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Tossed on the waves/missing/from moment to moment being/carried wherever/face pressed against/an impenetrable sky/yawning sky.

A critic with whom I find few (albeit personal) connections has said that history, history “is what hurts.” I could not agree or disagree more.

But let me start over. I bought three records last week. And I don’t mean that I bought three albums. They were records, and very much so. I have always thought that there are certain albums that lend themselves to the car, the home, the daily transit, etc. And those albums that lend themselves to the home are best listened to on vinyl, and with very good speakers. Let it be said that I am no elitist. This is fundamental. The whole vinyl thing, the good speakers, the no-MP3-thing, it’s different. I promise. And so it was a snowy day and I bought some records. I took them home and I listened.

There was something about one of the records that struck me, and it was something that struck me in the way that other things have struck me, but different. It struck me and it hurt. The song is “Yawning Sky” by Mount Eerie—a haunting, troubling, wonderful song filled with equal parts bravado and sadness. In no small part because I have been taking a course dealing with Walter Pater, I instinctively thought that it made sense that all art aspires to music. In hearing “Yawning Sky”, I want to cry a little and I also want to make something else, something that will be an appropriate response. This response—to make a response, to want to have such a personal response—is, it should be said, not entirely natural. Such a subjective understanding of art criticism was first given (it can be argued) in the mid-to-late 1800s. It is a very Victorian notion made, in no small part, by aestheticists like Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin.

We see, we intake, and we are changed.

There is a very famous description of the Mona Lisa given by Pater in his “historical” study of the Renaissance. It is so lovely—and uncanny—that it is worth quoting at length:

The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

Now this vision of the Mona Lisa is not, almost certainly, a vision of the Mona Lisa that Leonardo anticipated. And Pater’s aim remains unclear: Is this an example of good criticism? Or is this the correct impression? But it is no less beautiful, or relevant for this ambiguity. Pater’s purpose was to create an impression that lives apart from the art it describes, an attempt to elevate criticism to poetry. Appropriately, W.B. Yeats published the first sentence with line breaks in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. (And in a strange twist of fate that Pater almost certainly would have hated, this passage was quoted in multiple Victorian Baedekers, subsequently influencing a generation’s viewing of the work.) For Pater, art does not live and die with the creator, and criticism is no mere substitute for art. The critic is, as Wilde says, an artist in his own right. So I feel justified, when I listen to “Yawning Sky” and think of:

  • the sunrise over the San Francisco bay, knowing that sleep was a distant memory
  • crashing, in all its embodied glory, both hard and delicate
  • what it means to be embedded in an indefinable hurt
  • me, lost and fumbling
  • the lovely

I am aware of the solipsism here. Believe me, I am aware of the narcissism. Pater, though, to his credit and discredit, doesn’t want me to discount that. The personal impression, for him, is the truest. It is the vérité vraie.

This is old hat in our current post-modern milieu. It is an old hat inappropriately worn, filled with sawdust and colonial dreams. But, it seems to me, we can wear this hat better. With sophistication. And grandeur. We can wear it as hybrids, as the kind of people who understand its flimsiness—the kind of people who gape in awe of the horizon, ever yawning towards a distant, utopian shore.

I listen to a yawning sky, and I wonder, and I ask: How insignificant is our criticism when divorced formally from art itself?

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