JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Part III. Practice.

Chapter I.
The Literary Artist.

EVERY age is characterized by some intellectual trait. It has been already perceived that the prevailing tone of ours is scientific. Progress in industry and the mechanical arts is more highly prized than purely literary ability. Not but that there is much still written which is labelled literature. But few, very few indeed, of the many thousand volumes that are yearly flooding the reading world bear the impress that ranks them among the enduring monuments of intellect; very few deserve the title of classics; the greater number are explosive bubbles on the stream of thought They are so, not through any lack of talent, but rather through its misapplication. The reason of this is to be found in the spirit of trifling that possesses the age. Time is wasted and energies are expended in the endeavor to move over a large surface of attainments; and as slight account is made of profoundness of knowledge, the results are not at all in keeping with the motive-power applied. Men are too Pilate-like; they ask what the truth is and wait not for an answer; or, with Tennyson, they postpone it to the other life;

"What hope of answer or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil."{1}

They forget that investigation is a law of our intellects,{2} and that the truth can be found by every earnest searcher before he passes behind the veil. There is not enough of the steadiness of purpose, profound thought, and diligent preparation that are necessary to achieve permanent success. Writers aim too low; they no longer seek the sublime and beautiful; they are content with the pretty and the startling; they have found the labor of art-study too irksome, and have thrown off its invigorating discipline as a cramping yoke; in a word, they have ceased to be literary artists. For in the marshalling of words and the evolution of ideas, the greatest effect is sought to be produced, and therefore artistic skill is required for the arrangement best calculated to give the desired result, and must be inborn, as in the man of genius, or acquired, as by the man of talent. Glance over one of the Shakespearian masterpieces. In that apparent abandonment to the inspiration of the moment, during which from his magic pen drop some of the loveliest flowers of poesy and the sweetest words in language, which reveal new worlds of thought and sentiment -- in that total absorption in the spirit of his piece to the seeming neglect of the diction he employs, so that what is apparently a random expression turns out to be most essential; in that entire subserviency of all the parts to the end proposed; in all these traits of that grand whole producing the desired effect upon the reader, playing upon the multitudinous chords of his heart, and calling forth at will notes of pleasure and pain, we have unmistakable evidence of the perfect artist, possessing the secret of hiding his artistic efforts. And so, on a like examination of one of Pope's pieces, in the rounded finish of every expression, in the exquisiteness with which a figure is set, and the apparent solicitude lest any word should be misplaced, we find palpable evidence of effort to have everything tend in the best manner possible to produce a desired effect; the piece wears on its face traces of art. So it is with the labored finish of Sallust; with the exquisite expression of Fenelon; with the Attic grace of Xenophon; with the sublime eloquence of Bossuet. All point to study, thought, labor, art. For the literary man is it true, as for the mechanic, that he must earn his bread in the sweat of his brow.

And genius is no exception to the rule. Carlyle defines it "a capacity for work." Michael Angelo calls it "eternal patience." Augustus Schlegel says that though it is "in a certain sense infallible, and has nothing to learn, still art is to be learned, and must be acquired by practice." Therefore, genius is not indolence, nor eccentricity, nor a license to dispense with all labor. True, it is a gift from heaven, and like all heavenly gifts, generally placed in a frail vessel thrown among us at random; but invariably for a purpose and in obedience to a law.

We have already defined the characteristic of genius to be a power of simplifying, of taking that view of a subject in its rounded completeness that makes it more easily understood, of possessing one idea, in the light of which all others are resolvable. Hence a universal genius is never spoken of except by exaggeration. Genius in one department of knowledge as a rule excludes genius in another. Thus we have the mathematical genius, the military genius, the philosophic genius, the genius in sculpture, or painting, or poetry, or architecture; but we never mention a genius in all, and seldom in any two of these branches together. "But," it may be urged, "the possession of only one idea implies intellectual weakness; the man with many ideas has the superior intelligence." The truth is the opposite. Contemplate the Supreme Intelligence for a moment. It sees everything; It possesses all knowledge in the light of an idea, which is Its own essence. Everything is contained in that idea, that Divine essence; and the more perfect created intelligences are, the more closely do they resemble their Creator, the less is the number of their ideas and the more they see in the light of these ideas.{3} This is the law of all intelligences. Superior intelligence belongs not to a caviller, a disputatious person, a hairsplitter; these classes give indications of narrowmindedness and weakness of understanding. We make use of argument to supply our deficiency of comprehension. We are discussing some property or relation of a triangle; we are puzzled over it; we can proceed no further. A mathematical genius comes along; he draws a line or two, and resolves the figure into its simplest elements; in a few words, he throws a flood of light upon the subject-matter, so that we are surprised at our own lack of comprehension, and we exclaim: "How simple! Why did we not see it before?" Again, we are perplexed over a proposition in some old author; we see not its hearings; we throw it aside as a dry and barren idea, and we wonder why any man in his sound senses can sit down and seriously write such language. A genius takes up that idea; he makes it the nucleus of an essay or treatise, in which he traces its relations through all departments of thought; in his hands it becomes the central point whence emanates an illumination that reveals the secret of a thousand things hitherto incomprehensible. What was barrenness before, becomes the germ of a whole world of thought. It is ever thus with genius. We all of us bask in its sunshine. Its slightest conjectures become established truths for us. Its proven ideas we take as our first principles. Its views we make the standard of our own. It discovers and invents, and we apply. We add the weight of its assertions to support the deficiencies of our own weak arguments. "The master says so," is often enough our saving clause and our most convincing proof. Reason is infallible under given circumstances; but the instinct of faith is always strong within us. It is the secret of our progress; for were we obliged to refer all truth back to first principles, taking nothing for granted but the self-evident, the march of ideas would be slow; we would be always beginning, always making the same discoveries, and much that is now the glory of intelligence would be still buried in the unknown.

It is the privilege of the genius to perceive a new idea dawn upon his age before the common mass of thinkers. His superior intellectual position widens the horizon of his ignorance, and he feels a want the sooner. Hence the fact of such frequent occurrence, of two or more making the same discovery about the same time. Their attention is drawn by the exigencies of the case in the same direction, and even before they know definitely what it is they are going to discover -- before the want arising assumes a definite shape, they feel it steal upon them, so to speak; and often, groping their way in the dark, they hit upon it accidentally, not recognizing its value for future times. Scheele and Priestley discover oxygen in the same year; Newton and Leibnitz discover the calculus independently of each other. Leverrier and Adams about the same time are computing the elements of the planet Neptune, the discovery of which Airy considers "the effect of a movement of the age"; Wallace and Darwin, unknown to each other, on the same day, decide to publish the doctrine of Natural Selection; and in 1868, Lockyer in England, and Janssen in Hindostan, under circumstances entirely different, conclude that by means of the spectroscope they can, on any clear day, study the solar prominences, visible to the naked eye only during total eclipses. Such are a few of many instances that go to show one phase of intelligence working.

Writers on genius have much to say about originality. It consists not so much in saying something that nobody ever before said, as in moulding an idea into shape, and giving it a hue that stamps it as characteristic. "The bard of Eden," says Chateaubriand, speaking of Milton, "after the example of Vergil, has acquired originality in appropriating to himself the riches of others, which proves that the original style is not the style that never borrows of any one, but that which no other person is capable of reproducing."{4} The great genius is not over-particular about the materials he uses. He picks up those nearest to hand; he stamps them with the impress of his genius; and so fashioned, they ever after pass as his, and his alone. The conception of no one of Shakespeare's plays is his. It lived in history and tradition long before he made it the heirloom of humanity. The history of Athalie was read in Scripture ages before it became, under the hand of Racine, one of the flowers of French letters. The appearance of an idea in two or more authors proves nothing beyond mere coincidence. Two minds may arrive at the same result by entirely different methods of thought Truth is one, as the Author of truth is one; and only small fragments of it are realized by the most powerful minds. The rill, feebly following the ravine's course, the torrent dashing down the mountain's side, and the expansive river majestically winding along the plain, bearing on its bosom a nation's treasures -- each and all, however distant be their sources, originally came from the same ocean to which they return, and in comparison with which the greatest of them is insignificant. So all truth, all beauty, all excellence, have their creative source in God, the Divine FountainHead, in whom they will again find a resting-place and a home. What wonder, then, that as the same shower replenishes many springs, the same truth should sink into more intellects than one, and flow therefrom tinged by their individual peculiarities.

The source from which the literary artist draws materials to work upon, is as varied and universal as Nature. The intellectual, the moral, and the physical worlds are alike open to his observation and study. Life, savage and civilized; the past and the present; the empirical and the ideal; beauty and deformity; virtue and vice; nobility and baseness pleasure and pain, all present themselves to him; from all he must cull, and from the clashing of opposites, and the harmony of compatibles, and the influencing agencies in the physical and spiritual orders, weave an artistic whole that is so connected in parts, and so much the expression of an inspiring principle, that it becomes a thing of undying fame for all time. His aim -- the aim of all literature -- is to solve life's problem. No easy one it is, considering man's numerous and complex relations with his fellow-man, himself and his Creator; the thousand passions that alternately roll over his soul, and lash it into so many moods; the contradictory influences under which he moves, and the rigid logic with which every event works out its result, either here or hereafter. The production of a literary artist is the image of himself, inasmuch as it possesses a soul and a body. In nature, it is not the body that shapes the soul; it is rather the soul that gives form and activity to the body. We lay stress on the same distinction in a work of art When Cousin tells us that "method is the genius of a system,"{5} he makes method usurp the place of principle. The principle is the soul of the system, and therefore its genius. It determines both system and method. We made this distinction atthe outset; we again call attention to it here, as the opposite doctrine has respectable names on its side. It has been seen that there is no artistic master-piece without expression; there is no expression without unity; and there is no unity without a common bond, in which all the parts unite, and therefore without an animating principle to keep them together. In the construction of a work, then, the first thing the literary artist must do is to determine the principle that gives it unity, and therefore life. He must observe, study, meditate. His subject-matter, when well digested, will determine his method of treatment. And if he has no subject, no aim, no idea to develop, no proposition to prove --

"S'il ne sent point du ciel l'influence secrète,"

246 A PHILOSOPHY OF LITERATURE. --> if all is random and confusion, he had better wait It is a loss of time to undertake that which pride, rather than ability, dictates. " Life is short, art long, occasion passing, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult."{6} There is a work for every man; each has his function in life. Let not him destined for hand-work assume to do the labor that belongs to him selected for brain-work. Let each hold to that for which he has natural aptitude; in that alone lies the secret of his success.

Thought, sentiment, enthusiasm, unite in giving soul to a work. A great source of labor is the mechanism of construction of the body. Language is the material with which the literary artist works. He must aim at the accurate wording of his propositions. He must therefore seek to be complete master of his language. He must know the force and bearing of every word. He must study the great masters. We cannot judge of a musical instrument by the grating notes which a beginner draws therefrom; it is only when the consummate master elicits sweet and rapturous variations that we appreciate its power. The tyro in literary art should learn from those who have made it the vehicle of profound ideas and happy expressions the power there is in it, its richness of idiom, the flexibility with which it bends to the humor of the author -- now plain and simple, now full-flowing and pathetic, again vigorous and energetic, in all cases variety of style yielding to variety of thought. But nothing can take the place of constant practice. It is only that beating and hammering on language -- that turning it into a thousand moulds -- that correcting and refining of its diction, which can make it bend to every grade of thought, and express every shade of meaning.

Above all, the literary artist should guard truth as a sacred trust, and never sacrifice any jot thereof to a smooth turn or a rhetorical figure. There is no beauty without truth. Real art grows sickly, rank, defective, in the unwholesome atmosphere of falsehood. Let the artist be so possessed with his subject-matter that he will see in it "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," and he will always find fitting expression for his views.

"Prune thou thy words, the thoughts control, That o'er thee swell and throng; They will condense within thy soul, And change to purpose strong."{7}

{1} In Memoriam, lv.

{2} "Next, I consider that, in the case of educated minds, investigation into the argumentative proof of the things to which they have given their assent is an obligation, or rather a necessity. Such a trial of their intellects is a law of their nature, like the growth of childhood into manhood, and analogous to the moral ordeal which is the instrument of their spiritual life." -- JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, Grammar of Assent, p. 182.

{3} "Unde oportet, quod ea quae Deus cognoscit per unum, inferiores intellectus cognoscant per multa; et tanto amplius per plura, quanto amplius intellectus inferior fuerit." -- Summa, prima primae, quaest. 55, art. 3.

{4} The Genius of Christianity, ii., bk. i., ch. iii., p. 221.

{6} History of Philosophy, vol., i. p. 320.

{6} Vita brevis, ars vero longa, occasio autem praeceps, experimentum periculosum, judicium difficile." -- HIPPOCRATES, Aph. i. 1.

{7} J. H. Newman, Verses on Various Occasions.

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