The Use of Beauty "Nisi Citharam" Higher Harmonies Beauty and Sanity The Art and the Country Art and Usefulness Wasteful Pleasures
CHAPTERS ON ART AND LIFE.
TO ANGELICA RASPONI DALLE TESTE FROM HER GRATEFUL OLD FRIEND AND NEIGHBOUR VERNON LEE. 1885-1908.
Die Realitaet der Dinge ist der Dinge Werk; der Schein der Dinge ist der Menschen Werk; und ein Gemuet, das sich am Scheine weidet, ergoetzt sich schon nicht mehr an dem, was es empfaengt, sondern an dem, was es tut. SCHILLER, Briefe ueber Aesthetik.
THE USE OF BEAUTY.
One afternoon, in Rome, on the way back from the Aventine, the road-mender climbed onto the tram as it trotted slowly along, and fastened to its front, alongside of the place of the driver, a bough of budding bay.
Might one not search long for a better symbol of what we may all do by our life? Bleakness, wind, squalid streets, a car full of heterogeneous people, some very dull, most very common; a laborious jog-trot all the way. But to redeem it all with the pleasantness of beauty and the charm of significance, this laurel branch.
Our language does not possess any single word wherewith to sum up the various categories of things (made by nature or made by man, intended solely for the purpose of subserving by mere coincidence) which minister to our organic and many-sided aesthetic instincts: the things affecting us in that absolutely special, unmistakable, and hitherto mysterious manner expressed in our finding them beautiful. It is of the part which such things—whether actually present or merely shadowed in our mind—can play in our life; and of the influence of the instinct for beauty on the other instincts making up our nature, that I would treat in these pages. And for this reason I have been glad to accept from the hands of chance, and of that road-mender of the tram-way, the bay laurel as a symbol of what we have no word to express: the aggregate of all art, all poetry, and particularly of all poetic and artistic vision and emotion.
For the Bay Laurel—Laurus Nobilis of botanists—happens to be not merely the evergreen, unfading plant into which Apollo metamorphosed, while pursuing, the maiden whom he loved, even as the poet, the artist turns into immortal shapes his own quite personal and transient moods, or as the fairest realities, nobly sought, are transformed, made evergreen and restoratively fragrant for all time in our memory and fancy. It is a plant of noblest utility, averting, as the ancients thought, lightning from the dwellings it surrounded, even as disinterested love for beauty averts from our minds the dangers which fall on the vain and the covetous; and curing many aches and fevers, even as the contemplation of beauty refreshes and invigorates our spirit. Indeed, we seem to be reading a description no longer of the virtues of the bay laurel, but of the virtues of all beautiful sights and sounds, of all beautiful thoughts and emotions, in reading the following quaint and charming words of an old herbal:—
"The bay leaves are of as necessary use as any other in garden or orchard, for they serve both for pleasure and profit, both for ornament and use, both for honest civil uses and for physic; yea, both for the sick and for the sound, both for the living and for the dead. The bay serveth to adorn the house of God as well as of man, to procure warmth, comfort, and strength to the limbs of men and women;... to season vessels wherein are preserved our meats as well as our drinks; to crown or encircle as a garland the heads of the living, and to stick and deck forth the bodies of the dead; so that, from the cradle to the grave we have still use of it, we have still need of it."
Before beginning to expound the virtues of Beauty, let me, however, insist that these all depend upon the simple and mysterious fact that—well, that the Beautiful is the Beautiful. In our discussion of what the Bay Laurel symbolises, let us keep clear in our memory the lovely shape of the sacred tree, and the noble places in which we have seen it.
There are bay twigs, gathered together in bronze sheaves, in the great garland surrounding Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise. There are two interlaced branches of bay, crisp-edged and slender, carved in fine low relief inside the marble chariot in the Vatican. There is a fan-shaped growth of Apollo's Laurel behind that Venetian portrait of a poet, which was formerly called Ariosto by Titian. And, most suggestive of all, there are the Mycenaean bay leaves of beaten gold, so incredibly thin one might imagine them to be the withered crown of a nameless singer in a forgotten tongue, grown brittle through three thousand years and more.
Each of such presentments, embodying with loving skill some feature of the plant, enhances by association the charm of its reality, accompanying the delight of real bay-trees and bay leaves with inextricable harmonics, vague recollections of the delight of bronze, of delicately cut marble, of marvellously beaten gold, of deep Venetian crimson and black and auburn.
But best of all, most satisfying and significant, is the remembrance of the bay-trees themselves. They greatly affect the troughs of watercourses, among whose rocks and embanked masonry they love to strike their roots. In such a stream trough, on a spur of the Hill of Fiesole, grow the most beautiful poet's laurels I can think of. The place is one of those hollowings out of a hillside which, revealing how high they lie only by the sky-lines of distant hills, always feel so pleasantly remote. And the peace and austerity of this little valley are heightened by the dove-cot of a farm invisible in the olive-yards, and looking like a hermitage's belfry. The olives are scant and wan in the fields all round, with here and there the blossom of an almond; the oak woods, of faint wintry copper-rose, encroach above; and in the grassy space lying open to the sky, the mountain brook is dyked into a weir, whence the crystalline white water leaps into a chain of shady pools. And there, on the brink of that weir, and all along that stream's shallow upper course among grass and brakes of reeds, are the bay-trees I speak of: groups of three or four at intervals, each a sheaf of smooth tapering boles, tufted high up with evergreen leaves, sparse bunches whose outermost leaves are sharply printed like lance-heads against the sky. Most modest little trees, with their scant berries and rare pale buds; not trees at all, I fancy some people saying. Yet of more consequence, somehow, in their calm disregard of wind, their cheerful, resolute soaring, than any other trees for miles; masters of that little valley, of its rocks, pools, and overhanging foliage; sovereign brothers and rustic demi-gods for whom the violets scent the air among the withered grass in March, and, in May, the nightingales sing through the quivering star night.
Of all southern trees, most simple and aspiring; and certainly most perfect among evergreens, with their straight, faintly carmined shoots, their pliable strong leaves so subtly rippled at the edge, and their clean, dry fragrance; delicate, austere, alert, serene; such are the bay-trees of Apollo.
I have gladly accepted, from the hands of that tram-way road-mender, the Bay Laurel—Laurus Nobilis—for a symbol of all art, all poetry, and all poetic and artistic vision and emotion. It has summed up, better than words could do, what the old Herbals call the virtues, of all beautiful things and beautiful thoughts. And it has suggested, I hope, the contents of the following notes; the nature of my attempt to trace the influence which art should have on life.
Beauty, save by a metaphorical application of the word, is not in the least the same thing as Goodness, any more than beauty (despite Keats' famous assertion) is the same thing as Truth. These three objects of the soul's pursuit have different natures, different laws, and fundamentally different origins. But the energies which express themselves in their pursuit—energies vital, primordial, and necessary even to man's physical survival—have all been evolved under the same stress of adaptation of the human creature to its surroundings; and have therefore, in their beginnings and in their ceaseless growth, been working perpetually in concert, meeting, crossing, and strengthening one another, until they have become indissolubly woven together by a number of great and organic coincidences.
It is these coincidences which all higher philosophy, from Plato downwards, has strained for ever to expound. It is these coincidences, which all religion and all poetry have taken for granted. And to three of these it is that I desire to call attention, persuaded as I am that the scientific progress of our day will make short work of all the spurious aestheticism and all the shortsighted utilitarianism which have cast doubts upon the intimate and vital connection between beauty and every other noble object of our living.
The three coincidences I have chosen are: that between development of the aesthetic faculties and the development of the altruistic instincts; that between development of a sense of aesthetic harmony and a sense of the higher harmonies of universal life; and, before everything else, the coincidence between the preference for aesthetic pleasures and the nobler growth of the individual.
The particular emotion produced in us by such things as are beautiful, works of art or of nature, recollections and thoughts as well as sights and sounds, the emotion of aesthetic pleasure, has been recognised ever since the beginning of time as of a mysteriously ennobling quality. All philosophers have told us that; and the religious instinct of all mankind has practically proclaimed it, by employing for the worship of the highest powers, nay, by employing for the mere designation of the godhead, beautiful sights, and sounds, and words by which beautiful sights and sounds are suggested. Nay, there has always lurked in men's minds, and expressed itself in the metaphors of men's speech, an intuition that the Beautiful is in some manner one of the primordial and, so to speak, cosmic powers of the world. The theories of various schools of mental science, and the practice of various schools of art, the practice particularly of the persons styled by themselves aesthetes and by others decadents, have indeed attempted to reduce man's relations with the great world-power Beauty to mere intellectual dilettantism or sensual superfineness. But the general intuition has not been shaken, the intuition which recognised in Beauty a superhuman, and, in that sense, a truly divine power. And now it must become evident that the methods of modern psychology, of the great new science of body and soul, are beginning to explain the reasonableness of this intuition, or, at all events, to show very plainly in what direction we must look for the explanation of it. This much can already be asserted, and can be indicated even to those least versed in recent psychological study, to wit, that the power of Beauty, the essential power therefore of art, is due to the relations of certain visible and audible forms with the chief mental and vital functions of all human beings; relations established throughout the whole process of human and, perhaps, even of animal, evolution; relations seated in the depths of our activities, but radiating upwards even like our vague, organic sense of comfort and discomfort; and permeating, even like our obscure relations with atmospheric conditions, into our highest and clearest consciousness, colouring and altering the whole groundwork of our thoughts and feelings.
Such is the primordial, and, in a sense, the cosmic power of the Beautiful; a power whose very growth, whose constantly more complex nature proclaims its necessary and beneficial action in human evolution. It is the power of making human beings live, for the moment, in a more organically vigorous and harmonious fashion, as mountain air or sea-wind makes them live; but with the difference that it is not merely the bodily, but very essentially the spiritual life, the life of thought and emotion, which is thus raised to unusual harmony and vigour. I may illustrate this matter by a very individual instance, which will bring to the memory of each of my readers the vivifying power of some beautiful sight or sound or beautiful description. I was seated working by my window, depressed by the London outlook of narrow grey sky, endless grey roofs, and rusty elm tops, when I became conscious of a certain increase of vitality, almost as if I had drunk a glass of wine, because a band somewhere outside had begun to play. After various indifferent pieces, it began a tune, by Handel or in Handel's style, of which I have never known the name, calling it for myself the Te Deum Tune. And then it seemed as if my soul, and according to the sensations, in a certain degree my body even, were caught up on those notes, and were striking out as if swimming in a great breezy sea; or as if it had put forth wings and risen into a great free space of air. And, noticing my feelings, I seemed to be conscious that those notes were being played on me, my fibres becoming the strings; so that as the notes moved and soared and swelled and radiated like stars and suns, I also, being identified with the sound, having become apparently the sound itself, must needs move and soar with them.
We can all recollect a dozen instances when architecture, music, painting, or some sudden sight of sea or mountain, have thus affected us; and all poetry, particularly all great lyric poetry, Goethe's, Shelley's, Wordsworth's, and, above all, Browning's, is full of the record of such experience.
I have said that the difference between this aesthetic heightening of our vitality (and this that I have been describing is, I pray you to observe, the aesthetic phenomenon par excellence), and such other heightening of vitality as we experience from going into fresh air and sunshine or taking fortifying food, the difference between the aesthetic and the mere physiological pleasurable excitement consists herein, that in the case of beauty, it is not merely our physical but our spiritual life which is suddenly rendered more vigorous. We do not merely breathe better and digest better, though that is no small gain, but we seem to understand better. Under the vitalising touch of the Beautiful, our consciousness seems filled with the affirmation of what life is, what is worth being, what among our many thoughts and acts and feelings are real and organic and important, what among the many possible moods is the real, eternal ourself.
Such are the great forces of Nature gathered up in what we call the aesthetic phenomenon, and it is these forces of Nature which, stolen from heaven by the man of genius or the nation of genius, and welded together in music, or architecture, in the arts of visible design or of written thoughts, give to the great work of art its power to quicken the life of our soul.
I hope I have been able to indicate how, by its essential nature, by the primordial power it embodies, all Beauty, and particularly Beauty in art, tends to fortify and refine the spiritual life of the individual.
But this is only half of the question, for, in order to get the full benefit of beautiful things and beautiful thoughts, to obtain in the highest potency those potent aesthetic emotions, the individual must undergo a course of self-training, of self-initiation, which in its turn elicits and improves some of the highest qualities of his soul. Nay, as every great writer on art has felt, from Plato to Ruskin, but none has expressed as clearly as Mr. Pater, in all true aesthetic training there must needs enter an ethical element, almost an ascetic one.
The greatest art bestows pleasure just in proportion as people are capable of buying that pleasure at the price of attention, intelligence, and reverent sympathy. For great art is such as is richly endowed, full of variety, subtlety, and suggestiveness; full of delightfulness enough for a lifetime, the lifetime of generations and generations of men; great art is to its true lovers like Cleopatra to Antony—"age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety." Indeed, when it is the greatest art of all, the art produced by the marvellous artist, the most gifted race, and the longest centuries, we find ourselves in presence of something which, like Nature itself, contains more beauty, suggests more thought, works more miracles than anyone of us has faculties to appreciate fully. So that, in some of Titian's pictures and Michael Angelo's frescoes, the great Greek sculptures, certain cantos of Dante and plays of Shakespeare, fugues of Bach, scenes of Mozart and quartets of Beethoven, we can each of us, looking our closest, feeling our uttermost, see and feel perhaps but a trifling portion of what there is to be seen and felt, leaving other sides, other perfections, to be appreciated by our neighbours. Till it comes to pass that we find different persons very differently delighted by the same masterpiece, and accounting most discrepantly for their delight in it.
Now such pleasure as this requires not merely a vast amount of activity on our part, since all pleasure, even the lowest, is the expression of an activity; it requires a vast amount of attention, of intelligence, of what, in races or in individuals, means special training.
There is a sad confusion in men's minds on the very essential subject of pleasure. We tend, most of us, to oppose the idea of pleasure to the idea of work, effort, strenuousness, patience; and, therefore, recognise as pleasures only those which cost none of these things, or as little as possible; pleasures which, instead of being produced through our will and act, impose themselves upon us from outside. In all art—for art stands halfway between the sensual and emotional experiences and the experiences of the mere reasoning intellect—in all art there is necessarily an element which thus imposes itself upon us from without, an element which takes and catches us: colour, strangeness of outline, sentimental or terrible quality, rhythm exciting the muscles, or clang which tickles the ear. But the art which thus takes and catches our attention the most easily, asking nothing in return, or next to nothing, is also the poorest art: the oleograph, the pretty woman in the fashion plate, the caricature, the representation of some domestic or harrowing scene, children being put to bed, babes in the wood, railway accidents, etc.; or again, dance or march music, and the equivalents of all this in verse. It catches your attention, instead of your attention conquering it; but it speedily ceases to interest, gives you nothing more, cloys, or comes to a dead stop. It resembles thus far mere sensual pleasure, a savoury dish, a glass of good wine, an excellent cigar, a warm bed, which impose themselves on the nerves without expenditure of attention; with the result, of course, that little or nothing remains, a sensual impression dying, so to speak, childless, a barren, disconnected thing, without place in the memory, unmarried as it is to the memory's clients, thought and human feeling.
If so many people prefer poor art to great, 'tis because they refuse to give, through inability or unwillingness, as much of their soul as great art requires for its enjoyment. And it is noticeable that busy men, coming to art for pleasure when they are too weary for looking, listening, or thinking, so often prefer the sensation-novel, the music-hall song, and such painting as is but a costlier kind of oleograph; treating all other art as humbug, and art in general as a trifle wherewith to wile away a lazy moment, a trifle about which every man can know what he likes best.
Thus it is that great art makes, by coincidence, the same demands as noble thinking and acting. For, even as all noble sports develop muscle, develop eye, skill, quickness and pluck in bodily movement, qualities which are valuable also in the practical business of life; so also the appreciation of noble kinds of art implies the acquisition of habits of accuracy, of patience, of respectfulness, and suspension of judgment, of preference of future good over present, of harmony and clearness, of sympathy (when we come to literary art), judgment and kindly fairness, which are all of them useful to our neighbours and ourselves in the many contingencies and obscurities of real life. Now this is not so with the pleasures of the senses: the pleasures of the senses do not increase by sharing, and sometimes cannot be shared at all; they are, moreover, evanescent, leaving us no richer; above all, they cultivate in ourselves qualities useful only for that particular enjoyment. Thus, a highly discriminating palate may have saved the life of animals and savages, but what can its subtleness do nowadays beyond making us into gormandisers and winebibbers, or, at best, into cooks and tasters for the service of gormandising and winebibbing persons?
Delight in beautiful things and in beautiful thoughts requires, therefore, a considerable exercise of the will and the attention, such as is not demanded by our lower enjoyments. Indeed, it is probably this absence of moral and intellectual effort which recommends such lower kinds of pleasure to a large number of persons. I have said lower kinds of pleasure, because there are other enjoyments besides those of the senses which entail no moral improvement in ourselves: the enjoyments connected with vanity and greed. We should not—even if any of us could be sure of being impeccable on these points—we should not be too hard on the persons and the classes of persons who are conscious of no other kind of enjoyment. They are not necessarily base, not necessarily sensual or vain, because they care only for bodily indulgence, for notice and gain. They are very likely not base, but only apathetic, slothful, or very tired. The noble sport, the intellectual problem, the great work of art, the divinely beautiful effect in Nature, require that one should give oneself; the French-cooked dinner as much as the pot of beer; the game of chance, whether with clean cards at a club or with greasy ones in a tap-room; the outdoing of one's neighbours, whether by the ragged heroes of Zola or the well-groomed heroes of Balzac, require no such coming forward of the soul: they take us, without any need for our giving ourselves. Hence, as I have just said, the preference for them does not imply original baseness, but only lack of higher energy. We can judge of the condition of those who can taste no other pleasures by remembering what the best of us are when we are tired or ill: vaguely craving for interests, sensations, emotions, variety, but quite unable to procure them through our own effort, and longing for them to come to us from without. Now, in our still very badly organised world, an enormous number of people are condemned by the tyranny of poverty or the tyranny of fashion, to be, when the day's work or the day's business is done, in just such a condition of fatigue and languor, of craving, therefore, for the baser kinds of pleasure. We all recognise that this is the case with what we call poor people, and that this is why poor people are apt to prefer the public-house to the picture gallery or the concert-room. It would be greatly to the purpose were we to acknowledge that it is largely the case with the rich, and that for that reason the rich are apt to take more pleasure in ostentatious display of their properties than in contemplation of such beauty as is accessible to all men. Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the barbarous condition we are pleased to call civilisation, that so many rich men—thousands daily—are systematically toiling and moiling till they are unable to enjoy any pleasure which requires vigour of mind and attention, rendering themselves impotent, from sheer fatigue, to enjoy the delights which life gives generously to all those who fervently seek them. And what for? Largely for the sake of those pleasures which can be had only for money, but which can be enjoyed without using one's soul.
"And these, you see," I said, "are bay-trees, the laurels they used the leaves of to ..."
I was going to say "to crown poets," but I left my sentence in mid-air, because of course he knew that as well as I.
"Precisely," he answered with intelligent interest—"I have noticed that the leaves are sometimes put in sardine boxes."
Soon after this conversation I discovered the curious circumstance that one of the greatest of peoples and perhaps the most favoured by Apollo, calls Laurus Nobilis "Laurier-Sauce." The name is French; the symbol, alas, of universal application.
This paragraph X. had been intended to deal with "Art as it is understood by persons of fashion and eminent men of business."
Thus it is that real aesthetic keenness—and aesthetic keenness, as I shall show you in my next chapter, means appreciating beauty, not collecting beautiful properties—thus it is that all aesthetic keenness implies a development of the qualities of patience, attention, reverence, and of that vigour of soul which is not called forth, but rather impaired, by the coarser enjoyments of the senses and of vanity. So far, therefore, we have seen that the capacity for aesthetic pleasure is allied to a certain nobility in the individual. I think I can show that the preference for aesthetic pleasure tends also to a happier relation between the individual and his fellows.
But the cultivation of our aesthetic pleasures does not merely necessitate our improvement in certain very essential moral qualities. It implies as much, in a way, as the cultivation of the intellect and the sympathies, that we should live chiefly in the spirit, in which alone, as philosophers and mystics have rightly understood, there is safety from the worst miseries and room for the most complete happiness. Only, we shall learn from the study of our aesthetic pleasures that while the stoics and mystics have been right in affirming that the spirit only can give the highest good, they have been fatally wrong in the reason they gave for their preference. And we may learn from our aesthetic experiences that the spirit is useful, not in detaching us from the enjoyable things of life, but, on the contrary, in giving us their consummate possession. The spirit—one of whose most precious capacities is that it enables us to print off all outside things on to ourselves, to store moods and emotions, to recombine and reinforce past impressions into present ones—the spirit puts pleasure more into our own keeping, making it more independent of time and place, of circumstances, and, what is equally important, independent of other people's strivings after pleasure, by which our own, while they clash and hamper, are so often impeded.
For our intimate commerce with beautiful things and beautiful thoughts does not exist only, or even chiefly, at the moment of seeing, or hearing, or reading; nay, if the beautiful touched us only at such separate and special moments, the beautiful would play but an insignificant part in our existence.
As a fact, those moments represent very often only the act of storage, or not much more. Our real aesthetic life is in ourselves, often isolated from the beautiful words, objects, or sounds; sometimes almost unconscious; permeating the whole rest of life in certain highly aesthetic individuals, and, however mixed with other activities, as constant as the life of the intellect and sympathies; nay, as constant as the life of assimilation and motion. We can live off a beautiful object, we can live by its means, even when its visible or audible image is partially, nay, sometimes wholly, obliterated; for the emotional condition can survive the image and be awakened at the mere name, awakened sufficiently to heighten the emotion caused by other images of beauty. We can sometimes feel, so to speak, the spiritual companionship and comfort of a work of art, or of a scene in nature, nay, almost its particular caress to our whole being, when the work of art or the scene has grown faint in our memory, but the emotion it awakened has kept warm.
Now this possibility of storing for later use, of increasing by combination, the impressions of beautiful things, makes art—and by art I mean all aesthetic activity, whether in the professed artist who creates or the unconscious artist who assimilates—the type of such pleasures as are within our own keeping, and makes the aesthetic life typical also of that life of the spirit in which alone we can realise any kind of human freedom. We shall all of us meet with examples thereof if we seek through our consciousness. That such things existed was made clear to me during a weary period of illness, for which I shall always be grateful, since it taught me, in those months of incapacity for enjoyment, that there is a safe kind of pleasure, the pleasure we can defer. I spent part of that time at Tangier, surrounded by everything which could delight me, and in none of which I took any real delight. I did not enjoy Tangier at the time, but I have enjoyed Tangier ever since, on the principle of the bee eating its honey months after making it. The reality of Tangier, I mean the reality of my presence there, and the state of my nerves, were not in the relation of enjoyment. But how often has not the image of Tangier, the remembrance of what I saw and did there, returned and haunted me in the most enjoyable fashion.
After all, is it not often the case with pictures, statues, journeys, and the reading of books? The weariness entailed, the mere continuity of looking or attending, quite apart from tiresome accompanying circumstances, make the apparently real act, what we expect to be the act of enjoyment, quite illusory; like Coleridge, "we see, not feel, how beautiful things are." Later on, all odious accompanying circumstances are utterly forgotten, eliminated, and the weariness is gone: we enjoy not merely unhampered by accidents, but in the very way our heart desires. For we can choose—our mood unconsciously does it for us—the right moment and right accessories for consuming some of our stored delights; moreover, we can add what condiments and make what mixtures suit us best at that moment. We draw not merely upon one past reality, making its essentials present, but upon dozens. To revert to Tangier (whose experience first brought these possibilities clearly before me), I find I enjoy it in connection with Venice, the mixture having a special roundness of tone or flavour. Similarly, I once heard Bach's Magnificat, with St. Mark's of Venice as a background in my imagination. Again, certain moonlight songs of Schumann have blended wonderfully with remembrances of old Italian villas. King Solomon, in all his ships, could not have carried the things which I can draw, in less than a second, from one tiny convolution of my brain, from one corner of my mind. No wizard that ever lived had spells which could evoke such kingdoms and worlds as anyone of us can conjure up with certain words: Greece, the Middle Ages, Orpheus, Robin Hood, Mary Stuart, Ancient Rome, the Far East.
And here, as fit illustration of these beneficent powers, which can free us from a life where we stifle and raise us into a life where we can breathe and grow, let me record my gratitude to a certain young goat, which, on one occasion, turned what might have been a detestable hour into a pleasant one.
The goat, or rather kid, a charming gazelle-like creature, with budding horns and broad, hard forehead, was one of my fourteen fellow passengers in a third-class carriage on a certain bank holiday Saturday. Riding and standing in such crowded misery had cast a general gloom over all the holiday makers; they seemed to have forgotten the coming outing in sullen hatred of all their neighbours; and I confess that I too began to wonder whether Bank Holiday was an altogether delightful institution. But the goat had no such doubts. Leaning against the boy who was taking it holiday-making, it tried very gently to climb and butt, and to play with its sulky fellow travellers. And as it did so it seemed to radiate a sort of poetry on everything: vague impressions of rocks, woods, hedges, the Alps, Italy, and Greece; mythology, of course, and that amusement of "jouer avec des chevres apprivoisees," which that great charmer M. Renan has attributed to his charming Greek people. Now, as I realised the joy of the goat on finding itself among the beech woods and short grass of the Hertfordshire hills, I began also to see my other fellow travellers no longer as surly people resenting each other's presence, but as happy human beings admitted once more to the pleasant things of life. The goat had quite put me in conceit with bank holiday. When it got out of the train at Berkhampstead, the emptier carriage seemed suddenly more crowded, and my fellow travellers more discontented. But I remained quite pleased, and when I had alighted, found that instead of a horrible journey, I could remember only a rather exquisite little adventure. That beneficent goat had acted as Pegasus; and on its small back my spirit had ridden to the places it loves.
In this fashion does the true aesthete tend to prefer, even like the austerest moralist, the delights which, being of the spirit, are most independent of circumstances and most in the individual's own keeping.
It was Mr. Pater who first pointed out how the habit of aesthetic enjoyment makes the epicurean into an ascetic. He builds as little as possible on the things of the senses and the moment, knowing how little, in comparison, we have either in our power. For, even if the desired object, person, or circumstance comes, how often does it not come at the wrong hour! In this world, which mankind fits still so badly, the wish and its fulfilling are rarely in unison, rarely in harmony, but follow each other, most often, like vibrations of different instruments, at intervals which can only jar. The n'est-ce que cela, the inability to enjoy, of successful ambition and favoured, passionate love, is famous; and short of love even and ambition, we all know the flatness of long-desired pleasures. King Solomon, who had not been enough of an ascetic, as we all know, and therefore ended off in cynicism, knew that there is not only satiety as a result of enjoyment; but a sort of satiety also, an absence of keenness, an incapacity for caring, due to the deferring of enjoyment. He doubtless knew, among other items of vanity, that our wishes are often fulfilled without our even knowing it, so indifferent have we become through long waiting, or so changed in our wants.
There is another reason for such ascetism as was taught in Marius the Epicurean and in Pater's book on Plato: the modest certainty of all pleasure derived from the beautiful will accustom the perfect aesthete to seek for the like in other branches of activity. Accustomed to the happiness which is in his own keeping, he will view with suspicion all craving for satisfactions which are beyond his control. He will not ask to be given the moon, and he will not even wish to be given it, lest the wish should grow into a want; he will make the best of candles and glowworms and of distant heavenly luminaries. Moreover, being accustomed to enjoy the mere sight of things as much as other folk do their possession, he will probably actually prefer that the moon should be hanging in the heavens, and not on his staircase.
Again, having experience of the aesthetic pleasures which involve, in what Milton called their sober waking bliss, no wear and tear, no reaction of satiety, he will not care much for the more rapturous pleasures of passion and success, which always cost as much as they are worth. He will be unwilling to run into such debt with his own feelings, having learned from aesthetic pleasure that there are activities of the soul which, instead of impoverishing, enrich it.
Thus does the commerce with beautiful things and beautiful thoughts tend to develop in us that healthy kind of asceticism so requisite to every workable scheme of greater happiness for the individual and the plurality: self-restraint, choice of aims, consistent and thorough-paced subordination of the lesser interest to the greater; above all, what sums up asceticism as an efficacious means towards happiness, preference of the spiritual, the unconditional, the durable, instead of the temporal, the uncertain, and the fleeting.
The intimate and continuous intercourse with the Beautiful teaches us, therefore, the renunciation of the unnecessary for the sake of the possible. It teaches asceticism leading not to indifference and Nervana, but to higher complexities of vitalisation, to a more complete and harmonious rhythm of individual existence.
Art can thus train the soul because art is free; or, more strictly speaking, because art is the only complete expression, the only consistent realisation of our freedom. In other parts of our life, business, affection, passion, pursuit of utility, glory or truth, we are for ever conditioned. We are twisting perpetually, perpetually stopped short and deflected, picking our way among the visible and barely visible habits, interests, desires, shortcomings, of others and of that portion of ourselves which, in the light of that particular moment and circumstance, seems to be foreign to us, to be another's. We can no more follow the straight line of our wishes than can the passenger in Venice among those labyrinthine streets, whose everlasting, unexpected bends are due to canals which the streets themselves prevent his seeing. Moreover, in those gropings among looming or unseen obstacles, we are pulled hither and thither, checked and misled by the recurring doubt as to which, of these thwarted and yielding selves, may be the chief and real one, and which, of the goals we are never allowed finally to touch, is the goal we spontaneously tend to.
Now it is different in the case of Art, and of all those aesthetic activities, often personal and private, which are connected with Art and may be grouped together under Art's name. Art exists to please, and, when left to ourselves, we feel in what our pleasure lies. Art is a free, most open and visible space, where we disport ourselves freely. Indeed, it has long been remarked (the poet Schiller working out the theory) that, as there is in man's nature a longing for mere unconditioned exercise, one of Art's chief missions is to give us free scope to be ourselves. If therefore Art is the playground where each individual, each nation or each century, not merely toils, but untrammelled by momentary passion, unhampered by outer cares, freely exists and feels itself, then Art may surely become the training-place of our soul. Art may teach us how to employ our liberty, how to select our wishes: employ our liberty so as to respect that of others; select our wishes in such a manner as to further the wishes of our fellow-creatures.
For there are various, and variously good or evil ways of following our instincts, fulfilling our desires, in short, of being independent of outer circumstances; in other words, there are worthy and worthless ways of using our leisure and our surplus energy, of seeking our pleasure. And Art—Art and all Art here stands for—can train us to do so without injuring others, without wasting the material and spiritual riches of the world. Art can train us to delight in the higher harmonies of existence; train us to open our eyes, ears and souls, instead of shutting them, to the wider modes of universal life.
In such manner, to resume our symbol of the bay laurel which the road-mender stuck on to the front of that tramcar, can our love for the beautiful avert, like the plant of Apollo, many of the storms, and cure many of the fevers, of life.
It is well that this second chapter—in which I propose to show how a genuine aesthetic development tends to render the individual more useful, or at least less harmful, to his fellow-men—should begin, like the first, with a symbol, such as may sum up my meaning, and point it out in the process of my expounding it. The symbol is contained in the saying of the Abbot Joachim of Flora, one of the great precursors of St. Francis, to wit: "He that is a true monk considers nothing his own except a lyre—nihil reputat esse suum nisi citharam." Yes; nothing except a lyre.
But that lyre, our only real possession, is our Soul. It must be shaped, and strung, and kept carefully in tune; no easy matter in surroundings little suited to delicate instruments and delicate music. Possessing it, we possess, in the only true sense of possession, the whole world. For going along our way, whether rough or even, there are formed within us, singing the beauty and wonder of what is or what should be, mysterious sequences and harmonies of notes, new every time, answering to the primaeval everlasting affinities between ourselves and all things; our souls becoming musical under the touch of the universe.
Let us bear this in mind, this symbol of the lyre which Abbot Joachim allowed as sole property to the man of spiritual life. And let us remember that, as I tried to show in my previous chapter, the true Lover of the Beautiful, active, self-restrained, and indifferent to lower pleasures and interests, is in one sense your man of real spiritual life. For the symbol of Abbot Joachim's lyre will make it easier to follow my meaning, and easier to forestall it, while I try to convince you that art, and all aesthetic activity, is important as a type of the only kind of pleasure which reasonable beings should admit of, the kind of pleasure which tends not to diminish by wastefulness and exclusive appropriation, but to increase by sympathy, the possible pleasures of other persons.
'Tis no excessive puritanism to say that while pleasure, in the abstract, is a great, perhaps the greatest, good; pleasures, our actual pleasures in the concrete, are very often evil.
Many of the pleasures which we allow ourselves, and which all the world admits our right to, happen to be such as waste wealth and time, make light of the advantage of others, and of the good of our own souls. This fact does not imply either original sinfulness or degeneracy—religious and scientific terms for the same thing—in poor mankind. It means merely that we are all of us as yet very undeveloped creatures; the majority, moreover, less developed than the minority, and the bulk of each individual's nature very much in the rear of his own aspirations and definitions. Mankind, in the process of adapting itself to external circumstances, has perforce evolved a certain amount of intellectual and moral quality; but that intellectual and moral quality is, so far, merely a means for rendering material existence endurable; it will have to become itself the origin and aim of what we must call a spiritual side of life. In the meanwhile, human beings do not get any large proportion of their enjoyment from what they admit to be their nobler side.
Hence it is that even when you have got rid of the mere struggle for existence—fed, clothed, and housed your civilised savage, and secured food, clothes, and shelter for his brood—you have by no means provided against his destructive, pain-giving activities. He has spare time and energy; and these he will devote, ten to one, to recreations involving, at the best, the slaughter of harmless creatures; at the worst, to the wasting of valuable substance, of what might be other people's food; or else to the hurting of other people's feelings in various games of chance or skill, particularly in the great skilled game of brag called "Society."
Our gentlemanly ancestors, indeed, could not amuse themselves without emptying a certain number of bottles and passing some hours under the table; while our nimble-witted French neighbours, we are told, included in their expenditure on convivial amusements a curious item called la casse, to wit, the smashing of plates and glasses. The Spaniards, on the other hand, have bull-fights, most shocking spectacles, as we know, for we make it a point to witness them when we are over there. Undoubtedly we have immensely improved in such matters, but we need a great deal of further improvement. Most people are safe only when at work, and become mischievous when they begin to play. They do not know how to kill time (for that is the way in which we poor mortals regard life) without incidentally killing something else: proximately birds and beasts, and their neighbours' good fame; more remotely, but as surely, the constitution of their descendants, and the possible wages of the working classes.
It is quite marvellous how little aptness there is in the existing human being for taking pleasure either in what already exists ready to hand, or in the making of something which had better be there; in what can be enjoyed without diminishing the enjoyment of others, as nature, books, art, thought, and the better qualities of one's neighbours. In fact, one reason why there is something so morally pleasant in cricket and football and rowing and riding and dancing, is surely that they furnish on the physical plane the counterpart of what is so sadly lacking on the spiritual: amusements which do good to the individual and no harm to his fellows.
Of course, in our state neither of original sinfulness nor of degeneracy, but of very imperfect development, it is still useless and absurd to tell people to make use of intellectual and moral resources which they have not yet got. It is as vain to preach to the majority of the well-to-do the duty of abstinence from wastefulness, rivalry, and ostentation as it is vain to preach to the majority of the badly-off abstinence from alcohol; without such pleasures their life would be unendurably insipid.
But inevitable as is such evil in the present, it inevitably brings its contingent of wretchedness; and it is therefore the business of all such as could become the forerunners of a better state of things to refuse to follow the lead of their inferiors. Exactly because the majority is still so hopelessly wasteful and mischievous, does it behove the minority not merely to work to some profit, but to play without damage. To do this should become the mark of Nature's aristocracy, a sign of liberality of spiritual birth and breeding, a question of noblesse oblige.
And here comes in the immense importance of Art as a type of pleasure: of Art in the sense of aesthetic appreciation even more than of aesthetic creation; of Art considered as the extracting and combining of beauty in the mind of the obscure layman quite as much as the embodiment of such extracted and combined beauty in the visible or audible work of the great artist.
For experience of true aesthetic activity must teach us, in proportion as it is genuine and ample, that the enjoyment of the beautiful is not merely independent of, but actually incompatible with, that tendency to buy our satisfaction at the expense of others which remains more or less in all of us as a survival from savagery. The reasons why genuine aesthetic feeling inhibits these obsolescent instincts of rapacity and ruthlessness, are reasons negative and positive, and may be roughly divided into three headings. Only one of them is generally admitted to exist, and of it, therefore, I shall speak very briefly, I mean the fact that the enjoyment of beautiful things is originally and intrinsically one of those which are heightened by sharing. We know it instinctively when, as children, we drag our comrades and elders to the window when a regiment passes or a circus parades by; we learn it more and more as we advance in life, and find that we must get other people to see the pictures, to hear the music, to read the books which we admire. It is a case of what psychologists call the contagion of emotion, by which the feeling of one individual is strengthened by the expression of similar feeling in his neighbour, and is explicable, most likely, by the fact that the greatest effort is always required to overcome original inertness, and that two efforts, like two horses starting a carriage instead of one, combined give more than double the value of each taken separately. The fact of this aesthetic sociability is so obvious that we need not discuss it any further, but merely hold it over to add, at last, to the result of the two other reasons, negative and positive, which tend to make aesthetic enjoyment the type of unselfish, nay, even of altruistic pleasure.
The first of these reasons, the negative one, is that aesthetic pleasure is not in the least dependent upon the fact of personal ownership, and that it therefore affords an opportunity of leaving inactive, of beginning to atrophy by inactivity, the passion for exclusive possession, for individual advantage, which is at the bottom of all bad luxury, of all ostentation, and of nearly all rapacity. But before entering on this discussion I would beg my reader to call to mind that curious saying of Abbot Joachim's; and to consider that I wish to prove that, like his true monk, the true aesthete, who nowadays loves and praises creation much as the true monk did in former centuries, can really possess as sole personal possession only a musical instrument—to wit, his own well-strung and resonant soul. Having said this, we will proceed to the question of Luxury, by which I mean the possession of such things as minister only to weakness and vanity, of such things as we cannot reasonably hope that all men may some day equally possess.
When we are young—and most of us remain mere withered children, never attaining maturity, in similar matters—we are usually attracted by luxury and luxurious living. We are possessed by that youthful instinct of union, fusion, marriage, so to speak, with what our soul desires; we hanker after close contact and complete possession; and we fancy, in our inexperience, that luxury, the accumulation of valuables, the appropriation of opportunities, the fact of rejecting from our life all that is not costly, brilliant, and dainty, implies such fusion of our soul with beauty.
But, as we reach maturity, we find that this is all delusion. We learn, from the experience of occasions when our soul has truly possessed the beautiful, or been possessed by it, that if such union with the harmony of outer things is rare, perhaps impossible, among squalor and weariness, it is difficult and anomalous in the condition which we entitle luxury.
We learn that our assimilation of beauty, and that momentary renewal of our soul which it effects, rarely arises from our own ownership; but comes, taking us by surprise, in presence of hills, streams, memories of pictures, poets' words, and strains of music, which are not, and cannot be, our property. The essential character of beauty is its being a relation between ourselves and certain objects. The emotion to which we attach its name is produced, motived by something outside us, pictures, music, landscape, or whatever it may be; but the emotion resides in us, and it is the emotion, and not merely its object, which we desire. Hence material possession has no aesthetic meaning. We possess a beautiful object with our soul; the possession thereof with our hands or our legal rights brings us no nearer the beauty. Ownership, in this sense, may empower us to destroy or hide the object and thus cheat others of the possession of its beauty, but does not help us to possess that beauty. It is with beauty as with that singer who answered Catherine II., "Your Majesty's policemen can make me scream, but they cannot make me sing;" and she might have added, for my parallel, "Your policemen, great Empress, even could they make me sing, would not be able to make you hear."
Hence all strong aesthetic feeling will always prefer ownership of the mental image to ownership of the tangible object. And any desire for material appropriation or exclusive enjoyment will be merely so much weakening and adulteration of the aesthetic sentiment. Since the mental image, the only thing aesthetically possessed, is in no way diminished or damaged by sharing; nay, we have seen that by one of the most gracious coincidences between beauty and kindliness, the aesthetic emotion is even intensified by the knowledge of co-existence in others: the delight in each person communicating itself, like a musical third, fifth, or octave, to the similar yet different delight in his neighbour, harmonic enriching harmonic by stimulating fresh vibration.
If, then, we wish to possess casts, copies, or photographs of certain works of art, this is, aesthetically considered, exactly as we wish to have the means—railway tickets, permissions for galleries, and so forth—of seeing certain pictures or statues as often as we wish. For we feel that the images in our mind require renewing, or that, in combination with other more recently acquired images, they will, if renewed, yield a new kind of delight. But this is quite another matter from wishing to own the material object, the thing we call work of art itself, forgetting that it is a work of art only for the soul capable of instating it as such.
Thus, in every person who truly cares for beauty, there is a necessary tendency to replace the illusory legal act of ownership by the real spiritual act of appreciation. Charles Lamb already expressed this delightfully in the essay on the old manor-house. Compared with his possession of its beauties, its walks, tapestried walls and family portraits, nay, even of the ghosts of former proprietors, the possession by the legal owner was utterly nugatory, unreal:
"Mine too, Blakesmoor, was thy noble Marble Hall, with its mosaic pavements, and its twelve Caesars;... mine, too, thy lofty Justice Hall, with its one chair of authority.... Mine, too—whose else?—thy costly fruit-garden ... thy ampler pleasure-garden ... thy firry wilderness.... I was the true descendant of those old W——'s, and not the present family of that name, who had fled the old waste places."
How often have not some of us felt like that; and how much might not those of us who never have, learn, could they learn, from those words of Elia?
I have spoken of material, actual possession. But if we look closer at it we shall see that, save with regard to the things which are actually consumed, destroyed, disintegrated, changed to something else in their enjoyment, the notion of ordinary possession is a mere delusion. It can be got only by a constant obtrusion of a mere idea, the idea of self, and of such unsatisfactory ideas as one's right, for instance, to exclude others. 'Tis like the tension of a muscle, this constant keeping the consciousness aware by repeating "Mine—mine—mine and not theirs; not theirs, but mine." And this wearisome act of self-assertion leaves little power for appreciation, for the appreciation which others can have quite equally, and without which there is no reality at all in ownership.
Hence, the deeper our enjoyment of beauty, the freer shall we become of the dreadful delusion of exclusive appropriation, despising such unreal possession in proportion as we have tasted the real one. We shall know the two kinds of ownership too well apart to let ourselves be cozened into cumbering our lives with material properties and their responsibilities. We shall save up our vigour, not for obtaining and keeping (think of the thousand efforts and cares of ownership, even the most negative) the things which yield happy impressions, but for receiving and storing up and making capital of those impressions. We shall seek to furnish our mind with beautiful thoughts, not our houses with pretty things.
I hope I have made clear enough that aesthetic enjoyment is hostile to the unkind and wasteful pleasures of selfish indulgence and selfish appropriation, because the true possession of the beautiful things of Nature, of Art, and of thought is spiritual, and neither damages, nor diminishes, nor hoards them; because the lover of the beautiful seeks for beautiful impressions and remembrances, which are vested in his soul, and not in material objects. That is the negative benefit of the love of the beautiful. Let us now proceed to the positive and active assistance which it renders, when genuine and thorough-paced, to such thought as we give to the happiness and dignity of others.
I have said that our pleasure in the beautiful is essentially a spiritual phenomenon, one, I mean, which deals with our own perceptions and emotions, altering the contents of our mind, while leaving the beautiful object itself intact and unaltered. This being the case, it is easy to understand that our aesthetic pleasure will be complete and extensive in proportion to the amount of activity of our soul; for, remember, all pleasure is proportionate to activity, and, as I said in my first chapter, great beauty does not merely take us, but we must give ourselves to it. Hence, an increase in the capacity for aesthetic pleasure will mean, caeeteris paribus, an increase in a portion of our spiritual activity, a greater readiness to take small hints, to connect different items, to reject the lesser good for the greater. Moreover, a great, perhaps the greater, part of our aesthetic pleasure is due, as I also told you before, to the storing of impressions in our mind, and to the combining of them there with other impressions. Indeed, it is for this reason that I have made no difference, save in intensity between aesthetic creation, so called, and aesthetic appreciation; telling you, on the contrary, that the artistic layman creates, produces something new and personal, only in a less degree than the professed artist.
For the aesthetic life does not consist merely in the perception of the beautiful object, not merely in the emotion of that spiritual contact between the beautiful product of art or of nature and the soul of the appreciator: it is continued in the emotions and images and thoughts which are awakened by that perception; and the aesthetic life is life, is something continuous and organic, just because new forms, however obscure and evanescent, are continually born, in their turn continually to give birth, of that marriage between the beautiful thing outside and the beautiful soul within.
Hence, full aesthetic life means the creating and extending of ever new harmonies in the mind of the layman, the unconscious artist who merely enjoys, as a result of the creating and extending of new harmonies in the work of the professed artist who consciously creates. This being the case, the true aesthete is for ever seeking to reduce his impressions and thoughts to harmony; and is for ever, accordingly, being pleased with some of them, and disgusted with others.
The desire for beauty and harmony, therefore, in proportion as it becomes active and sensitive, explores into every detail, establishes comparisons between everything, judges, approves, and disapproves; and makes terrible and wholesome havoc not merely in our surroundings, but in our habits and in our lives. And very soon the mere thought of something ugly becomes enough to outweigh the actual presence of something beautiful. I was told last winter at San Remo, that the scent of the Parma violet can be distilled only by the oil of the flower being passed through a layer of pork fat; and since that revelation violet essence has lost much of the charm it possessed for me: the thought of the suet counterbalanced the reality of the perfume.
Now this violet essence, thus obtained, is symbolic of many of the apparently refined enjoyments of our life. We shall find that luxury and pomp, delightful sometimes in themselves, are distilled through a layer of coarse and repulsive labour by other folk; and the thought of the pork suet will spoil the smell of the violets. For the more dishes we have for dinner, the greater number of cooking-pots will have to be cleaned; the more carriages and horses we use, the more washing and grooming will result; the more crowded our rooms with furniture and nicknacks, the more dust will have to be removed; the more numerous and delicate our clothes, the more brushing and folding there will be; and the more purely ornamental our own existence, the less ornamental will be that of others.
There is a pensee of Pascal's to the effect that a fop carries on his person the evidence of the existence of so many people devoted to his service. This thought may be delightful to a fop; but it is not pleasant to a mind sensitive to beauty and hating the bare thought of ugliness: for while vanity takes pleasure in lack of harmony between oneself and one's neighbour, aesthetic feeling takes pleasure only in harmonious relations. The thought of the servile lives devoted to make our life more beautiful counterbalances the pleasure of the beauty; 'tis the eternal question of the violet essence and the pork suet. Now the habit of beauty, the aesthetic sense, becomes, as I said, more and more sensitive and vivacious; you cannot hide from it the knowledge of every sort of detail, you cannot prevent its noticing the ugly side, the ugly lining of certain pretty things. 'Tis a but weak and sleepy kind of aestheticism which "blinks and shuts its apprehension up" at your bidding, which looks another way discreetly, and discreetly refrains from all comparisons. The real aesthetic activity is an activity; it is one of the strongest and most imperious powers of human nature; it does not take orders, it only gives them. It is, when full grown, a kind of conscience of beautiful and ugly, analogous to the other conscience of right and wrong, and it is equally difficult to silence. If you can silence your aesthetic faculty and bid it be satisfied with the lesser beauty, the lesser harmony, instead of the greater, be sure that it is a very rudimentary kind of instinct; and that you are no more thoroughly aesthetic than if you could make your sense of right and wrong be blind and dumb at your convenience, you could be thoroughly moral.
Hence, the more aesthetic we become, the less we shall tolerate such modes of living as involve dull and dirty work for others, as involve the exclusion of others from the sort of life which we consider aesthetically tolerable. We shall require such houses and such habits as can be seen, and, what is inevitable in all aesthetical development, as can also be thought of, in all their details. We shall require a homogeneous impression of decorum and fitness from the lives of others as well as from our own, from what we actually see and from what we merely know: the imperious demand for beauty, for harmony will be applied no longer to our mere material properties, but to that other possession which is always with us and can never be taken from us, the images and feelings within our soul. Now, that other human beings should be drudging sordidly in order that we may be idle and showy means a thought, a vision, an emotion which do not get on in our mind in company with the sight of sunset and sea, the taste of mountain air and woodland freshness, the faces and forms of Florentine saints and Antique gods, the serene poignancy of great phrases of music. This is by no means all. Developing in aesthetic sensitiveness we grow to think of ourselves also, our own preferences, moods and attitudes, as more or less beautiful or ugly; the inner life falling under the same criticism as the outer one. We become aristocratic and epicurean about our desires and habits; we grow squeamish and impatient towards luxury, towards all kinds of monopoly and privilege on account of the mean attitude, the graceless gesture they involve on our own part.
This feeling is increasing daily. Our deepest aesthetic emotions are, we are beginning to recognise, connected with things which we do not, cannot, possess in the vulgar sense. Nay, the deepest aesthetic emotions depend, to an appreciable degree, on the very knowledge that these things are either not such as money can purchase, or that they are within the purchasing power of all. The sense of being shareable by others, of being even shareable, so to speak, by other kinds of utility, adds a very keen attraction to all beautiful things and beautiful actions, and, of course, vice versa. And things which are beautiful, but connected with luxury and exclusive possession, come to affect one as, in a way, lacking harmonics, lacking those additional vibrations of pleasure which enrich impressions of beauty by impressions of utility and kindliness.
Thus, after enjoying the extraordinary lovely tints—oleander pink, silver-grey, and most delicate citron—of the plaster which covers the commonest cottages, the humblest chapels, all round Genoa, there is something short and acid in the pleasure one derives from equally charming colours in expensive dresses. Similarly, in Italy, much of the charm of marble, of the sea-cave shimmer, of certain palace-yards and churches, is due to the knowledge that this lovely, noble substance is easy to cut and quarried in vast quantities hard by: no wretched rarity like diamonds and rubies, which diminish by the worth of a family's yearly keep if only the cutter cuts one hair-breadth wrong!
Again, is not one reason why antique sculpture awakens a state of mind where stoicism, humaneness, simplicity, seem nearer possibilities—is not one reason that it shows us the creature in its nakedness, in such beauty and dignity as it can get through the grace of birth only? There is no need among the gods for garments from silken Samarkand, for farthingales of brocade and veils of Mechlin lace like those of the wooden Madonnas of Spanish churches; no need for the ruffles and plumes of Pascal's young beau, showing thereby the number of his valets. The same holds good of trees, water, mountains, and their representation in poetry and painting; their dignity takes no account of poverty or riches. Even the lilies of the field please us, not because they toil not neither do they spin, but because they do not require, while Solomon does, that other folk should toil and spin to make them glorious.
Again, do we not prefer the books which deal with habits simpler than our own? Do we not love the Odyssey partly because of Calypso weaving in her cave, and Nausicaa washing the clothes with her maidens? Does it not lend additional divinity that Christianity should have arisen among peasants and handicraftsmen?
Nay more, do we not love certain objects largely because they are useful; boats, nets, farm carts, ploughs; discovering therein a grace which actually exists, but which might else have remained unsuspected? And do we not feel a certain lack of significance and harmony of fulness of aesthetic quality in our persons when we pass in our idleness among people working in the fields, masons building, or fishermen cleaning their boats and nets; whatever beauty such things may have being enhanced by their being common and useful.
In this manner our aesthetic instinct strains vaguely after a double change: not merely giving affluence and leisure to others, but giving simplicity and utility to ourselves?
And, even apart from this, does not all true aestheticism tend to diminish labour while increasing enjoyment, because it makes the already existing more sufficient, because it furthers the joys of the spirit, which multiply by sharing, as distinguished from the pleasures of vanity and greediness, which only diminish?
You may at first feel inclined to pooh-pooh the notion that mere love of beauty can help to bring about a better distribution of the world's riches; and reasonably object that we cannot feed people on images and impressions which multiply by sharing; they live on bread, and not on the idea of bread.
But has it ever struck you that, after all, the amount of material bread—even if we extend the word to everything which is consumed for bodily necessity and comfort—which any individual can consume is really very small; and that the bad distribution, the shocking waste of this material bread arises from being, so to speak, used symbolically, used as spiritual bread, as representing those ideas for which men hunger: superiority over other folk, power of having dependants, social position, ownership, and privilege of all kinds? For what are the bulk of worldly possessions to their owners: houses, parks, plate, jewels, superfluous expenditure of all kinds [and armies and navies when we come to national wastefulness]—what are all these ill-distributed riches save ideas, ideas futile and ungenerous, food for the soul, but food upon which the soul grows sick and corrupteth?
Would it not be worth while to reorganise this diet of ideas? To reorganise that part of us which is independent of bodily sustenance and health, which lives on spiritual commodities—the part of us including ambition, ideal, sympathy, and all that I have called ideas? Would it not be worth while to find such ideas as all people can live upon without diminishing each other's share, instead of the ideas, the imaginative satisfactions which each must refuse to his neighbour, and about which, therefore, all of us are bound to fight like hungry animals? Thus to reform our notions of what is valuable and distinguished would bring about an economic reformation; or, if other forces were needed, would make the benefits of such economic reformation completer, its hardships easier to bear; and, altering our views of loss and gain, lessen the destructive struggle of snatching and holding.
Now, as I have been trying to show, beauty, harmony, fitness, are of the nature of the miraculous loaves and fishes: they can feed multitudes and leave basketfuls for the morrow.
But the desire for such spiritual food is, you will again object, itself a rarity, a product of leisure and comfort, almost a luxury.
Quite true. And you will remember, perhaps, that I have already remarked that they are not to be expected either from the poor in material comfort, nor from the poor in soul, since both of these are condemned, the first by physical wretchedness, the second by spiritual inactivity, to fight only for larger shares of material bread; with the difference that this material bread is eaten by the poor, and made into very ugly symbols of glory by the rich.
But, among those of us who are neither hungry nor vacuous, there is not, generally speaking, much attempt to make the best of our spiritual privileges. We teach our children, as we were taught ourselves, to give importance only to the fact of exclusiveness, expense, rareness, already necessarily obtruded far too much by our struggling, imperfect civilisation. We are indeed angry with little boys and girls if they enquire too audibly whether certain people are rich or certain things cost much money, as little boys and girls are apt to do in their very far from innocence; but we teach them by our example to think about such things every time we stretch a point in order to appear richer or smarter than we are. While, on the contrary, we rarely insist upon the intrinsic qualities for which things are really valuable, without which no trouble or money would be spent on them, without which their difficulty of obtaining would, as in the case of Dr. Johnson's musical performance, become identical with impossibility. I wonder how many people ever point out to a child that the water in a tank may be more wonderful and beautiful in its beryls and sapphires and agates than all the contents of all the jewellers' shops in Bond Street? Moreover, we rarely struggle against the standards of fashion in our habits and arrangements; which standards, in many cases, are those of our ladies' maids, butlers, tradesfolk, and in all cases the standards of our less intelligent neighbours. Nay, more, we sometimes actually cultivate in ourselves, we superfine and aesthetic creatures, a preference for such kinds of enjoyment as are exclusive and costly; we allow ourselves to be talked into the notion that solitary egoism, laborious self-assertion of ownership (as in the poor mad Ludwig of Bavaria) is a badge of intellectual distinction. We cherish a desire for the new-fangled and far-fetched, the something no other has had before; little suspecting, or forgetting, that to extract more pleasure not less, to enjoy the same things longer, and to be able to extract more enjoyment out of more things, is the sign of aesthetic vigour.
Still, on the whole, such as can care for beautiful things and beautiful thoughts are beginning to care for them more fully, and are growing, undoubtedly, in a certain moral sensitiveness which, as I have said, is coincident with aesthetic development.
This strikes me every time that I see or think about a certain priest's house on a hillside by the Mediterranean: a little house built up against the village church, and painted and roofed, like the church, a most delicate grey, against which the yellow of the spalliered lemons sings out in exquisite intensity; alongside, a wall with flower pots, and dainty white curtains to the windows. Such a house and the life possible in it are beginning, for many of us, to become the ideal, by whose side all luxury and worldly grandeur becomes insipid or vulgar. For such a house as this embodies the possibility of living with grace and decorum throughout by dint of loving carefulness and self-restraining simplicity. I say with grace and decorum throughout, because all things which might beget ugliness in the life of others, or ugliness in our own attitude towards others, would be eliminated, thrown away like the fossil which Thoreau threw away because it collected dust. Moreover, such a life as this is such as all may reasonably hope to have; may, in some more prosperous age, obtain because it involves no hoarding of advantage for self or excluding therefrom of others.
And such a life we ourselves may attain at least in the spirit, if we become strenuous and faithful lovers of the beautiful, aesthetes and ascetics who recognise that their greatest pleasure, their only true possessions are in themselves; knowing the supreme value of their own soul, even as was foreshadowed by the Abbot Joachim of Flora, when he said that the true monk can hold no property except his lyre.
"To use the beauties of earth as steps along which he mounts upwards, going from one to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair actions, and from fair actions to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is; this, my dear Socrates," said the prophetess of Mantineia, "is that life, above all others, which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute. Do you not see that in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth not images of beauty, but realities; for he has hold not of an image, but of a reality; and bringing forth and educating true virtue to become the friend of God, and be immortal, if mortal man may?"
Such are the aesthetics of Plato, put into the mouth of that mysterious Diotima, who was a wise woman in many branches of knowledge. As we read them nowadays we are apt to smile with incredulity not unmixed with bitterness. Is all this not mere talk, charming and momentarily elating us like so much music; itself mere beauty which, because we like it, we half voluntarily confuse with truth? And, on the other hand, is not the truth of aesthetics, the bare, hard fact, a very different matter? For we have learned that we human creatures will never know the absolute or the essence, that notions, which Plato took for realities, are mere relative conceptions; that virtue and truth are social ideals and intellectual abstractions, while beauty is a quality found primarily and literally only in material existences and sense-experiences; and every day we are hearing of new discoveries connecting our aesthetic emotions with the structure of eye and ear, the movement of muscles, the functions of nerve centres, nay, even with the action of heart and lungs and viscera. Moreover, all round us schools of criticism and cliques of artists are telling us forever that so far from bringing forth and educating true virtue, art has the sovereign power, by mere skill and subtlety, of investing good and evil, healthy and unwholesome, with equal merit, and obliterating the distinctions drawn by the immortal gods, instead of helping the immortal gods to their observance.
Thus we are apt to think, and to take the words of Diotima as merely so much lovely rhetoric. But—as my previous chapters must have led you to expect—I think we are so far mistaken. I believe that, although explained in the terms of fantastic, almost mythical metaphysic, the speech of Diotima contains a great truth, deposited in the heart of man by the unnoticed innumerable experiences of centuries and peoples; a truth which exists in ourselves also as an instinctive expectation, and which the advance of knowledge will confirm and explain. For in that pellucid atmosphere of the Greek mind, untroubled as yet by theoretic mists, there may have been visible the very things which our scientific instruments are enabling us to see and reconstruct piecemeal, great groupings of reality metamorphosed into Fata Morgana cities seemingly built by the gods.
And thus I am going to try to reinstate in others' belief, as it is fully reinstated in my own, the theory of higher aesthetic harmonies, which the prophetess of Mantineia taught Socrates: to wit, that through the contemplation of true beauty we may attain, by the constant purification—or, in more modern language, the constant selecting and enriching—of our nature, to that which transcends material beauty; because the desire for harmony begets the habit of harmony, and the habit thereof begets its imperative desire, and thus on in never-ending alternation.
Perhaps the best way of expounding my reasons will be to follow the process by which I reached them; for so far from having started with the theory of Diotima, I found the theory of Diotima, when I re-read it accidentally after many years' forgetfulness, to bring to convergence the result of my gradual experience.
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Thinking about the Hermes of Olympia, and the fact that so far he is pretty well the only Greek statue which historical evidence unhesitatingly gives us as an original masterpiece, it struck me that, could one become really familiar with him, could eye and soul learn all the fulness of his perfection, we should have the true starting-point for knowledge of the antique, for knowledge, in great measure, of all art.
Yes, and of more than art, or rather of art in more than one relation.
Is this a superstition, a mere myth, perhaps, born of words? I think not. Surely if we could really arrive at knowing such a masterpiece, so as to feel rather than see its most intimate organic principles, and the great main reasons separating it from all inferior works and making it be itself: could we do this, we should know not merely what art is and should be, but, in a measure, what life should be and might become: what are the methods of true greatness, the sensations of true sanity.
It would teach us the eternal organic strivings and tendencies of our soul, those leading in the direction of life, leading away from death.
If this seems mere allegory and wild talk, let us look at facts and see what art is. For is not art inasmuch as untroubled by the practical difficulties of existence, inasmuch as the free, unconscious attempt of all nations and generations to satisfy, outside life, those cravings which life still leaves unsatisfied—is not art a delicate instrument, showing in its sensitive oscillations the most intimate movements and habits of the soul? Does it not reveal our most recondite necessities and possibilities, by sifting and selecting, reinforcing or attenuating, the impressions received from without; showing us thereby how we must stand towards nature and life, how we must feel and be?
And this most particularly in those spontaneous arts which, first in the field, without need of adaptations of material or avoidance of the already done, without need of using up the rejected possibilities of previous art, or awakening yet unknown emotions, are the simple, straightforward expression, each the earliest satisfactory one in its own line, of the long unexpressed, long integrated, organic wants and wishes of great races of men: the arts, for instance, which have given us that Hermes, Titian's pictures, and Michael Angelo's and Raphael's frescoes; given us Bach, Gluck, Mozart, the serener parts of Beethoven, music of yet reserved pathos, braced, spring-like strength, learned, select: arts which never go beyond the universal, averaged expression of the soul's desires, because the desires themselves are sifted, limited to the imperishable and unchangeable, like the artistic methods which embody them, reduced to the essential by the long delay of utterance, the long—century long—efforts to utter.
Becoming intimate with such a statue as the Olympian Hermes, and comparing the impressions received from it with the impressions both of inferior works of the same branch of art and with the impressions of equally great works—pictures, buildings, musical compositions—of other branches of art, becoming conversant with the difference between an original and a copy, great art and poor art, we gradually become aware of a quality which exists in all good art and is absent in all bad art, and without whose presence those impressions summed up as beauty, dignity, grandeur, are never to be had. This peculiarity, which most people perceive and few people define—explaining it away sometimes as truth, or taking it for granted under the name of quality—this peculiarity I shall call for convenience' sake harmony; for I think you will all of you admit that the absence or presence of harmony is what distinguishes bad art from good. Harmony, in this sense—and remember that it is this which connoisseurs most usually allude to as quality—harmony may be roughly defined as the organic correspondence between the various parts of a work of art, the functional interchange and interdependence thereof. In this sense there is harmony in every really living thing, for otherwise it could not live. If the muscles and limbs, nay, the viscera and tissues, did not adjust themselves to work together, if they did not in this combination establish a rhythm, a backward-forward, contraction-relaxation, taking-in-giving-out, diastole-systole in all their movements, there would be, instead of a living organism, only an inert mass. In all living things, and just in proportion as they are really alive (for in most real things there is presumably some defect of rhythm tending to stoppage of life), there is bound to be this organic interdependence and interchange. Natural selection, the survival of such individuals and species as best work in with, are most rhythmical to, their surroundings—natural selection sees to that.
In art the place of natural selection is taken by man's selection; and all forms of art which man keeps and does not send into limbo, all art which man finds suitable to his wants, rhythmical with his habits, must have that same quality of interdependence of parts, of interchange of function. Only in the case of art, the organic necessity refers not to outer surroundings, but to man's feeling; in fact, man's emotion constitutes necessity towards art, as surrounding nature constitutes necessity for natural objects. Now man requires organic harmony, that is, congruity and co-ordination of processes, because his existence, the existence of every cell of him, depends upon it, is one complete microcosm of interchange, of give-and-take, diastole-systole, of rhythm and harmony; and therefore all such things as give him impressions of the reverse thereof, go against him, and in a greater or lesser degree, threaten, disturb, paralyse, in a way poison or maim him. Hence he is for ever seeking such congruity, such harmony; and his artistic creativeness is conditioned by the desire for it, nay, is perhaps mainly seeking to obtain it. Whenever he spontaneously and truly creates artistic forms, he obeys the imperious vital instinct for congruity; nay, he seeks to eke out the insufficient harmony between himself and the things which he cannot command, the insufficient harmony between the uncontrollable parts of himself, by a harmony created on purpose in the things which he can control. To a large extent man feels himself tortured by discordant impressions coming from the world outside and the world inside him; and he seeks comfort and medicine in harmonious impressions of his own making, in his own strange inward-outward world of art.
This, I think, is the true explanation of that much-disputed-over ideal, which, according to definitions, is perpetually being enthroned and dethroned as the ultimate aim of all art: the ideal, the imperatively clamoured-for mysterious something, is neither conformity to an abstract idea, nor conformity to actual reality, nor conformity to the typical, nor conformity to the individual; it is, I take it, simply conformity to man's requirements, to man's inborn and peremptory demand for greater harmony, for more perfect co-ordination and congruity in his feelings.
Now, when, in the exercise of the artistic instincts, mankind are partially obeying some other call than this one—the desire for money, fame, or for some intellectual formula—things are quite different, and there is no production of what I have called harmony. There is no congruity when even great people set about doing pseudo-antique sculpture in Canova-Thorwaldsen fashion because Winckelmann and Goethe have made antique sculpture fashionable; there is no congruity when people set to building pseudo-Gothic in obedience to the romantic movement and to Ruskin. For neither the desire for making a mark, nor the most conscientious pressure of formula gives that instinct of selection and co-ordination characterising even the most rudimentary artistic efforts in the most barbarous ages, when men are impelled merely and solely by the aesthetic instinct. Moreover, where people do not want and need (as they want and need food or drink or warmth or coolness) one sort of effect, that is to say, one arrangement of impressions rather than another, they are sure to be deluded by the mere arbitrary classification, the mere names of things. They will think that smooth cheeks, wavy hair, straight noses, limbs of such or such measure, attitude, and expression, set so, constitute the Antique; that clustered pillars, cross vaulting, spandrils, and Tudor roses make Gothic. But the Antique quality is the particular and all permeating relation between all its items; and Gothic the particular and all permeating relation between those other ones; and unless you aim at the specific emotion of Antique or Gothic, unless you feel the imperious call for the special harmony of either, all the measurements and all the formulas will not avail. While, on the contrary, people without any formula or any attempt at imitation, like the Byzantine architects and those of the fifteenth century, merely because they are obeying their own passionate desire for congruity of impressions, for harmony of structure and function, will succeed in creating brand-new, harmonious, organic art out of the actual details, sometimes the material ruins, of an art which has passed away.
If we become intimate with any great work of art, and intimate in so far with the thoughts and emotions it awakens in ourselves, we shall find that it possesses, besides this congruity within itself which assimilates it to all really living things, a further congruity, not necessarily found in real objects, but which forms the peculiarity of the work of art, a congruity with ourselves; for the great work of art is vitally connected with the habits and wants, the whole causality and rhythm of mankind; it has been fitted thereto as the boat to the sea.
In this manner can we learn from art the chief secret of life: the secret of action and reaction, of causal connection, of suitability of part to part, of organism, interchange, and growth.
And when I say learn, I mean learn in the least official and the most efficacious way. I do not mean merely that, looking at a statue like the Hermes, a certain fact is borne in upon our intelligence, the fact of all vitality being dependent on harmony. I mean that perhaps, nay probably, without any such formula, our whole nature becomes accustomed to a certain repeated experience, our whole nature becomes adapted thereunto, and acts and reacts in consequence, by what we call intuition, instinct. It is not with our intellect alone that we possess such a fact, as we might intellectually possess that twice two is four, or that Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII., knowing casually what we may casually also forget; we possess, in such a way that forgetting becomes impossible, with our whole soul and our whole being, re-living that fact with every breath that we draw, with every movement we make, the first great lesson of art, that vitality means harmony. Let us look at this fact, and at its practical applications, apart from all aesthetic experience.
All life is harmony; and all improvement in ourselves is therefore, however unconsciously, the perceiving, the realising, or the establishing of harmonies, more minute or more universal. Yes, curious and unpractical as it may seem, harmonies, or, under their humbler separate names—arrangements, schemes, classifications, are the chief means for getting the most out of all things, and particularly the most out of ourselves.
For they mean, first of all, unity of means for the attaining of unity of effect, that is to say, incalculable economy of material, of time, and of effort; and secondly, unity of effect produced, that is to say, economy even greater in our power of perceiving and feeling: nothing to eliminate, nothing against whose interruptions we waste our energy, our power of becoming more fit in the course of striving.
When there exists harmony one impression leads to, enhances another; we, on the other hand, unconsciously recognise at once what is doing to us, what we in return must do; the mood is indicated, fulfilled, consummated; in plenitude we feel, we are; and in plenitude of feeling and being, we, in our turn, do. Neither is such habit of harmony, of scheme, of congruity, a mere device for sucking the full sweetness out of life, although, heaven knows, that were important enough. As much as such a habit husbands, and in a way multiplies, life's sweetness; so likewise does it husband and multiply man's power. For there is no quicker and more thorough mode of selecting among our feelings and thoughts than submitting them to a standard of congruity; nothing more efficacious than the question: "Is such or such a notion or proceeding harmonious with what we have made the rest of our life, with what we wish our life to be?" This is, in other words, the power of the ideal, the force of ideas, of thought-out, recognised habits, as distinguished from blind helter-skelter impulse. This is what welds life into one, making its forces work not in opposition but in concordance; this is what makes life consecutive, using the earlier act to produce the later, tying together existence in an organic fatality of must be: the fatality not of the outside and the unconscious, but of the conscious, inner, upper man. Nay, it is what makes up the Ego. For the ego, as we are beginning to understand, is no mysterious separate entity, still less a succession of disconnected, conflicting, blind impulses; the ego is the congruous, perceived, nay, thought-out system of habits, which feels all incongruity towards itself as accidental and external. Hence, when we ask which are the statements we believe in, we answer instinctively (logic being but a form of congruity) those statements which accord with themselves and with other statements; when we ask, which are the persons we trust? we answer, those persons whose feelings and actions are congruous with themselves and with the feelings and actions of others. And, on the contrary, it is in the worthless, in the degenerate creature, that we note moods which are destructive to one another's object, ideas which are in flagrant contradiction; and it is in the idiot, the maniac, the criminal, that we see thoughts disconnected among themselves, perceptions disconnected with surrounding objects, and instincts and habits incompatible with those of other human beings. Nay, if we look closely, we shall recognise, moreover, that those emotions of pleasure are the healthy, the safe ones, which are harmonious not merely in themselves (as a musical note is composed of even vibrations), but harmonious with all preceding and succeeding pleasures in ourselves, and harmonious, congruous, with the present and future pleasures in others.
The instinct of congruity, of subordination of part to whole, the desire for harmony which is fostered above all things by art, is one of the most precious parts of our nature, if only, obeying its own tendency to expand, we apply it to ever wider circles of being; not merely to the accessories of living, but to life itself.
For this love of harmony and order leads us to seek what is most necessary in our living: a selection of the congruous, an arrangement of the mutually dependent in our thoughts and feelings.
Much of the work of the universe is done, no doubt, by what seems the exercise of mere random energy, by the thinking of apparently disconnected thoughts and the feeling of apparently sporadic impulses; but if the thought and the impulse remained really disconnected and sporadic, half would be lost and half would be distorted. It is one of the economical adaptations of nature that every part of us tends not merely to be consistent with itself, to eliminate the hostile, to beget the similar, but tends also to be connected with other parts; so that, action coming in contact with action, thought in contact with thought, and feeling in contact with feeling, each single one will be strengthened or neutralised by the other. And it is the especial business of what we may call the central consciousness, the dominant thought or emotion, to bring these separate thoughts and impulses, these separate groups thereof, into more complex relations, to continue on a far vaster scale that vital contact, that trying of all things by the great trial of affinity or repulsion, of congruity or incongruity. Thus we make trial of ourselves; and by the selfsame process, by the test of affinity and congruity, the silent forces of the universe make trial of us, rejecting or accepting, allowing us, our thoughts, our feelings to live and be fruitful, or condemning us and them to die in barrenness.
Whither are we going? In what shape shall the various members of our soul proceed on their journey; which forming the van, which the rear and centre? Or shall there be neither van, nor rear, nor wedge-like forward flight?
If this question remains unasked or unanswered, our best qualities, our truest thoughts and purest impulses, may be hopelessly scattered into distant regions, become defiled in bad company, or, at least, barren in isolation; the universal life rejecting or annihilating them.
How often do we not see this! Natures whose various parts have rambled asunder, or have come to live, like strangers in an inn, casually, promiscuously, each refusing to be his brother's keeper: instincts of kindliness at various ends, unconnected, unable to coalesce and conquer; thoughts separated from their kind, incapable of application; and, in consequence, strange superficial comradeships, shoulder-rubbings of true and false, good and evil, become indifferent to one another, incapable of looking each other in the face, careless, unblushing. Nay, worse. For lack of all word of command, of all higher control, hostile tendencies accommodating themselves to reign alternate, sharing the individual in distinct halves, till he becomes like unto that hero of Gautier's witch story, who was a pious priest one-half of the twenty-four hours and a wicked libertine the other: all power of selection, of reaction gone in this passive endurance of conflicting tendencies; all identity gone, save a mere feeble outsider looking on at the alternations of intentions and lapses, of good and bad. And the soul of such a person—if, indeed, we can speak of one soul or one person where there exists no unity—becomes like a jangle of notes belonging to different tonalities, alternating and mingling in hideous confusion for lack of a clear thread of melody, a consistent system of harmony, to select, reject, and keep all things in place.