Thursday, February 13, 2014

`Fantastic Notions of Their Own Artistic Performance'

The title, Art and Action, sets us up for one of those overheated Leftist screeds reeking of testosterone and fulminated mercury. Instead, it’s a collection of essays by a British civil servant, poet and author of The Spirit of British Administration (1959). C.H. Sisson (1914-2003) gives the lie to every post-Romantic myth about poets and poetry. 

Art and Action is a collection of essays, mostly literary, published by Methuen in 1965. Sisson opens his introduction with a sentence from a letter written by Walter Bagehot – “People in practical life have better, at least more disciplined tempers.” – that prompts Sisson to ask: “Can it be that the discipline of practical life [work, family and the attendant responsibilities] affects the writer more deeply, so that his work itself is tempered by it?” He answers, “I think it may,” and cites Yeats as an example of an artist who became involved in “public affairs” later in life (serving two terms as a senator in Ireland), an experience that helped “disperse the literary twilight in which he grew up.” Here’s where Sisson gets interesting: 

“. . . in an age in which literature has become merely a minor and unimportant part of the entertainment industry it is worth recalling that some of the best books in the language were written by people who were not literary men, in our sense of the term, at all, but men concerned with the government of church or state, and that their books are literature because they said well what, in a particular conjunction of events, they had to say.” 

One thinks of Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950) and Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings – literary masterworks written by men otherwise occupied. Neither was a littérateur. Sisson says his theme in the essays is “the possibilities of accommodation between literature, and more properly the clerc, and what Bagehot would call `practical life.’” By clerc – literally clerk or clergyman – Sisson means a public writer, sometimes overtly political, one who writes to be understood and make things happen in the world, the opposite of an aesthete. The first examples that come to this reader’s mind are Swift and Montesquieu. Among Sisson’s varied examples are Paul Louis Courier, Charles Maurras, Andrew Marvell and Charles Péguy. In an essay written half a century ago, “The Profession of Letters,” Sisson presciently nails our era of professionalized, workshop-trained, degree-bearing writers: 

“A society which can support a body of literate men, and make social use of their literacy, is no doubt in a healthier way than one whose literates can remain alive only by keeping themselves  in a constant state of effusion and selling what comes out to make work for printers. It is not that there is not or should not be writing for which no social use has yet been thought of. Many literary productions of high value are of this kind. But to mould a class on the pattern of genius is asking for trouble, both because it deprives the ordinary social world of injections of talent which it needs for its health and because it must result in the mediocres entertaining fantastic notions of their own artistic performance.” 

We greet writing like this – clear thinking, really, artfully expressed – like a cold wind on a hot afternoon.  For Sisson, it always comes back to work. A piece of writing is a worked object with function. Later in the same essay Sisson says: “The poet has a purpose, not the grand one of reforming the world or improving its politics, but the limited one of making a poem.” And in the ominously titled “Art and Morality” he says: 

“The notion of `making’ poems leaves many things unsaid, but unlike the theory of self-expression it is solid enough not to disappear with a change in metaphysic, and is moreover of general application, being as true of a song of Campion as of Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality.”

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