Friday, December 8, 2017

Critics Corner 3: Pope, Johnson & Hume

Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711)

Some beauties yet no precepts can declare,
For there’s happiness as well as care.
Music resembles poetry, in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.
If, where the rules not far enough extend
(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
Some lucky license answers to the full
 The intent proposed, that license is the rule.
Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
May boldly deviate from the common track.
From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
Which without passing through judgment
The heart, and all its end at once attains.

But though the ancients thus their rules invade
(As kings dispense with laws themselves have made)
Moderns, beware! or if you must offend
Against the precept, ne'r transgress its end;
Let it be seldom, and compelled by need
And at least their precedent plead.
The critic else proceeds without remorse
Seizes your fame, and puts his law in force.

Some to conceit alone their taste confine,
And glittering thoughts struck out with at every line;
Pleased with a work where nothing's just or fit
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide in ornament their want of art.
 Tis not enough your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do.
Men must be taught as if you taught them not
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding truth is disapproved
That only makes superior Sense belov'd.

Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain,
 and charitably let the dull be vain;
Your silence there is better than your spite,
 For who can rail so long as they can write?

 By any account Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a moralist.  That is, he conceived the purpose of literature to be the instruction in morals, even if that entailed a didacticism which Pope would disapprove. Johnson’s Sermons accomplish that purpose effectively by which I mean he does not reduce the Gospel to any series of commonplaces or catch phrases but preserves the obscurity that one encounters in attempts to apply its measure to everyday judgements, though not  with such grand ‘metaphysical’ obscurity that one finds in the Sermons of John Donne. It was only with great difficulty in  the performance tact that Johnson could preach the Gospel to the men of his age without giving great offense. The men and women of his age appreciated his efforts even above the efforts those who were specifically assigned to the task of preaching in Church and on solemn public occasions.

Well , anyone familiar with Johnson would likely recognize the influence his style and manner has had on my own. I’ve read a lot of Johnson. This is a good example of his best work:

Supposedly, Johnson was the first to recognize that theater-goers were not necessarily expecting an accurate representation of life as it is lived in a unity of time and space but took their pleasure in the performance they witnessed as fiction. If they did not regard the show as a fiction, a pretense, they would not be likely to enjoy it. Who wants to witness real murder, heartbreak or tragedy? That the first act of a play takes place in Athens and moments later the second in Rome is no imposition of the imagination of audiences, as some critics of Johnson’s time liked to claim.

Johnson’s criticism of Shakespeare runs along these lines:

‘His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books and men. He sacrifice virtue to convenience, and this so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good and evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their operations to chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; or it is always the writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.”

Besides the fact that unpacking the dense  condensations in this paragraph would expose several weak arguments, he’s pretty much dead wrong. Amoralism ( be sure that there is a distinction between that and immorality) is one of the true pleasures and foundation of whatever ‘instruction’ is to be gleaned from literature, when fiction better encompasses the real than science, philosophy, religion or history. As Hans-Georg Moeller put it:

“...for an empirical point of view, in everyday life and even in most of our important decisions, ethics or morals do not provide useful guide. It is doubtful, for example, that becoming righteously angry with an obnoxious colleague, boss or family member is more beneficial than avoiding a moral a mindset altogether . Actually, when moral discourse prevails, disaster often appears. The demand for “moral smartness” ( as in the “smart diplomacy” advocated by the present U.S. Administration, or the debate over immigration) is a symptom of social crisis and a society verging on hopeless disorder and accumulating misery.”

It is the amoralism of Shakespeare which provides a space for the catharsis and sublimity in his plays which Johnson  attributes, some what contradictorily, to the bards experience in the rough and tumble of the London theatrical scene, his connections to the common audiences and popular books of his day rather than an extension of formal education in the ‘classics’; his origins in the artisan class.  Strict probity is not how  most people get on in life. Even for those who can afford it, it is more often than not a self-delusion. It’s hard to imagine Johnson didn’t understand that. Owing to the apparent contradiction perhaps we must conclude that at least in some respects Johnson was  quite mad, which is not far from the depiction in Reynold’s portrait.

David Hume (1711-1776), a  paragon of philosophical excellence in many quarters, always seemed to me to take the stance of lecturing to fools. Perhaps because what once was uniquely enlightening is now taken as pre-suppositionally commonplace. Between various opinions that abound in the world definite judgments  as to their truth or falsity can be made. The moon is not made of green cheese. We’ve gone to the moon and discovered tha it is made of rock. In the matter of sentiment and taste, the proofing of the puddling is not so simple. Never-the-less, Hume did believe some aesthetic judgments were better than others based on the experience of the judges. What attention, deliberations, comparisons, allowance for different points of view in both time and space, what ends are being pursued in judging make a difference, establishes validity and sets up a hierarchy. It’s the same story the editor of The Critical Tradition mentioned in his Introduction:  the vicious conundrum that ‘to know something you must know everything’, as it may apply to beauty or any of the literary graces.

This is a highly debatable proposition which has a tendency to ‘go around in circles,” somewhat solipsistically. In her article “Contingencies of Value” in Critical Inquiry no 10, (1983) Barbara Herrnstein Smith made the argument that

“There is a tendencious conviction among those who argue these questions that unless one judgment can be shown to be more ‘valid’ than another, then all judgments must be ‘equal’ or ‘equally valid.” Indeed, it is the odor or apparent absurdity of such egalitarianism that commonly gives force to the charge that “relativism” produces social chaos or is a logically untenable position. While the radical contingency of all value certainly does imply that no value judgment can be more valid than another in the sense of  being a more accurate statement about the value of an object ( for the latter concept then becomes vacuous), it does not follow that all value judgments are equal or equally valid. On the contrary, what does follow  is that the concept of “validity” is inappropriate with regards to evaluations and that there are is no non-trivial parameter with respect to which they could be “equal”.

The goodness or badness of an evaluation,  a judgment of taste based on sentiment with respect to the beauty and graces of any literary or other artistic production, is not a matter of abstract truth value but how well it performs various desired/ desirable functions for the various people who may at any time perform them.

Whatever else David Hume might have said about Art- I have not read all that he did- it is consistent with what he said about Religion, that they do not have abstract truth value.

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