Archive for the ‘philosophy of art’ Category
“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
Said Herman Melville.
And it’s true: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art.
What is theme? In literature, theme is the meaning that the events of your story add up to. The events are the plot.
Not all stories have a theme. These are the stories that time almost invariably sinks.
Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, have no theme.
Some of the great books in world literature are great primarily because of their themes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does not translate well, is great because of its theme: the human potential which resides within us all.
But there is one other element to durable literature, another reason that some art is timeless, even when the theme is not mighty: That reason is depth of style.
Style is The How. It is presentation.
Here, for example, we can observe drastic stylistic differences in artworks whose theme and subject-matter are essentially identical:
I often cite in literature the Englishman Anthony Burgess, whom I admire, but who never, in my opinion, wrote a great book. Yet his literature, much of it, endures and will endure, for one reason alone: his writing style (at its best — not, incidentally, evidenced in his most famous book) is so sophisticated and so strong:
“This was the day before the night when the knives of disappointment struck.”
But the greatest example of timelessness in literature is unquestionably Shakespeare, whose themes are so often undistinguished and even trite. The power, though, of his writing style alone — what Nabokov called the “verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — is what makes Shakespeare’s literature last.
“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.”
That is a durable style.
In a lecture he delivered at Cornell University, Vladimir Nabokov said this:
“A work of art shouldn’t make you think, it should make you shiver.”
And yet in reply, one must obviously ask: what about those of us who actually like for a book to make us think? What about those of us who genuinely enjoy, for example, Gilbert and Ernest and Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic dialogues? Are we in error for getting satisfaction from this? And is Oscar Wilde in error for writing it?
The answer is of course no, and here’s why:
While it is unquestionably true that a work of art, no matter its genre, must appeal to something real in the body of human experience, there is nonetheless within that body of human experience an enormous range of diversity, and complexity — and one person’s nightmare is another person’s dream.
And, as a matter of fact, some of my very favorite characters — Nikolai Stavrogin, Natasha Fillipovna, Ivan Karamazov, Jean Valjean, Rachel from Bladerunner, Tom Regan, Gilliat, Dominque Francon — they leave a great many of my friends and acquaintances completely cold.
Characters, it is also true, are the soul of every story, and I don’t know of anyone even passingly acquainted with the subject who would seriously argue that readers must on some level connect with the characters. But the issue isn’t quite so cut-and dry. Why? Because people (like characters) are diverse and complicated — which is to say, we have different values, and our brains operate on different levels, in different ways.
Poetry is a subset of literature, the art form of language, but it also legitimately belongs to another art: music.
Poetry is rhyme and rhythm, cadence and count, meter and metric. Poetry is prosody. It is scansion. It is versification. Those are the elements of poetry that make it a part of the musical.
But poetry is primarily a branch of literature, and the two main elements of poetry are style and theme. (Note: There is such a thing as narrative poetry, which is poetry that tells a story, but those two elements — storytelling and verse — combine poorly.)
It’s important to point out that the word “poetry” is not synonymous with the word “poem.”
Poetry is general; poems are specific.
All poems are in theory poetic, but not all poetry is a poem.
Novels, essays, memoirs, chronicles, short stories, and virtually every other form of prose can be poetic. For example, “The multitudinous seas incarnadine” is poetic, but it’s not a poem.
A poem, by definition, is a self-contained piece, of varying length, with a certain meter, rhythm, and style, all of which combine to convey a theme. A poem can rhyme or not.
The definition of poetry, on the other hand, has confounded writers and philosophers for centuries. Leo Tolstoy captured this well when he wrote:
Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.
But even “business documents and school books” could — at least, in theory — be poetic.
So what is poetry?
Poetry is style: stylized language.
Poetry is concentrated speech. It is density of expression.
Poetry is language at its best.
Poetry is writer’s writing.
Poetry is not, contrary to popular belief, pretentious or flowery language — or, at any rate, good poetry is not.
Poetry is technique. Poetry is skill. Poetry is metaphor.
Poetry is the beauty of language.