Speaking of the books and pictures

A wall plastered with cinema and theatre programmes proclaimed both the dire and the enjoyable of what Sunday had to offer. A huge portrait of some author announced his recently published novel, and a palette and sprig of laurel a recently opened exhibition.

“We were speaking of the Gates of Eternity that are ever open before us,” remarked Pilgrim. “By ‘gates’ we are drawing an analogy from the days of yore when castles and fortified towns were entered through gates set in walls. As for the Gates of Hell, there is truly little that I could think to say; as they have been described to us, there’s not much of them visible, being entirely concealed beneath the wriggling and writhing hosts of the damned. The Gates of Heaven are portrayed as a gaping cavern that radiates light and is fringed with choirs of angels. The Gates of Eternity equate then to everything in which we have our being here and now. Anyone who cannot see them before him, ever present and wide open, must inevitably find them – in passing moments of fear – as the dark abyss in which we once were before we were born, and again as the dark abyss in which we re-disperse at the moment of death. My own idea of them is a naive one, in the manner of the common people: to me they seem to bear the very likeness of this world, next to which, of course, I know of no other. And so I see them as a vast gateway, somewhat weather-worn, but magnificent and majestic for all that can be descried upon it. It has etched into it dim reliefs from history, with glorious and divine likenesses of heroes, creators and kings, resonant dates and inscriptions, but also images of lethal wars, the woes of peoples hauled off into captivity, images of pride and enslavement, and then again of all mundane human labours, all our crafts and our most trifling joys. Thus it immortalises everything that goes to make up our human existence. Then there are, of course, images of animals and everything that constitutes nature and the world, from the little bee to mysterious representations of the constellations. And to give it that extra fullness, here and there in the gaps in the masonry a living flower has taken up residence, holding out its pretty little bloom to the solar wind, for this life, even on the very threshold of Eternity, is so very tenacious. So I see there the living flower of the dog-rose, an ear of grass which, as a token of the lifeaffirmation of our planet, I would like to take with me through and beyond the Gates of Eternity, but then I see whole apple-trees in bloom, blue forests and the contours of mountains, fields of corn that are still green and corn already tidied into golden sheaves, ploughing and reaping, sun, wind and rain, the flutter of a butterfly, a bee, a pigeon that has sailed down onto the entablature of the gateway, I hear the blacksmith’s hammer, the bickering of merchants, all the hustle and bustle of humankind, not to mention the babbling of children. And so these gates are adorned with all that I have ever known, and all that it has not been granted me to know. But look, you’ll say, that’s the entire world! To which I say: Precisely! I see all this there, but then our lives know no other gateway. And when I succeed in so seeing it, I muse, muse, muse in respect over the glory of transience.”

“The glory of transience – that’s just it: I love all that futility, I cleave to it with all my vital rootlets and then I muse fatefully over it for its sheer glory. If I were to be asked censoriously what on earth I mean by ‘glory’ I’d be hard put to say; at best, and most unsatisfactorily, I might reply that I mean that peculiar emotional and spiritual meaning that I am impelled to ascribe to it, the perhaps all too simple confidence that even futility is a vestment of the eternal, and I mean the strange fear that it is passing me by without descending deep enough into my innermost self and so now it won’t be there for me, and it was never adequately felt. But I could also go higher and further; it is that important meaning that all art ascribes to the things of this world. After all, it is art that inscribes its human meanings and representations on the Gates of Eternity – and – and also on that hoarding.”

He laughed. “Ah well, if not gates, then at least a hoarding. It’s a bit too far for a Somebody to those Gates of Eternity and being there might give a Somebody a fright; likewise many of those who make a living nearby under the guise of art. – One soul turns to another, but a Somebody has its spiritual provisions purveyed only by other Somebodies. Just as it seeks soulless enjoyment and happiness in life, so too it wants to find those qualities equally soulless in words and pictures. It doesn’t desire to see itself portrayed on some gate of eternity; that would be too ghoulish and monstrous. Even a Somebody aspires to a happy resolution; thus a Somebody only wants to see itself projected on the screen of temporality in constantly repeated stories about it and for it, concluded prematurely by a happy ending. – Somebody as author, reader and hero.”

“If a Somebody wants to be a literary hero, it calls itself Homo sapiens.”

“True enough, but plenty of other things too: lover, full-blooded man, interesting woman, triumphant and abused, the voice of the heart, character and type, man of the times, personality – anything you like. There is nothing that a Somebody could not make itself out to be. And whatever it finds wanting in itself it seeks in stories about others. But its thirst for sensation, its tuppenny-ha’penny curiosity and neuroses can never be quelled, and so with manic enthusiasm it gives rein to every conceivable embarrassing folly! With bated breath it watches the stage where a man has married a woman, but she turns out to be unfaithful to him; he has a child, but it turns out not be his. No doubt the greater and weightier instance is when we have a good and faithful wife and the child is our own – where the converse is just an appalling indelicacy, but it is in such indelicate predicaments that a Somebody is most likely to see what is called the element of tragedy.”

“And see real life in gossip.”

“In gossip, in tales bursting with the affairs of others, with the indiscretions of next-door’s private life, information on one’s neighbour’s tribulations and drolleries, in fact, though, nothing but effronteries. People call it thirst for life; they say that it’s that life and excitement which the more ordinary man lacks. It might involve the craziest story lines, but never mind; just as long as it is nothing of the inner life!”

“The inner life strikes a Somebody as subversive and debilitating. A Somebody, worn out by the daily bustle, drudgery and trying to stay alive, needs to rest, forget a while and enjoy itself.”

“But it’s not the inner life that overwhelms and fatigues it! And for the purposes of pleasure and leisure an entertainment industry may be erected quite beneficially, but absolutely not art of any kind. Art is not, cannot be, an instrument to enable the mind to be switched off, faded out, decommissioned.”

“But that’s why there are so many tales told of every kind, because Somebodies are too idle to pursue an idea or be involved in what is happening on the intellectual front. The entertainment industry has become a great sociological reality. An outer life is, again, only willing to be interested in outer life. Whether taking a front seat or a back seat, it peeps out to see what might happen to others. It gladly immerses itself in others’ banally invented and unscrupulously contrived destinies, but out of blasé curiosity, a thirst for sensation, the poverty of its own lot, and the vacuity of its own self.”

“It’s a paid-for view of life from its most random, most disconnected, most ephemeral aspect. A spy-hole through which the flea-like peers at a flea-theatre. A waxworks where weirdies watch other weirdies to see what they’re like and – unless the spring has snapped – how they breathe and move.”

“I’ve heard it said that all such stories, to the extent that they may constitute specimens from which to form an idea of this or that manifestation or entanglement of life, have a documentary and descriptive-biological quality to them which enables us to know and evaluate man and that thereby they are instructive and beneficial.”

“I would say – if we really do mean knowledge and evaluation – that it would be better achieved by more direct and immediate devices than through the literature industry. The latter might well acquaint us with all manner of things that life throws up, but rather less on their more spiritual impact. Knowledge there might be, but knowledge so disordered that it remains raw material; so too sensation, the effect of which is to divert, but certainly not strengthen the mind; gossip that masquerades as a message, but for which there is no recipient; satisfaction that is mere soporific eyewash; and finally a clever, or even quite clever, replication of something beautiful, but a replica that is entirely lacking in any beauty of its own. I believe that the most valuable knowledge that a work of art can provide ought to be the author himself. He above all is what his work provides of the most admirable, dynamic and strong.”

“But if the author is a Somebody, the work cannot be a manifestation of the spirit, but a performance by a craftsman and a technical product.”

“What else indeed? The performance of guile, a product of stupidity – whatever: the one and the other join forces here against the wisdom of genuine art; against the painful and joyful needs of the soul.”

How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity?
and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?

(Proverbs 1, 22)

For the turning away of the simple shall slay them,
and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.

(Proverbs 1, 32)

“So you see, this truth may be as old as the Bible – yet it is on the whole the soul and its ‘turning away’ – its serenity – and its ‘prosperity’ – its felicity – that are always treated as something stupid and foolish.”

“The soul is the serenity of the simple and the felicity of fools only in the view of Somebodies. Meanwhile the serenity of a Somebody is indeed stupidity and its felicity really is foolish, no matter how elevated, intact and sensible the Somebody may brag of being. Therein lies the simplicity and foolishness of Somebodies, for they are unaware of how pernicious their serenity is and how lethal their folly, and yet the world is supposed to pass muster beneath their serenity and foolishness.”

“And the world has no shortage of headaches over that!”

“An intelligence that invents machines need not be disposed towards the soul in the slightest; but art that is short on soul lacks the dimension of genuine depth. Better practice has little time for worse practice, nor better wit for worse, nor the sharper intellect for the feebler, while the soul has less respect for cleverness than for wisdom. But in the art created by a Somebody it is mere craft that is erected against the spirit.”

“But in art we speak of the work, that is, then, also of work, and any work has its practices.”

“A work of art and work in the abstract – of course. Let’s be clear: I do not mean to diminish any craft; the closer true trade gets to craft, the more it is to be appreciated. But the spirit cannot be conducted as a trade. In proportion as it becomes a matter of mere craftsmanship, it ceases to be a matter of artistic creativity. Which means I have absolutely no respect for what a Somebody produces for a Somebody as a token of its artistic craftsmanship.”

“Yet you hear it said that the shortcomings of novels, plays, pictures and whatever else come from the fact that the item in question has not been well crafted. What good, they say, is the content, or the idea, if the author’s command of his craft fell short?”

“That does assume he was good at the rest as well! Of course, craftsmanship is an evident prerequisite if something that is expressed in art is to be called crafted. Any artist worthy of the name has an appropriate measure of craftsmanship; I know of no genuine artist who had something to say for himself – and no matter how revolutionary he was at the expense of custom – who was not also a consummate craftsman as much as there is art in his offering, there is no less craft – the relation is almost a mathematical one. Name me a single artist among those who really had something individual to reveal, then find in him a weakness on the craft side! There is no common craft in art. There is the craftsmanship – I do like using this jargon of people who make things – of this or that period, style, school, this or that artist or personality; but each of these ‘craftsmanships’ is tied to a particular spirit, a particular content or expression: anyone who has something to reveal through his art has also to have his own craft, or, as I’d rather put it, a manner and expression unique to him and his cause, his own mystique. Only a Somebody makes a more general or specialised issue of craft in the art sphere, borrowing for the purpose someone else’s craft, something else’s level of craftsmanship, in order to arrive at an output that is basically no more than an off-the-peg product.”

“The times consume a huge quantity of such products and are often the rewarding soil for many a success.”

“An age for which success is the yardstick of performance is not exactly a rewarding soil for art. If values were measured by the instantaneity of their success, we would not see much that is good. They would mostly remain largely unknown,” the Pilgrim smiled, “except of course books of the year.”

“Books of the year generally do not become books of future years. They may sate reader appetite – not to mention the indiscriminate gourmandising of snobs – but only until the book of the next year, the next latest sensation, the next latest yarn spun.”

“I don’t want yarns, I want the Word! I don’t want information, I want knowledge! I don’t want half the truth, but I’ll be happy with total enchantment. I want books that I can read again and again, that will always have something to tell me, something to buttress my ideas, something to invigorate me.” He lowered his voice to an intimate whisper. “I don’t mind being a bit freakish in my predilections: I don’t mean to persuade or polemicise by confessing that I often derive much, much more from mere verse than from novels extruded at great length. Not that verse is – as it is held by some to be – more like something out of the toy-box, something more contrived than other literary genres. It is, however, enriched, more personally and in a more crystallised form, with feelings and ideas, and it gives up both more of the author and more of art. Not committed to description or documentarism, it often transcends time and more of its vitality endures. In the way that time is imperishably articulated in its rhythms and that it arcs its resounding verses out of the infinity of all that happens, poetry is granted eternal youth in the best sense of the word; or to put differently: it enjoys the mercy of an advanced age which doesn’t perish with decrepitude, changes in the human order or the iron march of history and which, undisturbed by the ages, remains a living word.”

Thus although like every creature
his life is but short, yet his song
rings through the ages, after the man himself is gone.

(Ou Jang Siou)

“Eternal youth – most literature, most art of every kind seeks to paint, in ever changing colours, images of youth, Eternal Youth; I expect this is some constant remembrance of that eternal dream of the Golden Age, driven by the urge to retain in the self at least something of its magical reflection –

– A reflection considerably downshifted by the superficiality of the age with its incredibly cheap idealisation of what constitutes success and its ever-so-cosy, smug and vacuous cult of youth. A Somebody’s competence seeks to express itself through a youthful exterior; but that won’t work without some titivation. This is the age of the Somebody that, with all its, even artificial, buzzword optimism, and even in unitcost terms, endeavours to acquire the truth of life and then attest that it has found it. It is amazing that the overwhelming majority of books, plays and pictures are written and painted – produced – solely for young people and those who would affect youth. For the sake of success and early responses among the young: here your Somebody is deuced keen to rear more Somebodies as quickly as possible out of the freshness of youth.”

“Freshness of youth, freshness of the senses.”

“But of course. Freshness of the senses always brings a bit of new life into art. But once the senses have been conventionalised they amount to no more than a deadening grimace and, ultimately, idiocy.”

“But what about new and more up-to-date trends?”

“Should anyone believe that, having ingested the latest ideologies, he will immediately also start producing art, he will finally have to make do with just ideology. The veriest essence of art is more its being outside time.”

“So what about art for art’s sake?”

“Why and what for? What is to be sought and found in art is man!”

“So neo-Realism then?”

“Of itself Realism, as a record of facts, may take on the recording and description of them, but it gives them no higher connection. Realism without the involvement of the soul could scarcely fail to remain a collection of curios or journalism. – But anyway, the name doesn’t matter: we’re not talking shop-signs. The essential thing is that the voice of art is the voice of the soul. Time is filled to bursting with Mr Somebody; his ferocious diligence and limited intellect cram the marketplace. Let all be his, but not even then shall I accord any space to his culture business in the workshops of creative art.”

“Do you think that all artistic failures are down to your Somebody?”

“Absolutely not! But he is to blame for all kitsch. – You cannot suppress the soul and then hope to be truly creative. Mr Somebody lays claim to art, but at heart he’s incapable of creativity; off-the-peg stuff and mass production at best. That’s why so much is churned out, but so little genuine art. So much cultural industry and so little cultural beneficence. So much intellectual output and so little soul. So much twitching and so little real life. And so, so much oppressively agonising transience even when speaking of books and pictures!”

And aren’t you being a moralist after all? If you’re not careful, you could end up like this:

“What, if not your imagination, is doing this? If you did not so busy yourself with human affairs and toss everything hither and yon like a pig with a wisp of straw, you would have peace of mind and enjoy pleasure, joy and happiness.” “For if I were, like you,” I said, “trapped in superficialities and held ostentatious, tedious laughter to be joy, the reading of some rubbishy bits of paper to be wisdom, a stroke of luck to be the acme of satisfaction. ... I’ve been promised and shown the selfsame goods, art, pleasure and security. And what do I have? Nothing. What do I know? Nothing. Where am I? I don’t know myself. All I do know is that after so much errantry, so many works, so many dangers survived and so much mental fatigue and languishing I finally find nothing but pain in myself and in others rancour towards myself.”

(Comenius: The Labyrinth of the World)

“Emphatically no! You’re wasting your effort: I won’t let myself be plagued by anything. Even if I had nothing, knew nothing and didn’t know where I was, I wouldn’t end by finding the crippling pain of nothingness in me. If I suffer in any respect, I suffer no more than to the extent that a man should suffer, and if I’m happy I am happy with a happiness no more dubious and mysterious than what human happiness has been ordained to be. I demand nothing special, and if I look in myself for a soul, this is not out of sense of abandonment so that I can use the soul to plug some agonisingly gaping pit of nothingness into which my life might be falling in a black fit of futility. I might almost say that the soul is the overspill of life – life so terribly narrow, so terribly broad – life that is always short of so many things and has so many things to excess!”

Translated by David Short