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But a text-book of psychology, is not a work of art—or only secondarily and incidentally a work of art.Mere verisimilitude, mere correspondence of experience recorded by the writer with experience remembered or imaginable by the reader, is not enough to make a work of art seem ‘true.’ Good art possesses a kind of super-truth—is more probable, more acceptable, more convincing than fact itself.But would they previously have cooked their supper and cooked it, what’s more, in a masterly fashion?
The survivors could only look on helplessly, while Scylla “at the mouth of her cave devoured them, still screaming, still stretching out their hands to me in the frightful struggle.” And Odysseus adds that it was the most dreadful and lamentable sight he ever saw in all his “explorings of the passes of the sea.” We can believe it; Homer’s brief description (the too poetical simile is a later interpolation) convinces us.
Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went ashore for the night and, on the Sicilian beach, prepared their supper—prepared it, says Homer, ‘expertly.’ The Twelfth Book of the Odyssey concludes with these words. Or light travels at the rate of 187,000 miles a second?
Micawber’s papa’s favourite proverb would lead us to suppose.
Artists are eminently teachable and also eminently teachers.
We mean that the experiences he records correspond fairly closely with our own actual or potential experiences—and correspond with our experiences not on a single limited sector, but all along the line of our physical and spiritual being. Consider how almost any other of the great poets would have concluded the story of Scylla’s attack on the passing ship.
And we also mean that Homer records these experiences with a penetrative artistic force that makes them seem peculiarly acceptable and convincing. Six men, remember, have been taken and devoured before the eyes of their friends.Homer—the Homer of the Odyssey—is one of those few. When the experiences recorded in a piece of literature correspond fairly closely with our own actual experiences, or with what I may call our potential experiences—experiences, that is to say, which we feel (as the result of a more or less explicit process of inference from known facts) that we might have had—we say, inaccurately no doubt: “This piece of writing is true.” But this, of course, is not the whole story.The record of a case in a text-book of psychology is scientifically true, insofar as it is an accurate account of particular events, But it might also strike the reader as being ‘true’ with regard to himself—that is to say, acceptable, probable, having a correspondence with his own actual or potential experiences.For they do happen; Fielding, like Homer, admits all the facts, shirks nothing.Indeed, it is precisely because these authors shirk nothing that their books are not tragical.They would simply have wept, lamenting their own misfortune and the horrible fate of their companions, and the Canto would have ended tragically on their tears. He knew that even the most cruelly bereaved must eat; that hunger is stronger than sorrow and that its satisfaction takes precedence even of tears.He knew that experts continue to act expertly, and to find satisfaction in their accomplishment, even when friends have just been eaten, even when the accomplishment is only cooking the supper.Fielding, it is obvious, adored her; (she is said to have been created in the image of his first, much-loved wife).But in spite of his adoration, he refused to turn her into one of those chemically pure and, as it were, focussed beings who do and suffer in the world of tragedy.For, to begin with, in the tragical context weight is an irrelevance; heroines should be above the law of gravitation.But that is not all; let the reader now remember what were the results of his fall. The tragedies of Shakespeare are veined, it is true, with irony and an often terrifying cynicism; but the cynicism is always heroic idealism turned neatly inside out, the irony is a kind of photographic negative of heroic romance.