Monday, March 6, 2017

John Senior on the Artificiality of Modern Art

Though you cannot refute Aristotle, you can deliberately choose to drown. J. K. Huysmans, the paradigm of literary anti-Realism, in his novel A Rebours – “Against” – describes the dining room of his hero Des Esseintes, the perfect modernist, which
resembled a ship’s cabin, with its ceiling of arched beams, its bulkheads and floor-boards of pitch-pine, and the little window-opening, let into the wainscoting like a porthole … [behind which] was a large aquarium …. Thus what daylight penetrated into the cabin had at first to pass through … the waters …. He could then imagine himself between decks in a brig, and gaze inquisitively at some ingenious mechanical fishes driven by clockwork, which moved backwards and forwards behind the porthole window and got entangled in the artificial seaweed. At other times, while he was inhaling the smell of tar which had been introduced into the room before he entered it, he would examine a series of colour prints on the walls, such as you see in packet-boat offices and Lloyd’s agencies, representing steamers bound for Valparaiso and the River Plate …. By these means he was able to enjoy quickly, almost simultaneously, all the sensations of a long sea voyage, without ever leaving home …. The imagination could provide a more than adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience. 
Aristotle flings his challenge to the physicists: If you deny the law of contradiction, why walk to Megara when you want to go there? Huysmans replies: “I don’t.” And he proceeds one step further in describing the particular techniques for the surpassing of reality in imagination:
The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself …. There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the Old Crone [Nature!] has by now exhausted the good-humored admiration of all true artists, and the time has come for artifice to take her place wherever possible. Aristotle said art is the imitation of nature; Huysman’s art surpasses her. [...]
In the work of Baudelaire, the first and greatest master of the Modernist movement, the poem is neither the expression of ideas, as the Classicist would have it, nor the expression of emotions, as the Romanticist would have it – the poem is the expression of nothing but the poem itself. This famous art pour l’art, announced but never tried by Gautier, was put into practice, though without success, by Baudelaire and the Parnassians. The slightest examination of the contents of such “pure poetry” shows that the poem is not really a thing in itself, as it claims, but rather a vehicle for the doctrine that poems ought to be taken as things in themselves. Modernists preach what they do not, and cannot, practice. Baudelaire’s enameled verse states but never achieves its purpose because his poems do have meaning; the meaning is that there is no meaning to either poems or anything else. [...]

Le nouveau! The motive force of Modernism is, as the name suggests, the perpetual urge for the new – not the real, not the true, not the ideal, not even the evil, not the power or the glory or the lust, but all these things for the sake of the new. Cut off from reality by “four hundred years of criticism and doubt,” the Modernist, insisting on the new, very quickly exhausts the contents of his memory and proceeds to invent an artificial one. The image – that is, what the “imagination” produces – substitutes for Being. To the Realist, an image must necessarily be of something; and the something can be understood in terms of ideas and feelings. The Modernist, cut off from reality, has nothing but the image, nothing but the mental sensation. Huysmans never said he could imagine a real voyage; he said he could have all the sensations of a real voyage. The Realist asks, “What is the image of?” For art holds the mirror up to nature. The Modernist, a worshipper of Baal in more than one way, replies, “There is nothing but the image.” He is a worshipper of images.

Senior, John. The Death of Christian Culture (Kindle Locations 546-566, 598-605, 636-645). Ihs Press. Kindle Edition.

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