Friday, May 28, 2004

The point, the whole point, and nothing but the point

Another Self, by James Lees-Milne, is described on the official Lees-Milne web site as an autobiographical novel, perhaps because the author took liberties with the facts for dramatic effect. In any event, I shall return to that book later, but for the moment I just want to refer to one passage in it.

James Lees-Milne was born in 1908. In 1926/27, at the age of eighteen or so, he found himself living in genteel poverty in London; he was taking a course in typing and shorthand which was really intended for young ladies. One day he was sent a whole pound by his mother, and he decided to splash out and go to the opera at Covent Garden. For half a crown he bought a standing-room ticket in the gallery, and there he met another young man, called Theo.

During the interval in the opera, the two young men fell into conversation, and, although they had known each other for only a few minutes, Theo made a series of remarks which struck James as a revelation. James records the event as follows:
[Theo] was the first person to teach me that the purpose of art... was to give pleasure. Until that moment I was totally unaware of this basic truth. On the contrary I had thought of art as a deadly serious matter like algebra... a thing to be approached and taken with respect and awe like the sacrament. To equate it with enjoyment was daring and revolutionary. I felt that a weight had been lifted from my intelligence.
I have to say that I agree entirely with Theo's argument. The whole point of 'art' -- which I take to include fiction, theatre, cinema, painting, sculpture, and, for that matter, embroidery -- is that it should give pleasure. And it follows, incidentally, that since we are all different, what gives pleasure to you is not necessarily going to give pleasure to me -- a circumstance which, if I may mention the book once again, I have considered at greater length in my book The Truth about Writing.

What I want to do here, however, is not so much plug my book (again), as draw attention to the curious fact that the fundamental truth about art (as described succinctly above) is blindingly obvious to some fairly ordinary people, and yet remains a mystery to some of the most intelligent and 'intellectual' members of the community. The latter will insist on inventing all kinds of weird and wonderful 'theories of literature', and the like, for something which, essentially, needs no elucidation whatever.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, really. I spent about 25 years working in the university sector, and you don't have to work in a university very long before you discover that a man can be a world-ranking expert in, say, biochemistry or physics, and still be a complete fool.

You will no doubt be able to think of your own examples.


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