The Arts Without Mystery. By Denis Donoghue. Little, Brown, 151 pages, $15.95.
August 14, 1984        

The title of Denis Donoghue’s new book may be misunderstood, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Popularizations and “made simple” books are an American tradition, from “Poor Richard’s Almanac” to “Nuclear Physics in Ten Easy Lessons.” In a democratic culture, difficulty is suspect (and more to the point, in a capitalist economy, difficulty is unmarketable). So the American reader may assume, gratefully, that Donoghue intends to explain the contemporary arts, to dispel their intimidating aura of complexity and inaccessibility. To an American, “without mystery” sounds reassuringly like “straight from the shoulder” or “in plain language.”

This is not at all what Donoghue, an eminent Irish literary critic (recently transplanted to a prestigious chair at New York University) delivering the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures to an English audience, had in mind. “The Arts Without Mystery” comes from a different tradition: it is a lively, genial, erudite anti-modernist polemic. Donoghue’s complaint is that “society is guilty of presumption; it presumes to know what reality is, and that it can be fully represented in plain sense and ordinary language without admitting mystery.” Contemporary society, and in particular contemporary criticism, has tamed the arts, gradually deprived them of their prophetic and subversive possibilities. There’s no place in modern life for the mystical or the unpredictable; the arts have been institutionalized and are now managed by a cultural bureaucracy of scholars, critics, patrons, businessmen, and publicists. “We murder to dissect,” protested an earlier antimodernist; according to Donoghue, we vulgarize to administer.

The techniques of modern management are various: the blockbuster phenomenon and the star system, with their accompanying publicity machines; the centralization of public patron age; the recruitment of artists into universities. Donoghue is most interested in, and most interesting on, the ideological uses of criticism. “If you wanted to neutralize the arts and remove their mystery,” he writes, “the best strategy would be to reduce them to psychology and politics.” So he glances at Marxist, psychoanalytic, and structuralist approaches, all of which allegedly adopt this strategy in one form or another. Marxism sees works of art as instrumental — destined, whatever their creator’s intention, to serve as a weapon for one side or another in an ineluctable class conflict. Psychoanalytic criticism displaces attention from the work to the artist, interpreting art as “the artist’s way of dealing with compulsions which he treated otherwise when he was a child.” Structuralism dispenses with art and artist alike, displacing our attention to “language itself, which is then studied as an impersonal system, a system that doesn’t need a person to work it”; the individual work of literature is “a mere function of a [corrupted] language, corrupted be cause it has been used in the exercise of power and on behalf of an ideology.” What these approaches have in common, Donoghue claims, and what makes them unsatisfactory, is their conception of interpretation as unmasking and their corresponding assumption that criticism is a means to power, political or therapeutic. Donoghue wants to argue that, by being open to mystery, art can be oppositional without being ideological.

It can do that because a work of art participates in and recalls us to a realm apart from psychology and politics. Art entails what Donoghue (following the philosopher Roberto Unger) calls an “extraordinary deviation” from everyday life, a sudden incursion by the eternal into the quotidian, the essential into the contingent, the sacred into the profane. The experience subverts the official certitudes of left and right: “The extraordinary makes it possible to grasp the ideal, and to contrast it with one’s ordinary experience of the world,” and this supplies “the starting point for the critique and transformation of social life.”

This is inspiriting, but one wants to know more, for example about the material conditions in which the ideal may be realized, or even perceived. Unfortunately, Donoghue does not linger over this, or any, theme. I said that he “glances at” a number of critical isms: one engaging but frustrating thing about this book is the author’s almost extravagant intellectual agility. He’s continually darting off to pursue the implications of a remark by Empsort or Eliot or Leavis, Barthes or Derrida or Lévi-Strauss. Among theorists of criticism, there is currently a debate about the primacy of the written or spoken word; Donoghue is on the side of speech. He’s written warmly, in this volume and elsewhere, in praise of conversation as the ideal form of critical discourse, and moreover he appears to be endowed with considerable native Irish loquacity. The result is a playful, stimulating book whose central argument is difficult to reconstruct.

What is “mystery”? What does modern secular rationalism leave out of account? When a work of art is reduced to psychology or politics, what’s lost in the reduction? The aggressive tone of these questions, Donoghue might reply, is part of the problem: a sense of mystery can be induced, but it can’t be demonstrated, at least not beyond a reasonable doubt. “Mystery,” he writes, “is what remains after reason, when reason has done its best and its worst.” He quotes Wittgenstein: “What is inexpressible — what I find mysterious and am not able to express — is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” He cites a suggestive distinction by the Christian existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel: a problem is an obstacle, some thing to be isolated, resolved, and cleared away; a mystery is a condition we’re only fitfully aware of, something to be gradually accommodated, penetrated, inhabited.

From these and similar notions Donoghue derives an almost Scholastic aesthetic doctrine. A work of art has a kind of metaphysical self-sufficiency: it possesses “true unity: unity of an immaterial sign and of an entirely spiritual meaning.” Insofar as “immaterial” and “spiritual” admit of any modern analogue, this sounds like formalism, a guess that’s supported by sentences like: “The autonomy of the work of art is embodied in its precise form, its structure, however in adequately these terms may be construed.... The achieved work of art is present to itself, more fully at one with itself, than anything in the world which completes its meaning elsewhere, apart from its own form.” Formal perfection discloses a world elsewhere, a realm of the ideal, the ineffable, the supernatural, the mysterious.

This sort of metaphysical lyricism is exhilarating at first, but skepticism cannot be postponed indefinitely. We moderns are suspicious of “mystery” and “the supernatural” not only because we’ve been indoctrinated by secular bureaucracies but also because those who have employed these words have rarely done anything useful or interesting with them. And then, it’s hard to forgive and forget all the obscurantist and authoritarian purposes those words have served.

Still, words that persist usually persist for a reason. Donoghue has identified a genuine problem: “Criticism is discursive, but art, when it is most completely art, is not.” (Neither is creative, as opposed to routine, science.) Art is intelligible but not logical — or better, there is another logic, a logic of imagination. Deduction and proof are not possible in the arts, but we understand each other, at least some of the time. A new or unfamiliar work will sometimes seem right, occasion ally even inevitable; and these recognitions are such vivid experiences that we naturally try to account for them, however tentatively, with theories.

So far, as Donoghue reminds us, our theories are primitive compared with our experiences. The best we’ve come up with are hints, usually from artists. Donoghue quotes a number of these, including T.S. Eliot’s wonderful description of the “auditory imagination”: “The feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality.”

Eliot’s language suggests that the movement of the imagination is inward and downward. In a metaphorical way, this seems to fit with Donoghue’s admonition that mystery is not a problem, not merely “something that comes to our attention as an obscurity, so that we can regard the obscurity as the first stage of clarification — as if at a later stage the issue would become clear, or at worst clearer.” But there are other possible metaphors, some of them more congenial to an old-fashioned believer in Reason and Progress. For me, the sense of mystery as a plenitude of in intelligibility is evoked best by a well-known sentence of Isaac Newton’s, in which the possibilities of imagination are projected outward without limit: “I know not how I have appeared to others, but to myself I have always seemed like a boy playing with pebbles on the shore, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” That vision is secular, rationalist, and optimistic, yet it is as mystical, and humble, as Eliot or Donoghue could wish.

Donoghue is right to warn that there is a positivist as well as a metaphysical obscurantism. But he may be too pessimistic, perhaps even a little dogmatic in his humility. Eternal resignation is premature: in the life of civilizations, as of individuals, the unknown recedes slowly. Why shouldn’t we think of mystery as a “first stage of clarification,” as something that may well “be come clear, or at worst clearer”? The logic of imagination is deeper and more complex than discursive logic, but perhaps it is not wholly intractable. Curiously, it was Newton’s great adversary, William Blake, who in challenging his rationalism seconded his optimism: “Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more.”