Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pleasure, Taste, Discrimination

A provocative quote "submitted for discussion" over at Mark's blog this morning, on the subject of "elitism." It comes from Donald Davie, the critic and poet--a dour man, by the sound of this, at any rate, but a smart one, and perhaps by "dour" I simply mean "serious." In any case, says Davie (in part):
" the arts, as between the genuine and the fake, or between the achieved and the unachieved, there cannot be any halfway house. The Calvinist doctrines of election and reprobation may be false and brutal in every other realm of human endeavour; in the arts they rule. And the catholicism of Lewis and Tolkien becomes, when extended into the arts, merely a lax eclecticism..."
(For the source, and more from the passage, see the link above.)

My comment on this earlier today was flip, perhaps--I'll let you read it chez Mark--and I think I'll have to revisit this when my head is somewhat clearer. For now, let me pose against it, as a counterpoint, these passages from early in Auden's The Dyer's Hand:
Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.
A child's reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does.

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, "I know what I like," he is really saying "I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu," because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his won is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we hve not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was for us as children, the proper guide to what we should read (5-6)
Why pair these passages? Damned if I know. For the contrast in tone, if nothing else: the gentle catholicity of Auden (small "c," but you know what I mean) against the strictness of the Davie. You know which I prefer. Davie's categories--the genuine and the fake, the achieved and the unachieved--seem too cut and dried to account for the range of pleasures I take in, well, charming minor poems, all the time. He excludes, but without regret. Maybe that's what I bristle at.

And yet, and yet...I've spent the day slogging through a truly annoying novel (Erica Jong's Sappho's Leap, which only duty to Parnassus has kept in my lap), and I certainly have no compunctions about passing judgment on that. Am I, then, a hypocrite? Or just, at last, at long last, over forty? ("Thank God for forty," as a particularly charming minor poem says!)

More to come--and, next week, I'll start blogging my NEH seminar, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry," during which such issues will certainly arise.

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