Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Standard of Taste

Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.
To which we might add the names of JOHN HOME and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, about whom our hero had this to say:
When [Home's play, Douglas] shall be printed (which will be soon) I am perswaded it will be esteem'd the best; and by French critics, the only Tragedy in our Language. (Letter to Adam Smith, March 1757)
In [Shakespeare's] compositions, we regret, that many irregularities, and even absurdities, should so frequently disfigure the animated and passionate scenes intermixed with them […] His total ignorance of all theatrical art and conduct, however material a defect; yet, as it affects the spectator rather than the reader, we can more easily excuse, than that want of taste which often prevails in his productions, and which gives way, only by intervals, to the irradiations of genius. (History of England, Volume 5, Appendix on the Reign of James I)
Hume is not alone in his sceptical judgement of Shakespeare, which was shared by such giants as Wittgenstein and Tolstoy; but his obtuseness became proverbial. Thus, Adam Smith was damned by Wordsworth, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, as "the worst critic, David Hume not excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this weed seems natural, has produced."

Hume's taste was sounder, by his own insistence, in its literal guise. Having retired to Edinburgh in 1769, without "the least Thought of Regreat to London, or even to Paris", Hume wrote to Gilbert Elliot to describe his plans:
I live still, and must for a twelvemonth, in my old House in James's Court, which is very chearful and even elegant, but too small to display my great Talent for Cookery, the Science to which I intend to addict the remaining Years of my Life; I have just now lying on the Table before me a Receipt for making Soupe à la Reine, copy'd with my own hand. For Beef and Cabbage (a charming Dish), and old Mutton and old Claret, no body excels me. I make also Sheep head Broth in a manner that Mr Keith speaks of it for eight days after, and the Duc de Nivernois would bind himself Apprentice to my Lass to learn it.
Picture Hume: apron-clad in his cramped kitchen, surrounded by the vapours of stewing meat, preparing to "dine, [to] play a game of back-gammon", and to give his literary ambitions, not just his sceptical thoughts, a rest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to be possible to extract from these points something like a thesis that genius is intransitive. Not exactly that, because genius isn't a relation; but also not merely the claim that if A judges that B is a genius and B judges that C is a genius, it needn't follow that A judges that C is a genius. What I mean is that if B *is* a genius, B's judgments of genius-hood are neither infallible nor incorrigible. Perhaps there's a better characterization: Genius is not self-recognizing, maybe.

9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps a session dedicated to the culinary arts should be added to the Hume Society's annual conference?

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is now clear that Shakespeare's plays and poetry contained coded references to the oppressed situation of recusant Catholics in Elizabeth's and James' police states. This fact, and the meaning of the codes, seems to have been known to Shakespeare's contemporaries (including, indeed, Elizabeth and James) but was suppressed and forgotten following his death, as Protestant historians and critics rewrote Catholics out of English history. Lots of irregularities and absurdities in his plays are not so, when the codes are understood.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Home was Hume's cousin (David changed the spelling of his last name so the English would stop mispronouncing it), so it's perhaps understandable that he let a little bias get in the way of his good judgment.

1:07 PM  

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