Similarly the eyes, in themselves beautiful, will be enlarged also; and generally whatever makes by its sensuous quality, by its abstract form, or by its expression, a particular appeal to our attention and contribution to our delight, will count for more in the ideal type than its frequency would warrant. The generic image has been constructed under the influence of a selective attention, bent upon aesthetic worth.
To praise any object for approaching the ideal of its kind is therefore only a roundabout way of specifying its intrinsic merit and expressing its direct effect on our sensibility. If in referring to the ideal we were not thus analyzing the real, the ideal would be an irrelevant and unmeaning thing. We know what the ideal is because we observe what pleases us in the reality. If we allow the general notion to tyrannize at all over the particular impression and to blind us to new and unclassified beauties which the latter may contain, we are simply substituting words for feelings, and making a verbal classification pass for an aesthetic judgment. Then the sense of beauty is gone to seed. Ideals have their uses, but their authority is wholly representative. They stand for specific satisfactions, or else they stand for nothing at all.
In fact, the whole machinery of our intelligence, our general ideas and laws, fixed and external objects, principles, persons, and gods, are so many symbolic, algebraic expressions. They stand for experience; experience which we are incapable of retaining and surveying in its multitudinous immediacy. We should flounder hopelessly, like the animals, did we not keep ourselves afloat and direct our course by these intellectual devices. Theory helps us to bear our ignorance of fact.
The same thing happens, in a way, in other fields. Our armies are devices necessitated by our weakness; our property an encumbrance required by our need. If our situation were not precarious, these great engines of death and life would not be invented. And our intelligence is such another weapon against fate. We need not lament the fact, since, after all, to build these various structures is, up to a certain point, the natural function of human nature. The trouble is not that the products are always subjective, but that they are sometimes unfit and torment the spirit which they exercise. The pathetic part of our situation appears only when we so attach ourselves to those necessary but imperfect fictions, as to reject the facts from which they spring and of which they seek to be prophetic. We are then guilty of that substitution of means for ends, which is called idolatry in religion, absurdity in logic, and folly in morals. In aesthetics the thing has no name, but is nevertheless very common; for it is found whenever we speak of what ought to please, rather than of what actually pleases.
Are all things beautiful?
Sec. 31. These principles lead to an intelligible answer to a question which is not uninteresting in itself and crucial in a system of aesthetics. Are all things beautiful? Are all types equally beautiful when we abstract from our practical prejudices? If the reader has given his assent to the foregoing propositions, he will easily see that, in one sense, we must declare that no object is essentially ugly. If impressions are painful, they are objectified with difficulty; the perception of a thing is therefore, under normal circumstances, when the senses are not fatigued, rather agreeable than disagreeable. And when the frequent perception of a class of objects has given rise to an apperceptive norm, and we have an ideal of the species, the recognition and exemplification of that norm will give pleasure, in proportion to the degree of interest and accuracy with which we have made our observations. The naturalist accordingly sees beauties to which the academic artist is blind, and each new environment must open to us, if we allow it to educate our perception, a new wealth of beautiful forms.
But we are not for this reason obliged to assert that all gradations of beauty and dignity are a matter of personal and accidental bias. The mystics who declare that to God there is no distinction in the value of things, and that only our human prejudice makes us prefer a rose to an oyster, or a lion to a monkey, have, of course, a reason for what they say. If we could strip ourselves of our human nature, we should undoubtedly find ourselves incapable of making these distinctions, as well as of thinking, perceiving, or willing in any way which is now possible to us. But how things would appear to us if we were not human is, to a man, a question of no importance. Even, the mystic to whom the definite constitution of his own mind is so hateful, can only paralyze without transcending his faculties. A passionate negation, the motive of which, although morbid, is in spite of itself perfectly human, absorbs all his energies, and his ultimate triumph is to attain the absoluteness of indifference.
What is true of mysticism in general, is true also of its manifestation in aesthetics. If we could so transform our taste as to find beauty everywhere, because, perhaps, the ultimate nature of things is as truly exemplified in one thing as in another, we should, in fact, have abolished taste altogether. For the ascending series of aesthetic satisfactions we should have substituted a monotonous judgment of identity. If things are beautiful not by virtue of their differences but by virtue of an identical something which they equally contain, then there could be no discrimination in beauty. Like substance, beauty would be everywhere one and the same, and any tendency to prefer one thing to another would be a proof of finitude and illusion. When we try to make our judgments absolute, what we do is to surrender our natural standards and categories, and slip into another genus, until we lose ourselves in the satisfying vagueness of mere being.
Relativity to our partial nature is therefore essential to all our definite thoughts, judgments, and feelings. And when once the human bias is admitted as a legitimate, because for us a necessary, basis of preference, the whole wealth of nature is at once organized by that standard into a hierarchy of values. Everything is beautiful because everything is capable in some degree of interesting and charming our attention; but things differ immensely in this capacity to please us in the contemplation of them, and therefore they differ immensely in beauty. Could our nature be fixed and determined once for all in every particular, the scale of aesthetic values would become certain. We should not dispute about tastes, no longer because a common principle of preference could not be discovered, but rather because any disagreement would then be impossible.
As a matter of fact, however, human nature is a vague abstraction; that which is common to all men is the least part of their natural endowment. Aesthetic capacity is accordingly very unevenly distributed; and the world of beauty is much vaster and more complex to one man than to another. So long, indeed, as the distinction is merely one of development, so that we recognize in the greatest connoisseur only the refinement of the judgments of the rudest peasant, our aesthetic principle has not changed; we might say that, in so far, we had a common standard more or less widely applied. We might say so, because that standard would be an implication of a common nature more or less fully developed.
But men do not differ only in the degree of their susceptibility, they differ also in its direction. Human nature branches into opposed and incompatible characters. And taste follows this bifurcation. We cannot, except whimsically, say that a taste for music is higher or lower than a taste for sculpture. A man might be a musician and a sculptor by turns; that would only involve a perfectly conceivable enlargement in human genius. But the union thus effected would be an accumulation of gifts in the observer, not a combination of beauties in the object. The excellence of sculpture and that of music would remain entirely independent and heterogeneous. Such divergences are like those of the outer senses to which these arts appeal. Sound and colour have analogies only in their lowest depth, as vibrations and excitement; as they grow specific and objective, they diverge; and although the same consciousness perceives them, it perceives them as unrelated and uncombinable objects.
The ideal enlargement of human capacity, therefore, has no tendency to constitute a single standard of beauty. These standards remain the expression of diverse habits of sense and imagination. The man who combines the greatest range with the greatest endowment in each particular, will, of course, be the critic most generally respected. He will express the feelings of the greater number of men. The advantage of scope in criticism lies not in the improvement of our sense in each particular field; here the artist will detect the amateur's shortcomings. But no man is a specialist with his whole soul. Some latent capacity he has for other perceptions; and it is for the awakening of these, and their marshalling before him, that the student of each kind of beauty turns to the lover of them all.
The temptation, therefore, to say that all things are really equally beautiful arises from an imperfect analysis, by which the operations of the aesthetic consciousness are only partially disintegrated. The dependence of the degrees of beauty upon our nature is perceived, while the dependence of its essence upon our nature is still ignored. All things are not equally beautiful because the subjective bias that discriminates between them is the cause of their being beautiful at all. The principle of personal preference is the same as that of human taste; real and objective beauty, in contrast to a vagary of individuals, means only an affinity to a more prevalent and lasting susceptibility, a response toa more general and fundamental demand. And the keener discrimination, by which the distance between beautiful and ugly things is increased, far from being a loss of aesthetic insight, is a development of that faculty by the exercise of which beauty comes into the world.
Effects of indeterminate organization.
Sec. 32. It is the free exercise of the activity of apperception that gives so peculiar an interest to indeterminate objects, to the vague, the incoherent, the suggestive, the variously interpretable. The more this effect is appealed to, the greater wealth of thought is presumed in the observer, and the less mastery is displayed by the artist. A poor and literal mind cannot enjoy the opportunity for reverie and construction given by the stimulus of indeterminate objects; it lacks the requisite resources. It is nonplussed and annoyed, and turns away to simpler and more transparent things with a feeling of helplessness often turning into contempt. And, on the other hand, the artist who is not artist enough, who has too many irrepressible talents and too little technical skill, is sure to float in the region of the indeterminate. He sketches and never paints; he hints and never expresses; he stimulates and never informs. This is the method of the individuals and of the nations that have more genius than art.
The consciousness that accompanies this characteristic is the sense of profundity, of mighty significance. And this feeling is not necessarily an illusion. The nature of our materials — be they words, colours, or plastic matter — imposes a limit and bias upon our expression. The reality of experience can never be quite rendered through these media. The greatest mastery of technique will therefore come short of perfect adequacy and exhaustiveness; there must always remain a penumbra and fringe of suggestion if the most explicit representation is to communicate a truth. When there is real profundity, — when the living core of things is most firmly grasped, — there will accordingly be a felt inadequacy of expression, and an appeal to the observer to piece out our imperfections with his thoughts. But this should come only after the resources of a patient and well-learned art have been exhausted; else what is felt as depth is really confusion and incompetence. The simplest thing becomes unutterable, if we have forgotten how to speak. And a habitual indulgence in the inarticulate is a sure sign of the philosopher who has not learned to think, the poet who has not learned to write, the painter who has not learned to paint, and the impression that has not learned to express itself — all of which are compatible with an immensity of genius in the inexpressible soul.
Our age is given to this sort of self-indulgence, and on both the grounds mentioned. Our public, without being really trained, — for we appeal to too large a public to require training in it, — is well informed and eagerly responsive to everything; it is ready to work pretty hard, and do its share towards its own profit and entertainment. It becomes a point of pride with it to understand and appreciate everything. And our art, in its turn, does not overlook this opportunity. It becomes disorganized, sporadic, whimsical, and experimental. The crudity we are too distracted to refine, we accept as originality, and the vagueness we are too pretentious to make accurate, we pass off as sublimity. This is the secret of making great works on novel principles, and of writing hard books easily.
Example of landscape.
Sec. 33. An extraordinary taste for landscape compensates us for this ignorance of what is best and most finished in the arts. The natural landscape is an indeterminate object; it almost always contains enough diversity to allow the eye a great liberty in selecting, emphasizing, and grouping its elements, and it is furthermore rich in suggestion and in vague emotional stimulus. A landscape to be seen has to be composed, and to be loved has to be moralized. That is the reason why rude or vulgar people are indifferent to their natural surroundings. It does not occur to them that the work-a-day world is capable of aesthetic contemplation. Only on holidays, when they add to themselves and their belongings some unusual ornament, do they stop to watch the effect. The far more beautiful daily aspects of their environment escape them altogether. When, however, we learn to apperceive; when we grow fond of tracing lines and developing vistas; when, above all, the subtler influences of places on our mental tone are transmuted into an expressiveness in those places, and they are furthermore poetized by our day-dreams, and turned by our instant fancy into so many hints of a fairyland of happy living and vague adventure, — then we feel that the landscape is beautiful. The forest, the fields, all wild or rural scenes, are then full of companionship and entertainment.
This is a beauty dependent on reverie, fancy, and objectified emotion. The promiscuous natural landscape cannot be enjoyed in any other way. It has no real unity, and therefore requires to have some form or other supplied by the fancy; which can be the more readily done, in that the possible forms are many, and the constant changes in the object offer varying suggestions to the eye. In fact, psychologically speaking, there is no such thing as a landscape; what we call such is an infinity of different scraps and glimpses given in succession. Even a painted landscape, although it tends to select and emphasize some parts of the field, is composed by adding together a multitude of views. When this painting is observed in its turn, it is surveyed as a real landscape would be, and apperceived partially and piecemeal; although, of course, it offers much less wealth of material than its living original, and is therefore vastly inferior.
Only the extreme of what is called impressionism tries to give upon canvas one absolute momentary view; the result is that when the beholder has himself actually been struck by that aspect, the picture has an extraordinary force and emotional value — like the vivid power of recalling the past possessed by smells. But, on the other hand, such a work is empty and trivial in the extreme; it is the photograph of a detached impression, not followed, as it would be in nature, by many variations of itself. An object so unusual is often unrecognizable, if the vision thus unnaturally isolated has never happened to come vividly into our own experience. The opposite school — what might be called discursive landscape painting — collects so many glimpses and gives so fully the sum of our positive observations of a particular scene, that its work is sure to be perfectly intelligible and plain. If it seems unreal and uninteresting, that is because it is formless, like the collective object it represents, while it lacks that sensuous intensity and movement which might have made the reality stimulating.
The landscape contains, of course, innumerable things which have determinate forms; but if the attention is directed specifically to them, we have no longer what, by a curious limitation of the word, is called the love of nature. Not very long ago it was usual for painters of landscapes to introduce figures, buildings, or ruins to add some human association to the beauty of the place. Or, if wildness and desolation were to be pictured, at least one weary wayfarer must be seen sitting upon a broken column. He might wear a toga and then be Marius among the ruins of Carthage. The landscape without figures would have seemed meaningless; the spectator would have sat in suspense awaiting something, as at the theatre when the curtain rises on an empty stage. The indeterminateness of the suggestions of an unhumanized scene was then felt as a defect; now we feel it rather as an exaltation. We need to be free; our emotion suffices us; we do not ask for a description of the object which interests us as a part of ourselves. We should blush to say so simple and obvious a thing as that to us "the mountains are a feeling"; nor should we think of apologizing for our romanticism as Byron did:
I love not man the less but nature more From these our interviews, in which I steal, From all I may be, or have been before, To mingle with the universe, and feel What I can ne'er express.
This ability to rest in nature unadorned and to find entertainment in her aspects, is, of course, a great gain. Aesthetic education consists in training ourselves to see the maximum of beauty. To see it in the physical world, which must continually be about us, is a great progress toward that marriage of the imagination with the reality which is the goal of contemplation.
While we gain this mastery of the formless, however, we should not lose the more necessary capacity of seeing form in those things which happen to have it. In respect to most of those things which are determinate as well as natural, we are usually in that state of aesthetic unconsciousness which the peasant is in in respect to the landscape. We treat human life and its environment with the same utilitarian eye with which he regards the field and mountain. That is beautiful which is expressive of convenience and wealth; the rest is indifferent. If we mean by love of nature aesthetic delight in the world in which we casually live (and what can be more natural than man and all his arts?), we may say that the absolute love of nature hardly exists among us. What we love is the stimulation of our own personal emotions and dreams; and landscape appeals to us, as music does to those who have no sense for musical form.
There would seem to be no truth in the saying that the ancients loved nature less than we. They loved landscape less — less, at least, in proportion to their love of the definite things it contained. The vague and changing effects of the atmosphere, the masses of mountains, the infinite and living complexity of forests, did not fascinate them. They had not that preponderant taste for the indeterminate that makes the landscape a favourite subject of contemplation. But love of nature, and comprehension of her, they had in a most eminent degree; in fact, they actually made explicit that objectification of our own soul in her, which for the romantic poet remains a mere vague and shifting suggestion. What are the celestial gods, the nymphs, the fauns, the dryads, but the definite apperceptions of that haunting spirit which we think we see in the sky, the mountains, and the woods? We may think that our vague intuition grasps the truth of what their childish imagination turned into a fable. But our belief, if it is one, is just as fabulous, just as much a projection of human nature into material things; and if we renounce all positive conception of quasi-mental principles in nature, and reduce our moralizing of her to a poetic expression of our own sensations, then can we say that our verbal and illusive images are comparable as representations of the life of nature to the precision, variety, humour, and beauty of the Greek mythology?
Extensions to objects usually not regarded authentically.
Sec. 34. It may not be superfluous to mention here certain analogous fields where the human mind gives a series of unstable forms to objects in themselves indeterminate. History, philosophy, natural as well as moral, and religion are evidently such fields. All theory is a subjective form given to an indeterminate material. The material is experience; and although each part of experience is, of course, perfectly definite in itself, and just that experience which it is, yet the recollection and relating together of the successive experiences is a function of the theoretical faculty. The systematic relations of things in time and space, and their dependence upon one another, are the work of our imagination. Theory can therefore never have the kind of truth which belongs to experience; as Hobbes has it, no discourse whatsoever can end in absolute knowledge of fact.
It is conceivable that two different theories should be equally true in respect to the same facts. All that is required is that they should be equally complete schemes for the relation and prediction of the realities they deal with. The choice between them would be an arbitrary one, determined by personal bias, for the object being indeterminate, its elements can be apperceived as forming all kinds of unities. A theory is a form of apperception, and in applying it to the facts, although our first concern is naturally the adequacy of our instrument of comprehension, we are also influenced, more than we think, by the ease and pleasure with which we think in its terms, that is, by its beauty.
The case of two alternative theories of nature, both exhaustive and adequate, may seem somewhat imaginary. The human mind is, indeed, not rich and indeterminate enough to drive, as the saying is, many horses abreast; it wishes to have one general scheme of conception only, under which it strives to bring everything. Yet the philosophers, who are the scouts of common sense, have come in sight of this possibility of a variety of methods of dealing with the same facts. As at the basis of evolution generally there are many variations, only some of which remain fixed, so at the origin of conception there are many schemes; these are simultaneously developed, and at most stages of thought divide the intelligence among themselves. So much is thought of on one principle — say mechanically — and so much on another — say teleologically. In those minds only that have a speculative turn, that is, in whom the desire for unity of comprehension outruns practical exigencies, does the conflict become intolerable. In them one or another of these theories tends to swallow all experience, but is commonly incapable of doing so.
The final victory of a single philosophy is not yet won, because none as yet has proved adequate to all experience. If ever unity should be attained, our unanimity would not indicate that, as the popular fancy conceives it, the truth had been discovered; it would only indicate that the human mind had found a definitive way of classifying its experience. Very likely, if man still retained his inveterate habit of hypostatizing his ideas, that definitive scheme would be regarded as a representation of the objective relations of things; but no proof that it was so would ever be found, nor even any hint that there were external objects, not to speak of relations between them. As the objects are hypostatized percepts, so the relations are hypostatized processes of the human understanding.
To have reached a final philosophy would be only to have formulated the typical and satisfying form of human apperception; the view would remain a theory, an instrument of comprehension and survey fitted to the human eye; it would be for ever utterly heterogeneous from fact, utterly unrepresentative of any of those experiences which it would artificially connect and weave into a pattern. Mythology and theology are the most striking illustrations of this human method of incorporating much diffuse experience into graphic and picturesque ideas; but steady reflection will hardly allow us to see anything else in the theories of science and philosophy. These, too, are creatures of our intelligence, and have their only being in the movement of our thought, as they have their only justification in their fitness to our experience.
Long before we can attain, however, the ideal unification of experience under one theory, the various fields of thought demand provisional surveys; we are obliged to reflect on life in a variety of detached and unrelated acts, since neither can the whole material of life be ever given while we still live, nor can that which is given be impartially retained in the human memory. When omniscience was denied us, we were endowed with versatility. The picturesqueness of human thought may console us for its imperfection.
History, for instance, which passes for the account of facts, is in reality a collection of apperceptions of an indeterminate material; for even the material of history is not fact, but consists of memories and words subject to ever-varying interpretation. No historian can be without bias, because the bias defines the history. The memory in the first place is selective; official and other records are selective, and often intentionally partial. Monuments and ruins remain by chance. And when the historian has set himself to study these few relics of the past, the work of his own intelligence begins. He must have some guiding interest. A history is not an indiscriminate register of every known event; a file of newspapers is not an inspiration of Clio. A history is a view of the fortunes of some institution or person; it traces the development of some interest. This interest furnishes the standard by which the facts are selected, and their importance gauged. Then, after the facts are thus chosen, marshalled, and emphasized, comes the indication of causes and relations; and in this part of his work the historian plunges avowedly into speculation, and becomes a philosophical poet. Everything will then depend on his genius, on his principles, on his passions, — in a word, on his apperceptive forms. And the value of history is similar to that of poetry, and varies with the beauty, power, and adequacy of the form in which the indeterminate material of human life is presented.
Further dangers of indeterminateness.
Sec. 35. The fondness of a race or epoch for any kind of effect is a natural expression of temperament and circumstances, and cannot be blamed or easily corrected. At the same time we may stop to consider some of the disadvantages of a taste for the indeterminate. We shall be registering a truth and at the same time, perhaps, giving some encouragement to that rebellion which we may inwardly feel against this too prevalent manner. The indeterminate is by its nature ambiguous; it is therefore obscure and uncertain in its effect, and if used, as in many arts it often is, to convey a meaning, must fail to do so unequivocally. Where a meaning is not to be conveyed, as in landscape, architecture, or music, the illusiveness of the form is not so objectionable: although in all these objects the tendency to observe forms and to demand them is a sign of increasing appreciation. The ignorant fail to see the forms of music, architecture, and landscape, and therefore are insensible to relative rank and technical values in these spheres; they regard the objects only as so many stimuli to emotion, as soothing or enlivening influences. But the sensuous and associative values of these things — especially of music — are so great, that even without an appreciation of form considerable beauty may be found in them.
In literature, however, where the sensuous value of the words is comparatively small, indeterminateness of form is fatal to beauty, and, if extreme, even to expressiveness. For meaning is conveyed by the form and order of words, not by the words themselves, and no precision of meaning can be reached without precision of style. Therefore no respectable writer is voluntarily obscure in the structure of his phrases — that is an abuse reserved for the clowns of literary fashion. But a book is a larger sentence, and if it is formless it fails to mean anything, for the same reason that an unformed collection of words means nothing. The chapters and verses may have said something, as loose words may have a known sense and a tone; but the book will have brought no message.
In fact, the absence of form in composition has two stages: that in which, as in the works of Emerson, significant fragments are collected, and no system, no total thought, constructed out of them; and secondly, that in which, as in the writings of the Symbolists of our time, all the significance is kept back in the individual words, or even in the syllables that compose them. This mosaic of word-values has, indeed, a possibility of effect, for the absence of form does not destroy materials, but, as we have observed, rather allows the attention to remain fixed upon them; and for this reason absence of sense is a means of accentuating beauty of sound and verbal suggestion. But this example shows how the tendency to neglect structure in literature is a tendency to surrender the use of language as an instrument of thought The descent is easy from ambiguity to meaninglessness.
The indeterminate in form is also indeterminate in value. It needs completion by the mind of the observer and as this completion differs, the value of the result must vary. An indeterminate object is therefore beautiful to him who can make it so, and ugly to him who cannot. It appeals to a few and to them diversely. In fact, the observer's own mind is the storehouse from which the beautiful form has to be drawn. If the form is not there, it cannot be applied to the half-finished object; it is like asking a man without skill to complete another man's composition. The indeterminate object therefore requires an active and well-equipped mind, and is otherwise without value.
It is furthermore unprofitable even to the mind which takes it up; it stimulates that mind to action, but it presents it with no new object. We can respond only with those forms of apperception which we already are accustomed to. A formless object cannot inform the mind, cannot mould it to a new habit. That happens only when the data, by their clear determination, compel the eye and imagination to follow new paths and see new relations. Then we are introduced to a new beauty, and enriched to that extent. But the indeterminate, like music to the sentimental, is a vague stimulus. It calls forth at random such ideas and memories as may lie to hand, stirring the mind, but leaving it undisciplined and unacquainted with any new object. This stirring, like that of the pool of Bethesda, may indeed have its virtue. A creative mind, already rich in experience and observation, may, under the influence of such a stimulus, dart into a new thought, and give birth to that with which it is already pregnant; but the fertilizing seed came from elsewhere, from study and admiration of those definite forms which nature contains, or which art, in imitation of nature, has conceived and brought to perfection.
Illusion of infinite perfection.
Sec. 36. The great advantage, then, of indeterminate organization is that it cultivates that spontaneity, intelligence, and imagination without which many important objects would remain unintelligible, and because unintelligible, uninteresting. The beauty of landscape, the forms of religion and science, the types of human nature itself, are due to this apperceptive gift. Without it we should have a chaos; but its patient and ever-fresh activity carves out of the fluid material a great variety of forms. An object which stimulates us to this activity, therefore, seems often to be more sublime and beautiful than one which presents to us a single unchanging form, however perfect. There seems to be a life and infinity in the incomplete, which the determinate excludes by its own completeness and petrifaction. And yet the effort in this very activity is to reach determination; we can only see beauty in so far as we introduce form. The instability of the form can be no advantage to a work of art; the determinate keeps constantly what the indeterminate reaches only in those moments in which the observer's imagination is especially propitious. If we feel a certain disappointment in the monotonous limits of a definite form and its eternal, unsympathizing message, might we not feel much more the melancholy transiency of those glimpses of beauty which elude us in the indeterminate? Might not the torment and uncertainty of this contemplation, with the self-consciousness it probably involves, more easily tire us than the quiet companionship of a constant object? May we not prefer the unchangeable to the irrecoverable?
We may; and the preference is one which we should all more clearly feel, were it not for an illusion, proper to the romantic temperament, which lends a mysterious charm to things which are indefinite and indefinable. It is the suggestion of infinite perfection. In reality, perfection is a synonym of finitude. Neither in nature nor in the fancy can anything be perfect except by realizing a definite type, which excludes all variation, and contrasts sharply with every other possibility of being. There is no perfection apart from a form of apperception or type; and there are as many kinds of perfection as there are types or forms of apperception latent in the mind.
Now these various perfections are mutually exclusive. Only in a kind of aesthetic orgy — in the madness of an intoxicated imagination — can we confuse them. As the Roman emperor wished that the Roman people had but a single neck, to murder them at one blow, so we may sometimes wish that all beauties had but one form, that we might behold them together. But in the nature of things beauties are incompatible. The spring cannot coexist with the autumn, nor day with night; what is beautiful in a child is hideous in a man, and vice versa; every age, every country, each sex, has a peculiar beauty, finite and incommunicable; the better it is attained the more completely it excludes every other. The same is evidently true of schools of art, of styles and languages, and of every effect whatsoever. It exists by its finitude and is great in proportion to its determination.
But there is a loose and somewhat helpless state of mind in which while we are incapable of realizing any particular thought or vision in its perfect clearness and absolute beauty, we nevertheless feel its haunting presence in the background of consciousness. And one reason why the idea cannot emerge from that obscurity is that it is not alone in the brain; a thousand other ideals, a thousand other plastic tendencies of thought, simmer there in confusion; and if any definite image is presented in response to that vague agitation of our soul, we feel its inadequacy to our need in spite of, or perhaps on account of, its own particular perfection. We then say that the classic does not satisfy us, and that the "Grecian cloys us with his perfectness." We are not capable of that concentrated and serious attention to one thing at a time which would enable us to sink into its being, and enjoy the intrinsic harmonies of its form, and the bliss of its immanent particular heaven; we flounder in the vague, but at the same time we are full of yearnings, of half-thoughts and semi-visions, and the upward tendency and exaltation of our mood is emphatic and overpowering in proportion to our incapacity to think, speak, or imagine.
The sum of our incoherences has, however, an imposing volume and even, perhaps, a vague, general direction. We feel ourselves laden with an infinite burden; and what delights us most and seems to us to come nearest to the ideal is not what embodies any one possible form, but that which, by embodying none, suggests many, and stirs the mass of our inarticulate imagination with a pervasive thrill. Each thing, without being a beauty in itself, by stimulating our indeterminate emotion, seems to be a hint and expression of infinite beauty. That infinite perfection which cannot be realized, because it is self-contradictory, may be thus suggested, and on account of this suggestion an indeterminate effect may be regarded as higher, more significant, and more beautiful than any determinate one.
The illusion, however, is obvious. The infinite perfection suggested is an absurdity. What exists is a vague emotion, the objects of which, if they could emerge from the chaos of a confused imagination, would turn out to be a multitude of differently beautiful determinate things. This emotion of infinite perfection is the materia prima — rudis indigestaque moles — out of which attention, inspiration, and art can bring forth an infinity of particular perfections. Every aesthetic success, whether in contemplation or production, is the birth of one of these possibilities with which the sense of infinite perfection is pregnant. A work of art or an act of observation which remains indeterminate is, therefore, a failure, however much it may stir our emotion. It is a failure for two reasons. In the first place this emotion is seldom wholly pleasant; it is disquieting and perplexing; it brings a desire rather than a satisfaction. And in the second place, the emotion, not being embodied, fails to constitute the beauty of anything; and what we have is merely a sentiment, a consciousness that values are or might be there, but a failure to extricate those values, or to make them explicit and recognizable in an appropriate object.
These gropings after beauty have their worth as signs of aesthetic vitality and intimations of future possible accomplishment; but in themselves they are abortive, and mark the impotence of the imagination. Sentimentalism in the observer and romanticism in the artist are examples of this aesthetic incapacity. Whenever beauty is really seen and loved, it has a definite embodiment: the eye has precision, the work has style, and the object has perfection. The kind of perfection may indeed be new; and if the discovery of new perfections is to be called romanticism, then romanticism is the beginning of all aesthetic life. But if by romanticism we mean indulgence in confused suggestion and in the exhibition of turgid force, then there is evidently need of education, of attentive labour, to disentangle the beauties so vaguely felt, and give each its adequate embodiment. The breadth of our inspiration need not be lost in this process of clarification, for there is no limit to the number and variety of forms which the world may be made to wear; only, if it is to be appreciated as beautiful and not merely felt as unutterable, it must be seen as a kingdom of forms. Thus the works of Shakespeare give us a great variety, with a frequent marvellous precision of characterization, and the forms of his art are definite although its scope is great.
But by a curious anomaly, we are often expected to see the greatest expressiveness in what remains indeterminate, and in reality expresses nothing. As we have already observed, the sense of profundity and significance is a very detachable emotion; it can accompany a confused jumble of promptings quite as easily as it can a thorough comprehension of reality. The illusion of infinite perfection is peculiarly apt to produce this sensation. That illusion arises by the simultaneous awakening of many incipient thoughts and dim ideas; it stirs the depths of the mind as a wind stirs the thickets of a forest; and the unusual consciousness of the life and longing of the soul, brought by that gust of feeling, makes us recognize in the object a singular power, a mysterious meaning.
But the feeling of significance signifies little. All we have in this case is a potentiality of imagination; and only when this potentiality begins to be realized in definite ideas, does a real meaning, or any object which that meaning can mean, arise in the mind. The highest aesthetic good is not that vague potentiality, nor that contradictory, infinite perfection so strongly desired; it is the greatest number and variety of finite perfections. To learn to see in nature and to enshrine in the arts the typical forms of things; to study and recognize their variations; to domesticate the imagination in the world, so that everywhere beauty can be seen, and a hint found for artistic creation, — that is the goal of contemplation. Progress lies in the direction of discrimination and precision, not in that of formless emotion and reverie.
Organized nature the source of apperceptive forms; example of sculpture.
Sec. 37. The form of the material world is in one sense always perfectly definite, since the particles that compose it are at each moment in a given relative position; but a world that had no other form than that of such a constellation of atoms would remain chaotic to our perception, because we should not be able to survey it as a whole, or to keep our attention suspended evenly over its innumerable parts. According to evolutionary theory, mechanical necessity has, however, brought about a distribution and aggregation of elements such as, for our purposes, constitutes individual things. Certain systems of atoms move together as units; and these organisms reproduce themselves and recur so often in our environment, that our senses become accustomed to view their parts together. Their form becomes a natural and recognizable one. An order and sequence is established in our imagination by virtue of the order and sequence in which the corresponding impressions have come to our senses. We can remember, reproduce, and in reproducing vary, by kaleidoscopic tricks of the fancy, the forms in which our perceptions have come.
The mechanical organization of external nature is thus the source of apperceptive forms in the mind. Did not sensation, by a constant repetition of certain sequences, and a recurring exactitude of mathematical relations, keep our fancy clear and fresh, we should fall into an imaginative lethargy. Idealization would degenerate into indistinctness, and, by the dulling of our memory, we should dream a world daily more poor and vague.
This process is periodically observable in the history of the arts. The way in which the human figure, for instance, is depicted, is an indication of the way in which it is apperceived. The arts give back only so much of nature as the human eye has been able to master. The most primitive stage of drawing and sculpture presents man with his arms and legs, his ten fingers and ten toes, branching out into mid-air; the apperception of the body has been evidently practical and successive, and the artist sets down what he knows rather than any of the particular perceptions that conveyed that knowledge. Those perceptions are merged and lost in the haste to reach the practically useful concept of the object. By a naive expression of the same principle, we find in some Assyrian drawings the eye seen from the front introduced into a face seen in profile, each element being represented in that form in which it was most easily observed and remembered. The development of Greek sculpture furnishes a good example of the gradual penetration of nature into the mind, of the slowly enriched apperception of the object. The quasi-Egyptian stiffness melts away, first from the bodies of the minor figures, afterwards of those of the gods, and finally the face is varied, and the hieratic smile almost disappears.
But this progress has a near limit; once the most beautiful and inclusive apperception reached, once the best form caught at its best moment, the artist seems to have nothing more to do. To reproduce the imperfections of individuals seems wrong, when beauty, after all, is the thing desired. And the ideal, as caught by the master's inspiration, is more beautiful than anything his pupils can find for themselves in nature. From its summit, the art therefore declines in one of two directions. It either becomes academic, forsakes the study of nature, and degenerates into empty convention, or else it becomes ignoble, forsakes beauty, and sinks into a tasteless and unimaginative technique. The latter was the course of sculpture in ancient times, the former, with moments of reawakening, has been its dreadful fate among the moderns.
This reawakening has come whenever there has been a return to nature, for a new form of apperception and a new ideal. Of this return there is continual need in all the arts; without it our apperceptions grow thin and worn, and subject to the sway of tradition and fashion. We continue to judge about beauty, but we give up looking for it. The remedy is to go back to the reality, to study it patiently, to allow new aspects of it to work upon the mind, sink into it, and beget there an imaginative offspring after their own kind. Then a new art can appear, which, having the same origin in admiration for nature which the old art had, may hope to attain the same excellence in a new direction.
In fact, one of the dangers to which a modern artist is exposed is the seduction of his predecessors. The gropings of our muse, the distracted experiments of our architecture, often arise from the attraction of some historical school; we cannot work out our own style because we are hampered by the beauties of so many others. The result is an eclecticism, which, in spite of its great historical and psychological interest, is without aesthetic unity or permanent power to please. Thus the study of many schools of art may become an obstacle to proficiency in any.
Utility the principle of organization in nature.
Sec. 38. Utility (or, as it is now called, adaptation, and natural selection) organizes the material world into definite species and individuals. Only certain aggregations of matter are in equilibrium with the prevailing forces of the environment. Gravity, for instance, is in itself a chaotic force; it pulls all particles indiscriminately together without reference to the wholes into which the human eye may have grouped them. But the result is not chaos, because matter arranged in some ways is welded together by the very tendency which disintegrates it when arranged in other forms. These forms, selected by their congruity with gravity, are therefore fixed in nature, and become types. Thus the weight of the stones keeps the pyramid standing: here a certain shape has become a guarantee of permanence in the presence of a force in itself mechanical and undiscriminating. It is the utility of the pyramidal form — its fitness to stand — that has made it a type in building. The Egyptians merely repeated a process that they might have observed going on of itself in nature, who builds a pyramid in every hill, not indeed because she wishes to, or because pyramids are in any way an object of her action, but because she has no force which can easily dislodge matter that finds itself in that shape.
Such an accidental stability of structure is, in this moving world, a sufficient principle of permanence and individuality. The same mechanical principles, in more complex applications, insure the persistence of animal forms and prevent any permanent deviation from them. What is called the principle of self-preservation, and the final causes and substantial forms of the Aristotelian philosophy, are descriptions of the result of this operation. The tendency of everything to maintain and propagate its nature is simply the inertia of a stable juxtaposition of elements, which are not enough disturbed by ordinary accidents to lose their equilibrium; while the incidence of a too great disturbance causes that disruption we call death, or that variation of type, which, on account of its incapacity to establish itself permanently, we call abnormal.
Nature thus organizes herself into recognizable species; and the aesthetic eye, studying her forms, tends, as we have already shown, to bring the type within even narrower limits than do the external exigencies of life.
The relation of utility to beauty.
Sec. 39. This natural harmony between utility and beauty, when its origin is not understood, is of course the subject of much perplexed and perplexing theory. Sometimes we are told that utility is itself the essence of beauty, that is, that our consciousness of the practical advantages of certain forms is the ground of our aesthetic admiration of them. The horse's legs are said to be beautiful because they are fit to run, the eye because it is made to see, the house because it is convenient to live in. An amusing application — which might pass for a reductio ad absurdum, — of this dense theory is put by Xenophon into the mouth of Socrates. Comparing himself with a youth present at the same banquet, who was about to receive the prize of beauty, Socrates declares himself more beautiful and more worthy of the crown. For utility makes beauty, and eyes bulging out from the head like his are the most advantageous for seeing; nostrils wide and open to the air, like his, most appropriate for smell; and a mouth large and voluminous, like his, best fitted for both eating and kissing.
Now since these things are, in fact, hideous, the theory that shows they ought to be beautiful, is vain and ridiculous. But that theory contains this truth: that had the utility of Socratic features been so great that men of all other type must have perished, Socrates would have been beautiful. He would have represented the human type. The eye would have been then accustomed to that form, the imagination would have taken it as the basis of its refinements, and accentuated its naturally effective points. The beautiful does not depend on the useful; it is constituted by the imagination in ignorance and contempt of practical advantage; but it is not independent of the necessary, for the necessary must also be the habitual and consequently the basis of the type, and of all its imaginative variations.
There are, moreover, at a late and derivative stage in our aesthetic judgment, certain cases in which the knowledge of fitness and utility enters into our sense of beauty. But it does so very indirectly, rather by convincing us that we should tolerate what practical conditions have imposed on an artist, by arousing admiration of his ingenuity, or by suggesting the interesting things themselves with which the object is known to be connected. Thus a cottage-chimney, stout and tall, with the smoke floating from it, pleases because we fancy it to mean a hearth, a rustic meal, and a comfortable family. But that is all extraneous association. The most ordinary way in which utility affects us is negatively; if we know a thing to be useless and fictitious, the uncomfortable haunting sense of waste and trickery prevents all enjoyment, and therefore banishes beauty. But this is also an adventitious complication. The intrinsic value of a form is in no way affected by it.
Opposed to this utilitarian theory stands the metaphysical one that would make the beauty or intrinsic rightness of things the source of their efficiency and of their power to survive. Taken literally, as it is generally meant, this idea must, from our point of view, appear preposterous. Beauty and rightness are relative to our judgment and emotion; they in no sense exist in nature or preside over her. She everywhere appears to move by mechanical law. The types of things exist by what, in relation to our approbation, is mere chance, and it is our faculties that must adapt themselves to our environment and not our environment to our faculties. Such is the naturalistic point of view which we have adopted.
To say, however, that beauty is in some sense the ground of practical fitness, need not seem to us wholly unmeaning. The fault of the Platonists who say things of this sort is seldom that of emptiness. They have an intuition; they have sometimes a strong sense of the facts of consciousness. But they turn their discoveries into so many revelations, and the veil of the infinite and absolute soon covers their little light of specific truth. Sometimes, after patient digging, the student comes upon the treasure of some simple fact, some common experience, beneath all their mystery and unction. And so it may be in this case. If we make allowances for the tendency to express experience in allegory and myth, we shall see that the idea of beauty and rationality presiding over nature and guiding her, as it were, for their own greater glory, is a projection and a writing large of a psychological principle.
The mind that perceives nature is the same that understands and enjoys her; indeed, these three functions are really elements of one process. There is therefore in the mere perceptibility of a thing a certain prophecy of its beauty; if it were not on the road to beauty, if it had no approach to fitness to our faculties of perception, the object would remain eternally unperceived. The sense, therefore, that the whole world is made to be food for the soul; that beauty is not only its own, but all things' excuse for being; that universal aspiration towards perfection is the key and secret of the world, — that sense is the poetical reverberation of a psychological fact — of the fact that our mind is an organism tending to unity, to unconsciousness of what is refractory to its action, and to assimilation and sympathetic transformation of what is kept within its sphere. The idea that nature could be governed by an aspiration towards beauty is, therefore, to be rejected as a confusion, but at the same time we must confess that this confusion is founded on a consciousness of the subjective relation between the perceptibility, rationality, and beauty of things.
Utility the principle of organization in the arts.
Sec. 40. This subjective relation is, however, exceedingly loose. Most things that are perceivable are not perceived so distinctly as to be intelligible, nor so delightfully as to be beautiful. If our eye had infinite penetration, or our imagination infinite elasticity, this would not be the case; to see would then be to understand and to enjoy. As it is, the degree of determination needed for perception is much less than that needed for comprehension or ideality. Hence there is room for hypothesis and for art. As hypothesis organizes experiences imaginatively in ways in which observation has not been able to do, so art organizes objects in ways to which nature, perhaps, has never condescended.
The chief thing which the imitative arts add to nature is permanence, the lack of which is the saddest defect of many natural beauties. The forces which determine natural forms, therefore, determine also the forms of the imitative arts. But the non-imitative arts supply organisms different in kind from those which nature affords. If we seek the principle by which these objects are organized, we shall generally find that it is likewise utility. Architecture, for instance, has all its forms suggested by practical demands. Use requires our buildings to assume certain determinate forms; the mechanical properties of our materials, the exigency of shelter, light, accessibility, economy, and convenience, dictate the arrangements of our buildings.
Houses and temples have an evolution like that of animals and plants. Various forms arise by mechanical necessity, like the cave, or the shelter of overhanging boughs. These are perpetuated by a selection in which the needs and pleasures of man are the environment to which the structure must be adapted. Determinate forms thus establish themselves, and the eye becomes accustomed to them. The line of use, by habit of apperception, becomes the line of beauty. A striking example may be found in the pediment of the Greek temple and the gable of the northern house. The exigencies of climate determine these forms differently, but the eye in each case accepts what utility imposes. We admire height in one and breadth in the other, and we soon find the steep pediment heavy and the low gable awkward and mean.
It would be an error, however, to conclude that habit alone establishes the right proportion in these various types of building. We have the same intrinsic elements to consider as in natural forms. That is, besides the unity of type and correspondence of parts which custom establishes, there are certain appeals to more fundamental susceptibilities of the human eye and imagination. There is, for instance, the value of abstract form, determined by the pleasantness and harmony of implicated retinal or muscular tensions. Different structures contain or suggest more or less of this kind of beauty, and in that proportion may be called intrinsically better or worse. Thus artificial forms may be arranged in a hierarchy like natural ones, by reference to the absolute values of their contours and masses. Herein lies the superiority of a Greek to a Chinese vase, or of Gothic to Saracenic construction. Thus although every useful form is capable of proportion and beauty, when once its type is established, we cannot say that this beauty is always potentially equal; and an iron bridge, for instance, although it certainly possesses and daily acquires aesthetic interest, will probably never, on the average, equal a bridge of stone.
Form and adventitious ornament.
Sec. 41. Beauty of form is the last to be found or admired in artificial as in natural objects. Time is needed to establish it, and training and nicety of perception to enjoy it. Motion or colour is what first interests a child in toys, as in animals; and the barbarian artist decorates long before he designs. The cave and wigwam are daubed with paint, or hung with trophies, before any pleasure is taken in their shape; and the appeal to the detached senses, and to associations of wealth and luxury, precedes by far the appeal to the perceptive harmonies of form. In music we observe the same gradation; first, we appreciate its sensuous and sentimental value; only with education can we enjoy its form. The plastic arts begin, therefore, with adventitious ornament and with symbolism. The aesthetic pleasure is in the richness of the material, the profusion of the ornament, the significance of the shape — in everything, rather than in the shape itself.
We have accordingly, in works of art two independent sources of effect. The first is the useful form, which generates the type, and ultimately the beauty of form, when the type has been idealized by emphasizing its intrinsically pleasing traits. The second is the beauty of ornament, which comes from the excitement of the senses, or of the imagination, by colour, or by profusion or delicacy of detail. Historically, the latter is first developed, and applied to a form as yet merely useful. But the very presence of ornament attracts contemplation; the attention lavished on the object helps to fix its form in the mind, and to make us discriminate the less from the more graceful. The two kinds of beauty are then felt, and, yielding to that tendency to unity which the mind always betrays, we begin to subordinate and organize these two excellences. The ornament is distributed so as to emphasize the aesthetic essence of the form; to idealize it even more, by adding adventitious interests harmoniously to the intrinsic interest of the lines of structure.
There is here a great field, of course, for variety of combination and compromise. Some artists are fascinated by the decoration, and think of the structure merely as the background on which it can be most advantageously displayed. Others, of more austere taste, allow ornament only to emphasize the main lines of the design, or to conceal such inharmonious elements as nature or utility may prevent them from eliminating. We may thus oscillate between decorative and structural motives, and only in one point, for each style, can we find the ideal equilibrium, in which the greatest strength and lucidity is combined with the greatest splendour.
A less subtle, but still very effective, combination is that hit upon by many oriental and Gothic architects, and found, also, by accident perhaps, in many buildings of the plateresque style; the ornament and structure are both presented with extreme emphasis, but locally divided; a vast rough wall, for instance, represents the one, and a profusion of mad ornament huddled around a central door or window represents the other.
Gothic architecture offers us in the pinnacle and flying buttress a striking example of the adoption of a mechanical feature, and its transformation into an element of beauty. Nothing could at first sight be more hopeless than the external half-arch propping the side of a pier, or the chimney-like weight of stones pressing it down from above; but a courageous acceptance of these necessities, and a submissive study of their form, revealed a new and strange effect: the bewildering and stimulating intricacy of masses suspended in mid-air; the profusion of line, variety of surface, and picturesqueness of light and shade. It needed but a little applied ornament judiciously distributed; a moulding in the arches; a florid canopy and statue amid the buttresses; a few grinning monsters leaning out of unexpected nooks; a leafy budding of the topmost pinnacles; a piercing here and there of some little gallery, parapet, or turret into lacework against the sky — and the building became a poem, an inexhaustible emotion. Add some passing cloud casting its moving shadow over the pile, add the circling of birds about the towers, and you have an unforgettable type of beauty; not perhaps the noblest, sanest, or most enduring, but one for the existence of which the imagination is richer, and the world more interesting.
In this manner we accept the forms imposed upon us by utility, and train ourselves to apperceive their potential beauty. Familiarity breeds contempt only when it breeds inattention. When the mind is absorbed and dominated by its perceptions, it incorporates into them more and more of its own functional values, and makes them ultimately beautiful and expressive. Thus no language can be ugly to those who speak it well, no religion unmeaning to those who have learned to pour their life into its moulds.
Of course these forms vary in intrinsic excellence; they are by their specific character more or less fit and facile for the average mind. But the man and the age are rare who can choose their own path; we have generally only a choice between going ahead in the direction already chosen, or halting and blocking the path for others. The only kind of reform usually possible is reform from within; a more intimate study and more intelligent use of the traditional forms. Disaster follows rebellion against tradition or against utility, which are the basis and root of our taste and progress. But, within the given school, and as exponents of its spirit, we can adapt and perfect our works, if haply we are better inspired than our predecessors. For the better we know a given thing, and the more we perceive its strong and weak points, the more capable we are of idealizing it.
Form in words.
Sec. 42. The main effect of language consists in its meaning, in the ideas which it expresses. But no expression is possible without a presentation, and this presentation must have a form. This form of the instrument of expression is itself an element of effect, although in practical life we may overlook it in our haste to attend to the meaning it conveys. It is, moreover, a condition of the kind of expression possible, and often determines the manner in which the object suggested shall be apperceived. No word has the exact value of any other in the same or in another language. But the intrinsic effect of language does not stop there. The single word is but a stage in the series of formations which constitute language, and which preserve for men the fruit of their experience, distilled and concentrated into a symbol.
This formation begins with the elementary sounds themselves, which have to be discriminated and combined to make recognizable symbols. The evolution of these symbols goes on spontaneously, suggested by our tendency to utter all manner of sounds, and preserved by the ease with which the ear discriminates these sounds when made. Speech would be an absolute and unrelated art, like music, were it not controlled by utility. The sounds have indeed no resemblance to the objects they symbolize; but before the system of sounds can represent the system of objects, there has to be a correspondence in the groupings of both. The structure of language, unlike that of music, thus becomes a mirror of the structure of the world as presented to the intelligence.
Grammar, philosophically studied, is akin to the deepest metaphysics, because in revealing the constitution of speech, it reveals the constitution of thought, and the hierarchy of those categories by which we conceive the world. It is by virtue of this parallel development that language has its function of expressing experience with exactness, and the poet — to whom language is an instrument of art — has to employ it also with a constant reference to meaning and veracity; that is, he must be a master of experience before he can become a true master of words. Nevertheless, language is primarily a sort of music, and the beautiful effects which it produces are due to its own structure, giving, as it crystallizes in a new fashion, an unforeseen form to experience.
Poets may be divided into two classes: the musicians and the psychologists. The first are masters of significant language as harmony; they know what notes to sound together and in succession; they can produce, by the marshalling of sounds and images, by the fugue of passion and the snap of wit, a thousand brilliant effects out of old materials. The Ciceronian orator, the epigrammatic, lyric, and elegiac poets, give examples of this art. The psychologists, on the other hand, gain their effect not by the intrinsic mastery of language, but by the closer adaptation of it to things. The dramatic poets naturally furnish an illustration.
But however transparent we may wish to make our language, however little we may call for its intrinsic effects, and direct our attention exclusively to its expressiveness, we cannot avoid the limitations of our particular medium. The character of the tongue a man speaks, and the degree of his skill in speaking it, must always count enormously in the aesthetic value of his compositions; no skill in observation, no depth of thought or feeling, but is spoiled by a bad style and enhanced by a good one. The diversities of tongues and their irreducible aesthetic values, begins with the very sound of the letters, with the mode of utterance, and the characteristic inflections of the voice; notice, for instance, the effect of the French of these lines of Alfred de Musset,
Jamais deux yeux plus doux n'ont du ciel le plus pur Sonde la profondeur et reflechi l'azur.
and compare with its flute-like and treble quality the breadth, depth, and volume of the German in this inimitable stanza of Goethe's:
Ueber alien Gipfeln Ist Ruh, In allen Wipfeln Spuerest du Kaum einen Hauch; Die Voegelein schweigen im Walde. Warte nur, balde Ruhest du auch.
Even if the same tune could be played on both these vocal instruments, the difference in their timbre would make the value of the melody entirely distinct in each case.
Sec. 43. The known impossibility of adequate translation appears here at the basis of language. The other diversities are superadded upon this diversity of sound. The syntax is the next source of effect. What could be better than Homer, or what worse than almost any translation of him? And this holds even of languages so closely allied as the Indo-European, which, after all, have certain correspondences of syntax and inflection. If there could be a language with other parts of speech than ours, — a language without nouns, for instance, — how would that grasp of experience, that picture of the world, which all our literature contains, be reproduced in it? Whatever beauties that language might be susceptible of, none of the effects produced on us, I will not say by poets, but even by nature itself, could be expressed in it.
Nor is such a language inconceivable. Instead of summarizing all our experiences of a thing by one word, its name, we should have to recall by appropriate adjectives the various sensations we had received from it; the objects we think of would be disintegrated, or, rather, would never have been unified. For "sun," they would say "high, yellow, dazzling, round, slowly moving," and the enumeration of these qualities (as we call them), without any suggestion of a unity at their source, might give a more vivid, and profound, if more cumbrous, representation of the facts. But how could the machinery of such an imagination be capable of repeating the effects of ours, when the objects to us most obvious and real would be to those minds utterly indescribable?
The same diversity appears in the languages we ordinarily know, only in a lesser degree. The presence or absence of case-endings in nouns and adjectives, their difference of gender, the richness of inflections in the verbs, the frequency of particles and conjunctions, — all these characteristics make one language differ from another entirely in genius and capacity of expression. Greek is probably the best of all languages in melody, richness, elasticity, and simplicity; so much so, that in spite of its complex inflections, when once a vocabulary is acquired, it is more easy and natural for a modern than his ancestral Latin itself. Latin is the stiffer tongue; it is by nature at once laconic and grandiloquent, and the exceptional condensation and transposition of which it is capable make its effects entirely foreign to a modern, scarcely inflected, tongue. Take, for instance, these lines of Horace:
me tabula sacer votiva paries indicat uvida suspendisse potenti vestimenta maris deo,
or these of Lucretius:
Jauaque caput quassans grandis suspirat arator Crebrius incassum magnum cecidisse laborem.
What conglomerate plebeian speech of our time could utter the stately grandeur of these Lucretian words, every one of which is noble, and wears the toga?
As a substitute for the inimitable interpenetration of the words in the Horatian strophe, we might have the external links of rhyme; and it seems, in fact, to be a justification of rhyme, that besides contributing something to melody and to the distribution of parts, it gives an artificial relationship to the phrases between which it obtains, which, but for it, would run away from one another in a rapid and irrevocable flux. In such a form as the sonnet, for instance, we have, by dint of assonance, a real unity forced upon the thought; for a sonnet in which the thought is not distributed appropriately to the structure of the verse, has no excuse for being a sonnet. By virtue of this interrelation of parts, the sonnet, the non plus ultra of rhyme, is the most classic of modern poetical forms: much more classic in spirit than blank verse, which lacks almost entirely the power of synthesizing the phrase, and making the unexpected seem the inevitable.
This beauty given to the ancients by the syntax of their language, the moderns can only attain by the combination of their rhymes. It is a bad substitute perhaps, but better than the total absence of form, favoured by the atomic character of our words, and the flat juxtaposition of our clauses. The art which was capable of making a gem of every prose sentence, — the art which, carried, perhaps, to, a pitch at which it became too conscious, made the phrases of Tacitus a series of cameos, — that art is inapplicable to our looser medium; we cannot give clay the finish and nicety of marble. Our poetry and speech in general, therefore, start out upon a lower level; the same effort will not, with this instrument, attain the same beauty. If equal beauty is ever attained, it comes from the wealth of suggestion, or the refinement of sentiment. The art of words remains hopelessly inferior. And what best proves this, is that when, as in our time, a reawakening of the love of beauty has prompted a refinement of our poetical language, we pass so soon into extravagance, obscurity, and affectation. Our modern languages are not susceptible of great formal beauty.
Literary form. The plot.
Sec. 44. The forms of composition in verse and prose which are practised in each language are further organizations of words, and have formal values. The most exacting of these forms and that which has been carried to the greatest perfection is the drama; but it belongs to rhetoric and poetics to investigate the nature of these effects, and we have here sufficiently indicated the principle which underlies them. The plot, which Aristotle makes, and very justly, the most important element in the effect of a drama, is the formal element of the drama as such: the ethos and sentiments are the expression, and the versification, music, and stage settings are the materials. It is in harmony with the romantic tendency of modern times that modern dramatists — Shakespeare as well as Moliere, Calderon, and the rest — excel in ethos rather than in plot; for it is the evident characteristic of modern genius to study and enjoy expression, — the suggestion of the not-given, — rather than form, the harmony of the given.
Ethos is interesting mainly for the personal observations which it summarizes and reveals, or for the appeal to one's own actual or imaginative experience; it is portrait-painting, and enshrines something we love independently of the charm which at this moment and in this place it exercises over us. It appeals to our affections; it does not form them. But the plot is the synthesis of actions, and is a reproduction of those experiences from which our notion of men and things is originally derived; for character can never be observed in the world except as manifested in action.
Indeed, it would be more fundamentally accurate to say that a character is a symbol and mental abbreviation for a peculiar set of acts, than to say that acts are a manifestation of character. For the acts are the data, and the character the inferred principle, and a principle, in spite of its name, is never more than a description a posteriori, and a summary of what is subsumed under it. The plot, moreover, is what gives individuality to the play, and exercises invention; it is, as Aristotle again says, the most difficult portion of dramatic art, and that for which practice and training are most indispensable. And this plot, giving by its nature a certain picture of human experience, involves and suggests the ethos of its actors.
What the great characterizes, like Shakespeare, do, is simply to elaborate and develope (perhaps far beyond the necessities of the plot) the suggestion of human individuality which that plot contains. It is as if, having drawn from daily observation some knowledge of the tempers of our friends, we represented them saying and doing all manner of ultra-characteristic things, and in an occasional soliloquy laying bare, even more clearly than by any possible action, that character which their observed behaviour had led us to impute to them. This is an ingenious and fascinating invention, and delights us with the clear discovery of a hidden personality; but the serious and equable development of a plot has a more stable worth in its greater similarity to life, which allows us to see other men's minds through the medium of events, and not events through the medium of other men's minds.
Character as an aesthetic form.
Sec. 45. We have just come upon one of the unities most coveted in our literature, and most valued by us when attained, — the portrait, the individuality, the character. The construction of a plot we call invention, but that of a character we dignify with the name of creation. It may therefore not be amiss, in finishing our discussion of form, to devote a few pages to the psychology of character-drawing. How does the unity we call a character arise, how is it described, and what is the basis of its effect?
We may set it down at once as evident that we have here a case of the type: the similarities of various persons are amalgamated, their differences cancelled, and in the resulting percept those traits emphasized which have particularly pleased or interested us. This, in the abstract, may serve for a description of the origin of an idea of character quite as well as of an idea of physical form. But the different nature of the material — the fact that a character is not a presentation to sense, but a rationalistic synthesis of successive acts and feelings, not combinable into any image — makes such a description much more unsatisfying in this case than in that of material forms. We cannot understand exactly how these summations and cancellings take place when we are not dealing with a visible object. And we may even feel that there is a wholeness and inwardness about the development of certain ideal characters, that makes such a treatment of them fundamentally false and artificial. The subjective element, the spontaneous expression of our own passion and will, here counts for so much, that the creation of an ideal character becomes a new and peculiar problem.
There is, however, a way of conceiving and delineating character which still bears a close resemblance to the process by which the imagination produces the type of any physical species. We may gather, for instance, about the nucleus of a word, designating some human condition or occupation, a number of detached observations. We may keep a note-book in our memory, or even in our pocket, with studious observations of the language, manners, dress, gesture, and history of the people we meet, classifying our statistics under such heads as innkeepers, soldiers, housemaids, governesses, adventuresses, Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, Americans, actors, priests, and professors. And then, when occasion offers, to describe, or to put into a book or a play, any one of these types, all we have to do is to look over our notes, to select according to the needs of the moment, and if we are skilful in reproduction, to obtain by that means a life-like image of the sort of person we wish to represent.
This process, which novelists and playwrights may go through deliberately, we all carry on involuntarily. At every moment experience is leaving in our minds some trait, some expression, some image, which will remain there attached to the name of a person, a class, or a nationality. Our likes and dislikes, our summary judgments on whole categories of men, are nothing but the distinct survival of some such impression. These traits have vivacity. If the picture they draw is one-sided and inadequate, the sensation they recall may be vivid, and suggestive of many other aspects of the thing. Thus the epithets in Homer, although they are often far from describing the essence of the object — glankopis Athena enkeides Achaioi — seem to recall a sensation, and to give vitality to the narrative. By bringing you, through one sense, into the presence of the object, they give you that same hint of further discovery, that same expectation of experience, which we have at the sight of whatever we call real.
The graphic power of this method of observation and aggregation of characteristic traits is thus seen to be great. But it is not by this method that the most famous or most living characters have been conceived. This method gives the average, or at most the salient, points of the type, but the great characters of poetry — a Hamlet, a Don Quixote, an Achilles — are no averages, they are not even a collection of salient traits common to certain classes of men. They seem to be persons; that is, their actions and words seem to spring from the inward nature of an individual soul. Goethe is reported to have said that he conceived the character of his Gretchen entirely without observation of originals. And, indeed, he would probably not have found any. His creation rather is the original to which we may occasionally think we see some likeness in real maidens. It is the fiction here that is the standard of naturalness. And on this, as on so many occasions, we may repeat the saying that poetry is truer than history. Perhaps no actual maid ever spoke and acted so naturally as this imaginary one.
If we think there is any paradox in these assertions, we should reflect that the standard of naturalness, individuality, and truth is in us. A real person seems to us to have character and consistency when his behaviour is such as to impress a definite and simple image upon our mind. In themselves, if we could count all their undiscovered springs of action, all men have character and consistency alike: all are equally fit to be types. But their characters are not equally intelligible to us, their behaviour is not equally deducible, and their motives not equally appreciable. Those who appeal most to us, either in themselves or by the emphasis they borrow from their similarity to other individuals, are those we remember and regard as the centres around which variations oscillate. These men are natural: all others are more or less eccentric.
Sec. 46. The standard of naturalness being thus subjective, and determined by the laws of our imagination, we can understand why a spontaneous creation of the mind can be more striking and living than any reality, or any abstraction from realities. The artist can invent a form which, by its adaptation to the imagination, lodges there, and becomes a point of reference for all observations, and a standard of naturalness and beauty. A type may be introduced to the mind suddenly, by the chance presentation of a form that by its intrinsic impressiveness and imaginative coherence, acquires that pre-eminence which custom, or the mutual reinforcement of converging experiences, ordinarily gives to empirical percepts.
This method of originating types is what we ordinarily describe as artistic creation. The name indicates the suddenness, originality, and individuality of the conception thus attained. What we call idealization is often a case of it. In idealization proper, however, what happens is the elimination of individual eccentricities; the result is abstract, and consequently meagre. This meagreness is often felt to be a greater disadvantage than the accidental and picturesque imperfection of real individuals, and the artist therefore turns to the brute fact, and studies and reproduces that with indiscriminate attention, rather than lose strength and individuality in the presentation of an insipid type. He seems forced to a choice between an abstract beauty and an unlovely example.