Feel the power

“The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it–this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

Varieties of knowledge

“One day, as I was riding the line near a farm known as Parson Fox’s, I heard that the family of a Mr. Wilkinson, of New Orleans, was ‘refugeeing’ at a house near by.  I rode up, inquired, and found two young girls of that name, who said they were the children of General Wilkinson, of Louisiana, and that their brother had been at the military school at Alexandria.  Inquiring for their mother, I was told she was spending the day at Parson Fox’s.  As this house was on my route, I rode there, went through a large gate into the yard, followed by my staff and escort, and found quite a number of ladies sitting on the porch.  I rode up and inquired if that were Parson Fox’s.  The parson, a fine-looking, venerable old man, rose, and said that he was Parson Fox.  I then inquired for Mrs. Wilkinson, when an elderly lady answered that she was the person.  I asked her if she were from Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, and she said she was.  I then inquired if she had a son who had been a cadet at Alexandria when General Sherman was superintendent, and she answered yes.  I then announced myself, inquired after the boy, and she said he was inside of Vicksburg, an artillery lieutenant.  I then asked about her husband, whom I had known, when she burst into tears, and cried out in agony, ‘You killed him at Bull Run, where he was fighting for his country!’  I disclaimed killing anybody at Bull Run; but all the women present (nearly a dozen) burst into loud lamentations, which made it most uncomfortable for me, and I rode away.  On the 3d of July, as I sat at my bivouac by the road-side near Trible’s, I saw a poor, miserable horse, carrying a lady, and led by a little negro boy, coming across a cotton-field toward me; as they approached I recognized poor Mrs. Wilkinson, and helped her to dismount.  I inquired what had brought he to see me in that style, and she answered that she knew Vicksburg was going to surrender, and she wanted to go right away to see her boy.  I had a telegraph-wire to General Grant’s headquarters, and had heard that there were symptoms of surrender, but as yet nothing definite.  I tried to console and dissuade her, but she was resolved, and I could not help giving her a letter to General Grant, explaining to him who she was, and asking him to give her the earliest opportunity to see her son.  The distance was fully twenty miles, but off she started, and I afterward learned that my letter had enabled her to see her son, who had escaped unharmed.” – William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman (emphasis in original)

The general obligation bond

“The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting. That general responsibility rests upon it, but it is the only one I can think of. The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable and such as can only suffer from being marked out, or fenced in, by prescription. They are as various as the temperament of man, and they are successful in proportion as they reveal a particular mind, different from others. A novel is in its broadest definition a personal impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression. But there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say. The tracing of a line to be followed, of a tone to be taken, of a form to be filled out, is a limitation of that freedom and a suppression of the very thing that we are most curious about.” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

The mysterious stranger

“‘Art,’ in our Protestant communities, where so many things have got so strangely twisted about, is supposed, in certain circles, to have some vaguely injurious effect upon those who make it an important consideration, who let it weigh in the balance. It is assumed to be opposed in some mysterious manner to morality, to amusement, to instruction. When it is embodied in the work of the painter (the sculptor is another affair!) you know what it is; it stands there before you, in the honesty of pink and green and a gilt frame; you can see the worst of it at a glance, and you can be on your guard. But when it is introduced into literature it becomes more insidious–there is danger of its hurting you before you know it. Literature should be either instructive or amusing, and there is in many minds an impression that these artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both. They are too frivolous to be edifying, and too serious to be diverting; and they are, moreover, priggish and paradoxical and superfluous. That, I think, represents the manner in which the latent thought of many people who read novels as an exercise in skipping would explain itself if it were to become articulate. They would argue, of course, that a novel ought to be ‘good,’ but they would interpret this term in a fashion of their own, which, indeed would vary considerably from one critic to another. One would say that being good means representing virtuous and aspiring characters, placed in prominent positions; another would say that it depends for a ‘happy ending’ on a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks. Another still would say that it means being full of incident and movement, so that we shall wish to jump ahead, to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the stolen will was ever found, and shall not be distracted from this pleasure by any tiresome analysis or ‘description.’ But they would all agree that the ‘artistic’ idea would spoil some of their fun. One would hold it accountable for all the description, another would see it revealed in the absence of sympathy. Its hostility to a happy ending would be evident, and it might even, in some cases, render any ending at all impossible. The ‘ending’ of a novel is, for many persons, like that of a good dinner, a course of dessert and ices, and the artist in fiction is regarded as a sort of meddlesome doctor who forbids agreeable aftertastes.” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

How to tend the garden of art

“Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of genius, are not times of development, are times possibly even, a little, of dulness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilizing when they are frank and sincere.” – Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

Mull it over

“Let us think of quietly enlarging our stock of true and fresh ideas, and not, as soon as we get an idea or half an idea, be running out with it into the street, and trying to make it rule there. Our ideas will, in the end, shape the world all the better for maturing a little.” – Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

The critical distance

“Criticism must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aims. Even with well-meant efforts of the practical spirit it must express dissatisfaction, if in the sphere of the ideal they seem impoverishing and limiting. It must not hurry on to the goal because of its practical importance. It must be patient, and know how to wait; and flexible, and know how to attach itself to things and how to withdraw from them. It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent. It must be apt to discern the spiritual shortcomings or illusions of powers that in the practical sphere may be beneficent. And this without any notion of favoring or injuring, in the practical sphere, one power or the other; without any notion of playing off, in this sphere, one power against the other.” – Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

Busy little bees we be

“The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all. The rush and roar of practical life will always have a dizzying and attracting effect upon the most collected spectator, and tend to draw him into its vortex.” – Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

Once upon a time, kings ruled by divine right

“If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it: and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.” – Edmund Burke, Thoughts on French Affairs (1791)

Give war a chance

“Pre-emption is among the most important philosophical and strategic underpinnings for counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, and after years of being honed in Fallujah and Kandahar, COIN has been imported to the West, where it compliments the growing militarization of law enforcement and the transformation of local police forces into hybrid paramilitary-intelligence organizations.” — Jacob Silverman, “City Under Siege”

Truth be told

“Language doesn’t lie. A cliché can’t hide itself. Platitudes can’t pretend to be meaningful. Solecisms can’t convince you they are something else. Easy verbs and indolent adjectives will never have potency. An assault of the quotidian will never be intellectually charismatic. You can’t dress up sentimentality as emotional truth. No amount of rouge will ever camouflage rhetoric and sophistry. Propaganda and dogma will always reek of immorality.  Defenders of the middling and bland might try to counter with the tired retort, ‘He’s not a good writer but he’s a good storyteller,’ which is rather like saying, ‘His food tastes like shit but he’s a good cook.’ Is he not telling the story with sentences? If the sentences are broken how does the story work?” — William Giraldi, “Letter to a Young Critic”