Vital Signs

The Third Side in the Culture War

I want to talk to people who have been shaken out of themselves by art, who have heard a piece of Mozart's Magic Flute reach out and grab them by the heart, who have seen the grave look on Flora's face as she steps out of Botticelli's Primavera the way the gods always do, lit by a light too powerful to be quite shown, to those who have heard a line of Shakespeare so that it rang again and again in their ears—"Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on things to come."

All great art leads beyond anything we have ever known, and this is as true now as it has ever been. It is culture communing with itself and generating a new spring, just like the flowers of Botticelli's painting pouring out of the mouth of April; it's the prophetic soul of the wide world. It's like great religious rituals, or like the awful majesty of the state, but in a playful, conditional, subjunctive mood; it's not authoritarian but infinitely vulnerable; all you have to do is to stop listening or watching or reading and it goes away, not like the authorities of the church or the state, who will come and clamp your head and stick matchsticks between your eyelids to make sure you are properly reeducated.

The heroic modernists—Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky—all knew this; but their successors today—and alas, those who oppose them, too—have forgotten....

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