Envy

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Two thoughts after reading this account by Rebecca West of a visit that she and her husband made to Zagreb in 1937: 

We were to learn after that something about the intellectual level of Croatia. In a restaurant beside the Cathedral people awaited us for lunch: a poet and playwright [who], while ordering us an immense meal of which goose-liver and apple sauce were the centrepiece, threw over us the net of an extremely complicated conversation about literature. ‘We think,’ said the playwright, ‘that the greatest writers of recent times are Joseph Conrad, Maxim Gorki,and Jack London.’ We blenched. We thought that these people could have no taste … We were wrong. [The playwright argued that] pure narration was a form of great importance, because it gathered together experiences that could be assimilated by others of poetic talent and transmuted into higher forms; and he liked [these writers] because they were collecting experiences which were rare, which they had investigated thoroughly by undergoing them themselves, and which they had tested with an abnormal sensitiveness. But the playwright and his wife had been wondering whether Conrad was not in a class alone, because of the feeling of true tragedy that ran through his works…

 

‘No,’ said my husband suddenly, ‘Conrad has no sense of tragedy at all, but only of the inevitable, and for him the inevitable was never the fulfillment of a principle such as the Greek ananke, but a deroulement of the consequences of an event’ … The playwright’s wife said that this was true but irrelevant. To her there was a sense of tragedy implied in Conrad’s work not by factual statement but by the rhythm of his language. ‘Tchk! Tchk!’ said Constantine. ‘A great symphony must have its themes as well as the emotional colour given by its orchestration. And listen…’ He said the sense of inevitability in a work of art should be quite different from the scientific conception of causality, for if art were creative then each stage must be new, must have something over and above what was contained in the previous stages, and the connexion between the first and the last must be creative in the Bergsonian sense. He added that it is to give this creativeness its chance to create what is at once unpredictable and inevitable that an artist must never interfere with his characters to make them prove a moral point, because this is to force them down the path of the predictable. ‘Yes, that is what Tolstoy is always doing,’ said the playwright, ‘and all the same he convinces us he is a great artist.’ ‘I feel he is not a great artist,’ I said, ‘I feel he might have been the greatest of all artists, but instead chose to be the second greatest of renegades after Judas.’ ‘I, too!’ said the poet, who had just sat down at the table. ‘I, too.’

 

The bottles thick about us, we stayed in the restaurant till it was five o‘clock. We were then discussing Nietzsche’s attitude to music. At eight we were back in the same restaurant, dining with an editor and his wife …

 

As we talked … there ran to our table a beautiful young Russian woman, who could be with us only half an hour because she was supervising a play of hers about Pushkin which had been put on at the National Theatre a few nights before and was a failure … ‘They are hard on my play!’ she cried, choked with the ecstatic laughter of Russian women. ‘Ce n’est pas bien, ce n‘est pas mal, c’est mediocre!’ The editor, smiling at her beauty and her comet quality, tried to upbraid her for her play. The drama, he said, was a great mystery, one of the most difficult forms of art. All men of genius have tried their hand at a play at some time, and he had read most of them. These people, I realized, could make such universal statements. Both the editor and his wife knew, and knew well, in addition to their native Serbo-Croat, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Latin, and Greek …

 

This, so far as talk was concerned, was a representative day in Zagreb.

 

I. When you get a Ph.D. and become a professional academic, you suppose that you will have wonderful discussions like this every week: what we mean by “art,” the artistry of these and those authors, the nature and origin of the tragic sensibility in the works of so-and-so, whether content or form is of greater importance in art, art and morality, the role of the audience, and so on.

 

In fact, I am very sorry to report, you will not have such discussions. The obstacles are these:

 

  1. Specialization: no one knows much of anything about anything much except a bit about his or her little corner of the one closet in the one little room in the vast palace of Knowledge.
  2. Cynicism: in the typical case, not genuine cynicism but merely an affectation, deployed in an attempt to conceal one’s deep and chronic ignorance about so much, even much within one’s own discipline. (Doubly foolish, because such attempts are transparent in any case, and because no intelligent person believes that the award of a Ph.D. magically bestows upon the awardee knowledge of, say, the difference between Greek ananke and the scientific conception of causality, as they relate to the works of Joseph Conrad.)
  3. Careerism: that is, if I cannot add it to my curriculum vitae or my annual professional activities report, why should I care? (The authentic version of #2, I suppose.)
  4. Time: funny how all the stuff that is supposed to be ancillary, e.g., committees, task forces, grant-writing, emailing, etc, takes the place of your quote-unquote real job, i.e., teaching and research. I am genuinely not sure whether that is inevitable in the modern era of higher education or a choice of priorities made by individual professors or some combination of the two.

 

II. My second observation is simply this. Whether West and her interlocutors are right about Tolstoy I am not prepared to say. But their broader point about art and morality may be correct. What do you think?

 

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