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An essay by Vernon Lee

Postscript Or Apology

Title:     Postscript Or Apology
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

I have had the sense that now, before these foregoing pages be definitely printed--before what have been living thoughts and feelings be irrevocably composed and stiffened, embalmed, distinctly and unmistakably prepared to last, as things are permitted to last, only in death--I have had the sense that while yet I can, I must say one or two more things. But now, I can scarcely tell why, it seems to me as if there could by no means be anything to say. It is a mood, due to the moment and place. All about me there is broad, scarce-flickering shadow on the grass, and stirring of sunlit tree-tops and vague buzzing of bees in the limes; and across the low ivied wall comes from the black, crumbly-stoned chapel faint music of organ and white-sounding voices, which swells and pierces through the silence (as a green reed bud swells and pierces its soft scaly core) and dies away, making you suddenly very conscious of twitter of sparrows and chucking of jackdaws; bringing suddenly close home to you, with the silence, a sense of solid reality. So, instead of saying what I wished, it seems to me most evident that there is nothing to say, that there scarcely could have been anything worth saying. It is enervate, I suppose; but so it is. I wonder how any one can ever have felt inclined to write about art--how art can ever have been worth writing about. Everything around seems so incomparably more interesting does it not, than art; so entirely beyond the power of writing to convey or imitate. Above, high up, there are two great branches of lime, apparently printed distinctly on to the pale blue sky, black wood dividing and subdividing and projecting, green leaves and light yellow blossom, the sun shining straight through; it seems so simple. But try and paint it: those two branches, which seem at first so well-defined, so close together, so closely clapped against the sky, do you now see how far apart they really are, how separated by a gulf of luminous air, how freely suspended, poised, at infinite distance, in the far receding pale blue; those green leaves and yellow blossoms, which are not green nor yellow, but something shadowy and at the same time luminous, are clearly defined and yet undefinable; the sunshine which we thought at first one plain beam of light is now a white, vague sheen, a shimmer; now one light spark, one tremulous star between the leaves, or a waving network of rays, long, then short, white, coloured, iridescent, shaking, shifting, dancing. Paint it, describe it if you have a mind to, my friend the poet, my friend the painter; I have not.

This is one of those moments when reality, and the enjoyment thereof, fill one with a sense, self-contemptuous, sceptical, almost cynical, and yet pleasureable and stoically self-flattering in the recognition of our own importance, a pervading illogical sense of the futility, the unreality, the museum-glass-case uselessness of art. It seems as if art were enjoyed because it has been produced, not produced because it is to be enjoyed; as if mankind had acquired an elaborate pleasure in its own works because they are its own works; as if all of us, instead of passively receiving the impression of beauty in the same way that we passively perceive the rustle of the branches, the twitter of the birds, the light upon the grass, our soul staying quietly, as it were, at home, and receiving these things as visits from nature; went forth, when art appeals to us, on a sort of journey or grand tour, well provided with guide-book knowledge, schooled beforehand which road to take, what turnings of feeling to expect, what baggage of poetic and historic association to lug with us, what little mole-hill eminences of thought and feeling to stand upon, morally on tiptoe, looking down upon an artistic scene upon which we have never before set eyes, and which is yet as well-known, as drearily familiar to us as is the inside of our pocket.

Such is my present mood; fickle, contradictory, unworthy, slightly apostatising and blasphemous to my own deeper convictions, to my own written ideas, you say; you, my friend, the poet, who insist upon people being steadfast, unchangeable in all their feelings, because you poets keep your own moods quite steady, as photographers keep their victims, until you have taken the concentrated likeness, and can shift your souls into another equally steadfast, unchangeable pose. Such is my present mood, and you may call me what names you please for having it. All that concerns me is that most certainly this present mood of mine happens to be the one, of all others, in which I am least likely to be able to muster up those two or three remarks upon art with which I ought to conclude, and finally despatch into the limbo of things printed this collection of studies. The things must be said. If I carry my papers home, sit down at my table, fix my eyes upon the patterned wall-paper, I shall, in all probability, get back within five minutes all that the usual ideas, the usual feelings about art, in the contemplation of that patterned blankness; all that phantasmagoria of art appreciation for which we carry all the necessary mechanism, self-manufactured (yet very neat) out of fragments of culture and philosophy, in a sort of little travelling case appended to our soul. A fact this, which is suggestive; for does not our modern, imaginative appreciation of art, do not all those wondrous beautiful and horrible dreams and nightmares, suggested to us by a quite plain and unsuggestive picture, statue, or piece of music, depend a little upon our contemplation of the methodical, zig-zag and twirligig patterned vacuity of modern life? For I suspect that, in former days (I confess I do not know exactly when), art may have been perceived pretty much in the same manner in which we perceive nature: that the enjoyed perception of a beautiful statue, of a picture, of a grand song, may have come interrupting, with pleasant interludes of quiet self-unconscious pleasure, the matter-of-fact, but not monotonous business of life; even as my work now, my conscientious, deliberate, attempted work, is for ever being interrupted by the flicker of the lime-leaf shadows, light and clear, on my paper, by the breeze which sweeps the branches and carries away the drying manuscript on the grass.

Now it seems to me quite evident that art cannot be any such thing, as long as its enjoyment or supposed enjoyment is a sort of deliberate mental gymnastics, which our desire for well-balanced activity, or our wish to display a certain unnecessary gracefulness of intellectual motions, impose upon us; setting aside a certain portion of our time for counteracting, in the artistic gymnasiums (rows of soaped poles, and hurdles, and ladders, and expanses of padded floor, quite as unlike as may be from the climbable trees and jumpable brooks which we ought to meet in our walks), called galleries, concerts, etc., the direful slackening of our muscles and stiffening of our joints, almost inevitable in our cramped intellectual shop life of to-day. We writhe, clinging with arms and legs, up the soaped poles of aesthetic feeling, slipping and rising again, straining and twisting, to plop down at last on to the padding and the sawdust; we dangle, with constrained grace, high in aesthetic contemplation, flying, with a clutching swing, from idea to idea: distant, oscillating in mid air, like so many trapeze acrobats; and then we think that an hour or so, every now and then, of such exercise is all (except brutal slumber) that can be required as repose in our intellectual life. For we are all of us getting more and more into the habit of enjoying, not so much art, as the feelings and thoughts, the theories and passions, for which we make it the excuse. "Nay," you will say "you yourself have written, are printing, correcting, and publishing a whole volume of whims and ideas about art, you yourself are for ever theorising and becoming angry on the subject--what right have you to object thereto in others?"

None, perhaps; I have never pretended that I am not as bad as my neighbours; but the whole gist of these my theorisings is that people should try and take art more simply than they do; that, if not called upon to try and persuade others to simpler courses, they should not theorise themselves. By theorising, I mean, incorrectly perhaps, all manner of irrelevant fantasticating, whether it take the shape of seeking in art for hidden psychological meanings or moral values, or of using art merely as a suggestion of images and emotions, the perception of which infallibly interferes with, and sometimes entirely replaces, the perception of the art itself. To you, I know, all that I have written seems extremely narrow, seems to limit excessively the powers of art, the enjoyments we can derive therefrom. But I think otherwise; I understand fully that, in the first place, there is included, under the general name of art, the result of ever so many intellectual activities: activities of mere psychological perception, of mere mechanical imitation and handling, which, though belonging quite equally to other concerns, such as science or handicraft, are yet pleasurable both to him who exerts and to him who perceives them; I understand that there are so many different sorts of pictures, statues, and poems, and so many different kinds of minds to see and read them; I see that so many questions of mental and physical why and how are connected with every sort of visible or audible thing, that there is nothing, however utterly bad and idiotic and abortive, among the productions of mankind (and, consequently, among the things called works of art), out of which some sort of intellect may not derive very keen enjoyment. The enjoyment, however, may be merely similar to that with which a physiologist studies a disease, or a psychologist a form of vice; and, to my mind, this sort of enjoyment, which does not depend upon any perception of beauty, is no more artistic than would be that of such men of science. And my wish is merely that such pleasure be not substituted where there is an object to afford, or a mind to receive, the mere simple, honest pleasure in beauty. Moreover, with regard to your imputation of narrowness, I think, on the contrary, that, could we break ourselves of our habit of replacing or alloying real artistic interests with irrelevant matters, we should (and this is to my mind a great reason for so doing) be ridding ourselves of a great number of imaginary restrictions to our enjoyment. For in many, nay, most artistic things there is, in greater or less degree, beauty and enjoyableness; nor should we always despise the less, since we cannot always obtain the greater. I do not mean that all art is equally valuable; such intellectual democracy, Walt. Whitmanish assertion of the equality of body and soul, good and evil, high and low, being just the most brutal rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul dishonesty that I know; but I think that in most art there is something valuable, and that we ought to make the most of it, and doubtless should, did not our eternal theorising interfere, with its arbitrary standard and requirements. Were we guided solely by our feelings, we should not be ashamed of taking a certain pleasure in the half-dapper, half-grotesque stone nymphs and tritons, with golden-lichened tresses and beards of green pond ooze, who smirk among the ill-clipped hedges, and puff at their horns among the flags and lilies of every abandoned Prince-Bishop or Margrave's garden, where the apricots ripen against the palace wall, and the old portraits fade behind the blistered palace shutters; we should not be ashamed of being just a little the better pleased for some common dance tune, heard vaguely, and between our work, from the neighbouring houses; we should not be ashamed of liking our village church all the more for the atrocious stained glass which we have decried as vandalism, when the sunlight falls rosy, and golden, and green, through its monstrosities on to the extremely chaste, but excessively dreary, grey arches and pillars. We should not be so hypocritical to ourselves, so exclusive in our adoration of only the best pictures, and statues, and music, to appreciate rightly whose great merit we ought (but do not), to appreciate also the small, more appreciable merit of the less perfect things of art. When, instead of enjoying, we fantasticate in theory, we not only remove a proportion of our attention from the work in hand, but also exclude ourselves from getting the good we might from other things; one man will positively whip his soul out of enjoying the sweet solemnity of Claude's sea sunsets, the tragedy pomp of Poussin's black rustling ilex-groves, and ominous green evening skies, because he seeks in painting a moral sincerity which is incompatible with a false shadow or a lumpishly rendered cloud. Another man thinks music ought to be the expression of dramatic passion, and closes his ears to the splendours of poor Rossini's vocal arabesques, theory-blinded to the sense that the powers of creating beauty of the composer of Tristram, is after all akin to the beauty making genius of the composer of Semiramis. Meanwhile, he who merely enjoys is able to enjoy; is able (oh wonder of wonders) to be what the man of theories never can be: just, because he can be grateful for every amount of bestowed good.

There is another objection which you may make, which (though perhaps unformulated) you certainly will feel, against me and my book. You have an uncomfortable sense that in some way, although our artistic life may gain, a certain amount of life which goes on in or about art--we do not clearly know which--is being cramped: a life of the fancy and feelings, which weave between ourselves and the things which surround us and the things which are absent, between the present moment and the long-gone past, strange crossed and recrossed threads, webs of association, infinitely fine, iridescently connected by almost invisible filaments, floating and oscillating in the vacuum of our lives, for ever changing, breaking; reknotting their sensitive filaments. For in most of the things which we see and hear with free, unpractical mind in the moments when we belong to ourselves and to the present, there exists a capacity for importance, nay for fascination, quite independent of beauty and of the pleasures which beauty can give. There is in such things more than what they can give alike to every one; there is also what they can give to each separate; they have, besides the clear language of form, which is equally intelligible to all men, a half articulate language for every individual man, a language of associations, vague, poor, if you will, broken by something which might be a laugh or a sob; an imperfect irrational language, which is yet, even when spoken by some trifling thing, by a bar or two of trivial melody, by a door such as we have many times passed through, or a chair such as we have looked at when not, as now, empty; by a mere scent or touch; is yet, this mumble-jumble language, more dear to us than all the eloquence and poetry which our soul hears from a great work of art. I grant you all this. But I do not think that such things need be interfered with by looking at art simply and with straightforwardness; interfered with they cannot be. Nor could I wish it to be otherwise. For in some ways I do think that almost better than the mere perception of the work of another, than the mere perception of statue or picture or poem, is this evolving from out of ourselves of vague beauty and goodness: our fancy and our feelings do not create anything enduring, but they are active, they create. You artists, you poets must be broad awake, for you can and are bound to give to us the sober realities of beauty; but we who cannot, we can yet sometimes dream, if but for a moment, of an intangible, vague fairyland; and of this we must not be cheated. Out of the broken, fragmentary realities of life there must arise, ever and again for all of us, strange involuntary visions, which have greater power over us, more charm for us, than all the art in the world. And of such things art has no right to be jealous; they are beyond it. And thus, I will confess to you, as I fasten together these last pages of my book, and rise from the grass, sere in the sunshine, and sprinkled with daisies in the shadow of each tree, I will confess to you that more nearly appealing to me, dearer also, than antique bas-relief or song of Mozart, has been the vague remembrance, evoked by trivial word or sight, of that early winter afternoon on the ilex girded battlements of Belcaro, looking down upon the sere oak-woods, flushed by the low sun, upon the hazy olive slopes and walls and towers of Siena. And, moreover, I will even confess (as severest self-chastisement to a writer on art, as complete expiation of aesthetic dogmatism and fantastications), while we walk across the warm grass and out through the low archway of black and flakewise crumbling stone, that I foresee that many a time in the future there will arise between me and the fresco or picture at which I am looking, a vision of this old world garden, of the ivied chapel buttress, the flowering lime, the daisied grass, the copper beech leaves, ruddy and diaphanous, against the pale, moist English sky; that, sometimes, there will come into my head something--something ill-defined, pleasurable, painful--which will make me read only with my eyes; which will make me (worst humiliation) lose the thread of my theories, of my thoughts, of my sentence. And, after this confession, I think I can say no more.

OXFORD, July 21, 1881.

S. Cowan and Co., Strathmore Press, Perth.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Postscript Or Apology