[Paleopsych] New Criterion: The whys of art by Robert Conquest

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Jan 27 15:55:44 UTC 2005

The whys of art by Robert Conquest
From The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 4, December 2004

    The troubles that beset the arts, though perhaps less amenable to
    diagnosis than those besetting the political and social order, may be
    thought relevant to the whole question of civilization. And their
    particular phenomena often seem to be melded with the attitudes one
    finds in those other fields.

    Changes in art and cultural history have never been easy to assimilate
    to political or economic changes. But perhaps we have enough evidence
    to show that particular sub-ideologies, combined with or supported by
    a bureaucratic upsurge, have caused, or been associated with, what
    appear to be downhill trends. Different generations naturally engender
    different styles. No harm in that. Still, it can be argued that some
    fashions in the field are less troublesome than others.

    In an analysis of this sort, one cannot exclude subjectivity. (And
    Wordsworth warned us against the "hope of reasoning [one] into
    approbation"). When a writer finds spokesmen of a new generation not
    susceptible to his or others' earlier work, several notions may occur
    to him. First, that tastes change. Francis T. Palgrave wrote, editing
    the second Golden Treasury, "nothing, it need scarcely to be said, is
    harder than to form an estimate, even remotely accurate, of one's own
    contemporary poets." So, to judge art and culture is indeed, in part,
    to make a more subjective assessment of the aesthetics, which is of
    taste. And if one asserts that a current trend or current trends are
    negative, one is, of course, open to the retort that, in various
    epochs, changes of taste have emerged deplored by the representatives
    of earlier trends but later seen as having their own value. True, but
    it is equally true that some striking and popular new art has soon
    proved no more than a regrettable and temporary fad--as with the once
    universally acclaimed Ossian or the German poet Friedrich Klopstock.

    Moreover, our cultural people, in the sense of producers of the arts
    defined as creative, are now in a strong and unprecedented
    relationship with the bureaucratic or establishmentarian world
    discussed earlier. (This is, paradoxically, at a time when many of
    these cultural people have entered a period of what one might call
    ostentatious transgressiveness, something on which indeed both they
    and their state, official, and academic sponsors pride themselves.) Of
    course, there is no reason to think that sections of the
    intelligentsia are any sounder on the arts than they are on politics
    or history. And, here again, they, as a phenomenon, form a far larger
    social stratum than at any time in the past. It might be argued that,
    as with the personnel of the state apparatus proper, there is now such
    a superfluity of the artistically and literary "educated" class that
    their very number is part of the means of coping with, and employing
    part of, the product.

    There comes to a point, hard to define specifically but more or less
    obvious, when a regrettable general impression is unarguably
    convincing--well, not "unarguably," yet beyond serious debate. Still,
    an organism, or a polity, may present faults seen as lethal that are
    in practice comfortably contained and do not require therapy. Nor
    would one want there to be any implied use of power from outside
    institutions or individuals.

    Even apart from analytics, a great deal of nonsense has been talked or
    written about art, or rather Art. Some reflections seem to be in
    order. The question of what constitutes "art," and what distinguishes
    good from less good art, is an old one. We can be certain that
    humanity was creating what we call art long before the word or the
    concept existed. And--a further complication--how is it that we all
    accept that some Paleolithic paintings are among the best of their
    kind and excel by any standards? Well, not all; there are presumably
    those who are beyond such acceptance. And in considering the paintings
    of Lascaux, Altamira, and elsewhere, the question arises: What did
    their creators think they were doing?

    Not decorating--they did not live in the caves. So why did these men
    go deep into them, too deep to see, and paint by the light of cedar
    wicks set in grease-filled hollow stones? Why are the hooves of many,
    but not all, the cattle shown in twisted perspective?

    "Magic" is a word often used of all this. But it is indisputable that
    this was not the "hunting magic" found in later, and more distant,
    "primitive" depictions. "Religious" is also often applied. But magic
    or religious in what way? We simply don't know--but one thing seems
    obvious: they did not think of their painting as something called
    "art." This point was reinforced a few years ago by an interview with
    a Nigerian village sculptor of some fine formal statuettes, I suppose
    you would call them. Asked why he carved them, he could only reply
    that this is what he did.

    Thucydides tells us, quoting Pericles, that the Athenians
    "philokaloumen ... kai philosophoumen," love both beauty and wisdom.
    Can the modern age combine philosophy and philokaly?

    One problem, nowadays, is the sort of art in which "beauty" is not
    merely abandoned but replaced by a positive addiction to the
    unbeautiful, or the antibeautiful. It is true that "beauty" became
    sentimentalized and cosmetic from the early nineteenth century. So it
    is possible that we have now broadened and deepened the idea. One can
    see today, for example, the view of Verdi as among the finest; a
    commentator in The New Yorker (September 24, 2001) said of a new
    performance of Otello that it was astonishingly--and
    unanalyzably--moving, "stripped of directorial brainstorms and
    interpretive ego trips with no attempt to deconstruct or
    recontextualize." But, as Joseph Brodsky noted (of Ezra Pound),
    "beauty" must arise of itself and cannot just be added from outside.

    When a Greek used kalos, which we conventionally translate as
    "beautiful," of a city, or a weapon, or a harbor, or a virtue, we feel
    that his judgment of the practical and the moral was essentially
    aesthetic. But this was not so. He did not differentiate the
    categories. Kalos meant, in effect, "admirable" or "fine." Similarly,
    arete, which we translate as "virtue," was used of everything from a
    racehorse's speed to the skills of a fighter or an orator and is
    better translated simply as "excellence." In the Renaissance, there
    was a natural attempt to revive this attitude with the concept of
    virtù, but the distinction between goodness and beauty was already so
    firmly established that reaction from it led mainly to a mere
    conscious amoralism.

    We, or others, have used the word "art" of a wide range of human
    action (as in the Art of War, the Art of Love). All the same, we
    differentiate between various skills and the value we give to each.
    Even though we may speak of "trapeze art," its artistry depends wholly
    on a skill. If a practitioner regularly falls, he will not be admired.
    (One could argue--indeed, I would--that in our days there are
    "artists" who, in effect, do regularly fall into the arena and yet do
    not forfeit their prestige.) William Hazlitt, of course, wrote
    similarly of Indian jugglers. On a slightly different level, I
    remember in the mid-1970s watching no television but the odd opera and
    Joe Montana playing for the 49ers. I was not deeply interested in
    American football as such, but in seeing this combination of, I
    suppose, skill and judgment... .

    In the broader context, medieval Scandinavians can be cited as having
    had a wide range of skills, some of them "artistic" in the modern
    usage: arts, the law, the accumulated skills and experience of
    brilliant shipbuilding and shipsailing, and the making and handling of
    weapons. It is not that the main arts--narrative prose and gnomic
    verse--required any less sophistication than those of the present day;
    there were simply less of them. Fewer people were doing fewer things.
    This was as true culturally as it was socially. We may feel that Earl
    Rognvald of Orkney, boasting eight hundred years ago of his nine
    skills--as draughts player, runner, reader, smith, skier, archer,
    oarsman, poet, and harper--set a standard towards which we should all
    strive. All the same, such comprehensive mastery was exceptional even
    then. And nowadays, with an immense range of skills to be mastered, an
    enormous spectrum of individuality seeking an ever-wider variety in
    the arts, and a huge and diversely specialized volume of knowledge,
    any oneness we can expect in our culture cannot possibly be that of
    the centralized and unitary.

    A certain amount of scientific knowledge on the part of writers is
    desirable as a matter of mere literacy. We can go further and expect
    some of this knowledge actually to enter imaginative literature. When
    Quintilian says in the Institutio oratoria that knowledge of astronomy
    is essential to a proper understanding of poets, he is describing a
    culture in which some such merging of science and art applied. Yet
    even if that were regained, it would be an illusion to think that we
    could ever revive the full classical unity and interconnectedness of
    all the fields of knowledge, when a Greek geometer could put forward
    the proposition "I cannot demonstrate the properties of a triangle
    without the aid of Venus."

    The minds that produce and variegate our culture form part of a large
    spectrum. And when we speak of art, we should be wary of certain
    high-decibel voices ringing out with claims about it or about one or
    another contributor to its bulk. In particular, we should beware of
    some efforts truly to represent it, to stand as icons of its
    significance. Pretensions to, or perhaps better seen as projections
    of, high souldom, are, generally speaking, to be rejected.
    "Creativity" is a well-known dazzler. And as Anthony Powell put it in
    A Writer's Notebook, "It is a rule, almost without exception, that
    writers and painters who are always talking about being artists, break
    down at just that level." A heavy self-conscious solemnity is another
    symptom. In fact, low seriousness is a mark of every epoch. Apart from
    its role in silencing merited rejection, it is also to be seen as
    narrowing the grasp of the arts by blocking their lighter side. Proust
    noted (of Saint-Loup) that it is a philistinism to judge the arts by
    their intellectual content, "not perceiving the enchantments of its
    imagination that give me some things that he judges frivolous."

    The more constrictive tendencies always start among a minority, an
    extremely small minority, even of the artistic or literary strata.
    Then, at some point, they spill over into intellectually or
    aesthetically more passive, though argumentatively even more active,

    As for the art- and literature-consuming public, it is persuaded, or
    even deafened, by a small stratum. The difference between the way this
    has happened in the past and the way it is happening now is that this
    intermediate caste has increased in number and in power, and has to
    some extent adopted, or been penetrated by, the same sociopolitical
    ideologies whose mental estrangement from good sense we have already

    Constant Lambert, the British conductor and composer, is recorded as
    saying that even among what we would now call the high artistic
    intelligentsia, it was very rare to find one who was adept or
    interested in all of the arts. In what follows, we will concentrate on
    literature and, more specifically, verse. The examples given here
    could certainly be matched in other fields, but should suffice for our

    Anthony Burgess said flatly that "Art begins with craft, and there is
    no art until craft has been mastered." There are several ways, in
    writing, as in the other arts, in which the decoupling of craft and
    art may be accomplished. Explosively intended phrases tend to distract
    attention from any broader pattern. But a less sensational shift of
    direction may also serve, if a mood is created or titillated without
    concern for anything accomplished. As Dr. Johnson said of James
    Macpherson's supposed translation of the poetry of Ossian, "Sir, a man
    might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it."

    One new phenomenon of our time was the establishment of English
    schools and departments in the universities at about the same time as
    "modernism" arose. For the first time, we had a specific and separate
    group that was supposed to be exceptionally qualified to judge
    literature, as against that larger, more heterogeneous set of people
    constituting the cultural community. Literature was moreover beset by
    theory, and in general by an excess of academicism and
    discussionizing. As in other fields, many were and are simply misled
    by words. A local paper speaks of those "eating the menu instead of
    the meal." Academic critics claimed to be the only ones competent to
    discuss poetry properly and indeed to prescribe its forms, methods,
    and contents. This is as if a claim should be put forward that only
    professors of ballistics should discuss cricket or football. The
    American poet Karl Shapiro remarked that though he knew scores of
    poets, he almost never heard from them the adulation of Eliot that is
    found in the textbooks.

    The past had dictatorial critics, but these have always been the more
    troublesome to the degree that they were systematic. No doubt, then
    and now, nondogmatic criticism contains a congeries of more or less
    unconscious assumptions. But that is not the same thing, just as those
    people are wrong who say that conscious and systematic political
    indoctrination is all right since in any case we are subject to
    unsystematic indoctrination in the set of assumptions implicit in our

    The answer is that a supposedly full and conscious conceptualization
    is, even in so far as it may be successful at all, a narrower and
    shallower matter than the other; that it goes with an authoritarian
    attitude; that its products, because of the formality of their
    definition, are more solidified and less able to evolve. Just as it is
    those people who think they have discovered the laws of history who
    have, in our time, caused our major public catastrophes, so, in a
    lesser field, it is those who think they have discovered the laws of
    literature who have been the trouble.

    But it should also be said that there is an element of illusion in
    these conceptualizations. Since it is impossible to achieve the
    pretended rigor, an element of unconscious prejudice after all
    remains; in fact, it is corrupted through repression and
    rationalization into something less, rather than more, rational. The
    more "rigor," the greater the belief that what is "rigorously" covered
    is the main and major matter, while in reality, it may simply be that
    part of the subject most susceptible to analysis. Obscurer but
    profounder aspects of a work then tend to be forgotten.

    We may also feel that the bringing to the analytic consciousness of
    all one's attitudes to a piece of writing, even if it were possible,
    is not an unmixed advantage. A psyche that is entirely conscious (or
    with a subconscious component subject to instant recall) does not seem
    to be in accord with the present design of Homo sapiens; even if an
    android with these characteristics could be produced, one suspects
    that it might not be wholly satisfactory. To put it in terms of the
    arts, we might consider A. E. Housman's view that poetry finds its way
    "to something in man which is obscure and latent, something older than
    the present organization of his nature, like the patches of fen which
    still linger here and there in the drained lands of Cambridgeshire."
    The rules of these profound and intricate unconscious activities are
    probably in practice unknowable. At any rate, if not unknowable, much
    of their working is at present unknown. If the vague, peripheral, and
    hypothetical knowledge we have is given the status of law, we are
    worse off than before.

    Literature exists for the ordinary educated man, and any literature
    that actively requires enormous training can be at best of only
    peripheral value. Moreover, such a style in literature produces the
    specialist who knows only about literature. The man who knows only
    about literature does not know even about literature.

    Common in all academic circles is the assumption that argument put
    forward with careful definition and meticulous analysis is
    automatically superior to more general argument in more ordinary
    language. The analyst is inclined to assume that anyone who is content
    to use such more general formulae does so because he is incapable of
    finding distinctions, untrained in the minutiae of new methods of
    analysis, and in general all thumbs. And he even feels perhaps that he
    has demolished a large-scale argument by dissecting, qualifying, and
    distinguishing, i.e., proving that there is more to be said. This is
    rather like a microscope trying to refute a telescope. It is basically
    an error about semantics. Language is capable of being used in either
    way, and neither is intrinsically superior to the other--as long as
    the operator is aware of what he is doing, and the method is suitable
    to the material. We find, in fact, that a general treatment, without
    pretense of finality but rather, as it were, open-ended, is the
    preferable approach to literature.

    One also sees it argued that the more one knows about a work of art,
    the better one is equipped to judge it aesthetically. In theory, this
    sounds all right. But even if we neglect the fact that much critical
    "knowledge" of a poem is in effect not knowledge at all but patterns
    imposed on the poem by the critic, a little common sense will tell us
    that things are not as easy as all that. Are we really to suppose that
    a modern expert on painting, able to analyze brushwork with a
    microscope and to identify the chemicals used, is a better judge of
    painting than were the great patrons of the Renaissance? Knowledge
    does not necessarily imply judgment. All truly critical, as against
    technical, argument is either intuitive or hypothetical or partial.
    This cannot be compensated for by a study of the raw material, however

    The first great age of analytical criticism, the Alexandrian, produced
    among its frigidities some of the aberrations we have today--its brand
    of concrete poetry, for example, of which Henry Fuseli wrote: "The
    wing, the harp, the hatchet, the altar of Simmias were the dregs of a
    degraded nation's worn-out taste." But it is easy to see how the
    critical temper may promote meaningless drivel. One of superb
    Rimbaud's worst poems is the sonnet in which he allots various colors
    to the vowels. Critics were instantly found to give coherent
    interpretations (eight or ten were propounded in all), though, as Paul
    Verlaine tells us, Rimbaud "se foutait pas mal si A était rouge ou
    vert." But his "Sonnet des Voyelles," just because it was
    interpretation fodder, became the favorite and most quoted of the lot.
    That was in primitive times, when criticism had not yet reached its
    zenith. Still, even nowadays, the most ambiguous (or
    complicated-appearing) poetry often pleases the critic best. Whereas,
    in any reasonable sense, the more incomprehensible the poem, the worse
    it must be.

    It also seems to be felt that emotionalism proves emotion, and that
    nonsense is aesthetically preferable to sense. Things have changed
    since Sophocles was able to establish his sanity in old age by
    reciting to a court the newly written Colonus. I cannot feel that the
    point is irrelevant, any more than is Coleridge's unforgettable remark
    about Shakespeare that "his rhythm is so perfect, that you may be
    almost sure that you do not understand the real force of a line, if it
    does not run well as you read it."

    It seems odd that a taste for involved intellectualism in literature
    should so often be accompanied, or succeeded, by a taste for the most
    extreme irrationalism. The writer A. G. Macdonell, reviewing novels in
    the mid-1920s, noted such a change in the titles: "Slashing" ones like
    Rat-Ridden, Bilge-Bestank gave way to a more "Shadowy" lot, like And
    She Said So Too. But on second thoughts, it will be seen that this is
    natural: the two approaches both involve, in most cases, contrivance,
    in its shallowest sense. We think of art from the intellect as clear,
    arid, formal. Obviously, this is not always so: anything, however
    emotionalist, which is devised to suit a conscious scheme is
    intellectual, in this bad sense. Hysteria is the product of frigidity,
    not of passion. Both extreme cases are often, it will be noted,
    missionary types: the one of a highly organized and ritualistic set of
    sacramental forms, the other of a theology of revivalist self-abandon.
    In either case, a sectarianism.

    One finds a political element, or at any rate a political tone, in
    these literary discussions--with an occasional lack of amenity. How
    George Orwell would have relished Anthony Hecht telling (in the
    introduction to his Melodies Unheard) of opponents of meter and rhyme
    that "one such radical has recently affirmed" that anyone that
    observes such constraints "is unambiguously a fascist."

    One of the ways to give the impression of an aesthetic performance to
    those lacking the organ of taste is indeed to put into a work of art
    the political, religious, or other extraneous satisfactions popular
    with one or another audience. Particularly, of course, if strongly
    held. As Paul Valéry wrote, "Enthusiasm is not an artist's state of

    Few poets have had much experience of the political. They have
    generous impulses, no doubt, and concern for humanity. These can be
    expressed in various ways and are not sufficient for a poem involving
    facts. On political issues, it is extremely rare for the facts to be
    so clear, and the human involvement so direct and simple, as to
    approach the immediacy and undeniability of experience. Still, there
    can be few comments as inept as that of William Carlos Williams, in
    his introduction to Allen Ginsberg, that this Beat poet had gone "into
    his Golgotha, from that charnel house, similar in every way, to that
    of the Jews in the past war."

    Not that even those few poets with some political knowledge and
    experience find it easy to produce political poems. Lawrence Durrell,
    one of those few, has dealt directly with political events in prose,
    in Bitter Lemons. But in the poem which concludes this book, as soon
    as he approaches the subject, he has the modesty, a sense of the
    subject's intractability, to write: "Better leave the rest unsaid."
    Excellent advice, for several reasons.

    There is an idea that expressing any reputable sentiment or opinion on
    politics makes good verse. No. In particular, apart from satire, there
    is almost no good political verse in English (except for Andrew
    Marvell's "Horatian Ode"). J. C. Furnas in his book on--and
    against--slavery, The Road to Harper's Ferry, says, "Blake, Cowper,
    Wordsworth and Southey, when touching on slavery, wrote drivel." I
    have come across one good poem about the nuclear bomb--by the Irish
    poet Thomas Kinsella (not a "political" sort of poem, actually). None
    of the hundreds on the death of Dylan Thomas is any good (and please
    don't let us speak of Princess Diana). On AIDS, there are a few good
    poems by Thom Gunn--a great exception.

    Back in the first and second decades of this century, there was indeed
    a ferment of revolutionary-sounding attitudes, and these attracted
    precisely some of the aesthetically radical--Marinetti into Fascism,
    Mayakovsky into Bolshevism. Enmity of artists to "capitalism" and the
    "bourgeoisie" is a symptom of this radical temperament. Of course, the
    notion that capitalism is hostile to art is in itself absurd. In fact,
    capitalist or bourgeois patronage has often marked a great flowering
    of art: the Medicis, Venice, and Holland, or, to go further back, the
    great merchant republic of Athens.

    The Mexican painters like Diego Rivera well illustrate one aspect of
    political modernism. And it is clear that an important part of the
    impact of their "new" art was due far more to the political type of
    content than to the quasi cubism involved in the forms chosen. In the
    palace at Chapultepec, one may see romantic revolutionary paintings of
    a century ago, showing liberators like Benito Juárez and Porfirio Díaz
    cursing venomous foes, etc., to the applause and enthusiasm of
    romantically conceived peasants and of "the people" in general. The
    difference between these and the more modern Mexican paintings is not
    great, and indeed the later generation owes a good deal not merely to
    this political inheritance but also to an element of primitivism
    already to be seen in the work of their predecessors.

    In fact, art with a revolutionary political component is very much a
    traditionalist form. The only exception I have come across, where a
    genuine new impulse seems visible, is in the strange statuary of
    Kemalist Turkey, with its earthy New Turks pushing up out of the soil.
    Here, perhaps, novelty may be due to a total lack of previous
    representational art. On a slightly different point, one of the truly
    remarkable things about the Mayan cities--Uxmal, in particular--is
    what one may (inadequately) call the elegance of the shapes and
    dispositions of the buildings (in a way like the Greek equivalent).

    Literature is written in language. That language has a close
    relationship to common speech. To "heighten" speech is not in fact to
    depart from it more than very slightly. When poetry goes bad, from the
    point of view of language, it is invariably due to the creation of
    "poeticism"--a vocabulary, or diction, or general phraseology of an
    isolated type. This has usually in the past taken the form of certain
    words becoming traditional in poetry at the same time as they became
    obsolete in common speech. But it is also possible--and this is the
    form the vice took in the twentieth century--to depart from the true
    roots by creating linguistic forms equally separated from the natural
    language and equally to be regarded as poeticisms.

    We distinguish poetry from prose. There are poetry magazines, poetry
    anthologies, and so on that may print the occasional confessedly
    "prose poem," but their contents and claims, generally speaking,
    differ from what is usually designated "prose." So it seems that
    poetry is a particular art and, presumably, in some sense a particular
    craft. Traditionally, prosody sought, as Baudelaire put it, "the
    immortal needs of monotony, of symmetry and of surprise"; or, if we
    need an English equivalent, there is Dr. Johnson's "To write verse is
    to dispose syllables and sounds harmonically by some known and settled
    rule--a rule however lax enough to substitute similitude for identity,
    to admit change without breach of order, and to relieve the ear
    without disappointing it."

    Of course, there has long been within or adjacent to such verse a
    subordinate or complementary tradition of something closer to prose,
    but this was always, until recently, peripheral to and dependent on
    the main tradition. Even in Johnson's time, his friend Christopher
    Smart, whose "Song to David" is a fine example of a long, wholly
    formal poem, also wrote that fine, free apostrophe to his cat
    Jeoffrey. To some extent based on the psalms, or on a sort of loose or
    resolved hexameter, this genre was often not even that, but better
    seen as declamation. Clearly some of this what we might call
    declamatory verse is successful.

    But after all, prose too may be typographically broken up into lines
    for some particular effect. We have the notes from which Churchill
    made his speech to a secret session of the House of Commons in 1940.
    After quoting a call to man Britain's defenses and resist the then
    threatened German landings, the notes go on:

         That will play its part;
             but essence of defence of Britain
                 is to attack the landed enemy at once,
         leap at his throat
              and keep the grip until the life is out of him.

    This might, in some sense, be called an art, perhaps of rhetoric. But
    in what sense is it prose? At any rate, it shows how the two arts meet
    at a not readily definable point.

    It can be brilliantly used: for example, in the tenser and more
    dramatic passages of David Jones's magnificent In Parenthesis, the
    best book produced by World War I (though we may note that Jones did
    not call his work poetry but just a "writing"). It has produced
    terrible stuff too: Martin Tupper, highly respected in mid-Victorian
    times, is an example.

    Freeish verse has been with us for some generations (when I was young,
    my sister's school magazine was full if it). Most poets of this
    century have written it, sometimes only rarely. Again, successes are
    possible, though uncommon--Robert Frost compared writing free verse to
    playing "tennis without a net"--and again, it depends for its effect
    on being under the protection of the guns of the main tradition.

    Modernism, in the broadest sense, was largely an import from France,
    starting with impressionism. As Anthony Powell commented in A Writer's
    Notebook, it is extraordinary that "after Turner, Impressionism seemed
    altogether new; and `modern poetry' after Browning." (Indeed, most of
    the tropes of symbolism, for example, are to be found in Shakespeare.)
    But the new artistic evolution seems to have been that French models
    impressed those who wrote in English. But the French had quite a
    different history.

    Which may remind us that there was also an element, and often a very
    attractive one, of joking in the early Paris's avant-garde. And
    further West, one finds the saving note of the comic not only in E. E.
    Cummings but also in Dylan Thomas, for example (even at his most
    portentous, he seems to fit Lautréamont's description of Byron,
    "L'hippotame des jungles infernales": more sympathetic, even as a
    monster, than the tyrannosaurs later infesting Bohemia).

    Stéphane Mallarmé, the true avatar of symbolism, wrote specifically of
    the new "dissonances" that the background of "strict" verse is needed
    to make them "profitable." This sensible rule was not (and is not)
    observed. And the "experimentation," as Mallarmé suggests, went beyond
    the technical into the whole approach, when every sort of grammatical,
    structural, and semantic novelty was tried out. Certain benefits
    resulted--acceptable variations in structure, half rhymes. It was no
    less a product of classicism than when Edward Gibbon himself spoke of
    the alternative aims of poetry being to "satisfy, or silence, our

    The crux, the main and major disjunction in all fields, was when the
    artist took the decision to abandon the laity. As Pasternak wrote
    later, "All this writing of the Twenties has terribly aged. They
    lacked universality. I have never understood these dreams of a new
    language, of a completely original form of expression. Because of this
    dream, much of the work of the Twenties which was stylistic
    experimentation has ceased to exist."

    In fact, many writers classed as modernist were merely modern. Which
    is not to say that they were not affected by experimentalism proper,
    to various degrees. But with this notion of artistic alienation came
    the similar, but logically distinct, element of the existential human
    in his condition; and with the twentieth century, though deriving from
    earlier thought, came angst.

    It may be argued that artistic alienation had been around for
    generations, ever since the "superfluous man" of Mikhail Lermontov,
    the Byron of Continental imagination, the romantic idea of the mad or
    maddish poet grandly isolated from the rest of mankind. As W. H. Auden
    put it, nearly two generations ago:

      Chimeras mauled them, they wasted away with the spleen,
      Suicide picked them off, sunk off Cape Consumption,
      Lost on the Tosspot Seas, wrecked on the Gibbering Isles
      Or trapped in the ice of despair at the Soul's Pole.

    In any case, when we look back, we can surely say that the great
    revolution modernism thought it was bringing about simply failed.

    Yet that is not the whole story. First of all, even if they were not
    as world-shaking as they imagined, they might still have left us some
    valuable, if peripheral, work. Such a modest contribution, after all,
    is all that Mallarmé claimed--that for his classical verse was "the
    great nave of the `basilica' French poetry," while vers libre simply
    created special attractions on the sidelines.

    Lionel Trilling noted how a contrary demand excessively catered to in
    his time was for verse that advertised itself as being under high
    pressure. Some verse of that type may indeed be successful. But mere
    groaning and sweating and thrashing around, with adjectives to suit,
    simply begs for D. J. Enright's comment: "the effects may be striking
    but they don't strike very deep." And this is, or can easily become,
    bad taste--as Wordsworth put it, a "degrading thirst after outrageous
    stimulation." Nor will it do to attribute this sort of thing to a more
    "primitive"--and therefore more true and real--depth of feeling. Yet,
    as I write, I come across a poetry reviewer in the Economist praising
    "a raw vigorous celebration of instinctive animal energy." (The cave
    paintings, too, were subtle and civilized compared with what is now
    exhibited at the Royal Academy.)

    Much has been published over the past decade or two that has something
    of the appearance of form, but relaxed, or dissolved, to the degree
    that it is really no more than an overextended type of free verse. We
    have indeed noted that this can also be said of verse reaching us from
    the other pole of arid academicism. There are, of course, many people
    on all sides who are in one way or another interested in poetry but
    not for poetical reasons.

    Kingsley Amis once wrote me, "The trouble with chaps like that is that
    they have no taste--I don't mean bad taste, just the mental organ that
    makes you say This is bloody good or This is piss is simply missing,
    and they have to orientate themselves by things like `importance' and
    `seriousness' and `depth' and `originality' and `consensus' (=

    Even if its proponents did not say that all obscurity is profound--and
    some came near to saying that--they certainly implied that all
    profundity is obscure. But a muddy puddle may pretend to any depth; a
    clear pool cannot. Coleridge writes somewhere that he read one of
    Dante's shorter poems every year for ten years, always finding more in
    it. This did not mean that it lacked comprehensibility at first
    reading, merely that in this comprehensibility there were resonances
    that did not immediately declare themselves.

    This "death of the past" includes ignorance of the cultural knowledge
    that would have been taken for granted from Chaucer to Auden. One
    example: Byron's "The Isles of Greece" required some, though not much,
    background. The assumed historical knowledge in the lines "A king sate
    on the rocky brow/ Which looks o'er sea-born Salamis"--not even
    knowledge, only literacy--is now largely forgotten (and the oddity of
    "Salamis" pronounced as if the plural of an Italian sausage might have
    been avoided by a parallel grip on scansion).

    More generally, how widespread is this anticultural plague? I was
    talking to an aging and not in the least anti-intellectual Los Angeles
    businessman. He said that he had been schooled, and honed, in a
    certain ambience of the old anthologies (The Golden Treasury, The
    Oxford Book of English Verse) and other such inheritances, but that
    his children, still less his grandchildren, no longer seemed to have
    this access.

    In the 1990s, television carried a replay of the 1940s Western movie
    My Darling Clementine, in the course of which a traveling actor
    playing Hamlet is terrorized by bad guys in a saloon, who make him
    stand on a table, shoot at bottles behind him, and order him to act
    something. He starts, "To be or not to be," but dries up. Doc Holliday
    comes in and finishes the speech for him. This shows that half a
    century ago Hollywood producers thought that all this would be
    acceptable and comprehensible to the movie public. In the intervening
    years, a generation has been miseducated, as we all know, in many
    different ways. And one of these is that there is (or so it seems) no
    longer a general memory not only of meter and rhyme but also even of
    their earlier existence. Craft, it might be said, has been painted
    into a corner.

    There are indeed many voices, including young ones, that have called
    for and started a return to verse. The persistence of form and rhythm
    and rhyme in the general population, as in country music, is perhaps a
    sign of their ineradicability. And "light verse" has been, on the
    whole, a bastion of form.

    It is true that a decline in the craft of verse has been noted before.
    Edmund Wilson's "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" appeared in the late
    1920s. Still, the then wave of free verse was only a peripheral
    fashion. We were not simultaneously untaught the older poets. And
    there were no creative-writing classes, and few experimental-academic
    versifiers, or, at any rate, far fewer and less obtrusive than today.

    Over the ages, the condition of the arts has been seen as a part--a
    striking and important part--of the exercise of the critical
    imagination, of the human mind, in their broader compass. And the
    record of those faculties has seen contractions and contortions as
    well as periods of progress.

    Will the humanities nevertheless prosper? Such a view perhaps
    underestimates, as ever, the power of inertia and interests. In
    Anatole France's Thaïs, faced with the (to him) irrational spectacle
    of a Pillar Saint--up on his pillar--the Roman governor's secretary
    says, "There are forces, Lucius, infinitely more powerful than reason
    and science." "Which?" "Ignorance and madness"--and the saint was an
    "educated" man. Moreover, his views were to conquer. In Rudyard
    Kipling's words:

      And they overlaid the teaching of Ionia
      And the Truth was choked at birth

      ... to rise again many years later.
      Let us hope for the best.

    Robert Conquest, author of Reflections on a Ravaged Century and The
    Great Terror, is a Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford

More information about the paleopsych mailing list