This is a question that I come back to time and again, partly because it is so vexed, partly because it is so difficult to answer, partly because it’s one of the most important questions for anyone who has decided, however instinctually, to make the arts an intrinsic part of their life. But I return to it now because of a passage I read in Rebecca West’s A Fountain Overflows that stopped me in my tracks. When I first started reading this book I wasn’t sure I was going to like the character of the mother; I feared she would unload too many burdens of responsibility onto the frail shoulders of her children. Yet as the book progressed, she turned out to have the most wonderful philosophy on life, derived from her experience of the arts. Here she is near the book’s conclusion, explaining to the musically talented Rose and Mary how it is that they survived their childhood whilst their older sister, Cordelia, did not:
‘It is not she who is odd in hating poverty and –‘ she felt for the word – ‘eccentricity. It is you who are odd in not hating them. Be thankful for this oddity, which has brought you safe through terrible years. But do not think you owe it entirely to your musical gifts. The music I have taught you to play must have made you realise that there is a great deal in life which is not affected by what happens to you. Also the technique has been more help to you than you realise. If you are not soft, it is because the technique you have mastered, such as it is, has hardened you. If God had not made you able to play you would be as helpless as Cordelia, and it is not her fault but God’s that she cannot play, and as God has no faults let us now drop the subject.’
What an extraordinarily succinct and insightful passage this is. What the mother says about music is, I think, applicable to all the arts. They stand as testimony to the best in humankind that will always exceed and outlive us, to the endless repetition of familiar pain, never mastered but understood, yes, and contained by certain faultlessly accurate lines of prose or musical notes, or the swift, sure strokes of a painting. Art tells us that where we stand, others have stood before, and were generous enough towards their ancestors to trouble and strive and slave to transform their experience into a moment of communion, for whoever so needed it. Art cannot always succeed in awakening in us a true sense of proportion for our cares, but it can express those cares in a way that gives them their due measure in the grand scheme of things. We are so powerful and so intense in our smallness. And the blink of an eye, which is all it takes us to cross history, is so full of momentous event. Science and economics can make us feel tiny and negligible against the backdrop of an enormous and puzzling world, but art appreciates that we are the source of all vitality, all meaning, all wonder, and that whatever we think of the world, it begins and ends in the human eye.
I also love what she has to say about technique. I think it’s absolutely true; that the discipline of art flexes mental muscles that keep our minds in trim. When we like an artwork, I often think it’s because it is shapely, because it is well contained within its form, because it releases huge energy but in a controlled and managed way. I also think that if I ever manage to write something that pleases me, it’s because I’ve tamed my thought, combed out its tangles and left it smooth and lustrous. There is an immense pleasure in learning to do that, although it’s undeniably difficult. I also think my work goes worse when I am soft, and lazy and undisciplined, when I sink into my responses, rather than rise above them and figure them out. I don’t think it matters what kind of art you like; the subject matter is neither here nor there, it’s the form of the work that offers us something precious and intriguing to download.
And there’s more; Rose’s mother is adamant that her children should believe, no matter what their temporary and local difficulties may be that life is ‘as extraordinary as music says it is.’ Perhaps that’s the insight she makes that I love most of all. If there is no art in our lives, no music, no literature, no painting, no film, then it’s easy for existence to become a dull, quotidian affair, shop-soiled by the act of living it. It’s easy to believe it may in fact be meaningless or simply a chore of repetitive tedium, time to be marked. Art tells us something quite different. I’m not even going to try to find the words to express what that something is. I know full well that the best of my literary criticism, for instance, is the equivalent of hobbling after an express train. Nothing can match the melody, or the quotation, or the tiny detail that pierces you to the core. So savour those moments, revel in them; live your art to the full and enjoy its tender disciplines; let it show you your vital, essential role as an engaged witness to the world. I can think of no better life philosophy than that.