Tuesday, November 30, 2004 +


From Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, “Scalene Trinities”

It is the mark of the father-ridden that they endeavor to impose the Idea directly upon the mind and senses, believing that this is the whole of the work. . . . Among the son-ridden, we may place writers . . . in whom the immense ingenuity and sensuous loveliness of the manner is developed out of all proportion to the tenuity of the ruling idea. Their ghosts enjoy a kind of false Pentecost, thrilling and moving to the senses but producing no genuine rebirth of the spirit. . . . The ghost-ridden writer, on the other hand, conceives that the emotion which he feels is in itself sufficient to awaken the response, without undergoing discipline of a thorough incarnation, and without the coherence that derives from reference to a controlling idea. . . .

The artist must not attempt to force response by direct contact with any response of his own; for spirit cannot speak to spirit without intermediary. To interpret sensibility to sensibility we must have, not only the controlled technique of the Energy ordering the material expression, but also the controlling Idea, “without parts or passions” that, moving all things, “doth itself unmoved abide.” There must, in all art, be this hard core or containing sphere (whichever metaphor is preferred) of the unimpassioned. . . .

. . . the famous line:

A rose-red city half as old as time

ten syllables which have sufficed to render their creator [Dean Burgon] immortal, though nowhere else in the poem [Petra: Newdigate Prize Poem (1845)], nor (so far as I know) in the rest of his creation, did the worthy gentleman present to the world a single memorable phrase. . . .

A confirmed feebleness in the “father,” or Idea, betrays itself in diffusion, in incoherence, in the breach of the Aristotelian unity of action or, still more disastrously, of the over-riding unity of theme. . . . A successful work of art will always disclose a unity of tone and theme. . . . Tristram Shandy, for example, the most willful of . . . pretenders to incoherence, is held together by a bland uniformity of style and a methodical lack of method that bear witness to the cunning co-operation of father and son in its creation. . . . [contrary example of Beddoes]

Everything in the visible structure of the work belongs to the son; so that a really disastrous failure in this person of the trinity produces not a good writer with a weakness but simply a bad writer [or no writer]. . . .

[Discussion playwrighting] The dramatic Gnostic has been ruthlessly pilloried for all time in Mr. Puff [in Sheridan’s The Critic,, Act III]:

Lord Burleigh comes forward, shakes his head, and exits.
SNEER: He is very perfect indeed! Now, pray, what did he mean by that?
PUFF: You don’t take it?
SNEER: No, I don’t, upon my soul.
PUFF: Why. by that shake of the head, he gave you to understand that even though they had more justice in their cause, and wisdom in their measures—yet, if there was not a greater spirit shown on the part of the people, the country would at last fall a sacrifice to the hostile ambition of the Spanish monarchy.
SNEER: The devil! Did he mean all that by shaking his head?
PUFF: Every word of it—if he shook his head as I taught him.

Gnostic also is the preposperous stage-direction at the end of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Drama of Exile. This is scarely a fair example, since it is not likely that she ever seriously contemplated production on any commercial stage; but it is a rich pleasure to quote it:

The stars shine on brightly while ADAM and EVE pursue their way into the far wilderness. There is a sound through the silence, as of the falling tears of an angel.

Whereas failure in the father may be roughly summed up as a failure in Thought and failure in the son as a failure in Action, failure in the ghost is a failure in Wisdom—not the wisdom of the brain, but the more intimate and instinctive wisdom of the heart and bowels. . . .

The very essence of the ghost’s persona [is, in art]: the power to know [artistic] good from evil. . . .