I found myself writing to a former professor that the translator of Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” should be taken out behind the ivy tower and shot in both knee-caps. The reason being that the “Lives” are wonderfully gossipy and dishy, once the reader gets past the god-awful diction. Unfortunately, and unforgivably, the frequent infelicities of language make it hard for a reader to stay that long. We should be indulging ourselves in guilty pleasure, the naughty deliciousness of scoping out intimate, graphic details of the actual personalities of master artists from Cimabue to Sansovino. Instead we’re slogging through a contorted, antiquated dialect of English to which it is very hard to relate.
So regular, civilian readers do not get to savor these all-too-human lives. Thus the ravishing nourishment they offer the soul passes from our collective awareness. We’re left with the fetish of reality TV, which is probably another post on how the decline of story is a barometer for the decline of civilization.
So what is it about art historians and scholarship in general that demands impenetrable rhetoric? Does writing that badly prove how smart they are, because the rest of us can’t understand it? Or are they just boorish and don’t care how sentence after crabbed, meaningless sentence affects their readers? I read a lot of art history for research purposes for my novels, and I am boggled by how badly written most of these books are.
And it’s not just art history that’s poorly written. People in the publishing industry complain about how there are fewer readers every year. Well, why do they expect people to partake of the meal, when the fare consists mostly of wormy fruit and twinkies? Take what is considered literature these days. Ninety nine percent of it is precious, self-congratulatory, and self-referential, with unlikeable characters. It’s an absolute dereliction of a novelist’s duty to write that way.
Self-reference and self-congratulation has been a post-modernist virus, nurtured carefully by the moral relativism of psychotherapy. I am all for self-esteem, but in my opinion, we are not going to build it within ourselves by telling ourselves that whatever we do is okay. We are going to earn it. By acting in honorable ways: keeping our word, choosing integrity, behaving with courtesy and respect for others, accomplishing difficult and worthwhile tasks, and so forth. By returning to those old-fashioned values that have stood the test of millennia. Let me state right now that I do not refer to perfectionism, with is a virulent form of self-hate. Nor have I been a paragon of model behavior. I’ve made a lot mistakes, broken a whole bunch of the 10 Commandments, and hurt plenty of people. But that’s not who I want to be. I aspire to better.
And I think that self-reference is what puts people off about scientology, despite the enormous appeal and considerable talent of its most famous proponent, Tom Cruise. There’s this queasy sense of arrogant self-entitlement that radiates out from scientology, so it doesn’t feel like a religion with any spirituality to it. Spirituality has to do with love, charity, kindness and compassion that elevate beyond the self.