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The Morality of Art, or the Evils of Mediocrity
You could describe his morality as... By the way, what is
morality? Do you know?

Of course. It’s when somebody is going to die.

       — from a conversation with children

Why is it that evenings are so modest?

       — from another conversation, at sunset
Conversations about art and religion almost inevitably turn into discussions about morality. More often than not, morality is all that remains when you extract art from religion.

Even worse is when people use the word religion to mean a special type of morality, and little more. I use the word morality and not ethics, keeping in mind the distinct provenances of these two words—from Latin and Greek, respectively. The child’s etymology of "morality," from the epigraph above, confuses morality with "mortality," but it captures the semantic shading that imbues this word in our language. Morality may not exterminate us, but it certainly checks our movements. We bear no illusions about morality; and we are quite sure that whoever invented or teaches us morality bears no illusions about us. It is insulting, when you think about it. The deadening fist of morality will come down upon us if we dare not to do its bidding. Morality informs us of the inescapable punishment we already taste in it. For in the name of morality we are robbed of everything we had before morality appeared, even though we somehow managed to get along splendidly without it. Take for example fairytales that as children we pored over with pleasure, attending to every detail as the story unfolded, to the style and characters. Morality robs us of all this in the blink of an eye: suddenly it turns out that it all “meant” something but had no real value of its own.

In weightier terms, moralism disenchants us not only by its poor and joyless anthropological premises and its cosmic pessimism—consider, for instance, the proverbs, “In the strong man’s house the weak always bears the blame,” and “The flatterer will always find a welcoming corner in the heart.”—but also by the perverse joy it takes in its scripted “moral” conclusions—“Aha, I told you so!” We are reminded of the Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov’s poem of the “Quartet” of monkey, ass, goat and bear:

No matter how you sit, my friends,
Musicians you will never be!

And yet, why shouldn’t they be musicians, ad majorem Dei gloriam1, as in the old German tale [about the musicians of Bremen]? But moralism also disenchants because as a metaphysics it abolishes what exists. It says, what is has no meaning of its own; its moral root must be extracted. Extract the root and throw the rest of the plant away.

Writers are normally considered moralists when they have fully adopted the conditio humana, when they neither forget nor let others forget that this world is imperfect, radically spoiled, that man is petty and that “our good deeds are nothing more than vices in disguise,” as la Rochefoucauld once remarked. Moralism abolishes history as the narrative of the particular: people are people wherever you go. Moralism inherits its nasty demeanor from classical mechanics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It also comes from evolutionary theory’s notion of the survival of the fittest, and we find it in Pavlov’s experiments. I see in that poor dog—with his externalized fistula used to collect saliva—the embodiment of every fabled animal and every living being that moralists and didactic writers use to drive home their relentless logic. In short, it comes from every science we learned in high school. They taught us to disregard everything we had previously known about the world as childish and illiterate; and they taught us the lesson so well that when we become scientifically and morally educated readers, we no longer recognize our own experience in poetic images. Instead, we attribute them to the author’s fantasy and to aesthetics.

I am not interested in aesthetics here, and if I have drawn a hasty and imprecise connection between morality and science, that is because science is generally invoked when one talks about art, religion and morality. It provides, at least, the silent background against which all other relations become clear. We generally oppose art to science, and art can be associated with religion by virtue of its nonscientific nature. While I unfortunately can claim no expertise in the natural sciences, nevertheless I am told that for scientists themselves such an opposition between religion and science is very much a thing of the past. New scientific thought seems to have abandoned its doctrinal ambitions and—as a whole—a “scientific” understanding of the world that would absolutely discount the action of a creative will. But the average person, the non-scientist, lives with a sedimentary “scientism” that consists mainly in what I would call a cosmic moralism, with its determinism and its primitive understanding of cause and effect. Such causes are as senseless and aimless, as indifferent to the particular and unique as is morality.

Make no mistake: I am talking about morality and moralism, and not about creative moral teachings such as Aristotle’s. These are no less immoral than the Fleurs du mal if judged by a Victorian moral code, by which I mean something like a criminal code. Such codes are intended to uphold the social order, to protect it from the individual and from his undesirable and dangerous proclivities. (No doubt both codes also serve to forestall the dissolution of the individual personality, but only as a side effect.) Art proffers such frequent apologia for these undesirable proclivities that it is generally seen as immoral or even amoral. We will set aside for the moment the most intentionally shocking attacks by artists on various moral codes (familial, professional, civil virtue and so forth). Instead, let us consider a rather unscandalous example that offers a more trenchant challenge to conventional moral wisdom: the verses that Dylan Thomas dedicated to his dying father.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This revolt against moralism seems all the more profound to me because it gets at its very roots: the function of putting to sleep, of calming, of taming life. The falsely religious names for this are meekness, enlightenment, obedience. Likewise, conventional wisdom is full of sayings, such as “Time flies.” But even a moment’s reflection will expose how opposed this attitude is to the spiritual gift of peace and humility. To such an attitude T. S. Eliot coldly retorts, “Time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.”2 Like Dylan Thomas, Eliot, with eyes wide open, objects to the “great wisdom” of age:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The author of the Four Quartets opposes this false serenity not to boldness, as one might expect, but to humility!

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I hear the same theme in Osip Mandelstam’s verses on inspiration:

And when the sea had filled me,
Measure was a pestilence to me.

From these examples we begin to suspect that what is generally called immorality—even by artists—is in truth morality—and even moralism of a certain kind. This is the light in which I want to present art here. Not that this paradoxical and hermetic didacticism is the final or highest task of the work of art or the artist, but one might say it is the negative, preliminary substance of the work, without which the work is incomplete. It is what enables art to surprise us endlessly with its quality of wholeness that seems at once superhuman, immaculate, and impenetrable to the calculations of a quotidian rationality. Such wholeness always exceeds the sum of its parts.

It is in another medium altogether—in visual images—that we find the most interesting and productive encounters between artistic and spiritual experience; certain secular and religious images bear uncanny resemblances. These images make us wonder how it is that the dark, wild, passionate soul of an artist who knows nothing of ascetic labors can see something like what the religious ascetic sees? Or is it just a fluke, an irrational and unwarranted favor granted from above to those idle ne’er-do-wells whom Pushkin’s Salieri found so insulting? “All say there is no justice here on earth,/ But there is no justice up in heaven either,” he laments.6 One thinks of the Improvisor in Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights: a petty, grubby, egotistical and stingy figure, who resembles most authors as their contemporaries describe them. It is to such people that artistic gifts are granted? This very incongruity caused Zabolotsky to end his ruminations on this theme with an open question:

Why does the unreasoning force of art
So disturb our feelings
And raise above the world such hearts?

The Romantic answer to this question is at once all too familiar and effective in its own way: yes, when he is not engaged in art the author is indeed like that, as in Pushkin’s “Poet,” which begins “Until Apollo calls the poet / To make a sacred sacrifice, / He wallows in the petty cares / And vanities of the hectic world.” This gift acts in an irrational manner (an “unreasoning force”), and it pays no heed to the personal qualities of those gifted. Or at least, only certain personal qualities are incompatible with it, namely propriety and respectability. The person of art not only may be monstrous: it is practically his professional obligation to be a morally hideous creature. It is precisely in this setting, where bad behavior is labeled “normal,” that Romanticism becomes bohemianism—if by bohemianism we mean willful, self-interested and indiscriminate destruction in the name of “creating chef d’ouevres.”

I have no great love for the bohemian way of life and would not wish to defend it even for the sake of people dear to me who created beautiful things and who lived such a lifestyle with every fiber of their being. I continue to believe that the link between their way of life and their works is a purely negative one. I have heard bohemian council of all kinds from many of our writers: “If you want to write good poetry, you need to fall in love with a scoundrel,” or “A great poem is always born out of illness or crime.” Not only do these recipes seem not to produce any work of note for those who proclaim them, but their insipid thoughtlessness provokes a host of objections. Why, for instance, have millions of stories of crimes and illness not given birth to Les Fleurs du Mal or Brothers Karamazov? All those countless pathologies and Freudian complexes thought to accompany genius—how is it they have produced so relatively few great works? And what about that monotonous psychic state that accompanies true illness, true crime, true passion for a scoundrel, a state that deprives the sufferer of the freedom of mind to consider “the plot’s form and the hero’s name”?8 Does the bohemian way of life not drag one into such a monotonous state? Let us take a closer look at this “Romantic” notion of the rift between the “dark” or “worthless” artist and his “divine tongue,” a notion of which bohemianism is a travesty. In my experience, when people talk about Romanticism they have its parodic epigone—bohemian culture—in mind.

There is a linguistic phenomenon that I think illustrates well this bohemian slippage in terms. Émile Benveniste discovered the cultural phenomenon of the “paradox of first-person address.” Not all statements can be made in the first person; some verbs, when used in first person and in present tense, express situations that can not possibly hold true in their primary meaning. The simplest example is, “I am mistaken in what I am saying.” The problem holds in the future tense as well: “I will be mistaken in what I am about to say.” Yet the formula works in second- and third-person: “He is mistaken in what he is saying.” And so, bohemian discourse seems to me to break the rule of the paradox of first-person address. Here is an example, where the poetess speaks of herself:

I lived in cursed shame,
And yet my soul was white as snow.

And a few decades earlier, from Esenin:

Though it is true I’m sometimes drunk
My eyes flash with a wondrous light.10

Claudel writes almost the same thing about Verlaine:

It is better to get drunk as pigs than to be like us

—but here he uses third person! Not for grammatical reasons, I would say, but rather out of a healthy sense of shame. The famous line, “Love us, sullied as we are!” pushes the bounds of decency, but if we change it from the imperative into first person (essentially, “I love being sullied because I’m still better than some people!”), then we end up with a total disgrace.11

For these reasons I am no more partial to the bohemian than I am to the Philistine he so scorns. Besides, it is when, like the bohemian, the Philistine defies the paradox of first-person address that he is at his most culpable. Even if he uses different expressions and gestures—something like the Pharisee used when he prayed his famous prayer thanking God. To get a full picture of the inverse relation between the bohemian genius and the Philistine, we need only to imagine the sinner in the place of the Gospel’s tax collector, praying, “Thank you, God, for not making me like that proper, fastidious (and so on) person over there!”

But let us return to the theme of the “unjust gift,” the “unreasoning force.” I fear this is too expansive a theme to discuss in any satisfying way. Indeed, we are dealing here not just with morality or aesthetics, but with theology, for this theme raises the problem of grace and free will. Is such an injustice completely unjust? Is such an unreasoning force completely unreasonable? Does it stand in opposition to every aspect of this “n’er-do-well”? Or might something in him echo it, something that quotidian morality does not consider a virtue, or as a sin when it is lacking, something that it does not take into account?

An Orthodox ascetic once said that human freedom participates in every true gift: no gift is given without some kind of deep acceptance of it. What kind of acceptance? What is it that the artist accepts? To answer this question is to consider how art (or an artwork) can be seen as a moral lesson.

Boris Pasternak has already provided us with the most condensed and minimal expression of what being an artist requires:

To be alive, and only alive,
Alive and only to the end.

Does this definition clarify anything? I fear it does not since the very meaning of “life” has long been forgotten—by the efforts of quotidian morality most of all—what Dostoevky’s Ivan Karamazov would call “Euclidean.” Such everyday morality requires not that its pupils “be alive,” but that they assiduously observe certain prohibitions and prescriptions. This type of didactic mentality came to shape the character of standard religious morality, provoking the understandable revulsion of all those who had a taste for an artistic approach to life (such as Nietzsche). This objectifying morality came to be called in German “spirit” (Geist), in opposition to “life” (Leben), which was seen as immanence (particularly in the thought of Thomas Mann), as a powerful irrational force that made no distinction between good and evil. Moralists chose “spirit” over “life,” artists chose “life” over “spirit.” Thomas Mann sought to bring them together by “hermetic” means. He tried to use Irony to soften the opposition between Myth (“life”)—in all its beauty, its fruitful force and inhuman harshness—and Humanism (“spirit”). But where does this opposition between “spirit” and “life” actually come from? Do we not read of it in the first few pages of Scripture (Genesis 2:7)?

Here we see how morality (including religious morality) has completely abandoned the theme of nature (or the world, or creation, or life). Contemporary life inhabits a space defined by a mechanistic, utilitarian, and fundamentally cynical view of life: “Life is a to-go order...”13 And rather than trying to change it, we try to carve out a space for the “religious” here. But the religious can never survive in such a space! It ends up looking like a halo painted over the head of a saint in a pious naturalist painting: you would never see a halo through such lenses! Either we read it as an allegorical sign in a non-allegorical setting, or, if read according to the naturalist mode, as a special headdress made out of a light metal—tin foil, perhaps. In my view, this is what moral-religious prescriptions look like in their popular form: they make plenty of concrete recommendations but fail to comprehend the real expanse of life, its depths, its building blocks.

When art is really art and not just the production of things in the form of art (which is all too common), it bears special knowledge of another way of life. Art gives radical expression to it: it says that all other ways of life are really not life.

And until you have attained these:
Die and become!
You will be but a dreary guest
On the dark earth.

This way of life consists in a blessed longing, Selige Sehnsucht, as Goethe entitles his poem, cited here. And not a longing for “another” world, but for this one, “for this very one,” as Goethe would say. Its model is the life of nature, which can survive only by virtue of such a longing. Art’s moral recipe is expressed not so much in words (such as the lines cited above from Goethe and Pasternak) as in the work’s form, the liminality of which distinguishes it from naturally-occurring forms. And this recipe is radicalism, a radicalism so insistent we must speak of it not as art’s morality but as art’s moralism, it’s pedagogical task.

It is a moralism of the natural, such as we find in our second epigraph. The quotations above refer to qualities such as “meekness” and “humility.” These are not social, conventional or psychological virtues, but something for which the Russian language has still not worked out a fitting word. The semantic context of this quality includes anything from horticulture to the to the cultivated individual, much as with virtus, in Latin, or arete, from Greek. Such a moralism is founded on the knowledge of the living as that which is well cultivated. Anything that cannot be described this way is not simply bad or dishonest: it is not alive. It is not the artist’s task to improve or breed the dead. Nor is it life’s task—and especially that life about which the Lord speaks (John 10:10).

After all, life’s just a flash,
Only a dissolving
Of our selves into all others
As a gift to them.

Just a wedding in window’s depths
Tearing, tearing upwards,
Just a song and just a dream,
Just a grey-blue dove.

When compared with Goethe’s fiery verses, Pasternak’s breezy version seems more successful from a moral standpoint—indeed, it practically preaches altruism! And yet how carefree are the elements he lists, the comparisons he makes—most of all that final comparison, the “grey-blue dove” who flies off somewhere into its native folkloric element!
Goethe speaks of a “blessed longing,” Pasternak of a carefree spirit. Tsvetaeva would speak of boundlessness. We could connect Blok with something like the word faithfulness (faithfulness as a form of enchantment). Rilke, of attention. Akhmatova, of sadness or care, and especially of care as in a burden for others.

Though these descriptions may lack some precision, nevertheless these poets’ words make up a kind of poetic science of life, a moral science. We could come up with many more such words to represent singular poetic worlds, but not a one of these words aspires to be a moral principle.

We are fortunate that there is room at the inn of humanity for even these wandering words: it is that very room where the vessel of precious myrrh is broken to the chagrin of philanthropic moralism. The sensible thief was the first to be promised a place in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the woman who perpetrated this senseless waste was the first—or perhaps the only person—to be promised eternal memory on earth. What I want to say is that the artist as moralist hews closest to the gospel science of life precisely where practical “morality” must shake its head in disapproval and walk away.

The moralist’s enemy is the criminal. The enemy of artistic morality is mediocrity. We are all aware of the danger of criminal proclivities. Few but artists have appreciated how dangerous is the evil of mediocrity. The “genius” and the “philistine” may merge in near parodic fashion: indeed, our century’s “luminaries” manage to combine these undesirable qualities. But the opposition of the artist to mediocrity is real and profound. I quoted earlier the final stanza of a Goethe poem; the poem opens with this warning:

Tell no one but the wise,
For the mob will laugh right out:
I want to praise the force of life,
That longs for fiery death.

According to the morality of art, as we see in Goethe’s depiction of the “mob,” “ungiftedness” is a sin, even the gravest of sins. How can this be? Is this not the kind of elitist arrogance that the retiring and virtuous mob expects from its monstrous geniuses? I doubt my negative response will carry much weight, but I would still like to emphasize that what I have in mind here are not “talents” and “gifts” as we normally think of them. When I speak of mediocrity, I mean a kind that one chooses, and not that with which one is born. I mean the choice of living without life, of dull-wittedness and blissful ignorance.

We may ask who in his right mind would choose such things. The person who thinks such a choice will protect him from something unpredictable, something uncontrollable and free. He makes his choice and defends it. And he must defend this choice a great deal more fiercely than any other; for life—carefree, fire-hungry, boundless, sad, attentive—will persist in visiting him to his last days—and he must answer its every arrival with ever greater mercilessness.

Translated by Martha Kelly

Thanks to the St. Katherine Review for permission to reprint this translation. The original publication can be found in St. Katherine Review 1 (January 2011).

1 To the great glory of God. (Lat.)

2 From “The Dry Salvages” (The Four Quartets).

3 From “Old Coker” (The Four Quartets).

4 Ibid.

5 The “p” and “q” of a Greek flute...” (Fleity grecheskoi teta i iota) (1937).

6 These lines open Pushkin’s play “Mozart and Salieri” (1831).

7 From Nikolai Zaboltsky’s poem “The Old Actress” (1956).

8 A quote from Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin (1833).

9 The first lines from a poem by Bella Akhmadulina, “I live in cursed shame…” (1960-61).

10 From Sergei Esenin’s “Stanzas” (1924).

11 The line “Love us, sullied as we are,” is best known from Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls, though he was quoting a famous Russian actor, Mikhail Shchepkin.

12 From his poem “To be famous is not pretty...” (Byt’ znamenitym nekrasivo).

13 Joseph Brodsky, “__” (Zhizn’ est’ tovar na vynos).

14 “Und solang du das nicht hast/ Dieses: Stirb und werde!/ Bist du nur ein trüber Gast/ Auf der dunklen Erde.” From Goethe’s “Blessed Longing” (Selige Sehnsucht) (1814).

15 Boris Pasternak, “Wedding.” From the verse cycle in Doctor Zhivago (1946-1953).

16 “Sagt es niemand, nur der Weisen,/ Weil die Menge gleich verhöhnet,/ Das Lebend’ge will ich preisen,/ Das nach Flammentod sich sehnet.”
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