Monday, February 14, 2011

Prime Passage: Lionel Trilling (1952)

From Trilling's "The Situation of the American Intellectual at the Present Time" (1952), his contribution to a Partisan Review symposium on the subject. Prophetic?

“For purposes of the artist’s salvation, it is best not to speak of the artist at all. It is best to think of him as crazy, foolish, inspired—as an unconditionable kind of man—and to make no provision for him until he appears in person and demands it. Our attitude to the artist is deteriorating as our sense of his need increases. It seems to me that the more we think about doing something for the artist, the less we think of him as Master, and the more we think of him as Postulant or Apprentice. Indeed, it may be coming to be true that for us the Master is the not the artist himself, but the great philanthropic Foundation, which brings artists into being, whose creative act the artist is. All signs point toward our desire to institutionalize the artist, to integrate him into the community. By means of university courses which teach the ‘technique’ of writing, or which arrange for the communication of the spirit from a fully initiated artist to the neophyte, by means of doctoral degrees in creativity, by means of summer schools and conferences, our democratic impulses fulfill themselves and we undertake to prove that art is a profession like another, in which a young man of reasonably good intelligence has a right to succeed. And this undertaking, which is carried out by administrators and by teachers of relatively simple mind, is in reality the response to the theory of more elaborate and refined minds—of intellectuals—who conceive of the artist as the Commissioner of Moral Sanitation, and who demand that he be given his proper statutory salary without delay. I do not hold with the theory that art grows best in hardship. But I become uneasy—especially if I consider the nature of the best of modern art, its demand that it be wrestled with before it consents to bless us—whenever I hear of plans for its early domestication. These plans seem to me an aspect of the modern fear of being cut off from the social group even for a moment, of the modern indignation at the idea of entering the life of the spirit without proper provision having been made for full security.”

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Prime Passage: "The Responsibility of the Poet" by Wendell Berry (1988)

(From the essay "The Responsibility of the Poet," found in Berry's book, What Are People For?)
"A poem reminds us...of the spiritual elation that we call 'inspiration' or 'gift.' Or perhaps we ought to say that it should do so, it should be humble enough to do so, because we know that no permanently valuable poem is made by the merely intentional manipulation of its scrutable components. Hence, it reminds us of love. It is amateur work, lover's work. What we now call 'professionalism' is anathema to it. A good poem reminds us of love because it cannot be written or read in distraction; it cannot be read or understood by anyone thinking of praise or publication or promotion. ...

"We are now inclined to make much of this distinction between amateur and professional, but it is reassuring to know that these words first were used in opposition to each other less than two hundred years ago. Before the first decade of the nineteenth century, no one felt the need for such a distinction -- which established itself, I suppose, because of the industrial need to separate love from work, and so it was made at first to discriminate in favor of professionalism. To those who wish to defend the possibility of good or responsible work, it remains useful today because of the need to discriminate against professionalism.

"Professional standards, the standards of ambition and selfishness, are always sliding downward toward expense, ostentation, and mediocrity. They tend always to narrow the ground of judgment. But amateur standards, the standards of love, are always straining upward toward the humble and the best. They enlarge the ground of judgment. The context of love is the world." (p.89-90)

Prime Passage: The Paris Review Interview with David McCullough

"I write on an old Royal typewriter, a beauty! ...I've written all my books on it. It was made about 1941 and it works perfectly. I have it cleaned and oiled about once every book and the roller has to be replaced now and then. Otherwise it's the same machine. Imagine--it's more than fifty years old and it still does just what it was built to do! There's not a thing wrong with it.

"I love putting paper in. I love the way the keys come up and actually print the letters. I love it when I swing that carriage and the bell rings like an old trolley car. I love the feeling of making something with my hands. People say, But with a computer you could go so much faster. Well, I don't want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower. I don't think all that fast. They say, But you could change things so readily. I can change things very readily as it is. I take a pen and draw a circle around what I want to move up or down or wherever and then I retype it. Then they say, But you wouldn't have to retype it. But when I'm retyping I'm also rewriting. And I'm listening, hearing what I've written. Writing should be done for the ear. Rosalee reads aloud wonderfully and it's a tremendous help to me to hear her speak what I've written. Or sometimes I read it to her. It's so important. You hear things that are wrong, that call for editing."