Friday, October 03, 2014

`In the Basement of Enjoyment'

Clive James affixes to his chapter on G.K. Chesterton in Cultural Amnesia (2007) a sentence he copied into a workbook twenty years earlier while failing to note its source: “To set a measure to praise and blame, and to support the classics against the fashions.” One can hardly blame James. As a writer, Chesterton was a force of nature, a prodigy of industriousness even by the standards of late-Victorian journalism. An anecdote recounts him writing one column by hand while dictating another by mouth. The ongoing Ignatius Press collected edition of his works already tops thirty volumes. The source for James’ epigraph is a 1913 book Chesterton wrote for the marvelously named publishing venture “Home University Library of Modern Knowledge.” The book is The Victorian Age in Literature, and the sentiment reminds me, with qualifications, of the late critic D.G. Myers. Chesterton is writing about Matthew Arnold, a critic David admired, with qualifications. Here’s the context: 

“As a critic he was chiefly concerned to preserve criticism itself; to set a measure to praise and blame and support the classics against the fashions.  It is here that it is specially true of him, if of no writer else, that the style was the man. The most vital thing he invented was a new style: founded on the patient unravelling of the tangled Victorian ideas, as if they were matted hair under a comb. He did not mind how elaborately long he made a sentence, so long as he made it clear.” 

The first half of Chesterton’s sentence, James says, “takes care of itself.” A critic’s job, before he judges anything, is to “set a measure.” What works, what doesn’t? What are the standards? The second half, James says, causes problems: 

“All the classics were fashions once; new classics have to come from somewhere, and might be disguised as fashions when they do. The neatest deduction that can be made from the advice is about the advisability of finding out what makes something classical, whether it is new or old: and of supporting that, presumably by praise, while blaming anything that pretends to the same condition without the proper qualifications. So the two parts of the motto connect at that point. They connect more closely when we consider that a classic might be tainted by fashionable components, or that a fashion might be enriched by classical ones.” 

James goes on to remind us that learning too much about unquestioned “classics” risks dimming their luster, though I think this is the case only when a book is ham-handedly reduced to its context, to mere history and politics, or the events of the author’s life. James, echoing Dr. Johnson, is especially good on this point: 

“Knowing about the background is what we either don’t get to do or else forget about in short order, and for us, the common readers—who are, in modern times, the uncommon people still interested even though the examinations are no longer compulsory—every ancient classic remains classical right through, even when impenetrable.” 

James digresses, approvingly, on the modern blurring of classical and popular in all the arts (Chesterton wrote detective stories), and says, winningly: “A work of art has to be judged by its interior vitality, not by its agreed prestige. Prestige alone was never enough to keep an acknowledged classic alive….The response to vitality brings us back to the first part, and reveals, at last, to be an even bigger conundrum than the second. Without a capacity for blaming the sterile, there can be no capacity for praising the vital. Those without a gift for criticism can’t be appreciative beyond a certain point, and the point is set quite low, in the basement of enjoyment.” 

Ill-natured hatchet jobs get a lot of short-lived attention; love songs linger. James concludes with several Chestertonian paradoxes of his own: 

“Praise and blame are aspects of the same thing. The capacity for criticism is the capacity for enjoyment. They don't have to be kept in touch with each other. They are a single propensity that has to keep in touch with itself. Chesterton’s plain statement is like one of his paradoxes without the simplicity: but that’s a paradox in itself. It’s an area that the dear, bibulous, chortling old boy gets you into. He invited being patronized, but it was a stratagem. He was serious, always. He just didn’t seem to be.”

1 comment:

George said...

The computer scientist Martin Ward maintains a G.K. Chesterton website, with all the electronic texts of Chesterton's works that he has been able to locate: