Unlearning bad writing

Aaron Sachs in The American Scholar — "Lopate thinks of himself primarily as a storyteller rather than as a teacher or interpreter or critic or advocate; the literary essay, he insists, “is not a logical proof or a legal brief.” It thrives on internal contradiction and a sense of exploration: “If you know already what all your points are going to be when you sit down to write, the piece is likely to seem dry, dead on arrival.” So much for the disciplined outline. At the same time, though, Lopate acknowledges that “my own essays do always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade.” To see the potential compatibility of narrative and analysis, of exploration and argumentation—say, in classic nonfiction writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag—is perhaps to see new possibilities for combining deep research with gripping, memorable prose."

"...as W.H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong..."

Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard — "Between time spent watching six segments of Seinfeld and listening to the late Beethoven quartets there really can’t be any argument about which is the right choice. Nor can there be any between reading, say, Tolstoy and Stephen King or Sir Ronald Syme and Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for visual art, about suffering and much else, as W. H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong, and any competition between them and contemporary visual art ended, sadly, with the triumph of Andy Warhol, after whom serious people no longer needed to be interested in contemporary visual art. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know. Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know."

The original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished."

Charles Rosen in an essay titled "The Frontiers of Nonsense," published in The Frontiers of Meaning: If getting used to music is the essential condition for understanding, it is hard to see just what purpose is served by writing about it. A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art itself teaching us how to understand it, and makes the critic not merely parasitical but strictly superfluous. This is not an unprecedented dilemma but one in which the critic of literature found himself at the end of the eighteenth century, when the function of criticism as an act of judgment crumbled before his eyes. The accepted criteria that had served so well for centuries began to seem the heritage of an alien culture; it no longer required any courage, or provoked any surprise, to question the authority of the classics, and it became almost commonplace to assume that the models given by Homer, Virgil, and Horace were no longer relevant to the literature of contemporary Europe. With the realization that absolute standards were not valid for new civilizations and different cultures, critics were compelled to derive their measures of evaluation from each culture in turn, and then from each individual author, and finally from each work. Standards could no longer be imposed from outside or in advance, and critics finally recognized that a new work was capable of establishing its own system of values. Here is the basis for Wordsworth's famous affirmation that an original poet "must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished." The more traditional, straightforward exercise of judgment was left to journalists. Critical evaluation was transformed into understanding, and criticism became not an act of judgment but of comprehension.

This is the legacy of Romanticism, and critics who would like to maintain or return to absolute standards have been protesting it without much success for almost two centuries. Whether there is, in fact, anything constant or invariant about aesthetic appreciation is irrelevant -- even if there is, it must be on a level of such generality that it can never help us in any given instance. Our sensuous appreciation of the world and of the works created by man has, no doubt, a biological foundation, one shared by all human beings, but that is no use to us when we try to evaluate a Bach fugue or a Dostoevsky novel -- or even the simple experience of a landscape, as our delight in the view of a mountain or a waterfall is also determined by the traditions of our culture. The coexistence of different criteria of judgment is, in any case, by now a fact of life. Beethoven cannot be judged or even understood by the standards of Mozart, however much he may have continued them, nor Berg by the standards of Wagner or Richard Strauss, nor Elliott Carter by the values of Ives and Stravinsky. A work of music can be only partially integrated into history, although that partial integration may be inescapable: it also demands to be listened to as if nothing had come before it and nothing was to come afterward.

The paradox was stated explicitly in that manifesto of Central European Romanticism first published in 1799, the Athenaeum, at the beginning of the section of book reviews:

"Excellent works generally criticize [characterize, or review] themselves, and in this respect it is superfluous for another to perform yet again the very task that the author has doubtless already done. If such a criticism, nevertheless, is a work of art (as it always ought to be), then its existence is anything but superfluous; but it stands entirely for itself and is as independent of the written work criticized as this itself is independent of the material treated and described within it."

This proclaims the independence of the critic, which may here be equated with the freedom of the artist; and it must be recognized that a small degree of irresponsibility is necessary for a critic with any self-respect. Without that irresponsibility the work of criticism is indeed superfluous. If the principles of judgment are to be drawn from the work of art itself, it is clear that its creator has already done that, even if only implicitly.

"I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin."

Saul Bellow interviewed in the Paris Review -- "My first two books are well made. I wrote the first quickly but took great pains with it. I labored with the second and tried to make it letter-perfect. In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard. Not a bad standard, to be sure, but one which, in the end, I found repressive—repressive because of the circumstances of my life and because of my upbringing in Chicago as the son of immigrants. I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately. Those books, though useful, did not give me a form in which I felt comfortable. A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form that frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities? With a borrowed sensibility? With the desire to be “correct”? Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to The New Yorker? I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin. I should add that for a young man in my position there were social inhibitions, too. I had good reason to fear that I would be put down as a foreigner, an interloper. It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words. I realized even in college that the people who told me this were not necessarily disinterested friends. But they had an effect on me, nevertheless. This was something from which I had to free myself. I fought free because I had to."

Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

"The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction."

A brief excerpt from Robert Pippin's After the Beautiful: "There are many reasons to be skeptical that anything of value can result from trying to project Hegel into the future like this. After all, anyone who has heard anything about Hegel has probably heard that he said two things: that philosophy was its own time understood in thought, and some summary of the following remarks.

In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgment also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another. The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.

"If one considers the history of modernist art after Hegel, there is something both ominously prophetic and yet clearly hasty about Hegel’s remarks. The tone of pessimism in the remark can seem to us more like something simply obvious. It seems trivially true that the fine arts do not and cannot matter to us as they mattered in the tragic festivals of ancient Athens or in religious practices or in the dreams of the Frühromantik. We have invested our hopes in science, technology, medicine, market capitalism, and, to some lingering extent, in religion, but certainly not in art. And Hegel had not even anticipated two other threats to the vitality and autonomy of art: that an art-buying leisure class of the bourgeoisie would become the principal patrons of the arts, nor did he anticipate how mass consumer societies would radically alter the conditions for art’s production and appreciation. Yet, on the other hand, the revolutionary vitality of the modernist moment itself and the continuing vitality of art forms like film and photography are evidence enough that art has not become a thing of the past."

Green: the history of a color

"For this queasily lush and labile tint was once hard to make, as difficult to manufacture as it is omnipresent in the world around us. The early colorants were derived from earth or vegetable matter, but they did not dye fast or true, and with time they grew faded and mottled. Painters liked malachite, though it was expensive and tended to blacken; Veronese relied on green and yet also complained about it, wishing its pigments were “as good in quality as the reds.” And some greens, as Pastoureau writes, were literally poisonous. Many seventeenth-century dyeworks relied on a vivid copper derivate called verdet whose fumes, even on finished garments, could prove deadly; while a nineteenth-century tint called “Schweinfurt green” that was used in wallpaper and upholstery came laden with arsenic."