Neat, plausible, and wrong

Two versions of the opening of Mencken’s essay “The Divine Afflatus”:

I. As it appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Every man who writes, or paints, or composes knows by hard experience that there are days when his ideas flow freely and clearly and days when they are damned up damnably. On his good days, for some reason quite incomprehensible to him, all the processes and operations of his mind take on an amazing ease and slickness. Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

This unpleasant experience overtakes poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, painters and sculptors, and also, no doubt, philosophers and journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement writers and the rev. clergy. The characters that all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless. Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal quest, horribly bedeviled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache, eye-strain and festering conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for his crime of having ideas. The normal man, the healthy and honest man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows nothing of all that travail. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and for bidden streams.

How are we to account for it? My question, of course, is purely rhetorical. Explanations exist; they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand, and one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there are explanations less supernatural but no less fanciful—to wit, the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and not to be resolved into any orderly process—to wit, the explanation that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired—finally, to make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arc-light, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

II. As it appears in Prejudices: Second Series

The suave and oedematous Chesterton, in a late effort to earn
the honorarium of a Chicago newspaper, composed a thousand words
of labored counterblast to what is called inspiration in the arts.
The thing itself, he argued, has little if any actual existence; we
hear so much about it because its alleged coyness and fortuitousness
offer a convenient apology for third-rate work. The man taken in such
third-rate work excuses himself on the ground that he is a helpless
slave of some power that stands outside him, and is quite beyond his
control. On days when it favors him he teems with ideas and creates
masterpieces, but on days when it neglects him he is crippled and
impotent–a fiddle without a bow, an engine without steam, a tire
without air. All this, according to Chesterton, is nonsense. A man who
can really write at all, or paint at all, or compose at all should be
able to do it at almost any time, provided only “he is not drunk or
asleep.”

So far Chesterton. The formula of the argument is simple and familiars
to dispose of a problem all that is necessary is to deny that it
exists. But there are plenty of men, I believe, who find themselves
unable to resolve the difficulty in any such cavalier manner–men whose chief burden and distinction, in fact, is that they do not employ
formulae in their thinking, but are thrown constantly upon industry,
ingenuity and the favor of God. Among such men there remains a good
deal more belief in what is vaguely called inspiration. They know
by hard experience that there are days when their ideas flow freely
and clearly, and days when they are dammed up damnably. Say a man of that sort has a good day. For some reason quite incomprehensible to
him all his mental processes take on an amazing ease and slickness.
Almost without conscious effort he solves technical problems that have
badgered him for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraordinary
efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a feeling that he has suddenly
and unaccountably broken through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself
out of the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the best work
that he is capable of—maybe of far better work than he has ever been
capable of before—and goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on
the morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any work at all.

I challenge any man who trades in ideas to deny that he has this
experience. The truth is that he has it constantly. It overtakes
poets and contrapuntists, critics and dramatists, philosophers and
journalists; it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertisement
writers, chautauqua orators and the rev. clergy. The characters that
all anatomists of melancholy mark in it are the irregular ebb and flow
of the tides, and the impossibility of getting them under any sort of
rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one side and watches
itself pitching and tossing, full of agony but essentially helpless.
Here the man of creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all
his superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge upon him for
dreaming of improvements in the scheme of things. Sitting there in his
lonely room, gnawing the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal
quest, horribly bedevilled by incessant flashes of itching, toothache,
eye-strain and evil conscience—thus tortured, he makes atonement for
his crime of being intelligent. The normal man, the healthy and honest
man, the good citizen and householder—this man, I daresay, knows
nothing of all that travail. It is reserved especially for artists
and metaphysicians. It is the particular penalty of those who pursue
strange butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in enchanted and
forbidden streams.

Let us, then, assume that the fact is proved: the nearest poet
is a witness to it. But what of the underlying mystery? How are
we to account for that puckish and inexplicable rise and fall of
inspiration? My questions, of course, are purely rhetorical.
Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always
a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and
wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods:
sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one
reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by
the souls of the departed, and even by the devil. In our own day there
are explanations less super-natural but no less fanciful—to wit,
the explanation that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and
not to be resolved into any orderly process—-to wit, the explanation
that the controlling factor is external circumstance, that the artist
happily married to a dutiful wife is thereby inspired–finally, to
make an end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freudian
complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable shadows. But all of these explanations fail to satisfy the mind that is not to be put off with
mere words. Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the question. The problem of the how remains, even when the problem of the why is disposed of. What is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that it sparkles and splutters like an arclight, and reduced to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and gutters like a tallow dip?

The immediate perceptive epithet

from Bruce Wilshire, “William James’s Pragmatism: A Distinctly Mixed Bag,” in 100 Years of Pragmatism, edited by John Stuhr:

William James is a tragic figure. I will try to fully explain what I mean by that. But right off the bat, we can point out a feature of this tragic stance. It’s fairly widely believed that James is a major philosopher. Yet in no other such philosopher’s work, I believe, are great strengths so vividly mixed with major defects. His famous, often read—too often read, I think—popular lectures, Pragmatism, gaudily illustrate this claim.

What does it take to be a major philosopher? A most difficult question. Wilfrid Sellars’s one-liner statement of what philosophy seeks to discover is hard to better: how things, in the broadest sense, hang together, in the broadest sense.

But how does one start a process of discovery without begging crucial questions that philosophy should endeavor to answer? How does one begin to comprehend the farthest reaches of complexity without prejudging things—or occluding whole horizons of possibilities and viewpoints—stupidly? James’s description in Pragmatism of expertness in philosophy is arresting: “Expertness in philosophy is measured by the definiteness of our summarizing reactions, by the immediate perceptive epithet with which the expert hits such complex objects off” (P, 25). Thee summarizing that emerges through perceptual epithet! A taking in at a glance that delivers the first sketch of the whole lay of the land. Is there any better way to avoid getting lost in the details of some corner of the subject matter, any better way to begin doing philosophy unprejudiciously?

What makes one dream of writing

Jean-François Lyotard on Sam Francis’s “Meaningless Gesture,” 1958, in Sam Francis, Lessons of Darkness:

Le geste de peindre défère à l’autorité, à la confiance absolue, presque étourdie, que les couleurs ont en elles-mêmes. Pareillement, la fidélité des mots à la puissance immémoriale qui est en eux et à ses initiatives incessantes est ce qui fait rêver d’écrire. Cela n’empêche pas, cela explique que dans le geste de peindre il y a une impossibilité et l’interdiction de croire aux couleurs comme il y a un dégoût de s’en remettre aux mots dans le geste d’écrire.

translated by Geoffrey Bennington, 1993:

The gesture of painting defers to the authority, the absolute, almost giddy confidence that colors have in themselves. Similarly, the fidelity of words to the immemorial potential that is in them, and to its incessant initiatives, is what makes one dream of writing. This does not prevent, but explains the fact that in the gesture of painting there is an impossibility and ban on believing in colors as there is a disgust in relying on words in the gesture of writing.

Blind to all excellence but its own

Hazlitt, on Shakespeare and Rembrandt, from Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1821):

His genius consisted in the faculty of transforming himself at will into whatever he chose: his originality was the power of seeing every object from the exact point of view in which others would see it. He was the Proteus of human intellect. Genius in ordinary is a more obstinate and less versatile thing. It is sufficiently exclusive and self-willed, quaint and peculiar. It does some one thing by virtue of doing nothing else: it excels in some one pursuit by being blind to all excellence but its own. It is just the reverse of the cameleon; for it does not borrow, but lends its colour to all about it; or like the glow-worm, discloses a little circle of gorgeous light in the twilight of obscurity, in the night of intellect that surrounds it. So did Rembrandt. If ever there was a man of genius, he was one, in the proper sense of the term. He lived in and revealed to others a world of his own, and might be said to have invented a new view of nature. He did not discover things out of nature, in fiction or fairy land, or make a voyage to the moon ‘to descry new lands, rivers or mountains in her spotty globe,’ but saw things in nature that every one had missed before him and gave others eyes to see them with. This is the test and triumph of originality, not to show us what has never been, and what we may therefore very easily never have dreamt of, but to point out to us what is before our eyes and under our feet, though we have had no suspicion of its existence, for want of sufficient strength of intuition, of determined grasp of mind, to seize and retain it.

Freedom from force and falsity

Chekhov at twenty-eight, to Alexei Plescheyev, October 4, 1888, translated by Sidonie K. Lederer, in The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, edited by Lillian Hellman:

Those I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendencies between the lines and want to put me down definitely as a liberal or conservative. I am not a liberal and not a conservative, not an evolutionist, nor a monk, nor indifferent to the world. I would like to be a free artist—that is all—and regret that God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and coercion in all their aspects. . . . Pharisaism, stupidity and idle whim reign not only in the homes of the merchant class and within prison walls; I see them in science, in literature, amongst young people. I cannot therefore nurture any particularly warm feelings toward policemen, butchers, savants, writers, or youth. I consider trademarks or labels to be prejudices.

My holy of holies are the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from force and falsity, in whatever form these last may be expressed. This is the program I would maintain, were I a great artist.

Constant and eager observation

Walter Pater, conclusion to The Renaissance, 1868; cf. Shklovsky:

Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren. The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us,—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve — les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Drive it away and it gallops back

Barthes, “That Old Thing, Art…”, included in the catalogue for the Pop Art exhibition at the Istituto di Cultura di Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1980; translated by Richard Howard in The Responsibility of Forms:

As all encyclopedias remind us, during the fifties certain artists at the the London Institute of Contemporary Arts became advocates of the popular culture of the period: comic strips, films, advertising, science fiction, pop music. These various manifestations did not derive from what is generally called an Aesthetic but were entirely produced by Mass Culture and did not participate in art art at all; simply, certain artists, architects, and writers were interested in them. Crossing the Atlantic, these products forced the barrier of art; accommodated by certain American artists, they became works of art, of which culture no longer constituted the being, merely the reference: origin was displaced by citation. Pop Art as we know it is the permanent theater of this tension: on one hand the mass culture of the period is present in it as revolutionary force which contests art; and on the other , art is present in it as a very old force which irresistibly returns in the economy of societies. There are two voices, as in a fugue—one says “This is not Art”, the other says, at the same time “I am Art.”

Art is something which must be destroyed—a proposition common to many experiments of Modernity.

[…]

Now the fact, in mass culture, is not longer an element of the nature world; what appears as fact is the stereotype: what everyone else sees and consumes. Pop Art finds the unity of its representation in the radical conjunction of these two forms each carried to extremes: the stereotype and the image. Tahiti is a fact, insofar as a unanimous and persistent public opinion designates this isle as a collection of palm trees, of flowers worn over one ear, of long hair, sarongs and languorous, enticing glances (Lichtenstein’s Little Aloha). In this way, Pop Art produces certain radical images: by dint of being an image, the thing is stripped of any symbol. This is an audacious movement of mind (or of society): it is no longer the fact which is transformed into an image (which is, strictly speaking, the movement of metaphor, out of which humanity has made poetry for centuries), it is the image which becomes a fact. Pop Art thus features a philosophical quality of things, which we may call facticity. The factitious is the character of what exists as facts and appears stripped of any justification: not only are the objects represented by Pop Art factitious, but they incarnate themselves, they begin to signify again—they signify that they signify nothing.

For meaning is cunning: drive it away and it gallops back. Pop Art seeks to destroy art (or at least to do without it), but art rejoins it: art is the counter-subject of our fugue.

The drudgery of being useful

Benjamin, from “Paris, die Hauptstadt des XIX Jahrhunderts”:

Das Interieur ist die Zufluchtsstätte der Kunst. Der Sammler ist der wahre Insasse des Interieurs. Er macht die Verklärung der Dinge zu seiner Sache. Ihm fällt die Sisyphosaufgabe zu, durch seinen Besitz an den Dingen den Warencharakter von ihnen abzustreifen. Aber er verleiht ihnen nur den Liebhaberwert statt des Gebrauchswerts. Der Sammler träumt sich nicht nur in eine ferne oder vergangene Welt, sondern zugleich in eine bessere, in der zwar die Menschen ebensowenig mit dem versehen sind, was sie brauchen, wie in der alltäglichen, aber die Dinge von der Fron frei sind, nützlich zu sein.

translated by Kevin McLaughlin:

The interior is the asylum of art. The collector is the true resident of the interior. He makes his concern the transfiguration of things. To him falls the Sisyphean task of divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them. But he bestows on them only connoisseur value, rather than use value. The collector dreams his way not only into a distant or bygone world but also into a better one—one in which, to be sure, human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the everyday world, but in which things are freed from the drudgery of being useful.

As they are perceived, not as they are known

Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 1917, translated by Lee Lemon and Marion Reis:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us. Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed. In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols. Complete words are not expressed in rapid speech; their initial sounds are barely perceived. Alexander Pogodin offers the example of a boy considering the sentence “The Swiss mountains are beautiful” in the form of a series of letters: T, S, m, a, b.

This characteristic of thought not only suggests the method of algebra, but even prompts the choice of symbols (letters, especially initial letters). By this “algebraic” method of thought we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten. Such perception explains why we fail to hear the prose word in its entirety (see Leo Jakubinsky’s article) and, hence, why (along with other slips of the tongue) we fail to pronounce it. The process of “algebrization,” the over-automatization of an object, permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort. Either objects are assigned only one proper feature—a number, for example—or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember—so that if I had dusted it and forgot—that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.

And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.