ZANONI: A ROSICRUCIAN TALE
As some injudicious master lowers and vitiates the taste of the student by fixing his attention to what he falsely calls the Natural, but which, in reality, is the Commonplace, and understands not that beauty in art is created by what Raphael so well describes, -- namely, THE IDEA OF BEAUTY IN THE PAINTER'S OWN MIND; and that in every art, whether its plastic expression be found in words or marble, colours or sounds, the servile imitation of Nature is the work of journeymen and tyros, -- so in conduct the man of the world vitiates and lowers the bold enthusiasm of loftier natures by the perpetual reduction of whatever is generous and trustful to all that is trite and coarse. A great German poet has well defined the distinction between discretion and the larger wisdom. In the last there is a certain rashness which the first disdains, --
"The purblind see but the receding shore, Not that to which the bold wave wafts them o'er."
Yet in this logic of the prudent and the worldly there is often a reasoning unanswerable of its kind.
You must have a feeling, -- a faith in whatever is self-sacrificing and divine, whether in religion or in art, in glory or in love; or Common-sense will reason you out of the sacrifice, and a syllogism will debase the Divine to an article in the market.
Every true critic in art, from Aristotle and Pliny, from Winkelman and Vasari to Reynolds and Fuseli, has sought to instruct the painter that Nature is not to be copied, but EXALTED; that the loftiest order of art, selecting only the loftiest combinations, is the perpetual struggle of Humanity to approach the gods. The great painter, as the great author, embodies what is POSSIBLE to MAN, it is true, but what is not COMMON to MANKIND. There is truth in Hamlet; in Macbeth, and his witches; in Desdemona; in Othello; in Prospero, and in Caliban; there is truth in the cartoons of Raphael; there is truth in the Apollo, the Antinous, and the Laocoon. But you do not meet the originals of the words, the cartoons, or the marble, in Oxford Street or St. James's. All these, to return to Raphael, are the creatures of the idea in the artist's mind. This idea is not inborn, it has come from an intense study. But that study has been of the ideal that can be raised from the positive and the actual into grandeur and beauty. The commonest model becomes full of exquisite suggestions to him who has formed this idea; a Venus of flesh and blood would be vulgarised by the imitation of him who has not.
When asked where he got his models, Guido summoned a common porter from his calling, and drew from a mean original a head of surpassing beauty. It resembled the porter, but idealised the porter to the hero. It was true, but it was not real. There are critics who will tell you that the Boor of Teniers is more true to Nature than the Porter of Guido! The commonplace public scarcely understand the idealising principle, even in art; for high art is an acquired taste.
But to come to my comparison. Still less is the kindred principle comprehended in conduct. And the advice of worldly prudence would as often deter from the risks of virtue as from the punishments of vice; yet in conduct, as in art, there is an idea of the great and beautiful, by which men should exalt the hackneyed and the trite of life. Now Glyndon felt the sober prudence of Mervale's reasonings; he recoiled from the probable picture placed before him, in his devotion to the one master-talent he possessed, and the one master-passion that, rightly directed, might purify his whole being as a strong wind purifies the air.
But though he could not bring himself to decide in the teeth of so rational a judgment, neither could he resolve at once to abandon the pursuit of Viola. Fearful of being influenced by Zanoni's counsels and his own heart, he had for the last two days shunned an interview with the young actress. But after a night following his last conversation with Zanoni, and that we have just recorded with Mervale, -- a night coloured by dreams so distinct as to seem prophetic, dreams that appeared so to shape his future according to the hints of Zanoni that he could have fancied Zanoni himself had sent them from the house of sleep to haunt his pillow, -- he resolved once more to seek Viola; and though without a definite or distinct object, he yielded himself up to the impulse of his heart.