Saturday, April 06, 2013

`A Comfortable Account in a Swiss Bank'

Forty-four years after it first aired, a friend has been watching Civilization, Sir Kenneth Clark’s thirteen-part BBC documentary on the history of Western art and architecture since the Middle Ages. What strikes her forcibly about the show is Clark’s casual erudition and his willingness to pass judgment on the works he discusses. “He knows there’s standards. It’s not just about his opinion,” she said. I never watched the show but the timing is interesting. By 1969, the barbarians had breached the walls and were pitching tents. I graduated from high school the following year and one of my English teachers dates the collapse of Western Civilization to about 1970, judging by the illiteracy of her students. 

From the library I borrowed Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) and the first volume of his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood (1974), and started reading the latter. Clark was born in London in 1903, a very foreign place and time but one that echoes sympathetically in odd corners of Texas in 2013.  He spends much time remembering the books he read as a boy and a young man. In the first chapter, “An Edwardian Childhood,” he names the Golliwog volumes of Florence and Bertha Upton, and Beatrix Potter’s books, specifically The Tailor of Gloucester, which I remember reading. Clark says he preferred it to the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, which frightened him. They frightened me too, but that’s precisely why I enjoyed them. Clark writes: 

"Perhaps the born story-teller (like Dickens) feels impelled to hold his hearer’s attention by frightening him, and the teller of children’s tales, knowing that his audience is fickle and fidgety, lays on the horrors more abundantly. Or do the majority of people really like being frightened?” 

Clark studied Latin and recalls an aide-mémoire used to remember the gender of nouns. He calls it a “distych which any writer should take to heart”: “Masculine will always be / Things that you can touch and see.” He comments: “Perhaps these lines were the foundation of my distaste for the stellar nebulae of literature—Shelley, and St John Perse.” I cheered as I read that and again as I transcribed it. In passing he mentions Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Ruskin’s Praeterita, and says: “A strong, catholic response to works of art is like a comfortable account in a Swiss bank. One can never become emotionally bankrupt.” He is moved by The Return of the Native, enjoys The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Heart of Darkness, and bored by The Egoist – all appropriate responses. He adds:

“But even at that age I was no novel reader. I suppose most young people read novels as a short cut to growing up. By living other people’s lives they achieve vicarious experience. I did not want experience of life. I wanted information. So what I valued most in the bookcase was the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.” 

I wanted both – experience of life and information – and have never found them inconsistent. As a young man, Clark wished to become both a painter and a writer, until reading an article by the novelist Arnold Bennett who suggested that “if an Englishman felt himself equally drawn to painting and writing he should not hesitate: he should write.” He says: 

“To be a writer one must read. What did I read? Chiefly poetry.” 

Clark discovered he had little interest in the Romantics and that his favorite period of English poetry was the seventeenth century, “not only Milton, but Donne Marvell, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw and even dear old Herrick. Vaughan was my favorite, and I could never understand why my teachers preferred Herbert.” 

Never stuffy, hidebound or predictable in his tastes, Clark says his next favorite among schools of poets are the Chinese of the ninth century “as rendered into English by Arthur Waley.” What delightful company Clark makes. Of Waley he writes: 

“What a world he opened to us; an appreciation of nature that we thought had been discovered by Rousseau and Wordsworth; a self-knowledge that we thought had been discovered by Montaigne; a feeling for the delicacy of human relationships within the complex structure of society that we thought was the invention of Proust, until we read the Lady Murasaki; all revealed to us by that silent, self-effacing scholar-poet.” 

Clark, too, is such a man, an enthusiast of civilization.

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