There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art. All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys. In a similar way, psychology itself, when pushed to any nicety, discovers an abhorrent baldness, but rather from the fault of our analysis than from any poverty native to the mind. And perhaps in æsthetics the reason is the same: those disclosures which seem fatal to the dignity of art seem so perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those conscious and unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy of the serious artist to employ were yet, if we had the power to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of the sense finer than we conceive, and hints of ancient harmonies in nature. This ignorance at least is largely irremediable. We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the principle laid down in Hudibras, that
‘Still the less they understand,
The more they admire the sleight-of-hand,’
many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure. I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.
1. Choice of Words.—The art of literature stands apart from among its sisters, because the material in which the literary artist works is the dialect of life; hence, on the one hand, a strange freshness and immediacy of address to the public mind, which is ready prepared to understand it; but hence, on the other, a singular limitation. The sister arts enjoy the use of a plastic and ductile material, like the modeller’s clay; literature alone is condemned to work in mosaic with finite and quite rigid words. You have seen these blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a pediment, a third a window or a vase. It is with blocks of just such arbitrary size and figure that the literary architect is condemned to design the palace of his art. Nor is this all; for since these blocks, or words, are the acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here possible none of those suppressions by which other arts obtain relief, continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic touch, no smoothed impasto, no inscrutable shadow, as in painting; no blank wall, as in architecture; but every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical progression, and convey a definite conventional import.
Now the first merit which attracts in the pages of a good writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the apt choice and contrast of the words employed. It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions. But though this form of merit is without doubt the most sensible and seizing, it is far from being equally present in all writers. The effect of words in Shakespeare, their singular justice, significance, and poetic charm, is different, indeed, from the effect of words in Addison or Fielding. Or, to take an example nearer home, the words in Carlyle seem electrified into an energy of lineament, like the faces of men furiously moved; whilst the words in Macaulay, apt enough to convey his meaning, harmonious enough in sound, yet glide from the memory like undistinguished elements in a general effect. But the first class of writers have no monopoly of literary merit. There is a sense in which Addison is superior to Carlyle; a sense in which Cicero is better than Tacitus, in which Voltaire excels Montaigne: it certainly lies not in the choice of words; it lies not in the interest or value of the matter; it lies not in force of intellect, of poetry, or of humour. The three first are but infants to the three second; and yet each, in a particular point of literary art, excels his superior in the whole. What is that point?
When David Malouf’s little hardback essay The Happy Life showed up late last year to Biblioklept World Headquarters, I’ll admit to grimacing a bit. I judge books by their covers, their appearance, their size, and frankly Malouf’s little book, with its smallish dimensions and hokey subtitle seemed to scream “self-help/gift book.” And oh the emoticon!
But before I do these “Books Acquired” I always take the time to sample the prose a bit. Here’s what happened with Malouf: I kept reading. Malouf snagged me into doing a thought experiment on the first page (“Think of a medieval farmer as he struggled to keep body and soul together”), an exercise that quickly led to citations from Solzhenitsyn, Montaigne, and Sir Henry Wotton—before posing the book’s central questions:
The question that arises is not so much ‘How should we live if we want to be happy?’ but how is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives—large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death—that happiness still eludes so many of us? What have we succumbed to or failed to do that might have helped us? What is it in us, or in the world we have created, that continues to hold us back?
First World Problems! Seriously though, Malouf seems aware of the simple answer to these questions—it’s impossible and likely dangerous to be happy all the time; what he really seems concerned about are the paradigms and ideologies and systems—government, media, corpocracy, pick your poison—that create impositions of happiness as a kind of ideal. As such, Malouf returns again and again to Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He ends his long essay with a discussion of Solzhenisyn’s Shukov, “an unlikely example of the happy man.” And through this storytelling, we can find a moment of stabilizing happiness too:
Fiction, with its preference for what is small and might elsewhere seem irrelevant; its facility for smuggling us into another skin and allowing us to live a new life there; its painstaking devotion to what without it might go unnoticed and unseen; its respect for contingency, and the unlikely and odd; its willingness to expose itself to moments of low, almost animal being and make them nobly illuminating, can deliver truths we might not otherwise stumble on.
Shukhov is not happy because he has solved the problem of ‘how to live’ —the live he lives is too provisional, too makeshift for that. Or because, as the classical schools would have put it, he has achieved quite self-containment, self-sufficiency. Quite the opposite.
What he achieves, briefly, intermittently, is moments of self-fulfillment, something different and more accessible, more democratic we might call it, than self-containment. But he achieves it only at moments.
He is happynow—who can know what tomorrow or the day after will do to him? He is happy within limits—and this may be a clue to what makes happiness possible for him, or for any of us.
There’s nothing really radical about this thesis—that we can claim agency to our own happiness by choosing to measure it in small units—but the way that Malouf reaches it is pleasurable to follow and intellectually engaging. I hope that some suckers judge this book by its cover, pick it up in the hopes of buying a map to contentment, and then stick around for Malouf’s journey through literature, philosophy, art, and history. Good stuff.
The Happy Life is new in hardback from Pantheon.
Lars Iyer’s latest, Exodus presumably concludes the trilogy that began with Spurious and Dogma. Exodus picks up the adventures/failures of our tragicomic (anti)heroes Lars and W. Here’s publisher Melville House’s description:
With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply — although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerrilla philosophy movement — conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges — that will save the study of philosophy after the long intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.
For another, they must save themselves, perhaps by learning to play badminton after all. Gin isn’t free, you know.
Exodus is on deck in my reading stack. I talked to Lars a few years ago about Spurious (and other stuff), and he brought up the idea of “exodus” (as in the concept, not the book) early on:
As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modeled on investment and return.
I love the cover on this one.
Yes, we became very wakeful; so much so that our recumbent position began to grow wearisome, and by little and little we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes well tucked around us, leaning against the head-board with our four knees drawn up close together, and our two noses bending over them, as if our kneepans were warming-pans. We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.
From Chapter 11 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
He was an aphorism writer, there are countless aphorisms of his, I thought, one can assume he destroyed them, I write aphorisms, he said over and over, I thought, that is a minor art of the intellectual asthma from which certain people, about all in France, have lived and still live, so-called half philosophers for nurses’ night tables, I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist’s waiting room; the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting.
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser.
Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance is now out in trade paperback. I wasn’t sure how interesting a book about the history of measurement could be, but when I flicked it open randomly to a chapter about Marcel Duchamp I found myself intrigued.
From Laura J. Snyder’s review at The Wall St. Journal:
‘The non-scientific mind has the most ridiculous ideas of the precision of laboratory work, and would be much surprised to learn that . . . the bulk of it does not exceed the precision of an upholsterer who comes to measure a window for a pair of curtains.” So wrote the American philosopher and scientist Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914).
Peirce may have been giving the general public more credit than he intended; most people don’t think much about the precision of scientific measurements, let alone question where the standards of measurement have come from in the past or where they are headed today. These topics are addressed by Robert P. Crease’s educational and often entertaining book, “World in the Balance.” While some readers might be put off by the episodic and occasionally repetitive structure of the book—belying its origin as the author’s columns for Physics World—those who are not will be amply rewarded with a sweeping survey of the history of measurement and the search for universal and absolute standards, from ancient China up to practically yesterday.
The Most Beautiful Machine by Hanns-Martin Wagner. Based on an idea by mathematician Claude E. Shannon. The trunk is closed, an observer presses the ON button, and a prosthetic arm pops out, presses the OFF button, and the trunk closes again. Lovely. More/see it in action.
I’ve been digging Stephen Eric Bronner’s tight synthesis of modernism, Modernism at the Barricades, which traces the historical rise of expressionism, futurism, surrealism and more against the political, social, and historical backdrop of the emerging 20th century. Bronner’s book is a sharp but concise primer of sorts, using examples like the correspondence between Schoenberg and Kandinsky and the paintings of Emil Nolde to illuminate the big concepts and cultural aims of different modernist movements. Photographs, prints, and posters (like the proclamation below) help to illustrate Bronner’s chapters as well.
Bronner’s book would make a handy starting point to any student beginning a study of modernism. It doesn’t try to exhaustively account for each and every modernist, but neither does it forsake specificity in favor of a broad overview. Best of all, Bronner is clear and concise, an attribute which unfortunately is all too rare in academic writing. There’s a lucid sensibility that seems to govern the book, which we can see from its earliest chapter. Here Bronner delineates modernism’s cultural project and at the same time points out some of modernism’s own shortsightedness:
Modernism would call into question every aspect of modern life, from the architecture through which our apartments are designed, to the furniture in which we sit, to the comic books our children read, to the films we watch and the museums we visit, to the experience of time and individual possibility that mark our lives. Modernists may have believed that they were contesting modernity, but their efforts and their hopes were shaped by it. Their activities legitimated what they intended to oppose. Their critique, in short, presupposed its object. Modernists believed that they were contesting tradition in the name of the new and the constraints of everyday life in the name of multiplied experience and individual freedom. These artists were essentially anarchists imbued with what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.”
They opposed the “system” without understanding how it worked or what radical political transformation required and implied. Oddly, they never understood how deeply they were enmeshed in what they opposed. Modernists envisioned an apocalypse that had no place for institutions or agents generated within modernity. Theirs was less a concern with class consciousness than an opposition to the alienating and reifying constraints of modernity. Unfettered freedom of expression and a transformation in the experience of everyday life were the modernists’ goals. Even when seduced by totalitarian movements, whether of the left or the right, most of them despised what Czeslaw Milosz called the“captive mind.” Not all the problems that they uncovered—sexual repression and generational conflicts, among others—required utopian solutions. But their utopian inclinations were transparent from the beginning. Modernists believed that the new would not come from within modernity, but would appear as an external event or force for which, culturally, the vanguard would act as a catalyst.
Good stuff. Modernism at the Barricades is new in hardback from Columbia University Press.