The Corner

Bourgeois Genius

A couple of days ago on The Corner, writing about Yeats, I offered the

notion that: “While arrogant, irresponsible, rules-don’t-apply-to-me

egotists of the type so memorably described in Paul Johnson’s book

Intellectuals — Shelley, Hemingway, etc. — have certainly given us much,

the true greats are sober, decent, and bourgeois types.”

A reader points out that this case was made very eloquently by Chesterton,

in a chapter titled “On the Wit of Whistler,” in his book “Heretics.” The

essentials:

“The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a

disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to

utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful to

every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane

man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and

wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or

perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure,

and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament.

Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men– men like Shakespeare

or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament,

tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the

artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art…

“It need hardly be said that this is the real explanation of the thing which

has puzzled so many dilettante critics, the problem of the extreme

ordinariness of the behaviour of so many great geniuses in history. Their

behaviour was so ordinary that it was not recorded; hence it was so ordinary

that it seemed mysterious. Hence people say that Bacon wrote Shakespeare.

The modern artistic temperament cannot understand how a man who could write

such lyrics as Shakespeare wrote, could be as keen as Shakespeare was on

business transactions in a little town in Warwickshire. The explanation is

simple enough; it is that Shakespeare had a real lyrical impulse, wrote a

real lyric, and so got rid of the impulse and went about his business. Being

an artist did not prevent him from being an ordinary man, any more than

being a sleeper at night or being a diner at dinner prevented him from being

an ordinary man.

“All very great teachers and leaders have had this habit of assuming their

point of view to be one which was human and casual, one which would readily

appeal to every passing man. If a man is genuinely superior to his fellows

the first thing that he believes in is the equality of man…

“To very great minds the things on which men agree are so immeasurably more

important than the things on which they differ, that the latter, for all

practical purposes, disappear. They have too much in them of an ancient

laughter even to endure to discuss the difference between the hats of two

men who were both born of a woman, or between the subtly varied cultures of

two men who have both to die. The first-rate great man is equal with other

men, like Shakespeare. The second-rate great man is on his knees to other

men, like Whitman. The third-rate great man is superior to other men, like

Whistler.”

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