Thursday, June 26, 2014


What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music. His fate resembles that of the unhappy men who were slowly roasted by a gentle fire in the tyrant Phalaris' bull—their shrieks could not reach his ear to terrify him, to him they sounded like sweet music. And people flock about the poet and say to him: do sing again; Which means, would that new sufferings tormented your soul, and: would that your lips stayed fashioned as before, for your cries would only terrify us, but your music is delightful. And the critics join them, saying: well done, thus must it be according to the laws of aesthetics. Why, to be sure, a critic resembles a poet as one pea another, the only difference being that he has no anguish in his heart and no music on his lips. Behold, therefore would I rather be a swineherd on Amager, and be understood by the swine than a poet, and misunderstood by men.

Søren Kierkegaard

The philistine often declares his admiration for the artist. This is generally interpreted as an acknowledgement of the profound suffering that the artist experiences, akin to that of the madman, but with the important difference of those well-fashioned lips, so that his suffering becomes articulate, and, if frightening, nonetheless imbued with beauty. We are not just impressed with the expression of the passion, we stand in respect of the intensity of the passion that appears to be expressed. We are grateful that someone else is willing to shoulder the burden of so much suffering, because it helps us (when expressed in art) to shoulder our own, much lesser burden.

But I suspect that in the heart of many a successful, comfortable philistine there is an altogether different reading of the poet's words. "This suffering," says the man of affairs, the big man about town, the self-made entrepreneur, the soi-disant job creator, "is no different from the one that I have mastered in myself. Art is merely an admission of defeat in a territory I have conquered. Success in life is the mastery of these emotions, not their expression." Thus all art, no matter how personal, no matter how pathetic, becomes an epic, a celebration of the deeds of great men, who don't feel the emotions expressed in it, but "deal with" them. Ah Palinurus! Ah humanity!

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