I fear I must disappoint you. I am not going to pass the Gods through a competitive examination and assign a highest place to one and lower places to others. What an idea! Each has his or her own province on the summits andwhat is the necessity of putting them in rivalry with each other? It is a sort of Judgment of Paris
you want to impose on me? Well, but what became of Paris and Troy? You want me to give the crown or the apple to Music and enrage the Goddesses of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture,
Embroidery, all the Nine Muses, so that they will kick at our publications and exhibitions and troop off to other places? We
shall have to build in the future—what then shall we do if the Goddess of Architecture turns severely and says, “I am an inferior Power, amI? Go and ask your Nirod to build your house with his beloved music!”
Your test of precedence—universal appeal—is all wrong. I don’t know that it is true, in the first place. Some kind of sound called music appeals to everybody, but has really good music a universal appeal? And, speaking of arts, more people go to the theatre or read fiction than go to the opera or a concert.
What becomes then of the superior universality of music, even in the cheapest sense of universality? Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads exercises a more universal appeal than was ever reached by Milton or Keats—we will say nothing of writers like Blake or Francis Thompson; a band on the pier at a seaside resort will please more people than a great piece of music with the orchestration conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. In a world of gods it might be true that the highest made the most universal appeal but here in a world of beasts and men (you bring in the beasts—why not play to Bushy and try how she responds?) it is usually the inferior things that have the more general if not quite universal appeal. On the other hand the opposite system you suggest (the tables turned upside down—the least universal and most difficult appeal makes the greatest art) would also have its dangers. At that rate we should have to concede that the cubist and abstract painters had reached the highest art possible, only rivalled by the up to date modernist poets of whom it has been said that their works are not at all either read or understood by the public, are read and understood only by the poet himself, and are read without being understood by his personal friends and admirers.
When you speak of direct appeal, you are perhaps touching something true. Technique does not come in—for although to have a complete and expert judgment or appreciation you must know the technique not only in music and painting where it is more difficult, but in poetry and architecture also, it is something else and not that kind of judgment of which you are speaking.
It is perhaps true that music goes direct to the intuition and feeling with the least necessity of using the thinking mind with its strongly limiting conceptions as a self-imposed middleman, while painting and sculpture do need it and poetry still more. At that rate music would come first, architecture next, then sculpture and painting, poetry last. I am aware that Housman posits nonsense as the essence of pure poetry and considers its appeal to be quite direct—not to the soul but to somewhere about the stomach. But then there is hardly any pure poetry in this world and the little there is is still m´elang´e with at least a homeopathic dose of intellectual meaning. But again if I admit this thesis of excellence by directness, I shall be getting myself into dangerous waters. For modern painting has become either cubist or abstract and it claims to have got rid of mental representation and established in art the very method of music; it paints not the object but the truth behind the object by the use of pure line andcolour and geometrical form which is the very basis of all forms or else by figures that are not representations but significances.
For instance a modern painter wishing to make a portrait of you will now paint at the top a clock surrounded by three triangles, below them a chaos of rhomboids and at the bottom two table castors to represent your feet and he will put underneath this powerful design, “Portrait of Nirod”. Perhaps your soul will leap up in answer to its direct appeal and recognise at once the truth behind the object, behind your vanished physical self,— you will greet your psychic being or your Atman or at least your inner physical or vital being. Perhaps also you won’t. Poetry also seems to be striving towards the same end by the same means— the getting away from mind into the depths of life or, as the profane might put it, arriving at truth and beauty through ugliness and unintelligibility. From that you will perhaps deduce that the attempt of painting and poetry to do what music alone can do easily and directly without these acrobatics is futile because it is contrary to their nature—which proves your thesis that music is the highest art because most direct in its appeal to the soul and the feelings. Maybe—or maybe not; as the Jains put it, sy¯ad v¯a na sy ¯ad v¯a.
I have written so much, you will see, in order to say nothing —or at least to avoid your attempt at putting me in an embarrassing dilemma. Q.E.F.
6 January 1936
I did not know what to make of your reply on art.
If you did know, it would mean I had committed myself, which was just what I did not want to do. Or shall we put it in this way “Each of the great arts has its own appeal and its own way of appeal and each in its own way is supreme above all others”?
That ought to do.
7 January 1936
I do not know what to say on the subject you propose to me —the superiority of music to poetry,—for my appreciation ofmusic is bodiless and inexpressiblewhile about poetry I canwrite at ease and with an expert knowledge. But is it necessary to fix a scale of greatness between two fine arts when each has its own greatness and can touch in its own way the extremes of aesthetic Ananda?Music, no doubt, goes nearest to the infinite and to the essence of things because it relies wholly on the ethereal vehicle, ´sabda (architecture by the by can do something of the same kind at the other extreme even in its imprisonment in mass); but painting and sculpture have their revenge by liberating visible form into ecstasy, while poetry though it cannot do with sound
what music does, yet can make a many-stringed harmony, a sound-revelation winging the creation by the word and setting afloat vivid suggestions of form and colour,—that gives it ina very subtle kind the combined power of all the arts. Who shall decide between such claims or be a judge between these godheads?
26 April 1933
All extracts and quotations from the written works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and the Photographs of
the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are copyright Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry -605002 India.
The only way to come a little close to him is to love him sincerely and give oneself unreservedly to his work. Thus, each one does his best and contributes as much as he can to that transformation of the world which Sri Aurobindo has predicted.
(Vol. 12, pp. 398-99)