Friday, July 16, 2010

Totum Simul

This is related to the quotation from Pringle-Pattison that I recently posted:

There is, I understand, some doubt about the genuineness of the letter in which Mozart is supposed to speak of his ability to hear his own compositions “all at once” by an interior audition, and of the incommunicable rapture of the experience. Yet I imagine it is not really doubtful that the great artist in every kind must really possess some such power of envisaging as a totum simul, however imperfectly, what he can only convey to us by means of a detail which he has to elaborate, and we to “follow,” in the form of long-drawn-out successiveness. Not to speak of the vision of the artist himself, which is, after all, the artist’s secret, if we consider only our own imperfect appreciation and enjoyment of the artist’s work when it is already there for us, it seems to me that as we learn to appreciate better, the work we appreciate and enjoy steadily sheds its successiveness. There was first a stage in which single stanzas of the poem, single scenes, or even speeches, of the drama, single phrases of the melody, were all that could fill our minds at one time; appreciation of the whole as a unity with structure had to be won with difficulty and the aid of conscious recollection and reflection. This is afterwards succeeded by a stage at which the impression is made by an interrelated whole, and our judgement of appreciation passed primarily on the whole as such, with a conscious immediacy.

To take an illustration which I purposely make childishly simple. I suppose we all know the sort of person who reads a great work of fiction in the mood appropriate to a railway detective story, for the sake of its surprises, and would have his enjoyment spoiled by any chance remark disclosing the turn the story will take. I had once myself a friend of this type; it was impossible to discuss or describe in his company any work of fiction he had not read, because, as he used to say, “I might some day want to read the book myself, and I shall get no pleasure from it if I know beforehand what is coming”. In men of this kind, whose enjoyment depends almost wholly on being perpetually taken by surprise, I suppose we might say the appreciation of narrative and dramatic art is at its lowest. To one who wants to appreciate the art of the story, or the play, the element of mere surprise is a hindrance; it is an advantage to him to know beforehand what the incidents to be treated are, that he may be free to concentrate his attention on the structure of the whole. And, similarly, the great artists are those who depend least for their effects on the administering of pure surprises. What shocks are there in the Iliad, or, again, in Tom Jones? Could either of these works be rightly appreciated by anyone hearing the narrative for the first time? Fielding, I know, does contrive to keep up a mystery, though a fairly transparent one, through the story. But how much does it contribute to the real merits of his tale, or which of us would find his appreciation of the book affected if the author had taken the reader into his confidence from the start? It cannot even be said that Fielding has at least availed himself, for artistic effect, of the uncertainty whether his hero will eventually be rewarded with the hand of his mistress. Anyone aware of the literary tradition to which the book belongs knows from the outset that the pair are meant to make a match of it. For the matter of that, most of us, I believe, would not in the least mind if they did not. What we really care for is that the end of the story, be it what it may, shall be of a piece with what has gone before.

A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist, volume 1, chapter IX

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