The Singing School of the Humanities
In W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” the aged poet looks back at the world of his youthful creative muse and deplores its neglect of the “monuments of unageing intellect.” He turns his face then to his imagined destination, symbolized by the holy city of ancient Byzantium, where art is perfected and the soul in its tattered body of flesh is liberated to “clap its hands and sing.” Having learned all there was to learn from nature—from the youthful passions of whatever is begotten, born or dies—he turns to the true “singing school” of the arts, which is the study of the monuments, the permanent residue, of what we can only call the humanities. He must now fashion a new artificial shamanic identity for himself, the golden bird that sings upon a golden bough of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Gifted young writers—and the same goes, I think we can say, for painters, sculptors, musicians, etc.—achieve adulthood with a precious nest-egg of early numinous and mysterious experience. That experience derives from the delights of childhood discovery of the world, the magic of our early attempts at explanation of it and the nightmares of our first forays into the realm of change, sex, and death. As T.S. Eliot suggested in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that egg contains a yolk that is designed to feed the bird of the imagination until it is ready to fly, but it is not meant to be a permanent diet. The bird must feed itself, and it must learn how to do so and learn how to sing. The nourishment that artists need is, essentially, the monuments of tradition that are symbolized for Yeats by Byzantium. Without that further nourishment the gifted artist will produce an original and successful first book or show, follow it by a second elaborating the ideas of the first and then plagiarize himself with greater or lesser skill of concealment for the rest of his life. The bird must learn to forage for itself.
The skill of that foraging is what Eliot called the historical sense. For me, that formulation is a little modest. When human knowledge (in German, Wissenschaft) got divided up into Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft—the sciences and the arts—the tradition suffered a great wound, from which it has not yet entirely recovered. I would, in fact, include the sciences in the humanities; the sciences are an integral and most brilliant part of our humane tradition. And if we accept their reminder that we are indeed a part of nature, to divide the humanities, as dealing with mind and soul, from the sciences, as dealing with matter, is to commit the fallacy of the creationists, that is, to make the soul a Cartesian ghost in a Cartesian matter-machine. Such a division also denies the incarnational theology of both Judaism, in which Jahweh is a live historical presence, and Christianity, in which God once and for all is fully expressed in mortal flesh.
The artist, then, to avoid self-plagiarism, must study both history and science, for they are but two sides of the humanities. This work is important now more than ever. Having barely avoided extinction at the hands of the great totalitarianisms of the last century, human civilization faces what may be an even greater menace, a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Renaissance religious ideology full of its own dark splendor, armed with many of the finest self-sacrificial instincts of our species and soon with nuclear weapons. The appeal of that ideology can only be met, finally, by an imaginative fire hotter and brighter still. Military, economic and diplomatic measures are of only temporary use against a coherent view of the world that welcomes death in battle, that despises economic reward and that regards lies as the only legitimate currency of politics.
But we must not despair. Yeats already saw the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, but he could set against it his own splendid poetry. In “Lapis Lazuli,” perhaps the finest poem ever written about a work of art, he notes the hysteria of a world first threatened by aerial bombardment, a world willing to discard art in the face of terror:
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
Where does he turn? Immediately, and with an astonishingly quixotic weaponlessness, to English Lit.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
That gaiety—a pity that gay, such a grand old word, is now contracted to its present useful tactical function—is not just an escapism. The very sound of the word, with its suggestion of a summons or a sigh—“Hey,” “Heigh-ho”—gets echoed through the poem in “say,” “play,” “day,” “half-way.” The attitude implied in that sound is one of an indomitable acceptance of transience and decay, and a determination to follow one’s joy and rebuild the ruins again and again.
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.
There is, Yeats implies, an ideology more powerful than any fanaticism, and he turns to ancient China—and to the “historical sense”—for his exquisite conclusion. The tiny carved scholar-poets peer out from their hut at the great world, the tragic ten-thousand-things, with their ancient glittering eyes, glittering with tears of strange unspoken joy. The carved stone actually uses its physical cracks and dents and impurities as its expressive medium, and here we might push the interpretation a little further than Yeats might have been prepared to go. The cracks and dents of flawed reality are precisely what science reveals to us, and our art achieves its perfection precisely by incorporating them.
If Yeats had not inhabited a world in which someone might send him such a carving, in which he could be accepted into the worlds of political futuristic chatter and Zeppelins and Shakespearean theater and anthropology and classical literature and archeology, he might never have achieved such a poem and would have remained a dreamy Georgian poet writing Pre-Raphaelite love poetry. The bird of his imagination had the humanistic nourishment it needed.
Artists in any form—visual, musical, literary, architectural, performing—will not be able to create great art unless they understand the human heart. Artists are called to achievement beyond their own petty interests by the demands of an audience. The humanities are—or ought to be—the place where the human heart of that audience is studied and understood. And because every present moment dies the moment it has arrived, it is not enough to try to make art for the demand of the contemporary Now. Artists must at least anticipate the needs and will of the audience that will be around when their play gets performed, when the painting is shown, when the concert is played, when the building goes up, when the book is published. If their artwork is to be more than a passing fad, they must also anticipate the changes of the heart that happen as their audience ages and is replaced by others yet unborn.
This need to anticipate requires, then, a learning that I have often argued for in these pages—an almost science-fiction ability to foresee the new technology, to understand the implications of present science for the future, to explore imaginatively what increased wealth, longevity, environmental danger, political liberty and so on will bring about in the future. But as futurologists come to learn, often at great personal embarrassment, that prediction paradoxically must be based on the past, not the future. The rise of the computer is a good example. Futurologists of the mid-twentieth century imagined “electronic brains” as ushering in a new strange “futuristic” world of impersonal top-down control; what actually happened was the personal computer, the Internet, the blog, Google, Wiki, open source, the radical democratization and vulgarization of knowledge, and the raucous marketplace of contemporary world dialogue. The future was much more like the gossipy decentralized confrontational world that humans had always lived in before the age of television than like the isolated hypnagogic science-fiction world of futuristic movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The true prophets were people like Marshall McLuhan, whose humanistic knowledge of the socio-cultural ramifications of the transitions from oratory to writing and from writing to print led them to the global electronic village that actually emerged.
The relationship between our ability to predict and our ability to remember has recently received hard scientific confirmation. Eleanor Maguire and her colleagues at University College London, according to a report in the January 19, January 2007 issue of Science, have shown that our neurobiological ability to envision and plan the future is intimately related to our ability to recall and reconstruct the past realistically. The hippocampus, that looped structure in the center of our brains that has been shown to be especially active in the dream phase of sleep, has traditionally been regarded as the organ that organizes and establishes long-term memories. What Maguire and her colleagues showed, in a study of patients with damage to the hippocampus, was that such patients’ capacity to envisage and anticipate the future was also and similarly damaged. Even memories laid down before the damage occurred were relatively useless in constructing vivid and actionable scenarios of the future. Putting all this in personal terms, if we cannot move about actively and vitally in the past, we cannot do so in the future either. To remember is to anticipate backwards, so to speak, and to anticipate—and act—is to remember forwards.
If our cultural and educational system works as does our nervous system, the implication is that art produced by artists without a familiar grasp of the human traditions preserved in the humanities will always be thin, transient and trivial. We will not be able to create great new architecture without having absorbed and embodied the glories of the Classical and Gothic; we will not be able to paint unless we can learn to draw as did the Renaissance masters; we will not be able to write great poetry about people unless we have internalized some such tradition as the European novel, the Elizabethan theater, the Vedic epic or the classical Chinese lyric; nor great music without the ancient knowledge of scale, tone, mode and counterpoint—nor create significance in any artform without some philosophical understanding of the perennial human questions about death, society, war, love, nature and the divine. That understanding of the past cannot be merely passive, either. It must include a sense of being an insider of the past, aware of the alternate paths it could have taken, of the accidents that prevented its finer possibilities, of the opportunities left open by the onrush of new events and fashions. What flowerings were aborted by modernism and its ratification in World War I? What would Romanticism have become without the shattering disillusionment of the Jacobite Terror? Where would the Renaissance have gone if it had not been overwhelmed by the brutal religious wars of the Reformation?
The humanities are the interpretive community of the arts, the place where the arts are completed by being received and understood. In contemporary theology there is an increasing emphasis on the aspects of divine creativity that were delegated, so to speak, to the created world, that could then take an active role in further creation and in the essential original response of the creation to its loving creator. In Jewish mysticism that aspect of godhead is called the Shekinah, the bride of whom Adonai is the groom. In Christianity the divine becomes part of humanity and nature itself in the person of Christ, who is the fitting and necessary priest and trading representative for the created world. For Hindus that role is performed by Krishna, who is nature’s and humanity’s precious gift back to Brahman. If the artist shares in the divine nature as creator, he or she, too, requires an answer, a trade partner, an interpreter in the audience—and that answer, partner, spokesperson, is the humanities.
Those who take part in this commerce receive a special bonus, which is to become part of an immortal conversation. Virginia Woolf was probably an atheist, but she understood well the essential truths embodied in religion. In her novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves she faces the death of a dear person whose thoughts and words had been part of a community of friends. Her response is that if we are truly part of that conversation, then that part cannot die—our subjectivity is a distributed phenomenon, so to speak, and it is revived when others who know our thoughts take up our role among themselves. We go on living in that conversation and so become immortal.
I think that this reflection may make clear a difficult moment in the passage from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” that I quoted earlier in this essay:
…Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
What cannot grow by an inch or an ounce is the tragedy—since we are all going to die anyway, if it all happens at once in some technological cataclysm that tragedy cannot be any greater. But there is a further implication, which is that the whole tradition of the humanities—for this is what Yeats is talking about—cannot grow. We cavil at this, I think, for it seems to devalue the possibility of great new work in the future; it’s all been done already.
But this, I think, is not what Yeats means. He himself, after all, is adding to the canon by this very poem. What I believe he means is that the immortal conversation goes both ways in time; future artists speak to past ones, past ones speak to future ones. Yeats is there on the mountainside with those poets, and the whole symphony or conversation or edifice or performance has a sort of super-temporal, super-dimensional existence beyond the timeline of historicist sequence. If the humanities are to perform their proper role—and indeed, as I have often argued, this is not always the case—they are the salon in which that conversation takes place, and artists had better belong to it.