By Charles Matthews

Saturday, April 23, 2011

9. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 170-192

Symbolism: The Artist-Hero; The Morality of the Artist (W.B. Yeats, Gustave Flaubert, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry). The Art of Life (Walter Pater, Joris-Karl Huysmans, André Gide, W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke)

W.B. Yeats: The Courage of the Artist

In a 1907 speech, referring to the late poet and critic Lionel Johnson, Yeats asserts, "A poet is by the very nature of things a man who lives with entire sincerity, or rather, the better his poetry the more sincere his life." I'm a little unsure how one lives sincerely. One expresses sincerity, of course, and that may be what Yeats means. "Above all it is necessary that the lyric poet's life should be known, that we should understand that his poetry is no rootless flower but the speech of a man." Yeats, who was very much a public figure in his day, would of course advocate this kind of openness. "Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself."

Gustave Flaubert: Art as Ascetic Religion

Writing to Louise Colet in 1857, Flaubert claims to have written twenty-five pages of Madame Bovary in six weeks and to be sustained in this snail's pace of composition "only by a kind of permanent rage, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but which never abates." He is definitely not sustained by the indifference and hostility of the society in which he lives:
If everything around us, instead of permanently conspiring to drown us in a slough of mud, contributed rather to keep our spirits healthy, who can tell whether we might not be able to do for aesthetics what stoicism did for morals? Greek art was not an art; it was the very constitution of an entire people, of an entire race, of the country itself.
Humankind, he claims, has no use for beauty at this time. "The more Art develops, the more scientific it will be, just as science will become artistic." The result is, even when he is pleased with his work, he feels "great despair and emptiness -- doubts that taunt me at my moments of naïvest satisfaction. And yet I would not exchange all this for anything, because my conscience tells me that I am fulfilling my duty, obeying a decree of fate -- that I am doing what is Good, that I am in the Right."

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Mission of the Artist

Writing to the novelist Ludwig Ganghofer in 1897, the 21-year-old Rilke chafes against the philistinism of his relatives, whose view is that "Art is something one just cultivates on the side in free hours." Instead, for Rilke,
Whoever does not consecrate himself wholly to art with all his wishes and values can never reach the highest goal. He is not an artist at all.... I feel myself to be an artist, weak and wavering in strength and boldness, yet aware of bright goals, and hence to me every creative activity is serious, glorious, and true. Not as martyrdom do I regard art -- but as a battle the chosen one has to wage with himself and his environment in order to go forward.... But that needs a whole man! Not a few weary leisure hours.
Many 21-year-olds have made such proclamations. Few of them became Rilke.

Paul Valéry: The Artist as Universal Man

For this long philosophical disquisition, centered on Leonardo da Vinci, from 1895, I need to turn again to the introduction by Ellmann and Feidelson for guidance.
Artistic heroism is epitomized by Paul Valéry in his figure of Leonardo da Vinci, a type of the artist as universal man. Exploring the night of consciousness, the artist discovers the reality to which we are accustomed is but one solution out of many possible ones. He is able to divest objects of their peculiarities and, at the same time, to sense what consciousness is apart from its objects, to reach "the deep note of existence itself." Such a man is interested in everything, yet always seems to be thinking of something else, for his mental life is double, a drama of mental images proceeding concurrently with an awareness of the movements of thought itself. He takes responsibility for his perceptions in a way that others do not, and he is concerned not with results but with the exercise of creative power. 
Once again, music is the touchstone for creativity: "the elusive art of music unites the liberties of sleep with the development and consistency of extreme attention" -- the mind is free in dreams, but only with wakeful attention can the things discovered in our dreams become whole and consistent. This "synthesis of intimate things" is impermanent, however. The products of the imagination are varied, and "The wonder is not that such things should be; it is that there should be such things and not such other things." We come "to suspect all accustomed reality of being only one solution amongst many others of universal problems."

So "the perfected consciousness ... has to begin by denying an infinite number of faiths, an infinite number of elements.... It reminds one absurdly of an audience invisible in the darkness of a theater which cannot see itself, which can see only the spectacle before it, and which, yet, all the time, invincibly feels itself the center of a breathlessly interesting evening." Consciousness is "an inexhaustible activity," compounded of "our most intimate feelings" as well as "exterior objects and events." Consciousness chooses what is important to it: "All things are replaceable by all things -- may not this be the definition of things?"
Is there anything that resists the lure of the senses, the dissipation of ideas, the fading of memories, the slow variation in the organism, the incessant and multiform activities of the universe? There is only this consciousness, and this consciousness only at its most abstract. Our personality itself, which, stupidly, we take to be our most intimate and deepest possession, our sovereign good, is only a thing, and mutable and accidental.
The achievement of identity comes from isolating a "substantial permanence from the strife of everyday truths." The ego that results from this effort "is no more sensitive, no less real than the center of gravity of a planetary system or ring, but ... is a result of the whole, whatever that whole may be."

In Leonardo, Valéry finds "a man whose activities seem so distant from each other that if I can find a unifying idea of them it may well seem more comprehensive than all other ideas.... Everything interests him.... He leaves behind him churches and fortresses; he fashions ornaments -- full of sweetness and strength -- and a thousand machines; and he makes calculation along many unsurveyed lines."

Artists, he observes, participate in a "coquetry of silence ... as to the origins of their work." They claim an autonomy for their creations. And "certain works of science, and mathematics in particular, show such clarity in their construction that one would say they were not the work of any one person at all. There is something unhuman about them. And this quality has had the effect of making people suppose so great a difference between certain studies, as, for instance, between the sciences and the arts, that, owing to it, opinion has also assumed a separation between the results of their labors."

But artists and scientists alike reach their results through a power to decide among the possibilities. The process at work is so insusceptible to analysis that "one invokes gods, genius and inspiration." We profess to believe "that something has created itself -- for man adores mystery and the marvelous.... One treats what is logical as if it were a miracle. But the 'inspired' author has been ready to perform his task a year before it was done, had been ripe, had been thinking of it always, perhaps without being conscious of the fact.... The consciousness of the operations of thought, the unrecognized logic of which I have spoken, exists but rarely, even in the most powerful minds."

The task is to maintain the mental flexibility necessary for creation, for "a thought that has become fixed takes on the characteristics of hypnosis and becomes, in the language of logic, an idol; in the domain of poetic construction and art, a sterile monotony." Liberation from that which is fixed, and the ability of "the mind to foresee its own activities, to imagine the structure of what has to be imagined in detail as a whole, and the effect of the sequence thus calculated, this sense is the condition of all generalization. It is that which in certain individuals appears as a veritable passion, and with an energy that is remarkable."
The universal man begins ... by simple contemplation, but he always returns to be impregnated by what he sees, returns to the intoxication of the particular instinct and to the emotion which the least of things real arouses if one keeps in mind the two, thing and instinct, in every way separate from each other and yet combining, in so many ways, so many different qualities.

Walter Pater: The Intensity of the Moment

Walter Pater, date unknown
Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) and his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885) became central texts for many fin de siècle intellectuals, and his prose influenced writers as various as Proust and Joyce, Pound and Wallace Stevens. He also drew fire from conservatives, who accused him of misleading his young followers. The word "exquisite," which appears early in these selections, is characteristic.

He, too, is aware that consciousness is a fragmentary and impermanent thing, that "That clear, perpetual outline of face and limb is but an image of ours," that life is "flame-like" in "that it is but the concurrence, renewed from moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their ways." (Compare Apollinaire's flame image in his discourse on painting.) So the trick is not to be swept away in the "flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action."

The result is "that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves," and the challenge is to "be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy." (An objection has been lodged against this image: that the point at which forces unite is the point at which they cancel one another out.) Pater argues for intensity of experience: "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end." And instead of being swept away with the flood, "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend.
Notice here the absence of hierarchy of experience, that art is but one of the media through which experience may be channeled. It may be something as content-free as a strange smell, or as content-rich as a "contribution to knowledge." It's this lack of value judgment that most troubled Pater's critics. Similarly, Pater, who had given up on Christianity, argues for a kind of perpetual agnosticism: "What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own." 

Finally, however, he comes around to valorizing art:
Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion -- that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake.
In Marius, set in the second century C.E., Pater does come around to the question of religion, but typically it is regarded as only one avenue of experience:
the products of the imagination must themselves be held to present the most perfect forms of life -- spirit and matter alike under their purest and most perfect conditions -- the most strictly appropriate objects of that impassioned contemplation, which, in the world of intellectual discipline, as in the highest forms of morality and religion, must be held to be the essential function of the "perfect." Such manner of life might come even to seem a kind of religion -- an inward, visionary, mystic piety, or religion.

Joris-Karl Huysmans: Artificial Sensation

Joris-Karl Huysmans, c. 1895
Huysmans's À rebours, the title of which is translated here Against Nature, but has also been translated Against the Grain, is an 1884 novel about the ultimate aesthete, des Esseintes. If Pater is interested in the experiential possibilities of "strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours," he has nothing on des Esseintes.

In the excerpt, des Esseintes has devised elaborate ways of recreating the experience of sea travel without the tedious necessity of actually going to sea, because the pleasure of such an experience "exists only in recollection of the past and hardly ever in experience of the present," and he could enjoy this pleasure "in full and in comfort, without fatigue or worry.... Travel, indeed, struck him as a waste of time, since he believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience."

Arthur Zaidenberg, illustration for À rebours, 1931
In fact, the character of des Esseintes is the logical extension of all of the arguments that art is superior to nature -- "artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day." Moreover, if all arts aspire to the condition of music, then des Esseintes has found a unique way of having the musical experience and ... drinking it too, with his "mouth organ," providing drops of liqueurs that evoke the sounds of various musical instruments.

These over-the-top excerpts from À rebours suggest that Huysmans was having sly fun, but the book was taken quite seriously. It is generally thought to be the "poisonous French novel" referred to in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

André Gide: The Reflexive Image

These excerpts from Gide's journals for January 1892 find the 22-year-old writer setting out on his career in some confusion. He has met Oscar Wilde and felt overwhelmed by the force of his personality and intellect: "In his company I had lost the habit of thinking.... A few thoughts from time to time, but my clumsiness in handling them made me give them up." He is longing to find a direction for his life: "I am anxious to know what I shall be.... I am aware of a thousand possibilities in me, but I cannot resign myself to want to be only one of them."

André Gide in 1893
Moreover, he has achieved the self-consciousness of the artist before he has truly figured out what course his art will take: "A man's life is his image," he proclaims, and he hasn't decided what that image is. An encounter with Wilde, the master image-maker, must surely have provoked this dilemma. He is also in the early stages of discovering and exploring his sexual orientation, which may be what provokes his reflections on morality and sincerity:
Morality consists in substituting for the natural creature (the old Adam) a fiction that you prefer. But then you are no longer sincere. The old Adam is the sincere man.

This occurs to me: the old Adam is the poet. The new man, whom you prefer, is the artist. The artist must take the place of the poet. From the struggle between the two is born the work of art.

W.B. Yeats: The Completed Image

If, as Gide asserted, "A man's life is his image," Yeats, in a letter written not long before his death to Lady Elizabeth Pelham, a friend with whom he had considered traveling to India, seems content with his.
It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, "Man can embody truth but he cannot know it. "I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions.

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Earth

Writing in 1925 to Witold von Hulewicz, his Polish translator, about the Duino Elegies, Rilke balks at an explanation: "They reach out infinitely beyond me." The poet, he says, becomes part of a collective experience of the world. "We of the here and now are not for a moment hedged in the time-world, nor confined within it; we are incessantly flowing over and over to those who preceded us, to our origins and to those who seemingly come after us." In the Elegies, he says the world of immediate experience, "the beloved visible and tangible" is being converted "into the invisible vibrations and excitation of our own nature, which introduces new vibration-frequencies into the vibration-spheres of the universe... The earth has no way out other than to become invisible: in us who with a part of our natures partake of the invisible, have (at least) stock in it, and can increase our holdings in the invisible during our sojourn here."

The angel in the poems is not the angels of Christianity, but more like the angels in Islam: "that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, appears already consummated.... All the worlds of the universe are plunging into the invisible as into their next deepest reality."

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