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Anthony Burgess on What Gives Art and Science Their Immeasurable Value

“[The] excitement we derive from a work of art is mostly the excitement of seeing connections that did not exist before, of seeing quite different aspects of life unified through a pattern.”

Anthony Burgess on What Gives Art and Science Their Immeasurable Value

“Because of their outstanding permanence, works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things,” Hannah Arendt wrote in contemplating the difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition. It’s a sobering sentiment to consider at a time when the funding of the arts and sciences — that is, of the wellspring and measure of our humanity — is being weighed as an expenditure against military budgets and commercial goals. Wars begin and end, countries come into existence and dissolve into oblivion, entire civilizations rise and fall, yet what remains are humanity’s works of art and scientific discoveries.

But what, exactly, lends art and science their centrality in culture, their supreme significance to our experience of being human? And how do they differ in what they nourish in us, despite their creative sympathies? A physicist might give one answer, and a philosopher another — Schopenhauer likened science to “the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant,” and art to “the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.”

Anthony Burgess (February 25, 1917–November 22, 1993) offers a beautiful, dimensional answer to that question in the opening chapter of his student guide English Literature (public library), which he wrote while working as a teacher of English literature in Malaya in 1954, eight years before A Clockwork Orange catapulted him into worldwide artistic acclaim.

Anthony Burgess (Photograph courtesy of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation)

Noting that most of what is taught in school can be divided into two categories — the sciences, including subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geography; and the arts, including painting, music, drama, and literature — 37-year-old Burgess questions the foundational assumptions on which our society is built:

The purpose of education is to fit us for life in a civilised community, and it seems to follow from the subjects we study that the two most important things in civilised life are Art and Science.

Is this really true? If we take an average day in the life of the average man we seem to see very little evidence of concern with the sciences and the arts. The average man gets up, goes to work, eats his meals, reads the newspapers, watches television, goes to the cinema, goes to bed, sleeps, wakes up, starts all over again. Unless we happen to be professional scientists, laboratory experiments and formulae have ceased to have any meaning for most of us; unless we happen to be poets or painters or musicians — or teachers of literature, painting, and music — the arts seem to us to be only the concern of schoolchildren. And yet people have said, and people still say, that the great glories of our civilisation are the scientists and artists. Ancient Greece is remembered because of mathematicians like Euclid and Pythagoras, because of poets like Homer and dramatists like Sophocles. In two thousand years all our generals and politicians may be forgotten, but Einstein and Madame Curie and Bernard Shaw and Stravinsky will keep the memory of our age alive.


In a sentiment of piercing prescience today, when art and science are under budgetary assault from a government that prizes war spending and industrial commercialism above this pulsing heart of humanity, Burgess unmoors the question of immediate, practical usefulness from that of value and considers what lends art and science their importance:

I suppose with the sciences we could say that the answer is obvious: we have radium, penicillin, television and recorded sound, motor-cars and aircraft, air-conditioning and central heating. But these achievements have never been the primary intention of science; they are a sort of by-product, the things that emerge only when the scientist has performed his main task. That task is simply stated: to be curious, to keep on asking the question “Why?” and not to be satisfied till an answer has been found. The scientist is curious about the universe: he wants to know why water boils at one temperature and freezes at another; why cheese is different from chalk; why one person behaves differently from another. Not only “Why?” but “What?” What is salt made of? What are the stars? What is the constitution of all matter?” The answers to these questions do not necessarily make our lives any easier. The answer to one question — “Can the atom be split?” — has made our lives somewhat harder. But the questions have to be asked. It is man’s job to be curious; it is man’s job to try to find out the truth about the world about us, to answer the big question “What is the world really like?”

This question, Burgess argues, boils down to the measure of truth. (To be sure, it might be more accurate — per Hannah Arendt’s incisive distinction between truth and meaning — to say that this is a question of meaning rather than truth.) Burgess explores what “truth” means in this context — this “truth about the world and about us” — and, in doing so, makes a sublime case for the value of science as a centerpiece of the human endeavor:

“Truth” is a word used in many different ways — “You’re not telling the truth.” “The truth about conditions in Russia.” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I want to use it here in the sense of what lies behind an outward show. Let me hasten to explain by giving an example. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. That is what we see; that is the “outward show.” In the past the outward show was regarded as the truth. But then a scientist came along to question it and then to announce that the truth was quite different from the appearance: the truth was that the earth revolved and the sun remained still — the outward show was telling a lie. The curious thing about scientific truths like this is that they often seem so useless. It makes no difference to the average man whether the sun moves or the earth moves. He still has to rise at dawn and stop work at dusk. But because a thing is useless it does not mean that it is valueless. Scientists still think it worthwhile to pursue truth. They do not expect that laws of gravitation and relativity are going to make much difference to everyday life, but they think it is a valuable activity to ask their eternal questions about the universe. And so we say that truth — the thing they are looking for — is a value.

A value is something that raises our lives above the purely animal level — the level of getting our food and drink, producing children, sleeping, and dying. This world of getting a living and getting children is sometimes called the world of subsistence. A value is something added to the world of subsistence. Some people say that our lives are unsatisfactory because they are mostly concerned with things that are impermanent things that decay and change. Sitting here now, a degree or so above the equator, I look round my hot room and see nothing that will last. It won’t be long before my house collapses, eaten by white ants, eroded by rain and wind. The flowers in front of me will be dead tomorrow. My typewriter is already rusty. And so I hunger for something that is permanent, something that will last forever. Truth, I am told, is a thing that will last forever.

Drawing by the Soviet artist and mathematician Anatolii Fomenko from his Mathematical Impressions

Alongside the value of truth, Burgess considers the value of beauty — the domain of art:

Some philosophers tell us that beauty and truth are the same thing. They say there is only one value, one eternal thing which we can call x, and that truth is the name given to it by the scientist and beauty the name given to it by the artist. Let us try to make this clear. There is a substance called salt. If I am a blind man I have to rely on my sense of taste to describe it: salt to me is a substance with a taste which we can only call “salty.” If I have my eyesight but no sense of taste I have to describe salt as a white crystalline substance. Now both descriptions are correct, but neither is complete in itself. Each description concentrates on one way of examining salt. It is possible to say that the scientist examines x in one way, the artist examines it in another. Beauty is one aspect of x, truth is another. But what is x? Some people call it ultimate reality — the thing that is left when the universe of appearances, of outward show, is removed. Other people call it God, and they say that beauty and truth are two of the qualities of God.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, found in Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

In a sentiment which physicist and poet Alan Lightman would echo half a century later in his beautiful meditation on the parallels between the exhilaration of creative breakthrough in art and science, Burgess adds:

Both the artist and the scientist are seeking something which they think is real. Their methods are different. The scientist sets his brain to work and, by a slow process of trial and error, after long experiment and enquiry, he finds his answer. This is usually an exciting moment. We remember the story of Archimedes finding his famous principle in the bath and rushing out naked, shouting “Eureka!” (“I’ve found it!”) The artist wants to make something which will produce just that sort of excitement in the minds of other people — the excitement of discovering something new about x, about reality. He may make a picture, a play, a poem, or a palace, but he wants to make the people who see or hear or read his creation feel excited and say about it, “That is beautiful.” Beauty, then, you could define as the quality you find in any object which produces in your mind a special kind of excitement, an excitement somehow tied up with a sense of discovery. It need not be something made by man; a sunset or a bunch of flowers or a tree may make you feel this excitement and utter the word “Beautiful!” But the primary task of natural things like flowers and trees and the sun is perhaps not to be beautiful but just to exist. The primary task of the artist’s creations is to be beautiful.

One of William Blake’s rare illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost

Burgess examines the nature of this “artistic excitement” and finds at its heart something akin to Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — the transcendent willingness to embrace uncertainty and find in it not agitation but serenity. He writes:

First of all, it is what is known as a static excitement. It does not make you want to do anything. If you call me a fool and various other bad names, I shall get very excited and possibly want to fight you. But the excitement of experiencing beauty leaves one content, as though one has just achieved something. The achievement, as I have already suggested, is the achievement of a discovery. But a discovery of what? I would say the discovery of a pattern or the realisation of order. Again I must hasten to explain. Life to most of us is just a jumble of sensations, like a very bad film with no plot, no real beginning and end. We are also confused by a great number of contradictions: life is ugly, because people are always trying to kill one another; life is beautiful, because we see plenty of evidence of people trying to be kind to one another. Hitler and Gandhi were both human beings. We see the ugliness of a diseased body and the comeliness of a healthy one; sometimes we say, “Life is good”; sometimes we say, “Life is bad.” Which is the true statement? Because we can find no single answer we become confused. A work of art seems to give us the single answer by seeming to show that there is order or pattern in life… The artist takes raw material and forces or coaxes it into a pattern.

Different artists, Burgess notes, coax chaos into patterned order in different ways — the painter by arranging objects into a single composition on a canvas, the sculptor by shaping shapeless stone into a human figure, the musician by stringing chords into harmony, the novelist by ordering events and experiences into stories. But what all artists have in common is this quest for unity of feeling, often achieved through the deliberate fusion of contrasts and contradictions. With an eye to the various ways in which “unity, order, and pattern” can be created, Burgess writes:

The poet may bring two completely different things together and make them into a unity by creating a metaphor or simile. T. S. Eliot, a modern poet, takes two completely different pictures — one of the autumn evening, one of a patient in a hospital awaiting an operation — and joins them together like this:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is laid out against the sky,
Like a patient etherised upon a table.

Beethoven, in his Ninth Symphony, makes the chorus sing about the starry heavens, and accompanies their song with a comic march on bassoons and piccolo. Again, two completely opposed ideas — the sublime and the grotesque — have been brought together and fused into a unity. You see, then, that this excitement we derive from a work of art is mostly the excitement of seeing connections that did not exist before, of seeing quite different aspects of life unified through a pattern.

Noting that this excitement only belongs to the highest forms of artistic experience and is qualitatively different from the aesthetic delight of sensorial pleasures like sunsets and apple pie, Burgess turns to art’s ultimate value in human life — the artist’s ability to give shape and expression to our own feelings:

The artist finds a means of setting down our emotions — joy, passion, sorrow, regret — and, as it were, helps us to separate those emotions from ourselves. Let me make this clear. Any strong emotion has to be relieved. When we are happy we shout or dance, when we feel sorrow we want to weep. But the emotion has to be expressed (i.e. pressed out, like juice from a lime). Poets and musicians are especially expert at expressing emotions for us. A death in the family, the loss of money and other calamities are soothed by music and poetry, which seem to find in words or sounds a means of getting the sorrow out of our systems. But, on a higher level, our personal troubles are relieved when we can be made to see them as part of a pattern, so that here again we have the discovery of unity, of one personal experience being part of a greater whole. We feel that we do not have to bear this sorrow on our own: our sorrow is part of a huge organisation — the universe — and a necessary part of it. And when we discover that a thing is necessary we no longer complain about it.

Complement this particular portion of Burgess’s English Literature with Marcel Proust on what art does for the human spirit, Jeanette Winterson on art as a form of critical thinking, and Carl Sagan on science as a tool of democracy, then revisit Burgess on the magical moment when he fell in love with music.

Published March 21, 2017




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