On a rainy May evening [F. W. H.] Myers walked with his famous guest [sc. George Eliot] in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge, and she spoke of God, Immortality, and Duty. God, she said, was inconceivable. Immortality was unbelievable. But it was beyond question that Duty was ‘peremptory and absolute’. ‘Never, perhaps,’ Myers says, ‘have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened and night fell; her majestic countenance turned towards me like a sybil in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp the two scrolls of promise, and left me with the third scroll only, awful with inscrutable fate.’ […]
We cannot but be touched by Myers’s little scene, and perhaps the more because we will not fail to perceive the inauthenticity in which it issues: the very hollowness of the affirmation attests to the need it was intended to satisfy. We of our time do not share that need of the Victorians. We are not under the necessity of discovering in the order of the universe, in the ineluctable duty it silently lays upon us, the validation of such personal coherence and purposiveness as we claim for ourselves. We do not ask those questions which would suggest that validation is indeed there, needing only to be discovered; to us they seem merely factitious. But we must feel with those who were impelled to ask them.
Still, with what relief we hear the questions being brushed aside not long after they were put with such urgent hope. ‘The first duty in life’, said one of the great figures of Victoria’s reign, ‘The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.’ And Oscar Wilde went on: ‘What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.’
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticiy
It was about that time that music, which had always been around me, and was identified, through the scent of a polish in the sitting-room, with the very air I breathed, gained a new and independent grip on me; I suppose it was love that made me see a Mozart concerto or a lyrical and exultant Schumann symphony not simply as a wonder in itself but as a kind of explanation of life. Like love it seemed to admit me to a new dimension of luminous purpose: music raised my expectations to an ideal level that other friends found comic or unbelievable if they weren’t initiates themselves. At school we were played some bits of Janáček, which were the most convulsively life-like music I had ever heard. I gathered up the scraps of Supraphon record-sleeve information, cryptically condensed and obscured by translation, that were all that could be found out by an English boy, and was amazed by the lateness of his flowering and the fact that this bristling old gent should be the one to confirm everything I felt at seventeen about life and sex and being out at night with winds and stars.
Alan Hollinghurst, The Folding Star
Perrault, writing towards the end of the seventeenth century, says it is a great pity that Homer allows his heroes to be too familiar with swineherds. He does not, I suppose, wish to deny that perhaps Homer’s heroes, or persons from whom he drew his originals, might have been as familiar with swineherds as they are represented as being, but if so, they should not have been. The business of the painter is not simply realistically to reproduce what is there – that is what the Dutch too often do, and this merely populates the world with a number of copies of entities which originally had no need to be there.
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism
This method of Sainte-Beuve ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. … In fact, it is the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life – in conversation…or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print – is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.
Marcel Proust, Against Sainte-Beuve
The notion that ‘it all somehow must make sense’, or ‘there is a best decision here’, preserves from despair: the difficulty is how to entertain this consoling notion in a way which is not false. As soon as any idea is a consolation the tendency to falsify it becomes strong: hence the traditional problem of preventing the idea of God from degenerating in the believer’s mind. It is true that the intellect naturally seeks unity; and in the sciences, for instance, the assumption of unity consistently rewards the seeker. But how can this dangerous idea be used in morals? It is useless to ask ‘ordinary language’ for a judgment, since we are dealing with concepts which are not on display in ordinary language or unambiguously tied up to ordinary words. Ordinary language is not a philosopher.
Iris Murdoch, ‘On “God” and ‘Good”‘