Fountains of Joy
Fountains of Joy
Freeman, Volume VII
1923 or 1924

Current discussions of the philosophy of art remind us that, according to Goethe, a little common sense will sometimes do duty for a great deal of philosophy, but no amount of philosophy ill make up for a failure in common sense. It is usually the case that as analysis becomes closer and philosophizing becomes more profound, there is a tendency to obscure certain broad general fundamentals which to the eye of common sense are alway apparent; and thus very often the complete truth of the matter is imperfectly apprehended. A great deal of what we read about the arts seems in some such fashion as this to get clear away from the notion that the final purpose of the arts is to give joy; yet com mon sense, proceeding in its simple, unmethodical manner, would say at once that this is their final purpose, and that one who did not keep it in mind as such, could hardly hope to arrive at the truth about any of the arts. Matthew Arnold once said most admirably that no one could get at the actual truth about the Bible, who did not enjoy the Bible; and that one who had all sorts of fantastic notions about the origin and composition of the Bible, but who knew how to enjoy the Bible deeply, was nearer the truth about the Bible than one who could pick it all to pieces, but could not enjoy it. Common sense, we believe, would hold this to be true of any work of art.

When Hesiod defined the function of poetry as that of giving "a release from sorrows and a truce from cares," he intimated the final purpose of all great art as that of elevating and sustaining the human spirit through the communication of joy, of felicity; that is to say, of the most simple, powerful and highly refined emotion that the human spirit is capable of experiencing. This, no doubt, does not exhaust its beneficence; no doubt it works for good in other ways as well; but this is its great and final purpose. It is not to give entertainment or diversion or pleasure, not even to give happiness, but to give joy; and through this distinction, common sense comes immediately upon a test of good and valid art, not infallible, perhaps, but nevertheless quite competent. It is, in fact, the test that the common sense of mankind always does apply, consciously or unconsciously, to determine the quality of good art. Great critics, too, from Aristotle down, have placed large dependence on it. One wonders, therefore, whether more might not advantageously be made of it in the critical writing of the present time.

A work of art—a poem or novel, a picture, a piece of music—may affect the average cultivated spirit with interest, with curiosity, with pleasure; it may yield diversion, entertainment or even solace, not in the sense of edification or tending to build up a permanent resource against sorrows and cares, but in the sense that its pleasurable occupation of the mind excludes sorrow and care for the time being, somewhat as physical exercise or a game of chess or billiards may do. But all this is not a mark of good art. Good art affects one with an emotion of a different quality; and this quality may be rather easily identified, provided one does not make a great point of proceeding with the stringency of a philosopher in trying to define it. Joubert said that it is not hard to know God, if one will only not trouble oneself about defining him; and this is true as well of the profound and obscure affections of the hu man spirit—they are much better made know in the experience of the devout than in the analysis of the philosopher. A critic, indeed, might content himself at the outset by laying down some examples of classic art, and saying that the emotion he wishes to identify, the emotion of joy, is simply what is produced upon the average cultivated spirit by those; and that the difference in quality between this emotion and the emotion produced by another work of art, is a fair index or registration of the difference in quality of art between the two objects or examples. We have space but for one illustration, so for convenience we shall take it from the realm of poetry. Let us take two examples, both dealing with the valid and excellent poetic theme of the shortness of human life and the transitory character of its interests. First, this one:

How nothing must we seem unto this ancient thing
How nothing unto the earth—and we so small
O, wake, wake! do you not feel my hands cling?
One day it will be raining as it rains to-night; the same wind blow,
Raining and blowing on this house wherein we lie, but you and 1,
We shall not hear, we shall not ever know.

Is the emotion wherewith this verse affects the average cultivated spirit, of the same order, the same quality, as the emotion produced by this—

The cloud-cap'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like an insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

—or is the difference merely one of degree? Well, then this difference may be used at the outset by criticism, as the common sense of mankind does continually use it, as an index of the poetic quality of the two examples; and criticism can go safely on in assuming that to whatever degree a work of art succeeds in arousing just that emotion, so far can it justify its candidacy for a place as valid art.

We do not put forward this test as one to be used mechanically nor have we any exaggerated notion of its importance. There are some very welcome signs that criticism, after long running derelict in fantastic extravagance, is beginning to come to its sober senses. Well, then, here, in this test that we speak of, is an implement of criticism that great critics have found extremely useful, but which has of late fallen into disuse—why not bring it out and use it again, not fanatically, but with judgment and discretion It is primarily an implement for the critic to use upon himself in shaping the course of his criticism; the layman, as we said, has had the more or less conscious use of it all the time. When confronted with the claims of this or that work of art, the critic will be greatly helped to get his bearings if for the moment he puts all other considerations aside, and asks himself with what order or quality of emotion, precisely, does this work of art affect him. Is it with a pleasurable emotion due to interest, curiosity, entertainment, diversion, or is it the emotion of felicity, of joy? No matter about the degree, but is it or is it not, in any measure, small or great, the kind of thing that he gets out of "The cloud-cap'd towers, the gorgeous palaces"? We do not say that this test will ensure his judgment; all we say is that it will greatly assist it.


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