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May 3, 2017
Robert Southey and the Literary Life
“No one of his generation lived so completely in and for literature as did Southey. ‘He is,’ said Byron, ‘the only existing entire man of letters.’ With him literature served the needs both of the material life and of the life of the intellect and imagination; it was his means of earning daily bread, and also the means of satisfying his highest ambitions and desires.
“This, which was true of Southey at five-and-twenty years of age, was equally true at forty, fifty, sixty. During all that time he was actively at work accumulating, arranging, and distributing knowledge; no one among his contemporaries gathered so large a store from the records of the past; no one toiled with such steadfast devotion to enrich his age; no one occupied so honorable a place in so many provinces of literature.
“There is not, perhaps, any single work of Southey’s the loss of which would be felt by us as a capital misfortune. But the more we consider his total work, its mass, its variety, its high excellence, the more we come to regard it as a memorable, an extraordinary achievement.”
From Southey, by Edward Dowden. English Men of Letters Series, 1880.
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March 31, 2017
A Book of Verses, a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou
On this day in 1809 Edward FitzGerald the author of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. Fittingly for my blog post, the celebrated author of one of the most famous poems about Spring was born in Spring. So here we go, folks. Happy Spring.
FitzGerald claimed his version (actually he wrote three distinctly different versions) of the Persian poem by Omar Khayyám was a translation of the poem from the original language. Well, let’s just say, kindly perhaps, that his translation bears as much relation to the original Persian as, say an Amazon.com suggestion that, hey, if you liked this Persian poem then maybe you will like this other thingy by the Victorian poet Edward FitzGerald. Nevertheless, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was a Victorian bestseller and since 1859 has been issued in nearly a thousand editions. I haven’t seen a copy in the last few years, but at one time you could count on nearly every Hallmark store and other stores selling inexpensive gift books to have on hand an illustrated copy of the Rubáiyát.
What makes the poem interesting for readers of Great Literature is the way the melancholy “eat, drink, and be happy” theme runs so counter to the usual popular literary fare of its time. Many readers read the poem as a celebration of life right now, while others read the poem as a celebration of wanton hedonism, specifically in its celebration of living life for the sake of drinking all the wine you can.
Here are some lines from the beginning of the 30-40-page poem. I conclude with its most famous lines.
Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.
Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted–“Open then the Door!
“You know how little while we have to stay,
“And, once departed, may return no more.”
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.
. . . .
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.
Each Morn a thousand Roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the Rose of Yesterday?
. . . .
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
I started out The Literary Life in 2015 with this post–or manifesto, if you will. I think it is time to post it again with just a few tweaks.
Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.
- Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
- Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the conservative middle classes since these classes have no use for art—not real art. Members of these classes have conventionally been call philistines. The philistines now rule the United States and Britain.
- The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
- All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo pictured above. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares? Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.
So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.
Some big questions arising today in our postmodern period about art and literature are: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?
Questions, questions, questions. I want to keep talking about these big questions in this blog. Join in.
October 30, 2016
In 1885 on this day Ezra Pound was born. What can we say about Ezra Pound? Born of all places in frontier Idaho but spent his life as one of the exiles of the Lost Generation. Unquestionably, next only to close friend T. S. Eliot, the most important poet of the first part of the 20th century. Author of the most significant epic poem of the century, The Cantos. Controversial in life and in literature. The ultimate High Modernist, yet a precursor of Postmodernism in many ways. Influencer deluxe. All the big poets visited Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D. C. in the years before his death in 1972.
To commemorate, here are some quotes from his how to be a critic book, ABC of Reading from 1934:
Literature is language charged with meaning. Great Literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost degree possible.
The critic who doesn’t make a personal statement, in re measurements he himself has made, is merely an unreliable critic. He is not a measurer but a repeater of other men’s results.
The fogged language of swindling classes serves only a temporary purpose.
A nation which neglects the perceptions of its artists declines. After a while it ceases to act, and merely survives. There is probably no use in telling this to people who can’t see it without being told.
October 27, 2016
Sometimes nowadays it’s not fashionable to talk about one work of literature being better than another much less that any given work of literature might be GREAT while a similar work might be not so great. Especially when it comes to contemporary literature or fairly recent literature. Is Cormac McCarthy a great novelist? What about Larry McMurtry? Are either what we might call a Great novelist? Usually we just let the question alone.
Even when it comes to the writers in the Canon we generally just let matters rest where they are. Of course there was that time back in the old days of the Canon Wars when a hardy few even questioned Shakespeare’s and Milton’s greatness.
Still–we generally can’t let the question go. What determines greatness in literature? It’s a Big Question.
But maybe help is on the way. Or not. Anyway, I’ve been working with John Ruskin here in The Literary Life lately, and for the last two installments I’ve been examining what this great thinker of the Victorian era had to say about greatness. Don’t forget, here’s a guy who had a mental breakdown because he was afraid he wasn’t being taken as a Great writer.
So I’ve posted an excerpt from Ruskin’s Modern Painters where he tackles this Big Question. Then yesterday I posted Part One of this series. There I quoted Ruskin on what matters in determining Greatness. All that’s well and good, but: What things are we not concerned with in determining what great art is? Remember, Ruskin said, “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”
But then, “I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.”
There you go. I hope that resolves all your questions. Of course there is the little matter of the “higher faculty of the mind.” A great idea, by which a work’s greatness is determined (and the more great ideas the better) can operate only on the “higher faculty” of your mind. So—do you have a higher faculty?
So, what makes a great writer or poet? Back to John Ruskin: “If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.”
You want to know which writer is greater than another? Add up the number of great ideas in each other’s work and compare them. Maybe I’m being a bit silly here and I apologize. Surely a work of literature that involves substantial ideas, substantial thinking, and that is received in a profound way by readers who really have a depth of mind that matters is a greater work of literature than another one that deals with less substantial thought. And the writer who in his or her whole body of work demonstrates such depth is greater than a writer whose work is less demonstrative of such. Right?
But what about works without such great ideas? What about comedy? (Shakespeare’s The Tempest?) Or farce? (Moliere’s A Physician in Spite of Himself?)
Or, what kinds of literary art in our time, I mean today, cannot be considered great (so says Ruskin) simply based upon their essential premise? Maybe fantasy? Or action thrillers? Cheap romance? I’d better stop before someone gets mad.
But, really, does John Ruskin have a point about what makes a work of literature GREAT. Is Ruskin correct? (Don’t forget the higher faculty of your mind when answering this question.)
I hope these discussions really make you think. I hope they are relevant to the literary life you lead. If you are new to The Literary Life blog click on #Big Questions in the tags and categories to see similar questions I have been treating this season and last.
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October 27, 2016
Yesterday I posted to The Literary Life a short excerpt from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that handles one of the biggest of the Big Questions relating to art or literature: What makes one work of art great and another one not great. So I urge you to scroll back in the blog one day to that selection from Modern Painters. Now, all of Ruskin’s examples are from painting, but as far as I know everyone agrees, it is a given, that what Ruskin says about great painting also applies to Great Literature.
Ok, let’s think for a minute. How do we evaluate literature? Do we just say I like what I see and that’s good enough for me? Well, of course, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But if you are like me, especially as I was when I was pretty young, you surely have wondered why it a universal given that, say, William Shakespeare is a great–with a capital G—GREAT playwright and poet whereas (I know I am going to get into trouble for this) J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is not a GREAT playwright and writer. Or substitute any two extremes of writers that you like. There clearly is a difference that goes way, way beyond “O gee whiz everybody has a right to their [sic.] own opinion.” This might be a good time for you to go way back into the archives of The Literary Life to that series I had last year on “What is Good Taste?” in literature.
As then, I am not promoting my opinions so much as I am merely asking you to think about these Big Questions by seeing what some of the great minds of the past have thought about them.
I have posted several celebrated facts of John Ruskin’s life and reputation recently. So here, let’s see what Ruskin has to say about the matter at hand: how do we evaluate a work’s tendency to greatness?
First, what is the importance of an artist’s carefully trained technique or lack thereof in determining greatness?
Ok, go John Ruskin. Tell us. How about this quote: “Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.”
What, you say? You mean all that work you did at the Chicago Art Institute the last four years for your MFA doesn’t make your painting great? Or, look buddy, I got an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that’s not good enough?
Well, ahem, let’s get back to Professor Ruskin who says, “He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed.” All that technique and craftsmanship is not enough.
Again, “He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet.” And, it is “nothing more than language.”
But relax. You didn’t waste your time learning technique. Ruskin does provide a caveat to all the above. Matters of technique of all kinds are necessary for a work of art to be great, but they are “not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”
Now, unfortunately, it seems to me as a critic that there are way to many writers or would-be writers who skip right past the whole technique and craft thing and head right toward saying (or “saying”) something great.
Of course, before Modernism, what mattered as far as technique and craft was pretty clear-cut. It’s always a good question to explore, for readers and writers, what matters by way of craft and technique, for us as postmodern readers and writers. Again, clearly some technical details do matter. What are they? Some things are obvious in, oh, say film production. but what about for poetry? For fiction? What about drama? I don’t know if I can tell you. I could make a few guess, but I’ll bet there are those ready to tell you.
There we go, John Ruskin beginning his discussion on what makes a work of art great. Stay tuned for more.
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John Ruskin as a Teacher. Contemporary Cartoon.
October 26, 2016
The next several blog posts on John Ruskin will relate to this excerpt from one of the massive works of art criticism and scholarship that primarily make John Ruskin’s reputation of one of the greatest thinkers of Victorian England and beyond. What Ruskin says here in relation to visual art has relevance to literary art as well.
from MODERN PAINTERS, “A Definition of Greatness in Art”
The Text from vol. 1, part 1, section 1, chapter 2
Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing. He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed. He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet. The language is, indeed, more difficult of acquirement in the one case than in the other, and possesses more power of delighting the sense, while it speaks to the intellect; but it is, nevertheless, nothing more than language, and all those excellences which are peculiar to the painter as such, are merely what rhythm, melody, precision, and force are in the words of the orator and the poet, necessary to their greatness, but not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….
[If] I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature; and I should cast out of the pale of criticism those parts of works of art which are not imitative, that is to say, intrinsic beauties of colour and form, and those works of art wholly, which, like the Arabesques of Raffaelle in the Loggias, are not imitative at all. Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.
If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.
October 11, 2016
Obviously, there are many ways of thinking about the literary life. For most of us, living the literary life is a passive experience consisting primarily of reading Great Literature for pleasure and thinking about matters literary. Some of us study and write about Great Literature. Many of us are content with leading a sedentary life, dwelling in our studies at home or visiting great libraries the way others visit famous art galleries. Then we have the John Ruskins of the world, people who change world attitudes, who write some of the most profound studies of literature in history. These are the people who write based upon incredible amounts of reading and study. Let’s look back at John Ruskin.
The Victorian Age in England (1837-1901) was an era in which a number of writers could make claim to being a dominant figure of their generation. One such figure was Ruskin, the literary, art, architecture, and cultural critic. His lush and rhythmical prose style makes even some of his more erudite works readable and memorable.
So often writers of even more recent times than Ruskin’s are unreadable today because their ideas and their writing styles simply date their work out of interest to any but scholars and pedants. But Ruskin’s ideas, controversial in his time, remain fresh today, still relevant, and often still influential.
In the last few weeks I posted two anecdotes in my First Impressions series of young Ruskin’s coming of age. Let’s start looking at this great man of letters and a few of his ideas.
Here is one of those people who lived out the literary life fully if not without personal turmoil.
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I’ve just finished reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Ok, I guess that’s a confession. What is a grownup doing reading Little Women? Or, what is a grown man doing reading Little Women? Alas, I’m a sucker for 19th-century sentimental literature. Besides, it’s a good Christmas read—which is when I started it—but it is a 600 page ordeal.
But think about a novel like Little Women. It is sentimental, full of plenty of good feeling. Alcott clearly was trying to communicate feeling (as well as plenty of strong moral precepts about proper ways for young women to become proper wives and “spinsters”). Evidently she succeeded considering the appeal of the novel through many generations.
But is Little Women art? Leo Tolstoy, as we have seen, has strong ideas about how to determine what is art and what is not art. He even has contempt for that which claims to be art but really is counterfeit art.
Let’s apply Tolstoy’s criteria from What is Art?
In Chapter 15 he states, “If a man is infected by the author’s condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.”
Further, “The stronger the infection the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits.”
The question in judging artistic merits of a work of literature, then, is not merely whether the feelings transmitted are infectious, but how infectious are the feelings? The more the better. It’s all a matter of quantity: “And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.”
What novel or book are you reading right now? Are its feelings infectious? How infectious?
Try Tolstoy’s system out. Why not? Don’t question the system. I’ll take that up next post. Let us know your results.
Think about it.
I have been writing recently about the idea of what makes a work of literature art, based upon Leo Tolstoy’s treatise What is Art? And several of you have been posting your excellent responses. Look back at what readers have been saying about this series and post your own responses. Perhaps even respond to others and start a conversation going.
In developing his argument, Tolstoy, we have seen, establishes ways in which literary art communicates and what kinds of communication make something art and, specifically, what kind don’t. If you want to refer to Tolstoy’s actual text, we have been looking through Chapter 5. (I have a link in an earlier post in this series.)
The preparatory work being finished, Tolstoy eventually states his definition of art. So here we go. Is Tolstoy right or wrong?
First, here is what art does: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art.”
So, the writer first feels a strong experience and through the literary tools at hand transmits his or her feelings to the readers.
Then Tolstoy states his definition of what literary art is: “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.”
Notice the word “infect.” Readers are infected by the writer. They feel a similar intensity of feelings and emotion as the writer originally felt.
Ok, can you make an application relating to literature today or perhaps some of the Great Literature you have studied in the past? Is Tolstoy right?
But, you know, there’s also another question you might be considering. You may already be thinking it. For most of the modernist period in which many of us grew up and were educated, the value of feelings was minimized. We were taught, and many still accept, that truth is discoverable only through objective, reasoned inquiry. Well, if the main purpose of art is to transmit feelings, is art valuable?
Think about it.