Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.

Monday 4 January 2016

There’s a lot of stuff I need to write about but first I need to get this out of the way. I started re-reading Wyndham Lewis’ last novel, The Red Priest. I think Lewis is one of the great writers of the last century and, even though there are still two I haven’t read, The Red Priest must be the worst of his novels.

So why am I re-reading it, instead of something better? Because I don’t remember it. This in itself isn’t a problem for me: I’m not good at remembering details of books I like, either – especially the endings. The point is that I don’t remember why this particular book is bad, compared to his others.

Good art, music, writing, is too easily found: years, centuries of critical consensus offers them up, presses them upon you. Bad art is a personal discovery. Even when warned of its badness, like a Wet Paint sign, there is always the temptation to test for oneself. Meanwhile, we’ll take others’ word for it that Milton is a great poet and think we never need to hear another note of Mozart again.

Good art can also be a personal discovery, of course, but I always worry that I’m looking for something different, at the expense of finding something good. For years, my record library had large holes in it. Rummaging through second-hand vinyl I’d routinely pass up the chance to get, say, In C because I’d found an obscure album of Curtis Curtis-Smith. It’s all very well to buck the canon, but I found myself lost in marginalia.

Finding the good in the perhaps justly overlooked brings a fresh thrill to the mind, even if the discovery turns out to be grounded in ignorance and vanity. As T.S. Eliot sort-of said of Hamlet, people will claim it’s fascinating because it’s beautiful, when in fact they find it beautiful because it fascinates them. Eliot’s attitude seems the exact inverse of critical approach in this time of new-found abundance of information, when everything is ripe for rediscovery and reassessment.

An up-to-date critic would immediately point out that Eliot himself was an iconoclast, describing Hamlet as an artistic failure. What beauty isn’t flawed in some way? Lewis’ prose style can be grotesque, yet Fitzgerald’s stilted dialogue is given a pass. Fans of Fr. Rolfe will excuse his absurdities, but are those absurdities any worse than those accepted in D.H. Lawrence?

Perhaps the entire history of criticism is less concerned with finding the good than with finding the better than you think.