To discover the why of it

From the introduction to Robert Hughes’s book on modern art, The Shock of the New:

I am not a philosopher, but a journalist who has had the good luck never to be bored by his subject. “Je resous de m’informer du pourquoi,” Baudelaire wrote after seeing Tannhäuser in 1860, “et de transformer ma volupté en connaissance”: “I set out to discover the why of it, and to transform my pleasure into knowledge.” Pleasure is the root of all critical appreciation of art, and there is nothing like a long, steady project to make one discover (and with luck, convey) what it was in the siren voices of our century that caught me as a boy—when I first read Roger Shattuck’s translations of Apollinaire, hidden from the Jesuits in the wrapper of a Latin grammar—and has never let me go.

In the same vein see Barthes on jouissance, and Ortega y Gasset on amor intellectualis; in the opposite vein, the Wordsworthian trope of murdering to dissect.

The acid of proof, the fire of criticism

The opening two paragraphs of Octavio Paz’s “Knowledge, Drugs, Inspiration,” in Alternating Currents, translated by Helen Lane:

There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomenon through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimenter has either subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms, and other material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them in a sort of vacuum chamber, combines them or separates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter. The analogy might be carried further, but it is pointless to do so because the similarity lies not so much in the outward resemblances between verbal manipulations and laboratory testing as in the attitude toward the object.

As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religion believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything a priori; he knows that what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as that of the scientist? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and intuitions. But theories (“working hypotheses”) are not what justify experiments; rather, the converse is true. Sometimes the “testing” produces results that are different from or entirely contrary to our expectations. The poet and the scientist do not find this difficult to accept; both are resigned to the fact that reality often acts quite independently of our philosophy. Poets and scientists are not doctrinaires; they do not offer us a priori systems but proven facts, results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas. The truths they seek are different but they employ similar methods to ascertain them. The rigorous procedures they follow are accompanied by the strictest objectivity, that is to say, a respect for the autonomy of the phenomenon being investigated. A poem and a scientific truth are something more than a theory or a belief: they have withstood the acid of proof and the fire of criticism. Poems and scientific truths are something quite different from the ideas of poets and scientists. Artistic style and the philosophy of science are transient things; works of art and the real truths of science are not.

There’s a whole university curriculum embedded in these two paragraphs. One course it contains is a study of modern poetry. The accent falls indeed on modern: these are not axioms poets of earlier periods (or later, for that matter) would endorse—the anti-expressionism, the emphasis on “objectivity,” the talk of the “object,” the repudiation of religious and mystical fervor (cf. Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” T. E. Hulme’s rejection of romanticism as “spilt religion“), and of course the willingness to draw an analogy to science in the first place.


That comparison is a whole genre unto itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a concrete image; I think first of Eliot’s chemical imagery in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921):

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.

[…]

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

In the “Defence of Poetry” (1840) Shelley mixes a proto-modernist discourse of impersonality with an older tradition of ecstatic inspiration—the poet as the vehicle of the muse, or of his own inner, inscrutable genius, in either case the body of a force he does not control—in the image of the fading coal:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit; what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

In a different direction, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949) can be read as one long meditation on the relation between poetry and science.


Then there is the talk of “ideas.” Even among (American) modern poets there are detractors. On one side Paz might find an ally in the William Carlos William line, those poets who demand “No ideas but in things.” And Eliot had written in memory of Henry James in 1918 in the The Little Review:

He was a critic who preyed not upon ideas, but upon living beings. […] It is in the chemistry of these subtle substances, these curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind, that James is unequalled. […] James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.

On the other side there is the Wallace Stevens line, those for whom “It must be abstract.” (Though at times Stevens is quite fond of things, as in “Man Carrying Thing,” where the poem “must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” Elsewhere he puts the whole planet on a table.)


Another generative strain of thinking in the passage from Paz is the question of testing one’s words. Testing them against what, Paz doesn’t say—but this is a productive ambiguity. Eliot, again, gives one meaning, in an essay on George Herbert in the Spectator (1932), though it departs from Paz, and indeed from much of modernity, in its talk of feeling and sincerity, and its look back to a prior tradition of religious verse:

All poetry is difficult, almost impossible to write: and one the great permanent causes of error in writing poetry is the difficulty of distinguishing between what one really feels and what one would like to feel, and between the moments of genuine feeling and the moments of falsity. This is a danger in all poetry: but it is a particularly grave danger in the writing of devotional verse. Above that level of attainment of the spiritual life, below which there is no desire to write religious verse, it becomes extremely difficult not to confuse accomplishment with intention, a condition at which one merely aims with the condition in which one actually lives, what one would be with what one is: and verse which represents only good intentions is worthless—on that plane, indeed, a betrayal. The greater the elevation, the finer becomes the difference between sincerity and insincerity, between reality and the unattained aspiration.

It must be sought out

From Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons (1948), translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl:

For myself, I have always considered that in general it is more satisfactory to proceed by similarity rather than by contrast. Music thus gains strength in the measure that it does not succumb to the seductions of variety. What it loses in questionable riches it gains in true solidity.

Contrast produces an immediate effect. Similarity satisfies us only in the long run. Contrast is an element of variety, but it divides our attention. Similarity is born of a striving for unity. The need to seek variety is perfectly legitimate, but we should not forget that the One precedes the Many. Moreover, the coexistence of both is constantly necessary, and all the problems of art, like all possible problems for that matter, including the problem of knowledge and of Being, revolve ineluctably about this question, with Parmenides on one side denying the possibility of the Many, and Heraclitus on the other denying the existence of the One. Mere common sense, as well as supreme wisdom, invite us to affirm both the one and the other. All the same, the best attitude for a composer in this case will be the attitude of a man who is conscious of the hierarchy of values and who must make a choice. Variety is valid only as a means of attaining similarity. Variety surrounds me on every hand. So I need not fear that I shall be lacking in it, since I am constantly confronted by it. Contrast is everywhere. One has only to take note of it. Similarity is hidden; it must be sought out, and it is found only after the most exhaustive efforts. When variety tempts me, I am uneasy about the facile solutions it offers me. Similarity, on the other hand, poses more difficult problems but also offers results that are more solid and hence more valuable to me.

The confusion is not my invention

The rubric for a grade of C in Matt Bell’s brilliant “My Grading Scale for the Fall Semester, Composed Entirely of Samuel Beckett Quotes” at McSweeney’s:

We wait. We are bored. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. The confusion is not my invention. You must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little. A disturbance into words, a pillow of old words. All life long, the same questions, the same answers. The churn of stale words in the heart again. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. This tired abstract anger; inarticulate passive opposition. I pushed and pulled in vain, the wheels would not turn. How hideous is the semicolon.

Recondite but fertile analogies

The opening of Bertrand Russell’s preface to a 1914 translation of Poincaré’s Science and Method:

Henri Poincaré was, by general agreement, the most eminent scientific man of his generation—more eminent, one is tempted to think, than any man of science now living. From the mere variety of subjects which he illuminated, there is certainly no one who can appreciate critically the whole of his work. Some conception of his amazing comprehensiveness may be derived from the obituary number of the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale (September 1913), where, in the course of 130 pages, four eminent men—a philosopher, a mathematician, an astronomer, and a physicist—tell in outline the contributions which he made to several subjects. In all we find the same characteristics—swiftness, comprehensiveness, unexampled lucidity, and the perception of recondite but fertile analogies.

Double, triple, quadruple hypothesis

from the first chapter, “Parole, Parole, Parole,” of Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy (2003):

As I began studying postwar Italian history, it became obvious that surrounding any crime or political event, there are always confusion, suspicion, and “the bacillus of secrecy.” So much so that dietrologia has become a sort of national pastime. It means literally “behindology,” or the attempt to trump even the most fanciful and contorted conspiracy theory. Dietrologia is the “critical analysis of events in an effort to detect, behind the apparent causes, true and hidden designs.” La Stampa has called it “the science of imagination, the culture of suspicion, the philosophy of mistrust, the technique of the double, triple, quadruple hypothesis.” It’s an indispensable sport for a society in which appearance very rarely begets reality. Stendhal wrote about it in The Character-house of Parma: “Italian hearts are much more tormented than ours by the suspicions and the wild ideas which a burning imagination presents to them.”

Consider, as counterpoint, Moravia’s short story “Non approfondire” (Don’t delve too deeply). Compare, of course, the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

There is an interesting discussion of the word at the Language Log, and it’s the subject of a column in the Economist from 2011.

The rock of astonishment on which the stream of things breaks

The final paragraph of the first version of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Was ist das epische Theater?” (“What Is Epic Theater?”), page 531 of volume 2 of the Gesammelte Schriften:

Die Stauung im realen Lebenfluß, der Augenblick, da sein Ablauf zum Stehen kommt, macht sich als Rückflut fühlbar: das Staunen ist diese Rückflut. Die Dialektik im Stillstand ist sein eigentlicher Gegenstand. Es ist der Fels, von dem herab der Blick in jenen Strom der Dinge sich senkt, von dem sie in der Stadt Jehoo, “die immer voll ist, und wo niemand bleibt,” ein Lied wissen, welches anfängt mit:

Beharre nicht auf der Welle,
Die sich an deinem Fuß bricht, solange er
Im Wasser steht, werden sich
Neue Wellen an ihm brechen.

Wenn aber der Strom der Dinge an diesem Fels des Staunens sich bricht, so ist kein Unterschied zwischen einem Menschenleben und einem Wort. Beide sind im epischen Theater nur der Kamm der Welle. Es läßt das Dasein aus dem Bett der Zeit hoch aufsprühen und schillernd einen Nu im Leeren stehen, um es neu zu betten.

Translated by Anna Bostock:

The damming of the stream of real life, the moment when its flow comes to a standstill, makes itself felt as reflux: this reflux is astonishment. The dialectic at a standstill is its real object. It is the rock from which we gaze down into that stream of things which, in the city of Jehoo “that’s always full and where nobody stays,” they have a song about:

Rest not on the wave which breaks against your foot,
So long as it stands in the water, new waves will break against it.

But if the stream of things breaks against this rock of astonishment, then there is no difference between a human life and a word. In epic theatre both are only the crest of the wave. Epic theatre makes life spurt up high from the bed of time and, for an instant, hover iridescent in empty space. Then it puts it back to bed.

The song Benjamin quotes comes from Brecht’s 1931 Berlin production of his play Mann ist Mann, “Lied vom Fluß der Dinge” (“Song of the Flow of Things”). I prefer Stephen Unwin’s more pressing and present translation:

Don’t try to hold on to the wave
That’s breaking against your foot: so long as
You stand in the stream fresh waves
Will always keep breaking against it.

There is an English recording by Robyn Archer on the disc Songs for Bad Times, volume 2.

Freely and sportively bombinating

A month ago I finished Charlotte Brontë’s vastly underrated first novel The Professor, which she completed at 31 but could never get published; her husband Arthur Bell Nichols finally got it out two years after her death, in 1857.

This week I happened to pick up Aldous Huxley’s first, Crome Yellow (1921), which he published at 27. It is just as forgotten and just as brilliant, and the critics have been just as wrong about both.

Each is dense with learning, psychological insight, and piercing characterization. (Each taught me several new words—indurated comes to mind in Brontë, pullulation in Huxley. At least 5% of The Professor is in French.) Both fell out of favor in part due to the facile charge of plotlessness—as if all the talking and thinking and feeling at work in them were not forms of action. Both feature intelligent men in their twenties who take a special interest in language and, of course, fall in love. And both partake of the satirical, but not relentlessly so; the authors clearly see something of themselves in their protagonists, though even they are not spared. I winced in self-recognition at several moments in each.

Brontë’s prose is purpler, more earnest and romantic: it frequently climbs to high and impassioned registers, but never loses contact with its undertone of intelligence. Writing on the other side of the Great War, Huxley, of course, would blush at such rapturous profusion, though I’d like to think he would admire its freshness. He is instead tersely witty, more straightforwardly and charmingly comic, at times virtually slapstick. (Chapter 1 ends, “He would take them by surprise.” Chapter 2 begins, “He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.” [I’m not sure there’s a six-word sentence anywhere in Brontë.] In probably the funniest scene in the novel, our hero waxes romantic and at length about the beauty of the word carminative, only to have his ego—quite aptly—deflated, when he finally learns what it means. It is the most alembicated fart joke that has ever been told.) His monikers evoke Saki and Wodehouse: there is a Priscilla Whimbush, a Mr. Barbecue-Smith. But most of his humor operates quietly, by the irony of rhythm and understatement—as tight-lipped and corseted as the aristocrats he spoofs. The joke is all the richer because we are proud to have noticed it.


An unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 1921, reprinted in Aldous Huxley: The Critical Heritage, edited by Donald Watt:

“I am tired of seeing the human mind bogged in a social plenum; I prefer to paint it in a vacuum, freely and sportively bombinating.” The plan was ascribed to a fabulous author in Crome Yellow, by Mr. Aldous Huxley. A vacuum is suggested by the rarefied seclusion of his fantastic coutnry house, where a small group of human beings reveal their amusingly simplified traits. But the void is, judiciously, not quite complete. The tone of Mr. Huxley’s story matches the title and the covers; it is a rich, full yellow, which suggests the exhilarating glow of summer and the answering temperature of mind. In this atmosphere the characters bombinate, so far as the heat allows. On the high towers of Crome by starlight (Mr. Huxley will explain in whimsical fashion why they were so absurdly tall), in the cool shadows of the granary, along the deep yew alleys by the swimming pool, the transitory action passes; while the things that are not done (so often more important than those that are) bubble in the mind, betray themselves in spontaneous gestures, or float down the stream of talk.

Mr. Huxley’s personages are drawn with an extreme verve of crispness; in fact the merit of his comedy is that it becomes always more amusing as it grows. Little Mary Bracegirdle, with the earnest blue eyes and bell of short hold hair, would be very tiresome if she talked much of her “repressions”; so she is confined, for the most part, to simple and fatal acts. Mr. Scogan, on the other hand, whose forte is a dry, racy monologue which drones at intervals beneath the bombination, is enlivening for just so long as he would naturally be; only near the end is he revealed in the full colours of a bore. The way in which Mr. Huxley manoeuvres his party, displaying them by adroitly contrasted little scenes, has a good deal of Anatole France’s touch; and it is quite in the manner of that master to stay the narrative which a choice extract from the family records or a fuliginous sermon on the Second Advent by the vicar. Mr. Huxley suggests the same tone, too, by his rich converse with books, and by the “direct action” of the younger members of the party, which puts ideas to rout. But then the master himself, though he is steeped in knowledge and plays with contemporary follies, never leaves us with a notion that he limited by fashions or by culture. Of Mr. Huxley we do not feel quite so sure; like his Henry Wimbush, who remarks at a village dance that “if all these people were dead this festivity would be extremely agreeable”—for then one could simply romantically read about them—he almost invites us to believe that the proper study of mankind is books. Almost; but not quite; for in Denis, the hero of this little story, through whose eyes we see most of it, the tragi-comedy of adolescence becomes really poignant at the end. The stroke which ruined Denis’s hopes and chances was something that went deeper than his love-affair; it was the discovery, in a humiliating form, that there was a real world of remorseless and self-centered persons which impinged on his own crystal world of illusions and ideas. This shock gives the point to Mr. Huxley’s fantasy, which is so engaging that we hardly wish it other than it is; all we miss is a certain feeling of assurance that he is using his imagination freely for himself.

From Watt’s introduction to The Critical Heritage:

For Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) life and music shared a common quality: they could each be described as a simultaneity of co-existing incompatibles. The same description may be applied to the critical reception of Huxley’s work. He was hailed as an emancipator of the modern mind and condemned as an irresponsible free-thinker; celebrated as a leading intelligence of his age and denounced as an erudite show-off; admired as the wittiest man of his generation and dismissed as a clever misanthrope. A few pages of his writing or half a career served equally to evoke the incompatible opinions. Opening the cover of Point Counter Point, Wyndham Lewis objected to a “tone of vulgar complicity with the dreariest of suburban library-readers,” while André Maurois discovered in the same opening pages scenes “worth of the great Russians.” In 1933 C. P. Snow claimed that Huxley “ought to seem the most significant English novelist of his day”, while G. K. Chesterton quipped: “[He] is ideally witty; but he is at his wit’s end.”

Huxley’s writing, both the fiction and the nonfiction, provoked controversy at almost every stage. Those very features of his work which drew most praise—the scientific contexts, the detached irony, the panoply of startling ideas—provided as often as not evidence which his critics felt could be used against him. The Huxley critical heritage is a history of vigorous contention spurred by not always equal shares of insight and misunderstanding.

At the center of that history was Huxley’s own peculiar approach to fiction, what George Catlin called “that strange mutt of literature,” the “novel of ideas.” The term provided at most a sketchy description of Huxley’s books, but his critics were at a loss to suggest anything better. His attitude toward fiction seemed to casual and iconoclastic. “There aren’t any divinely laid down canons of the novel,” he asserted. “All you need is to be interesting.” Huxley’s novels flaunted those conventions of logical realism followed faithfully by older writers, such as John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett. Accordingly, his younger audience in the 1920s found him refreshing: “By comparison, most other contemporary writers seemed stuffy, unenlightened, old-fashioned.” But at the same time his writing appeared to defy the new authoritative view of fiction as an organic art form which had evolved through the influence of Flaubert and Henry James. Developing standards of criticism in the earlier twentieth century were deeply affected by Jamesian aesthetics, by Bloomsbury’s belief in the autonomy of art, and by a severely formalist approach to literature. Huxley’s practice of the novel ran counter to these trends: “From a Jamesian perspective that insisted on rigidly delimiting a fictional world through a filtering consciousness with which the reader was asked to identify but could never wholly rely on, Huxley the novelist was inevitably unsatisfactory” (Firchow). To many observers the failure of Huxley’s fiction either to adopt a traditional posture or to adhere to a formalist criterion meant that he was stuck in an untenable sort of writing which hovered indecisively between the novel and the essay.

Huxley’s critics were slow to realize that he held a different concept of fiction. Like Quarles in Point Counter Point, he readily admitted the problems he had in creating conventional plots: “I don’t think of myself as a congenital novelist—no. For example, I have great difficulty in inventing plots. Some people are born with an amazing gift for storytelling; it’s a gift which I’ve never had at all” (Paris Review interview). But the telling of stories, for Huxley, was only a small part of what fiction could accomplish. He wrote to Eugene Saxton on 24 May 1933: “I probably have an entirely erroneous view about fiction. For I feel about fiction as Nurse Cavell felt about patriotism: that it is not enough.” The popular style of fiction written by Dumas, Scott, or Stevenson could not satisfy Huxley. Also, as much as he appreciated Arnold Bennett’s friendship and advice, he recoiled from the elaborate realism of books like Riceyman Steps. Throughout his life Huxley sought to write another kind of fiction. “My own aim,” he told an early interviewer, “is to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay, a novel in which one can put all one’s ideas, a novel like a hold-all” (Maraini). The drive to synthesize multifarious attitudes towards life moved Huxley to develop an integrative approach to fiction which in its breadth, he hoped, would transcend the limits of purist art. In this radically charged sense Huxley believed that fiction, along with biography and history, “are the forms”:

My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on—like Coleridge—why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular. And this, it seems to me, is the exciting thing—both in life and in art.

A dozen things at once

H. L. Mencken on Brahms, from A Mencken Chrestomathy:

More than any other art, perhaps, music demands brains. It is full of technical complexities. It calls for a capacity to do a dozen things at once. But most of all it is revelatory of what is called character. When a trashy man writes it, it is trashy music. Here is where the immense superiority of such a man as Brahms becomes manifest. There is less trashiness in his music than there is in the music of any other man ever heard of, which the sole exception, perhaps, of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was simply impossible for him, at least after he had learned his trade, to be obvious or banal. He could not write even the baldest tune without getting into it something of his own high dignity and profound seriousness; he could not play with that tune, however light his mood, without putting an austere and noble stateliness into it. Hearing Brahms, one never gets any sense of being entertained by a clever mountebank. One is facing a superior man, and the fact is evident from the first note. I give you his “Deutches Requiem” as an example. There is no hint of what is commonly regarded as religious feeling in it. Brahms, so far as I know, was not a religious man. Nor is there the slightest sign of the cheap fustian of conventional patriotism. Nevertheless, a superb emotion is there—nay, an overwhelming emotion. The thing is irresistibly moving. It is moving because a man of the highest intellectual dignity, a man of exalted feelings, a man of brains, put into it his love for and pride in his country.

But in music emotion is only half the story. Mendelssohn had it, and yet he belongs to the second table. Nor is it a matter of mere beauty—that is, of mere sensuous loveliness. If it were, then Dvorak would be greater than Beethoven, whose tunes are seldom inspired, and who not infrequently does without them altogether. What makes great music is simply the thing I have mentioned: brains. The greatest musician is a man whose thoughts and feelings are above the common level, and whose language matches them. What he has to say comes out of a wisdom that is not ordinary. Platitude is impossible to him. Above all, he is master of his craft, as opposed to his art. He gets his effects in new, difficult and ingenious ways—and they convince one instantly that they are inevitable. One can easily imagine improvements in the human eye, and in the Alps, and in the art of love, and even in the Constitution, but one cannot imagine improvement in the first movement of the Eroica.

On music’s “technical complexities,” compare C. P. E. Bach’s foreword to the Part One of Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen:

Keyboard instruments have many merits, but are beset by just as many difficulties. Were it necessary, their excellence would be easy to prove, for in them are combined all the individual features of many other instruments. Full harmony, which requires three, four, or more other instruments, can be expressed by the keyboard alone. And there are many similar advantages. At the same time, who is not aware of the many demands that are made upon it; how it is considered insufficient for the keyboardist merely to discharge the normal task of every executant, namely, to play in accordance with the rules of good performance compositions written for his instrument? How, beyond this, he must be able to improvise fantasias in all styles, to work out extemporaneously any requested setting after the strictest rules of harmony and melody; how we must be at home in all keys and transpose instantly and faultlessly; and play everything at sight whether designed for his instrument or not; how he must have at his command a comprehensive knowledge of thorough bass which he must play with discrimination, often departing from the notation, sometimes in many voices, again in few, strictly as well as in the galant manner, from both excessive and insufficient symbols, or unfigured and incorrectly figured bases; how he must often extract this thorough bass from large scores with unfigured or even pausing basses (when other voices serve as harmonic fundament) and with it reinforce the ensemble; and who knows how many other things? All this must be done competently, often on an unfamiliar instrument which has not been tested to determine whether it is good or bad, whether it is playable or not, in which latter case extenuation is but rarely granted. On the contrary, it can be expected that, normally, improvisations will be solicited without anyone’s being concerned whether the performer is in the proper mood, and if he is not, without any effort being made to create or maintain the proper disposition by providing a good instrument.

Notwithstanding these demands, the keyboard has always found its admirers, as well it might. Its difficulties are not enough to discourage the study of an instrument whose superior charms are ample compensation for attendant time and trouble. Moreover, not all amateurs feel obliged to fulfill all of the requirements. They satisfy as many of them as they care to or as their innate talents permit.

And on the relation between art and character (and the characteristically judgmental flair of Mencken’s prose), compare Auden’s remarks in “De Droite et de Gauche,” translated by Richard Howard:

Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.

There are so many words!

Tim Parks on Ann Goldstein’s new translation of Elsa Morante’s L’isola di Arturo, in the London Review of Books (August 15, 2019):

In the interview with Publishers Weekly Goldstein explains that she came to translate Arturo’s Island because her publisher had so enjoyed collaborating with her on the complete works of Primo Levi that he wanted to work with her again. ‘He looked into the Morante situation and this was the one that was available.’ Coming after ‘“Ferrante fever”, it seemed like this was a good time for translating Italian women writers.’ Perhaps she wasn’t aware of Morante’s complaint that ‘the generic concept of women writers as a separate category harks back to the society of the harem.’ In short, translator and writer were not matched by elective affinity. Goldstein found the novel ‘astonishing and difficult’. ‘Morante’s sentences are very complicated and full of words – there are so many words!’ Indeed. Putting her version down, one’s feeling is that many of them eluded her, and that this fine novel is yet to be captured in English.