“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, June 20, 2004


One of LI’s favorite of all passages in English literature is that ending of Sir Thomas Browne’s Gardens of Cyprus:

“Though Somnus in Homer be sent to rouse up Agamemnon, I find no such effects in the drowsy approaches of sleep. To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes. The Huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.”

LI found his intellectual antipodes, Matthew Arnold, yesterday. We were mulling another shot at this interminable discussion of elitism. So far, LI had been concerned with elitism from the constructive perspective of the artist. But how about the perspective of the critic? Since Arnold famously thought that ‘all the best that has been thought and said” should be the standard of art, we decided to dip into the Works. Dipping, here, it turns out, should be done with one's bowler hat on.

Now, we have always liked Dover Beach. But Arnold’s prose is a rather unpleasant chore. One vibrates from a choking dislike of the man whose tone is so pervasively Pecksniffian. Arnold strangled the artist within him in favor of a critic who is, above every other consideration, desperately respectable. Not only that -- Arnold is an expert practitioner of what I call Kaelism – Kael-ism avant le Kael. Kaelism, as Pauline Kael, the movie critic, practiced it, is a critical form that concentrates firstly on the audience that one imagines is being enticed to a movie, or enjoys it; secondly, on what other critics have said about the movie; and only thirdly on the thing itself. It is envious of those pleasures it cannot participate in. It is exclusive about those pleasures it does experience. It is an amalgam of uninformed sociology and prejudice, and at its best creating negative images of what it dislikes.

It is also perhaps the dominant reviewing style of our time. It has never been the case that the critic can ignore the audience – and guilt by association is sometimes too irresistible not to indulge in. But it is a weakness, not a strength. Kaelism is particularly good at creating and maintaining cliques. This – end excursus – is why reviews are so often the most boring part of a magazine or newspaper.

Arnold’s clique was, of course, the Victorian professional class. A good example of Arnold at his dimmest is his essay, On Translating Homer, in which he considers criteria for good translation – should the translation mirror the original, or should it transpose the original so into the English language as to make the work seem native? He dismisses both of those goals in favor of another one: a translation should please those who can read in both languages. In other words, it should please the scholars – or the scholars of Oxford and Cambridge:

“Let not the translator, then, trust to his notions of what the ancient Greeks would have thought of him; he will lose himself in the vague. Let him not trust to what the ordinary English reader thinks of him; he will be taking the blind for his guide. Let him not trust to his own judgment of his own work; he may be misled by individual caprices. Let him ask how his work affects those who both know Greek and can appreciate poetry; whether to read it gives the Provost of Eton, or Professor Thompson at Cambridge, or Professor Jowett here in Oxford, at all the same feeling which to read the original gives them. I consider that when Bentley said of Pope’s translation, “it was a pretty poem, but must not be called Homer,” the work, in spite of all its power and attractiveness, was judged.”

In other words – let the mortician tell you the cause of death.

Luckily, the deathly hand of Jowett – that mummified respectability – does not lie upon the great Victorian and Edwardian translations – Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, Burton’s Arabian Nights, Garnett’s Dostoevsky. Actually, I rather like Jowett’s translations of Plato, but the idea that success in translation depends upon the judgment of “experts” is just the type of thing that LI blindly dislikes.

The mass of Arnold’s criticism is a continual attempt to clean the sink – getting rid of the vulgar wherever it showed itself. Unfortunately, literature has an unfortunate addiction to vulgarity. Only sieved through the proper filters, those scholars at Oxford who, by the sympathetic magic of contact with the wealthy and aristocratic, are themselves respectable, can such things be enjoyed. This is how Arnold starts off his essay on Keats. It is an essay that almost makes one wish old Matt was still alive – so he could take a good punch in the nose. I am going to quote four grafs:
Poetry, according to Milton's famous saying, should be 'simple, sensuous, impassioned.' No one can question the eminency, in Keats's poetry, of the quality of sensuousness. Keats as a poet is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous; the question with some people will be, whether he is anything else. Many things may be brought forward which seem to show him as under the fascination and sole dominion of sense, and desiring nothing better. There is the exclamation in one of his letters: 'O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!' There is the thesis, in another, 'that with a great Poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.' There is Haydon's story of him, how 'he once covered his tongue and throat as far as he could reach with Cayenne pepper, in order to appreciate the delicious coldness of claret in all its glory---his own expression.' One is not much surprised when Haydon further tells us, of the hero of such a story, that once for six weeks together he was hardly ever sober. 'He had no decision of character,' Haydon adds; 'no object upon which to direct his great powers.'
Character and self-control, the virtus verusque labor so necessary for every kind of greatness, and for the great artist, too, indispensable, appear to be wanting, certainly, to this Keats of Haydon's portraiture. They are wanting also to the Keats of the Letters to Fanny Brawne. These letters make as unpleasing an impression as Haydon's anecdotes. The editor of Haydon's journals could not well omit what Haydon said of his friend, but for the publication of the Letters to Fanny Brawne I can see no good reason whatever. Their publication appears to me, I confess, inexcusable; they ought never to have been published. But published they are, and we have to take notice of them. Letters written when Keats was near his end, under the throttling and unmanning grasp of mortal disease, we will not judge. But here is a letter written some months before he was taken ill. It is printed just as Keats wrote it.
'You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving---I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love. ... Your note came in just here. I cannot be happier away from you. 'Tis richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion---I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more---I could be martyred for my Religion---Love is my religion---I could die for that. I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet. You have ravished me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often "to reason against the reasons of my Love" I can do that no more---the pain would be too great. My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.'
A man who writes love-letters in this strain is probably predestined, one may observe, to misfortune in his love-affairs; but that is nothing. The complete enervation of the writer is the real point for remark. We have the tone, or rather the entire want of tone, the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity, of the merely sensuous man, of the man who 'is passion's slave.' Nay, we have them in such wise that one is tempted to speak even as Blackwood or the Quarterly were in the old days wont to speak; one is tempted to say that Keats's love-letter is the love-letter of a surgeon's apprentice. It has in its relaxed self-abandonment something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them. It is the sort of love-letter of a surgeon's apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case, or in the Divorce Court.”

LI can find nothing to mock in this passage, so superbly does it mock itself – from the Miltonic flourish of earnestness with which Arnold falsely associates himself – Milton himself, with his most vulgar whooping it up for the death of Charles I, would certain have met with the schoomaster’s frown – to that final ending up in the Divorce Court. To write your love letter with an eye to posterity seems to be Arnold’s ideal. It is the ideal of a Gentleman’s tailor – if we are going to exchange status jabs – who takes his bride out to meet his clients. It is Arnold to the t.

Interestingly, the way in which Arnold rescues Keats’ seriousness is by showing that Keats could insult women. Misogyny is, in Arnold’s view, a step in the right direction. No underbreeding here.
“It is curious to observe how this severe addiction of his to the best sort of poetry affects him with a certain coldness, as if the addiction had been to mathematics, towards those prime objects of a sensuous and passionate poet's regard, love and women. He speaks of 'the opinion I have formed of the generality of women, who appear to me as children to whom I would rather give a sugar-plum than my time.' He confesses 'a tendency to class women in my books with roses and sweetmeats---they never see themselves dominant'; and he can understand how the unpopularity of his poems may be in part due to 'the offence which the ladies,' not unnaturally 'take at him' from this cause. Even to Fanny Brawne he can write 'a flint-worded letter,' when his 'mind is heaped to the full' with poetry:--- 'I know the generality of women would hate me for this; that I should have so unsoftened, so hard a mind as to forget them; forget the brightest realities for the dull imaginations of my own brain. ... My heart seems now made of iron---I could not write a proper answer to an invitation to Idalia.'
The truth is that 'the yearning passion for the Beautiful,' which was with Keats, as he himself truly says, the master-passion, is not a passion of the sensuous or sentimental man, is not a passion of the sensuous or sentimental poet. It is an intellectual and spiritual passion. It is 'connected and made one,' as Keats declares that in his case
it was, 'with the ambition of the intellect.'”

Arnold’s gross and naked transposition of his status anxieties into a criteria for knowledge, or into a standard of judgment on art, makes it a puzzle, to LI, how he ever acquired the reputation that he undoubtedly has. I suppose one of these days we will have to read Trilling’s study of the guy.

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