Under threat

Frank Kermode

  • Tributes: Interpreters of our Cultural Tradition by E.H. Gombrich
    Phaidon, 270 pp, £17.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 7148 2338 4

Sir Ernst Gombrich here collects various memorial lectures and memoirs of distinguished colleagues. He is a lecturer of high accomplishment – indeed I doubt if he has any serious rival in the shaping and illustration of an argument. Normally he uses not one but two magic lanterns. Some years ago he gave the Romanes Lecture and was denied the use of even one, but this did not deter him, for he simply used the interior of the Sheldonian as an image source, and voyaged on, with Karl Popper, as usual, his pole star, into very difficult waters: the relations of synchronic and diachronic in art history, the problems of canonicity and value.

These are questions which continue to exercise him as he pays his tributes to scholars who could hardly have been important to him, or perhaps to us, had they not been by nature and training historians who accepted, however critically, traditional valuations. They would all have agreed that Michelangelo was not great because he was famous, but famous because he was great. ‘Whether we like or dislike him, his greatness is an element in the story we are appointed to tell.’ It forms part of that ‘logic of situations’ without which history would sink into chaos. Ernst Kris’s discovery that the great masters are the great masters is one that has to be made by everybody desiring active membership of a culture which, in the absence of such informed assent, will die. During the probationary period one is to take the traditional valuations on trust.

In this, the seventh volume of Gombrich’s collected essays, the value of tradition, and its fragility in such a time as this, are repeatedly affirmed, and give the book such unity as it has. All those to whom tribute is paid are, in the words of the subtitle, ‘interpreters of our cultural tradition’. It may be stretching a point to include Lord Leverhulme in that category. The preservation of the cultural tradition costs money, and Leverhulme had lots and used it honourably, recognising that nature and art are ‘needs of the mind’. Soap ads and drawings of Port Sunlight are here augmented by Japanese prints, Haydon’s portrait of Wordsworth and Joseph Wright’s Sir Brooke Boothby in a Landscape, with a Volume of Rousseau, none of them at Port Sunlight, in an ingenious effort to enliven a Memorial Lecture at Liverpool. Allusions to Hazlitt, Goethe, Crabbe, the Grand Canyon, and the present defects of art education, give this piece a mildly desperate air, and the book might have been better without it.

Among those more congenially celebrated are friends and professional associates of the author: Frances Yates, Ernst Kris, Otto Kurz, George Boas. Others are great art historians of an earlier generation: Aby Warburg and Johan Huizinga, each remembered on the centenary of his birth. More remote are Hegel and Lessing, remembered in occasional pieces which again demonstrate Gombrich’s skill in exposition, which somehow never prevents him from voicing his criticisms. There is also a lecture on Freud, and another associated with I.A. Richards, though somewhat loosely tethered to that scholar.

All these people, and Lord Leverhulme by courtesy, were ‘humanists’, however various their interests; ‘in what used to be called the Republic of Learning there are as many mansions as there are in heaven.’ The Republic being under threat, Gombrich reminds us of the closing of the Platonic Academy in 529 AD, warns of the expense of renaissances, and, in a prefatory essay, speaks of the humanities as the memory of the culture, now at risk because cheeseparing politicians have inhuman notions of what is valuable or useful. And of course he is speaking not only of the visual arts but of a humanitas to which nothing is alien, a memory without bounds that takes in the entire ‘classical tradition’ and covers literature, alchemy, science, and, in the work of such as Otto Kurz, clocks and the movement of maize from one culture to another. Here, and in his repeated pleas for the revival of language teaching, all humanists, even if by the standards here proposed lamentably ignorant, will support him.

The relatively early lecture on Lessing testifies to Gombrich’s easy mastery of a large and diverse oeuvre – not just the Laocoön but the Wolfenbüttel Fragments and that ‘ugly broad ditch’ Lessing located between ‘accidental historical truths’ and the ‘truths of reason’. But what impresses the expositor most, I think, is Lessing’s confidence that it is not the possession of truth but rather the search for it that expands the powers of man: for here he prefigures Popper, the philosophical hero of this as of other books by this author. Such happy conformity with the doctrine of falsifiability makes Lessing easier to celebrate than Hegel. Gombrich, speaking on the occasion of his getting the Hegel Prize at Stuttgart, is well aware that the award has its irony: ‘criticism of the Hegelian heritage plays no minor part in my writings.’ No minor part, indeed. But here Hegel is himself given a prize, the title of Father of Art History, hitherto held by Winckelmann but properly Hegel’s on account of the superior universality of the Aesthetics. However, the compliment turns out to be a dubious one, for Hegel has transmitted to his numerous descendants some very undesirable qualities, such as historical determinism, dialectic relativism and metaphysical optimism – all un-Popperian and all certain to blight thinking about the relation of the arts to the times. The tribute to Hegel accordingly ends with the remark that although we cannot deny the critic his prejudices and his dreams of the future, he has, theoretically, no right ‘to operate with the slogans of “Our Age” and even less of “Future Ages”’. ‘Father of Art History’ is a title not of honour but of guilt.

Here again, we are hearing the voice of Popper as qualified by Gombrich’s own style of speaking. This influence is always acknowledged, and, though never overpowering, everywhere evident. The essay on Freud (‘Verbal Wit as a Paradigm of Art’) is something of an exception, since the argument provides no occasion for a comment on Popper’s well-known strictures on psychoanalysis: but the philosopher’s presence is certainly to be felt in the lecture on Huizinga. The focus of this piece is Homo Ludens, which is admirably expounded. Huizinga appeals to Gombrich not only because of his power as a historian but because he opposed some of the evolutionary notions of the history of art that were in his time almost inescapable, and because he could see the past in vivid images but correct such impressions by research: that is, expose his hypotheses to falsification. On the other hand, Huizinga derived from Tylor the unacceptable notion that play was a sort of archaism, a survival of the primitive, and this opinion cannot survive criticism. But the internal contradictions in this and other work of Huizinga count for little when compared with his beautiful seriousness, his growing asceticism.

If I had to choose a single essay as illustration of Gombrich’s preoccupations, gifts and methods, I think I should take this one. The commemoration of Warburg is excellent in itself, but was handsomely expanded in the big ‘intellectual biography’ of 1970. Boas, as a historian of ideas who passed the crucial test, keeping his beliefs constantly under correction, steering them always towards greater precision, is also worthily celebrated. The memoir of Kurz is especially valuable as testimony to the extraordinary scholarship of a most retiring man who, without gaining celebrity outside his circle, afforded a perfect instance of the truth of the Warburgian position that in scholarship, as – according to James – in life, relations stop nowhere. In its more intimate way it is as striking a performance as the Huizinga lecture. The memorial address on Frances Yates is affectionate and delicate, but too brief, not for its occasion but for a book in which it keeps company with tributes more substantial.

What is remarkable, though, is that all these pieces are occasional, yet have a perceptible unity not only of theme but of treatment. A consciousness of the weight of traditional forms – discussed in the Richards tribute – ensures that in writing a memorial lecture, a British Academy memoir, or a festive piece for Liverpool University or the City of Stuttgart, the writer collaborates with inherited styles. Without loss to his individual talent and learning he co-operates with the tradition and prolongs the memory he believes to be under threat of extinction.