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Christmas is celebration: Celebration for the wonders of the season; celebration of family and community; and celebration of new expectations. And we celebrate with feasting and merriment. Here is one of the most famous descriptions of Christmas feasting in Great Literature. And it comes at the end of the familiar story of darkness and blasted hopes miraculously enlightened by that core of goodness that lies in the hearts of all humanity, though so often buried in a fallen world. Sit back and read this passage and savor the feast.
From Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows. But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up and bring it in.
Suppose it should not be done enough? Suppose it should break in turning out? Suppose somebody should have got over the wall of the back-yard, and stolen it, while they were merry with the goose — a supposition at which the two young Cratchits became livid? All sorts of horrors were supposed.
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.
At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle.
These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily.
How Do We Know if It’s Art or Not?
Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 4
How do we know whether something we are reading is art or not. That’s a big question that comes up all the time in our literary lives, wouldn’t you agree? What’s the difference between Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and, say, a romance by Danielle Steele? Are both novels really art? Ok, feel free to defend Steele if you like, but, is there any question of the greatness of Anna Karenina? Plug any name you want in place of Danielle Steele in this question, but there is one thing we surely agree upon and that there is a difference between Tolstoy’s novel and a novel by any of 100s of authors such as Steele on the shelves at the local Books-a-Million. So, we face the question of what is art and what is not, right? The problem is not in the question of whether there’s a difference, but in the question of what’s the difference.
Let’s see what Tolstoy himself says about how we know what’s art and what’s not. If you haven’t been reading The Literary Life, I am developing a series on what art is based upon Tolstoy’s highly influential treatise What is Art? published in 1897. Tolstoy follows one particular tradition in answering the question. The passages I am looking at today come from Chapter 5, if you are curious.
Of the four questions and approaches to the consideration of art that I outlined in Part 2 of this series, Tolstoy rejects the question of aesthetics. In fact, he attacks all the various theories of beauty of his day in What is Art?
Aesthetic theories, he says, are either of the mystical or transcendental sorts, or they appeal to the hedonistic. The former is absurd and the latter is inadequate: “The satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a basis for the definition of the merits of food.”
Tolstoy is equally scornful of the popular aestheticism of his day—the idea of art for art’s sake. Any kind of art, or literature that can only appeal to the educated classes, or as he says, to the initiates, he condemns outright.
Thus, along with a number of other works of art held in esteem through time, Tolstoy attacks Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, partly on this ground.
No, for Tolstoy, essence does not matter in art. It is not what a work of art is but what it does. And for him art is the communication of feelings: “Art is a human activity consisting of this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” And, as we will see later, the degrees of infectiousness and sincerity become chief criteria in judging art.
The first thing for you then to think about is where do you fall between these two polarities—Art is or Art does? (Of course, these are not the only choices, but for now just consider these two.) In other words, what makes something art? Never mind for now whether it’s good art or not. Just, what makes it art?
For example, there you stand with the hordes in The Louvre gazing at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on the wall. What makes the Mona Lisa art? The mere fact of its existence right there in front of you? Would a similar painting be art if it were one of those masterpieces forgotten for years and found rolled up in somebody’s attic and sold in a Sotheby’s auction for millions? Was it a work of art all the time it was rolled up and neglected? Why?
Or does the painting do something? Does it move us in certain ways? Again, take any given work of Great Literature. Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet really art simply because of its existence? Or is the fact that we identify with Hamlet and feel powerful emotions of pity for him yet fear that we too could be brought to such a pass under similar circumstances?
What do you think? Think about it. As a spoiler alert, Tolstoy is going to consider sincerity the standard of judgment for determining art.
Art Communicates Soul to Soul: Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?
Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 5
For Leo Tolstoy a work of literature does not justify itself merely by its existence. There is no such thing as Art for Art’s Sake. The function of the work is to communicate. He says, “Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner.”
Of course all texts communicate similarly to this. But art and literature goes further: “The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it from intercourse by means of words, consists in this, that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.”
Literature communicates the author’s feelings. But communication requires a reader. What is the responsibility of the reader in order for the work of art to be effective? Tolstoy says, “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.”
Again, Tolstoy says, “And it is on this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling, and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”
Well, fine, all these ideas may seem fairly reasonable. But wait. One of the issues in poetry, especially, since the late modernist period of the post World War II generations has been that of subjectivity versus objectivity.
So, does the poet unashamedly bare his or her soul to the world or should the poet aim for as much detachment from the subject matter as possible? Some “confessional” poets such as Sylvia Plath were at one time criticized for expressing personal feelings.
For the reader, or the critic, does it matter what the poet felt when composing the poem? In fact, do we care what the poet intended at all? Actually, shouldn’t we approach the poem, or any text, as if the poet is dead and has left no trace of intentions whatever? Do intentions matter anyway? These are common questions.
Obviously, Tolstoy would say the answers to these questions would all be “You bet it matters.” In fact, these answers would be determinative in reading literature.
Is Tolstoy right? How do his ideas play out in literature today?
But, ok, art communicates soul to soul. That’s fine. What doesn’t? In other words what is not art?