To say that a work of art is good,
but incomprehensible to the majority of men,
is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good
but that most people can't eat it.
True, Mr. Tolstoy. Or, I should say, I believe that too. Art and food are so much alike that the metaphor can play and play and not be tired for a long time.
Both require training of the tastes, for instance. Perhaps we are accustomed to that which neither satisfies nor delights. Lots of so-called "art" is like mass-produced and pre-packaged food, and it really is objectively icky. ("Icky" is a highly specialized art critique term.) But most foods, and most art (and most people, and most anything else that is alive in some way) will appeal more to some folks than to others. Good art is not universally loved - but it ought to be universally comprehensible.
I've thought about this a lot over the past few months. We've a son who prides himself on his avant garde tastes ... but it's more than that. He not only believes he has found something of good value, but he also believes he has found something of great power and beauty and artistic merit in the largest sense of the concepts. And so I have listened when commanded to, and honestly, I think I can almost taste what he tastes in the weird and eccentric dishes he has served me. I haven't developed a taste for it myself, but I do get it. I understand it. It's in the escargot and smoked alligator sausage variety (or, actually, reindeer steaks - at least one of those bands is Nordic), but I do understand it. Sorta.
Yak, anyone? Or drone metal fused with something I don't know the name of to make a sound that has obvious roots in chant but probably irreparably harms the vocal apparatus of the "singer?"
Last weekend in class, another piece was added to this mental jigsaw I've been working on for awhile. As an introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies, our instructor gave us two poems to discuss and analyze. (He's very good at this, by the way. Few in the room had done that sort of work, but he was both specific enough and open enough to get the whole room going on some fairly in-depth work. It was a lot of fun!)
After we'd spent some time with our poems, he asked each group what they'd come up with, and he responded to the answers. And then he made the gloriously gorgeous point that good literature is large enough to sustain many interpretations, viewpoints, and perspectives; bad literature clubs the reader over the head with one correct and intended interpretation only. An old-fashioned flash bulb popped in my head, and a section of this topic of art, food, literature, and life was illuminated suddenly and completely for me.
Good art, good literature, good food, and a good life --- they're all alive. And live things are not seen only one way. A fundamentalist of any stripe will tell you "this is the right way" and "this is the right view" -- but art, words, foods, and life aren't like that. Not really. There is a right way and there are many right views for living things.
And that does not mean there is no wrong or bad way. That's what I used to think. I used to believe that it was my job to find The Right Way and The Truth about a thing, and I thought that to not find it was to be wrong - to be in error. There was a piece of life - and living things - that I could not see. Yes, there are wrong ways. That part is in the picture. It's wrong to beat your wife and kids (or to bully them in any other less obvious way), but there are a zillion zillion ways to love them. Lots of right ways to be the head of the home. Lots of right ways to live a life or raise kids or make lasagna or music or poetry. Lots of right ways doesn't mean there's no wrong way.
Golly, I love being in school. I really do.
And here's one of the poems we discussed --- what do you see here? Human development? Education? Useless musings? There is no single right thing. From Odes to Common Things, originally written in Spanish by Pablo Neruda, this is "Ode to the Dictionary."
Broad ox back, ponderous
beast of burden, heavy book
when I was young
I had no idea you existed, so wrapped up was I
in my own perfection:
I thought I was quite an item.
Puffed up like a moody bullfrog,
I pronounced: "I get
from rumbling Sinai.
I shall distill
their pure shapes by alchemy,
for I have magic powers."
The great Magus said nothing.
Ancient and weighty, in its worn
held its tongue, refused to reveal its secrets.
But one day,
after I had consulted it
and cast it aside,
after I had
a useless, outworn thing,
after it had done long months
of duty as my easy chair
and pillow, without complaining,
it couldn't take it any longer: it rose up
in my doorway,
growing fast, rustling it's pages
and its nests,
rustling its high branches.
It became a tree--
apple tree, crab apple or orchard apple,
quivered brightly in its inexhaustible canopy of leaves,
words opaque and musical,
fertile in the foliage of language,
laden with truth and sound.
I turn to
to form these syllables
out of air.
Farther down the page, there's
a hollow word, waiting for olive oil or ambrosia.
And nearby there's
Stoop Stout Stove
Stork and Storm:
that slide like slippery grapes
or explode when exposed to light
like blind seeds once confined
to vocabulary's cellars,
now come back to life, communicating life again.
Once again the heart burns them up.
Dictionary, you are not
a grave, a tomb, or a coffin,
neither sepulcher nor mausoleum:
you are preservation,
field of rubies,
And it is a beautiful thing
to pluck from your columns
the precise, the noble
or the harsh,
hardened like the blade of a plow,
secure in this role
of outmoded tool,
in its precise beauty
and its medallion-toughness.
Also that other word,
the one that slipped
between the lines
but popped suddenly,
deliciously into the mouth, smooth as an almond
or tender as a fig.
Dictionary, guide just one
of your thousand hands, just one
of your thousand emeralds
to my mouth,
to the point of my pen,
to my inkwell
at the right moment,
give me but a
of your virgin springs,
a single grain
When I most need it,
a single trill
from your dense, musical
jungle depths, or a bee's
a fallen fragment
of your ancient wood
by endless seasons of jasmine,
shutter or note,
a single seed:
I am made of earth and my song is made of words.