Sunday, 15 November 2015

A Young Poet Takes His Exam

Sentimentality is the great danger to art. It replaces the complex flow of feeling with an idea that being too simple is static and vapid. Ideas must be alive. In philosophy vitality comes from insight and argument; which can enliven even the clumsiest of prose styles. With art it is more indirect; ideas live in concrete forms - in characters, in situations, in the overall pattern of a poem or play - and they gain their vitality from the indirectness and vagueness of their presentation: the more we have to undress the character to see the idea underneath the stronger we will feel it. The risk is always that the artist will be a dealer in secondhand ideas; ones acquired without thought or analytic penetration. Great and original thought is thought itself, not the ideas it generates; the outcome less important than the process. Think of a great thinker. Think of David Hume. The arguments between his full stops the flower pots where I grow my own roses and weeds.1 

The risk of sentimentality is very high amongst young artists. Committed to utopian ideals - it is the politics of the unpolitical - they clothe their characters in the concepts bought at the local chain store; let us call them Heaven Inc. or Hell & Sons Ltd. The ideas are big ones. Inevitably they don’t quite fit: the arms too long; the trousers pooling around the shoes; an actress’ skirt falls down…

We expect this of the young. The concept comes before the experience. Our hero describes the consequences: life is seen through the wrong end of the telescope. People. Things. Events. All are reduced to specks of dust floating amongst the planets of an overactive imagination.2 It is a period of life when ideas dominate. Abstraction is queen. Phenomena are her subjects. In the programme notes - it is the layout of the stage - the characters are given no names; they are labels only - Young Man; Girl; the Relatives; Landlady…  This is right. It is proper.

When young we want to take sides. We will be on the side of The Good and The Just. To feel warm and cuddly; to be so radical; to bathe in our self-righteousness. So nice! And what a pleasure it is to be called naive.3 It confirms our idealism. Perfection, and nothing less, is what we demand.

When young we think ideas the only thing worth thinking about. Reality, we see, is an infuriating mess of corruption, evil, laziness… If only… 

If only… How terrible these two words are!  

If only…life could be shaped to fit our ideas we would make a paradise. 

The error is obvious but is also easy to miss, especially when little distinction is made between the mind and the body; for of course Descartes’ dualism is old-fashioned nonsense; ideas just matter in another form. Albeit few notice that the definition of matter has changed with the centuries; today’s concept far closer to the medieval idea of spirit than the seventeen century’s conception of substance.4 

Reality, we think, is the same as our ideas about it. Make The People free and you will have free people. How ardently we believe this. Freedom. It is our favourite word.  And yet…

And yet… These two words too are terrible - for the young.

And yet…two centuries of history has shown us that a free People is a tyrannical one.5 

The error is simple but we will nearly always miss it: The People is not a person.6 The People is an abstraction; while you and I are not.

When young it is easy to make such mistakes. For we haven't read enough, experienced enough, thought enough, to understand the true nature of an idea; we do not grasp that its perfection is due solely to its vacuity. Take that wonderful word: freedom. When looked at closely we find that it in itself it has no meaning. Only the context, the society in a particular period, can give this word significance; thus Innstetten, a senior servant, is freer than his wife, Effi, who lives almost exclusively inside her imagination.7 Also: there are different types of meaning. Some are hard, crystalline and, yes, perfect; we think of mathematics.8 The beauty of politics, however, lies in its imperfections. An aesthetic pleasure is to know that one of the causes of the American Revolution was the opportunity it gave to Virginia’s elite to forgo their debts to British merchants.9 Namier’s discovery, that the secret service accounts were used not, as the opposition thought, to fund a vast conspiracy to keep the Whigs in power, but to pay the pensions of poor aristocrats, also vibrates our soul.10 These meanings are far more diffuse than a dictionary definition; every day changes them just a little.11 

Reality is different from our ideas about it. Reality. It is more resistant to the introduction of our ideas than at first seems possible. But when young…we think it is enough merely to think the idea to overcome resistance. Preach the gospel of The Good and all good people will follow it. As if our words were stronger than the call of another’s stomach; their ego and their vanity. And when we meet opposition, as we always do? Our opponents are corrupt. We will depose them. Virtue demands it! But…few are the times when the virtuous rule. It is usually during a revolution, when a society collapses;12 it is then that abstract thought takes over the government; through the actions of men like Robespierre, Lenin and Ayatollah Khomeini; each one a saint. Ideas replace life. Citizens are guillotined for a principle.13 No wonder the intellectuals love such times.14 But a world run by adolescents? Catherine the Great was a wise woman.

I frequently had long conversations with him, but with more curiosity than profit. Had I placed faith in him, every institution in my empire would have been overturned; legislation, administration, politics and finances would all have been changed for the purpose of substituting some impracticable theories…

…speaking to him freely, I said: “Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with the greatest pleasure to all that your brilliant genius has inspired you with; but all your grand principles, which I understand very well, though they will make fine books, would make sad work in actual practice. You forget, in all your plans for reformation, the difference between our two positions: you work only upon paper, which submits to everything; it is also altogether obedient and pliable, and opposes no obstacles, either to your imagination or to your pen; whereas I, a poor Empress, work upon human nature, which is, on the contrary, irritable and easily offended.”

I am satisfied that, from that time, he pitied me, and looked on me as one possessed only of a narrow and ordinary mind. From that moment he spoke to me only of literary subjects, and politics disappeared from our conversation.15

We must be wary of ideas. Be cautious about their introduction into the public realm. Intellectuals and artists, especially when young, lack such caution. Few are wise. The idea, they believe, should always be queen; and terrible are the times of a republic.16

In our handbag there is always a small collection of big ideas. Today this bag contains, amongst the lipgloss and the mascara, such maquillage as Freedom, Equality, Diversity and Individuality. How lovely they make us look! How easy to spot our pretty friends; how quick we can cast off the ugly enemy. Yes. Big ideas protect us from the unpleasantness of the world. When young we desperately need this protection; surrounded by an ever-changing kaleidoscope of contingency and confusion we seek clarity and simplicity. We need a simple pattern. And yet…

Ideas are not simple. 

We want to be free! And we will! We will!  And yet in life there is nothing precise and definite about freedom. Freedom isn't a thing. It isn’t a pack of peas we buy in Tesco’s. In truth, freedom isn't really an idea at all. It is an activity.17 A problem.18

The young think too highly of their minds. They are too influenced by reason.19 Their self-consciousness - a poor place to look at society - is also an issue. Reason. It is a kitchen knife chopping up the universe into digestible little pieces;20 like the potatoes on Mrs Lusty’s table.

Insulated within an enormous ego - we think of astronauts in a cockpit - the young artist is essentially ignorant of the world; if it exists at all it exists far below the elevated ideas he has about it. Only the idea is worthy of attention. No wonder that this Young Man spends his time lying on a bed brooding upon his own incapacity - he has lost the lyric spirit of his childhood and can think only about an abstraction called poetry. Verses have been replaced by concepts; which turn out to be jejune and worthless. This Young Man is yet to discover the real aesthetic gift that finds magic out of banality; meaning in the mundane activities of daily living. But we are moving too fast…

This is a time of crisis in a young aesthete’s life; the moment that will decide if he is a real artist or just an imaginary one. Poet or accountant? Wordsworth captures the tension.

                                     …Dearest Friend,
Forgive me if I say that I, who long
Had harboured reverentially a thought
That Poets, even as Prophets, each with each
Connected in a mighty scheme of truth,
Have each for his peculiar dower, a sense
By which he is enabled to perceive
Something unseen before; forgive me, Friend,
If I, the meanest of this band, had hope
That unto me had also been vouchsafed 
An influx, that in some sort I possessed
A privilege, and that a work of mine,
Proceeding from the depth of untaught things,
Enduring and creative, might become
A power like one of Nature’s.

This extract also suggests other - and the more peculiar - concerns of the artist: will I fashion my own art out of my own experiences or will I be defeated by my influences? Innovator, or follower and copyist?21 God, how difficult this time of life is! Burdened with a fear of failure - of talent, of authenticity, of finding one’s own voice - the young artist is prone to neurosis, and collapse.22 And it is here, in this time of crisis, that we find, perhaps, the source for that joy in Wordsworth’s Prelude; and especially in those tremendous last scenes amongst the Welsh mountains: how lucky he felt he to have survived these years and to have come through - to be born again - as a poet.23

But is our Young Man really a poet? We are given no convincing evidence of his talent (Mrs Lusty, who finds one of his poems in the bin, is no expert witness; the contrary, in fact). Being unkind we would say that he is just another young man who has lost his heart to Oscar Wilde. Sensitivity mistaken for art. 

Acknowledging this lack of evidence the playwright places himself inside his character: he unzips the back, pulls out the skeleton, and squeezes himself - tightly, tightly - in. He wriggles around, and pinches and stretches the skin until at last he is comfortable. There is a sigh of relief, and the Young Man starts to talk again.  But: we see the zip. We hear the tones of age and authority.

The monologue is too explicit, and suggests a failure of technique - this poet’s dilemma has not been sufficiently dramatised. But let us stop; it is our own little interlude; for a drink and some lit crit. in the theatre’s foyer.

“Dear Patrick. He hasn’t got it quite right.” 

“You don’t say…”

“Poor Pat.  He thinks he can do Zola without the Shakespearean flourishes.”

“That’s rather sweeping, isn't it…”

“Yes, I know. But take those lengthy speeches, and the Young Man’s soliloquies to the audience.”

“Yes. I will take them, thank you very much.”

“Well, look at them closely. Don’t you see?”

“Sorry. I can’t. I’ve just put them in my pocket.”

“Ha ha! Well, take them out! Now have a good look. Do you see: they’re too long. And the banality…

“Just wait, while I…”

“And the language too; it is rather flat.”

“Yes, I see your point.”

“Good…”

“Did I hear the…”

“Yes yes, I know, but wait…

“But…”

“These long speeches are nothing more than a mechanical device to find a theatrical equivalent to the interior monologue.”

“It’s..”

“I know its ringing. But wait just a…

“ But…but..but… “

“Poor Pat. He hasn't left his desk. There he is, still hard at it, writing his novel.”

The meaning of this play is made too manifest. And the playwright, seeing that his central character is struggling, parachutes onto the stage… 

It is too late. What the Young Man represents, the young dandy repelled by a working class life believed to be authentic because it is ugly and disgusting, is too obvious. Platitudes of the art market, which hide an important truth - why should the dirt and stink of Mrs Lusty be any more real than the feeble philosophising of this effete youth? Both are part of nature.24

Crude ideas. Aesthetic clichés. Not that this matters, if the clothes they wear are exquisite and original.

…Thump! The playwright lands and covers all the characters with his parachute.

Nevertheless, the portrait maintains our interest. We are fascinated by the inner emptiness of this Young Man. He is weak. He has no talent. It is the reason why he is so sentimental about poetry, which must be about the beautiful. Pretty flowers. Exquisite vases. An angel in the next room. It is the dilettante’s view of art.

The artist creates art out of life as he experiences it. A good artist capturing life’s vitality with subtlety and depth. Any experience will do; providing it vibrates sufficiently within the artist’s own sensibility. Technique is equally important. These feelings must be recreated in prose that subtilises and transfigures our childish notions and adolescent idealism. The artist will look carefully at Mrs Lusty - fat, ugly, stupid and lascivious -  and make her live inside his imagination. Only then can she be alive for the audience. And there is an artist in the play - she is the attractive Girl in the other bedroom that tells the Young Man he mustn't look in the fields or flowerbeds for his poetry; he will find it in his landlady’s kitchen.

This Girl is an enigma. She seems to exist in our Young Man’s mind only; a sort of aesthetic conscience; a heavenly teacher who tells him that art lies not in some idealised conception of the beautiful but in ordinary life, no matter how horrible and mundane. Forget daffodils. Look at those potatoes!

   Also about this time did I receive
Convictions still more strong than heretofore
Not only that the inner frame is good,
And graciously composed, but that no less
Nature through all conditions hath a power
To consecrate, if we have eyes to see,
The outside of her creatures, and to breathe
Grandeur upon the very humblest face
Of human life. I felt that the array
Of outward circumstance and visible form
Is to the pleasure of the human mind
What passion makes it, that meanwhile the forms
Of Nature have a passion in themselves
That intermingles with those works of man
To which she summons him, although the works
Be mean, have nothing lofty of their own;
And that the genius of the Poet hence
May boldly take his way among mankind
Wherever Nature leads, that he hath stood
By Nature’s side among the men of old,
And so shall stand for ever. Dearest Friend…

Unlike Wordsworth’s inspiring verses the Girl’s poetic advice could be a love plaint. For this angel of the bedroom is, in ordinary life, an overworked clerk who suffers from a perpetual cold and sends herself to sleep with pills. The search for a hidden beauty not so much an aesthetic theory as a plea for recognition; this Girl talking not about art but about herself - look, look inside me, and you will see what is beautiful. To us she looks like an angel. However, only we are meant to see such loveliness. We must imagine her as drab; her attractive body actually a metaphor for her spirit. It is why the Young Man will only ever hear that mesmerising voice. The Girl herself must be invisible to his unforgiving gaze.

This aesthetic advice is a defensive strategy. It is meant to protect a life rather than illuminate it. 

Such thinking has its dangers. Instead of accepting Mrs Lusty for what she is the poet takes her to the salon; where, her hair cut and styled, the nails manicured, the face powder-puffed, lipsticked and eye-lashed, she can be taken to The Madrid, for dinner and an evening with Max Pilgrim. And indeed, this what happens…

The Young Man discovers that wretches like Mr and Mrs Lusty have thoughts, believe in ideals, and can love one another. It is a revelation: these people are human beings! It is a callow insight. And what follows is inevitable: our hero isolates these surprising qualities and idealises them. The plays sinks into sentimentality. Mrs Lusty redeemed because of the love in her eyes. Mr Lusty transformed into the poet of the well-worn table.

The purpose of the play is at last revealed. The real poets are the landlord and landlady. Like the old country woman so marvellously described by Heine - in The Harz Journey - Mr Lusty absorbs the atmosphere of his surroundings which sink down into his soul and transforms it into poetry. Mrs Lusty, in contrast, is a poet of the flesh; her poems caresses, kisses and thick, clutching thighs.

The repulsive has been made beautiful. Mrs Lusty is gelded. And yet, if the playwright wished to be consistent, he should made the Young Man recognise the art in her dirty mind and domestic stench. Only a true poet could do this.25 Our hero has a more fragile temperament. He hates the sordidness he encounters. He has to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Thus in the most brilliant scene in the play - the wake - he ushers out the Relatives when they get too raucous and wild. But these are the characters most alive with wit and humour. This unsettles him. Then there is their aggression, and the omnipresent threat of violence… The Young Man cannot cope with an authentic working class event; where, the emotions let loose, everything becomes uncertain and unsafe: an innocuous comment leading to accusations; a joke to punches and kicks, which can be stopped by a slice of ham - the two antagonists look at it and collapse into laughter. Such vital life is scary for an immature aesthete. The atmosphere is unstable. The action unpredictable. These people are outside his control, and he lacks the experience to navigate the dangers inherent in their behaviour. Our Young Man is too brittle to give himself up to the freedoms these men embody; so he becomes pompous, puts on his class uniform and insists, my dear chaps, you all go home; immediately. This is a civil servant in the making.26 He is no Baudelaire.

The Young Man, if he is to be truly educated, must make ugliness aesthetically alive; an extremely difficult task.27 Instead, our hero finds an easier solution: he will extract the inner beauty from out of the grotesque exterior, and so reveal the truth about Mr and Mrs Lusty. It is now that the Girl walks past him in the corridor. It is a sign: the angel is given a body; the artist has embraced - quite literally: he has had Mrs Lusty on the kitchen table - life. The lesson learnt, this Young Man can be offered the gift of art - he has acquired a poetic sensibility. It is time to leave, and to find his own way as a man of words.

We have our doubts.

The long monologues show a young man trapped inside an ego too self-conscious to appreciate the independence of the physical world; the true source of a poet’s inspiration. For although the Young Man has confronted the horrors of Mrs Lusty’s life, and through this confrontation has emerged as a stronger, more determined, and a more self-aware man, he nevertheless leaves the house with a fake image of his landlady’s world; one that substitutes rare moments of beauty for the overwhelming - the suffocating - commonness of her daily experiences. And Mr Lusty… Yes, he may have poetry inside him, but this does not make him a poet. His sensitivity is only a small part of his life; to sit around in dirty underwear; to smoke a pipe and to do nothing else; it is these activities that occupy most of his time; they are what really defines him. In truth Mr Lusty is inert; a common feature of working class men when at home. And Mrs Lusty… She loves to love men. But as she herself says, this love soon fades. Most of her time is spent peeling potatoes; this is her tragedy. To capture the truth of these people the artist must make these aspects of their lives live for us. To extract what is odd and rare - those moments of compassion and sensibility - is to turn this couple into false icons; sentimentality the inevitable result.

The play oscillates between a pungent realism, populated by oddball characters, and a vapid essay in aesthetics. The drama is alive. The essay dull and tiresome. It feels like a failure of technique. And yet… young men, even young poets, are prone to didactic statement not art. 

We think again. 

Is the form of this play meant to be an evocation of a faulty sensibility? Are we supposed to feel the weakness of youth? It is possible.

(Review: The Ham Funeral
Performed at the UEA Drama Studio, on October 2nd 2015. Directed by Ariella Stoian


1.  A wonderful combination of literature and philosophy can be found in Tim Parks’ Adultery & Other Diversions.

2.  See the Virginia Woolf quotes in my Critic as Clerk.

3.  Though in later years we come to resent the description. No one wishes to be like Edward Keggin in The Earlsdon Way. Innocence must end some time; to lose it at 63 is decade or four too late.

4.  An excellent summary can be found in Noam Chomsky’s New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. For brilliant descriptions of the 20th century conception of the physical world see Bertrand Russell’s An Outline of Philosophy and the Arthur Eddington quote in Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.

5.  For the evidence: read William Doyle’s The Oxford History of the French Revolution; Gerald Brennan’s The Spanish Labyrinth; John Lynch’s The Spanish-American Revolutions 1808-1826; and Adam B. Ulam’s Lenin and the Bolsheviks. For why this happens see Ruth Scurr’s Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the Revolution - principles come before people.   

A word on Robespierre.  He was the most virtuous man in the French Revolution, and, therefore, by necessity, the most dangerous man in Paris.

The idea of freedom is nothing more than an idea; one simplified to suit individual taste.* Now when an idea - the idea of freedom - is forced upon the actuality of lived experiences it can create a tyranny. It is why the Left has historically been so dangerous to the population; preferring ideas to custom and habit they have valued abstractions over the experiences of men and women, who are then expected to conform to ideas and beliefs which they find alienating. It is the same with the Liberals. We forget that in the 18th century liberal economic ideas tended to be associated with the monarchy; and parliaments, whose representatives were aristocrats, were generally opposed to them; because they threatened traditional privileges (what they regarded as age-old liberties).

Since the 1960s the New Right has followed the history of the old Left. Attacking the instincts and traditions of an older Conservatism they have sought to replace them with ideas of their own. Like the Liberals in the 19th century, and the Socialists in the early to mid 20th century, they have been remarkably successful.  Indeed, since the late 1980s it is the New Right - John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and now David Cameron - that has carried out a revolution; one that is not yet complete; although by now it is sinking into corruption and blatant self-interest.

* See the excellent discussion about the differences between the American and the British ideas of freedom in J.C.D Clark’s Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. According to Clark Americans associate liberty with democracy, while for the British it means the rule of law.

6.  John Carey in his criticism of the Bloomsbury Group, and modernism generally, also makes this mistake (The Unexpected Professor; An Oxford Life in Books). For a correct reading see D.H. Lawrence’s A Selection from Phoenix, edited by A.H.H Inglis. When Lawrence attacks Mass Man he is knowingly attacking an abstraction. His crusade is to prevent individual men and women succumbing to simple ideas about themselves.

7.  For the development of this idea see my pieces on Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest.


9.  Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-87. This book is a classic study of the creation of a modern ideology. America, it seems, was created by teenagers.


11.  Evans-Pritchard’s book onto Azande can serve as a wonderful metaphor: for the Azande each particular experience had its own term; the culture recognising the particularity of each act. Here is a life where idea and experience are fused together as one. 

In contrast we live in a society where ideas - more general and more abstract - have become separated from the particularities of ordinary life; although at the same time there is a constant pressure to reintegrate them; to force the abstraction onto our daily lives, which are then expected to conform to its precepts. The tighter the society the stronger that pressure…

It is one of the oddities of our society that while its philosophical underpinning is one of scientific materialism its actual nature is metaphysical - this is a society founded upon ideas.

12.  J.C.D Clark argues that there was no English revolution in the 1640s, only a rebellion. As an explanation of the outbreak of the Civil War this is correct. Indeed we could argue it is the same for all revolutions; it is only after a rebellion, when the society disintegrates, that a revolution takes place.

Clark ideas about a revolution are too narrow - he appears to define it as a cataclysm that must produce profound social changes. This is not so. A revolution may have long or short term consequences, depending on circumstance. Thus although Clark argues that there was no English Revolution, because there was no lasting structural change to the society, his brilliant analysis of ancien régime ideology demonstrates the opposite - the religious upheaval of the Civil War is played out, in various guises, until at least the early 19th century.

13.  Some extraordinary examples are given in Ruth Scurr’s book.

14.  One way of defining an intellectual is say that they make no distinction between an idea and morality. The idea itself is moral.

15.  Diderot, by P.N. Furbank.

16.  It is why intellectuals are so keen on ideologies - Liberalism, Socialism, Libertarianism… Life outside the mind must reflect exactly what is inside it. This is both chimera and tyranny. However, such ideologies are a useful means to attack a political system, that by its very nature is messy and incoherent. An ideology is a form of art; it has its own kind of perfection; like Salome’s dance it is both beautiful and seductive. And so always the artist will prefer the ideology, how fantastic or deadly, to the banal realities of political life. 

Consider the attachment of modern intellectuals to Socialism long after it has ceased to be a dynamic social force; or think about the Jacobites of the early 18th century; like the British communists they attached themselves to a foreign monarch, the more readily to condemn their own society. Intellectuals are priests. They like to deliver sermons from the pulpit. The more debased the community - the further they depart from the idea of the good - the more they enjoy themselves… Yes. The more fantastic the ideology the more it can be used to condemn present realities (see the extraordinary examples in J.C.D. Clark’s Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism). Always some distant king will save us… James III. Lenin. Airey Neave… Marx. Keynes. Hayek.

The mistake is to think that we can be saved. It is to believe that ideas are the same as life. That life can be a work of art.

17.  Although I disagree with the central thesis of Gilbert Ryle’s classic A Concept of Mind, his view of the mind as a process rather than a thing (a soul, or an organ) is a useful guide to understanding concepts like freedom and individuality. In these ideas there is no substance to acquire - to think the idea free is not to be free. Freedom can exist only as activity; such as ourselves thinking about what freedom actually means in the here and now.

18.  My Left Behind and The Good Bourgeois explore this problem.

19.  For a comparable but different take on the young read Wordsworth’s 1815 Essay, Supplementary to the Preface (1815).

20.   It is also, as Catherine the Great implies, highly destructive. Reason is more often a weapon than an instrument - it is easier to use reason to demolish an existing political or social system than to create a new one.  

Robespierre, in addition to being the most virtuous man in the French Revolution, was one of its most rational. And yet there is nothing creative or inventive about this man. His rationality is the means by which he destroyed what he disliked.

21.  For an excellent example of the growth of the poet see the first volume of the Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. The early poems are Pre-Raphaelite pastiches. It isn't long, though, before the poet finds his own voice.

22.  And not just the young. See my The Silent Sacrifice for an analysis of Bergman’s masterpiece on the artistic persona.

23.  Joyce Cary, in Art and Life: Ways of the Creative Process, has some acute remarks about this period of one’s life. For the artist it is always touch and go if they will make it through. University is the great danger - the artist needs its formal training, but this training can destroy the artistic spirit. Only luck can protect the original talent.

24. The author has memorised too much Wordsworth. No Pat! Definitely not the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads.

25.  Contrast with Enderby in the first volume of his quartet. This poet can only create within his sordid flat. Once out into the world the inspiration fades; and his personal repulsiveness begins to affect his new and beautiful wife - she burps; she farts, and becomes generally rather unpleasant.  

26.  For Mary McCarthy Macbeth was a standard-pack bourgeois. This is how she describes his failings:

A reflective man might wonder how fate would spin her plot, as the Virgin Mary must have wondered after the Angel Gabriel’s visit. But Macbeth does not trust to fate, that is, to the unknown, the mystery of things; he trusts only to a known quantity - himself - to put the prophecy into action. In short, he has no faith, which requires imagination. He is literal-minded; that, in a word, is his tragedy. (The Writing on the Wall; and Other Literary Essays)

The artist will embrace the unknown; a wonderful example of the artist doing just this can be found in Prologue, by Octavio Paz. This is a poem that both describes the poet’s mind and at the same time shows it at work.

27.  See V.S. Pritchett’s remarks on Zola’s attempts to do just this (in Books in General). His essay also has some insightful things to say about this author’s failure to capture the nature of an artistic genius - in his novel about Cézanne. 

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