New Standards in Art and Literature


THE secret of practical success is to have defined and possible aims and to adapt one’s means toward them. Vague aims and, still more, unattainable aims are destructive of common-sense in practical affairs. Everything in this sphere depends upon the calculable and the calculated; upon cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth; upon precisely adapting means to a precise end; upon the correct use of tools for a given piece of work.

But what distinguishes art from practical conduct is the substitution, as end, of the impossible and unattainable for the possible and attainable. Art cannot have a circumscribed and limited aim, on peril of reducing its votaries to the rank of craftsmen simply. Craft has its aim as good craftsmanship, the production of the intended effect by the most economical use of means. But art, though it employs craftsmanship, has not the aim of good workmanship, or the production of an intended effect. Its aim is the unattainable, the unrealizable, the impossible; and all real works of art are the by-products of a striving toward what can never be produced. Only in this aspect is art comparable with religion, whose works likewise are by-products, addenda to the search for the unrealizable Kingdom of Heaven. An art without unattainable aims is at best journeyman art, never master art; and at worst it substitutes refinement of technique for culture of the spirit.

In no respect is modern art more defective than in precisely this and because of precisely this: that its standards and aims have ceased to be impossible. We are all practical men nowadays, and the doctrines of business have become the working rules of professed artists and writers. Just such and such a work must be produced; and just such and such a preparation, assemblage of materials, and even personal experience are necessary toward it — just so much and no more to produce the intended effect. Is it to present a section of American life or a cameo of life in Patagonia? One must have seen so much of the original, have been there for a sufficient length of time, to entitle one to the defined impression; and with this material the defined aim of presentation is presumably accomplished.

Critics, of course, succumb to this deadening influence more easily than artists. After all, artists have a conscience sensitive to the degree to which they are artists; and no amount of skill in craftsmanship, finesse, and technique, or the approval these receive, really stills an artistic conscience that has once waked and cried in the night. That artists are still capable of a degree of shame in presence even of their most successful works is evidence that the spirit of religion or the pursuit of the unattainable is not yet dead in them. Critics, as a rule, have no such conscience; they are theologians — not saints. What are byproducts for the artist are end-products for the critic; and since the critic is naturally unaware of the unattainable aim entertained by the artist, he can, even if he be so minded, divine its character and intensity only from the by-product it induces, for the invisible tree of art is known only to the artist, and the critic can judge only by the visible fruit.

For this reason it is exceedingly difficult to reinfuse art with its necessary impossible aims when once they cease to exist in the minds of artists. They are like a virtue of which the original possessor has lost the secret. The critic can see clearly enough that something has gone out of art: the fruit that drops from the invisible tree is not what it used to be; it is no longer paradisaical. At the same time the cause remains unknown and indiscoverable; and, in any case, much more than an analysis of the taste and flavor of the fruit is necessary to renew the life of the tree. Restoring art that has lost its unattainable aim is like attempting by reason to restore the youth of a religion. The source can be affected only by a fresh source, not by any of its own issues; and, in fact, no religion that has once died has experienced resurrection, and no art that has once declined has ever been renewed from within. Art cannot save art; and still less, when artists have failed art, can critics save it.


Hitherto there have been many happy accidents in the history of art in the West. Art has descended Parnassus through several millennia by a series of reëenforced impulses, each phase at some critical moment of its development receiving from a superior stream a new force and direction. The Greek stream, at the moment when it was about to die of its own impulse, received by accident a tributary of Egyptian art which raised its source considerably above its original level, for the Greeks, in the absence of Egyptian tradition, and even with it, were ‘children.’ Still later the art of the early Middle Ages was miraculously saved from imminent death by renaissant contact with the classical sources, which themselves had been reënforced from the Egyptian. Later still, and on a different plane, what has been the history of European art since the Renaissance but the finding of a common level? Here Spain had something to give France; here Holland something to give England; and recently Russia something to give the Teutonic world. But these are trivialities only, details of local distribution. Cultures much on a level cannot profoundly affect each other; not renaissances, but only ‘movements,’ spring from the congress of coeval cultures. And ever since the Renaissance all European art has been nothing more than waves affecting waves. There has been no new tidal movement.

The more conscientious — or, rather, conscious — of both artists and critics are aware of the facts even though they are ignorant of the cause. Everywhere the rumor runs that art is dead: not too loud a rumor, lest the world lose hope; but sufficiently loud to be plainly heard, and uttered with more anxiety than is compatible with doubt of its veracity. But before the fact shall be publicly known and admitted that ‘the King is dead,’ shall we not try first to revive him and, if that fail, to prepare his successor? Necromancy has its place here maybe; and in the absence of necromancy perhaps a pseudo-idol may be manufactured: a visible and imposing dummy for an invisible king.

It is in this light that the recent attempts to infuse into art the blood of savage cultures may be understood: as also the various and numerous schools of art-invention. What profounder sources are accessible than our common aboriginal racial roots, the black, the red, the yellow? Let us look to West Africa, to Tahiti, to the Mayas and Aztecs, to China and Japan; concurrently let invention be tried: imagism, cubism, Joyceism, planes, solids, angles, and every verbal and geometric device. Alas, our aboriginal roots are just not dynamic sources. The invisible tree of art, like the tree Yggdrasill, is fed from the sky downward: its roots are in Heaven, in the impossible, in the never as yet, and perhaps never to be, actualized; not in history but in imagination, not in any past, however ancient, but in a future only potential. Invention likewise has its limitations in the already given; and combination is not creation. Neither by transfusion of blood from inferior races nor by any fresh combination of known elements can art be restored to life. Neither black magic nor sleight of hand can raise our dead.


But is the case hopeless, and is culture irrevocably doomed? There is a remedy and not an impossible one: its name is ancient India. Ancient India stands in the same relation to us ‘children’ of Europe as ancient Egypt occupied toward the ‘children’ of Greece. Europe to-day is ancient Greece writ large. India, moreover, is our most ancient parent; our oldest racial ancestor; our Adam and Eve. Truly enough, her visage is wrinkled with age, and her words are a mumble of incoherence. But so must, no doubt, have appeared to the Greek child the ancient wisdom of Egypt. Pythagoras is not reported to have found it easy to persuade Greece to go to school to Egypt. On the other hand, we are not obliged to speculate darkly in the philosophy of India. The philosophies of India are without exception no more than mummies, the enshrined corpses of once living ideas, and dead very long since. And, even if they could be revived, art can no more be saved by philosophy than by art itself. The dead cannot raise the dead. Nor need we spend any time with the Indian antiquarians. Scholarship of whatever degree is barren. No — we have, by grace, accessible to us in the remains of ancient India something infinitely more living than philosophies, and infinitely more inspiring than scholarship. We have a literature translatable and translated into our own tongue, of such dimensions and qualities that its chief work alone, the Mahabharata, towers over all subsequent literature as the Pyramids look over the Memphian sands. Realization of the inexhaustible significance of the Mahabharata would be the initiation of a modern Renaissance, as surely as the revival of ancient Egypt made possible the dawn of Greece, and the swimming of Homer into the ken of the early Middle Ages stirred the watchers of the skies to ecstatic silence on a peak in Darien.

The Mahabharata, competently translated into English under the supervision of the late Max Müller, and shortly to be beautifully retranslated and published under the auspices of the English Academy of Literature, is the greatest single effort of literary creation of any culture in human history. It is difficult for any mind to conceive the mind that conceived it; and the effort to do so is almost itself a liberal education. A walk through its table of contents is more than a Sabbath-day’s journey. The Iliad and the Odyssey are episodes in it: and the celebrated Bhagavad-Gita is simply the record of a single conversation on the eve of one of its many battles. Characters appear by hundreds, and episodes follow episodes with the infinite resourcefulness of Time. Nevertheless, there is no moment when the plan of the work is forgotten. At regular stages, by astronomical clock-time as it were, everything is gathered together or is reassembled for a fresh phase of the continuous history. In the interval, relationships have been established between scores of characters, each of whom, moreover, has undergone mutation by experience, yet, on reassembly, the whole innumerable caravan is marshaled and set off again without the least confusion in the mind of the reader. Never was writer more currently aware of his readers than Vyasa, the author. Ganeca, who transcribed it to Vyasa’s dictation, had stipulated that he should be released if once the meaning should cease to be plain to him, and he was not released until the end. And Ganeca is every reader.

Scholarship, lay and ‘occult,’ has indulged its usual speculations in the meaning of this Cyclopean monument. It is variously the history of a soul in time, the history of the human race, the history of our planet and of our solar system; again, it is the story of the conquest of India by the Aryans, or of a civil war between the conquerors themselves. Let it be all of these, as their authors agree to disagree. Who cares if Helen was a myth or a fact? Homer gave us literature. In the case of the Mahabharata, as in the case of the Bible, the theologians have sat too long upon the stone on the tomb. It is time that it were rolled away. Taken as literature simply, as the most colossal work of literary art ever created, its example and inspiration are as multiform and vital as time itself. It contains every literary form and device known to all the literary schools, every story ever enacted or narrated, every human type and circumstance ever created or encountered.

Unlike the reading of derivative works of art, the reading of the Mahabharata is first-hand experience. One ends it different, just as one emerges different from everything real.

But is it not precisely this that is needed for a Renaissance — something at once different, real, a new experience, and, at the same time, indubitably art? To the Greeks, Egyptian art was religion only because its standards were incomparable, hopelessly incomparable, with the prevalent Greek standards. We have only to recall the tones of the early Florentine Platonists to realize that in their eyes the classical Greeks were divine. Where but in the Mahabharata shall our age find a similarly fresh literary source that shall be Scripture to our literature — Scripture being literature in pursuit of an impossible aim.