In The Arts Without Mystery, Denis Donoghue argues that modern society’s commitment to science and rational explanation has tended to bleed the arts of their most powerful asset—what he calls their “mystery”—and has thus rendered them “safe” and, in an important sense, beside the point. If we give the term “mystery” a wide berth, it is difficult not to agree. For if the arts were once valued as vehicles of truth, articulating insights that transcend our conceptual grasp, they are no longer. The modern conception of reality has relieved the arts of this lofty charge, relegating them to the status of “superior amusements,” mere aesthetic games.

Professor Donoghue seeks to “reinstate mystery and to distinguish it from mere bewilderment or mystification.”

Against this, Professor Donoghue seeks to “reinstate mystery and to distinguish it from mere bewilderment or mystification.” His basic contention is that modern society has disarmed and “neutralized” the arts by assimilating them and making them too familiar, too gemütlich. In part, he argues, this is due to the tendency of “bourgeois society” to absorb what opposes it. “The removal of mystery from the arts,” he writes, “is one of the ways in which our society tries to tame the occult and its offence.” But at bottom, the elision of “mystery” follows from the rationalist—one might say Cartesian—bias of modernity that tends to identify the real with what can be known clearly and distinctly. Hence Professor Donoghue is wont to criticize the “modern vanity which supposes that everything can be known or that only what is knowable has a claim upon our interest” and to extoll a view of art that comports itself “in the light of figurativeness as such, respecting the sense of life which finds expression in paradox, metaphor, and tautology.”

Naturally, Professor Donoghue’s conception of the arts underscores their power to challenge, antagonize, interrogate. “My own understanding,” he writes,

is that we receive the arts most completely not when we pay lip service to them but when the relation between art and society is mostly one of conflict and suspicion, if not hostility . . . . [M]iddle-class society has discovered how to achieve its victory [over mystery] by pretending that nobody has been defeated. Especially since the turmoil of 1968, societies have learnt that they can deal with dissent by incorporating it. . . . Today, both the alienation of the artist and the antagonism of public opinion to art have been successfully liquidated.

Of course, one might wonder whether the only real alternatives to “lip service” were conflict, suspicion, and hostility. Even now, even in the midst of this “modern bourgeois society,” couldn’t an authentic experience of art equally well involve a feeling of harmony, a sense of admiration, a flush of gratitude? Has our society really denied us such sensitivities? It would seem that Professor Donoghue’s conception of the arts favors starker, more Romantic notions: “If the arts don’t hurt,” he asks, “why have them?” He might have found an appropriate motto for these reflections in Rilke’s first Duino Elegy:

      For the beautiful is nothing
But the beginning of a terror we can just barely endure,
And we so adore it because it serenely disdains
To destroy us.

But in fact his position turns out to be more accommodating, more realistic. For he acknowledges that the experience of art is a dialectic of known and unknown, question and answer, hostility and acceptance; and he concludes by recognizing that just as we must struggle to keep ourselves alive to the “negative” aspects of art, so too we must integrate that negativity into our day-today experience. “In the end,” he writes, “the techniques of management will kidnap any work of art. . . . But the end can be postponed, and there is merit in postponing it.”

The Arts Without Mystery is an expanded version of Professor Donoghue’s 1982 Reith Lectures, an annual English series of six lectures that is (he explains in his introduction) broadcast over the BBC and published seriatim in the BBC’s magazine, The Listener. Besides the brief introduction, Professor Donoghue’s additions to the original consist of numerous marginal notes, set in italics and segregated in boxes from the body of the text, and six commentaries, which he has appended severally to each of the lectures. The marginal notes are by way of afterthoughts, providing the reader with further examples, reflections, disclaimers; the commentaries, which are usually as long and in some cases longer than the lectures themselves, offer sustained versions of the marginalia. Professor Donoghue informs us that, shortly after he delivered the lectures, the London television program Voices devoted an episode to them; there he discussed some of the issues he had raised with a small panel that included the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. Both the notes and commentaries make frequent reference to that exchange, taking up points that were urged there against Professor Donoghue’s position, and elaborating on themes that he felt he had slighted in the lectures.

But the metamorphosis from lecture to published text is often problematic. We tend to expect rather more in the way of density, qualification, and nuance from the written page than from the spoken word, and are not infrequently disappointed when we turn to study the text of a lecture we had admired.

What had seemed so complete and marvelously wrought, so necessary, in the telling reveals lapses and lacunae when read. Professor Donoghue’s procedure—keeping the lectures intact but supplying a garland of notes and commentary—is clearly meant to solve that problem without sacrificing the verve and immediacy of oratory.

I wish I could report favorably on the result. For I have no doubt that Professor Donoghue’s performance stirred his audience and occasioned much enthusiasm. His topic could hardly have been better—art and mystery and modern society together—and his prose, as usual, is lively and full of catchy formulations. But the ensemble fails. Perhaps this failure is due in part to Professor Donoghue’s attempting too much in too brief a compass: art and mystery and modern society in one hundred and fifty-one pages. Yet in the end, the book fails because he really attempted too little. He garnered, it seems, sundry ideas about the place of art in modern society; but instead of working them out carefully and systematically, he chose to rely on a few current cliches about art and artists and on his undeniable rhetorical gifts.

Indeed, it is symptomatic that the tautest and best sustained stretch of writing in the book appears in the commentary to the last chapter, the bulk of which, we learn, Professor Donoghue first published as a separate essay in The Sewanee Review in 1977. Otherwise, the notes and commentaries read more like entries from a journal or a commonplace book than well-considered critical prose. Thus in the commentary to the first chapter, Professor Donoghue responds to Terry Eagleton’s charge that “mystery is an authoritarian concept to use about the arts” by stringing together a few quotations from Gilles Deleuze’s Proust et les signes, Walter Benjamin’s Reflections, and Roberto Unger’s difficult Knowledge and Politics (mistitled Knowledge and Power in the text) and bridging the whole with some rather flaccid musings about the unity and “interrogative” power of art. And the lectures themselves so abound in questionable assertions (“we pay attention to most things now as if they were television programmes”; “only where there is real belligerence between official and unofficial values is worthwhile art possible”) that the reader is inoculated against the many engaging suggestions that Professor Donoghue offers along the way.

In general, his arguments do not have the force or integrity of his best opinions. For example, he claims to discern a deliberate “escape from the mysteriousness of the work” of art in the widespread tendency to look beyond the work to the artist and his intention in making it.

When we look at a contemporary painting in a gallery, we search for the artist’s name and the title of the painting, if it has one. We do this not out of mere helplessness or curiosity but in the hope of seeing the work as the fulfilment of an intention . . . . We are led straight from the work to the psychology of the artist and from there to the economics of the market. . . . It is comforting to be in the presence of intentions we understand because the considerations of psychology and economics aren’t at all mysterious: discussion of them is easy.

One may be all too familiar with the phenomenon Professor Donoghue describes here. But to say that a work of art is the product of an intention is hardly to discount its mysteriousness; nor is it necessarily to reduce the work to a set of intentions that are alien to its essence (the so-called “intentional fallacy”). On the contrary, our recognition of a work’s intentional structure is inseparable from our recognition of it as art. For art, as distinct from natural beauty, is an embodied intention; just this allows us to distinguish it as a work of art. Thus Kant observes in the Critique of Judgment that “if the object is given as a product of art . . . there must be at bottom in the first instance a concept of what the thing is to be.” This is true of all art, but perhaps most notably of contemporary art, much of which deliberately blurs the border between “art” and “non-art.” Professor Donoghue may in fact be only incidentally interested in the question of art’s intentionality; but here as elsewhere the carelessness of his analysis tends to obscure his point and threatens to render his argument unintelligible.

Probably the chief strength of The Arts Without Mystery lies in Professor Donoghue’s commitment to the ultimate inscrutability of art. This is not to say, however, that he has been entirely clear about the nature of this inscrutability. Invocation of the term “mystery” is not enough; nor, I think, is Professor Donoghue’s facile distinction between “problems” and genuine “mystery”: “a problem is something to be solved,” he tells us, while “a mystery is something to be witnessed and attested.” But how do we know which is which, whether we should attempt to explain and understand or merely be content to “witness”?

The chief strength of The Arts Without Mystery lies in Professor Donoghue’s commitment to the ultimate inscrutability of art.

One might object that mystery itself is the sort of thing that can be instanced but not analyzed. But if the task is to “reinstate mystery and to distinguish it from mere bewilderment or mystification,” then we will naturally want to know upon what criteria this distinction will be made. Presumably, the phenomena in question do not obviously proclaim their allegiance, so it does not really help to be told that “the criteria are found in the work of art, fulfilled in whatever degree one’s critical judgement suggests.”

And the problem is compounded by Professor Donoghue’s vacillating use of the term “mystery.” Sometimes, it appears, “mystery” tokens little more than a feeling or intuition that resists exhaustive explanation. But at other times—as when he describes mystery as “a truth offered only by divine revelation"—it would seem to carry a heavier ontological charge. Unfortunately, by neglecting these issues, Professor Donoghue comes close to reinstating bewilderment and mystification, at the expense of their legitimate cousin, mere mystery.

It is clear that Professor Donoghue’s insistence on the importance of mystery in art flows from his conviction that the nature of reality itself is ultimately mysterious. And this idea in turn is tied to his eminently un-mysterious conviction that language is not commensurate with reality, that reality transcends—and in some sense provides a measure for—our descriptions of it. Thus he takes issue with contemporary fashion in literary criticism, castigating its “idolatry of language” and calling instead for a view of language that recognizes the sense in which language remains subordinate to the reality it reveals. About Derrida’s insistence on the place of “play” and “gesture” in language, for example, he observes that” ‘language as gesture’ is most fully realized not when its speaking intention is discarded but when it speaks with a sense of its own limits.” And elsewhere he notes that he wants discourse to allow “for the sense in which the only adequate expression is poetry; and the poetry is adequate only insofar as it beckons beyond itself. I refuse to regard that ‘beyond’ as self-bewilderment or mystification.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult to know just what status Professor Donoghue would have us accord the work of art. On the one hand, his persistent lobbying for the rehabilitation of mystery in the arts, together with his commendable opposition to the alleged autonomy of language, would seem to suggest opposition to the view of art as more or less autonomous free play. And in fact there is much in Professor Donoghue’s rhetoric that signals his opposition to this view. But the particulars of his argument are more ambiguous. In the end, he seems to want to have it both ways. Does he, finally, regard art as more than a “superior amusement,” more than an aesthetic game? Drawing on a tradition that goes back to Aristotle, he notes that the arts provide oases of apparent self-sufficiency in the midst of the endless round of means and ends that determine daily life. It is in this sense that the arts have been said to be useless; they do not help us do anything. “But in another way,” he writes,

they are really momentous, because they provide for spaces in which we can live in total freedom. Think of it as a page. The main text is central, it is the text of need, of food and shelter, of daily preoccupations and jobs, keeping things going . . . . The arts are on the margin, and it doesn’t bother me to say that they are marginal. What bothers me are the absurd claims we make for them. I want to say the margin is the place for those feelings and intuitions which daily life doesn’t have a place for, and mostly seems to suppress . . . . With the arts, people can make a space for themselves, and fill it with intimations of freedom and presence.

Thus, he explains, he wants “to keep in mind the fictiveness of art, and at the same time acknowledge the seriousness which fictiveness does not in any way refute.”

But what is this seriousness? Hasn’t his conception of the arts as “marginal” already disenfranchised them from anything so weighty? In essence, Professor Donoghue’s argument recapitulates Hegel’s thesis on the future of art. In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel acknowledged that man had traditionally looked to art, as he had looked to religion and philosophy, to reveal “the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.” But he also recognized that the rational shape of our culture has made it increasingly difficult to take art’s claim to such truth seriously. “Art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual wants that earlier epochs and peoples have sought in it,” he wrote. “The impression that [works of art] make is of a more circumspect nature, and the feelings that they stir within us require a higher test and a further confirmation. Thought and reflection have overtaken the fine arts.” This is not to deny that people would continue to make and enjoy art, even investing it with great dignity because of “the intimations of freedom and presence” that aesthetic experience can sometimes grant. But it does render art marginal, exiling it from its traditional role as herald of our “deepest interests.” By insisting on the importance of mystery, Professor Donoghue would seem to want to challenge Hegel’s analysis; but in fact his conception of art is deeply equivocal, and in the end he may be closer than he realizes to the philosopher’s melancholy diagnosis.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 1, on page 76
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