“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.


Antiques Roadshow

Several years ago I posted a piece about the popular PBS show “Antiques Roadshow” where folks bring in their treasures to find out what they are worth. I want to expand the point I was making at that time. As you assuredly know, folks dust off the antique vase that has been sitting in the attic for years collecting dust and stand in line for hours to ask an “expert” how much it’s worth. The underlying assumption here is that value is a  function of cost. We want to quantify everything and cannot accept any sort of value in our world aside from cash value.

Except, perhaps, utilitarian value: what can it do? We do readily recognize this sort of value: the vase can hold flowers. But there are other kinds of value as well, such as  sentimental value, the value of colors on a canvass, and, what interests me most, moral and aesthetic value. Why have these sorts of value gone by the board? I wonder.

In fact, I have wondered about this for years and some time ago I even wrote a book about it titled Rediscovering Values in which I defined values (aesthetic and moral values) in the following manner:

“Values are regional properties of objects or events that ‘require’ a positive response on the part of anyone who considers the object or event with discernment.”

Now this sounds a bit technical, but it is easily unpacked.  My main point is that values are putatively “there” in the world. The “requiredness” of which I speak is a notion developed by the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and it refers the quality of the smile of the baby, or the regional properties evident in the act of a starving child who takes the bread he is offered and hands it to his younger sister. I don’t speak of the feelings these things evoke in us, I speak about the act itself or the smile itself which provoke those feelings. In addition, requiredness may simply refer to the strong sense of necessity that attaches itself to the conclusion of a valid syllogism or the final line in a mathematical equation. When we see that A is greater than B and B is greater than C we are “required” to acknowledge that A must be greater than C. Our world is full of properties in the region of objects and events that make them more interesting and important to us, that “require” positive or even, at times, negative responses. These qualities are all around us if we only open our eyes and ears.

Thus I also talk about the “discernment” of the one who responds to those values and this is equally important. Discernment is a function of experience, sensitivity, and imagination. Those who have lived in the art world for much of their lives, like our friend “Zeebra” for example, tend to be much more discerning judges of works of art than the rest of us. Those who have suffered through many trials in the world, or experienced them vicariously in well-written novels, are in a better place to respond to the regional properties we call “moral values.” It is possible, of course, that there are people who are born with an innate ability to respond to certain values — a heightened development at birth of the right side of the brain, perhaps. But experience, sensitivity, and imagination play a very big role. And experience and imagination are not, by and large, valued by our culture (sorry!). We prefer to reduce all value to quantities we can measure and add or subtract with our electronic devices that tell us all we think we need to know about our world.

But, if I am right, we miss a great deal in this sort of reductionism. We miss the many features of the world that the artist sees, the many sounds the musician hears, the subtle movements the dancer sees, and even the beauty of a well-hit tennis shot or a fade-away jump shot. These things take training (experience), and sensitivity. And they take imagination and at times effort. One needs to look around and one needs to open oneself to the “regional properties” of objects or events that surround us and attend to them long enough to allow those properties to make an impression.

Instead of taking the vase out of the attic and dusting it off and then taking it to an expert to find out how much it is worth, we would be better off dusting it off and placing it near us, perhaps with freshly cut flowers, so we can appreciate its many beautiful properties and those of the flowers, both visual and olfactory. It may not be “worth” much in dollars and cents, but it may be worth a great deal as an object that can make our world richer and fuller.

In Defense of the Classics

One of the charges laid at the feet of people like myself who have read and taught the “Great Books” of Western Civilization is that they are “elitist,” or “undemocratic.” What this means, I suppose, is that they were written by and for those few “effete” intellectuals who can explore the hidden treasures that remain opaque to the rest of humankind. I have always had a problem with this charge and as one who has actually taught many of those books to so-called “marginal students” I can attest to the fact that most of the so-called “classics” can be read and understood by anyone who gives them a chance.

I recall going into a liquor store a few years ago (for a friend, of course!) and running into one of my former students who mentioned that she had thoroughly enjoyed reading Boethius in my class and thanked me for assigning it. She was talking about Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I required in one of my Humanities courses. We also read a couple of Plato’s Dialogues, several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dante’s Inferno, and portions of Homer’s Iliad, among other great books. To be honest, we seldom read entire works (except the short ones like Boethius and  More’s Utopia), but it was certainly the case that those students could have read complete works had they chosen to do so. And some have gone on to do just that. My goal was to give them a taste and get their minds stirring.

Then there is the testimony of people like Irving Howe who noted that:

“There were the Labor night schools in England bringing to industrial workers elements of the English cultural past; there was the once-famous Rand School of New York City; there were the reading circles that Jewish workers, in both Eastern Europe and American cities, formed to acquaint themselves with Tolstoy, Heine, and Zola. And in Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine we have the poignant account of an underground cell in Rome during the Mussolini years that read literary works as a way of holding itself together.”

I also read about an experiment in a New York prison involving a dozen inmates who read and discussed “classics” in philosophy and political theory and were excited about the books and thoroughly involved in the discussions. The notion that these books are “elitist” is absurd. I know that and so did James Seaton whose book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism I have referred to previously. In that book Seaton lays to rest, once and for all, the myth that these books are elitist or undemocratic, though he is primarily interested in works or art and literature and the rejection of those standards that would allow us to evaluate great works. I will quote a portion of Seaton’s book at some length because he puts his case very well:

“The notion that the affirmation of standards in art and culture . . . is intrinsically undemocratic depends on the mistaken assumption that the same standards should be applied to both politics and art. The unexceptionable idea that it is possible to arrive at generally acceptable but always debatable criteria for distinguishing between better our worse works of art and literature is confused with the truly undemocratic notion that it is possible to distinguish between those who are fit to command and those who are only fit to obey on the basis of such criteria as race, sex, class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, political opinions, or indeed any criteria at all. . . .

It is true that the cultural prestige of the twentieth century avant-garde has lent itself to the notion that those comparatively few capable of appreciating avant-garde art constitute an elite, culturally, spiritually, and even morally superior to the rest of the population. Although this kind of elitism does not have the disastrous consequences associated with elitisms based on race, politics, or religion, for example, it is nevertheless based on false premises. As Henry James demonstrates in discussing Flaubert, it is quire possible to appreciate artistic achievements of modernism without condemning those, the great majority of the population, who are either less appreciative or simply uninterested. On the other hand, the notion that there are a certain number of literary or artistic works whose greatness has been firmly established over many generations is not elitist in any pejorative sense of the word. The so-called ‘canon’ [of Great Books] is established, evaluated, expanded, and re-established in a continuing process by the accumulated judgments of the ‘common reader’ . . .. Ralph Ellison’s thesis that the cultural implications of American democracy include a willingness to recognize artistic excellence wherever and whenever it appears provides a specifically American version of the traditional humanistic literary criticism that art and literature should be judged first of all by artistic standards for which criteria based on class, race, religion, or politics are irrelevant.”

Now it is true that Seaton is primarily concerned about literature and art, but his argument applies to all of those works in the “canon” that are said to be great and which have been swept aside by those who are convinced that they are the root cause of  injustice and human suffering the world over. The works of “dead, white, European, males” are rejected out of hand (by many who have never read them, I strongly suspect) on the grounds that they are elitist despite the fact that they were written or created for ordinary folks and are accessible to all if they are literate and willing to make the effort. The notion that they can be called “great” is rejected out of hand as well because the idea of “greatness” is also said to be determined by an elite group of intellectuals. As Seaton shows, this is false on its face.

The fact of the matter is that there are some works that have stood the “test of time”and remain relevant today. They aid us in understanding the human condition, ourselves and the other members of our human community, in ways that science cannot. In addition, they make it possible for us to appreciate sudden insights and beautifully written prose or poetry and to admire the art that reveals to all of us aspects of our world that would otherwise go unnoticed — especially in an age in which so many of us have our noses buried in our electronic toys.

If you are asking yourself how on earth this is relevant to your world, recall that these deniers are the ones who have brought us “alternative facts” and “political correctness,” among other modern horrors. The rejection of standards of excellence is simply one more sign that most people would prefer not to take the time or the trouble to think and would insist that “it’s all a matter of opinion.” It’s certainly the path of least resistance and we do like to take that.


I have blogged previously about the fundamental difference between film as art and film as entertainment. For the most part we, as a culture, have abandoned any attempt to present film as art in an effort to set records at the box office. In a word: art doesn’t sell, entertainment does. The most recent example is the record $532 million that the “ridiculous” action film “The Fate of the Furious” recently made (in the first weekend) — worldwide. The word “ridiculous” is not mine, but that of a critic who could see no redeeming value whatever in the film which was, apparently, one explosion after another. I saw only the trailer, but I think I get the idea and that I have enough of a sense of what the film is all about to make a comment: a thin plot, little dialogue by second-tier actors, a touch of sex, and more than a little mayhem and graphic violence. The special effects people have taken over American movie-making.  A cinematic tour de force? Hardly. More like a cinematic comic book.

I have noted before that films that achieve the level of art require an effort on the part of the spectator, an effort of the mind and the emotions. The viewer must become fully engaged in what is happening on the screen and must use his or her imagination to make connections and follow the sometimes complex plot and action. When film is presented as mere entertainment, no effort of required: the film does all the work and the spectator merely needs to sit back and “let it happen.” The imagination withers from lack of exercise.

But the problem goes deeper than merely a lack of imagination and effort required to view most recent films, especially of the “action” variety. It suggests to those of us who care about such things not only a lack of imaginative effort, but also a growing desensitization to the suffering and pain of others. The more we see cars exploding and blood pouring out of open wounds the less it impacts on us. This is not unlike the desensitization of police officers and surgeons who see pain and suffering on a regular basis and are able to “shut it off” somehow. I gather in their case it is a defense mechanism as those who must work in the midst of pain and suffering must obviously figure out a way to cope. Otherwise they would have to find another line of work. This is the idea behind the British comedy “Doc Martin” in which the main character who is a successful vascular surgeon suddenly develops a blood phobia because one day he realizes that his patients are real people and has to leave the operating room for a GP’s life in a small village in Cornwall.

The point of all this is that desensitization is sometimes a good thing, but when it becomes commonplace, even global, it becomes worrisome. If we simply “shut off” the natural human reaction to seeing another person in pain or upon hearing about the suffering of those who are displaced by a war they never wanted in the first place, what does that say about us as human beings? Fellow-feeling, as the Scots told us about in the eighteenth century, is a basic trait of the human species. We see someone suffering and we naturally feel their pain — it’s called “empathy,” and some are more empathetic than others. But we were told at the time that it is a trait we all share to one degree or another and whether we agree with that thesis (and there are those who do not) it attests to the fact that there is a common reaction to the pain of others that ordinarily surfaces and keeps the “average” person from wanting to inflict pain or even to witness it in others. Fellow-feeling may not be universal, but it is certainly not uncommon — though it threatens to become so.

In a word, the possibility that a film has received a huge payout despite the fact (because of the fact) that it is merely violent entertainment that wallows in the pain and suffering of others on the screen, and that this film has become the record-holder for all films for all time, does make us pause. What does this say about us as human beings? Not just in this culture, but around the world where people are lining up to see the latest action film that has no redeeming value whatever.

Conrad’s Art

I take it as given that Joseph Conrad was a consummate artist. He worked at his craft devotedly and somewhat self-consciously. An excess of self-consciousness would have flawed the finished product which, in my view, was seldom if ever flawed. The artist must know when to “let go” and let his or her work have its head. Conrad knew. His novels are beautifully written and filled with insights into the human condition, powerful images, and flowing prose. It beggars belief that this man was writing in his third language — after his native Polish and, later, French. He was convinced that English allowed him to better express the subtleties of language and evoke the most powerful images.

Take the following brief descriptions as an example — selected almost at random from Conrad’s novel Chance:

“As often happens after a grey daybreak the sun had risen in a warm and glorious splendor above the smooth immense gleam of the enlarged estuary. Wisps of mist floated like trails of luminous dust, and in the dazzling reflections of water and vapor, the shores had the murky, semi-transparent darkness of shadows cast mysteriously from below.”

And again:

“It was in the trade winds, at night, under a velvety, bespangled sky, a great multitude of stars watching the shadows of the sea gleaming mysteriously in the wake of the ship; while the leisurely swishing of the water to leeward was like a drowsy comment on her progress.”

Or, finally:

“The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames thrown over the somber immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity.

Art requires imagination, not only on the part of the artist, but also of the spectator. Fully appreciating art requires of the spectator a suspension of the critical, discursive faculties and the willingness to embrace the work on its own terms. Conrad worked very hard to present in his novels hints and suggestions that pointed just beyond the words themselves and which demanded of his reader an effort, a willingness to engage the work fully in its own terms. Some have characterized his works as “impressionistic.” As Conrad himself tells us:

“[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts  in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. . . .

“All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret springs of emotion. . . . My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all else, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

Art cannot be translated. It must be met on its own ground. And to the extent that we are unwilling to make the effort and open ourselves to the wonders that art can make available to us our world shrinks and diminishes. When we mistake mere entertainment for true art, demand that we be allowed to remain passive while the work dulls our senses, we move farther away from that which has the capacity to open to us a world we will otherwise remain blind to throughout our lives. The artist works in three-dimensions and we ignore his or her work at the risk of reducing our world to two dimensions and missing out on what might otherwise allow us to grow and to see and feel things that we must otherwise completely miss.

This is why we read. This is why we listen carefully to music. This is why we visit galleries and concert halls and witness the elegance of human bodies in motion. Conrad knew whereof he spoke, and he spoke of writing as only one of many forms of art. As we gradually become less and less willing to make the effort his words will fall on the ears of increasing numbers of people who will simply not know whereof he speaks. Because, above all else, engaging art fully requires an effort of imagination and in our modern world imagination is held in low esteem, art is regarded as frivolous, we are reluctant to expend effort, and we settle increasingly for mere entertainment as our senses become slowly but surely dulled and our world shrinks accordingly.

Film As Art

I remarked in passing on a recent post that there is a basic difference between film regarded as art (as it was in many countries other than in this one at least until recently) and film as entertainment (which is what it is regarded as in this country, for the most part.) I think this distinction warrants development and some support. Besides, I am sick and tired of writing and reading about the current political race!

Years ago I was director of a Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux.” (It is not important to know when this was, let’s just say it was after the Flood.) At that time we used a number of films as points of departure for discussion in small seminars after the film was shown. Note, please, that the film was not shown in class time. The topic for that term was ‘Good and Evil,” a broad topic, you will agree. A good friend of mine in the theatre department who knows everything there is to know about films recommended “The Shop On Main street” and that was shown to the Freshman class in several showings at the Campus Religious Center. I was present at the first showing of a powerful film with subtitles about the deportation of Jews during the early 1930s. After the film had been shown, I heard one young man turn to his neighbor and say: “Subtitles suck.” That was his assessment of the film, a film as gripping as any I have ever seen, before or since.

The young man, who shall not be named, had confused film as art with film as entertainment. He came to the show expecting to be entertained. Instead, he was asked to pay close attention, read, and think about what he was seeing. Apparently, he could not do the latter.

I don’t want to pick on that young man. He might have simply tried to be funny. I clearly am not to know. But the remark does raise the issue I want to discuss: how does film as art differ from film, as entertainment? The answer is deceptively simple: film as art requires the engagement of the spectator’s feelings along with his or her whole mind, intellect and well as imagination. It demands their full attention. It raises issues and requires that we make an effort to connect and interpret. It doesn’t reward a passive audience that simply wants to sit back, stare, and eat popcorn.

The implication, of course, is that film as entertainment does do the latter. And that is all that it does do. It hands the spectator a finished product, complete with special effects and noise enough to drown out any ideas he or she might have about what is happening away from the screen. It makes few, if any, demands of the spectator.

Think about Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho,” where the line is thinly drawn but still apparent. The shock of the ending is suggested rather than shown. This is key, as it is in almost all art. Hitchcock still, at that time, required of his audience that they participate in the making of the work of art, which was the film. They never saw a woman stabbed in the shower or a madman/madwoman attacking the hero at the end off the film. But they thought they saw it, and if they had any doubts the music helped them out. They put the pieces together and made up these scenes for themselves. And in the process they were involved in the horror that was “Psycho.” From that time forward, in American film history (with a few exceptions — by such film makers as Woody Allen) — the films became more graphic and less taxing on the audience. As the American audiences became more and more jaded and used to the sensational it became imperative on the part of filmmakers to become more and more vivid in their presentations, demanding less and less of their audience. That was that way the audiences wanted it. That was what we gradually became used to. We became lazy and easily diverted. Film had become entertainment. We got what we wanted.

The interesting thing to note in this process is that it parallels the gradual immersion of the American public into electronic media and the rule of thumb in television and movie theaters everywhere: give them that they crave. Give them all our production crews and special effect people can give them. This was a breath of fresh air to the special effects people who were learning new tricks at every turn and were perfectly capable of scaring the pants off every passive spectator in any theater anywhere in this broad country. I daresay it became something of a contest, with the winner taking home the trophy. And if today’s tricks didn’t work, there’s always tomorrow. The sky’s the limit! And the audiences paid large fees to be entertained and came back for more. In the meantime, their imaginations wilted and the true film makers, who shrank in numbers, played to smaller and smaller audiences.

This brief history is somewhat simplistic, but essentially correct, I think.

Funny Or Comical?

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the nature of comedy. Yes, I am strange. But the thing I find most interesting is that the word “comedy” was originally attached to events that are not necessarily funny. For example, in drama it applies simply to plays that end happily. Comedy is a broader term and can be funny — or not.

Freud has discussed comedy as has Henri Bergson. But the best discussion I have ever read about the subject was written by Arthur Koestler, author of the haunting novel Darkness at Noon. He was also a journalist and an exceptionally deep thinker. His book The Act of Creation is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. He analyses the act of creation and ties it into such diverse things as music and …. comedy. He takes as his point of departure the “Eureka!” moment when Archimedes discovered how to determine whether Hiero’s crown was solid gold or a mix of gold and silver without destroying the crown itself. He was, as you may remember, stepping into the bath when he realized that in doing so he displaced a certain amount of water whose volume could be measured accurately; by analogy he could now determine the density of the crown. It was a “Eureka!” moment and he reportedly ran down the streets of Syracuse naked shouting with glee. Now, that’s funny!

Koestler thinks such creative moments result from what he calls “bisociation,” the sudden and unexpected intersection of two independent planes of thought which he calls “matrices”:

“The essential point is that at the critical moment both matrices were simultaneously present in Archimedes’ mind — though presumably on different levels of awareness. The creative stress resulting from the blocked situation [Archimedes’ inability to solve his problem] kept the problem on the agenda even while the beam of consciousness was drifting along quite another plane.”

When the two planes intersected at the moment he stepped into the bath, he had solved the problem. Eureka! That was the “creative” moment. But what has this to do with comedy, you might ask? Everything. Take the following joke.

A. I hear there was a fire at the local university yesterday.

B. Seriously?

A. Yes, it totalled the library, destroying both books.

B. Ha!

A. And only one had been colored in!!

B. Again, Ha!

So it goes. B doesn’t expect A’s response: there is the sudden intersection of two independent matrices — one telling the story of the sad fate of the library at the local college, which tends to evoke sympathy in the listener and which is suddenly intersected by another matrix that cuts across the first and results in a laugh, a sudden release of emotion that was built up by B worrying, even for a moment, that the library had been burned down. Koestler calls this an “explosion.” This particular joke has two such moments — one when A says that both books were destroyed and another when he say that only one had been colored in. Neither is expected and both evoke a sudden release of emotion, mild though it may be (a small explosion?). This is not a thigh-slapper, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, perhaps Freud’s joke recounted in his essay on the comic will:

Chamfort tells the story of a Marquis at the court of Louis XIV who, on entering his wife’s boudoir and finding her in the arms of a Bishop, walked calmly to the window and went through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

‘What are you doing?’ cried the anguished wife.

‘Monseigneur is performing my functions,’ replied the Marquis, ‘so I am performing his,’

Or, if you prefer the slightly sacrilegious, there is always the priceless New Yorker cartoon where Joseph and Mary are looking heaven-ward and the caption reads: “But we wanted a girl!”

All in good fun. I leave it to the reader to find the elements of bisociation that Koestler speaks about.

All comedy, according to Koestler, has that essential creative moment. It happens when two completely independent matrices intersect and the surprise we experience results, as a rule, in a laugh.  Sometimes, folks just “don’t get it.” They weren’t paying attention, or don’t see the intersection of the two matrices. Humor is subjective (comedy is not) and, while it does involve emotion, it is surprisingly cerebral. Indeed, the emotions involved in comedy, such as they are, tend to be assertive, aggressive emotions (even sadistic, according to Freud). If the emotions become stronger and change color, as when we laugh at the chair being pulled from beneath the would-be sitter only to realize from the expression on his face that he has hurt himself, then laughter immediately stops and a rush of sympathy or empathy takes its place. But the bisociation between two independent matrices remains essentially the same, though intros case, comedy becomes tragedy. Cervantes was able to exploit this basic relationship by making Don Quixote both comical and tragic — depending on how we feel about him at the moment. In other words, precisely the same bisociations can be comic or terribly sad, according to which emotions are involved and how strong they are. The very same bisociation of independent matrices occurs, according to Koestler, when the artist suddenly realizes how to “solve” the problem of the painting she has been struggling with, picks up the piece of driftwood lying on the sand because she suddenly sees several possibilities that no one else sees, or the scientist suddenly discovers, as did Archimedes, the solution to the problem he was pondering. Creativity occurs by bisociation, Koestler insists, in both science and the fine arts. And in comedy as well.

Some things can be comical without being funny and some things like exaggeration, jokes, and caricature are both comical and funny.  But all are essentially creative. Now I find that interesting.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

Standards of Taste

In my view one of the most interesting debates, and one I have discussed before in these blogs, is the one among those who insist upon or deny the possibility of standards of taste — especially in the fine arts. We hear all too often that beauty, for example, is a matter of taste. You like popular music and I do not. I prefer Rembrandt to Rockwell, whereas you think I am a snob. Indeed, the disagreement can become heated and often lowers itself, as do many debates, to the level of the ad hominem — attacks on the person. I may or may not be a snob, but my preference for Rembrandt over Rockwell doesn’t rest at that level. There may actually be something about Rembrandt’s work that makes him a better painter and his works truly more beautiful (if we can use that word any more). Or is it all a matter of taste about which there can be no dispute?

It is assuredly the case that taste differs widely among various people and that one’s taste changes as he or she grows older. But it is also the case that the change may well mark an improvement and that there is such a thing as “refined” taste. If I grow up listening only to pop music and never hear a symphony I am not really in a position to judge whether classical music is or is not somehow better (more beautiful?) than popular music. If I have read a great deal of literature it would seem that I am in a better position to judge of a new work if it is truly worth reading or a waste of time than I would be if I never read anything but comic books. I may even be in a better position to say if it is “great” — though, again, we retreat from such words these days. The point is that there may not be such a thing as a standard of taste, but there may be subtle differences in works of art and literature that are only perceived by those in a position to recognize them: those who have a more refined taste, which is acquired with wide experience. This is true even in the case of fine wine and tea. It is said that there are experts who can discern hundreds of different varieties of tea just from tasting them. And we all know folks (I am not one of them) who seem to be able to detect certain qualities of the wine they are tasting that the rest of us seem to miss.

The man who addressed this interesting issue and seems to have made the most sense of it was David Hume in the nineteenth century. In his essay on the “Standard of Taste,” he remarks:

It appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.

In a word, if I am color-blind, I am not in a position to judge the worth of a painting. If I am tone-deaf, I cannot possibly discern the subtleties of a complex piece of music. And if I have no experience whatever with great art and literature, I am not qualified to judge such things. The notion that there is such a thing as “good taste” is often labelled as “elitism,” which once again lowers the discussion to the level of the ad hominem. It is not elitist to recognize the differences among persons who are or are not in a position to judge the worth of various objects. There may not be an indisputable standard of taste, as Hume suggests, but, as he also suggests, there are qualities in objects that announce themselves to those who are in a position to hear them or see them. As Hume admitted, the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice . . .” Some people are simply in a better position to judge of works of art, say, than are others. I do not speak of myself, but I know of people whose opinions seem to me to be well informed and I know enough to listen carefully to what they say. There may be no disputing taste, but it makes perfectly good sense to speak about those who have “good taste,”  those who know whereof they speak, and those who do not.


One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that very few are, in fact, willing to make the effort.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts. If only the teachers would….