|>> || …Are the world’s artists, with all their noble orderings, playing in the sand? Another way to phrase the same question is this: do artists discover order, or invent it? Do they discern it, or make it up? Finally—are the significance, causality, harmony, purpose, etc., which we find in art objects to be found in the actual world? …Are these structures really intelligences, the product of knowledge, which enlighten; or are they instead only play-pretties, the products of wishing, which console? |
It is a shame, having stated the question so tidily, and I hope so poignantly, that we must now disallow it. For the drearily abstract truth of the matter is that there is no final difference between the two choices. The question pertains only to the realm of positivist knowledge—to science. One may discover America, which is actual, or invent a unicorn, which is not. Inventing a trip to the moon is mere literature until we discover a way to get there; the discovery of a unicorn would be very hard news indeed. In science, our fictions do not necessarily create our facts (although, as is well known, they may certainly facilitate their discovery, as Kepler’s elaborate, angelical cosmology led him to posit elliptical orbits). Even in the sciences, however, the matter becomes steadily cloudier as the levels of abstraction climb. What do we mean by asking if a context is actual? According to whom? For all we know of the actual is our knowledge of it, and that knowledge is contextual, partial, verbal, and so forth. Do we know that the brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, is a bird of the order Pelecaniformes and the family Pelecanidae—or did somebody just make that up? Did we discover calculus or invent it? Do we discover or invent a new move in chess? Did we discover or invent the qualities of color and charm in particles? Anti-matter?
Outside of positivism, in the realm of understanding—of human interpretation—invention and discovery are the same process. It is all fiction. Did Plato, or Kant, or Freud, discover a series of significant relationships, or fabricate it? Did Noam Chomsky discover a series of significant relationships, or fabricate it? Did Schönberg? Did Mondrian? Did Confucius or the Baal Shem-Tov discover a series of significant relationships or fabricate it? Did Shakespeare? Did Conrad, did Beethoven, did Donne? The question is meaningless.
But let us go further. The intellectual, interpretive orders which we find in art objects must be there to be found in the actual world, for somebody found them, if only by making them up. But surely there are false interpretations, such as that the Aryan race is destined to rule Europe. Surely there are human orders which only madmen discern, such as the one in which the tide of history is understood to have risen and borne upon its breast the returned general Napoleon Bonaparte, in the person of the speaker. How do we distinguish between those inventions which we honor by the name “discoveries”—such as Freud’s—and those inventions we dismiss as balderdash, such as the doctrine of signatures? Alas, we have only empiricism. Some interpretations, such as Plato’s and Freud’s and Buddha’s, are still proving useful in their respective fields. This, in turn, is a matter of consensus. Consensus within the various cultures sets useful inventions/ discoveries in the shrines of convention, where they reign until consensus changes, when some even more useful fiction replaces the old, as the doctrine of signatures was replaced. This is all very well, and establishes that much of our question is disallowed. But we press on.
What are we to make of artistic interpretations of the great world? Do they obtain? Do those in what consensus calls a great work obtain in the actual world? We have seen that, so far as we know, interpretations of natural facts do not obtain outside their artistic contexts; Melville has not explained to us whales. Interpretations of human facts, however, may well obtain outside their contexts. In the presentation of Achilles and Lear and Lord Jim and Madame Bovary and Dorothea Casaubon and Ahab we may discern relationships between character and event, or character and its parts, which empiricism, if it could ever be directed to such insubstantial ends, would I think discover to be actual recurring patterns. These structures are actual; the articulation of them is discovery. This is a great value of literature. But this is referential. It presents a model of d…
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