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Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo

The Complete Set

Henceforth I shall send you two note-books: one exclusively for medical reports and the other for personal matters.

Yes, this will be very good I hope this innovation won't be a burden to you – I won't report about small cuts and bruises, of course.

No burden at all.

Now, I would like to have your expert and thoroughly satisfying opinion on the following question:

There has often been a discussion and hence a difference of opinion on the relative greatness of different branches of Art. Some of us are disposed to think of music as the highest; poetry, painting, architecture, sculpture, embroidery following thus in order of merit. Though one may not agree to such a classification, still because of the universality and most direct appeal of music, cannot one give it preference? Poetry is rather limited in its scope and painting even more so. They have to be understood in order to be appreciated in their fullest measure whereas music, apart from the technical aspect which is not absolutely obligatory for an appeal, need not. You know of the stories of beasts and snakes being charmed, not to speak of the hard-hearted Yamaraja, by music! Take your Love and Death as an example of poetic excellence. I am afraid people would throng round a piece of music sung by one of the renowned singers, more than round the recital of your poem. Yes, you may have the satisfaction of having an audience of intellectuals and then it will prove my contention that poetry has a limited appeal. Now about painting. I hear quite a number of people have lost their heads over Mona Lisa, even over a copy of it, but I have come away quite sound and strong without even being touched in the heart and I am sure many others have done so. This substantiates again my theory that painting is restricted in its scope. But will you turn the tables by this very fact of the restricted scope and difficult technique of painting and poetry and frame the order: Painting, Poetry, Music and so on? Is there really a hierarchy of planes in the Occult?

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 and what 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, am I? 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 makes the most universal appeal, but here in a world of beasts and men (you bring in the beasts – why not play to Bushy1 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 for the use of 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 mélangé 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 and colour 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, syād vā na syād vā.

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.

Sri Aurobindo

N.B. This is my answer, not the Mother's.



1 An Ashram cat.











1936 01 06 Exact Writting Letter Nirodbaran