Q.: Why do we continue to read throughout our lives, even after long and intimate familiarity, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Proust?
A.: “I think there is no question that, on the whole, the artist we value most is the artist who tells us most about human life.”
[Henry James, “The Letters of Eugène Delacroix,” collected in The Painter’s Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts, ed. by John L. Sweeney, 1956]
Q.: Yet, so many books are divorced from human life, absorbed in fantasy or empty technique. Art and life seem to have parted ways.
A.: “The great divide in the perception of the beauty of life comes much more between the Renaissance and the modern period than between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The turnabout occurs at the point where art and life begin to diverge. It is the point where art begins to be no longer in the midst of life, as a noble part of the joy of life itself, but outside of life as something to be highly venerated, as something to turn to in moments of edification or rest.”
[Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch, 1996]
Q.: That sounds like an insurmountable, historically determined dilemma. How can art be created “in the midst of life” and not become solipsistic or a mere transcription of reality?
“In general, writing is not a medium of expression, of expressing oneself, but an art of empathy – that is, entering into others. You can’t write novels, which I don’t read much anyway, because I don’t have a taste for them, unless the author manages to divide himself into several characters – a protagonist, an antagonist, or whatever they’re called. That’s elementary from my point of view and doesn’t require further explanation. It’s probably my lacking, because I don’t have that kind of reliable capacity for fantasizing, that kind of imagination. The ability to put oneself in the position of another person is very useful in life.”
[Zbigniew Herbert, “The Art of Empathy,” a 1986 interview from with Renata Gorczynski, collected in Polish Writers on Writing, ed.by Adam Zagajewski, 2007]