Sunday 16 June 2024

Essay Crisis Averted

Looking through my notebooks for something completely different, I noticed that I'd copied out a number of quotations on the "rational" in art over the years – mainly picked up via articles linked in Arts & Letters Daily – but had never got around to using them in a blog post. Here are a few:

Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life.

 Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (Heinemann 1897).

"An intelligible work is the product of a journalist," said the Dada founder Tristan Tzara, who wore the crown of incomprehensibility. Tzara thought if you could articulate a work, it was a sign of the work’s artistic impoverishment: "When a writer or artist is praised by the newspapers, it is proof of the intelligibility of his work: wretched lining of a coat for public use." In this formulation, obscurity is the sine qua non of art. Theodor Adorno echoed this theory: "Incomprehensibility persists as the character of art, and it alone protects the philosophy of art from doing violence to art."

"The Pleasures of Incomprehensibility", by Michael LaPointe, Paris Review, December 1, 2016 (writing about the Voynich Manuscript).

The problem is not that scholarship — at least the apprentice version practiced by bright young students at fine old schools — is serious but that it is not serious enough. It is the art that is grave and difficult. [Yvor] Winters solved this problem by insisting that the split between art and learning was based on a romantic delusion about the emotive, expressive, and personal essence of art. [Lionel] Trilling, while noting that "nowadays the teaching of literature inclines to a considerable technicality," found it impossible to contain the discussion of modern writing within the ambit of technique. To do it justice was to grapple with painful and personal matters, with one’s own thoughts about sex, alienation, injustice, and death, to "stare into the abyss" and then write a term paper about it.

Excerpt in New York Times from "Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth", by A.O. Scott (Penguin, 2016).

Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as an illustration for children, that it is the reward for service to the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unchaining of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may be going on down below that you no longer know about, up above, when you write stories in daylight. Perhaps there is another kind of writing, but I only know this one; at night, if fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only of this kind. And the devilishness of it seems very clear to me.

Kafka in a letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which is very often topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.

Vladimir Nabokov, "On a Book Entitled Lolita", 1954

 Oh, and there's this more recent thought, too, not entirely unrelated:

But I’m also haunted by something I saw in Google’s A.I. demo. The video featured A.I. briefly summarizing emails someone hadn’t read. Then it demonstrated generating new emails to reply with. It’s easy to extrapolate. The recipients will use A.I. to avoid reading that email and generate new A.I. replies for others to avoid reading. How soon until everyone’s inbox is overflowing with emails no human has read or written? Why stop at emails? A.I. can write book reviews no one reads of A.I. novels no one buys, generate playlists no one listens to of A.I. songs no one hears, and create A.I. images no one looks at for websites no one visits.

This seems to be the future A.I. promises. Endless content generated by robots, enjoyed by no one, clogging up everything, and wasting everyone’s time.

Lincoln Michel, "The Year That A.I. Came for Culture", The New Republic, December 20, 2023

This is just one particular view of art, of course, and easily dismissed as "woo woo". It's not entirely Post-Freudian, but the "unconscious" has clearly taken over from where the Romantics' yearnings for "something far more deeply interfused" left off. Or I suppose if we wanted to go much further back, it's the Dionysian versus the Apollonian view of the world. Pure reason does seem to lead us into bad places, though, doesn't it? I saw a nice quote recently that puts it well: "You know what the biggest problem with pushing all-things-AI is? Wrong direction. I want AI to do my laundry and dishes so that I can do art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so that I can do my laundry and dishes." [1]

But what a relief never again to be obliged to write up some coursework (I assume that is what is meant by a "term paper"?) or even a well structured blog post about any of that, though. It's like waking up from one of those anxiety dreams about having to sit an exam you have forgotten to prepare for... Which is, I suppose, just one of the nightly pranks the irrational brain likes to play on the rational mind. Or might it even be the other way round?

So, rather than write that essay, here instead is my book Dream Theatre presented as an Issuu flipbook (As usual, click the circular device in the middle to go to a full screen view). Aiming for a pass mark, here, nothing more...

1. Author Joanna Maciejewska (no, me neither) on Twitter, quoted by Mike Johnston on TOP.

No comments: