05 May, 2007

The Basilisk

I once asked my friend M (not the usual M, mind, but rather a Californian girl whose dishevelled habiliments were a foil for her sardonism, generally à point) for her opinion—were I to emblazon upon a shirt a single word to express my being, my essence—which word should I choose? At that time we were strolling up the streets of Clifton towards the bridge, curiosity of mental and manual accomplishment, and further up, towards the camera obscura, that realm beyond the earth, one pound entrance, where distanted eyes, wreathed in darkness, in imitation of the very asteristic welkin, could observe the little terrestrial folk going bimbling about in absolute silence.


Her answer was swift: Aesthete, she said. (In retrospect I realise that what she said was Esthete—and the American audacity to spell the word without an a is clearly why their country is going to the dogs.) M spoked this softest of words with a mélange of affection and disparagation—the sort of mélange, incidentally, that I wholeheartedly encourage in all my acquaintances, offline and on. But what if it were true? What if I were an aesthete?

*

Come, let us say I am an aesthete. Why, then, should I be so insensible to the charms of beautiful things, and to the horrors of uglinesses? As I see it, Mr. Cole, who has had his fair share of affection and disparagation on these pages, is a prime cut of aesthete flesh, very tender, needs just a little flame on one side, couple of minutes and bobsyeruncle—you can be reading on that one all day. Mr. Cole shows us the beautiful, which is the quintessential function of the aesthete. Ah, he says—the wonders of the late Hamza El Din, whose 'virtuosity was incredible', or of the still-living Seamus Heaney, who writes poems 'in which the radiance of the universe is always peeking through, but also his equanimity'. And likewise, Mr. Cole fulfils his duty of railing against the bad—whether a Rush Limbaugh skit or Memoirs of a Geisha. And the good is the good and the bad is the bad. He has a trained eye: he can tell a real Veronese from a chodesh, lickety-split. It is obvious that all these things—art, and society, preferably both—are terribly important to him. He seems to respond with his whole being, as an aesthete should. He is, let us say, a satisfied aesthete, an aesthete engagé. That is why I find his work so humbling.

I, on the other hand. . .

What is it that draws me back? What is it that disinclines me to say, This is beautiful, but that—that is horrible? It is as if I can find pleasure only in the most mercurial of lines, never native, never concentrate, rather, only ever caught from out of the corner of my—barely by the tail, one might say, or—because truly I am not so nimblefooted as to achieve success in any pursuit hotfooted of beauty, which in my experience, you should know, has too too much of the basilisk about it, king of beasts—for I am afraid to expend all my resources towards its capture, and afraid even to look upon it, in case it makes a bloody column of me, rooted and inflexible, unable to recant or retract—

In any event I am unfortunate enough never to be satisfied, like a gourmand plied gently with the most exquisite of delicacies until he is suddenly costive and indigest. No mind, no hand can I adore. Shakespeare. . . bores me. I cannot tell Mozart from Beethoven, Tibullus from Propertius, Veronese from Titian—let alone Veronese from chodesh. My palate is alarmingly indiscriminate, and I have no sense of smell. Literature is a millstone to me, philosophy a yarn spun by the dull, and art merely a train of gewgaws or conveyor-belt of overpriced sushimi. I prefer to laugh than to learn—but I laugh at the serious, and before the comic I am able only to groan and tsk and roll my eyes about very expressively.

Philistinism makes me sick with loathing, and yet I take more pleasure in being a philistine than in being a connoisseur.

*

The central problem is that I find the heaviness of expectation insufferable. The pain of hearing a man complete a sentence, slowly, in exact accordance with my prediction, is almost physical. I wish, thus, that I could attain a state of complete naivety, that prediction and the force of expectation might be foreign to me. I wish, indeed, that all experiences might be foreign to me.
I will, then, tell of the life of old which I provided for mortals. First, there was peace over all, like water over the hands. The earth produced no terror and no disease; on the other hand, things needful came of their own accord. Every torrent flowed with wine, barley-cakes strove with wheat-loaves for men's lips, beseeching that they be swallowed if men loved the whitest. Fishes would come to the house and bake themselves, then serve themselves on the tables.

— Telecleides, in Athenaeus, 6. 269
In truth, I think, discovery is the only thing of beauty in the whole world.

5 comments:

Persephone said...

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest III.ii.135-43

Paul said...

"...[T]he American audacity to spell the word without an a is clearly why their country is going to the dogs."

Too bloody right. Ditto 'o's as in 'oesophagus' and 'oestrus'.

"Philistinism makes me sick with loathing, and yet I take more pleasure in being a philistine than in being a connoisseur."

I suspect that the philistinism you enjoy is not that of bullish ignorance, but rather comes from an educated rebellion against just that "heaviness of expectation."

Such is the neophile's burden.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Ditto 'o's as in 'oesophagus'"

There's an acid-reflex condition called GERD, where the E stands for esophageal. Whenever I hear it, I insist it should be GORD.

"I suspect that..."

Yes, absolutely. Where to draw the line, though? Another topic.

chris miller said...


I wish, indeed, that all experiences might be foreign to me.

As do I -- a pre-condition, I'd say, for wearing that big "A" (or "E") on your chest.

(which wouldn't mean that you *are* an aesthete -- just that you're
trying to be one)

But you've already chosen a different career path -- haven't you ? (even though I don't believe that you "cannot tell Mozart from Beethoven" - or that you're not aware of the charm of your own prose)

Conrad H. Roth said...

"just that you're trying to be one"

In fact, I'm terrified of being one!

Re: Mozart, perhaps I am exaggerating... and re: careers, can one easily be a professional aesthete? One must eat. If academia has its disadvantages, at least it surrounds me with books, books, books!

Re: my prose: your compliments are seldom, but very rewarding. Thank you.