The discoveries of how to give life and grace to statues came in classical Greece. They had to do with the special Greek way of seeing the world, which was what we have since come to call scientific or objective. In all other ages men were not able to look coldly, call it—unsentimentally– at the world around them—not even at themselves; and this cold, analytical view of reality—reason—was the greatest contribution any culture ever made to man’s development. Unless you consider Ancient Greece’s OTHER one even greater. What was that? The discovery of Beauty. And not only its discovery but its serious investigation. And putting beauty as a priority. Of course, it wasn’t only beauty those first thinkers pursued: they looked for the ideal in all things. But in the visible world that ideal was beauty.
With these new resources—the latest observations on the human body—they could very well have made realistic statues, flesh and bone studies, without making them beautiful. If they had, we would still have taken our hats off to them, just as we do the inventors of a greasy, ugly, contraption that will change the mechanical world for us. But the Greeks—the best of them—used their new knowledge to render better the siren-song beauty they saw in natural things. They investigated grace, pleasing proportion, delicate movement, the mysteriously captivating something in things that triggered a dreamy and yet lucid state of pleasurable reflection in the beholder. They looked for the principles that would unfailingly produce beauty, as if it were not some elusive quality but just another physical phenomenon.
The joys of re-reading:
I have come across an interesting statement comparing the Greeks with Shakespeare:
“The Greeks sought universality by omitting all finer individual touches; Shakespeare sought it more successfully by universalising the rarest individual details of character.”
What would you say?
Rich: Let me think about it. The trouble is that, though I have just read a lot of Shakespeare, I haven’t read the Greek dramatists in a long time. I’m not sure what your author means by “the rarest” individual details. I do see where your writer is going however.
I wouldn’t have confined this to literature only, dear Swallows, and in an interdisciplinary way had been thinking about Greek sculptures and drawings as well. There I hardly can make out any trait of individuality. Whereas I read that “all of Shakespeares creations are universal types from Lancelot Gobbo and his dog up to Lear and Hamlet.”
Rich: Some thoughts. I don’t like his saying that those dramatists “sought unversality”. They were trying to get a response from their public. It’s true Shakespeare creates characters with memorable traits but it is his readers and tradition that have made them “universal types” (just as tradition has made universal types out of that silly astrological menagerie). Once readers have seen his well-drawn characters they spot them everywhere.
Greek dramatists are interested in metaphysical questions (such as what is justice?) and man’s relations with the gods; and their characters, the ones I’ve seen now in Aeschylus, are well-dressed thesis figures.
Shakespeare is not looking for moral truth. He stays well away from the Church and Christian guidelines. His world is strictly human. He picks up colorful superstition like witches and bits of the Greek vision through Plutarch but only for effect—to tighten the screw on the hero or the audience. Plutarch was also Greek, by the way (though 450 years after Aeschylus!) and he looks precisely for the individual in the hero.
Greek statues have no personal traits, true, but that is in the nature of art in general, which is an abstraction, an idealization. Rodin’s figures don’t look like anyone in particular either. There have always been good portraits, of course, but those are probably good to the degree that they represent the artist’s abstraction of the sitter. Anyway, precisely the Renaissance started everything all over again for a while and Michelangelo, who died the year Shakespeare was born, idealizes just like the ancients.
So, now it’s your turn. I have to say, I got in over my head. I haven’t read enough Greek drama.
Nice thoughts; wait a little.