Art and the Unexpected

In an essay he wrote in 1952 Lionel Trilling uses a captivating phrase in describing the novel of an obscure Russian writer by the name of Isaac Babel. Trilling notes that “the essence of art is unexpectedness.” This is, of course, true, as is the related notion that the success or failure of art, especially literary art, hinges on ambiguity. The worse sin that a writer or novelist can make is to convey messages; art degenerates into didacticism. This is why Tolstoy was wrong when he insisted that the Bible was the greatest work of art ever written. The Bible is fundamentally and essentially didactic: it seeks to convey messages, clear and to the point. Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; they also require at the center an ambiguity that allows for a great many interpretations of what the artist or writer is up to. They themselves may not even know what they intended to say or paint. So, rather than listen to them we must recall what D.H. Lawrence said:

 “If you want to know what the novelist has to say, read the novel. As for the novelist he is a dribbling liar.”

In any event, Trilling’s comment about the unexpected lead me to recall an essay I used to teach in aesthetics classes years ago by the musicologist Leonard Meyer. He insisted that great music is a function of the unexpected. The difference between Bach and Francesco Geminiani, for example, is that Bach is full of surprises, whereas Geminiani tends to be predictable. Bach is a great composer; Geminiani is not. When we listen to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, we never know quite what to expect. Music has “gestalt” qualities, as does all art, which lead us to certain expectations, certain resolutions of tensions built up with in the work. The great artists know how to frustrate those expectations and to surprise us in so many creative and interesting ways, thus increasing what Meyer called “information” — the heart and soul of greatness.

Greatness in art, as indeed in anything except in sports where greatness abounds apparently (along with “super stars”), has disappeared behind a screen of relativistic nonsense. We can no longer talk about greatness because it is a sign of our being “judgmental, which is forbidden by the politically correct…..and incorrect. Those who call the shots these days insist that there is no truth and no greatness. There is just what people do and it is up to us to make of it what we will. To which I say: bollocks! There is truth, and there is greatness. In fact the preceding sentence is true and certain works of art and literature are indeed great — for the reasons given above. It’s all about “the unexpected.” It is not about what we perceive, it is about what is going on, or what fails to go on, in the work itself. Our tendency these days to reduce all value judgments, in both art and ethics, to personal reactions is nothing more and nothing less than a sign of out inverted consciousness, our determination to turn the world into the world-for-us. It is a denial of the objectivity and reality of that which stands before us in all its glory, and it is quite simply wrong-headed — if for no other reason than it closes off to us the beauties and wonders of a world we are lucky enough to be a part of. It is not OUR world; it is THE world. We share it and we can make statements about it that are either true or false. And some of us can create works of great beauty, works that reveal to us dimensions of that shared world that we would otherwise miss. Our world tends to be bland; theirs is full of surprises — we never know quite what to expect.

And, curiously enough, the unexpected is the heart and soul of comedy as well. Interesting, don’t you think?

Defoe’s Eroticism

I am no historian of erotic literature, by no means. But I am aware of the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who was declared insane) in the  eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century most erotic literature was apparently written by persons who preferred to remain anonymous (perhaps because of the infamy that was heaped on Sade).  And in the twentieth century the writing style improved and serious writers such as Anaïs Nin, D. H. Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote novels that had readers tittering nervously behind the bathroom door. Edith Wharton even tried her hand at it and wrote some steamy passages that she never attempted to publish. But the covers have been removed in our day as the “progress” in erotic literature, like other art forms, has taken us to the point where nothing whatever is left to the imagination.

Early on, when the Victorian writers, even the great ones like George Eliot, wrote love scenes they merely suggested what was about to happen — like the picture fading as the lovers embraced in the early days of cinema. The rest was left to the reader’s imagination — as well it should be. Some things are better left unsaid and merely hinted at. One might even argue that such suggestions are even more powerful stimulants than graphic descriptions of sex and violence (think of Hitchcock’s murder scenes in movies such as “Psycho”).

What is interesting in this regard is the early novel by Daniel Defoe, written in 1683 about the “fallen” woman, Moll Flanders. The author takes several carefully written pages in an “Author’s Preface” to brace his readers, prepare them for a story about a woman whose life was a series of adventures involving more than a dozen men of all shapes and sizes and even a brief marriage, including three children, with her brother. As age begins to catch up with her Moll resorts to theft and pickpocketing in addition to the occasional liaison. Defoe is careful to point out that he is writing about this woman in order to teach his readers to be more virtuous. Every carefully crafted scene — which again, relies on suggestion and hints — is followed by a lesson, as, for example, the following: “. . . yet you may see how necessary it is for all women who expect anything in the world, to preserve the character of her virtue, even when perhaps they may have sacrificed the thing itself.”  At one point early in the novel he takes several pages to give a lecture about the necessity for women to do a better job of “vetting” their prospective husbands, not to “run into matrimony as a horse runs into battle.” He warns that jumping into marriage simply to avoid the life of a spinster can lead to great unhappiness.  As he puts it:

“No man of common sense will value a woman the less for not giving up herself at the first attack, or for not accepting his proposal without enquiring into his person or character; on the contrary, he must think her the weakest of all creatures, as the rate of men now goes; in short, he must have a very comfortable opinion of her capacities, that having but one cast for her life shall cast that life away at once, and make matrimony, like death, be a leap in the dark.”

Much of his advice is wise and understanding of the women in his day who were abused and miserable because their society demanded that they marry early and start having large families. The author is clearly in sympathy with Moll Flanders who was born into poverty, taken from her mother at birth, and who must somehow do whatever is necessary to stay out of the poor house in a society where there are too few options for women generally. One might even argue that Defoe is one of the earliest feminists. The book is fairly racy in a tame sort of way: in its day it must have been rather sensational. It is certainly interesting.

But, in the end, novels that preach, even if the sermon is one we should take to heart, are flawed as works of art. And novels are above all else works of art. Or they should be. Didactic literature fails as art simply because the writer is telling his reader what to think or how to feel when that is better left to the reader. The same flaw can be attributed to graphic erotic novels that leave nothing to the imagination. Above all else, art requires the exercise of the imagination and works that are graphic and leave nothing to the imagination, like works that preach, cannot be said to be works of art.

All of which leads me to the consideration that today’s graphic movies, television, novels, and games cannot be said to be works of art by any stretch of the word. Moreover, they cripple the human imagination in the process of deadening the sensibilities to the subtleties of suggestions and hints — possibilities that are never explicitly mentioned but clearly intended. Works of art demand considerable effort on the part of the spectator to appreciate what the artist is doing, to fill in the gaps for herself or himself. And, more than anything else, that effort is one of the imagination. The more art degenerates into entertainment the less able will future spectators be able to engage complex works and appreciate them in their full presentational immediacy — as works of art that touch us on a variety of levels, and don’t simply get us sexually aroused or scare us to death, killing the imagination and rendering us devoid of feeling.