I can’t prove this and the evidence is strictly circumstantial (not to mention anecdotal), but humanity’s aesthetic sense seems to be waning. I don’t mean that people no longer appreciate pretty things. They do, fairly often. Rather, beauty as an essential quality of creation, human and otherwise, seems to go unrecognized and unvalued. The result? Ugly buildings, mediocre paintings, unreadable books. The valuing of content over form, message over manner, is nearly complete. Ugliness, touted as “powerful” or “transgressive,” has been turned into a virtue.
Elena Shalneva writes in “Against Dilettantes”: “Aesthetic emotion is a powerful thing.” Among the most powerful, for some of us. Shalneva likens it to the sexual impulse, calling it “immediate, irrational, elemental, and complete.” The work in question will vary among readers, but try to remember what it felt like the first time you read The Golden Bowl or Four Quartets -- that sense of the world dropping away, of engagement without distraction, of self-forgetting, of an unformulated question at last being answered, of an unexpected affinity roused by mere words on the page.
For this reader, Shalneva does her argument little good by choosing as her example For Whom the Bells Tolls. It was while first reading that novel as a kid that I realized Hemingway was often a silly, sentimental writer. But agreeing with Shalevna’s personal taste or not is beside the point. Her chief concern is literary aesthetics:
“The reason the works of Western literary canon have carried through the ages has little to do with their political message, subject matter, or character types. The reason these books endure and will be read long after the writers of littérature engagée harping on a string of fashionable social trends are ridiculed and forgotten, is their aesthetic impact.”
We read Dante not because he was Italian or Catholic but because his poem is almost perfect. Read him with care and sympathy and you can become a different, even a better human being. Shalneva makes too much of the distinction between amateurs and dilettantes. I’m proud to be an amateur, at least when it comes to books and writing. Only a certified professional who takes himself rather seriously dismisses a book for its beauty or embraces an ugly book for its “authenticity.” As Max Beerbohm told Lord David Cecil: “Only the insane take themselves quite seriously.”