If you are a person for whom great literature matters and are clicking into The Literary Life for the first time as a result of seeing my title above on one of the social media sites, you might be a bit put off by a question about proper literary taste, or more to the point, about bad literary taste. If so, please read the other short posts on my blog from recent weeks on the idea of #Taste to have a context of a question like this.
David Hume in Of the Standard of Taste, with whom we have been working, gives several criteria for good taste, which we will look at next. But first he takes a look at improper taste and why people have it. Taste is universal, he claims, but not all people possess taste.
People who are disordered, for example: “A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours.”
Are you “disordered?” Ok, not a fair question. But do you trust your Uncle Louie who you only see at Thanksgiving to have the same proper taste as you presumably have? Or maybe ask yourself, do you know people who clearly do not have proper taste under virtually any definition of taste? Forget good taste for the moment. Is there in fact such a thing as undeniably bad taste? (Case in point, velvet paintings of Elvis.) Well, ok, then. Why?
To some degree all of us have some defects in taste: “In each creature, there is a sound and defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment.” Remember that for Hume “sentiment” is the subjective element in taste whereas “judgment” is the objective and universal side.
So consider how this helps explain our own occasional bad taste even when we really have good taste.
But, probably more importantly, many of us simply do not possess what Hume would call “those finer emotions of the mind” that are “of a very tender and delicate nature.” And even when we possess such, often circumstances get in the way of our proper taste: “Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles.”
Ok, it looks like we are not to rely upon ourselves when developing proper taste. Our sentiments might guide our preferences for this author or that. Some of us might think the Harry Potter novels are tasteful reading and others might shun anything written after 1900. These are simply our sentiments at work guiding our reading. But what about universal proper taste? Who decides for all the rest of us what matters and what doesn’t?
Well, that’s always the sticking point as we have put up in front of us from the beginning. For David Hume, only properly qualified critics have acumen enough to discover universal principles of taste.
Let’s just consider what a properly qualified critic is in the next posting. But even before we see what our representative from the eighteenth century thinks, what do you think? We have plenty of critics around us today, publishing their ideas everywhere—in books, on the web, in blogs like mine, in peer reviewed journals, everywhere. Clearly they can’t be dismissed and aren’t dismissed. What they say carries plenty of weight. But they disagree with each other at seemingly every point of discussion, right? What about the critics? Stay tuned.
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