May 6, 2012

Art and Society

From The Past Recaptured, by Marcel Proust (1932 translation by Frederick Blossom of Le Temps Retrouvé (1928)):

Even in our artistic enjoyment, although sought after for the impressions it gives, we are very quickly content to leave those impressions aside as something that cannot be expressed and confine our attention to those phases which allow us to experience the pleasure without analysing the sensations thoroughly, while thinking that we are communicating them to others with similar tastes, with whom we shall be able to converse because we shall be talking to them of something which is the same for them as for us, the personal root of our own impression having been eliminated. At the very times when we are the most dispassionate observers of nature, of society, love, even art itself, since every impression has two parts, one of them incorporated in the object and the other prolonged within ourselves and therefore knowable only to us, we are quick to neglect the latter, that is to say, the one part to which we ought to devote our attention, and consider only the other half, which, being outside ourselves, cannot be studied deeply and consequently never will cause us any fatiguing exertion; the slight groove that a musical phrase or the sight of a church made in our consciousness we find it too difficult to try to comprehend. But we play the symphony again and again or keep returning to look at the church, until, in this running away from our own life which we have not the courage to face — they call this “erudition” — we come to know them as well, and in the same manner, as the most learned lover of music or archaeology. How many there are, consequently, who stop at that point and extract nothing from their impression, but go to their graves useless and unsatisfied, like celibates of art. They are tormented by the same regrets as virgins and idlers, regrets that fecund labour would dispel. They are more wrought up over works of art than the real artists, because they do not labour arduously to get to the bottom of their emotional state and therefore it is diffused in outward expression, puts heat into their remarks and blood into their faces; they think they are doing something really great when, after the execution of a work they like, they shout vociferously “Bravo, bravo!” But these manifestations do not force them to seek light on the nature of their love; they do not know what it really is. Meanwhile, this unexpended passion exuberates into even their calmest conversation and leads them to indulge in grand gestures, facial contortions and noddings of the head when they talk of art. “I have been at a concert where they played some music which, I admit, did not thrill me. Then the quartette began and, nom d’une pipe, that was another story!” (Here the music lover’s face assumes an anxious expression, as if he were saying to himself, “Why, I see sparks, I smell something burning; there must be a fire somewhere!”) “Good Lord! what a difference! It was exasperating, it was badly written, but it was stunning! It was not something everybody could appreciate.” And yet, ridiculous though these devotees may be, they are not entirely to be scorned. They are nature’s first efforts in the process of evolving the artist; they are as shapeless and lacking in viability as the earliest animals, which preceded the present species and were not so constituted as to be able to survive. These weak-willed, sterile dabblers should arouse our sympathy like those first contrivances which were not able to leave the ground, but in which there was, not yet the means, secret and still to be discovered, but at any rate the desire, to fly. “And let me tell you, old man,” adds the dilettante, as he takes your arm, “that’s the eighth time I’ve heard it and I promise you, it won’t be the last.” And in truth, since they fail to assimilate the really nourishing part of art, they suffer from a continual need of artistic enjoyment, a gnawing hunger that nothing can satisfy. So they go and applaud the same work for a long time at a stretch, believing also that in being present they are performing a duty, an act of piety, as others regard their attendance at a meeting of a Board of Directors or a funeral. Then come works of a different, even quite contrary, character in literature, painting or music. For the ability to launch new ideas and systems and, especially, to absorb them has always been much more widespread than genuine good taste, even among the producers of art, and this tendency is spreading considerably with the increase in the number of literary reviews and journals — and, along with them, of people who imagine they have been called to be writers and artists. There was a time, for example, when the better element of our youth, the more intelligent and more sincerely interested, no longer cared for any but works having a lofty moral and sociological, even religious significance. They had the idea that that was the criterion of the value of a work, thereby repeating the error of such as David, Chenavard, Brunetière, and others. Instead of Bergotte, whose airiest sentences, as a matter of fact, required much profounder meditation, they preferred writers who seemed more profound only because they did not write as well. “His intricate way of writing is suited only to society people,” the democratically minded said, thereby paying society folk a compliment they did not deserve. But the moment our reasoning intelligence tries to judge works of art, there is no longer anything fixed or certain; one can prove anything one wishes to. Whereas the real essence of talent is a gift, an attribute of a cosmic character, the presence of which should first of all be sought for underneath the surface fashions of thought and style, it is by these latter qualities that the critics classify an author. Because of his peremptory tone and his ostentatious scorn of the school that preceded him, they put the mantle of prophecy on a writer who has no new message to deliver. This constant aberration of the critics is such that a writer should almost prefer to be judged by the public at large (if the latter were not incapable even of understanding what an artist has attempted in a line of effort unfamiliar to it). For the talent of a great writer — which, after all, is merely an instinct religiously hearkened to (while silence is imposed on everything else), perfected and understood — has more in common with the instinctive life of the people than with the superficial verbiage and fluctuating standards of the conventionally recognised judges. Their battle of words begins all over again every ten years — for the kaleidoscope comprises not only society groups, but also social, political and religious ideas, which temporarily spread out more broadly through refraction in the large masses but nevertheless are shortlived, like all ideas whose novelty succeeds in deceiving only minds that are not very exacting as to proofs. Therefore parties and schools have followed one another, attracting to themselves always the same minds, men of only relative intelligence, always prone to partisan enthusiasms which less credulous minds, more exacting in the matter of proofs, avoid. Unfortunately the former, just because they are only half-wits, need to round out their personalities with action; therefore they are more active than the superior minds, attract the crowd and build up around themselves, not only exaggerated reputations for some, and unwarranted condemnation of others, but civil and foreign wars, which it ought to be possible to escape with a little non-royalist self-criticism. And as for the pleasure that a perfectly balanced mind, a heart that is truly alive finds in the beautiful thought of some master, it is no doubt wholly sound, but however precious may be the men who are capable of enjoying it (how many are there in twenty years?) it nevertheless reduces them to the condition of being merely the full consciousness of someone else. When a man has done everything to win the love of a woman who could only have made him unhappy and, despite repeated efforts over many years, he has not even been able to obtain a rendezvous with her, instead of trying to describe his sufferings and the danger he has escaped, he reads and rereads this pensée from La Bruyère, annotating it with “a million words” and the most moving memories of his own life: “Men often want to love and do not know how to succeed in so doing; they seek defeat but are not able to find it, so that, if I may so express it, they are forced to remain free.” Whether he who wrote that pensée intended it so or not (and then it should read “be loved,” instead of “love,” and it would be finer that way) it is certain that the sensitive man of letters referred to gives it life, fills it with meaning to the point of bursting and cannot repeat it without overflowing with joy to find it so true and beautiful, and yet he has added hardly anything to it and there remains merely the pensée of La Bruyère.