We keep murmuring goodness, truth and beauty, as if they formed the motto of a country from which we’ve been exiled, or the three last words of a dialect that we have ceased to speak. All our values are mere shadows. Our beauty is accidental, our good is economical, and our truth is superficial.

We have lost our capacity for the two best adventures, noble action and noble thought. We gave them up, when we found that they don’t pay.

Every day the world proves how determined it is to spoil any beauty that it finds and to shut its ears to any truth that it is told.

A Goodness

Codes of good and evil are concerned with souls and individuals. But what is important is systems and things with no soul, forms, traditions, ecologies, works, ideas and styles.

I wish that justice governed the world, and at times I fear that it might. ‘Life is never fair,’ Wilde said, ‘and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.’

It is the just who get their comeuppance in this world. The corrupt stride on from one shining triumph to the next.

How swiftly mischief turns the whole world upside down. Yet what long centuries we have taken to rip up rooted injustices. ‘Haste is of the devil,’ says Muhammad, ‘slowness of God.’

If a great number of people practise a virtue, we scorn it for its cheapness. And if few do, we scorn humanity for possessing such a paucity of it.

If we approve of a trait, we say that it lifts us above the animals or else that it is natural. But if we disapprove of it, we say that not even the animals possess it or else that mere brutes do. ‘When a man is treated like a beast,’ observed Kraus, ‘he says, “After all I’m human.” When he behaves like a beast he says, “After all I’m only human.”’ We should strive to be the best animals that we can. But we are such sorry animals, that if that’s all we are, then we are less than nothing.

1 Virtue corrupts

By dedicating ourselves to an categorical code of right and wrong, we will debase humanity and despoil the virginal earth. Moral ideals warp the type, but are too weak to rehabilitate the individual. ‘As mankind perfects itself,’ said Flaubert, ‘man degrades himself.’ By struggling to set up a pure justice we will tread down all that is delicate and estimable, yet we still won’t make anyone happier or more virtuous. And then we will tear up the world to bring about not this pinched purity but its shoddy counterfeit of pushing worldwide narcissism and mediocrity.

Ideals of virtue pervert us as much as examples of vice. ‘When the great way degenerated,’ Lao Tzu says, ‘human kindness and morality ensued.’

Some people’s hearts are turned to iron by carrying on a slow struggle for a just cause. ‘That which is crooked cannot be made straight.’

We have blighted our instincts but not killed them. We have merely depraved and deformed them. They have grown hunched and shortsighted, but their teeth are as sharp as ever.

When clemency is more than an anomaly, it is an iniquity. And where it grows to be a system, it puts an end to justice. ‘A God all mercy,’ as Young wrote, ‘is a God unjust.’ Pity twists our principles, but won’t set straight our conduct.

Justice works by mathematics, mercy acts out a lachrymose play. So justice looks cold, and mercy heartfelt. The cry of sentimentalists is always for more charity and less justice. And so they will collude in inverting all right.

A code of selflessness will serve to make us more self-obsessed. By trying to act altruistically we will grow more clamorously selfish. Our solidarity tells us that there is no gem so rich as the self and its service. By encouraging men and women to act for the sake of other selves, we won’t induce them to act unselfishly. We will merely teach them that the human self is the sole thing worth acting for. But the self is neither an end nor an enemy but a tool. Try to act philanthropically, and you blunt the tool. Try to act disinterestedly, and you wear it out for the sake of keeping other tools in good trim as if they were the true work. We assume that we win high merit when we spend our own paltry self to help others just as paltry, and that these paltry selves must be priceless because we have effaced our own selves for their sake, and that what is akin to us but not us must have an inestimable worth. An egoist tramples on rival selves, and an altruist tramples on all that is not self. Pride alone might inspire you to raise up something that will overpass all self.

We are all now so ill, what nobler ideal could we envision than a healer of the diseased human animal? Why else would we have hired such sickly gods to tend us? Soon, as Goethe prophesied, ‘the world will have turned into one huge hospital, where each is everybody else’s humane nurse.’ Yet no one will be cured. We will all drag out our fever rather than make a clean end.

‘The man who is readily disposed to lay down his life,’ Pavese wrote, ‘is one who does not know how else to give meaning to it.’ Live for others, and you will be spared the hard work of discovering your own strong reason to live. ‘We are all here on earth to help others,’ Auden wrote. ‘What the others are here for I don’t know.’ Such is the benign circularity of self-surrender. Don’t the righteous feel that the rest of us have been put on earth to serve as the grateful recipients of their own good works? How else could they ram their way to their beatific reward?

Virtue itself must consent to be corrupted before it can do any good in this world. The saints don’t know how much they owe the devil for the completion of their work.

2 Justice is a means, not the meaning

The operations of life may be moral, but its meaning is not. Right and wrong make up a small component of life, of how we ought to live, of how we ought to judge and be judged, of what will pain or please us. The pressing daily question, how am I to live, rarely has a moral answer.

The state was not set up to establish equity. It makes use of it as a mere expedient to preserve its own being. We don’t live in groups so that we can act justly. We act justly so that we can live in groups. Justice is a means, not an end, however much moralists may say otherwise. It serves as traffic control for our wants. It is not the destination that we set out for.

3 The banality of goodness

We do such scant mischief and such scant good, and we intend still less, yet we are judged by what we never aimed at. Very few of our acts are done with a moral end in view. And most of our virtue consists in prudently refraining from wrongdoing. It is cautious, parsimonious and negative. ‘Most evil,’ Arendt says, ‘is done by those who never make up their minds to be good or evil.’ We are empty-headed and self-interested, not criminal or saintly. Right and wrong are late-born and sickly. Few of us are devoted either to good or to bad. ‘Great vices and great virtues are exceptions among mankind,’ said Napoleon. We are reluctant conscripts of virtue and cheap amateurs of vice. These are like any one object, and we have ten thousand such objects on which we’ve set our hearts. Specialists in getting on, how could we be more than dilettantes of integrity or iniquity? These are instruments that we use. They are not the end to which we pledge our lives. ‘I for my part,’ Confucius said, ‘have not yet seen one who had a real love of goodness, nor one who abhorred wickedness.’ Ambition and self-interest persevere. Virtue and vice faint and falter. There are far more moral mediocrities than moral monsters. ‘A dwarf in evil, a dwarf in good,’ as Ibsen styled it. Our conduct is couched in a thin and crude ethical idiom. The first task of the moral law is to fool us that we are moral beings. And so its first article of faith is a lie.

Good is no less banal than evil. If either of them rises above ordinariness, it is only by engaging in a fight with an overwhelming enemy. It is the struggle and not the cause that lends the lustre.

We are moral beings by bare chance. We are intrinsically creatures who will, strive, desire and compete, who crave fulfilment and never find it.

The saints no less than the sinners are sustained by their slogans and catchphrases, not by the truth. These remind them of their duty, or at least ease their mind when they omit to do it.

We don’t turn into devils by straining to act like do-gooding archangels, as Montaigne claimed. We merely grow mediocre in all other spheres. There are numberless vain and irritable pedants of virtue, but no geniuses, though there are plenty of adepts of instinctive self-sacrificing affection.

An evil genius, such as Hitler or Stalin, though quite nondescript himself, may be the cause of stupendous effects.

The motives that prompt miscreants to do evil are often as trivial as its effects are prodigious. But both the motives and effects of the good that the just do are equally trivial.

4 Circumstance is king

My moral nature runs so shallow, that the least churn resulting from a fresh fancy or a change of luck will be enough to muddy it.

We are not simply generous or gentle or honest, we are generous or gentle or honest to this person and not to that, in this way and not in that, at this time but not at that. Our virtues are partial, specialized, arbitrary, conditional, malleable and circumstantial.

‘Man,’ as Leopardi wrote, ‘is almost always as wicked as he needs to be,’ though most of us act honourably where we must. We are as good as we have to be, and as bad as we can get away with. We have the means to do more good than we wish to, and we wish to do more mischief than we dare to. We are willing to be as vile as we need to be, but most of the time we need to be less vile than we are willing to be. So expedience reduces us to a reluctant rectitude. We are too timid to dare all the wrong that we would like to do, and we don’t want to do all the pedestrian good that our own advantage might entice us to do. Acute necessity may make an honest man a knave, as Defoe said, but the day to day need to live in peace with others keeps many a knave honest.

We feel so hard pressed by our own compulsions, that we presume we have a right to press hard on everything else in our frenzy to pander to them.

We conform even in our transgressions. ‘Men are as the time is,’ as Shakespeare showed. We covet what our neighbours covet, and lie as they lie. We murder in murderous times. In time of war cowards are the first to take up arms. ‘The virtue in most request,’ as Emerson wrote, ‘is conformity.’ My self-interest and my stupidity lead me to comply in my moral acts as they do in all the rest. Few of us turn out to be much better or much worse than the world that imprisons us. All our traits, both straight and skewed, bend to wheeling chance. ‘Circumstance,’ as Twain notes, ‘is man’s master.’ We are chameleons, who take our moral tinge from our surrounds.

We don’t doubt that we are free yet necessary beings, the controllers of our own desires and self-aware. But we are in fact conditioned, contingent, the dupes of our own compulsions and ignorant of ourselves. We are assortments of contingencies, who are convinced that our path is destined and that our will is free.

When I act for my own ends, I project the profit. But when I act for the sake of others, I count the cost. So I’m as brisk and busy in my own interest as I am sluggish in theirs.

The most refined prescriptions of right and wrong reproduce the first precepts that were implanted in the nursery. Thus, as Dryden wrote, ‘the child imposes on the man.’

5 The sterility of virtue

Morality is a necessary hygiene, a drilling in what is clean and unclean. But this would in its turn grow to be a baleful distemper if we gave it too much leeway. ‘Be not righteous overmuch.’ Everyday virtues are disseminated almost as contagiously as everyday greeds. The air swarms with a horde of righteous viruses of fine feelings and angelic intentions, which your coldness alone can save you from catching.

The mischief that we do may not be worth much, but we would be worth nothing at all were it not for the mischief that we do. Why make yourself a eunuch just to be stupidly good? Purify the will, and you sterilize the imagination. But if you can craft a rarity by becoming corrupt, won’t it be worth the cost? In the kingdom of the imagination salvation is through sin. We ought to do as Blake urged, and put off holiness to put on intellect. It’s hard to know which is Adam’s more precious and fruitful legacy to us, sin or death.

To make too much of right and wrong would be to stunt the myriad wondrous achievements that we might excel in. Justice, like money, cuts everything down to barren quantity and measurement. It would dry up all our lusher endowments, and drown our minds in empathic trifles. Seek to be scrupulously just in small things, and you grow unjust to large ones. Purity violates all our more exalted aims. It is the chauvinism of morality. This magnificent civilization which has been built up by bloodshed and grim exploitation will soon be pulled down by happiness, good works and freedom.

We have mandated greed to drive us on to act, and moral preening to fence in how we think. Thought erodes virtue, and virtue arrests thought. ‘Every virtue inclines toward stupidity,’ as Nietzsche wrote, ‘and every stupidity toward virtue.’ The law sows the imagination with salt. Thought liquefies moral codes, and they ossify intelligence. The sole reason to think about them is to prove that they are not worth expending any thought on. As soon as we start to think morally, we become stupid and self-justifying. A sound mind is allergic to moralizing, and yet moral and political gossip are the closest that most people get to thought. Virtue makes living safe but thinking small. First the gods stupefied us by their limp miracles in a world that was so much more miraculous. Now they do so by their stern and restrictive codes of righteousness in a world where they have let in so much mischief.

Why expel your dark angels? Learn from them. They have more to teach you than your wan rectitude does. ‘The world,’ says William James, ‘is all the richer for having a devil in it.’

Civilization does not consist, as Baudelaire contended, in the curtailment of the vestiges of original sin, but in their enlargement and upraising into towering arrays of sense and glory.

We are God’s songbirds. He cares nothing for our flat virtues and clanging sorrows, but only for how sweetly we sing.

6 Virtue and happiness

People are neither good nor evil. They simply seek their own ends. But the state decrees which kinds of acts they will profit by, and so it’s not nature but social arrangements that make your happiness depend on how just you are. A government can’t make its citizens just. All it can do is bar them from being rewarded when they act unjustly.

It is not evil that is banal, but people, the saved no less than the sinful. Evil becomes as banal as the state makes it. The third reich made devilry utterly routine, and so society grew utterly devilish. And a just regime, if it aimed to do as much good as Germany did harm, would need to enlist its Eichmanns of plodding virtue. The inhabitants of a just state do right from the same motives of habit and self-interest that impel those of an unjust one to do wrong. In order to be virtuous, all they need do is calculate and conform. You can be sure that you have dropped into a fiendish world, if in resolving to act with rightness you have to do more than compute what will best serve your own ends. In a depraved society the just are forced to act like heroes.

A great abomination such as a world war seems to purge the age of its banality like a blood offering. But the crimes against humanity, which we deplore, tempt us to deplore the whole of humanity and deduce that it may deserve the crimes that have been done to it.

When the state turns society to hell, men and women will act like devils to fit in or get on. We make holocausts, not when a few of us choose to behave with inhuman brutality, but because most of us are humanly unmoved by all but our own advantage.

B Truth

1 We don’t love truth

We claim to think so much, we in fact think so little, yet we prize thinking so dear. Why do we shy from what we claim to do so zealously. Why do we set such a high value on what we are so loath to do? And why do we prize so dear what yields us such sparse pay? If our glory lies in reasoning, as Pascal said, then what is our life but a long disgrace?

For most of us the unexamined life is the sole one worth living, and undoubtedly the sole one worth dying for. We think only as much as we need to get what we want. Yet philosophers tell us that life bereft of the search for truth does not befit a human being. So who is mad? We unheeding sleepers, deaf to the dignity of truth? Or they who prescribe a duty that most of us shirk, and who do so in order to sponsor the latest daft system of their own, which lands them farther than ever from the truth?

The valiant fight and die so that cowards might live in peace. The wise search for the truth so that dabblers and time-killers might snack on it as a titbit once in a while.

We don’t care for truth. But we do love trivia, news, gossip and useful information.

The most penetrating truths just graze the skin of our shallow souls, whilst the dullest blots and errors sink deep in and dye them.

We so love truth, as Augustine said, that whatsoever else we love we have to dub it truth.

The world garlands truth, and then cuts out her tongue. Lies strut up and down in the open, but truth must be smuggled in like contraband. Lies swank and swagger, truth sneaks and scuttles. ‘Superstition, sacrilege and hypocrisy have ample pay,’ Luther wrote, ‘but truth goes a-begging.’ What need have we of truth, when our generous deceits give us all that we want? In this world lies are gold and truth is lead.

A daring mind can’t hold out against the world’s vast imbecility, and taste and beauty can’t hold back the tide of its vulgarity. Art can’t compete with kitsch, and truth is shoved aside for thrills and distractions. The more delicate goes down to the more coarse and loutish. The essential has no chance in its clash with the urgent and frivolous, the earth has no chance in its duel with the world. ‘Against witlessness,’ Schiller wrote, ‘the veriest gods feud in vain.’

The real world is too brutal to be pierced by the truth. But truth can easily be crushed by brute reality.

There is such an unquenchable thirst for illusions from age to age, that we have to keep rephrasing them and furnishing them with new forms. But the love of truth burns so low, that it can feed forever on the same fuel.

Lies may have shorter lives than truth, but they reproduce more rapidly.

Truth may have time on its side, but error has numbers. ‘Truth is the cry of all,’ as Berkeley wrote, ‘but the game of the few.’

Is it truth that we cherish, or the conviction that we alone have got it in our clasp, and the sweet spectacle of the rest lost in their darkness? ‘No pleasure,’ Bacon says, ‘is comparable to the standing on the vantage ground of truth, and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below.’ But we want more than that. We want them to acknowledge that we know more than they.

Would we care for truth itself, if it gave us no outlet to hold forth on it? ‘Wisdom and the good things of the mind,’ Montaigne says, ‘seem of no account to us if they are not paraded before the approving eyes of the world.’ Seneca said that he would give up the grant of good sense if he had to keep it sequestered. ‘Is all your knowledge nothing,’ asked Persius, ‘if someone else does not know that you know it?’

We hug our dogmas, not because we long for surety, but because we hate to think. We don’t crave the taxing certitude of proof but the factitious assurance of our own congealed opinions. So we love certainty more than truth, and self-confidence more than certainty.

Sincere believers are offended by the cheap and blatant honesties which scoffers use to malign their rich and superfine duplicities.

We have no wish to hear the truth, so by what miracle does it so often win out in spite of our unwillingness? We gain so much from our illusions, that it takes some magnanimity to pay truth any mind at all.

We may be willing to hear or tell the truth about the things that matter, since they are the ones that matter least to us.

We can tell the truth about the things that don’t touch us. But we don’t doubt that most things do, and so it’s rare that we are free to tell the truth at all. We circle round the truth, but swoop straight for our gain.

We tipple such polite sips of truth, but swig down deep draughts of intoxicating lies.

Those who are cursed to think seek their devious redress by discovering the desolating truth, because they know that no one will pay them the least heed. They scourge them with sharp truths, while exposing how they are too thick-skinned to be touched by it. Cassandras of uncaring, their truths don’t help, since they don’t take the trouble to seek out the truths that might.

Speak your truth defiantly, since no one will have ears for it anyway. Their insensibility is what sets you free. Don’t worry that you’ve laid bare to them your inmost self. They’re so caught up in their own cravings, that they won’t have noticed or cared much. They might be willing to give you a hearing, so long as you talk the same amusing gibberish as everyone else.

One sure way to bore or depress or offend people is to tell them the plain truth. You don’t know the world very well, if you think that you can speak it and get off scot free. Where everything can be spoken, we all grasp that truth is the one thing that no one wants to hear. Those who know how to use their eyes must learn to shut their mouths.

Some of us are not shrewd enough to gauge which lies will best serve our advantage, but none of us is so naive as to think that it will be served by the truth.

Think for yourself, urge philosophers such as Schopenhauer, since they don’t doubt that the few who dare to do so are bound to think like them, and that they have thought so well that no one who comes after them should need to think at all.

How could all the tender shoots of truth live on, if they weren’t shaded by the broad overspreading tree of unreality?

The knowledge that adds to our power is now the sole kind of knowledge that we care for.

2 Truth is a weapon

Most of us take up our creed out of conformity, and keep it alive by our hostility. It’s only the shared heat of our herd conformity or the factitious heat of a contest that gives ideas any warmth at all for us. Like our sympathies, we suckle them with our animus. ‘When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy,’ Hazlitt wrote, ‘it ceases to be a subject of interest.’ Extremists would lose half their fervour and stridency, if their foes ceased to assail and deride them. How torpidly we love truth, yet how fanatically we loathe what we class as error. I have my adversary to thank for reassuring me that I have right on my side.

How would we know what verities to love, if our antagonists did not teach us what lies we hate? I know that truth delights me, because I feel that lies disgust me. But what I venerate is my own dogmas, and what I abominate are those dogmas that I don’t share. ‘To be a real philosopher,’ William James tells us, ‘all that is necessary is to hate someone else’s type of thinking.’ I don’t treasure truth but my truths. I don’t prize wealth but my own wealth. I don’t love God but my own god. The true God is my god. Others’ gods must be false gods. We don’t love an idea because we know it to be true, we take it to be true because we have made it our own. I care for truth no more than a general cares for the regions that he has crushed. Like a jealous suitor, each thinker wants to be both the first and last possessor of this adored thought.

What is most false in our passions we turn into our convictions, and then we fight for these with a genuine passion.

We have never cared to live for the truth. But we are quite ready to kill for our illusions.

All opposition makes us more obstinate in our beliefs by irritating our self-regard to defend them. ‘How seldom is any man convinced by another man’s argument,’ exclaimed Johnson. ‘Passion and pride rise against it.’ We know how fervently we love a cause from how fiercely we hate its opponents.

We ought to have the modesty or pride not to try to bring others round to our own point of view.

A lie is a truth that you don’t want to hear. But the lies that your side tells are a requisite tactic to defeat the more insidious deceit. ‘Nothing has an uglier look to us than reason,’ Halifax wrote, ‘when it is not of our side.’ A falsehood that helps to confound our enemies counts as a fact for us. As Nietzsche remarked, ‘how good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.’ And when facts rebut our faith, we redouble it to show that we are not to be cowed by mere evidence.

I prefer my own deviations to others’ truths. And my own truths I prefer because they are mine and not because they are truths. ‘Each theorist,’ Rousseau said, ‘knows that his own scheme of thought rests on no firmer underpinnings than the rest, but he upholds it because it is his. Not one of them would not choose his own lie before the truth that someone else had found.’ They are Pygmalions who, revolted by the fakeries modelled by their rivals, fashion and fall in love with their own.

3 Truth is cruel

Truth is fragile but implacable. Illusion is elastic and forgiving. Truth fractures you. Your pretences make you whole. Truth won’t relent, and death is the sole thing that you can rely on to release you from its grip. ‘Truth has very few friends,’ as Porchia says, ‘and those few friends it has are suicides.’ Like straining eunuchs at the close of a lifetime of arid devotion, they die as unregarded offerings to an indifferent god. Truth cares for us even less than we care for it.

One person may be cheated by a barefaced lie, but we all feel diminished by a bald statement of the truth.

Truth may make the windows of your house, but strong illusions make the walls that hold it up. Yet these too will tumble down, if they are not shored up by the lies of others. And from whatever material you seek to build your happiness, it will soon cave in, if you don’t ground it on the unshakable dream of your importance. Our lives are saved by lies, and would be wrecked by the truth.

Truth is no help in time of trouble, but our illusions are an ever-present guide and consolation.

Illusion is a fortress which truth would pull down on our heads to crush us.

Genius has no heart, but neither does stupidity.

It’s the deep souls, like strong swimmers, who drown, since they venture out too far. Truth kills the finer specimens, the few who love it. The rest are resistant to it. Its virus has two strains. The prevalent one, our everyday plain-speaking, is harmless and may inoculate you against more hurtful truths, so that you can live and thrive. The second, scarce as leprosy, will cut you off from the living and devour you. In this enlightened age truths still infest us like lice, but we have learnt to tame the insidious germs that they spread.

Truth is the most sickening dish that can be served up to a human being.

Truth is a poison, but most of us ingest it in such small doses that it does us no harm.

Truth, like salt, won’t cure cuts, but it may clean them.

If truth has ravaged you, what cruel relief do you have but to infect others with it in turn? A thinker can’t forbear passing on the execrable blight of truth, as parents can’t forbear passing on the heinous contagion of life. ‘I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.’

Nothing human can survive in truth’s lifeless lunar atmosphere. You can breathe no air but that of your vital half-lies. Even the most lucid of us are kept vertical by our flimsy evasions.

A seeker woos truth like an unrequited lover. It’s the hapless ones who find their way to win her. The fortunate get fantasy, her more kind-hearted sister. Truth, as Wilde says, ‘is often pitiless to her worshippers.’

Truth is an exterminating angel. It would have wiped out all life long ago, were it not that it visits the earth so sporadically. ‘Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet,’ Emerson warned.

The flash of truth is apt to irradiate what it illuminates.

Truth is too insubstantial to touch us. But it is heavy enough to sink us.

Truth leaves us naked and exposed in a gale of affliction, when hospitable lies would shelter us. Your aberrations nerve you, where the truth would weaken and discourage you. What deludes me makes me stronger. The world gives a home to your duplicitous creed, but will leave you houseless if you dare to stay loyal to your treacherous truths. In the shipwreck of our hopes we have to cling to our buoyant delusions to stay afloat.

If you don’t find the truth, you still have to fight for your illusions. If you do find it, you’ll have to fight for your life. We would do well to take to heart Shelley’s warning not to lift ‘the painted veil which those who live call life.’ The facts of our sad lot are easy to trace but hard to bear. The sole life worth living would be one spent in the hunt for truth. And yet truth, when found, will inform you that life is not worth living. You seek for truth as a refuge from life’s discouragements, and then, if you catch it, you need to seek for a refuge from its desolations.

What could be more awful than to speak and think the ruinous truth for so long, that you at last come to believe it for real? When it has caught up with you, what haven could you hope to find? ‘In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’

Truth steals in haggard and unwelcome as death in the midst of the frantic masque of our desires. We avert our gaze and act as if it were invisible. How frightening to look in the hollow eyes of one who has looked on the truth. Thinkers need to put on a visor, to spare the world the sight of the grisly cripples that truth has made of them.

The world, though so brute and unreasoning, can be turned on its head by an idea, but only by one like christianity or communism which is as banal and fraudulent as itself. An ideology in the real world spills as much blood as splintered glass in a kindergarten. Ideas are pitiless. Even those who give them no thought may still be snared as their prey and prisoners. Whole countries, such as Russia, while remaining unenlightened, have been brutalized by the most fantastic creeds. ‘Ideas are dangerous,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas.’ We don’t think, yet we allow our prejudices to garble all that we know or feel about the world.

We prefer evasions which flatter but diminish us to an honesty which would harrow but enrich us. ‘The lie that exalts us,’ Pushkin wrote, ‘is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.’ Truth makes the sores and welts for which our lies must find the cure.

The one comfort that thinkers have for the hard and dry life that thinking thrusts on them is to think.

Our lies make us loquacious. Truth strikes us dumb. What gives an air of authority is sincerity and certainty, and liars have far more of these than the honest. Shame goads us to seek out the truth, and then truth makes us blush to utter it. It makes us feel unclean and dooms us to isolation. Search for the scrupulous truth, and you’ll stammer and grow bashful. Tell the lies that you need to speak and that your listeners want to hear, and you’ll feel at peace in playing your part and you will win the love and trust of those for whom you play it. ‘Dishonesty,’ wrote Dickens, ‘will stare honesty out of countenance any day of the week.’

Truth blinds you, first with its brightness, then with its gloom.

Life is a brute beast that’s devouring you. You can’t stop it, but you can stick in its craw by understanding it.

Good moralists, such as La Rochefoucauld or Pascal, chill all that they touch. They set off epiphanies of embarrassment and disaffection, to ‘make mad the guilty, and appal the free.’ They hope to freeze the world’s heart with shame as it has frozen theirs with revulsion. But the world is too shameless to be much stung by their acidulous truths. They work with a pitiless lucidity, and would be glad if they could wipe out the whole of reality with a single rigorous book. They would make us more abashed and more worthy of our best selves. They free us to think, and shame us for failing to. Such an inquirer of desponding honesty would be a jansenist with no faith in God, a doubter with no faith in reason or in doubt, a humanist with no faith in humanity.

Truth consumes those who seek it as a flame consumes a candle, leaving nothing but snuff, and then guttering.

We are sure that we know what truth is like long before we have found it. We trust that it will make us free or blest or good, and that if it fails to do so, then it can’t be true. But since we hold this, how could we reach the truth and why would we need to? We feel no impulse to find it, since we’re so sure that we’ve already got it. And what if it doesn’t care for us or wish us well? What if it scalds and skins us, and strips us of all that we have, and leaves us battered and humiliated? Truth is as alien to our nature as lies are necessary to our being.

That truth will shield us from woe is one of the illusions that we use to shield ourselves from the truth.

Honesty follows a devious calling. It is indifferent, but wants to make you different. It holds out to you the promise of freedom, but it binds you to a stern obedience. It tempts you to doubt yourself, and yet stirs you to think for yourself. It lives in answers, but appears in questions. It might make you happy, yet it shames and perplexes you.

The truth won’t make you free. It will only mock your bondage, which your falsehoods alone give you the steadiness to bear. Ideologues, pent in the den of their cooped dogma, don’t doubt that the truth will unshackle you, since they know that it has done so for them. And they deem it their mission to build real gaols for the impious who don’t share in their light.

Zealots are so sure that they hold the inerrant truth in their hands, that they presume they have a mandate to juggle with it. Having brought it down from heaven, they must use all the wiles of the serpent to set it up here on earth. Their faith is the only thing that justifies them, and so they think only so much as might serve to justify their faith.

C Beauty

An artist should strive to enrich life without affirming it, to esteem it without falsifying it, not to claim that it’s worth living, but to make it a touch more worth living. Honest art ought to transfigure the instant, but not presume to transfigure the world.

How sad to think of what this unlovely world will make of beauty. Its ‘dearest veriest vein is tears,’ as Hopkins wrote.

How strangely we or the world are made, that even beauty makes us sad. ‘The beautiful,’ Valéry said, ‘is that which fills us with despair.’ Does it pierce us more by its vulnerability or by its self-possession, by how close it comes to our hearts or because it is always already so far out of reach?

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.

Could anything be so desolating as perfection, or so poignant as imperfection? Unable to discharge the overflowing joy that they move you to feel, you feel instead all things dissolving.

Beauty rakes us with a sad rapture and a wounded elation, reminding us of all that we have lost or are soon to lose. It tells us that we are strangers in this world. Rilke described it as ‘onset of terror we still have just the strength to bear.’ The silkiest grace hurts us, and the truth delights us even as its spikes puncture our flesh. How could you relish all the world’s fragility and loveliness, if you have not felt all its damage?

That truth is beauty is one of the beautiful untruths that we love to mouth because we know so little of either.

Beauty demolishes us deliciously on the spot by means of the senses. Truth demolishes us painfully and gradually by means of the intellect.

The cult of beauty, like the cult of truth, is as false as all the rest, not because beauty is an idol, but because it is an idol of which we are not worthy. Life disappoints us because it’s not good enough for us. Art disappoints us because we are not good enough for it. And yet art belongs to the world, and so it too will fail our worldly hearts.

Art won’t save you, but it may be the one divinity that is worth the loss of your soul. It is powerless to help us, which is why it’s so precious, and why it takes such a large heart to love it.

Literature is a wound which has found the words to utter all our wounds. It is Dickinson’s bird, ‘singing unto the stone of which it died.’ It dramatizes the downfall of all the dear things that we shut our hearts to in life. Kierkegaard wrote that the poet’s ‘lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like sweet music.’

1 Representation

Art is not imitation but imagination.

Art is more true than life, because it is less real than life. And when it strains to be as real, it becomes as false. Fiction is stranger than reality, because it lays bare more of the truth. The dumb world has no way to reveal to us its own depth. And so artists can do this only by refusing to share the inarticulacy of life. They use the trappings of the day to day life that we lead, to disclose the true life which we don’t lead. Art borrows from life its body, and life steals from art its soul. Life imitates life, art just pretends to. Life has too coarse a taste to copy art, and art has too fine a taste to copy life. Life itself is a second-hand fiction, and when art follows it, the best it can make is third-hand melodrama. ‘Art does not imitate life,’ Brodsky wrote, ‘if only for fear of clichés,’ and it does not copy real people for fear of caricature, though most of us are too vapid and forgettable even to be that. And though life may not shadow art, it does arrive later. Picasso was outlining Guernica before a bomb had been dropped.

For true artists, living is a mere sleep which intermits their ardent dreams of creation.

Artists raid life like buccaneers to plunder it and enrich their visions. Art resembles life as embezzling from a bank resembles negotiating a loan.

A drama is not a representation of an action, as Aristotle claimed. It is a representation of characters thinking and discoursing on it as no one would in life. The one salient action that takes place on stage is speaking. But it is a style of speaking in no way like the one that we use in life. ‘The people in Shakespeare,’ Hardy notes, ‘act as if they were not quite closely thinking of what they were doing, but were great philosophers giving the main of their minds to the general human situation.’ And he contrives the events of the tale just to give them the scope to exercise their imagination. Shakespeare is always generalizing and always metaphoric, greek drama is particularizing and literal.

Life, like Narcissus, gazes into the pool of art in order to admire its own face. Literature is a great glass which shows us more substantial than we are. Crude books gratify us by holding the mirror up to the pretty lies by which we live.

Most people assume that a piece of art must be like life if it is reminiscent of the rest of the works of art that they have seen. They say that a portrait has plumbed the soul if they can read into it their own trite preconceptions of a type of character. So they’re keen to find that a pope or cardinal looks worldly and world-weary, that a baron must be smug and supercilious, fonder of his hounds or horse than of his wife and offspring, that a thinker is voyaging through strange seas of thought alone. They mistake what is natural for the conventional forms that they are most used to seeing.

Most of our so-called instincts about art are little more than learned errors.

Why do we assume that if a canvas or a story seems vivid then it must picture life realistically, and that if it looks more graphic than reality then it must be more real than reality?

Literature is our common confession, heartfelt and unsparing. But, like all confessions, it is also artful and self-exculpating. ‘An artist chooses when he confesses,’ as Valéry wrote, ‘perhaps above all when he confesses.’

What we want from art is flattery and half-lies that we can take for truth. We expect it to tell us that we are ample and anguished, that we are afflicted because we are grand and grand by the grace with which we endure our afflictions.

We want fictions to take us to a threatening place and make us feel safe there, just as we want to go abroad and feel familiarly at home.

Why do those who are glad to be cheated by life berate art for being mere fiction?

2 Art alone makes values

Art is one of the few things that is worth living for. But art reveals to us that life is not worth living, and that it gains its value only by being recast as a work of art.

Life might look like a drama or fiction, were it not that it lacks plot, character, thought and style. These are the flawless circles of art which form no part of our formless existence. Life is made of accident, engagement, affect and ambition. Art is made of choice, detachment, poise and vision. Life is arithmetic, particular and actual. Art is algebra, abstract and illimited. Life is thrust on by desire and regulated by routine. Art is animated by imagination and shaped by order. Life emptily repeats at the behest of its stagnant habits. Art repeats designedly to build up grand signifying patterns. It reclaims repetition by permeating it with shape and meaning. Life sprawls like an aggregation of suburbs, cosy though flat and featureless. Art is a methodical yet bewildering city like St Petersburg. Life from afar may look picturesque. But the closer you get, all you see is its dour utility. As Van Gogh found to his dismay, it ‘has the tinge of dishwater.’ Why else would he have had to colour it in such iridescent blues and yellows?

A play of three hours gets nearer to the heart of life than life itself does in seventy long years. Don’t you live more significantly in Troy or La Mancha or Elsinore than you do in your real locality on earth? Hamlet’s small number of made-up and unnecessary words mean more than all the trillions of breathing and urgent ones that are spoken or scrawled each day. The few that were never living have the best chance of surviving through the ages.

Life hurtles with a flaring urgency. Art stands still in cool significance. An artist keeps at bay the world’s importunate futility by fashioning works of superfluous lustre.

Art is like neither life, in which everything is real but not one thing is significant, nor religion, in which nothing is real yet all is made to seem significant. Artists make our lives mean by making meaningful lives which are not ours. It’s only by creating fictions that we make life mean anything at all.

What is art but a contrivance for converting misery to meaning? The sorrows of art solace you, since they are not real and yet they still signify. The sorrows of life are so desolating, because for all their deep feeling they mean nothing. Art glows with lambent anguish. Life is fraught with a jaunty dimness. A poet senses the immense sadness behind each joy, and joyfully foresees the fearful loveliness of each heartbreak transfigured by form.

The tale does not justify the telling, as Hardy claimed. It is the telling that must justify the tale, ‘the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing,’ as Henry James phrased it. And yet we regard the artistry as a gaudy and wasteful packaging which we rip off to unwrap the tale as fast as we can. A fiction is as great as it is greater than the story that it chronicles, and it means nothing at all if it means no more than that. Its grand characters outshine their fables as art outshines life, by illuminating its drift. Form and imagination are the pearls of writing, the tale is the dry twine on which they are beaded. Plot is not the soul of a great fiction. It is its dry bones. The plot counts as little in literature as opinions count in speculation. Stories are the despair of art, as opinions are the desolation of thought. The tale belongs to mere entertainment, the treatment to high art. And the tale’s entertainment is the sole aspect of art that we care for. ‘The story,’ Henry James wrote, ‘is just the spoiled child of art.’ Secondary writers know how to narrate a plot most effectually, since they have no rich ideas to deflect them from it. There are so few great short stories, because they have no time to do more than recite a piquant tale. The true drama of a great novel is the drama of its author’s vision travailling to find the shining words to blaze forth its splendour. It’s what D. H. Lawrence calls the ‘struggle for verbal consciousness.’ Great novels make such poor films, since this is the very thing that they have to leave out. They 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 rich with symbolism.

Artists make art, not by culling the fat and waste from life, but by packing it with more marrow. They supply the world with the sense which God forgot to put in. Art distils what life leaves out. It makes it rich and breaks it down. It brings out its significance by paring it to its pith.

Why do we assume that an artist makes art by extracting the illustrative details from life? As if life, when purged of its quotidian slag, would leave a concentrate of unalloyed gold. A writer who knew how to delete would not, as Stevenson claimed, make an Iliad out of a morning paper. They would just report quotidian details in the random vein of a morning paper. Not even the fire of imagination burns at a high enough temperature to transmute banality’s refractory ore. Art does not select from life, but adds to it. It distorts and reshapes, intensifies and simplifies.

‘The aesthetic,’ as Borges points out, ‘is inaccessible to most people.’ What appeals to them least in a work of art is what is most integral to it, that is, its form and imagination. What captivates them is what is most adventitious, its entertainment and impact, its vividness and verisimilitude, or its platitudinous moralizing. They treat it as if it were a guide book to another time and place, a historical document or an archaeological artefact. They deal with it as they would with a record of real acts and persons, on which they’re called to pass moral judgment, and they call it complex if it poses a moral conundrum in which there is some right on each side. They enjoy it as if it were a piece of gossip about neighbours who lead slightly more exciting lives. It’s only those who have no imagination that respond to fictions as if they were recitations of real life.

The world trades on the accepted coin of illusion. We recognize truth solely in the game of fiction or in the rarefied realm of philosophy. It is only in art, where nothing is at stake, that you can afford to wager and win what’s priceless.

What have we to set against life’s infinite littleness but the little infinity of art? It hurls a rapturous vitality in the face of demeaning absurdity or pounding affliction, and so makes them seem worth bearing.

Artists, when asked for a loaf, would not give a real stone. They cheat you, and make good their frauds by conferring untold wealth.

A poet is saved by words or not at all. A writer lives by language, but knows that it will not avail. They feel empty if they can’t empty out their soul each day into words on a page.

Birds sing because they don’t know that they are soon to die, we sing because we do. They trill each one of our moods and humours, mournful or screeching, cheeky or jubilant, laughing or chatty.

3 Artists love art alone

For true artists there’s nothing serious in mortality but style. What exhilarating torment they must feel at the dizzying contingency of every choice of shape or texture, word or phrase, chord or cadence, and at how it will ramify out and out through all parts of the work and readjust and reconstitute the whole of it. They take such pains to carve out a style, that they grow stone-hearted to all else. A misplaced comma would scandalize them more than an act of cruelty. ‘For God’s sake don’t talk politics,’ Joyce pleaded. ‘The only thing that interests me is style.’ Wordsworth, who wrote so tenderly of leech gatherers and idiot boys, joined in a scam to profit from actuarial computations of the lifespan of old men. ‘To those who are preoccupied with the beauty of form,’ Wilde points out, ‘nothing else seems of so much importance.’ Faulkner said that, in order to win the time to write, ‘a writer would rob his mother. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.’ Painters would cordially set the world on fire, to light the least of their daubings more impressively.

Musicians hold that if there is a high way to God it must be through their own music. The god that they worship must love music more than anything else. And the reverence that they feel for him is a dull after-echo of the awe that they feel at their own art.

Good style is a bare cool justice. Fine prose, like Austen’s, works by its own code of right. It is serene, since it wants nothing, cheerful, as it feels no need to impose, and kind, as it doesn’t disdain to please. But only someone who has been seared by the mad vehemence of poetry would trust in the frail justice of prose.

All that artists love they love for the sake of their art. And they love their art for their own sake. They cherish fame more than art, as capitalists love their merchandise solely for the financial gain that it yields.

The sole thing that is affirmed in a work of art is the wayward imagination of the artist who made it.

An artist or a god is superabundant but not self-sufficient. Their needs are as extravagant as their capacities.

Artists are proud souls who would lick the lowest dust in the service of their art.

You earn perfection extremely cheap, at the mere cost of your life. A choice work is made not by the life but by the days, and not by the days but by the hours. The days and hours make the work. The life is a poor offering that is burnt up in its service.

The artist drifts like a ghost amongst the ghosts of the living, to bring them news of a world more true.

The high things which prove life’s worth were brought forth by the few who were sure that it has none. The makers make life worthwhile, but they place no value on it themselves, since they know that it is mere tripe and scrapings. We like to believe that the task of art is to celebrate ordinary lives. But Stevens, when asked what set him off as a poet from an ordinary man, sanguinely retorted ‘inability to see much point to the life of an ordinary man.’ Those who make art are least qualified to weigh life’s value, but best equipped to represent it. So it’s a good thing for us that they feel obliged to make it out to be far dearer than they prize it. And it’s a good thing for them that their artists’ instincts make them prize it as dear as they’re obliged to make it out to be. They are spurred to make something worthwhile of life, because they know that life itself is so worthless. ‘They seem to be fighting for the sake of the dignity and significance of mankind,’ Nietzsche says, ‘but in fact they refuse to give up the presuppositions that are most efficacious for their art.’ They care for the world as it gives them the scope to show off their art. And if they wish to save the world it’s only to preserve beholders for their own works. And they think that their own compositions are the one thing that could save it. When they seem to be exalting life, it is their own poetic might and mastery that they are exalting, which brims over and blesses the unhearing world with its bounty. They love the world as God does, ‘the glad creator,’ to redeem its unmeaning squalor by their own abounding grace. They don’t paint the world because they love it. They love the world because they paint it.

A writer lives to write, and feels sure that the rest live to read, and that the world is here to be written. ‘Everything in the world,’ Mallarmé said, ‘exists to end up in a book.’ And in our age of hyperreality it all exists to be filmed and photographed. Perhaps the Lord put on the whole show just so that he could dictate his scriptures. Artists don’t doubt that the world was made for art and not art for the world. They look on the world as mere metaphor or material for their work. If the first, they rejoice to see it seated as an imperishable artefact of shapely calm. And if the second, they love to watch it rock with riotous mischief. ‘All under heaven is in unmitigated disarray,’ Mao said. ‘The situation is excellent.’ The artist must play the world false in order to stay true to the art that lends the world its one frail justification.

Art does not unfold to us the meaning of life. Art is the meaning of life.

A sickly aesthete, such as Pater, makes a toy of art by treating it as a mere trimming with which to deck life. A strong artist knows that life is a foul dung that must be ploughed to fructify art. To read in order to live, as all bookish advisers tell us to do, seems a poor use of good literature.

Some authors use writing as a means to put off dying, and some use it as a means to put off living.

Art is a way of grasping and embracing life, while still holding it at bay.

Writer to reader, ‘Why do you bother to live? You are here to read my books. We both live for writing, but you can’t write. What could be more pointless than to be forever reading, never to be read?’ Reader to writer, ‘Why do you bother to live? You are here to make books for me to munch on, as the silk-worm is kept in the dark to spin silk. We both live for reading, but you deem reading vain.’ They form one joint ring of uselessness. Writers live to be read, though they set no value on reading. And they toil to enjoy an afterlife of misquotation, to win the brief continuance of a name.

A writer is a tireless scribe who keeps meticulous records for oblivion.