The Sorrows of the Poets
Stupid Poetry Tricks

Who You Callin' Slithy?

The singular hallmark of all artifacts of high culture is their aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture which produced them, and even of their very selves as works of Art. And that singular hallmark is what's singularly lacking in all the artifacts of contemporary popular culture, their singular hallmark being an aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining.
If you flee reflexively from anyone who holds forth in that vein, then you will not find much to like in the writing of A C Douglas.  His views on matters cultural -- and most especially on the subject of classical music in general and the mature works of Richard Wagner in particular -- are firmly held to put it mildly.  Personally, I find his certitude bracing, hence his presence on the links list to your left.

Mr. Douglas is in the habit of topping his page with a republication of an older post, and at the moment he is ostensibly on about the pitfalls of color photography. Photography's not my field at all, so I'll leave comment on that aspect of the piece to those more in the know, but photography is not the real subject of Douglas' post in any case.  No, photography is merely the excuse to open up a test for determining a work's status as genuine Capital "A" Art, The Jabberwocky Test:

'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't exactly know what they are!' exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky for the first time. The capacity of a work to provoke that feeling in an informed and experienced receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

The Jabberwocky Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester's knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

For instance, I've a marked antipathy toward 19th- and 20th-century French music, but that doesn't in the least prevent me from at once recognizing that the works of, say, Debussy (whose works I particularly loathe) most decidedly pass Jabberwocky muster. My knowledge of music permits me to make that determination with some measure of confidence. Similarly, but on the flip side, I positively adore the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle, but my personal love of that classic and enduring canon does not in any way prevent me seeing clearly that as literature it most decidedly fails Jabberwocky as enduring as that canon has been for the past 100 years or so (its endurance beyond its time of novelty due a certain nostalgia peculiar to the last half of the last century in particular which is fast losing its power). Again, my knowledge of literature permits me that judgment with some measure of confidence.

You can pack that in your quiver alongside the A. E. Houseman skin-bristling test, and much good may they both do you.

A question remains: Does Jabberwocky itself pass the Jabberwocky Test?  Alice's reaction suggests that it does, except that we have no basis on which to conclude that Alice possesses the requisite "knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs."  Her recollection and understanding of poetry is suspect at least, as witness her regular misquotes whenever she was called upon to recite while visiting Wonderland.  Moreover, the "domain" of Jabberwocky is not merely poetry, but specifically looking glass poetry: Alice is only able to read it by holding it up to the mirror through which she has just entered the looking glass world, and her familiarity with that world is limited indeed.  Jabberwocky, then, provides an inadequate tool for its own self-analysis and necessarily remains impenetrable.  As Tweedledum and Tweedledee would propose: that's logic.

Update: A C Douglas is an active participant in the comments accompanying Aaron Haspel's response to Michaela Cooper's Ozymandias post (to which I linked in the two posts preceding this one). It's all very civil and erudite, but it's hardly the love feast of "self-congratulation and mutual admiration" complained of in Jennifer Howard's much-linked commentary in the Washington Post. (Drat! I'd promised myself I wouldn't link that piece. Curse you, Old Media!)

Further Update, 11/23/03: Congratulations to A C Douglas on the occasion of his becoming one of the Elect, having been added to the link list at Arts & Letters Daily. And my thanks to him for linking, through Aaron Haspel's comments, to my Ozymandias paraphrase, supra. Thanks as well to Aaron himself, of course.


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