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?

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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.

Perennial Question

One of the most perplexing questions to have worried thinkers for centuries is the question whether humans are truly free. Or are we determined? One of the people to have given the issue a good deal of thought was, of all people, Leo Tolstoy. In War and Peace, he takes time to ponder the question of freedom, suggesting that it is an illusion: everything that happens is pre-determined:

“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action. . . .

“When an apple ripens and falls — what makes it fall? Is it attracted to the ground, is it that the stem weakens, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it? . . . No one thing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions under which every organic, elemental event of life is accomplished.

“[The major figures involved in Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Moscow in 1812] feared, rejoiced. boasted, resented, reasoned, supposing that they knew what they were doing and that they were doing it for themselves, and yet they were all involuntary instruments of history, and performed work hidden from them but comprehensible to us. . . .”

 

In this passage, Tolstoy provides us with what appears to be a quasi-scientific account of the deterministic hypothesis. Any action a person commits is inevitable, it is the consequence of thousands and millions of previous actions of which he is simply unaware. The person thinks he is free, but he is not. Later in the novel he will tie this view to the theistic view, which makes the case even stronger. He says, for example,

“To the question of what constitutes the cause of historical events. . .[the answer is] that the course of world events is predestined from on high, depends on the coincidence of all the wills of the people participating in those events, and that Napoleon’s influence [for example] on the course of those events is only external and fictitious.”

After all, if God is omnipotent and omniscient, which is axiomatic in Judeo-Christain theology, then human freedom is clearly an illusion: God not only knows what we do, He brought it about when he created Adam. From God’s perspective, everything that happens is predictable. Leibniz embraced this view, calling it “pre-established harmony.” He insisted that we simply act as though we are free whereas, in fact, everything we do or will do has been determined from the beginning. Calvin also embraced this view, insisting that it is the only possible view of human actions compatible with a Christian God.

Couple these arguments with what we now know about DNA and the effects of the environment on human behavior and it is virtually impossible to escape the deterministic view. In fact, even though they would hesitate to bring God into the discussion, many a social scientist today embraces a deterministic view of human conduct — especially when they excuse a known criminal’s behavior on the grounds of his parentage and upbringing. The problem is that in the deterministic view there is no room for human freedom. As noted, freedom becomes an illusion. At best, in the words of Boethius, freedom is a “profound mystery only a theologian can grasp.” Calvin said we must act “as if” we are free; we are not. But if we are not free, then we cannot be responsible for our acts, either — as the social scientist suggests.

This problem bothered Immanuel Kant so much that he spent his life trying to solve it. Because he wanted to insist that we are free and responsible for our actions he wrote the first of his “critiques” of human reason in which he developed antinomies showing that human freedom can be both proved and disproved by impeccable logic. Thus, freedom is, for Kant, a postulate of practical reason. In a word, we take it on faith, since we can neither prove it nor disprove it, and after positing human freedom we can proceed to develop an ethic based on freedom and human responsibility. And this is what Kant did in his later writings.

The determinist would insist that Kant’s arguments were developed long before revelations about DNA became known. Within the scientific community I doubt there is a person who would allow any wiggle-room for human freedom, convinced as they are that our DNA makes our development and future behavior totally predictable, in principle. Coupled with what we know about the effects of upbringing on the young, prediction becomes simply a function of how much we can know about every individual.

In the end, despite the strong case that can be made for determinism, there are those of us who still insist, as did Jean Paul Sartre in the 1950s, that we have a deep feeling that we are free and that no matter how much is known about us, we are capable of totally spontaneous actions. Sartre insisted that freedom is the fundamental fact about human existence and it implies complete responsibility for everything we do. The feeling of freedom somehow still hangs on despite the arguments of determinism of the scientific or the theistic variety, though we hear very little about the responsibility that goes along with it.