Saturday, 22 December 2012

Santayana on aesthetics

Disproportionate interest in the æsthetic. 

The first paragraph is less clear than it could be, but it's plain sailing after that, and well worth it in my view. A powerful contrarian view of the value we place on common experiences.

The fact that value is attributed to absent experience according to the value experience has in representation appears again in one of the most curious anomalies in human life—the exorbitant interest which thought and reflection take in the form of experience and the slight account they make of its intensity or volume. 

Sea-sickness and child-birth when they are over, the pangs of despised love when that love is finally forgotten or requited, the travail of sin when once salvation is assured, all melt away and dissolve like a morning mist leaving a clear sky without a vestige of sorrow. 

So also with merely remembered and not reproducible pleasures; the buoyancy of youth, when absurdity is not yet tedious, the rapture of sport or passion, the immense peace found in a mystical surrender to the universal, all these generous ardours count for nothing when they are once gone. The memory of them cannot cure a fit of the blues nor raise an irritable mortal above some petty act of malice or vengeance, or reconcile him to foul weather. 

An ode of Horace, on the other hand, a scientific monograph, or a well-written page of music is a better antidote to melancholy than thinking on all the happiness which one’s own life or that of the universe may ever have contained. 

Why should overwhelming masses of suffering and joy affect imagination so little while it responds sympathetically to æsthetic and intellectual irritants of very slight intensity, objects that, it must be confessed, are of almost no importance to the welfare of mankind? 

Why should we be so easily awed by artistic genius and exalt men whose works we know only by name, perhaps, and whose influence upon society has been infinitesimal, like a Pindar or a Leonardo, while we regard great merchants and inventors as ignoble creatures in comparison? 

Why should we smile at the inscription in Westminster Abbey which calls the inventor of the spinning-jenny one of the true benefactors of mankind? Is it not probable, on the whole, that he has had a greater and less equivocal influence on human happiness than Shakespeare with all his plays and sonnets? But the cheapness of cotton cloth produces no particularly delightful image in the fancy to be compared with Hamlet or Imogen. 

There is a prodigious selfishness in dreams: they live perfectly deaf and invulnerable amid the cries of the real world.

George Santayana - The Life of Reason


Sam Vega said...

I'm not sure I agree with this. Poetry gives a "quick fix" because we are attuned to it. But I bet if we thought long and hard about the spinning jenny and how and why it was invented, we would find the mind uplifted. As a scientist, don't you get moved sometimes by the elegance and ingenuity of practical thought and invention?

A K Haart said...

Sam - for me, he is contrasting experiences linked with dreams or ideals with those experiences which may be much more intense at the time, or much more socially significant, but aren't associated with dreams or ideals. The former can often be revisited too.

So an ode of Horace or a scientific monograph may be read again with pleasure, although personally I'm not so sure about the monograph.

Yet other, at the time more intense or socially significant experiences cannot be revisited in the sense that their original intensity evaporates.

It is also much more difficult to marvel at the Spinning Jenny than a Leonardo even though Leonardo produced little of real value.

I think his key is association with ideals and dreams.