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November 2, 2004

TT: Art for power's sake

Who wrote this? (Don't peek.)

I took Anna Karénine along on the trip and have read it through with very great interest. I hardly know whether to call it a bad book or not. There are two entirely distinct stories in it; the connection between Levine's story and Anna's is of the slightest, and need not have existed at all. Levine's and Kitty's history is not only very powerfully and naturally told, but is also perfectly healthy. Anna's most certainly is not, though of great and sad interest; she is portrayed as being a prety to the most violent passion, and subject to melancholia, and her reasoning power is so unbalanced that she could not possibly be described otherwise than as in a certain sense insane. Her character is curiously contradictory; bad as she was however she was not nearly as repulsive as her brother Stiva; Vronsky had some excellent points....Tolstoi is a great writer. Do you notice how he never comments on the actions of his personages? He relates what they thought or did without any remark whatever as to whether it was good or bad, as Thucydides wrote history--a fact which tends to give his work an unmoral rather than an immoral tone, together with the sadness so characteristic of Russian writers. I was much pleased with the insight into Russian life.

The author in question was Theodore Roosevelt, writing in 1886. I found this passage in the new collection of his letters and speeches that Louis Auchincloss recently edited for the Library of America. My friend Rick Brookhiser had been reading the same book and e-mailed me a quotation that piqued my curiosity, so I bought a copy the next day and have since found it impossible to put down.

That Roosevelt was a good writer is no secret. I mentioned him last year when I had occasion to blog about American presidents who were articulate on paper. But what interests me even more about this particular passage is that it's a rare example of a prominent American politician saying something specific on paper about an important work of art. Never mind what Roosevelt was saying about Anna Karenina (we'll get back to that). Ask yourself this: can you recall a similar example? No doubt Lincoln makes mention of Shakespeare in his letters, and I think it fairly likely that Harry Truman, who was a pianist with a serious interest in classical music, must have written somewhere or other about Chopin. But who else? Outside of Justice Holmes, a literary connoisseur but not a politician in the strict sense of the word, no names come immediately to mind.

This lack of aesthetic interest isn't unique to politicians, of course. I know of very few American men of affairs (to exhume a wonderfully musty old phrase) who have much of anything to do with art other than as collectors, in which capacity they not infrequently develop considerable sophistication over time. But ask them to talk about the art they own and they have a way of coming up short. This doesn't necessarily mean they get no aesthetic pleasure out of their art--intellectuals have a nasty habit of regarding verbal dexterity as a virtue, invariably to their cost--but it does make you wonder.

I wrote the other day about Anthony Powell, in the course of which I quoted one of my favorite passages from A Dance to the Music of Time:

Whenever Powell informs us that one of his characters takes no pleasure in drink or the arts, or that he prefers power to love, it's a safe bet that unsavory revelations are just around the corner. Herein lies the theme of ''A Dance to the Music of Time,'' stated explicitly in ''A Buyer's Market'' (1952), the second volume, in which Jenkins remarks that ''the arts themselves, so it appeared to me as I considered the matter, by their ultimately sensual essence, are, in the long run, inimical to those who pursue power for its own sake. Conversely, the artist who traffics in power does so, if not necessarily disastrously, at least at considerable risk.''

I think this is true, which is another reason why I've gotten so wrapped up in Roosevelt's letters. He wasn't an aesthete by any stretch of the imagination, but he was clearly responsive to beauty, though his responses were cramped by his Victorian mindset. (He told the same correspondent a couple of months later that War and Peace "does not seem to me to be in the least conducive to morality.")

On the other hand, would one want to be ruled by an aesthete? Last year I wrote a Commentary essay about Adolf Hitler whose title, "The Murder Artist," pretty well sums him up:

Hitler was more than merely an artist manqué, using art-derived techniques for propaganda purposes. Instead, he saw art as the end to which politics was merely the means. For him, the whole point of ruling Germany and conquering Europe was to be able to make them over again in a different image--one in which the fine arts would have pride of place....Hitler, in short, was a deranged idealist, a painter of old churches and picture-postcard landscapes who sought power over others in order to make his romantic dreams real, then grew ever more bloodthirsty when the human beings who were his flesh-and-blood medium resisted his transforming touch.

Does this mean the only alternatives are philistinism and homicidal mania? I certainly hope not, but I don't know that I'd trust the average artist to be able to tell the difference between a politician who loved art and one who, like John Kennedy, merely pretended to. We're all subject to the siren call of wishful thinking, never more so than when a man of affairs engages in the modern-day equivalent of taking us up on the mountaintop and saying, All this could be yours.

Which brings us back to Theodore Roosevelt, a politician who not only read books but wrote them, and who was clearly a good deal more complicated than most of us are aware. When I reviewed Theodore Rex, the second volume of Edmund Morris' Roosevelt biography, it never occurred to me to mention Roosevelt's aesthetic interests, for the good reason that Morris didn't have much to say about them, even in the generous compass of an 864-page biography. That's why I'm so grateful to Louis Auchincloss, a greatly gifted novelist whose interest in turn-of-the-century American life made him, surprising as it may seem at first glance, the perfect person to edit a volume of Roosevelt's selected letters. More novelists should cultivate such interests. Scholarship is too important to be left to the scholars.

Posted November 2, 2004 8:00 AM

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