[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]
The ideas which form the substance or substratum of the greatest books are not primarily the products of pure thought; they have a far deeper origin, and their immense power of enlightenment and enrichment lies in the depth of their rootage in the unconscious life of the race. If it be true that the fundamental process of the physical universe and of the life of man, so far as we can understand them, is not intellectual, but vital, then it is also true that the formative ideas by which we live, and in the clear comprehension of which the greatness of intellectual and spiritual life for us lies, have been borne in upon the race by living rather than by thinking. They are felt and experienced first, and formulated later. It is clear that a definite purpose is being wrought out through physical processes in the world of matter; it is equally clear to most men that moral and spiritual purposes are being worked out through the processes which constitute the conditions of our being and acting in this world. It has been the engrossing and fruitful study of science to discover the processes and comprehend the ends of the physical order; it is the highest office of art to discover and illustrate, for the most part unconsciously, the processes and results of the spiritual order by setting forth in concrete form the underlying and formative ideas of races and periods.
"The thought that makes the work of art," says Mr. John La Farge in a discussion of the art of painting of singular insight and intelligence, "the thought which in its highest expression we call genius, is not reflection or reflective thought. The thought which analyses has the same deficiencies as our eyes. It can fix only one point at a time. It is necessary for it to examine each element of consideration, and unite it to others, to make a whole. But the logic of free life, which is the logic of art, is like that logic of one using the eye, in which we make most wonderful combinations of momentary adaptation, by co-ordinating innumerable memories, by rejecting those that are useless or antagonistic; and all without being aware of it, so that those especially who most use the eye, as, for instance, the painter or the hunter, are unaware of more than one single, instantaneous action." This is a very happy formulation of a fundamental principle in art; indeed, it brings before us the essential quality of art, its illustration of thought in the order not of a formal logic, but of the logic of free life. It is at this point that it is differentiated from philosophy; it is from this point that its immense spiritual significance becomes clear. In the great books fundamental ideas are set forth not in a systematic way, nor as the results of methodical teaching, but as they rise over the vast territory of actual living, and are clarified by the long-continued and many-sided experience of the race. Every book of the first order in literature of the creative kind is a final generalization from a vast experience. It is, to use Mr. La Farge's phrase, the co-ordination of innumerable memories,—memories shared by an innumerable company of persons, and becoming, at length and after long clarification, a kind of race memory; and this memory is so inclusive and tenacious that it holds intact the long and varied play of soil, sky, scenery, climate, faith, myth, suffering, action, historic process, through which the race has passed and by which it has been largely formed.
The ideas which underlie the great books bring with them, therefore, when we really receive them into our minds, the entire background of the life out of which they took their rise. We are not only permitted to refresh ourselves at the inexhaustible spring, but, as we drink, the entire sweep of landscape, to the remotest mountains in whose heart its sources are hidden, encompasses us like a vast living world. It is, in other words, the totality of things which great art gives us,—not things in isolation and detachment. Mr. La Farge will pardon further quotation; he admirably states this great truth when he says that "in a work of art, executed through the body, and appealing to the mind through the senses, the entire make-up of its creator addresses the entire constitution of the man for whom it is meant." One may go further, and say of the greatest books that the whole race speaks through them to the whole man who puts himself in a receptive mood towards them. This totality of influences, conditions, and history which goes to the making of books of this order receives dramatic unity, artistic sequence, and integral order and coherence from the personality of the writer. He gathers into himself the spiritual results of the experience of his people or his age, and through his genius for expression the vast general background of his personal life, which, as in the case of Homer, for instance, has entirely faded from view, rises once more in clear vision before us. "In any museum," says Mr. La Farge, "we can see certain great differences in things; which are so evident, so much on the surface, as almost to be our first impressions. They are the marks of the places where the works of art were born. Climate; intensity of heat and light; the nature of the earth; whether there was much or little water in proportion to land; plants, animals, surrounding beings, have helped to make these differences, as well as manners, laws, religions, and national ideals. If you recall the more general physical impression of a gallery of Flemish paintings and of a gallery of Italian masters, you will have carried off in yourself two distinct impressions received during their lives by the men of these two races. The fact that they used their eyes more or less is only a small factor in this enormous aggregation of influences received by them and transmitted to us."
From this point of view the inexhaustible significance of a great work of art becomes clear, both as regards its definite revelation of racial and individual truth, and as regards its educational or culture quality and value. Ideas are presented not in isolation and detachment, but in their totality of origin and relationship; they are not abstractions, general propositions, philosophical generalizations; they are living truths—truths, that is, which have become clear by long experience, and to which men stand, or have stood, in personal relations. They are ideas, in other words, which stand together, not in the order of formal logic, but of the "logic of free life." They are not torn out of their normal relations; they bring all their relationships with them. We are offered a plant in the soil, not a flower cut from its stem. Every man is rooted to the soil, touches through his senses the physical, and through his mind and heart the spiritual, order of his time; all these influences are focused in him, and according to his capacity he gathers them into his experience, formulates and expresses them. The greater and more productive the man, the wider his contact with and absorption of the life of his time. For the artist stands nearest, not farthest from his contemporaries. He is not, however, a mere medium in their hands, not a mere secretary or recorder of their ideas and feelings. He is separated from them in the clearness of his vision of the significance of their activities, the ends towards which they are moving, the ideas which they are working out; but, in the exact degree of his greatness, he is one with them in sympathy, experience, and comprehension. They live for him, and he lives with them; they work out ideas in the logic of free life, and he clarifies, interprets, and illustrates those ideas. The world is not saved by the remnant, as Matthew Arnold held; it is saved through the remnant. The elect of the race, its prophets, teachers, artists,—and every great artist is also a prophet and teacher,—are its leaders, not its masters; its interpreters, not its creators. The race is dumb without its artists; but the artists would be impossible without the sustaining fellowship of the race. In the making of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" the Greek race was in full partnership with Homer. The ideas which form the summits of human achievement are sustained by immense masses of earth; the higher they rise the vaster their bases. The richer and wider the race life, the freer and deeper the play of that vital logic which produces the formative ideas.
© D J McAdam. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.
Home | Book Collecting | Folklore / Myth | Philately | Playing Cards | Literature | Contents