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Art, Magic, and Eternity

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932


It has sometimes been maintained that Art—in its origin at least—is related to magic. Primitive man, it is said, feels that the mere naming of an object or a force is capable of influencing it in some mysterious way, and the technique of art is in general the technique of assigning names (or symbols) to things. Hence when a savage carves an object in stone or mentions it in story he seems to have acquired over it some kind of power. It is no longer wholly alien and thus unaccountable, but becomes a part of the universe which he has touched and known.

Now this theory itself may be dubious enough, but there is something in our own civilized attitude quite capable of suggesting it, since for us also the world of art corresponds to that part of the real world which we have known best and, in that sense, most completely mastered. It contains whatever we have seen most steadily and felt most clearly; while, on the other hand, it of necessity leaves out whatever we have been unable to see clearly and, in some measure, to account for. Through this world of art we move with a competence and a confidence of which we are not capable in our journey through actuality, and for that very reason we rejoice when, for the first time, we meet in it some counterpart of some fragment of actuality hitherto known only by direct experience. That fragment has taken its place amongst the others which have been named and systematically considered. It has become, like them, acknowledged, accounted for, and dealt with.

Thus the eyes of the child grow wide with wonder if he himself, his parents, his home, or his dog are introduced unexpectedly into some tale being told him. He has already recognized for himself the enchanted character of story, and he is amazed to discover that the elements of his own experience can be made to figure in that enchanted world. These elements take on a new value borrowed from the values created by art and assume that kind of permanent significance which only art can have. Things already loved receive in this way a second blessing, while things feared — whether they be the half-imagined animals of forest and darkness or merely the policeman stationed on the corner—are, to some extent at least, robbed of their terror, because they have been assimilated into that realm of art whose phenomena occur in humanly understandable ways and terminate in humanly understandable conclusions. The policeman who is figured in a story seems somehow more likely to behave in story-book ways.

Nor do adults entirely outgrow either that childish wonder or even that childish relief. The very emotions and impulses which we are surprised to discover in ourselves when exceptional circumstances arise, are less disconcerting than they would be if we did not recognize their similarity to emotions and impulses familiar in story. They are less terrifying than they would be, and this is not only because we realize that others have felt them. For, thanks to our familiarity with great works of literature, we recognize them as not only natural but, still further, as part of that natural world which humanity has recognized, recorded, and accepted. This emotion or this impulse has been felt before, it has also been named; and to that extent, at least, made subject to mind.

There are, moreover, even simpler ways in which we acknowledge the magical quality of art. Thus we commonly speak of a person, an event, or a place as “sacred in song and story.” The very fact that it has appeared in literature seems to have done something to it, and we make journeys to visit the streets which Balzac described or the mountains which Wordsworth invoked, as though we expected to find some seal placed upon them or some light shining about. And if it is not exactly that which we expect, we do expect something, for at the very least we expect a kind of reassurance. These sacred places exist in the world of nature as well as in the world of art. There is some sort of connection between the two realms, and any person or place—even ourselves and our own country—is capable of receiving the blessing of having pronounced over it the magic formula which consecrates.

Nor do we accept a people and its life as fully significant until everything connected with it has been written about— until its country has figured as the scene, and its social life as the background, of literature. For until it has been assimilated into art its peculiar occupations and manners lack dignity, its forests and its cities have only a temporary or accidental reality. They are phenomena to be sure, but they are no more than that and they cannot become more until they have been named and, by being named, have become capable of being handled by the mind and the imagination, which can deal only with symbols.


Concrete-minded persons sometimes express an irritated incomprehension of the importance which we attribute to the state of the arts when we pass a judgment upon any particular civilization. Even though they grant, as for the sake of form they are usually not unwilling to do, the value of painting and literature as ornaments to life, they cannot understand why it should be important that (let us say) Texas should produce landscapes on canvas or California give birth to poets. If the more cultivated citizens of both States pay becoming tributes to art by hanging sepia prints on their walls and by sending their children to study Wordsworth in the State University, then they have done their duty—especially as nature has lavishly supplied them with the materials out of which other peoples make art. They point to broad plains and to majestic mountains; they ask, not unreasonably, if these natural objects are not superior in those very qualities—wildness and grandeur and profusion—to those over which painters and poets have grown unreasonably eloquent, and they attribute to snobbery alone the complaint that these scenes are somehow “raw.” Is not— to move eastward—the Hudson as picturesque as the Rhine and at least as blue as the Danube? Does not one need, almost, a level and a transit to distinguish “the seven hills of Rome”?

In reply we fall back first upon the importance of associations. Scenes, we say, absorb something from the events which took place amidst them, and some shores are relatively bare because “not enough people have died on them.” Wildness and majesty and even height are, we remember also, rather ideas than things, and hence the “topless towers of Ilium” which many a Manhattan apartment, house would doubtless have dwarfed into insignificance are, for all that, both taller than the Woolworth building and little likely to be exceeded by the most ambitious structures of steel. But these arguments only lead us back by devious ways to the magic of art, to the fact that its creations have a quality and a significance which natural objects can assume only when they have borrowed them; only when, that is to say, we attribute to the natural object that which the artist bestowed when he chose it as the subject.

At the very least, a picture, a poem, or a tale is evidence of the fact that the scenes and events with which it deals have entered into the mind of the person who created it; that the mountains and the streets which he uses as a background have affected more than his mere senses, since they have become also sufficiently a part of his consciousness to be used in a construction which has for that consciousness a very particular kind of significance. And it is for this reason that we are justified in considering a local literature more important than any amount of “general culture” in determining whether or not any large community is barbarous. Mere literacy, a mere interest in books and pictures, is quite compatible with a kind of barbarousness because it is compatible with the acceptance of a complete discontinuity between what is regarded as the world of art and that world of reality amidst which this literate people moves. But a literature dealing with the history, the life, and the homeland of this same people is evidence, on the contrary, that these things have been enriched by the values which exist only in art. Someone has performed upon them those processes which are necessary before they can enter fully into the consciousness, and some person, by so doing, has made them available as elements in the consciousness of his fellows.

It is for this reason that “the classics” are never enough. However great their purely formal excellence may be, and however perfectly they may have performed for their original audiences all the functions of art, they cannot be so completely adequate for us because they do not sufficiently resemble our own experiences. Neither the scenes, the customs, the attitudes, nor the emotions exactly correspond to those which most intimately affect us, and hence they seem remote —not quite capable of sufficiently influencing by suggestion our attitude towards ourselves and our surroundings.

To live always with them, to scorn the usually less perfect attempts of our contemporaries to deal with contemporary existence, is inevitably to tend towards a complete disassocia-tion between the idea of art and the idea of reality. It is to renounce the effort to enrich experience as it is always enriched when our attitude is influenced by art, and it is, in short, to renounce all those benefits which art confers by virtue of its relationship to life. Hence a civilization which prides itself upon nothing except its loyalty to the masterpieces of its past is a civilization drifting towards what we have called a kind of barbarism; towards, that is to say, a condition in which its own manners and customs and habits are completely deprived of the benefits of art. For it, literature has become merely an escape, and its most “cultured” citizen merely its most inveterate day dreamer.

It is this fact, indeed, which accounts for the persistence of artistic endeavor—for the struggle of each age and each nation to create its own art and for the necessity of new schools which arise to deal with new aspirations and new judgments as well as with new scenes. It is for the same reason also that the individual artist usually feels the need to give artistic form either to the scenes and events, or at least to the aspirations and emotions, with which he comes in contact. Though the mere academic dilettante may rest content with imitation and repetition, though he may use only the materials which others, using them before him, have already given their place in art, the genuine artist is a magician who casts over new objects a spell and transports an idea of them into that realm, over which man is the undisputed ruler. Without this constant activity on his part we should presently find ourselves living in a world which we no longer knew in the sense in which we know a world which has its counterpart in art. For even though we still remember the literature of the past it would seem wholly fabulous, while our own experience would be wholly fragmentary, meaningless, and even mean, because we should not recognize it as even potentially the material out of which could be formed one of those harmonious wholes which it is the business of art to construct.


Some of the considerations with which we were concerned in the earlier paragraphs of this article suggest mystical or at least idealistic interpretations both of literature and of reality. In them we spoke loosely of the “magic” of art and of the fact that its creations seemed in certains ways “realer” than concrete objects. Nor can such statements as these fail to remind us of contentions, old as Plato and Aristotle, but persistent throughout the whole history of aesthetic theory. Did not Aristotle himself, realist though he is accounted, insist that while art imitated nature it was, nevertheless, concerned less with vulgar phenomena than with some general Nature, and that its representations were, for that reason, “truer” than the actuality which it seemed sometimes to contradict? Have not countless critics since his time maintained, in a related fashion, that the superior reasonableness of literature, that even its very tendency to insist upon a moral order and to bring the actions which it represents to a fitting conclusion, is proof that it is in closer contact with ultimate reality than is the empiricist who recognizes only the individual phenomena which his senses reveal? Faith in art has seemed related to faith in logic or intelligence as opposed to faith in pure observation or experiment and, like pure logic, it has generally led to the conclusion that the most real world is one both more orderly and more humanly satisfactory than that which the senses discover in fragments.

Since, in other words, the normal tendency of man’s judgment is almost incurably anthropocentric, he is led almost irresistibly to the conclusion that the things which he can best understand are the things which are nearest to the tore of reality. Since, for example, geometry is congenial to his mind, he is tempted to believe that geometrical figures represent some ideal reality whose distorted shadows only are to be found in nature, and for this same reason he has not seldom proclaimed in his philosophies that the truths of art— that the perfected generalizations, the comprehensible patterns, and the pleasing harmonies of literature—are real, while the confusion of particular phenomena is an illusion.

But surely this conclusion is not the one which it is necessary to draw. There is, on the other hand, some good reason to believe that the logic of nature is not the logic of the human mind, and that we understand our own constructions far more easily than we understand hers. We think and we understand—not with things—but with words, with symbols, and with syllogisms. Our minds cannot work until objects and phenomena have been translated into mental terms; but translation always implies deformation, and the fact that we understand literature better than we understand events does not necessarily imply that geometry and literature are closer than those phenomena which our senses perceive to some external reality “higher” or “truer” than they. It may imply only—and this should cause no surprise—that we understand ourselves better than we understand anything else.

The conception that even a relationship apparently so fundamental as cause and effect may be a purely human invention unknown to nature is at least as old as Hume. Natural phenomena, it has been argued, may be quite discontinuous or, at the very least, related to one another in ways quite different from any we can conceive, and the whole human process of relating and “explaining” these phenomena may be radically false. Nothing may be less characteristic of nature than those “laws” and principles which we have formulated concerning her; and it may be true, for this reason, that nothing takes us further away from the reality of our experiences than our attribution to them of that order and rationality which our minds contribute when we arrange them into continua which we call works of art. But it is inevitable that they should be more real to us just in so far as they are arranged in a form which our minds can understand. Hence it may be that the sense which art gives us of getting closer and closer to reality is a pure delusion and that it is, in actual fact, leading us further and further away from it.

From this last fact (if it is a fact) we cannot, however, escape; and perhaps we should not try to do so. Because of it we construct our sciences, our philosophies, and our arts. Because of it they become for us more important than anything else; and because of it we must continue to feel that literature, as a form of magic, bestows value upon life— translating it into those terms and arranging it into those patterns which we can best understand, making it more real because presenting it in a form which facilitates contemplation. For it is, in the end, contemplation which makes things real and it is the ability to contemplate which constitutes the distinguishing characteristic of the human mind.

Sensations, following fast upon one another, elude us, and so too do the actions which we perform too rapidly. In the thick of them we become more and more automatic, less and less aware of what we feel, and, to that extent, more and more like the animals whose mental life seems to consist largely in an almost mechanical response to the stimuli which reach them. What we feel is the need to abstract ourselves periodically from sensations and actions in order to translate the memory of them into terms appropriate to the rational consciousness. And literature serves as a perpetual reminder of the fact that such translation and such contemplation are possible.

To that extent, at least, we make literature whenever we become fully aware of ourselves, and hence we recognize in literature something whose reality is for us equalled only by those direct experiences which we have ourselves fully rationalized in contemplation, Hence also literature is more than a mere escape into an ideally logical and understandable world, for it is also a reminder that, partially and within limits, contemplation can attribute to our own experiences its qualities. And a great artist is, indeed, one who is reminded so forcefully and effectively of this fact that he does create out of his experiences a fully formed work of art which he so embodies in stone, or paint, or words, that it becomes capable of communicating to others this translated and interpreted experience.


The most characteristic recent philosophies have emphasized the fundamental importance of change. Ultimate reality, they have insisted, is a chain of events or a process rather than anything fixed or perfect. And by thus giving the lie direct to Plato and all his disciples they may, perhaps, have come closer than he to a description of Nature; they may, that is to say, have escaped more completely than he from the tendency to conceive her in the terms most congenial to the human mind rather than in those which we have come at last to recognize as most appropriate to these phenomena, which we can only dimly and with difficulty apprehend. But by so doing they have not changed the fact that this human mind, whose needs Plato so perfectly understood, still insists upon constructing for itself a fixed world in the midst of a fluid one. It persists in thinking in terms of aims and ends and perfections; of ideals, of purposes, and final goods; and, at the very least, it insists upon assuming some direction in change, something towards which the chain of events is moving.

Contemplation itself is an effort to rescue something from the flux. It is a refusal to go ceaselessly on from one thing to another, to be borne breathlessly forward by the flood. It seizes upon some object or some event, translates that object or event into a word or symbol which does not—like the thing for which it stands—dissolve in time, and then it attempts to extract from the symbol some significance. Nor is it unfruitful to regard art as a form of extended and systematized contemplation. It begins when the artist becomes aware of something impermanent which he would like to name and hold; it is, as it were, his “Verweile doch” involuntarily exclaimed, and it reaches its full development when it has become, not merely an isolated phenomenon which has thus been made lasting, but a whole series of phenomena to which has been attributed a unity of meaning.

Literature stabilizes both social and intellectual traditions; norms of action, of judgment, and of feeling are transmitted by it so as to give to the conscious life of men a unity which it would otherwise lack; so as to discipline what would otherwise be an anarchy composed of individuals, each only partially aware of what consciousness makes possible and each widely different from his fellows. For this reason literature is necessary just as soon as any society becomes sufficiently complicated to render mere primitive instinct insufficient as a principle of cohesion; and literature serves, indeed, to perform upon the higher level the function performed upon the lower by those reflexes and those instincts which regularize the responses of the human animal to the situations which he meets.

But, as we have been trying here to suggest, it serves also a parallel purpose in preserving him, not merely from a destructive instability in his own actions and feelings, but also from too complete a participation in that all-pervasive fluidity which contemporary philosophers have described. In the midst of that flux he is enabled by its aid to set up moral and intellectual boundaries, to establish quasi-absolutes which can serve his purposes and enable him to live for a time as though some things were fixed, changeless, and dependable. Thanks to that fact he can have cultures and philosophies and religions. But the services of art in general and of literature in particular do not stop even there; for they minister in even less tangible ways to man’s need for permanence, to his need to escape from the endless succession of mere phenomena. For works of art do not change and do not pass. The things which they represent have been rescued and fixed. Once the magic spell has been cast upon an object or an event it is no longer in time but out of it, it no longer occurs but is always occurring and, to that extent, it is eternal. Man needs eternity, as the whole history of his aspirations bears witness; but the eternity of art is, in all probability, the only sort he will ever get.

Memory, also, provides us with a shadowy kind of permanence without which we should not be human at all. Thanks to it we seem able to retain some part of the past, and even to be capable of moulding it into quasi-artistic forms; lacking it we should have neither past nor future, for each instant would be completely discontinuous with the one which preceded it and we should be incapable even of conceiving anything other than the incident itself. But memory is only a shadow which we recognize as such, and if it makes us aware that a past once existed, it makes us aware at the same time that it is past—thus generating together, and inseparably allying, the ideas of permanence and impermanence, neither of which could have been conceived without it. Art, on the other hand, is memory objectified; a moment, together with all which defines it, so arrested and recorded that we may return as often as we like and with the full assurance that it will always be there. It does not, like a memory, grow dim and then finally dissolve; nor is it, like a memory, shadowy. The poised body of a dancer, or the perfect configuration of sights or sounds or emotions, which achieved at one instant a perfect pattern, does not, as in reality, disintegrate, for it is arrested at the moment of its perfection and held in it forever. Hence civilized man lives really in three worlds: the world of the instant, the world of memory, and the world of art. To deprive him of the latter would be to change, to an almost inconceivable degree, the whole character of living. After it was gone, memory itself could be taken away without involving a second impoverishment much more disastrous than that which had resulted when he had been left with nothing except memory to preserve him from complete solution in the flux of phenomena.


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