Friday, August 12, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 4

Literary Theory as Art

In Part 2 I was speaking of those who study the writings of their own tongue and approximately of their own time. This kind of study provides a lot of room for speculation. The study of ancient texts in long dead languages requires very considerable intellectual effort simply in order to gather a basic understanding of them and of the historical and social circumstances in which they were written, and thus to be able to enjoy them, and thus to be able to say something new about the story. It is odd that such scholars dedicate their intellectual labours to the search for such minimal scraps of context as might be recoverable, in order to shed fresh light on the story and its role in the society that produced it, while the scholars of modern writings in their own languages resolutely ignore the abundant and well known contextual background of their object of study in order to use it as a tool for illustrating their own ideas.

Vast sections of our universities, of those parts of them dedicated to the humanities, make no attempt to seek truth, to discover new things, although they claim to. If they presented themselves as giving opinions, as riffing on the texts and situations they look at, as merely using the text they are analysing as a starting point, as a way to set their minds working, as a medium to express their own opinions, ideas, moral judgements, intellectual conceits, innovative thoughts, prejudice, ignorance or whatever- that is, if they told the truth- they could be judged on how far they achieve the goal, and on how interesting or useful the results are. Or they could just have fun. They could do a form of art. Of course, they would be less obviously suited to tenured posts at universities if they were open about what they do, and their motives for doing it. And they wouldn’t get to take themselves so immensely seriously.*

Art does not care about truth. It has no need of truth. Or rather it has its own truth, some form of perceived coherence. Its purpose is to communicate something. I don’t think it matters much whether the perceiver appreciates what the originator had in mind. It’s easy to do art. A minimum of imagination, something to express, anything, and a medium. There are plenty to choose from. It may not be good art, people might not like it, or understand what it’s for, or agree with what it says, but it’s art.

*The more direly dreary and politically charged areas of the humanities attract people who are not intelligent enough for real academic work, but who want to feel part of the game. They’re like the boy you allow to play on the team sometimes because his father has an off-licence, but only when it’s cold and wet, and only at left back. There are parasites on every human virtue and achievement.


Vincent said...

I quite strongly disagree with the first part of your third para, though you do clarify it later.

It seems to me that art is completely about truth. But an art which merely reflected obvious truth that everyone knows already would not be the highest art. An art whose truth (paraphrased) is "We like pretty things and this picture reflects some of the things in the world that we find pretty" might be called kitsch. An art which reflects back to us some aspects of the world which we find true when they are shown to us, though we never had them brought to to our attention before, is a higher art.

Last night on BBC 2 TV there was a programme about the late Lucian Freud, considered the greatest portrait painter (possibly the greatest painter tout simple) of his generation. Many of his portraits are very unflattering--see especially the one of HM the Queen. But not a single subject interviewed denied the truth of what he had depicted in oil paint. He had captured their essence at the time. Sometimes the painting took a year to complete and required many hours of sitting (I don't know, perhaps 50 hours or more). The subject did not have to stay in one pose, but often was encouraged to converse with the painter.

What's the case in painting, I suggest, applies as much in literature. Dickens' novels are in many ways untrue to life, but true in the sense of speaking to so many readers in their own language, and surviving the changes of literary fashion, culture & society.

CIngram said...

I think of truth as meaning a certain kind of objective truth, because I am originally a scientist by training. That's why I qualify artistic truth etc, and think of

CIngram said...

Them as different types of truth. It isn't that there is no truth in art. If it didn't have it's own truth, what I term, perhaps ineptly, perceived coherence, it would be worthless (as much that masquerades as art is).

CIngram said...

In other words the clarification is not a concession, but an explanation.

We may never agree that there is such a thing as objective truth, different from other kinds of truth, or if there is, that it has any special place in a notional family or hierarchy of truths, but trying to work out why I understand it to be so is part of the fun of writing this blog.