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The Mystagogue

Whenever you hear much of things being unutterable and indefinable and
impalpable and unnamable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your
aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is
perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond
all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all
good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and
though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is
always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are
that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.

Thus Giotto or Fra Angelieo would have at once admitted theologically that
God was too good to be painted; but they would always try to paint Him.
And they felt (very rightly) that representing Him as a rather quaint old
man with a gold crown and a white beard, like a king of the elves, was
less profane than resisting the sacred impulse to express Him in some way.
That is why the Christian world is full of gaudy pictures and twisted
statues which seem, to many refined persons, more blasphemous than the
secret volumes of an atheist. The trend of good is always towards
Incarnation. But, on the other hand, those refined thinkers who worship
the Devil, whether in the swamps of Jamaica or the salons of Paris, always
insist upon the shapelessness, the wordlessness, the unutterable character
of the abomination. They call him "horror of emptiness," as did the black
witch in Stevenson's Dynamiter; they worship him as the unspeakable name;
as the unbearable silence. They think of him as the void in the heart of
the whirlwind; the cloud on the brain of the maniac; the toppling turrets
of vertigo or the endless corridors of nightmare. It was the Christians
who gave the Devil a grotesque and energetic outline, with sharp horns and
spiked tail. It was the saints who drew Satan as comic and even lively.
The Satanists never drew him at all.

And as it is with moral good and evil, so it is also with mental clarity
and mental confusion. There is one very valid test by which we may
separate genuine, if perverse and unbalanced, originality and revolt from
mere impudent innovation and bluff. The man who really thinks he has an
idea will always try to explain that idea. The charlatan who has no idea
will always confine himself to explaining that it is much too subtle to be
explained. The first idea may really be very outree or specialist; it may
really be very difficult to express to ordinary people. But because the
man is trying to express it, it is most probable that there is something
in it, after all. The honest man is he who is always trying to utter the
unutterable, to describe the indescribable; but the quack lives not by
plunging into mystery, but by refusing to come out of it.

Perhaps this distinction is most comically plain in the case of the thing
called Art, and the people called Art Critics. It is obvious that an
attractive landscape or a living face can only half express the holy
cunning that has made them what they are. It is equally obvious that a
landscape painter expresses only half of the landscape; a portrait painter
only half of the person; they are lucky if they express so much. And
again it is yet more obvious that any literary description of the pictures
can only express half of them, and that the less important half. Still,
it does express something; the thread is not broken that connects God With
Nature, or Nature with men, or men with critics. The "Mona Lisa" was in
some respects (not all, I fancy) what God meant her to be. Leonardo's
picture was, in some respects, like the lady. And Walter Pater's rich
description was, in some respects, like the picture. Thus we come to the
consoling reflection that even literature, in the last resort, can express
something other than its own unhappy self.

Now the modern critic is a humbug, because he professes to be entirely
inarticulate. Speech is his whole business; and he boasts of being
speechless. Before Botticelli he is mute. But if there is any good in
Botticelli (there is much good, and much evil too) it is emphatically the
critic's business to explain it: to translate it from terms of painting
into terms of diction. Of course, the rendering will be inadequate--but
so is Botticelli. It is a fact he would be the first to admit. But
anything which has been intelligently received can at least be
intelligently suggested. Pater does suggest an intelligent cause for the
cadaverous colour of Botticelli's "Venus Rising from the Sea." Ruskin
does suggest an intelligent motive for Turner destroying forests and
falsifying landscapes. These two great critics were far too fastidious
for my taste; they urged to excess the idea that a sense of art was a sort
of secret; to be patiently taught and slowly learnt. Still, they thought
it could be taught: they thought it could be learnt. They constrained
themselves, with considerable creative fatigue, to find the exact
adjectives which might parallel in English prose what has been clone in
Italian painting. The same is true of Whistler and R. A. M. Stevenson
and many others in the exposition of Velasquez. They had something to say
about the pictures; they knew it was unworthy of the pictures, but they
said it.

Now the eulogists of the latest artistic insanities (Cubism and
Post Impressionism and Mr. Picasso) are eulogists and nothing else. They
are not critics; least of all creative critics. They do not attempt to
translate beauty into language; they merely tell you that it is
untranslatable--that is, unutterable, indefinable, indescribable,
impalpable, ineffable, and all the rest of it. The cloud is their banner;
they cry to chaos and old night. They circulate a piece of paper on which
Mr. Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried to dry it
with his boots, and they seek to terrify democracy by the good old
anti-democratic muddlements: that "the public" does not understand these
things; that "the likes of us" cannot dare to question the dark decisions
of our lords.

I venture to suggest that we resist all this rubbish by the very simple
test mentioned above. If there were anything intelligent in such art,
something of it at least could be made intelligible in literature. Man is
made with one head, not with two or three. No criticism of Rembrandt is
as good as Rembrandt; but it can be so written as to make a man go back
and look at his pictures. If there is a curious and fantastic art, it is
the business of the art critics to create a curious and fantastic literary
expression for it; inferior to it, doubtless, but still akin to it. If
they cannot do this, as they cannot; if there is nothing in their eulogies,
as there is nothing except eulogy--then they are quacks or the
high-priests of the unutterable. If the art critics can say nothing about
the artists except that they are good it is because the artists are bad.
They can explain nothing because they have found nothing; and they have
found nothing because there is nothing to be found.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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