Unreal Nature

April 1, 2017

Miraculously Metamorphosed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… The process is a very mysterious one by which a book, picture, or piece of music either passes into oblivion or becomes a classic …

This is from the essay ‘Hunting the Highbrow’ by Leonard Woolf found in The Hogarth Essays (1928):

The highbrow is an extremely unpopular person. The hunt is up in the Press and in the atmosphere, which is used to convey through valves or crystals information, amusement, or strike news to so many happy homes. When I open a paper or listen-in I am continually told that we are all much better fellows — more honest, and clean, and happy, and wise, and English — for being lowbrows. Being, if not a highbrow, at any rate on the side of the highbrows, I am not cheered by the news.

… Let me begin from two attacks upon the unfortunate creature which fell into my hands in the same week, for they will give us an idea of what the quarry appears to be to the hunters. The first is by Mr. Gilbert Frankau, the famous novelist … [the second is Mr. Robert Magill, whose writing Woolf finds in “a Sunday paper”]

… The scientific natural historian often finds that the sportsman has only a vague idea of the nature of the game which he hunts or shoots. … It will be obvious to anyone with scientific training that those mighty highbrow-hunters, Mr. Frankau and Mr. Magill, are doing the same thing with the highbrows. It is clear from their own words that they include under the name the following quite different species:

1. Altifrons altifrontissimus, the original, primitive, and real highbrow or intellectual who, as Mr. Magill puts it, prefers the appeal to his intellect rather than that solely to his senses.

2. Altifrons aestheticus var. severus, the man who only likes what is best in literature, art and music, or, as Mr. Magill puts it, good stuff.

3. Altifrons frankauensis, the man who is not entertained and uplifted by the novels of Mr. Gilbert Frankau.

4. Pseudaltifrons intellectualis, the man who only likes what nobody else can understand.

5. Pseudaltifrons aestheticus, the man who, in literature, art and music, only likes the latest thing or the oldest thing or the think which the majority dislikes.

This rough and preliminary classification already teaches us something important about the natural history of the highbrow. Speaking broadly, there are two distinct families, species, or genera of this animal, and not only is each of these species subdivided into a considerable number of subspecies, but to each has attached itself a parasitic species of pseudo-highbrow which has been forced by the struggle for social existence or distinction to mimic the true highbrow. The chief characteristic of the one species is a marked development of or attachment to the intellect, of the other a peculiar development of aesthetic appreciation.

Both Mr. Frankau and Mr. Magill confuse the intellectual with the aesthetic highbrow, but it is most important for scientific purposes to keep them distinct. For they are not the same animal. It is true that not all male highbrows are impotent or female highbrows sterile, and therefore you occasionally come across a hybrid highbrow, who has all the characteristics of both species.

[line break added] But there is no necessary connection between the intellect and aesthetic appreciation, and therefore there are dozens of intellectual highbrows who are not aesthetic, and dozens of aesthetic highbrows who are not intellectual. Aristotle, William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham are typical examples of the pure altifrons altifrontissimus uncrossed with aestheticus; poets (Swinburne, for example), artists, and musicians will provide you with many examples of altifrons aestheticus uncrossed wtih altifrontissimus.

… The quarrel between the aesthetic highbrow and his hunters is, in fact, concerned with a difference in standards, and it raises aesthetic and psychological problems of considerable intricacy and obscurity. Even Mr. Frankau could not deny that the following is not an unusual occurrence in the history of literature or art. The highbrows of a certain generation hail a new writer, painter, or composer as an artist of eminence, while the great heart of the public of that generation refuses to be entertained, educated, pleased, or uplifted by him. Controversy rages and dies down; a new generation of highbrows and Frankaus and great public arises; and behold the new generation of Frankaus and great public is entertained, educated, pleased and uplifted by those very works of art which the highbrow of the previous generation was derided and hunted for praising.

… The process is a very mysterious one by which a book, picture, or piece of music either passes into oblivion or becomes a classic, and even more mysterious is the part played in that process by the highbrow and the great heart of the public respectively. Take the five writers mentioned by Mr. Frankau. His words make it clear that the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, King Lear, and Martin Chuzzlewit are all accepted as classics by the anti-highbrows, and are certified as going straight to the hearts of the majority of the people.

[line break added] But it is also clear that of two, at least, of these writers Mr. Frankau, the spokesman of the public, has never read a word. No one who had ever read a line of the Aeneid could possibly say that it has a really good story, or that it has really interesting characters, or that it has really interesting scenes. To call Virgil one of the world’s greatest story-tellers is just about as true as to call Aristotle one of the world’s greatest poets.

[line break added] The idea that the Aeneid could be comprehensible, entertaining and uplifting to the vast majority of the Romans of the Augustan age is ludicrous. The number of people who have understood and enjoyed that difficult, boring, absurd and magnificent book since it was first written some 2000 years ago probably has not yet equalled the number of people who are entertained and uplifted today by a popular novel in the first week after publication.

[line break added] And ninety-nine percent of the people who understand and enjoy Virgil are highbrows, for if there was ever a highbrow poet who wrote for highbrows it was the man who wrote the Aeneid. Yet here is a highbrow, who can only be understood and appreciated by highbrows and is only read by highbrows, accepted by the highbrow-hunters as a classic, quoted as an example of a popular writer, and miraculously metamorphosed into a popular novelist. Surely a strange phenomenon!

What I have said of Virgil, I believe to be even more true of Dante. Personally, like Mr. Frankau, I have never read Dante, but I have often looked at him, and have always decided to reserve him as a book to be read in old age when the evenings will be long and time will move slowly. But I have opened him sufficiently often to see that he is not a great story-teller, that he does not go straight to the heart of the ordinary Fascist, and that you have to have a pretty high brow even to understand him.

There will be more from this essay next week.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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