Aesthetic Maladies

Jonathan Gibbs. He’s so fast.  He never slows down. One thought follows another, and another and another until - swish swish - he’s on the second lap; overtaking the first lot which he now leaves far behind.  We are left breathless and exhilarated. 

The flag falls. It is over so quickly! And we are lost to excitement and confusion. The stadium empties; we sit and compose ourselves alone amongst the silent seats; our thoughts slowly settling like the dust on the racetrack. Coolly we relive the race; slow it down, freeze frame it section by section; thinking about each one as we go. Raymond Tallis. Jonathan Gibbs. They are, we come to realise, talking past each other - we recall that rough swerve that dodged an elegant but too stately chariot. Tallis driving after our sense of aesthetic form; Gibbs carried along on hyperactive feelings; no wonder he came first. But as our thoughts return to the starting flag we begin to believe that both have entered the wrong race…both, it seems, have confused the artist with the audience. The guard shouts to us.  It is late. It is time to go, mate.

Tallis’ thesis is an old one. It goes back to Philoctetes and beyond.1 Tallis, however, wants to update the myth to give it a very modern meaning - art a sort of medicine that will heal the wound that is the human predicament. Historically the Philoctetes myth has stood for the outsider nature of the artist; with his odd sensibility; his volatility; his detachment; his bizarre need to to reconfigure the banality of everyday things into aesthetic form; his obsession with meaning. Meaning! The artist is saturated with this strange stuff. Oh dear me, what an odd and useless type he is… For the German Romantics the outcast nature of the artist was turned into a theory of artistic alienation and transcendence; later developed by poets such as Baudelaire, Hugo Von Hofmannsthal2 and T.S. Eliot into the idea that the artist is a sick person. Raymond Tallis wishes to turn the disease into a cure.

Art makes you ill…

…if you take it too seriously.  Luckily, most consumers of art are uncommitted spectators, for whom literature or music is little more than sophisticated entertainment; a richer and more varied stimulus than a popular culture that tends towards the simple and crude response.3

Tallis talks of form.  For an artist form is meaning, his own peculiar problem, one that gives moments of epiphanic ecstasy; but whose pursuit unplugs him from the rest of humanity.4

…an essential character of thought: our incapacity to conceive and assimilate what immediately confronts us. The pathos of thought begins with the realisation that thinking always operates at a distance, at one remove. The subjective mind cannot fuse with objective reality…

Mere awareness volatilizeswhat it seeks and hobbles its own functioning. The most reflective of us are endowed with the antithesis of Midas’ touch; it turns the things we want, or want to know, into dross. (Proust, by Roger Shattuck. My emphasis.)

The artist lives on the edge of an abyss. Alienated from a world that is too fragmentary and mundane to provide its own meaning, the artist is alive only when he creates meanings for himself. But these moments of fulfilment are fleeting. Worse: such a consciousness distances itself from a reality it desires to embrace directly with the five senses. It is a tragic farce. The artist lives on a narrow ledge over a deep ravine; all around are the hard and clear outlines of jutting rocks; and then just there, just in reach is a beautiful flower; the artist stretches and touches…and falls.6 

Many in the audience will have no such thoughts and feelings. Their sensibility is different, less acute; more attuned to pleasure and distraction.

It is interesting that most of the examples given in his piece are to do with feelings not meanings; Jonathan Gibbs describing the reactions of what I would guess are the majority of art consumers. Tallis, in contrast, does talk about meaning (form), but mistakenly identifies the audience with the artist.

Most people want comfort and ease, with a touch of mild excitement. Popular culture, working with a more primitive equipment than art, gives such characters exactly what they want: a little thought; a lot of feeling; and without too much mental exercise. 

For the artist this isn't good enough.  He doesn't want be be distracted from the boredom that is ourselves.  Art is work. It is the difficult and painstaking attempt to create precise meanings and clear forms out of the bustling contingencies of daily living. So happy when this is done! But then they hope - but they hope too much - that their readers and listeners will work just as hard to appreciate the efforts that they have made. Poor lost souls… When older they come realise that for most people art is just another form of relaxation. It has no meaning for them. The volatile rage at the injustice of the world. The more phlegmatic accept that the audience, just like life itself, is without value unless turned into thought and aesthetic form. This is our comfort. It can be our only one.

 1. And now let us go back to the Philoctetes as a parable of human character. I should interpret the fable as follows. The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art man finds he needs. (Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow, in The Portable Edmund Wilson, edited by Lewis M. Dabney)

2.  His collection The Lord Chandos Letter is the ultimate expression of the idea of the artist as invalid.

3.  We need to qualify this too easy dichotomy… During the later 20th century many artists self-consciously imitated pop culture; preferring a perceived emotional vitality over intellectual complexity.  On the other side: popular culture, especially from the 1960s, has sought greater sophistication, nicely described in a review of the memoirs of Philip Glass and Herbie Hancock (David Schiff, TLS, 05/08/2015).

4.  Hofmannsthal is brilliant at describing this state; although he goes further, describing what happens when the artist loses his sense of meaning about the world.*

* A note about John Banville’s introduction to NYRB edition of The Lord Chandos Letter. 

Banville puts too much emphasis on the last eponymous story. The collection overall has less to do with the meaningless of language than with the fragile autonomy of thought. In the Cavalry Story we see what happens when a character gets carried away by an obsessive line of thinking: living inside his own fantasies he becomes dead to reality.  In other stories we see minds invaded by thoughts that originate from outside them; taken over by these alien influences the owners of these minds are driven insane. 

The artist needs peace and solitude where he can generate his own thoughts from within his own mind. But this is hard to do, for when out in the world he has no choice but to absorb other people’s ideas; as well as random facts and incidents; over which he has no control. The danger is when one of these outside “events” is lodged inside the artist’s mind; where it becomes an obsession, and destroys his sanity. Hofmannsthal himself an exemplary case.

5.  Shattuck had just quoted Proust:

And didn't my thinking resemble yet another recess in the depths of which I felt caught, even if I wanted to look out at things around me? When I saw an external object, my consciousness that I was seeing it remained between me and it, outlining it with a narrow mental border that prevented me from ever touching its substance directly; in some way the object volatilised before I could make contact, just as an incandescent body approaching something moist never reaches moisture because of the zone of evaporation that always precedes such a body.

6.   Hugo von Hofmannsthal captures these moments of ecstasy and despair exquisitely.