Sunday, August 13, 2006

Elementary Consideration

An essay in Rebecca West's Ending in Earnest: A Literary Log:

Those critics who dislike those who were given ten talents in their napkins because they have nothing in their own but holes, often accuse a book of abundance and intricacy as if these were vices: as if an author had no right to demand anything but a minimum of a reader's time and attention. Yet literature is in this matter legitimately entitled to make exactly the same demands as painting and music.

If a person standing in front of Botticelli's Birth of Venus should say, "Look here, there are far too many things in this picture. I find it far too great a strain to absorb the whiteness of Venus, and the twining of the two wind spirits in the sky, and the pattern on the robe of the nymph who steps forward to clothe the goddess, and the flowers underfoot and the two stars low on the horizon that are foundering under the inrush of day, and the little bays where it is still nearly night and the water is still dark and cold. The artist ought to have restricted himself to the representation of fewer objects," we should answer, "But you are talking very preposterous nonsense. There are certainly a great many things in this picture, but they are all beautiful things, and if you stand there and look at it in the proper spirit, thanking God for your luck in being able to do so, maybe He will let you see the whole which the painter has made out of all these component parts."

If a person should say at a performance of Don Giovanni, "I don't like this, the music keeps on changing keys, and it's all broken up into different airs, and you never know where you are because the airs keep on coming back and repeating themselves," we would say coldly, "It is evident that you are not musical. What you say of this performance is simply a melancholy and not interesting record of your own deficiencies."

But to any ass who says, "This book is too full of brilliant things and beautiful phrases," or, "I find this book too complicated in its design because its events do not follow the same sequence as in life, and establish relationships that are subtler than those which are commonly the subject of general conversation in a liner smoking room or a women's club party," we extend a tolerance that he does not deserve.

It is generally recognized that a picture need not take for its subject an apple on a plate, though some good pictures have done so, and that a sonata need not be written in the key of C major and two-four time and the mood of "Lilla's a Lady," though some good music has dared it. But it is not generally enough recognized that literature need not, neither in treatment nor in subject, be for the tiny tots.

A book cannot be too full of brilliant and beautiful phrases; but somebody may be reading it too quickly to absorb them. A book cannot have too complicated a design if it is significant; but somebody may be too dull witted to comprehend any design more complicated than a triangle. Let such somebodies go and become cooks at Childs and cease to intervene in literary matters. I am not saying that there is no such thing as an over-ornate style; but that has nothing to do with an abundance of beautiful and brilliant phrases; it has to do with an abundance of phrases that cannot be described as beautiful and brilliant since they are not significant and relevant. Neither an I saying that there is no such thing as bad design; but badness of design is far from being the same thing as complication. Ask Botticelli. Ask Bach. Ask Donne or Dante.


  1. What a marvellous excerpt. Thanks for sharing it. I've just been reading an interview with Rebecca West and relishing her blunt and forceful opinions about fellow writers. Whatever her subject, she certainly didn't mince words!

  2. I really enjoyed reading that. Have never read any Rebecca West and am thinking I really should remedy that.

  3. That is really winderful. She's got umph!

  4. I too am guilty of often reading a book too fast to absorb the brilliance. Sometimes the task of reading gets in the way of the appreciation. Thanks for the post.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.