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We do not wish to deny that erroneous historical interpretation sometimes produces what may be called palimpsests, new expressions imposed upon the ancient, artistic fancies instead of historical reproductions. The so-called “ fascination of the past " depends in part upon these expressions of ours, which we weave upon the historical. Thus has been discovered in Greek plastic art the calm and serene intuition of life of those peoples, who nevertheless felt the universal sorrow so poignantly; thus “the terror of the year 1000 ” has recently been discerned on the faces of the Byzantine saints, a terror which is a misunderstanding, or an artificial legend invented later by men of learning. But historical criticism tends precisely to circumscribe fancies and to establish exactly the point of view from which we must look.
By means of the above process we live in communication with other men of the present and of the past ; and we must not conclude because we sometimes, and indeed often, meet with an unknown or an ill-known, that therefore, when we believe we are engaged in a dialogue, we are always speaking a monologue; or that we are unable even to repeat the monologue which we formerly held with ourselves.
THE HISTORY OF LITERATURE AND ART
Historical This brief exposition of the method by which is obtained criticism in literature
the reintegration of the original conditions in which the and art. Its work of art was produced, and consequently reproduction importance.
and judgement are made possible, shows how important is the function fulfilled by historical research in relation to artistic and literary works which is what is usually called historical criticism or method in literature and art.
Without tradition and historical criticism the enjoyment of all or nearly all the works of art produced by humanity would be irrevocably lost : we should be little more than animals, immersed in the present alone, or in the most recent past. It is fatuous to despise and laugh at one who reconstitutes an authentic text, explains the sense of forgotten words and customs, investigates the conditions in which an artist lived, and accomplishes all those labours which revive the qualities and the original colouring of works of art.
Sometimes a depreciatory or negative judgement is passed upon historical research because of the presumed or proved inability of such researches, in many cases, to give us a true understanding of works of art. But it must be observed, in the first place, that historical research does not only fulfil the task of helping to reproduce and judge artistic works : the biography of a writer or of an artist, for example, and the study of the customs of a period, have an interest of their own, that is to say, extraneous to the history of art, but not to other forms of historiography. If allusion be made to
those researches which do not appear to have interest of any kind, nor to fulfil any purpose, it must be replied that the historical student must often reconcile himself to the useful but inglorious function of a collector of facts. These facts remain for the time being formless, incoherent and meaningless, but they are preserves or mines for the historian of the future and for whosoever may afterwards want them for any purpose. In the same way in a library, books which nobody asks for are placed on the shelves and catalogued, because they may be asked for at some time or other. Certainly, just as an intelligent librarian gives the preference to the acquisition and cataloguing of those books which he foresees may be of more or better service, so intelligent students possess an instinct as to what is or may more probably be of use among the material of facts which they are examining; while others less well endowed, less intelligent or more hasty in producing, accumulate useless rubbish, refuse and sweepings, and lose themselves in details and petty discussions. But this appertains to the economy of research, and does not concern us. It concerns at most the master who selects the subjects, the publisher who pays for the printing, and the critic who is called upon to praise or to blame the research workers.
On the other hand, it is clear that historical research directed to illuminate a work of art does not alone suffice to bring it to birth in our spirit and place us in a position to judge it, but presupposes taste, that is to say, an alert and cultivated imagination. The greatest historical erudition may accompany a gross or otherwise defective taste, a slow imagination, or, as they say, a cold hard heart closed to art. Which is the lesser evil, great erudition with defective taste, or natural taste and much ignorance? The question has often been asked, and perhaps it will be best to deny that it has any meaning, because one cannot tell which of two evils is the less, or what exactly that means. The merely learned man never succeeds in entering into direct communion with
great spirits; he keeps wandering for ever about the outer courts, the staircases and antechambers of their palaces; but the gifted ignoramus either passes by masterpieces to him inaccessible, or instead of understanding works of art as they really are, invents others with his fancy. Now, the labour of the former may at least serve to enlighten others; but the genius of the latter remains altogether sterile in relation to knowledge. How then can we in a certain respect fail to prefer the conscientious learned man to the inconclusive though gifted man, who is not really gifted, if he resign himself and in so far as he resigns himself, to his incon
clusiveness? Literary and We must accurately distinguish the history of art and artistic history. literature from those historical labours where works of from historical art are used, but for extraneous purposes (such as biofrom the graphy, civil, religious and political history, etc.), and asthetic also from historical erudition directed to the preparation judgement.
of the æsthetic synthesis of reproduction.
The difference of the first two is obvious. The history of art and literature has the works of art themselves as its principal subject; those other labours invoke and interrogate works of art, but only as witnesses from whom to discover the truth of facts which are not æsthetic. The second difference to which we have referred may seem less profound. It is, however, very great. Erudition directed to illuminate the understanding of works of art aims simply at calling into existence a certain internal fact, an æsthetic reproduction. Artistic and literary history, on the other hand, does not appear until after such reproduction has been obtained. It implies, therefore, a further stage of labour.
Like all other history, its object is to record precisely such facts as have really taken place, in this case artistic and literary facts. A man who, after having acquired the requisite historical erudition, reproduces in himself and tastes a work of art, may remain simply a man of taste, or at the most express his own feeling with an exclamation of praise or condemnation. This does not
suffice for the making of a historian of literature and art. Something else is needed, namely, that a new mental operation succeed in him the simple reproduction. This new operation is in its turn an expression : the expression of the reproduction; the historical description, exposition or representation. There is this difference, then, between the man of taste and the historian : the first merely reproduces in his spirit the work of art; the second, after having reproduced it, represents it historically, or applies those categories by which, as we know, history is differentiated from pure art. Artistic and literary history is therefore a historical work of art founded upon one or more works of art.
The name artistic ” or “ literary” critic is used in various senses : sometimes it is applied to the scholar who devotes his services to literature ; sometimes to the historian who reveals the works of art of the past in their reality; more often to both. By critic is sometimes understood in a more restricted sense he who judges and describes contemporary literary works, and by historian, he who treats of those less recent. These are linguistic uses and empirical distinctions, which may be neglected ; because the true difference lies between the scholar, the man of taste and the historian of art. These words designate three successive stages of work, each one independent relatively to the one that follows, but not to that which precedes. As we have seen, a man may be a mere scholar, and possess little capacity for understanding works of art; he may even both be learned and possess taste, yet be unable to portray them by writing a page of artistic and literary history. But the true and complete historian, while containing in himself both the scholar and the man of taste as necessary pre-requisites, must add to their qualities the gift of historical comprehension and representation.
The theory of artistic and literary historical method The method presents problems and difficulties, some common to the of artistic
and literary theory of historical method in general, others peculiar to history. it, because derived from the concept of art itself.