Mar 19, 2008

The Usefulness of Art and a Fourth Hunger

British physician and thinker Raymond Tallis thinks that art can help us satisfy a “fourth hunger,” what he defines as an intense human need and desire to experience deeply and fully our experiences. Tallis published an essay on “spiked online” on this matter recently, last November to be exact.

Once again, as so often nowadays, someone is trying to explain to us exactly what art is for, to describe art’s “final cause,” to use the phrase Yvor Winters favored when discussing these matters late in his career. Why has art’s purpose been of such widespread concern lately? I have read of many books and articles and essays across the world addressing the topic, in general readership magazines of wide circulation, web sites, and many scholarly journals. We appear to have arrived at a crucial moment in the future of the arts. Change might be in the offing. Is a return to classicism in it, too? That’s hardly likely, I’ll admit. But all the discussion of art’s purpose and its general tone suggests that thinkers and readers are feeling a good deal of uncertainty about the arts. Beyond its commercial value, is poetry important? How about fiction? The new journalism? Painting? Music? In general, the arts culture seems a little desperate to find compelling answers to these questions that will create a sound and solid consensus.

Into this cultural moment has stepped Raymond Tallis, whom spiked describes as a British gerontologist, philosopher, poet, novelist, and cultural critic. Tallis has written lots of spirited essays on the web about all sorts of philosophical and scientific issues. I have found him learned and insightful on varied topics. His recent essay on the purpose of the arts, “Art, humanity and the ‘fourth hunger’,” is still available at:

I applaud all the theorizing about art’s final cause. But I recommend that the world’s thinkers interested in aesthetics turn back to Yvor Winters if they wish to comprehend this issue more fully and clearly -- though I would add that Wintersians should have long ago put some effort to fill in and strengthen Winters’s provisional ideas about the final cause of literature. Setting the indifference of the Wintersians aside, I want to look at some of what Raymond Tallis gets right and wrong, with the implication, as you have surely guessed, that Tallis’s work on the subject is worth attending to.

The fourth hunger Tallis defines as 1) the seeking of experiences for their own sake, which means 1a) truly experiencing our experiences. (By the way, the photo above is a shot of my son reading Homer while we were taking an evening walk through a patch of woods on the Michigan State campus a couple weeks ago. Was he satisfying a fourth hunger? Read on.) Now, both of these defining phrases are left quite vague, too vague. You can’t quite understand what Tallis is driving at because the language he employs is far too loose. Nowhere does Tallis make it clear what either of these phrases mean, except negatively. When we don’t fully experience our experiences, Tallis explains, we feel a little bit cheated. This feeling of being cheated tells us that we haven’t gotten all that we hunger for (the fourth hunger, you no doubt see), which are deep or full experiences. I know this sort of thing sounds ridiculously vague. But there is some hint of truth in this misty mist. The kind of example Tallis repeats is a vacation activity, like climbing a mountain or rafting a river or parasailing. When we feel a little less than a full and deep satisfaction by such vacation experiences, we know that we have not fed the fourth hunger, to truly experience. My example would be a backpacking trip to a national park (my brothers and I run a passenger ferry that sails to Isle Royale, Michigan’s wilderness national park on Lake Superior).

Again negatively, Tallis adds that we know that deep or truly true or full experience has eluded us because we feel “a mismatch between experience and the idea we had of it when we sought it out.” The fourth hunger, simply put, is met when experience equals expectation. Tallis admits it’s more complicated than that (certainly, it must be), but nowhere does he say exactly how it’s more complicated or in what way. (Nor, making a crucial error, does he explain how we will know what a deep or full experience is when we can’t seem ever to have one.) But his main point is that we fail so often “to experience our experiences.”

Now, before getting to art, which you have guessed by now will have the primary function of addressing the fourth hunger in some way (he actually implies that it is the sole function of art by not discussing any other function), Tallis pauses again to add that our experiences in general, on vacation and otherwise, feel disconnected. The events of our lives almost always fail to amount to wholes. Yet again, Tallis fails to define what a “whole” experience is. The best he can do is to explain that its lack is the feeling of moving from one thing to another, taste-testing from our the world and from our inner psychic states without putting them all together somehow. We almost always fail to gain an overview of ourselves, says Tallis. But his language is, again, much too loose. The words and phrases can mean just6 about anything. He says that we are stuck in what he calls “The Dominion of And” or “The Kingdom of And Then, And Then.” In these dominions, these mental states, we drift from one event to another, without ever fully experiencing any of them as a whole -- even our big experiences, such as, say, a wilderness backpacking trek or a visit to Chartres Cathedral. Tallis’s adjunct attempt at defining wholes and how we experience them is far too brief and vague. Yet he does have an earlier and longer essay on this particular aspect of our problem satisfying the fourth hunger, “The Difficulty of Arrival,” which looks worth reading and might help. (Some of this essay can be found at Google Books.)

To summarize so far, Raymond Tallis believes that many of us often (usually?) die without having been “fully there or never having fully grasped our being there.” This is because “we cannot close the gap between what we are and what we know, between our ideas and our experiences, our experiences and the life and world of which they are a part.” Once again, art presumably will somehow enable us to achieve this mental state. Let’s translate it into a thesis (which Tallis never clearly states):

Art will enable us to close the gap between what we are and what we know.

That infinitive phrase encapsulates, with yet even greater vagueness, the ethereal fourth hunger. Tallis believes that art is generated by the need to satisfy that hunger, which no vacation, apparently, can -- or at least hardly ever can. Arrival always eludes us:

... our need for art is rooted in the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of arrival in the Kingdom of Ends and there experiencing our experiences. If it is better to journey hopefully than to arrive, it is because arrival is not actually possible.

Here again, Tallis errs in failing to explain how we can know when we have arrived in a mental state of fourth-hunger satisfaction if we have never experienced it and without any clear definition of its indications. But putting that sticky weakness aside, Tallis states that the central purpose of art is to satisfy this need for arrival:

For the great work of art is an inselberg [German for a lone, high mountain standing in a flatland] in the plain of everyday life. From its elevated viewpoint, created when so much is brought together between a single cover, our greatly extended view gathers together what we have known, suspected, thought of, imagined, with a consequent mitigation of And; a ‘de-scattering’ of our scattered, tatty, messy, lives, calling back diffuseness to concentration.

Let’s try to get this straight, if we can. Tallis’s main idea is so thoroughly twisted in a strong of metaphors that it might have almost no meaning. We have a hunger to close the gap between experience and really, truly experiencing. Art closes the gap. By doing what? How does experiencing art close the gap of our individual experiences, make them really true and deep? Tallis explains how too briefly, as you will see in a moment. But this idea of “de-scattering” hints at something Winters understood, that art’s purpose is not only to produce emotion or to give us vicarious experiences. Art gives experience and something more, something richer and deeper: it gives us an understanding of experience. This is not exactly what Raymond Tallis opines, but he seems to have an inkling of Winters’s theory in this discussion of the fourth hunger. Winters discussed art’s final causes a number of times in his essays, but his theory comes out in concentrated form in his essay “John Crowe Ransom, or God Without Thunder” from In Defense of Reason. This is because Ransom theorized, to put it very simply, that art mimics experience (though Ransom certainly had many nuances to his aesthetic theories). In an important section of his essay on Ransom, Winters first describes to Ransom’s theory of art as imitation:

... Ransom regards... the work of art as an imitation, purely and simply, of some aspect of objective nature, an imitation made for love of the original object; and he takes elaborate pains to eliminate from the entire process all emotions on the part of the artist except love of the object.... [I]n God without Thunder he writes: “The esthetic attitude is the most objective and the most innocent attitude in which we can look upon the world, and it is possible only when we neither desire the world nor pretend to control it. Our pleasure in this attitude probably lies in a feeling of communion or rapport with environment which is fundamental in our human requirements -- but which is sternly discouraged in the mind that has the scientific habit.”

Now this is a common theory, going back to Aristotle and even before. But Winters quickly pushes this theory to its limits:

I should say the esthetic attitude [Ransom defends] is definable with fair accuracy in the simple and almost sentimental terms: the love of nature. This statement, if taken in the narrowest possible sense, would appear to limit poetry to the description of landscape; but we discover as we read farther in the three books, that this is intended as a formula for the treatment of almost any subject.

Then Winters immediately counters his interpretation of Ransom with an incisive description of his own theory of final cause:

But how applicable is [imitation] to the subject of Macbeth or of Othello? Were these plays written because of the love which Shakespeare felt, either for their actions as wholes or for any major part of their actions? Did Shakespeare love the spectacle of ambition culminating in murder, or of jealousy culminating in murder? Did he write of Iago because he loved him so sentimentally that he wished to render him in all his aspects? To ask the questions is to render the theory ridiculous.

Next comes one of the most important statements of aesthetic theory in Winters’s career, one of the seminal moments in literary thought in the past couple centuries (if wholly unrecognized as such):

Shakespeare wrote the plays in order to evaluate the actions truly; and our admiration is for the truth of the evaluations, not for the beauty of the original objects as we see them imitated. And how, one may wonder, can Shakespeare evaluate these actions truly except from the position of a moralist? To evaluate a particular sin, one must understand the nature of sin; and to fix in language the feeling, detailed and total, appropriate to the action portrayed, one must have a profound understanding not only of language, for language cannot be understood without reference to that which it represents, not only of the characters depicted, but of one's own feelings as well; and such understanding will not be cultivated very far without a real grasp of theoretic morality.

This crucial passage, which I find to be the soundest statement of artistic purpose in modern times, has been long ignored or forgotten. The Ransom essay has drawn little comment or meditation, even among Wintersians. Yet these paragraphs stand as a central defense of understanding and emotional adjustment as the final cause of literature. This idea was a chief concern of Winters’s middle years as a critic, which culminated in his wide-ranging and oft-vilified essay on literary genres “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature.”

Now, returning to Raymond Tallis, he opines that art is an idealization of experience and that this idealization satisfies the human being’s fourth hunger for truly experiencing experience:

And so we see in a work of art an ideal life in miniature. As an exemplar it addresses the wound in consciousness; it acknowledges and consoles us for our customary lack of thereness and lack of connectedness. But a great work of art is a lens as well as a jewel, and through it we may continue the process of widening our consciousness. It invites us to view our own lives with the eyes of an artist. It says: this is how the world might be experienced; now go forth and experience it thus.

This doesn’t quite attain soundness. It also seems trite. Our gaining an “ideal” of deep and true experience makes us, what? -- better able?, immediately able? -- to truly experience our experiences. Again, I’m trying to wade through the metaphors to find something conceptually substantial to make sense of Tallis’s idea. The chief problem with it is that art can leave us feeling just as cold and empty about our own experiences as we did without art. Once we have left an artwork behind, people can and do still feel that they aren’t really experiencing our experience. The lens of art often doesn’t work any better than just giving it the old college try with your own eyes. But I will say this, in the earlier passage about art providing a higher view and connectedness, Tallis at least comes close to thinking of art as a mode of understanding that will help us live better. He doesn’t quite see through the Romantic fog he blows around, but at least he’s exploring at the edges of crucial ideas. It might be worth tinkering with such a theory. It is tangled in Romanticism, of course, but it has elements that suggest and could strengthen Winters’s much stronger, sounder conceptions of art’s final cause. While Tallis’s concepts need a lot of work -- and a lot less metaphor -- what they most need is a telling example or two of how this lens of art works in a person’s life, how an artwork cleared the way for him or someone else to experience his experiences.

Near his conclusion, Tallis feels compelled to explain that under his conception art is useless. But why does he insist on this, when his theory of the purpose of art makes it blatantly clear what he think the use of art is? What is the cause of the general fear among critics and artists of the words “use” and “useful” concerning art and literature? To me the whole issue has never made much sense. But let’s leave that for some future post and rather turn to Tallis’s next concern, art’s rivals for teaching us to experience experiences fully. Like so many, even like Winters, Tallis says that art is better than philosophy or religion for satisfying the fourth hunger:

[Art] is our path to experiencing, with appropriate awe, the extraordinary world which we have in part found (nature) and in part created (culture).

Maybe so. But does art accomplish this or more as no other psychic activity can? Some examples would definitely help make such a case. Nonetheless, this goes too far for me. Religion can order and bring deep meaning to our lives, too, though Tallis thinks religion socially dangerous (he trots out this hackneyed charge without make any case for it at all). He’s even weaker on what distinguishes art from philosophy. He doesn’t say what makes art special. But I don’t think art needs to be special, standing above every other human intellectual pursuit. It is enough for me to see that it is one of the central and most effective ways we can meet our psychic needs.

Finally, like Winters, Tallis discusses the need to find the “very best” artworks, the works that can best satisfy the fourth hunger. Tallis states clearly, as you will see and as Winters believed, that such works are few in number. He implies that only those few can do an adequate job of showing us ideal lives that will enable us, somehow, to experience our experiences fully. For him, these few great or supreme artworks give us the best mean to satisfy our need to truly and deeply experience:

We need to live within, live inside, a small number of definitive works of art that will give us a true image of the human world, equal to its variousness, its depth, its mystery and its grandeur. As Gide said, ‘I write not to be read but to be re-read’. There then remains the unsolved problem of picking the needle out of the haystack; of building a personal library of truly great works.

Those words express something close to Winters’s central critical project, the development of what I call, playfully, the Winters Canon. But Tallis doesn’t offer any examples of the needles he has discovered in the haystack, the great works. This is a major blunder. He ought to have told us what he thinks these few crucial works are, since he considers them so important to the satisfaction of such a difficult hunger to fulfill. Winters told us what artworks of English literature he thought lead to true and deep understanding. I roughly agree with Winters, but I am always open to new and other ideas about greatness. I recently heard from John Fraser about my own work in defining and re-examining the Winters Canon, Winters’s “best” artworks of literature. Fraser wrote that he thought people, especially young people, cannot often live with the best. But Raymond Tallis appears to be saying that this is exactly what’s needed: to know and immerse oneself in the very, very best, which will be few in number. I agree. I think Winters would have agreed. That doesn’t mean that the best is all we can or should study or take in. But I must stop on this subject. It’s a large one that I must come back to. For now, I would agree with Tallis that it’s crucial that we look at the world through the lens of the best.

It hardly seems needed to talk of art’s uselessness again, but Tallis concludes by yet again claiming that art is useless, despite giving one vague, metaphoric use for art after another. He even offers at the end of his essay yet one more use for it:

Useless and necessary, art -- like holidays -- is about experience for its own sake but -- unlike holidays -- such experience perfected. So let there be art, extending and deepening, if not rounding off, the sense of the world, celebrating the wonderful and beautiful uselessness of our half-awakened state.

Such acts are not useless. Tallis just can’t think, it seems, caught up in our culture’s general phobia about art having uses. How are all these actions not uses? Even practical uses in some significant sense? Once again, whence has arisen the general dread in our culture of those words “use” or “useful”? Some day I shall have to come back to that topic.

But before I end, I must note that Tallis still fails to make it clear how seeing art rounding off or deepening experience, perfecting it, idealizing it, enables us to truly experience our experiences, his fourth hunger. But his vague notion that it is in conceptually connecting our experiences that we complete or can fulfill experience, I think he begins to draw close to the critical theories of Yvor Winters.

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