“Look at the masterpiece, and not at the frame — and not at the faces of other people looking at the frame.”—
Vladimir Nabokov in his lectures on Russian literature, opposing the primary type of academic and popular criticism: what we might call the demographic-reactive type. The overwhelming majority of opinion derives less from any internal response to a work of art (or political idea or cultural trend) than from what sorts of reactions we imagine on other faces looking at the frame, as it were.
If we’re observant, we see that when we encounter something we have often hardly finished perceiving it when we begin to imagine how others might react, and how still others would react to that reaction, and only at last do we begin to react according to our own demographic allegiances or resentments. We carry our friends, but still more our enemies, with us in every judgment.
The Internet has amplified this effect: you now have with you an audience judging your reactions; streams of posts and hashtagged messages from schools of thought, schools of attitude, schools of discourse. The Internet has pressed your face against the faces of others; they loom in your vision; they blot out the masterpieces; they stare at you from amidst the noise of their automatic opinions, scrolling endlessly away, appearing endlessly anew. The Internet comes with you to the theater. You cannot be alone with art or with facts or with nature: you will anticipate publicly, experience publicly, react publicly, reflect publicly, and you would not be human if such exposure did not subtly contort your stances, as, after all, you will be judged publicly.
Of course, the Internet is only an extension of what has always happened: we influence and are influenced. That mob-technopoly applies democratic pressures to the most trivial opinions, little silos of demography exerting their distributed force on how we think and feel, various web sites accruing weltanschauungs meme by meme, is only “new” in that the Internet seems more insistent, more determined to rule on all questions and arbitrate all conflicts. No opinion is too small, and no one has the right to abstain.
Looking at frames and faces is an error; both belong to the category of “news” —“the froth & scum of the eternal sea”— whereas art aspires to be sub specie aeternitatis, aspires to meet us beyond the ephemeral in that part of ourselves that is beyond the ephemeral, that is not a merely political creature, is something other than an amalgamation of trending topics, fashionable poses, soon-to-be-invalidated certitudes from soon-to-be-forgotten luminaries, and the like.
The frame is everything to those who want to empower themselves at the masterpiece’s expense, subordinate the eternal to the present’s temporary concerns, make art a tool for their own elevation. The faces looking at the frame are the audience for this sort of critic, who produces formulaic reams about what their reactions mean and what the frame says about things like society. The sordid scene is a distraction from the art and from the viewer, a nullification of their import, the substitution of a banal system for what was a relation between two inimitable intelligences: artist and viewer, reader, listener. Systems bring power and election, and that is their utility: not that they illuminate art or help us understand it, but that they empanel fresh judges, a new relay of runners in history’s race.
We should not give our attention to this sideshow. People have set up stalls between the frames and the faces! There are industries operating there, seeking margins and protected by police! But perhaps we can press through to the painting on the wall or the words on the page. As Gombrowicz advised:
Stop pampering art, stop –for God’s sake!– this whole system of puffing it up and magnifying it; and, instead of intoxicating yourselves with legends, let facts create you.
And this goes not only for artistic masterpieces but for any object of our contemplation: even a natural phenomenon, uninterrupted by posturing reactivity —”not yet descended into words”—, can occasion the “receptive understanding, …contemplative beholding, and immersion -in the real” that is the justification for asking that we be left alone. This immersion in the real, by art or by nature or however else we should come to it, is private, intimate, easily trampled by a crowd. But it is also our only means of combating artifice, touching the real, suspending the performance, experiencing ourselves and our world as we are, even if only for quickening moments of honest, solitary selfhood.
“We say 'forest' but this word is made of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unencompassed. The earth. Clods of dirt. Pebbles. On a clear day you rest among ordinary, everyday things that have been familiar to you since childhood, grass, bushes, a dog (or a cat), a chair, but that changes when you realize that every object is an enormous army, an inexhaustible swarm.”—Witold Gombrowicz
“The Church has become close to me in its distrust of man, and my distrust of form, my urgent desire to withdraw from it, to claim 'that that is not yet I,' which accompanies my every thought and feeling, coincides with the intentions of its doctrine. The Church is afraid of man and I am afraid of man. The Church does not trust man and I do not trust man. The Church, in opposing temporality to eternity, heaven to earth, tries to provide man with the distance [from] his own nature that I find indispensable. And nowhere does this affiliation mark itself more strongly than in our approach to Beauty. Both the Church and I fear beauty in this vale of tears, we both strive to defuse it, we want to defend ourselves against its excessive allure. The important thing for me is that it and I both insist on the division of man: the Church into the divine and the human component, I into life and consciousness. After the period in which art, philosophy, and politics looked for the integral, uniform, concrete, and literal man, the need for an elusive man who is a play of contradictions, a fountain of gushing antinomies and a system of infinite compensation, is growing. He who calls this "escapism" is unwise…”—The irreligious Witold Gombrowicz articulating some of the reasons why even the incredulous might find credulity closer to their principles than many popular forms of unexamined, incoherently reductive materialism.
Gombrowicz on Culture
“In the morning, a cultured man leafs through an intellectual review at breakfast and reads an important discussion between a structuralist and an existentialist. It is so intelligent that it is impossible to conclude that it is simply stupid —stupid because our two thinkers pretend to be more knowledgeable than they are. In fact they know very little and what they know they only know partially (indeed, how can one know anything in any other way?).
So, after reading with tedious interest this stupid knowledgeable discussion, our homo sapien goes to town to see an exhibition of Picasso or (if you’d rather) Titian. And there he participates fervently, but distractedly: he is enchanted, but as if the whole thing had nothing to do with him. He falls to his knees, but it is as if he didn’t fall. Then he tears himself away from Beauty with regret, but with relief. Once he is back at home, he seizes the latest novel, but it’s as though he weren’t reading. He gets up, goes out for lunch, and, in cultured company, engages in intelligent conversation, not snobbishly, frankly, modestly, but…
That’s enough. You see, don’t you? It’s all a matter of this but which seeps through the rules of the game. [I do not] propose to delve into our culture, to enrich it, but to see whether it fits us, whether it remains down here, on earth, with us or whether it has broken away, soared into the sky, and is making us dizzy. It isn’t culture that interests me so much as our relationship with it…each of us plays at being cleverer and more mature than he is.
This may look like a mere denunciation of snobbery. Snobbery? Yes, that too. But something infinitely more important is at stake. An almost greater alienation than that brought about by machines. The accumulative and ascendant mechanisms of culture are very complicated and they operate outside ourselves…”
A Kind of Testament, 1968, trans. by Alastair Hamilton.
“Among literature’s famous first lines, we must include this one: 'Monday. Me. Tuesday. Me. Wednesday. Me. Thursday. Me.”—An excerpt from Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, which we will share every day this week.
“[Witold] Gombrowicz shows that when we are not mature—but of a poor sort, scum quarreling in the shoals of concrete in an attempt to express ourselves—and that when it is our lowness we have to deal with, we are much closer to truth than when we are noble, sublime, mature, and definitive. […] All the forms of man, his gestures and his masks have covered up the human, have absorbed the refuse of a miserable but concrete and only true human condition, and Gombrowicz revindicates them, adopts them, calls them back from a long exile, from an antique diaspora”—Bruno Schulz
»Laß dich nicht durch Sympathie bestechen! Laß nicht zu, daß fade Sentimentalitäten und süßliches Einvernehmen mit der Masse dich zertauen. Sei immer fremd. Sei unlustig, mißtrauisch, nüchtern, scharf und egozentrisch! Indem ich drohende Zusammenschlüsse unzensierbarer Bezauberungen aufzeige, kompromittierende Lyrik ans Tageslicht zerre, will ich euch zum Entgleisen bringen — das ist der Stein, den ich auf die Schienen eures Zuges lege. Euch aus der Ordnung zu bringen, in der ihr euch befindet, damit ihr wieder Jugend und Schönheit empfindet, aber sie anders empfindet.
Die Kunst ist ein Faktum und nicht ein dem Faktum angehängter Kommentar. Nicht unsere Sache ist die Erklärung, die Erläuterung, die Systematisierung, das Beweisen. Wir verwirklichen uns nicht in der Sphäre der Begriffe, sondern in der Sphäre der Personen. Ernste Literatur ist nicht dazu da, das Leben zu erleichtern, sondern es zu erschweren.«
- W. Gombrowicz