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The Disputes of the Flute-Players

Anatole France
In aesthetics, that is to say in the clouds, one can argue more and better than in any other subject. It is there that one must be cautious.


Anatole France

In aesthetics, that is to say in the clouds, one can argue more and better than in any other subject. It is there that one must be cautious. It is there that one has everything to fear: indifference as well as partiality, coldness as well as passion, knowledge as well as ignorance, artfulness, wit, subtlety and an innocence which is more dangerous than craft. In al] matters of aesthetics you must dread sophisms, especially when they are beautiful, and you will find admirable ones. In this field you must not even trust the mathematical mind, which is so perfect and so sublime, but of such delicacy as a mechanism that it cannot work except in the void, because a grain of sand in its wheelwork is enough to make it go wrong. One shudders when one thinks to what length such a grain of sand can drag a mathematical brain. Think of Pascal!

Aesthetics is founded on nothing solid. It is a castle in the air. Men have tried to prop it upon ethics. But there is no ethics. There is no sociology. Nor is there any biology. The completion of the sciences has never existed except in the brain of M. Auguste Comte, whose books are prophetical. When an exact biology will have been established, that is to say in some millions of years, it may perhaps be possible to establish a sociology. That will also take a great number of centuries. Then will come the time when you may properly create an aesthetic science on solid foundations. But by that time our planet will be very old and will approach the term of its destiny. The sun whose spots, not without reason, trouble us even now, will in those days turn to the earth a face of somber and fuliginous red, half covered by opaque scoriae, and the last men, taking refuge in the depths of mines, will be less anxious to dispute on the essence of the beautiful than to bum their last fragments of coal before plunging into the eternal ice.

Tradition and universal agreement have been taken as foundations of criticism. Neither one exists. It is true that an almost general opinion favors certain works. But it does so by virtue of a prejudice and not at all through choice and the effect of a spontaneous preference. The works which everybody admires are those which no one looks at. One receives them like a precious burden which one hands on to others without looking at it. Do you really believe that there is much freedom of judgment in the approbation which we give to the Greek, the Latin or even the French classics? And is the taste which draws us to a certain contemporary work and away from some other really free? Is it not determined by many circumstances quite alien to the content of the work, the chief of which is the spirit of imitation so powerful both among men and beasts? That spirit of imitation is necessary to us to help us live without too much disorder; we carry it into all our actions and it dominates our aesthetic sense. Without it our opinions in matters of art would be even more diverse than they are. It is in this way that some work which, for some reason or other, has, to begin with, gained the suffrages of some, will thereupon gather those of many. The first alone were free; all the others did nothing but obey. They have neither spontaneity, nor insight, nor courage, nor any character. And their multiplication creates fame. It all depends on a very small beginning. One also observes that works despised at their birth have little chance of pleasing later, and that on the contrary works celebrated from their appearance will long guard their reputation and be respected even after they have become unintelligible. The utter dependence of agreement upon prejudice is proved by the fact that they cease together. Numerous instances of this could be given....

What an interesting book could be written on the variations of criticism concerning one of those works with which men have most busied themselves--Hamlet, the Divine Comedy, the Iliad. The Iliad charms us to-day by a barbarous and primitive character which we discover in it in all good faith. In the seventeenth century Homer was praised for having observed the rules of epic composition.

"You may be sure," Boileau said, "that if Homer used the word 'dog' it is because 'dog' is a noble word in Greek."

Such ideas seem absurd to us. Ours may seem equally absurd in two hundred years. For after all, one cannot rank amid the eternal verities the perception that Homer is primitive and that primitive barbarism is admirable. There is not a single opinion in literature which one cannot easily fight with its precise opposite. Who, then, will be able to end the disputes of the flute-players?

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