On the value of connoisseurs, from T.B. Macaulay’s “Madame D’Arblay”

I was poking around the web the other day, looking for additional materials to help me teach Burney’s Journals and Diaries, and I found this little digression on “Daddy” Crisp that I thought others might also find interesting:

“It is an uncontrolled truth,” says Swift,” that no man ever made
an ill figure who understood his own talents, nor a good one who
mistook them.” Every day brings with it fresh illustrations of
this weighty saying; but the best commentary that we remember is
the history of Samuel Crisp. Men like him have their proper
place, and it is a most important one, in the Commonwealth of
Letters. It is by the judgment of such men that the rank of
authors is finally determined. It is neither to the multitude,
nor to the few who are gifted with great creative genius, that we
are to look for sound critical decisions. The multitude,
unacquainted with the best models, are captivated by whatever
stuns and dazzles them.  . . . . A man of great original genius, on the
other hand, a man who has attained to mastery in some high walk
of art, is by no means to be implicitly trusted as a judge of the
performances of others. The erroneous decisions pronounced by
such men are without number. It is commonly supposed that
jealousy makes them unjust. But a more creditable explanation may
easily be found. The very excellence of a work shows that some of
the faculties of the author have been developed at the expense of
the rest; for it is not given to the human intellect to expand
itself widely in all directions at once, and to be at the same
time gigantic and well proportioned. Whoever becomes pre-eminent
in any art, in any style of art, generally does so by devoting
himself with intense and exclusive enthusiasm to the pursuit of
one kind of excellence. His perception of other kinds of
excellence is therefore too often impaired. Out of his own
department he praises and blames at random, and is far less to be
trusted than the mere connoisseur, who produces nothing, and
whose business is only to judge and enjoy. One painter is
distinguished by his exquisite finishing. He toils day after day
to bring the veins of a cabbage leaf, the folds of a lace veil,
the wrinkles of an old woman’s face, nearer and nearer to
perfection. In the time which he employs on a square foot of
canvas, a master of a different order covers the walls of a
palace with gods burying giants under mountains, or makes the
cupola of a church alive with seraphim and martyrs. The more
fervent the passion of each of these artists for his art, the
higher the merit of each in his own line, the more unlikely it is
that they will justly appreciate each other. Many persons who
never handled a pencil probably do far more justice to Michael
Angelo than would have been done by Gerard Douw, and far more
justice to Gerard Douw than would have been done by Michael
Angelo.
It is the same with literature. Thousands, who have no spark of
the genius of Dryden or Wordsworth, do to Dryden the justice
which has never been done by Wordsworth, and to Wordsworth the
justice which, we suspect, would never have
been done by Dryden. Gray, Johnson, Richardson, Fielding, are all
highly esteemed by the great body of intelligent and well
informed men. But Gray could see no merit in Rasselas; and
Johnson could see no merit in the Bard. Fielding thought
Richardson a solemn prig; and Richardson perpetually expressed
contempt and disgust for Fielding’s lowness.

Mr. Crisp seems, as far as we can judge, to have been a man
eminently qualified for the useful office of a connoisseur. His
talents and knowledge fitted him to appreciate justly almost
every species of intellectual superiority. As an adviser he was
inestimable.

Spoken like a historian, I suppose, and another bit of evidence about unsuited he was to judge Johnson’s achievements.  Johnson seems like the best-known exception to this commonsensical rule, but I wouldn’t dismiss Macaulay’s observation, either.  TBM is insisting that the most important intellectual influence on FB was not Johnson, but the bad poet and connoisseur, Crisp.  This is a very plausible argument, I think.  But what kinds of conclusions should we draw from it?

What I find curious is how much we ignore the effects of this kind of phenomenon when we think of the role of the Creative Writing Program in the midst of the English Department.  Certainly the working assumption in universities and departments is that the bigger the names, the better the instruction young writers will receive.  For that matter, we could say the same thing about celebrity-scholars and their usual neglect and/or abuse of their students and proteges.

Rather than arguing for departments to fill their ranks with mediocrities and wannabes, I’d say that the Burney/Crisp relation suggests that “mentoring” is something highly contingent and unpredictable, and when successful, usually succeeds because it fulfills emotional and intellectual needs on both sides.  It also suggests how hard it is to institutionalize or regulate, because the kind of mentoring needed by a student at one point may very well be superseded by new needs and new interests.  So for all his unfairness to Johnson, maybe Macaulay had some insights into the formation of Burney after all.

DM

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3 responses to “On the value of connoisseurs, from T.B. Macaulay’s “Madame D’Arblay”

  1. Dave–

    I’m not sure that we do ignore these effects entirely. If we compare actual employment numbers, it must be clear that we have many more “sub”-employees than masthead names in the majority of programs–to say nothing of the effects that wise peers can have on creative work in workshops and seminars.

    The last paragraph of your quotation links the word “connoisseur” to the office of “adviser,” and to some extent I think the best advisers are always connoisseurs of recent work–otherwise they could not point us to the tomes and articles we need to advance. But the term connoisseur retains in English a markedly unprofessional (wealthy?) connotation that makes me think we will not see it on academic business cards anytime soon (I jest).

    Re: Samuel Crisp. (Frances) Burney’s biographers have alleged that he was not only adviser and mentor, but censor. That unfortunately is the flip side of “connoisseur.”

  2. Thanks, Shayda. The anti-professionalism (as Fish might put it) of Crisp-as-Connoisseur comes across loud and clear in TBM’s praise of Crisp’s role in Burney’s career. And, yes, I agree that she internalized a lot more than just her aesthetics from her relationship with Crisp.

    Regarding your point about Crisp, which is well-taken: isn’t censorship at least potentially present in any mentor/protege relationship?

    DM

  3. Shayda Hoover

    Yes, certainly: the role ranges at least from censor to editor. Or: censor=dogmatic editor.