Susie Gharib

Susie Gharib is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde with a Ph.D. on the work of D.H. Lawrence. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in multiple venues including Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Curlew, The Ink Pantry, A New Ulster, Down in the Dirt, the PLJ, and Mad Swirl.

High Critics and the Body-Snatchers of Literature

Adapted for television

FADE IN:

INT.  LIBRARY – PICCADILY – NIGHT

Gilbert is playing Chopin on the piano and Ernest is looking at a memoir entitled Reminiscences.

                  GILBERT

      What are you laughing at?

                  ERNEST

      An amusing story in this book.

                  GILBERT

      I haven’t read it yet. Any good?

                  ERNEST

      As a rule, I dislike memoirs because they’re

      generally written by people who have either

      lost their memories, or have never done anything

      worth remembering, which explains their

      popularity with the English public who feel

      at ease when addressed by mediocrity.

                  GILBERT

      Yes, the public’s tolerance forgives everything

      but genius, but I do like memoirs. In literature,

      mere egotism is delightful. Humanity will

      always love Rousseau for having confessed his

      sins, not to a priest, but to the world, which never

      grows tired of watching a troubled soul in

      its progress from darkness to darkness. In actual

      life, egotism is attractive too. We find people

      who talk about others dull, but the moment they

      talk about themselves, they become interesting.

                  ERNEST

      But if every man becomes his own Boswell,

      what would become of our compilers of

      lives and recollections?

                  GILBERT

      They are the pest of the age. Every great man

      nowadays has his disciples, and it is always

      Judas who writes his biography. We used to

      canonize our heroes. Now we vulgarise them.

      I find cheap editions of great men detestable.

                  ERNEST

      May I ask to whom you allude?

                  GILBERT

      To all second-rate littérateurs, who at the

      death of an artist arrive at the house along

      with the undertaker and forget their duty to

      behave as mutes. They’re the body-snatchers

      of literature. The dust and ashes are given to

      them, but the soul remains out of their reach.

      Let’s not talk about them. Shall I play Chopin

      or Dvořák?

                  ERNEST

      I don’t want music just now. Talk to me.

                  GILBERT

      I’m not in the mood for talking tonight.

      Where are the cigarettes? How exquisite

      these single daffodils are! They seem to be

      made of amber and cool ivory. They are like

      Greek things of the best period. After playing

      Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over

      sins that I had never committed. What was

      the amusing story in the book that made you

      laugh? Amuse me.

                  ERNEST

      It’s an admirable illustration of the true

      value of ordinary art-criticism. A lady

      asked the Academician if his celebrated

      picture was all painted by hand?

                  GILBERT

      And was it?

                  ERNEST

      What’s the use of art-criticism? Why cannot

      the artist be left alone to create a new world

      if he wishes to? The imagination works best

      in silence and solitude. Why should the artist

      be troubled by the shrill clamour of criticism?

      Why should those who cannot create assess

      the value of creative work? If a man’s work is

      easy to understand, an explanation is unnecessary.

                  GILBERT

      And if his work is incomprehensible, an explanation

      is wicked. Nowadays few mysteries are left to us.

      The members of the Browning Society spend their

      time in trying to explain their divinity away. When

      one hoped that Browning was a mystic, they have

      sought to show that he was simply inarticulate.

      Taken as a whole the man was great. His work is

      marred by struggle, violence, and effort. Rhyme,

      which can turn man’s utterance to the speech of

      gods, became in his hands a misshapen thing.

      And though he turned language into ignoble

      clay, he made from it living people. He’s the

      most Shakespearean creature since Shakespeare.

      Because of his unrivalled sense of dramatic

      situation, he will be remembered as a great

      writer of fiction, but let’s return to our subject.

                  ERNEST

      I believe that in the best days of art there were

      no art-critics. No irresponsible chatter or tedious

      journalism disturbed the artist. The Greeks had

      no art-critics.

                  GILBERT

      I’m afraid your views are unsound. It’s not my

      business to defend journalism. It justifies its

      own existence by the Darwinian principle of  

      the survival of the vulgarest. The Greeks were  

      a nation of art-critics, but I do not desire to talk

      learnedly. Learned conversation is either the

      affectation of the ignorant or the profession of

      the mentally unemployed. Let me play to you

      some scarlet thing by Dvořák. We are born in

      an age when only the dull are treated seriously.

      Don’t degrade me into the position of giving

      you useful information. Nothing that is worth

      knowing can be taught. Let us go into the night.

      Thought is wonderful but adventure is more

      wonderful still.

                  ERNEST

      I insist on discussing art criticism.

                  GILBERT

      Our primary debt to the Greeks is the critical

      spirit. They elaborated the criticism of language.

      They studied the metrical movements of prose as

      a modern musician studies harmony. The voice

      was the medium and the ear the critic. Since the

      invention of printing, our literature appeals to

      the eye and less to the ear. We must return to the

      voice. I see the moon is hiding behind a sulphur-

      coloured cloud. I need a cigarette.

                  ERNEST

      Try one of mine. I get them direct from Cairo.

      The only use of attachés is that they supply their

      friends with excellent tobacco. I admit that the

      Greeks were a nation of art-critics, but I feel

      sorry for them because the creative faculty is

      higher than the critical one.

                  GILBERT

      No one who does not possess this critical faculty

      can create anything in art. Arnold who defined

      literature as a criticism of life showed how keenly

      he recognized the importance of the critical

      element in all creative work.

                  ERNEST

      But you must admit that the great poems of the

      early world were the result of the imagination

      of the races rather than of the individual.

                  GILBERT

      Behind everything that is wonderful stands the

      individual man who creates the age. It is not

      the moment that makes the man. It is the man

      who creates the age.

                  ERNEST

      What about modern criticism, which I believe

      to be valueless?

                  GILBERT

      So is modern creative work, mediocrity

      weighing mediocrity in the balance. Criticism

      demands more cultivation than creation does.

                  ERNEST

      Really?

                  GILBERT

      Certainly. Anybody can write a three-

      volumed novel. It requires a complete

      ignorance both of life and literature.

      Poor reviewers do not read the works

      they criticize or they would become

      confirmed misanthropes.

                   ERNEST

      But you must admit that it is much more

      difficult to do a thing than to talk about it.

                  GILBERT

      That’s a gross mistake. Take actual life.

      Anybody can make history. Only a great

      man can write it.

                  ERNEST

      I agree with you, but does this apply to art

      and criticism?

                  GILBERT

      Criticism itself is an art and creative too.

                  ERNEST

      Creative?

                  GILBERT

      It works with materials and puts them into a

      new and beautiful form. The highest criticism

      is the record of one’s soul. It is the only civilized

      form of autobiography. The critic’s sole aim is

      to chronicle his own impressions. Criticism’s

      most perfect form is subjective.  Who cares

      whether Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound

      or not? His mighty and majestic prose is as

      great as a work of art. Like that of music,

      the beauty of the visible arts is impressive

      and it is marred by an excess of intellectual

      intention on the artist’s part.

                  ERNEST

      But is this criticism?

                  GILBERT

      It is the highest criticism. It criticizes not

      merely the individual work of art but Beauty

      itself.

                  ERNEST

      Then the critic’s primary aim is to see the

      object as it is not.

                  GILBERT

      Yes, to the critic the work of art is simply

      a suggestion for a new work of his own.

      I see it’s time for supper. After we’ve

      discussed some Chambertin and a few

      ortolans, we will move to the question

      of the critic as an interpreter.

                  ERNEST

      Then you admit that the critic may

      occasionally be allowed to see the

      object as it really is.

                  GILBERT

      I’m not sure. I may admit it after supper,

      which has a subtle influence.

[They dine.]

                  ERNEST

      The food was perfect. Let us return to

      our subject.

                  GILBERT

      Don’t let us do that. Conversation

      should touch everything but should

      focus on nothing. Let’s talk about

      Moral Indignation, its Cause and Cure.

                  ERNEST

      No, I want to discuss the critic and

      criticism. Tell me, will not the critic

      be sometimes a real interpreter?

                  GILBERT

      Yes, if he chooses. He can shift from

      his impression of the work of art to its

      analysis or exposition. It is by intensifying

      his personality that the critic can interpret

      the personality and work of others.

                  ERNEST

      Would not personality be a disturbing

      element?

                  GILBERT

      No, in order to understand others you

      need to intensify your individualism.

                  ERNEST

      What would be the result?

                  GILBERT

      I can tell you best by example. When

      Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata

      Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives

      us not merely Beethoven but also himself,

      and so gives Beethoven reinterpreted

      through a rich, artistic nature made vivid

      by a new intense personality. Great works

      of art are living things. The critical and

      cultured spirits of the age will grow less

      interested in life and will seek to gain

      their impressions from what art has touched.

                  ERNEST

      Life then is a failure.

                  GILBERT

      From the artistic point of view it is.

      Behind you stands The Divine Comedy  

      and I know that if I open it at a certain place,

      I shall be filled with hatred for some one

      who had never wronged me, or stirred by

      love for some one whom I shall never meet.

      And if we desire to realize our age in all its

      weariness and sin, are there not books that

      can make us live more in one hour than life

      can make us live in a score of shameful

      years? Close to your hand lies Baudelaire’s

      masterpiece Les Fleurs du Mal.

                  ERNEST

      Must we go to Art for everything?

                  GILBERT

      Yes, because Art does not hurt us. We

      weep, but we are not wounded.

                  ERNEST

      It seems to me that in everything that

      you’ve said there is something radically

      immoral.

                  GILBERT

      All art is immoral.

                  ERNEST

      All art?

                  GILBERT

      Yes. Emotion for the sake of emotion

      is the aim of art, and emotion for the sake

      of action is the aim of life. Society exists

      for the concentration of human energy.

      In its opinion, contemplation is the greatest

      sin of which any citizen can be guilty,

      whereas in the opinion of the highest

      culture contemplation is the proper

      occupation of man.

                  ERNEST

      Contemplation!

                  GILBERT

      Contemplation. To do nothing is the

      most intellectual and difficult thing in

      the world.

                  ERNEST

      We exist then to do nothing!

                  GILBERT

      It is to do nothing that the elect exist.

                  ERNEST

      What do you propose?

                  GILBERT

      With the development of the critical

      spirit we shall be able to realize the

      collective life of the race. The scientific

      principle of Heredity has become the

      warrant for the contemplative life. It

      comes to us with strange temperaments

      and susceptibilities. And so it is not our

      life that we live, but the lives of the dead.

      It’s the imagination that helps us to live

      countless lives and the imagination is the

      result of heredity. It is simply concentrated

      race-experience. The true critic is the one

      who bears within himself the dreams, ideas,

      and feelings of myriad generations.

                  ERNEST

      But such work as you’ve described the critic

      producing is purely subjective whereas the

      greatest work is objective and impersonal.

                  GILBERT

      All artistic creation is absolutely subjective.

      The objective form is the most subjective in

      matter. Man is least himself when he talks in

      his own person. Give him a mask, and he will

      tell you the truth.

                  ERNEST

      The critic then will be limited to the subjective

      form.

                  GILBERT

      No, the methods of drama and epos are his too.

      He may use dialogue, which is a wonderful

      literary form that enables the critic to reveal

      and conceal himself.

                  ERNEST

      What are the qualities of the good critic?

                  GILBERT

      A temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty.

      There is in us a beauty sense, separate from other

      senses and above them, a sense that leads some

      to create and others to contemplate. This sense

      requires some form of exquisite environment.

      The true aim of education is the love of beauty.

      Beautiful surroundings, as Plato recommended,

      can prepare one for the reception of spiritual

      beauty.

                  ERNEST

      What future has criticism?

                  GILBERT

      It is to criticism that the future belongs. It

      creates the intellectual atmosphere of the age.

      It guides us through the monstrous multitudinous

      books that the world has produced. It will

      annihilate race-prejudices by insisting on the

      unity of the human mind.

                  ERNEST

      My friend you’re a dreamer.

                  GILBERT

      Yes, I am. For a dreamer is one who can find

      his way by moonlight and his punishment is

      that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

                  ERNEST

      His punishment?   

                  GILBERT

      And his reward, but see it’s dawn already and

      too late to sleep. I am tired of thought.

                  ERNEST

      Let us lie on the grass and enjoy Nature.

                   GILBERT

      Enjoy Nature! I can not do that. People tell us

      that Art makes us love Nature, revealing to us

      her secrets. What Art really reveals is her lack of

      design, her crudities and monotony, and unfinished

      condition. Art is our gallant attempt to teach Nature

      her proper place.

                   ERNEST

      You need not look at the landscape. We can lie on

      the grass and have a smoke.

                  GILBERT

      But Nature is uncomfortable with its lumpy,

      damp grass and its dreadful insects. If Nature

      had been comfortable, mankind would never

      have invented architecture. I prefer houses to

      the open air. In a house, everything is fashioned

      for our use and pleasure, boosting our egotism,

      which is necessary to a proper use of human

      dignity. Nature is so indifferent and unappreciative.

      She hates Mind. Fortunately, in England thought is

      not catching. Our splendid physique is due to our

      national stupidity. However, we’re beginning to

      be over-educated. Everybody who is incapable of

      learning has taken to teaching. Go to nature and

      leave me to correct my proofs.

                  ERNEST 

      Writing an article! What is it about?

                  GILBERT

      I intend to call it The Decay of Lying: A Protest.

                  ERNEST

      Lying, but have not our politicians kept the habit?

                  GILBERT

      No, they never rise beyond the level of

      misrepresentation. Perhaps lawyers and journalists

      but not much can be said in their favour. Besides,

      what I’m pleading for is Lying in Art. Shall I read

      you what I’ve written?

                  ERNEST

      Certainly.

                  GILBERT

      One of the chief causes for the commonplace

      character of most of the literature of the age

      is the decay of lying as an art, a science, and

      a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave

      us delightful fiction in the form of fact. The

      modern novelist presents us with dull facts

      under the guise of fiction. Lying and poetry

      are arts, connected with each other. As one

      knows the poet by his fine music, so one can

      recognize the liar by his rich rhythmic utterance.

      In modern days, the fashion of lying has almost

      fallen into disrepute. Many a young man starts

      in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which,

      if nurtured in sympathetic surroundings, might

      grow into something great and wonderful. But

      as a rule, he either falls into careless habits of

      accuracy or takes to frequenting the society

      of the aged and the well-informed. Both are

      fatal to the imagination and in a short time

      he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty

      of truth-telling. If this monstrous worship of

      facts is not checked, Art will become sterile

      and beauty will vanish from the land. Facts

      have invaded the kingdom of Romance, chilling

      everything. They are vulgarizing mankind.

      The crude commercialism of America and

      its indifference to the poetical side of things

      are due to the adoption of George Washington

      as its national hero, a man who was incapable

      of telling a lie. Society must return to its lost

      leader, the cultured and fascinating liar,

      whose aim is simply to charm, delight, and

      give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized

      society, and without him a dinner-party is as

      dull as a lecture at the Royal Society. Art,

      breaking from the prison-house of realism,

      will run to greet him, and will kiss his false,

      beautiful lips. Life will follow meekly after

      him and try to reproduce, in her own simple

      way, some of the marvels of which he talks.

      What we have to do is revive the old art of

      Lying. Lying for the sake of a monthly salary

      is well known in Fleet Street, and the

      profession of a political leader-writer is

      not without its advantages, but it’s a dull

      occupation.

                  ERNEST

      What do you recommend?

                  GILBERT

      I recommend lying for its own sake

      and its highest development is lying

      in Art. When the day dawns, Truth

      will be found mourning over her fetters

      and Romance will return to the land.

      Out of the sea will rise Leviathan and

      the Phoenix will soar from her nest of fire

      into the air. Lying, the telling of beautiful,

      untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. Let

      us go out on the terrace. At dawn, nature

      becomes a suggestive effect whose chief

      use is to illustrate quotations from poets.

      Come! We have talked long enough.

                                                                                                        

FADE OUT.

THE END

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