Books: Cultural Amnesia — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg |
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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799) stands at the beginning of German modernity, and right in the centre of the country’s post—World War II concern with the recovery of liberal thought from historical catastrophe. If it was felt necessary to pump the mystique out of the whole idealistic heritage of German philosophy, Lichtenberg was the prototype of a German thinker who could be seen as the level-headed smallholder waiting back at the beginning, looking once again like an attractive prospect, now that the smoke had cleared. Mainly owing to Hegel and his long influence, German, as a language of thought, had acquired a bad reputation for the higher nonsense of self-generating transcendentalism. In truth, however, German has as good a right as French to be thought of as essentially terse. (All of its most able prose writers, from Goethe through Schopenhauer to Freud, Schnitzler, Kafka and Wittgenstein, found the aphorism a natural form.) Just as Pascal, in French, began a tradition of compact concrete statement even about the spiritual, so did Lichtenberg in German. He came later, but then the whole of Germany came later. Germany is a young country, and Lichtenberg is one of the reasons that it can still feel that way for anyone who can push back through the curtains of tosh, much of it woven by patriots who believed that only the solemn could be truly serious and only the impenetrable profound. One of those valuable faculty members (he was a professor of physics, astronomy and mathematics at Göttingen) who never lose the trick of talking like a brilliantly amusing graduate student—we can imagine Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, or Richard Feynman at CalTech—Lichtenberg was critically minded about the language of others, unfailingly scrupulous about his own, and never content to settle into a formula. Barred by physical deformity from any easy participation in the passionate emotional life he saw as central to existence, he was nevertheless wonderfully sympathetic to the realities of love and sex: with every excuse to turn away from the real world, he kept its every aspect always in plain sight. Finally it is his detailed and unflinching awareness that astonishes the reader. Scattered through his scores of “Waste-Books” and manuscript notebooks, Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as “the right distance,” a sense of proportion. He is the thinker against hysteria, the mind whose good-humoured determination to avoid throwing a tantrum provides us with a persuasive argument that the tantrum might be the motive power of political insanity. In German there are numerous selections and collections, but most of the very best moments are in J. P. Stern’s excellent Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions (1959). Nutshells packed as cleverly as an old soldier’s kitbag, Lichtenberg’s sayings are quoted in the original where that seems helpful, are always sensitively translated into suitably colloquial English, and are thoroughly annotated, from the body of humanist knowledge about shattered Germany that Stern built up after the war. (Born and raised as a Czech, Stern also wrote one of the best short books about the man who shattered it, Hitler: The Führer and the People, in 1975.) Stern first encountered Lichtenberg’s name in the pages of Karl Kraus’s magazine Die Fackel. It would be a mistake, however, to confine the question of Lichtenberg’s long delayed but highly welcome influence merely to the sardonic paragraph. His clarity and concision set a standard for expository prose, at whatever length, in the whole of his language, and, by extension, in all languages.

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It was impossible for him not to disturb words in the possession of their meanings.

LICHTENBERG IS DESCRIBING a bad writer. There are bad writers who are exact in grammar, vocabulary and syntax, sinning only through their insensitivity to tone. Often they are among the worst writers of all. But on the whole it can be said that bad writing goes to the roots: it has already gone wrong beneath its own earth. Since much of the language is metaphorical in origin, a bad writer will scramble metaphors in a single phrase, often in a single word. From a made-for-television film called The Movie Murders I noted down this perfectly bad line of dialogue: “A fire is a Frankenstein when it’s let out of its cage.”

A fire can be a caged animal if you don’t mind a cliché. But a caged Frankenstein is worse than trite. Frankenstein was not the monster, he was the monster’s creator: so the use of his name is an inaccuracy. By now the inaccuracy has entered the language, like the juggernaut that serves us for Juggernaut’s car: but one of the things good writing does is to fight a rearguard action against this automatic absorption of error. For example, a competent writer would look twice at “rearguard action” to make sure that he means to evoke a losing battle, and check “automatic absorption” to make sure that it falls within the range of phenomena against which a battle might conceivably be fought. He had better also know that “phenomena” should not be used in the singular, although that knowledge, too, is becoming rare. Competent writers always examine what they have put down. Better than competent writers—good writers—examine their effects before they put them down: they think that way all the time. Bad writers never examine anything. Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world.

In a television interview, Francis Ford Coppola said “hoi polloi” when he meant “elite.” There is no reason to think that he would not commit similar solecisms in one of his screenplays if he were to put himself beyond the reach of expert advice, which the more bankable film directors—the ones whose films are marked as being “by” them—are increasingly apt to do. (This tendency, by the way, arises less from the conceit of directors than from the paucity of writers: screenplays depend more on construction than on dialogue, and experienced writers with those priorities are hard to find.) Most of us write “the hoi polloi” when we should leave off the “the” because “the” is what “hoi” means, but that is a point of usage. Using “hoi polloi” to mean “elite” is an outright error, indicating that the speaker has either misunderstood the term every time he has read it, or, more likely, that he has not read much. Unblushing semi-literacy is quite common among film directors, especially those who fancy themselves to have so powerful a vision that they grant themselves not just the final word on the structure of a script but the privilege of creating its language from line to line. We have to forgive them for this: the ability to put a movie script together takes such rare qualities of generalship that the person who can do it is almost bound to succumb to hubris. James Cameron’s screenplay for his film Titanic is no doubt a mighty feat of construction. It is also linguistically dead from start to finish. If pressed on the point, he would be able to say that his film made more money faster than any other film in history. He could also say that the visual narrative matters far more than the dialogue, and that his mastery of the screen image would be alone sufficient to refute the charge of inattention to the texture of reality. But there is a clear connection between the film’s infantile characterization—which for any adult viewer entirely undoes the effect of the meticulously reproduced period detail—and the dud dialogue the characters are given to speak. None of this would be germane to the issue if the director did not consider himself a writer. But he does, and he is a bad one: a bad writer by nature.

Macaulay’s review of the hapless poetaster Robert Montgomery is the classic analysis of the naturally bad writer who gets everything wrong because he is sensitive enough on the question of style to attempt to lift his means of expression above the ordinary. When Montgomery evoked a river that “meanders level with its fount,” Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount can’t even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay had uncovered the connection between the inability to notice and the inability to transcribe: the double deficiency that Montgomery’s highfalutin diction was invented to conceal. Mark Twain did the same for, or to, James Fenimore Cooper, who thought that “more preferable” was a more impressive way of saying “preferable”: the clumsily elevated language, Twain argued, was closely linked to the deficient power of observation that made the action of Cooper’s Leatherstocking books absurd. When a bad writer borrows locutions from past authorities, he characteristically takes the patina but leaves the metal. Biblical pastiche is a standard way for a mediocre stylist to attempt distinction. Attempting to define the sensationalism of the press, Malcom Muggeridge came up with the slogan “Give us this day our daily story.” A doomed effort, because all it did was remind the reader that the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer was better written than an article by Muggeridge. He would have been better off just saying that the press needs a new story every day. Gombrowicz in his Journal (specifically, vol. 2, p. 164) notes that when a writer complicates a truism it is a sure sign that he has nothing much to say.

Julius Caesar wrote with invariable clarity, whether about Gaul being divided into three parts or about building a bridge. Frederick the Great wrote about falconry from direct observation, with no hearsay, and in a plain style. Queen Victoria’s letters are models of compact accuracy: she wrote better than Queen Elizabeth I, which is saying a lot. Such practical expository prose by people with non-literary day-jobs should give a measure for would-be professional writers wise enough to build a solid base in their craft before trying to make an art out of it. They will soon discover that even the most down-to-earth of practical writers can scramble their meaning when they are in a hurry, so it must be a craft, and not just a gift. In addition to A Genius for War, his excellent biography of Gerneral Patton, the eminent American military historian Carlo D’Este wrote two essential books surveying whole campaign areas in World War II, Decision in Normandy, about Operation Overlord, and Bitter Victory, about the Allied invasion of Sicily. But a third book, Fatal Decision, is much less satisfactory than the other two because it squanders their chief virtue, which is to record and weigh the facts in a transparent style. D’Este knew all there was to know about the Anzio campaign, but while trying to tell the reader either he got so excited he forgot how to write or else—more likely, alas—he received less than his usual quota of editorial help. Thus we are regaled with his paraphrase of Churchill’s strategic view “that the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Mediterranean is Germany’s Achilles heel” (p. 12). But such a blatantly mixed metaphor at least enables you to divine what is meant. Metaphorical content is mixed more inextricably when a standard idiom is unintentionally reversed in meaning, thereby infecting the whole sentence. “For the next eight weeks there was a standoff in the northeastern corner of the beachhead as the 504th were forced into trenches that for sheer misery had nothing on their World War I counterparts” (p. 176). Here “had nothing on” is used for “yielded nothing to,” but they do not mean the same thing. When an important book is infested with deeply lurking solecisms, it has to be read twice while you are getting through it once. A less important book, of course, is quickly cast aside.

If language deteriorates in journalism, the damage will be felt sooner or later in writing that pretends to more distinction. In my time, to take one out of a hundred possible examples, it has become common among cultural journalists to use “harp back” for “hark back.” If “bored of” should succeed in replacing “bored with” there will be no real call to object, except from nostalgia: “of” does the job at least as well as “with” and anyway such changes have happened in the spoken language since the beginning. But “harp back” scrambles the separate meanings of “harp on” and “hark back,” and thus detracts from the central, hard-won virtue of the English language, which is to mean one thing at a time. The solecism gets into the paper because the sub-editors no longer know the difference either, so to see it cropping up in books is no surprise, although a great disappointment. David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure is one of the best books about moral turpitude in modern Hollywood. The constant and unavoidable struggle between creative freedom and the necessity for cost controls, with the consequent oscillation between daylight robbery and ecstasies of bean-counting precision, could not be better explained. But the otherwise savvy author uses “flaunt” for “flout,” thereby injuring two words at once: “To Cliff Robertson, Columbia’s reinstatement of Begelman was not only a brazen flaunting of justice, but also a deep insult to Cliff personally.” In a single sentence, an author who has convinced you that he could write anything leads you to suspect that he has read nothing. In the normal course of events, a tactful copy editor might have corrected the error. But by now the barbarians are within the gates, and there seems to be no stopping the process of deterioration even in America, whereas in Britain the cause is lost irretrievably. Backs-to-the-wall raillery from established authors is fun, but won’t work. As Kingsley Amis acutely noted, the person who uses “disinterested” for “uninterested” is unlikely to see your article complaining about the point, because the person has never been much of a reader anyway. There is evidence, however, that writers can read a great deal, among all the best exemplars, and still not take in the power to discriminate on critical points of grammar, derivation, usage, punctuation and consistency of metaphor. Prescriptive initial teaching probably helps, but the capacity for such an alertness may be more in the nature of an inborn propensity than a possible acquisition.

The propensity can even appear in hypertrophied form, to the writer’s detriment. A good writer of prose always writes to poetic standards. (One of the marks of poetry in modern times is that the advent of free verse opened the way for poets who could not write to prose standards, but that’s another issue.) The good prose-writer’s standards, however, should include the realization that he is not writing a poem. Henry James was not being entirely absurd when he complained that Flaubert was unable to leave his language alone. (Proust’s qualified praise of Flaubert comes down to the same point.) It is possible to be an admirer of Nabokov while still finding his alertness to cliché overactive, so that passages occur in which we can hardly see for the clarity: and with James Joyce it is more than possible. Somewhere between Tolstoy, who was so indifferent to style that he did not mind repeating a word, and Turgenev, who would sooner have died than do so, there is an area where the writer can be economically precise without diverting the reader’s whole attention to his precision. Lichtenberg would have included that area in his key concept of “the proper distance,” which he thought crucial to the exercise of reason. Rembrandt, in a reported statement Goethe was fond of, said that people should not shove their noses too close to his paintings: the paint was poisonous.

One drastic side effect of an overdeveloped vigilance is the counterproductive attempt to make description answer the totality of observation. In Troilus and Cressida, Alexander has a phrase for it: “purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight.” Attention is necessarily selective: if it were not, we would spend most of our waking hours paralysed by the impact of what we see. The secret of evocative writing is to pick out the detail that matters, not to put in all the detail that doesn’t. Consider Joan la Pucelle’s lines in Henry VI, Part 1: lines which might not be by Shakespeare, but which were certainly written by someone who knew what he was doing.

Glory is like a circle on the water,
Which never ceases to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.

In reality, when something makes a splash there is always a set of ripples. There can never be just one circle. But the playwright needs only one, so he leaves the others out. If he had been concerned with rendering the natural event, he would have got in the road of the Homeric simile. The simile, not “the object,” was his object. More than two thousand years before, the same was true for Homer, who could render an object in passing (the twanging string of a silver bow is rendered in a single onomatopoeic stroke, argurioio bioio) and was always hunting bigger game. Ezra Pound, typically, was hammering away at a nail whose head was already flush with the wood. There is the occasional good writer who is not a good describer, just as there is the occasional good painter—Bonnard, for example—who can’t draw a horse, but in general the ability to register the reality in front of him is a donnée for anyone who writes seriously at all. When Joseph Conrad said the aim of the writer was “above all, to make you see,” he meant a lot more than what the writer saw in front of his eyes. He was also talking about what was going on behind them: the moral dimension. In the novella Typhoon, when the narrator is thrown suddenly sideways, Conrad makes you see how the stars overhead turn to streaks: “the whole lot took flight together and disappeared.” A scintillating descriptive stroke, but for him not hard. In Lord Jim, he makes you see Jim’s shame: much, much more difficult.

It is better to err on the side of too much scrupulosity than too little, but it remains a fact that good writers are occupied with more than language. The fact is awkward; and the most awkward part of it is that for metaphorical force to be attained in a given sentence, the metaphorical content of some of its words—which is an historic content provided by their etymology and the accumulated mutability of their traditional use—must be left dormant. Our apprehension of the Duchess of Gloster’s mighty line in Richard II, “Thou show’st the naked pathway to thy life,” would be blunted, rather than sharpened, if we concerned ourselves with the buried image of a naked person instead of with the overt image of an unprotected path, and our best signal for not so concerning ourselves is that Shakespeare didn’t, or he would have written the line in a different way. (Simultaneity of metaphor becomes a feature of his later plays, but the complexity which is almost impossible to understand at first hearing—and surely, as Frank Kermode boldly notes, must have been so at the time—would not be worth picking at if we gave up on our conviction that Shakespeare himself must have understood the strings before he tied the knots.) To make an idea come alive in a sentence, some of its words must be left for dead: the penalty for trying to bring them all alive is preciousness at best. If such preciousness is not firmly ruled out by the writer, there will be readers all too keen to supply it. In modern times, critics have earned a reputation for brilliance by pushing the concept of “close reading” to the point where they tease more meaning out than the writer can conceivably have wanted to put in; but it isn’t hard, it’s easy; and the mere fact that their busy activity makes them feel quite creative themselves should be enough to tell them they are making a mistake.

With the majority of bad writers the question never comes up. As Orwell points out in his indispensable essay “Politics and the English Language,” they write in prepared phrases, not in words, and the most they do with a prepared phrase is vary it to show that they know what it is. Usually they are not even as conscious as that, and their stuff just writes itself, assembling itself out of standard components like a spreading culture of bacteria, except that most of the components are too faulty to be viable. Our real concern here, however, is not with the writing too bad to matter, perpetrated by writers who have nothing in mind except to fill a space. What troubles us is the writing imbued with enough ambition to outstrip its ability. It faces us with the spectacle of a failed endeavour. Somewhere back there, we wanted a world in which everybody would be an artist. Now we are appalled when the duffers actually try. But there is still some point in striving to provide, by precept and example, the kind of free training that the veteran Fleet Street literary editors used to dish out as part of their jobs. When suitably trained, a decent writer edits himself before the editors get to him. An outstanding creative talent is always an outstanding critic, of his own work if of nobody else’s. Pushkin lamented the absence of proper criticism in Russia not because he needed help in judging his poems, but because he wanted to write them in a civilized society. Eugene Onegin is a miracle of lightness in which every word has been weighed. When Pope called genius an infinite capacity for taking pains, that was what he meant. The greatly gifted have almost everything by nature, but by bending themselves to the effort of acquirement they turn a great gift into great work. Their initial arrogance is necessary and even definitive: Heinrich Mann was right to say that the self-confidence of young artists precedes their achievement and is bound to seem like conceit while it is still untried. But there is one grain of humility that they must get into their cockiness if they are ever to grow: they must accept that one of the secrets of creativity is an unrelenting self-criticism. “My dear friend,” said Voltaire to a young aspirant who had burdened him with an unpublished manuscript, “You may write as carelessly and badly as this when you have become famous. Until then, you must take some trouble.”

It is a common failing of all people with little talent and more learning than understanding,
that they call more on an artistic illustration than a natural one.

Lichtenberg was late to the game with this manifold idea, although he might have been the first to get it into a nutshell. Shakespeare’s clever dolts, spouting their studious folderol as if it were wit, provided a lasting measure of how erudition can drive out sense. Love’s Labour’s Lost offers not the only, merely the mightiest, confrontation between brain-sick bookmen, as Don Adriano de Armado and Holofernes spend four-fifths of the action warming up for the showdown in which they bury each other with verbiage. (“They have been at a great feast of languages,” says Moth, “and stolen the scraps.”) In play after play, the typical encounter between two or more such zanies is a disputatious colloquium in which each participant levitates on a column of hot air. A hallmark of Shakespeare’s people of substance is never to do the same except in jest. Iago, wise when not jealous and “nothing if not critical,” scorns “the bookish theoric” whose talk is “mere prattle, without practice.” Clearly Iago speaks for Shakespeare even as he plots against Othello. Ben Jonson’s plays teem with mountebanks who raid the tombs of scholarship while picking the pockets of the suckers. The great playwrights infused our language with a permanent awareness of the difference between desiccated eloquence and the voice of experience. English empirical philosophy began in the inherited literary language. That was how the English-speaking nations, above all others, were armed in advance against the rolling barrage of ideological sophistry in the twentieth century. The Soviet craze for assembling a viewpoint out of quotations from Marx and Lenin reminded us of men in tights defending the indefensible with chapter and verse.

Even without Shakespeare (supposing that such a precondition were possible) subsequent English literature would have been well populated with satirical examples to ward off casuist flimflam. In Restoration comedy, the division between true wit and false turned on the same point: true wit might have contributed to a new book, but false wit was always quoting an old one. Molière’s typical scam artist talked like a library, but Molière on his own was not enough to inoculate the French language against the pox of learned affectation. The English language had the benefit of repeated injections. The folie raisonnante that ruled Swift’s flying island of Laputa was fuelled by book learning, and Thomas Love Peacock, the great student of the connection between high-flown diction and mental inadequacy, made post-romantic nineteenth-century England the focus of the topic: just as Peacock in real life undid Shelley’s vegetarianism by waving a steak under his nose when he fainted, so Peacock in his quick-fire novels riddled the inflated language of romantic soul-searching. In Peacock’s crackpot masterpiece Melincourt—one of a whole rack of strange books, it stands out by being even stranger than the others—that compulsive classicist the Rev. Mr. Grovelgrub, poised on a high rock with Lord Anophel Achthar as they both face imminent death, quotes Aeschylus in the original Greek and Virgil in the original Latin, while Lord Anophel curses him in the original English. (Peter Porter, himself a mighty quoter, though a sane one, has a soft spot for the Rev. Mr. Grovelgrub.) The idea—an idea built into the English language over centuries of comic richness—is that learning and knowledge must be kept in balance. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s King of Navarre summarized it in advance when he commended Biron: “How well he’s read, to reason against reading!”

In Lichtenberg’s language, which was the lightly conversational version of German, Schopenhauer extended the same idea by favouring real observation over erudition, and stated confidently that the second sapped the first. German is a language supposedly given to the airy building of conceptual castles, but there is a use of German given to the opposite: those who find Hegel wilfully impenetrable would do well to look at his art criticism, where they will find him down-to-earth, fixed on the object and responding to a work of art as if it were an event in nature. (Kant could never do that: he conjured Spanish castles about aesthetics without ever having seen a painting.) In Italy, the vast edifice of Benedetto Croce’s aesthetic theory was erected on the basic proposition that true creativity is a primary function, not to be derived from formal knowledge. He thought the same about formal knowledge: unless acquired through passion, it would count for nothing. Egon Friedell, perhaps the biggest bookworm of all time, deplored bookworms. He could make it stick: he read, and wrote, from a personal hunger that had nothing to do with emulation. But knowing himself to be vulnerable on the point, in his crowning work Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit (The Cultural History of the Modern Age) he was always careful to identify sclerotic erudition as a sure sign of decadence in any historical period. In our time, Philip Larkin warned against the consequences of trying to make art out of art. Larkin thought the later Auden had done that, and there is evidence that Larkin was right. But Auden, both the earlier and the later, always presented his artistic enthusiasms as if they had forced their way into his busy head: he wrote as if learning had pursued him, not he it. In his critical compendia, even the most abstruse speculations are given as the workshop know-how of a master carpenter. If he wrote a poem about a painting, it was because the painting had hit him like a force of nature, as an everyday event. Stefan Zweig, in his book Begegnungen (Meetings), squeezed the theme into a single antithesis when he said that in Goethe’s life and career there was seldom a poem without an experience, and seldom an experience without the golden shadow (ohne den goldenen Schatten) of a poem. First the experience, then the golden shadow. It would be easy to contend that the same is so for all of the art, and all of the thought, that has ever mattered. But is the thought itself quite true?

If it were, this book would be a folly. It might well be the product of more Belesenheit (bookishness) than Talent: as I remember it across the decades, I wrote more fluently when I knew nothing, and may have been talentless even then. But a primary impulse and a lifelong disposition are the very things that tell me Lichtenberg is fudging a point for one of the few times in his life: in a naked proposition there is a hidden assumption. He assumes that an explanation drawn from art can’t be natural. The antithesis is false. Art is a part of nature. Art is one of the most natural things we do, and to care about art, and to draw our examples from it, is as natural as caring about our personal experience and drawing our examples from that. It can even be more natural, because it gets more experience in: other people’s as well as ours. If we were to say, “I almost had it figured out but Nola Huthnance from next door interrupted me and by the time she finished yakking I lost my train of thought,” we would be speaking from personal experience. But if we were to say, “I almost had it figured out but I was interrupted by a person from Porlock,” we would be speaking not only from our experience, but from Coleridge’s; and being more specific instead of less, because we would have incorporated a recognition that such an event is universal. We would have also conveyed the suggestion that the thing we were on the verge of figuring out was pretty important, perhaps on the scale of the masterpiece that Kubla Khan might have been if Coleridge’s flying pen had not been stopped short by a passing dullard. If we didn’t want to lose Nola Huthnance, we could just add the poetic reference to her prosaic name (“... but Nola Huthnance from next door did a person from Porlock ...”) and get two benefits for one. Increasing our range need not cost us our focus: quite the reverse. The person without a range of reference is not more authentically human for being so. He is just more alone.

The root of the matter lies in whether art and learning are loved, or merely used. Among the thirty or forty missing plays of Aristophanes, it would be surprising if there were not three or four well populated with pretentious halfwits: there were men of learning in those days too, and wherever learning is valued there are arid scholiasts who seek merit by flaunting its simulacrum. Pointless erudition has always been ripe for parody. Proust’s Norpois puts his audience to sleep by quoting endlessly from diplomatic history, but what makes him funny is that he knows nothing about life, not that he knows everything about diplomacy. (We conclude that he must have been a bad diplomat, but that’s by the way, and might not be right.) If Talleyrand had quoted from diplomatic history at the same length as Norpois, Talleyrand could have sold tickets. People who crank out their knowledge of the arts in a mechanical manner gained it the same way. Some of them came to it late, as a social accomplishment. Others were unfortunate enough to be born as Philistines into a cultivated household. (At Cambridge I met one of these: he knew everything about all the arts in many languages, but had a way of proving it that made you want to enlist in the Foreign Legion.) Most of us were luckier, and took in our first enthusiasms as we took in our first meat and drink, with a scarcely to be satisfied hunger and thirst. Choosing one case out of a possible thousand, I first encountered Toulouse-Lautrec in Sydney, in the year 1957. He had died in Paris in the year 1901, but suddenly, and with overwhelming enchantment, he was alive again for me. There were no actual paintings by Lautrec on public display in Australia at that time, but the Swiss publishing firm Skira had just produced its first series of little square books bound in coarse white cloth, with tipped-in colour plates. Eventually I owned them all, but the Lautrec was the first. Not much bigger than postage stamps—big postage stamps from South American countries, but still postage stamps—those little reproductions occupied my eyesight for a week. I could see nothing else. But when I was finally ready to see the world again, I kept meeting Lautrec’s characters from the cabarets of Paris—Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril and la Goulue—in the streets of Sydney. I saw the rubber-legged dancer Valentin le Desosse bonelessly jumping off a Manly ferry at Circular Quay. It wasn’t art instead of life: it was as art as well as life, and the art in life. Years later, when I got to Europe, I was ready for the real Lautrec paintings because I already had some idea of what was coming. And I was immeasurably more ready for Paris itself than I would have been without my scraps of book learning that had given me the living ghosts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. It had never been book learning, really. It was passion: a sudden, adolescent, everything-at-once passion for shape, colour, the permanent registration of the evanescent, the singing stillness of a captured movement, the heroism of an injured man who had forged a weapon to fight time. And fighting time, it collapses space: because of the sumptuous concentration of capital works by Lautrec in the Art Institute, the streets of Chicago are haunted for me by his small, bent but unbroken form. Twenty years ago, filming there very late one night by the lake, I thought I saw him. A beautiful set of roller-skating blonde twin girls came hurtling out of the dark along the esplanade, streaked carelessly through our laggard lights, and were gone before we could catch them. He would have caught them.

And that was just Lautrec. Gauguin did the same for me before I could pronounce his name. (I called him Gorgon.) Degas I gave an acute accent over the “e,” not realizing that the “De” was an honorific prefix: “duh” would have been closer to the right sound, and certainly would have conformed to my general reaction when faced with his genius. Adding tear sheets from magazines to a small stack of thin books, I built up an archive of reproductions, calling him Day-ga until a kind woman from Vienna at last corrected me. (She ran a little coffee house in the Strand Arcade. How young and foolish of me not to quiz her on the story of her life.) From then on, I never laughed at anyone who mispronounced an artist’s name, because it usually only meant that what he had read had run far ahead of what he had heard, and I knew too well how that can happen. When you are learning a new language, there is a blissful moment when, from not knowing how to, you pass to not knowing how not to. The second phase is the dangerous one, because it leads to sophistication, and one of the marks of sophistication is a tendency to forget what it was like to be naïve. But it was when we were still naïve that we knew most intimately the lust of discovery, a feeling as concentrated and powerful as amorous longing, with the advantage that we never had to fear rejection. Art will always want us. It finds us infinitely desirable. Beethoven’s late quartets waited for me for more than thirty years after I first went mad for the Eroica ymphony, and when I finally deigned to notice them they didn’t even look peeved.

For anyone who loves it, art is as personal as that. The works of art have personalities: they are another population of the Earth. They even behave like people. After Barbirolli prepared the way with his Berlin concerts at the end of World War II, Mahler’s symphonies, which had never been played while Hitler ruled, entered the conversation of music lovers in Berlin and were gossiped about as if their sumptuous attractions were a delicious scandal. Under Stalin, one of Shostakovich’s most sublime creations took on a secret identity and hid out until the world got better. It holed up in the soundtrack to a Soviet film called The Gadfly, where I finally tracked it down only a few years ago, after hearing it by accident as the theme of a television series entitled Reilly, Ace of Spies. A middle-aged man by then, I found it to be the dreamed-of companion of my youth, a melody I would have been pleased to hum and whistle to an early girlfriend, although whether she would have been pleased is another question. But if the works of art have personalities, their creators are a human race in themselves: one that never ages, nor, unlike the Struldbruggs, grows tired of immortality. When you are young, and first meeting them, the artists seem more than human. But to hail the superhuman is always to keep bad company. (Yeats not only should have known better, he did know better: but he couldn’t resist the cadence—the reason that Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic.) Luckily a more thorough acquaintance is bound to teach us that the artists are more than human only in the sense of being even more human than us. It is an important lesson to learn because there is a severe penalty to be paid for the belief than an artist should be beyond personal reproach. We are paying it now, in the cultural press, where too many half-qualified reporters are continuously busy proving to us that our idols have feet of clay. The fault, a double fault, is in the arrested psychological development and the ruinously abbreviated education of the reporter: a propensity to vindictiveness drives him to the task of cutting down to size people who were never giants in the first place—not in that sense, anyway.

Few artists were ever fully well, so it is no great trick to prove them ill. There are commentators who can’t get interested in Caravaggio until they find out that he killed someone. They are only one step from believing that every killer is Caravaggio. But we must all be alert to the potentially deleterious effects of letting in too much light on art. It is an essential political study, for example, to examine just what a treacherous piece of work Bertolt Brecht was, to his friends, to his loved ones and to civil society. But the study will lead to nothing if we fail to keep in mind that he was a great poet. Our innocence can’t be regained: once we start finding out how our heroes and heroines lived and what they did, we can never go back to our first pure infatuation with what they made. But our innocence should never be forgotten: and if it is remembered, infatuation matures into admiration, as we blend our knowledge of the creators’ failings and vicissitudes with our gratitude for what they created. Art is for adults, even when it is made by children. Children, left to themselves, tear up each other’s stuff.

Because Lautrec was one of my first great loves, I often think of the very first artist, painting in the cave, as a man with withered legs. Unable to go out hunting, he would probably have been killed off if he hadn’t turned out to be so entertainingly good at drawing a bison with a burnt stick. What were his feelings? They were primitive: almost as primitive as the instinct that sent the first hunters hunting, instead of just lying around to die when the edible roots ran out. But the painter, like the hunters, was doing something that was not in the natural dispensation. And as soon as he did it, it was. Though Sigmund Freud’s reputation as a scientific thinker is in constant dispute, there can be no dispute about his stature as a writer. He was a very great poet in prose, and he was on top of his form in his essay “Die Zukunft einer Illusion” (The Future of an Illusion) when he said that culture’s characteristic reason for being (ihr eigentlicher Daseingrund) is to protect us against nature (uns gegen die Natur zu verteidigen). He might have added, however, that protecting ourselves against nature is the most natural thing we do: the thing that makes us human. The arts, and learning about the arts, are not additions to life: they are life itself, an expression of life that feeds back into it and helps to make it what it is—and, above all, to show it what it is, to make life conscious. But Lichtenberg knew all that. Dozens of his other aphorisms prove it. He wrote this one on a bad day. Some bookish twerp must have got up his nose.

If reason, the daughter of heaven, were to judge what is beautiful, then sickness would be the only ugliness.

Lichtenberg is saying more than that we should not judge by how people look. He is also saying that we can’t help doing so. The operative word of the aphorism is the first word, “If.” (Wenn Vernunft, die Tochter des Himmels, von Schänheit urteilen dürfte, so wäre Krankheit die einzige Hasslichkeit: you can see that my English has dampened the lilt of his rococo German, but it’s the best I can do.) We are closer to being reasonable, then, for not caring about appearance; but we are further from instinct. In men, the instinct to admire personal beauty is traditionally held to be more powerful than in women, and women are thus traditionally held to more reasonable on that issue, if on no other. The tradition answers the facts: the only question is whether the facts are biologically determined. Late-twentieth-century feminism put a lot of effort into arguing that a cult of female beauty had been imposed by a consumer society. But presumably a consumer society was not imposing anything on the Greeks when they made Helen’s beauty the ignition point for the war that brought the topless towers of Ilium down in flames. It makes more sense to admit the instinct than to deny it. All the evidence of literature, painting, sculpture and the dance suggests that men see divinity in beauty. Except for opera and ballet, music is the art where personal beauty has no value, and is perhaps the most consoling form of art because of that. E. M. Forster was brave enough to say that music lovers—of whom he, of couse, was one—were not a very attractive lot. He was stepping carefully in a minefield. He might have said it more boldly. On that point, music, when not allied with opera and ballet, is fair always. Other art forms very seldom are.

Admitting the instinctive response gives us our best chance to examine it. By saying the instinct does not exist we are merely saying it should not, and condemning even the unattractive to lie. Kingsley Amis, in Take a Girl Like You, pulled one of his boldest strokes when he launched the incurably awkward Graham into a stricken aria about what it is like to be shut out from companionable access to female beauty. The strength of the episode depends on our recognition that he is saying what he feels. We can argue that he ought to think differently, but we can scarcely ask him to feel differently. (The beautiful Jenny Bunn, his interlocutor over the doomed dinner table, does ask him to feel differently, and finds to her consternation that he is almost as angry with her as he is with fate.) We can’t begin to be reasonable on the subject until we concede that our response to beauty is unreasonable in the first place. Tolstoy dramatized the truth incomparably—incomparably even for him—when he made Pierre fall in love with the pulchritude of his future wife even while she was busy proving that her head was full of air. Pushing the theme to its outermost artistic limit, Tolstoy shows Pierre obsessed with the shapeliness of her breasts at the same moment when she is obsessed with the shapeliness of her own arm. Translated into a dumb-bunny vocabulary of sighs and silence, she incarnates the neo-Platonic idea of Shelley’s that catapulted him to one of his wildest flights of vision: “I am the eye with which the universe / Beholds itself and knows itself divine.” Pierre is heading for trouble. He has committed his soul to the care of Candy Christian, whose only real love affair is with a mirror.

Candy would be a much less interesting book if it were merely pornographic. If Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg had wanted to make their little masterpiece hornier, they would have given their heroine a sex drive. As it is, she can be aroused only by men driven mad with need. In a key scene, two Greenwich Village poets (called Jack Katt and Tom Smart as a tactical alternative to calling them Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg) fight like animals for the right to possess her. Their right to possess her is merely notional, because she has already been spirited away for intimate examination by one of the book’s endless line-up of randy doctors. In the book the doctors are best equipped to assess her physical perfection. But the fighting poets are a tip-off to an apparently frivolous work’s deep reservoir of subversive truth. Southern, working solo this time, made another breakthrough with Blue Movie, which was based on the premise that a serious director like Stanley Kubrick might want to make a pornographic film in which the protagonists were beautiful and the proceedings therefore genuinely arousing instead of disgusting. (The book is dedicated to “the great Stanley K.” who, at the end of his career, actually did make a film something like the one in the book, although nothing like as interesting.) As a novel, Blue Movie fatally dispenses with the saving grace of Candy, where the sex scenes are played for laughs. Blue Movie too often plays them straight, falling into pornography’s usual trap of trying to show what can only be felt. But the idea that sexual commerce is only accidentally, and not necessarily, divorced from the aesthetic impulse is a valid one.

It would take a scholar in the field (like Dr. Krankheit in Candy) to work his way through the world’s complete catalogue of pornographic videos: there must be thousands of them. But any late-night channel-surfer in hotel rooms around the planet will be all too aware that there is a hierarchy of physical attractiveness even in the strange universe of sexual performance on demand. At the bottom of the pile—she sometimes literally is—will be a woman who seems to be held together only by Band-Aids, tattoos and metal pins. In the middle range, emanating mainly from California, there are women whose body parts have been artificially enhanced to the point where the cameraman has to back out of the room to fit it all in. But at the top of the range there are some women you might, at first glance, conceivably like to know. The men you would never like to know: if you ever doubted that there could be a specific physiognomy of stupidity, these men are there to set you right. They are at their most frightening when fully clothed, struggling with their challenging role as the man who has come to repair the garbage disposal, or the psychologist who must check the tactile sensitivity of a female astronaut just back from space. You have to see them act to realize how dumb a man can look. With their clothes off and their virile members contractually erect, they are merely competitors in some sort of international caber-tossing competition in which they are not allowed to use their hands. The women, as always, provide the interest. Some of them look almost normal: no collagen in the lips, no silicone in the breasts, a thoughtful air of having spent the previous night with a good book, or anyway with The Da Vinci Code. What are they doing there?

The quickest answer is that the market has expanded to the point where they can earn millions for spending a couple of hours a day wrapping themselves around an oaf. A slower answer, but perhaps closer to the essential truth, is that they are almost invariably without any acting talent whatsoever. Neither do they look quite as good as Cindy Crawford, so the modelling option is not open. (It probably was, when they were starting off: apparently the progression from almost-made-it model to porno princess is a classic route to the pay dirt.) But they look pretty good. In fact some of them are outright fetching, and this awkward fact understandably multiplies the effect. If the effect of watching pornography is to leave a man who is alone in a hotel room feeling even lonelier, he can expect to feel as lonely as the Man in the Iron Mask. There she is, an Aphrodite de Melos with arms, and they are wrapped around a reasonably plausible businessman with his pants around his ankles. The actor playing the businessman is one of the few male porn stars with a forehead higher than a box of matches lying on its side. He arrived at Aphrodite’s mansion in a black BMW and a blaze of sunlight. When he got out of the car, the sun went in. When he rang the doorbell, the sun came out again. (Even in the highest grade of porn video, introduced by David Duchovny in more penurious days, the lighting and the sound tend to be variable in consistency: if she takes her shoes off, stick your fingers in your ears before the shoes hit the floor.) But now he is in character up to the hilt. Even for the critical viewer, it is hard not to envy him. Just as long as she doesn’t say anything. Unfortunately she does. Oh no, don’t say that. And don’t do that with your face. Just do nothing. Alas, they never do nothing. The dream is always spoiled.

Maybe it’s that kind of dream. Here is appearance detached from personality, and put to the service of nothing but sex. But in real life, appearance is never detached from personality for long, and there is no such thing as nothing but sex: if there were, there would be nothing in the bordello except naked women. As things are, the women can hardly get into the bordello for the props: uniforms, whips, trapezes, leather masks, torture instruments, plunge baths full of custard. Imagination will not be denied, and least of all when ecstasy is for sale. Everyone wants a relationship. Even if the girl does everything for your eyes, she must also do something for your mind’s history. Buñuel, the man who knew most about these matters, condensed them into a single moment in Belle de Jour. For the large customer from the Orient, it is not enough to be given Catherine Deneuve in a peignoir. She must carry a little box which, when opened, reveals some nameless atrraction that he has always wanted. We don’t know what it is. As he revealed in his excellent memoir, Buñuel doesn’t know either: that’s the point.

So Lichtenberg is only half right. He is right that reason does not judge beauty. He is wrong in his implication that the instinct which does do the judging is uncomplicated. It is complicated by our dream world, which complicates reason too. Indeed it is on this very matter that we are given our clearest demonstration of how we can never have a purely reasonable response to the world. Reason is poetic: it carries our personal history folded into it. We probably do best to accept that the poetry and the desire can’t be separated. In his memoir Die doppelte Boden, Marcel Reich-Ranicki tellingly quotes Kurt Tucholsky. “Entweder du liest eine Frau oder du umarmst ein Buch.” (Either you read a woman or you embrace a book.) But he doesn’t tell us what Tucholsky meant. I think he meant that the two kinds of experience were not just compatible, but intimately involved with one another. At the turn of the nineteenth century, long before an age of political correctness would have punished him for it, George Saintsbury, probably the best-read man on Earth at the time, reached for a simile adequate to the effect on our minds of a successful lyric poem: he said it was like seeing “the face of a girl.”

Homosexual men are unlikely to agree. For the heterosexual man, male homosexuality is not impossible to imagine—most of us have an early history of it, in some form—but male homosexual promiscuity is impossible to imagine. Even sensitive souls like Christopher Isherwood seem to have been decathletes of the Turkish bath. Cavafy probably wasn’t, but his poems prove that he dreamed of nothing else. The number of sexual contacts enjoyed by the cruising homosexual man in the pre-AIDS era doesn’t even sound like enjoyment: it sounds like the history of a pinball in a machine rigged to play forever. Can all these targets have been seen as beautiful? Perhaps it is a hint of what the purely reasonable world would be like: the world in which anybody could be attractive. It might be tough on the women. In the most ruthless set of laboratory conditions we know about, Lavrenty Beria and Mao Zedong, two men who had absolute power to do whatever they wanted in the sexual sphere, confined their attentions only to women they thought beautiful. Beria routinely picked up any pretty girl he saw in the street and took her home to be raped. Barely pubescent girls whom the senescent Mao liked the look of were given the privilege of keeping him young by licking off the dirt that he never removed by any other means. (The story is told in a fascinating book by Mao’s doctor, Zhisui Li: The Private Life of Chairman Mao.) If both men had lived in a world where judgement was the preserve of reason, no woman would have been safe.

One assumes that in the world of promiscuous homosexual men, there are aesthetic criteria that limit the score to something this side of the astronomical. Oscar Wilde notoriously dished himself in court by saying there was a young man he had not kissed because he (the young man) was too ugly. One can further assume that for some homosexual men the aesthetic consideration is paramount and even disabling. Thomas Mann’s writings, from first to last, were full of the visione amorosa: carefully immured in his various castles of domesticity, he sent his imagination on endlessly repeated flights to the ecstatic, which could be found only in the revelation of a young male face. Death in Venice is one of the most powerful expressions of the amorous vision in all literature. For Aschenbach, young Tadzio standing caught by the light in the shallows of the Lido is a message from heaven. But Mann exchanged scarcely two words with the original boy. In The Confessions of Felix Krull, the hero’s attractions may well have something to do with the Australian tennis champion Lew Hoad, a hero of my youth, although not quite in the same way: Mann kept a picture of Hoad on his desk, for purposes of inspiration. (The picture is reproduced in the useful iconographical album Thomas Mann: Ein Leben in Bildern, but the player is not identified. I offer his name as my contribution to Mann scholarship.) Had they met at Wimbledon, Hoad would probably have been safe from anything beyond a handshake. As far as we can tell, Mann’s extramarital love life was mainly a thing of dreams: a significant glance from the young waiter, an ambivalent smile from the new pool cleaner. From the angle of actual fulfilment, the great writer was out of it: except in his mind.

But the mind is where it is. Even when the body finds its satisfaction, the mind does not find rest. We know this was true for Lichtenberg himself, whose own sexual history was a thing for wonder and pity. A cruelly crippled hunchback dwarf, he found love and marriage, but on a crooked path. Yet he found out enough to become a student of the passions. If he had not been such a student, he could not have composed this aphorism. From the way it is written, we can tell he was a step ahead of its apparent conclusions. He was always a step ahead. He was one of those people who have every excuse to tell us that life is valueless, and yet who love life so much that they can even forgive, if not forget, the fate that condemned them to their long anguish.

There is no surer sign of a great writer than when whole books could be made out of his passing remarks.
Each in his way, Tacitus and Sterne are both masters of this quality.

When Lichtenberg wrote this, Sterne was practically his contemporary, so by yoking Sterne with Tacitus he was perpetrating a deliberately shocking boldness, as if we were to say that same lessons could be drawn equally from the letters of Madame de Sévigné and the diaries of Bridget Jones. It is an attention-getting way of promulgating a truth, but the truth had better be true. This truth was. Making marks in the margin of his Shakespeare, Keats noted the quality of Shakespeare’s “bye-writing”: the local intensities that were better than they needed to be. The awkwardness of Lichtenberg’s principle—and really all his principles are awkward—is that it subverts any idea of artisitic unity. Ideally, nothing in a written work should show signs of wanting to hive off and start another work. Practically, it happens all the time, and not always in expository prose, although naturally a discursive argument is more likely to provide instances of a subsidiary statement that asks to be followed up. In The Gulag Archipelago, there is a great moment when prisoners are sweltering in a black Maria while Jean-Paul Sartre is standing a few feet away on the footpath proclaiming the wonders of the Soviet Union. It could conceivably be the start of a different book about the stupidity of philosophers, but in fact it fits. There is another great moment, however, that doesn’t. On a prison train, Solzhenitsyn is jammed into the floor of a compartment with about an inch of air to breathe in, and suddenly realizes he is happy. It doesn’t fit at all: it is the start of another work, about mysticism—a work that could have been written by the mystical philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev. It could be said that if Solzhenitsyn had not been capable of such moments, The Gulag Archipelago would not be one of the great books about lost possibilities, so it fits after all: but it dangerously leaves the way open to the thoroughly misleading conclusion that extreme conditions have a justification in mystical experience.

The problem of the passing remark crops up most often in novels, and especially in the greatest novels. Theoretically, a great novel should meet a poem’s standard of containing nothing extraneous. In practice, great novels are always sinning against that standard, and are usually the better for it. In Madame Bovary, the socially aspiring Emma, invited to the grand ball at the country house, notices that aristocrats are glossier than ordinary people. The observation begs to be the starting point for a sociological treatise on differential nutrition, but it just doesn’t sound like her conclusion: it sounds like Flaubert’s. If he had said that she didn’t notice, and had made the observation his, he would have been telling us more about her. In The Great Gatsby, the scene where Gatsby shows Daisy his beautiful shirts fits as perfectly as the shirts. Gatsby has nothing else to woo her with except the proofs of his wealth: flaunting the shirts, he makes the material spiritual—the key to his character, and the clue to how Fitzgerald can get poetically interested in the Philistine he has chosen as a hero. (The putative mystery of Gatsby’s identity is no mystery at all: he is what Fitzgerald would have been if he had had no talent.) When Daisy’s coldly amoral friend Jordan Baker moves her golf ball, she tells you everything you need to know about her character. But Fitzgerald was also capable of the passing remark that doesn’t fit at all. His narrator Nick Carraway’s gift for the aphorism makes you wonder if he was studying Pascal when he was learning to sell bonds. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” Nick says of Gatsby, “there was something gorgeous about him.” It was the first line of the book I learned, but I learned it because it broke off from the book. Similarly, Nick’s avowal that “Any display of complete self-assurance draws a stunned tribute from me” is a bit too good, because the man who says it is displaying complete self-assurance. None of this means that The Great Gatsby is less than what it is: a masterpiece. But it does mean that one of the characteristics of a masterpiece might be its composer’s ability to get in extra stuff without us noticing the strain of the shoehorn. Even in The Great Gatsby, you can tell that Fitzgerald was a notebook writer. Things would go into the notebook that were too good to leave unused, and one way or another he would get them into the novel. Hemingway worked in the other direction. A really good Hemingway short story is an episode from the novel he did not make the mistake of trying to pack around it. By extension, a really bad Hemingway novel is the accumulated sets of notes for short stories he did not write.

In Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, there is a tremendous moment just after the lumbering anti-hero Widmerpool, at the height of his pomposity and power, has delivered a boring lecture about an immensely valuable vase. The beautiful but dangerous Pamela comes along and vomits into it. You need to have followed both characters through several novels of the sequence to see the perfection of the coincidence. It fits together like the components of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine from two different shadow factories. But I can remember a line from the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins: something like “Nothing beats the feeling of an interesting woman being interested in us.” I thought it sounded like an aphorism from one of Powell’s notebooks. I have searched the novels and can’t find it, and I can’t find it in the notebooks either. Perhaps I heard him say it. I knew Powell well enough at one stage for us to have talked about such things. He was terrific on the mechanics of his craft, but it should be remembered that he found almost everyone clumsy except himself. He has been mocked for that. The truth is that most writers feel the same, because they read other writers professionally and are always on the lookout for a muffed trick.

In Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis is consistently wonderful at separating Jim’s particular viewpoint from the narrative. The French have a term, style indirect libre, for the narrative prose that is coloured by the character’s viewpoint because the character is in the scene; but the trick of the technique is that the writer’s frame of reference must not get into the character’s head. In the tour de force comic scene near the end of Lucky Jim when Jim, if he is not to lose Christine forever, must get to the railway station and everything conspires to stop the bus, we are laughing too hard to notice that Jim makes the wrong conjecture about why the bus driver is apparently slumped at the wheel. Had he been struck, Jim asks, by the idea for a poem? Jim does not write poems and so would not know that getting an idea for a poem can render a poet catatonic. It is something only the narrator would know. But at the time, for one reader at least, the anomaly didn’t matter, and indeed it still doesn’t. I think it is probably the funniest scene in all of literature, so if there is a blemish, it must be part of the beauty. Written works of art aren’t perfect. They create the air of being so, but they are too full of life to keep all their own implications within the perimeter. Lichtenberg was warning us against a Procrustean ideal of perfection. No writer, not even Chekhov in his short stories, can be Vermeer. A painter can leave you with nothing left to say. A writer leaves you with everything to say. It is in the nature of his medium to start a conversation within you that will not stop until your death, and what he is really after is to be among the last voices you will hear.