Monday, May 10, 2010

Angry consolations

Geoffrey Hill's famous emphasis on art as "sad and angry consolation," the phrase taken from a translation of Leopardi, marks a vital intersection of ideas.

There's consolation, as in Dr Johnson's "only end" .. "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it" and Van Gogh's "I want to make an image such as a sailor at sea would dream of when he thinks of a woman ashore."

And then there's the anger, as in Adorno's "irascible gesture" in his piece on late style in Beethoven. Strindberg in encouraging Siri to become a writer counselled: "Anger is the most powerful emotion, so if you can recall something with anger or sadness the words will become more potent."

Adorno's thoughts on lateness, as well as those on difficulty, seem relevant to Hill, and not only the "Late Hill" - perhaps Hill has always been late. Adorno writes of Beethoven: "The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves." And again: "The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation."

And here lies the connection with Difficulty - works which do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. Hill has written "I have no ambition to be famously - or notoriously - obscure. The difficulties of daily living get in the way and my poems, unavoidably it seems, collide with the densities of common existence."

Adorno's notes on the difficulty of composition in the 20th century are pertinent: "like writing, composition is also linked to objective difficulties the likes of which were scarcely known before; that these difficulties have to do essentially with the position of art in society; and that one cannot escape them by ignoring them."

Van Gogh, who was an Atlas under the difficulties of his own health and disposition, well knew that consolation was often needed for the sheer difficulty of living; he wrote with typical fervour to Gaugin "Ah! My dear friend, to achieve in painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has already done … an art that offers consolation for the broken-hearted!"

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