Feb 182004

Didja miss me? You know you did. After a week and change of goofing off, I have a good bit of lost time to make up pissing on other people’s parades. Let’s start with Terry Teachout’s. Terry asks his co-blogger, Our Girl in Chicago, and, one presumes, the rest of us, to ponder the following questions:

(1) What book have you owned longestthe actual copy, I mean?
(2) If you could wish a famous painting out of existence, what would it be?
(3) If you had to live in a film, what would it be?
(4) If you had to live in a song, what would it be?
(5) Whats the saddest work of art you know? And does experiencing it make you similarly sad?

Question 1 is very good. Questions 2 through 5 have likely raised Lord Snow from the dead and set him sighing about the Two Cultures all over again, and I’m giving out demerits to, or at least withholding little gold stars from, any blogger who ups and answers these questions without a considerable preamble. (Oooh. Demerits. My little list already includes at least one guy who knows better.) Questions like these are why many serious people believe, though they are usually too polite to say so, that art talk should be confined to cocktail parties and teatime at the ladies’ auxiliary.

Question 1 is good principally because it is unambiguous. If you gather a large sample of answers it will be with some assurance that they are mostly to the same question. This is the rock-bottom requirement for intelligent discussion of any topic, and a shocking amount of ink has been spilled in literary criticism, even at a very high level, because it is so seldom met.

I’ll even answer Question 1 myself before proceeding because that’s the kind of sport I am. It’s Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, which I’ve owned since the age of seven or so and which was my favorite until Dostoevsky came along at 13 to upend my universe. In The Phantom Tollbooth Milo, a bored and as drawn by Feiffer impossibly dour child, receives a gift of a magic tollbooth that transports him to an extremely Platonic kingdom of blooming buzzing words and numbers, where he receives a great many valuable lessons, including one bearing on today’s topic. He encounters four doors, each with a nameplate: “The Dwarf,” “The Giant,” “The Fat Man,” “The Thin Man.” He knocks on each door and the same ordinary-looking man answers each time, with the same explanation: “I’m the world’s tallest dwarf — shortest giant — thinnest fat man — fattest thin man.”

Question 2 is the world’s fattest thin question. Interpreted the obvious way — which famous painting do you like least? — its results will not be interesting. I think this is the most hideous famous painting in the history of the world, and I’ve got my reasons. You think something else and you have yours. We part amicably and unenlightened, having exchanged opinions. Conversation is not an exchange of opinion, it is a sifting of opinion. Unfortunately Jacques Barzun said that, not me.

One possible reinterpretation is: which painting do you think has had the most baleful influence? We still have matters to clear up. If I excise, say, Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon from art history, do I kill only the picture or do I kill its progeny too, all the pictures that could never have been painted without it? Is it possible at once to admire a painting and deplore its influence? It’s certainly possible in literature; consider Ulysses, Madame Bovary, and Paradise Lost, all great masterpieces, all catastrophic influences.

You may wonder why Terry didn’t put the question as I did when he is obviously perfectly capable of doing so. I suspect that he found it too forbidding. To answer you would need to know quite a deal of art history, and then think some on top of that. I wouldn’t consider myself, for instance, with my undergraduate background in art history, up to scratch. But Question 2, in its actual, cuddly phrasing, invites all comers. All you have to do is dislike something to play, and we can all manage that.

Several questions precede Question 3, including, but not limited to: What does it mean to “live” in a film? Do we have to live the backstory too? As which character, since, as the social theorist Mel Brooks has noted, it’s good to be the king? Do we have Wardrobe privileges? Most important, is lunch catered? I’m going to have beg off Question 4, since I’m pretty sure songs never cater lunch.

Terry’s conscience finally pricks him into an explanation at Question 5 — strangely, as it’s the clearest of any of the last four. Asking where “sadness” resides if not in the mind of the viewer is a useful question. Asking which work of art provokes this emotion in you is a clear and unthreatening question. Conjugating these questions can lead only to confusion.

NORML, the pot-legalization people, used to sell a T-shirt that read, “Free America. Drug-free America. Choose one.” Serious cultureblogging. Inclusive cultureblogging. Choose one. Not quite as catchy, but then I’m not in the T-shirt business.

(Update: Y’know, you try to slap a little sense into these kids these days and this is the thanks you get. I would not, however, dream of cracking wise about Terry’s knowledge of art history, which vastly exceeds my own. I meant to exclude myself from offering an intelligent answer to the question of which single painting exerted the worst influence. In fact Terry’s answer would be worth hearing in at least four arts, while I would be uninteresting outside of literature. Not everybody gets to play in every reindeer game, which was my point.)

  16 Responses to “Playing Possum”

  1. I love this post Aaron!

    I saw that list of questions and they bothered me too…

    Your reformulation of the second is wonderful–and we’ve certainly had some fun along those lines in our conversations re:Emerson, haven’t we? (admit it, if you found yourself a time machine, you’d make a beeline for Concord, dressed for a massacre, wouldn’t ya?)

    Bottom line (adapting Mrs. Parker on the word "artist"): Aaron Haspel doesn’t think the definition of (good) "culture blogging" is elastic–if he did, "he’d be better company"…

    Hearing the original statement, Edna Ferber supposedly responded: "I think you’re wonderful company, Mrs. Parker".

    So are you Aaron.


  2. For #3, I’d have to go with "Debbie Does Dallas."

  3. Why does an exchange of opinions about art leave the interlocutors "unenlightened?" Barzun’s bromidic apothegm aside, we do not (or ought not) formulate our opinions about art in a vacuum. Opinions of others matter; they provide the intellectual nourishment necessary for the mind to continue being engaged, and they prevent us from falling into the slough of dogmatism (e.g., assessing Madame Bovarys influence on literature as catastrophic). What Pasternak thought of Dostoyevsky, what Liszt thought of Beethoven, and why enriches our understanding and appreciation of Dostoyevsky and Beethoven. The top ten list of paintings that artblog readers — proles and all — would like to wish out of existence (whether or not they understand the effect of this excision on the evolution of art), should give us a great deal of food for thought both about the paintings and the culture we live in. We may disagree with every one of them, but we will have added a new dimension, however slight, to our perception of art and culture. In the end, isnt that what art is all about?

  4. David: I might indeed choose that era and place, but Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne, Tuckerman and O.W. Holmes Sr. would all claim my attention before Emerson did. Dorothy Parker is one of my girlfriend’s favorite people and she will be delighted to see me compared to her, if only as a butt of Edna Ferber’s jokes.

    Oleg: Bovary was a catastrophic influence because it inaugurated the fetish of "point of view," which haunts the novel to this day. Whether you agree is not the point. The question is worth asking, and answering, and not all questions are. Top ten lists "add a new dimension to [y]our perception of art and culture" in the same sense that your three-year-old niece does when she tells you that unicorns are pretty. Life is awfully short and we need to get at the heart of the matter a bit more quickly.

  5. Aaron–

    Y’know, son (I’m an older old fogy than you), you really ought never to respond to or reference such tiresome quasi-quizzes. They truly make "…serious people believe, though they are usually too polite to say so, that art talk should be confined to cocktail parties and teatime at the ladies’ auxiliary," and by any kind of response you merely encourage the perpetrators to come up with more such.



  6. Aaron, why must we always be serious? Idle sewing-parlor chitchat is often what draws people into culture, so let’s not dismiss it out of hand. Truth to tell, I rather enjoy it, whether I "ought to know better" or not.

  7. Jesus Aaron–that’s a hell of a spree!

    "Spirit, that made Aaron dare
    To [kill!!], leaving New England’s children free
    Bid Time and Nature gently spare
    The shaft we raise to them and thee."

    (but what happens to Henry James in this scenario? wouldn’t he have been a lesser novelist without Hawthorne as a precursor?)

    Personally, I’d take the machine back a lot further, kill Plato, write the Socratic dialogues my way, and then hang around until Epicurus showed up so I could teach him how to make a printing press!


  8. Old Man Haspel,

    Youre at your best when tossing hand grenades into the Internet. Do "cocktail parties" include shooting jager-bombs at the local bar?

  9. No. That’s for teatime at the ladies’ auxiliary.

  10. David: Oh right, I forgot. I was supposed to be killing people, and here I thought I was paying my regards. Sorry. No sense in bothering with Emerson either, which is mostly half-digested bad German metaphysics. May as well stay in the wayback machine for another few decades and dispose of the problem at the root by wasting Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Of course I’d have a hard time classifying the works of any of these gentlemen as literature.

    But Plato’s a pretty sound place to go for all-time root bad influence, you’ll get no argument from me there.

    Tim: We need not always be serious. Even this wasn’t, as I’m sure you noted, entirely serious. But the humanities are under siege, and I think anyone who defends them should bear in mind that they aim, like the sciences, to discover and disseminate knowledge about the world. If we’re going to gossip like a sewing circle we should at least agree on what we’re talking about.

  11. No sense in bothering with Emerson either, which is mostly half-digested bad German metaphysics.

    I happen to like Emerson a lot — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who reads my blog. There’s a lot more to the man than sweetened German metaphysics (or half-digested Carlyle). I think what I love most about his writing is the way he creates a primarily rhetorical relationship with the world around him … but that’ll have to wait for another time.

    Plus, without Emerson you wouldn’t have had Nietzsche. Nietzsche always carried around a little book of Emerson’s essays in his back pocket — thought old Ralph Waldo was a genius.

  12. But the humanities are under siege, and I think anyone who defends them should bear in mind that they aim, like the sciences, to discover and disseminate knowledge about the world.

    But the humanities are always under siege, Aaron. I think if we try to make them "scientific," we end up losing what makes them so interesting — namely their focus on worlds within as well as without.

    (Remember, too, that most of the literary theory you despise stemmed from the desire to make discourse about the arts more "scientific" — that is, more tied to commonly held concepts and ideas that can stand in for a world.)

  13. Mr. Haspel,

    I disagree with the notion that the maladies of todays novel-writing can reasonably be attributed to works written over a century (or, as in the case of Milton, over three centuries) ago. What possible purpose does this sort of literary cause-and-effect game serve? To say that but for Madame Bovary we would have been spared Portnoys Complaint and every one of Updikes novels is akin to saying that but for Mahler and Stravinsky there would not have been the Rolling Stones or the Beastie Boys. Probably true, but so what? All of art is a chain of influences and who is to say how it would have evolved if one or more of the links were deleted. The assertion that Flauberts influence on the modern novel was catastrophic is a bold judgment about what literature would be like today had it not been written — i.e., better. This requires omnipotence which none of us possesses and is, in the end, pointless speculation.

  14. Hey, I like Portnoy’s Complaint. Milton is not responsible for today’s novels, but he is for vast swaths of bad 18th-century poetry, Gray and Collins and all of their epigones.

    I don’t blame any of these authors, personally, for anything outside their own works. A man can scarcely monitor his influence from the grave, and it’s almost impossible to be influential without being at least some good. But influence is real for all that, and not just in the "but-for" sense. Why would you object to discussing a phenomenon that is real and interesting?

    I’m aware of the difficulties in assessing counter-factuals, but you make a far more sweeping claim for my argument than I would make myself. I would say: Many modern novels concern themselves minutely with who is saying what, and more serious matters often get short shrift as a consequence. "Point of view" can be traced largely to Madame Bovary. That’s it. I would not say: we’d have better novels if Bovary had never been written.

  15. Actually Aaron–I think you ought to be blaming The Blithedale Romance (1852) for the innovation of "point of view"…


  16. Mr. Haspel,

    No disagreeement at all with your last posting. I took your "catastrophic influence" to mean what you say you did not intend to say — that we would have had better novels had Bovary never been written.

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