35. 18 May 1990 [ES] (Tolstoy; Gary Taylor; "We can't be all aestheticians")
Forgive me if, as I fear, I may have made you suffer from misplaced apostrophe. Thank you for your delightful letter and enclosure. I loved the idea of Shakespeare's erotic sub-text, or should that be sex-tub? Falstaff himself; the very name suggests a failed phallic symbol. So different from the name Shakespeare. But it may well all be true; an entire seamless tissue of infinite amorous punning or foreplay on words. Sed sic sic sine fine feriati, as the poet said. I never had the least doubt though that the infinite variety of Cleopatra meant her physical as well as spiritual flexibility and adaptability, bending over backwards etc to please everyone, in such a way however that the holy priests/bless her when she is riggish.
Yes, I had seen the TLS review of Gary Taylor; and I enclose my own, in the hope it's of some interest. I see we all quote the same bit. Hence the epithet 'pseudo-Marxist'. I've never quite been able to rid myself of the lingering doubt that there is after all some force in the Tolstoyan thesis that the arts are socially divisive, because most people lack the leisure of opportunity to practice them or profite therefrom, so that they remain tangential to almost all ordinary human concerns and endeavours. Nor has Tolstoy overlooked the obvious riposte that none of that is the fault of art as such; the remedy is to arrange for education and advantage to be more widely extended. He feels, as I understand him,' that critical snobbery and self-deception not only form a vast proportion of interest in art but actually are its main if not indeed sole constituents, in the modern anti-social (by which he means non-Christian) world. And at least he is surely right in maintaining that differences in standards or indeed in tastes are a sign of social disharmony, which of course is anathema to the collectivist conscience.
For my own part, I don't mind confessing to elitist tendencies, which is the position into which the anti-Tolstoyan stance inevitably propels its adapter. But I do in that respect if in no other sense some sneaking sympathy with Gary Taylor's approach, though I quite agree it's never cogently reasoned (that's not his style) or indeed even clearly formulated. We can't all be aestheticians. I tried it once (in the days when I wrote the Grove article on Hanslick etc) but I found, like the chap reported in Boswell who once tried to be a philosopher, that cheerfulness was always breaking in.
While I'm about it I'll also enclose a letter that I sent off to the London Review of Books, very peevishly, as a protest against the latest idiocy.
[...] Speaking of beauty, my Christian friend has returned from Florence, speaking of beauty; and in suitably hushed and reverent tones. But (with all respect to Keats) it's not truth, and religion remains a sealed (not even a Good) book to me. We wrote a joint book to prove it; Letters to an Atheist (i.e. me). Not only was I not rescued as a brand from the burning; I still crackle away quite cheerfully. I may be the last living Spinozan (a species of extinct dinosaur). I'm quite encouraged though by some kindly mentions in a recent book on Brahms, to which (quite by coincidence of course) I'll be giving a rave review!
Please tell me how your own endeavours are faring; prosperously, I trust. I lunched the ether day at the veritable very table where you made your Baudelairisation mot. I have initiated enquiries into the possibility of affixing a commemorative plaque.
Meanwhile I've been reading the latest biography of Baudelaire; inadequate, as ever – he may be even less well served than Bacon! – and , as ever, harrowing. All the lord of language could say in the tertiary stage was 'crénom!’, which annoyed the nuns. A sad epitaph:
Ci-gît, qui pour avoir par trop aimé les gaupes
descendit jeune encore au royaume des taupes
Also a Shakespearean theme. I've just seen the Kenneth Branagh film of Henry V which has much, and many, to commend it.
Warmest good wishes and regards,
yours as ever Eric