Corot again

Some years ago I mentioned to an artist friend a curator’s comment on a delectable country scene by Corot, lightly disparaging it as a studio composition not drawn from nature. “Disparagement” may be too strong, as who would be so crass? My friend, in any case, took the view that what counted was the succession of real encounters with nature that lay behind the artist’s sensibility and vision. Even a painter working in the open air draws on things seen before as well as in that moment, which is the latest in a lifetime of looking. It’s not an artistic sin to have got your eye in.

Writing’s raw material is words themselves. The heart of the matter is redrafting: the words on the page must be panned for gold. Just as an artist must look very hard, a writer must listen, weigh, discard, extend, ponder. Fluent, natural expression is the opposite of the unvarnished. And yet, over time, first thoughts are likely to turn out better with practice; poise, instinct, and style become as if innate. As with any skill, a degree of mastery is probably necessary in order to be able to exercise it at all. The messy business of handling the raw clay of language begins before it is even there on the page. Such an ability is the residue of earlier, clumsier attempts. The words do just flow: cliche is stillborn, or brought to life by being made explicit as metaphor in the words and echoes that first surround it; rhyme and other sonic effects eschewed or turned up a notch; tricolon and binary contrast ordered according to balance or crescendo; chiasmus. But underlying all that is the primal encounter with the native potency of words, the life they have in them independently of what is already in our minds.

This bootstrapping process is analogous to Aristotle’s account of the formation of moral character through ‘habitus’. It’s no good adopting standards of right action on the authority of others. We must ourselves freely choose on the basis of values deduced through experience. Choices settle into dispositions (‘habit’ is a false friend) which together make up character. The raw material is simply life itself, but it does not blindly shape us in its spontaneity. We shape ourselves — not according to blind whim — both autonomous and objective.

To tease that thought out, I would need to consult my sources. But the point is the analogy between the truth of art, and the truth of the heart. In fact it is a commonality of substance: to be creative is to be virtuous.


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