In an age that places a premium on feeling, that even tends to wallow in feeling and seeks everywhere the expression of “honest” feelings, it is refreshing indeed to read in a short story by Thomas Mann a passage that leads us in another direction entirely. In art, surely, the premium placed on feelings and raw emotion would seem to be entirely appropriate. Mann thinks otherwise. His hero, Tonio Kröger, is a poet and he is holding forth about the nature of art in the company of a close friend who is a painter. Both of these people should know what they are talking about and both agree that art is a matter not of feeling, per se, but of feelings under control. And it is precisely the issue of control that we seem to have lost somewhere in the discussion of the value of raw emotion as the only honest expression humans are capable of. Kröger makes his position clear:
“Nobody but a beginner imagines that he who creates must feel. Every real and genuine artist smiles at such naïve blunders as that. A melancholy enough smile, perhaps, but still a smile. For what an artist feels is never the main point; it is the raw material, in and for itself indifferent, out of which, with bland and serene mastery, he creates the work of art. If you care too much about what you have to say, if your heart os too much in it, you can be pretty sure of making a mess. You get pathetic, you wax sentimental; something dull and doddering, without roots or outlines, with no sense of humor — something tiresome and banal grows under your hand, and you get nothing out of it but apathy in your audience and disappointment and misery in yourself. For so it is. . . feeling, warm, heartfelt feeling, is always banal and futile, only the irritations and icy ecstasies of the artist’s corrupted nervous system are artistic.”
Flaubert put it simply: “Discipline makes art of impulse.” The notion that the artist simply sits down and “let’s it all hang out,” or that she creates her best work under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is a fiction. The artist’s mind, her intellect, is never disengaged. Our tiresome devotion to raw emotion, the face of the crying athlete after a loss, the histrionics of the player on the football field after a routine tackle, the pumping of the fist after a three-foot putt falls in — all of these are regarded by so many of us as the only totally honest expressions that humans are capable of. And this is also a fiction. It is not emotion or feeling in and of itself that are valuable, that delight us or create works of art that can make us weep; it is what the artist does with those raw feelings, how she works them into a poem or a story or a painting, that makes us marvel and weep.
This is not to say that the artist, in particular, does not feel. On the contrary, artists are among the most sensitive of humans and we are lucky to live among them. But the good ones know that it is not enough simply to feel. It is also necessary, for their art, to take those feelings and blend them into something beautiful, something that reveals to us features of our common world we would otherwise miss. Otherwise they simply “make a mess.”
It has always struck me as a feature of our culture that we err on the side of what we call “honesty” in prizing emotion and we pay little attention to the self-discipline that is required not only in good or great art, but also in the conduct of ordinary human interaction, the formation of what was once called “character.” The Greeks prized self-control. We prize selves that are out of control. This may explain a lot — not only why so much of what passes for art is mere sentimentality, dull and doddering, as Mann would have it, but also why the quiet ones who go about their business and do the right thing by others and for their art are so often ignored or dismissed as somehow insignificant. In fact, they may be the ones we should pay closest attention to in our tizzy to hold up the model of raw emotion we see on the field or in the gallery as the highest expression of human beings.