Inducements to Formal Elaboration and Elegance

 

‘The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as “higher animals.” But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals—which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: “I am that I am.”

[…]

[Our] human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.’

Wendell Berry, ‘Faustian Economics’, Harper’s Magazine 2008.

 

‘Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.

One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.

[…]

I must now shirk the difficulty of saying exactly what I mean by romantic and classical in verse. I can only say that it means the result of these two attitudes towards the cosmos, towards man, in so far as it gets reflected in verse. The romantic, because he thinks man infinite, must always be talking about the infinite; and as there is always the bitter contrast between what you think you ought to be able to do and what man actually can, it always tends, in its later stages at any rate, to be gloomy. I really can’t go any further than to say it is the reflection of these two temperaments, and point out examples of the different spirits. On the one hand I would take such diverse people as Horace, most of the Elizabethans and the writers of the Augustan age, and on the other side Lamartine, Hugo, parts of Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Swinburne.’

T. E. Hulme, Romanticism and Classicism.

 

‘The literary artist is of necessity a scholar. […] For the material in which he works is no more a creation of his own than the sculptor’s marble. Product of a myriad various minds and contending tongues, compact of obscure and minute association, a language has its own abundant and often recondite laws, in the habitual and summary recognition of which scholarship consists. A writer, full of a matter he is before all things anxious to express, may think of those laws, the limitations of vocabulary, structure, and the like, as a restriction, but if a real artist will find in them an opportunity. His punctilious observance of the proprieties of his medium will diffuse through all he writes a general air of sensibility, of refined usage. Exclusiones debitae—the exclusions, or rejections, which nature demands—we know how large a part these play, according to Bacon, in the science of nature. In a somewhat changed sense, we might say that the art of the scholar is summed up in the observance of those rejections demanded by the nature of his medium, the material he must use. Alive to the value of an atmosphere in which every term finds its utmost degree of expression, and with all the jealousy of a lover of words, he will resist a constant tendency on the part of the majority of those who use them to efface the distinctions of language, the facility of writers often reinforcing in this respect the work of the vulgar. He will feel the obligation not of the laws only, but of those affinities, avoidances, those mere preferences, of his language, which through the associations of literary history have become a part of its nature, prescribing the rejection of many a neology, many a license, many a gipsy phrase which might present itself as actually expressive. His appeal, again, is to the scholar, who has great experience in literature, and will show no favour to short-cuts, or hackneyed illustration, or an affectation of learning designed for the unlearned. Hence a contention, a sense of self-restraint and renunciation, having for the susceptible reader the effect of a challenge for minute consideration; the attention of the writer, in every minutest detail, being a pledge that it is worth the reader’s while to be attentive too, that the writer is dealing scrupulously with his instrument, and therefore, indirectly, with the reader himself also, that he has the science of the instrument he plays on, perhaps, after all, with a freedom which in such case will be the freedom of a master.

For meanwhile, braced only by those restraints, he is really vindicating his liberty in the making of a vocabulary, an entire system of composition, for himself, his own true manner; and when we speak of the manner of a true master we mean what is essential in his art. Pedantry being only the scholarship of le cuistre (we have no English equivalent) he is no pedant, and does but show his intelligence of the rules of language in his freedoms with it, addition or expansion, which like the spontaneities of manner in a well-bred person will still further illustrate good taste.—The right vocabulary! Translators have not invariably seen how all-important that is in the work of translation, driving for the most part at idiom or construction; whereas, if the original be first-rate, one’s first care should be with its elementary particles, Plato, for instance, being often reproducible by an exact following, with no variation in structure, of word after word, as the pencil follows a drawing under tracing-paper, so only each word or syllable be not of false colour, to change my illustration a little.’

Walter Horatio Pater, Appreciations, With An Essay on Style.

 

‘The narrowed and selective nature of Molière’s treatment of character presents an illuminating contrast when compared with the elaborately detailed method of such a master of the romantic style as Shakespeare. The English dramatist shows his persons to us in the round; innumerable facets flash out quality after quality; the subtlest and most elusive shades of temperament are indicated; until at last the whole being takes shape before us, endowed with what seems to be the very complexity and mystery of life itself. Entirely different is the great Frenchman’s way. Instead of expanding, he deliberately narrows his view; he seizes upon two or three salient qualities in a character and then uses all his art to impress them indelibly upon our minds. His Harpagon is a miser, and he is old — and that is all we know about him: how singularly limited a presentment compared with that of Shakespeare’s bitter, proud, avaricious, vindictive, sensitive, and almost pathetic Jew! Tartufe, perhaps the greatest of all Molière’s characters, presents a less complex figure even than such a slight sketch as Shakespeare’s Malvolio. Who would have foreseen Malvolio’s exquisitely preposterous address to Jove? In Tartufe there are no such surprises. He displays three qualities, and three only — religious hypocrisy, lasciviousness, and the love of power; and there is not a word that he utters which is not impregnated with one or all of these. Beside the vast elaboration of a Falstaff he seems, at first sight, hardly more solid than some astounding silhouette; yet — such was the power and intensity of Molière’s art — the more we look, the more difficult we shall find it to be certain that Tartufe is a less tremendous creation even than Falstaff himself.

For, indeed, it is in his characters that Molière’s genius triumphs most. His method is narrow, but it is deep. He rushes to the essentials of a human being — tears out his vitals, as it were — and, with a few repeated master-strokes, transfixes the naked soul.

[…]

‘Comprehension’ might be taken as the watchword of the Elizabethans; Racine’s was ‘concentration’. His great aim was to produce, not an extraordinary nor a complex work of art, but a flawless one; he wished to be all matter and no impertinency. His conception of a drama was of something swift, simple, inevitable; an action taken at the crisis, with no redundancies however interesting, no complications however suggestive, no irrelevances however beautiful — but plain, intense, vigorous, and splendid with nothing but its own essential force.’

Lytton Strachey, Landmarks in French Literature.

 

‘[Thierry Maulnier] argues, like Lasserre, for an understanding of French classicism that can be reconciled to Nietzsche… His early book on Nietzsche , for instance, presents a figure whose commitment to the Dionysian future, wholly against the spirit of the time, goes so far as to make him “his own hangman.” Maulnier reinterprets Nietzsche’s heroic refusal of modernity as a cult of individual sacrifice to the community to come. Maulnier’s Racine also reveals life’s violence and horror… It follows that Racine’s classicist formalism, his obedience to Aristotelian rules, is not to be considered a “restraint” but rather as a literary technique for representing fatedness, once more as a formal expression of a primordial will to sacrifice and loss… Racine shows that what “the stupid adorers of French clarity and order” suppose classicism to be is exactly what it is not… Rather, it is an assimilation of order by instinct, “an atavistic conjuring between perfection and spontaneity.”‘

Simon During, Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations.

Advertisements