And tradition knows more than the individual. We need the stolidity of tradition to counterbalance the gross obstinacy of our own judgment, and to preserve the works of imperishable originality from each generation’s thirst for crude novelty.
The soul is too shallow to harbour the huge bulk of a work of art. It must moor out in the broad sea of tradition.
As art tells the truest lies, so tradition is the most sagacious foolishness.
Why commend what time tells you to? Yet time will tell you where to find all the best things.
The dead make up the most vital community, because they are not a community at all. And posterity frames the most reliable consensus, since it is made without the need for agreement.
The past, which reigns as the sovereign of the long age, saves us from fashion, which rules as the usurper of the hour, more boorish and more peremptory. But we have mutinied against the majesty of the old ways, to kneel down to the despotic imbecility of the clanging now.
Some writers, such as Emerson, who have lived at ease on a sumptuous legacy of tradition, urge their juniors to throw up their patrimony and earn a toilsome livelihood of their own.
Tradition works like love. How do your deeds come to mean anything at all but by their communion with the ones whom time has made dear to you?
27 Tradition and the individual
Tradition is all, the individual nothing. ‘The richness of a work, of a generation,’ Pavese wrote, ‘is in all cases determined by how much of the past it contains.’ But to save the past alive, artists must act as if they were all and the past nothing. ‘Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead,’ as Blake urged. All good comes by the tyranny of tradition and by the wilful hardihood of the few who fight to depose it. Creators cherish it only if they hope to become part of it. But how can they enrich it but by being unequivocally of their own time? They are at once idolaters and iconoclasts. ‘Each act of creation,’ Picasso said, ‘is first of all an act of destruction.’
Artists make a god of beauty. But they want to smash its old images and set up their own on the unfilled pedestals.
Artists are mere conduits for the energies of their culture. Whatever the quality of the pipes, from now on they will be pumping nothing but sludge.
Tradition used to be the care of a whole class. Now it is the endangered possession of a scattering of rare individuals swamped by the heedless greed of the giddy crowd.
All are born heirs to the past’s inexhaustible bequest, but you must labour for long years to make it your own. ‘What you have inherited from your antecedents,’ Goethe said, ‘you must first win for your own use.’
28 Periods and forms
The muses don’t dance in unison, as Degas points out, or grow at the same rate, or age in the same way. They may form one family, but they each retain their individual characteristics. ‘That urge to find counterparts and analogies in the various arts gives rise to queer blunders,’ as Baudelaire points out. Music had its rebirth long after the renaissance of poetry and the visual arts.
The english and russians can write great books but not make great paintings. The french can paint and write but not make music. Germans can write and make music but can’t paint. Italians can paint and make music but not literature. The english put all of their music into their poetry. The french put all their music into their prose.
All great art is degenerate. All healthy art is kitsch. Each step forward is a new degree of decadence. ‘All mortal greatness is but disease,’ as Melville wrote. So don’t look for a cure for your malaise, but for a form to make it fecund.
The eighteenth century was still flushed with the health that it was squandering. Its elegance and sprightliness was the lively glow in the cheek of the doomed consumptive.
29 The greeks
Ancient Egypt shaped an authentically modern visual style, stark, impassive and menacing. Greece was not classical. It was Egypt’s sinuous and theatrical baroque.
The greeks were teenagers, beautiful, sad, lost, dangerous, but not very deep. They were shallow enough to see a lot of things clearly. They might have rescued us from our false complexities by escorting us back to a bright simplicity and surface, ‘the whole Olympus of appearance,’ as Nietzsche termed it. But now that we have gained a more accurate view of them, we can’t glean a thing from them. They were sculptors, not psychologists. They carved the embodied abstractions of architecture, geometry and myth. Their imagination was fixed on the plastic and formal. Their eyes looked outwards to the serene shape, not inwards to the chaos of the mind. ‘For us greeks,’ as Valéry wrote of them, ‘all things are forms.’
Homer and Plato are the only two first-rate greek writers, Homer because he embodies the greek spirit, and Plato because he negates it.
30 Classic and romantic
Classicism is at its best an architectural and sculptural style, baroque a musical one, romanticism a literary one, and modernism a painterly one.
Classicism is a shallow pond. Imagination is a shoreless ocean. Classicism cramps imagination by trussing it in the brace of organic form and subjecting its exuberant parts to a dulling unity.
Unrivalled artists, such as Velasquez or Shakespeare, Bach or Dostoyevsky, are no more classic or romantic then the tallest peaks are tropical or temperate. Their weather is made not by the latitude which they share with the surrounding countryside but by their own solitary altitude.
Paganism was a boon for painting and sculpture, because it was so picturesque. Christianity was a boon for literature and psychology, because it was so perverse.
Raphael’s pictures, Mozart’s music and Austen’s prose are three miracles of transcendent worldliness. Like Palladio, Rossini or Emerson, they fashion a sane classic art for those who are born for joy.
The old classicism was olympian, the new classicism is industrial.
Discontinuity is the essence of modernity and the mainspring of all modern art, both in its own form and between it and the works of the past, as quantized energy is the basis of the new physics. It works by the fraction not the whole, by dissonance not harmony, by multifariousness not oneness, by fragmentation not by integrity, by disconnection and not by continuity, through the elementary particles of unpredictable imagination. The modern artist is left with the fragment as the sole weapon with which to combat kitsch and the whole. ‘Unity,’ as Blake wrote, ‘is the cloak of folly.’
There were two strains of modernism. The first, the modernism of order, that of Hemingway, Cocteau, Mondrian, Brancusi, Mies van der Rohe or Schoenberg, was a clean white apartment. It pared back reality to uncluttered, austere and angular shapes, sleek and metallic. The second, the experimental modernism of Joyce, Faulkner, Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Miró, Pollock or Stravinsky, enriched and complicated it with bold, eclectic, liquid and lyrical ones.
The arts grew modern by battling their own assumptions. So painting, in its struggle to break loose from its past, became more and more abstract, and so more like what it essentially is. But music, which was already abstract, came to sound less and less like music.
The impressionists had dematerialized the subject-matter of painting. The modernists rematerialized the medium of paint.
Modern novelists refurbished the great house of form, but for clerks and salesmen to lodge in.
Realism has starved art till it has grown as stunted and pale as life itself. It is the style of a world emptied of meaning but crammed with stuff. Literature has ceased to reveal to us large truths, since it has sold itself as a reporter of small facts. It now aspires to the condition of journalism. It aims to make books that are as probable as a news report, as accurate as a chronicle, as bustling as a film, or as instant as the net.
The contemporary novel is a composite monster, with a head of exploratory formalism, a heart of egalitarian sentimentalism, and a trunk of nineteenth century naturalism bulging with a paunch of workaday detail.
The one lesson that contemporary novelists have learnt from modernism is a concern with all the different ways to spin a story. But the stupidity of story was the very thing from which modernist experimenters aimed to emancipate art.
Most recent verse is cryptic yet prosaic, mystification illuminated by flashes of cliché. Its jumbled platitudes scarcely repay the decoding. Poetry used to be the verbal audacity that you couldn’t risk in prose. Now it’s the autobiographical inanities that you couldn’t get away with in prose. It is a prosaic reel of personal anecdotes that lacks a continuous narrative.
Beauty lives solely in its proper element. A swan out of water looks like a clumsy duck.
The least disturbance of a face’s configuration may make it unsightly, but one lovely touch is enough to make it adorable.
Nudity may be beautiful, dress is at best merely elegant. Clothes are a needless decoration of beauty, and an ineffective disguise of ugliness.
When a girl speaks, her voice smiles, when she sings, it desires.
If beauty were proportionality of parts, then each of the animals, which are all so beautiful, would be built on the same ratio. How could a horse and a giraffe both be handsome?
Beauty doesn’t hasten like a disciplined line, but wanders like a sinuous curve. A tune is the most roundabout way to get from c to c.
There are a hundred ways to look elegant, but a thousand to look unattractive, as there are a hundred ways to write beautifully, but a thousand to write lamely, a hundred of reasoning right, but a thousand that miss the mark, and one way to be good, but a squad that work mischief.
34 The mystery
What could be more tangible or more mysterious than beauty? You may enfold it in your arms, but you can’t grasp it with your mind. Nothing is more firm to the touch or more elusive to our thoughts. It is perfectly rational and yet quite incomprehensible. It sparks an epiphany which discloses nothing but its own sweet self. You glimpse in a flash what you still fail to compass after years of exploration.
A sun shower, by commingling a pair of things that you’re accustomed to see separately, reminds you what a marvel each one is. Only love beauty, and the world turns to an endlessly varying wonder.
35 The shock of beauty
‘Every angel is terrible,’ as Rilke wrote. Beauty is what still shocks us, no matter how habituated to it we may have grown.
Beauty is a temporary tyrant. It has a gravitational force which seems to bend time and space round it. Each lovely thing that you see banishes for a trice all rival kinds of loveliness, as a strong writer’s style blanks out for a short spell all the rest, and gives you the key that can tune all the discords of the world.
We pass our youth in a delicious sickness of tremulous desire. We burn with beauty’s voluptuous fever. Artists are prone to this infection their life long. It will not let them rest, till they have made some offering worthy of the god that plagues them.
The constant miracle of beauty is the one thing that can wake you from the daze which the profusion of everyday beauty has lulled you into. ‘The mist of familiarity,’ as Shelley wrote, ‘obscures from us the wonder of our being.’ The world spoils you with its never-ending, ever-changing shows of loveliness.
The length of Cleopatra’s nose may not have changed the face of the earth, as Pascal claimed. But the curve of a lip may change your life, or at least make you live to rue that it failed to.
36 Spoilt beauty
We should be gladdened by the indifferent sky with its azure bounty and its shifting theatre of clouds. But we won’t lift our eyes from the crawling miseries and cravings of this blighted earth. The crystal heaven has nothing that I want, besides a lofty peace. So I fuss and bustle through the world, blinded to all its glory by all my greed to grab my slice of it. The only beauty that we care for is the beauty that we own or hope to make our own.
Beauty is a rare visitor from the realm of being to our world of time and becoming. It has no sooner entered our corrupting atmosphere than it starts to sicken and decay.
We have a disgusting propensity for manufacturing ugliness where there was once beauty, and a charming gift for reclaiming small pockets of beauty from the encroaching ugliness.
37 Generic beauty
Beauty is exemplary not original. It is neither particular nor abstract but generic. It must therefore be learned from experience and not deduced from reason. And it comes to seem unique by perfecting the traits of the class of which it is a member. You can’t grade the loveliness of an individual, till you’ve seen more samples of its type. The proportions of a flamingo would look absurd in an eagle, and the plumage of a peacock would spoil a swan.
Ours is an ugly species which is full of breathtakingly lovely individuals. And a human being is beautiful because for a brief time she possesses in an abnormal degree those features which typify the human form but which most humans are deficient in.
38 Beauty recalled
‘All our tastes,’ as Lamartine said, ‘are but reminiscences.’ This present angel shape subjugates you now because it brings back its lost twin from the past. And it prefigures one which will someday captivate you by recalling this one here in front of you. Beauty is old wine in new skins.
The resemblance may catch your eye, but it’s the contrast that rends your heart. Everyone reminds me of her. No one is like her. Soon she too won’t be, but will live on as a pale remembrancer of what she once so radiantly was. ‘Like, but oh, how different,’ as Wordsworth lamented.
Beauty ravishes our memory just as it’s on the verge of evanescing. Formed by the past and promising the future, it stands apart from both and lives eternally in its own ever-vanishing present. It is the one carnal god that has the potency to resurrect our buried hearts. Each lovely thing enjoys a timeless bloom which is vulnerable to all the sad injuries of time.
39 Time’s war on beauty
So much beauty is botched by the very process that should perfect it. Adolescence is a fiery furnace. It mars most of the shapely figures that time puts in it to be finished. They go in so fine, they come out so pocked and sallow and flabby.
Why does our species age more hideously than all the rest? Is it gravitation paying us back for presuming to walk erect and renounce the reticence of fur? Or is gluttony distending our flesh to force it to share its own overfed and florid likeness?
The young have all had a taste of what it is to possess beauty and what it means to lose it. They have all known the delight of the body and the sadness of the flesh. As they age, their face parts with its pure and clean contours, and folds back to an unreadable map of experience. The young have classic profiles but romantic souls, like Canova’s statues or Baudelaire’s verse. Their lineaments must subside to romantic ruins before they can grow classic and harmonious souls.
To be born beautiful is like being born rich in a country with ruinously high taxation. The vainest girl doesn’t know how beautiful she is, or how much she will soon be losing.
The young and lovely troop into the future like the unending waves of an inexhaustible russian battalion, to be mown down and replaced by those in the rear. Time wages a war on beauty which leaves no survivors. It will soon be treating the young with the same careless brutality that they treat the old.