The trends in different art forms in any given period are in fact always identical, and nothing resembles more closely the painting of an age than its poetry or its musicPerhaps this claim is in fact not at all remarkable to anyone who’s been paying attention, or who reads German; but to me, who have not, and do not, it was like a thunderbolt from the blue. Actually more like a theatrical simulation of a thunderbolt manufactured with magnesium flash and kettle drum, because if it struck me, it struck me as completely false.
Lately I’ve been reading Bruno Schulz, one of the most astonishing prose artists produced in that amazingly fertile period between the wars. More on Schulz in my next post, I hope, but I mention him here because of a back-cover quote that caught my eye: Schulz’s writing, one critic pronounces, is (somehow) just like the painting of Chagall.
It is hard for me to see the point of this comparison. It seems to me that Schulz, despite the strong presence of elements of the visual arts in his work, is interested in making everything – not like a picture – but like a book. And if his writing does often reach for synaesthetic heights, what is pervasively clear and true in it still is that such effects are achievable only through writing, that there is something irreducibly written about the written word.
But to see an equivalence between the different art forms of an age is not just pseudo-profundity, it is not only the meaningless shorthand of lazy literary criticism. It is built into literature itself, the drive to transcend the form and aspire to the condition of other forms, beyond the written.
Everybody knows that all art aspires to the condition of music. But in the essay from which this aphorism is taken, Walter Pater begins by saying: ‘It is the mistake of much popular criticism to regard poetry, music, and painting – all the various products of art – as but translations into different languages of one and the same fixed quantity of imaginative thought.’
It is ‘the beginning of all true aesthetic criticism’ to recognize that the ‘sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any other’.
I suppose this does not quite directly contradict the claim I quoted at the top of the page – which itself, taken in context, was really meant to say not much more than that the techniques of late-medieval Flemish painting are reflected in the writings of Burgundian court poets of that age. But it does make me wonder how useful it can really be to talk about one art form in terms of another.
Pater himself writes so wonderfully that I can easily see how all art aspires to the perfect interpenetration of form and content that is the condition of music. And he pinpoints an exact truth, which is not that art forms all resemble one another, but that they appear constantly to be striving to become other than they are. This Anders-streben (a Hegelian-looking term if ever there was one, but not in fact one of Hegel’s, it seems) I think expresses perfectly a very basic truth about art.
Artists and writers – especially writers – have always tried to express their own art in terms of other forms. ut pictura poesis. enargeia: the word-picture. In the work of Ovid this transformative tendency is distilled and is itself transformed into theme and structural principle. Ovid not only represents bodies changed into new forms, but transforms his own art into different arts: into sculpture, into picture, into music. Pygmalion, Arachne, Orpheus stand as figures for the poet; and in turn their arts are translated back into the poetry of Ovid’s text. They were always bounded by textuality, which constitutes the supreme Ovidian illusion. Ovid’s book has furnished the material for new transformations, in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, in Titian’s Actaeon, or in any of the innumerable Renaissance ‘figurations’ of the work.
Schulz (to come back to him, if I may) is a true successor to Ovid in that his art represents the inner tendency of things to strive to become unlike themselves – or rather, to become more like themselves by becoming other. This tendency is I think what becomes manifest through the transformative power of the poetic word.
Reading Pater and Schulz in parallel is a rewarding experience. Where Pater writes that ‘in its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor’, it can be read as a anticipatory gloss on Schulz’s ‘squares of brightness dreaming their intense dreams on the floor’.
Schulz writes of the life of things: an anthropomorphism not only of animals and objects, but of a square of light, a stretch of time, the wind. Of transformations that go beyond even Ovid’s metamorphoses: a man into an electric doorbell, a woman into paper and ash, the world into a book.
It is clear to me that Schulz, no less than the man of whom Pater wrote these words, could discern the correspondences between things and between words and things, the correspondences ‘through which, to eyes opened, they interpret each other’; and it may well be that ‘he seemed to those about him as one listening to a voice, silent for other men.’