Summers of Discontent: The Purpose of the Arts Today, by Raymond Tallis, with Julian Spalding

Tallis enters a crowded arena when he asks what the arts mean nowadays, says Fred Inglis

November 6, 2014

A book in praise of the arts, and the sublime freedoms, abrupt deceits, frequent longueurs, utter happiness they may bring, is not - it is a surprise to think - a familiar academic topic these days. When the author of such a work turns out to be an ex-professor of geriatric medicine, and when the book itself has been quarried from 20-odd other books by the same hand but extracted and edited as this new book by a faithful and admiring friend, why then the reader sits up sharply. She looks out with a brightened eye for something remarkable and not at all the usual routines of postmodern theory, shaded by dead Marxism, its feet set in the concrete of inanimate psychoanalysis.

The strange provenance of his book is of a piece with Raymond Tallis’ striking career and his prominence in the intellectual journals as that rare creature: the accomplished medicine man with a quotation from Proust or Rilke always at the ready.

Then we discover his amenable purpose, which is no less than to reaffirm, to argue and stand up for the loving amateur of the arts, to rehearse his or her always thrilling rediscovery of the mighty freedoms of art, to offer a little tender therapy when the fragmentariness of experience gets to be too much for us art-lovers, once more to weigh in humanist scales the disproportionate passions that art and life rouse in us to the ultimate advantage of neither.

Tallis is quite undaunted by the company he keeps in such a huge venture, all packed into just under 200 pages. (His Elizabethan namesake lends him a happy precedent for complexity in the great 40-part motet.) He starts out from many memories of a holiday cottage in Cornwall, sprinkled with paddling, beach cricket, real ale, fudge, all in the name of rediscovering the bliss of right form, of so living that corner of a happy life that experience and idea perfectly coincide.

This reader, at least, pulls back a little during this opening chapter, wanting first to object to Tallis’ too-chatty indulgence in his reminiscence, and wanting second to say that of course idea and experience do sometimes shape themselves isomorphically; as Theodor Roethke reassures us, “the right thing happens to the happy man”.

The bittiness of things bothers Tallis, and so does the traditional pedagogy of the arts, teaching that good art makes us good persons. It was tiresome to meet again in these pages George Steiner’s death camp official listening to Schubert, thus disproving the redemptive property of great art. As Iris Murdoch drily said, such a man would probably turn out to have certain defects as a human being.

But never mind. Refusing redemption, Tallis is filled with praiseworthy praise. Even if momentarily poisoned by his scientific forebears such that he has to announce “there is little objective basis” for saying, with A. N. Whitehead, that “great art adds to the permanent enrichment of the soul”, he leaves us goggle-eyed aesthetes and vacuous critics (much abused here) with plenty of encouragement. In a splendid passage describing how one may listen to beautiful piano-playing, he makes real (“realises”) for us the freedom conferred even by mere moments of great art; such freedom can surely be commended as one of the virtues.

It’s hard to tell for whom Tallis is writing. He restates, but quite without ventriloquism, the arguments for art of Coleridge, Ruskin, Leavis and all. He does so in the high academic style and a damn difficult vocabulary (pandiculate, allotrope, bolus, orthogonal). Perhaps he is implicitly addressing the common but cultivated reader of the TLS, LRB and THE? In which case, good luck to him.

Summers of Discontent: The Purpose of the Arts Today

By Raymond Tallis, with Julian Spalding
Wilmington Square, 192pp, £8.99
ISBN 9781908524409
Published 11 September 2014

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