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Defenders Of Art And Life Differ On Everything In Between

In Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”, a 15th century painter discusses the illogic of his patrons who want him to paint less of the real world—in turn for more spiritually uplifting scenes.  This poem gives Browning a platform to put forward his philosophy on art, which holds equal respect for the high and the low alike.  Similarly, in “Why The Novel Matters”, D.H.Lawrence forms a postulation that there is more to life than just the label of “spirit”.  But he goes further to say that there is a difference between that which is alive, and that which is inanimate.

He contends life is more important—and a well-written novel is the equivalent of life.  He puts novels on a pedestal, while everything else is lesser than the living things.  Browning’s character Lippi, however, while also detesting the barrier of the word “spirit” , does not go so far as to say the material mortar of the world is somehow more important than the soul.  He merely defends its equivalence.  He does not believe his paintings are more important than living things; he believes that they share equal value.

Although Lawrence is willing to include the human body in with the word “spirit”—he draws a line at the fingertips, and calls everything else (except for the novel) of lesser substance; alternately, Lippi is more liberal in his view, for he does not dwell overlong on the delineation between life and immaterial things—but just on their symbiosis.  Ultimately, Lippi is more humble about his art and life in general.

For Lippi, painting for his patrons is only half of a life: carousing about town is the other part.  This is why he regularly escapes for release from the dogged work.  Although the religious service is a career for him, he cannot sustain it without proper romps on the town.  Therefore, by living in worlds both saintly and debauched, Lippi is able to see through the Prior’s facade, when he is asked to only paint the spirit—not the body.  The Prior says: “Your business is not to catch men with show …  Your business is to paint the souls of men” (Lines 175-184).  Lippi, however, would rather include everything in his art, and therefore more accurately reflect the world—and make better use of art.  “Now is this sense, I ask?”(198) Lippi says.

“Why can’t a painter lift each foot in turn, … Make his flesh liker and his soul more like … You should not take a fellow eight years old / And make him swear to never kiss the girls.”(224-225).  Lippi rails against simplifying existence into a word or an image: “The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream …  The only good of grass is to make chaff”(251-257).  Lippi cannot settle for a narrow view of the order of things—while Lawrence only partly concedes that there is more to “spirit” than just vapor.

 Lawrence contests that life’s ether is as vital as the shell—and by singling out, labeling—or falsely idolizing any one part of its essence, we are hindering ourselves from fully living.  For instance, Lawrence rants on the fallacy of labels: “We think of ourselves as a body with a spirit in it … Mens sana in corpore sano.  The years drink up the wine, and at last throw the bottle away, the body, of course, being the bottle”(2446).  Indeed, Lippi’s dead shell of a horse is Lawrence’s empty bottle of spirits—and the two of them seem to agree that definitions of the “spirit” are just distractions from the truth of existence.

Lawrence, however, sets aside one exception, being that the Bible itself, when read as an entire piece, achieves some spirit similar to that of the humankind: “The Bible …  [It sets] the whole tree trembling with a new access of life, [it does] not just stimulate growth in one direction”(2448).  Herein lies one key difference, then, between Lippi and Lawrence, which is that Lawrence makes exception for the novel as being at the rank of a living entity—while Lippi does not go so far as to suggest that art is exclusive from the rest of the lifeless world, although he does believe it is as important as life.  After all, Lawrence says the novel can “make the whole man alive tremble.

Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do”(2448).  Moreover, while he does not specifically call out painting as one of the lesser “tremulations”, it seems safe to say this is implied—since he even excludes poetry from his sacred circle of life—which, ironically, is the medium through which Browning’s Lippi is experienced.  In contrast, Lippi says that life’s everyday details are “better, painted—better to us … Art was given for that”(300-304).—and again, Lippi does not put art above life—only beside it.  He says: “Do you feel thankful, aye or no, / For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line, … What’s it all about? / To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon”(286-291).

Of course, Lawrence, does distinguish the particularization of his own body, and how each part is equal to the whole—but nothing beyond himself: “Why should I imagine that there is a me which is more me than my hand is?”(2446).  But Lawrence’s “me alive” theory excludes the static objects of the order of things as merely props—that are not to be confused with life or novels.

Ultimately, Lippi sees no place for the soul without the bodily elements, and rhetorically argues: “What need of art at all? A skull and bones, / Two bits of stick nailed crosswise”(321).  Lawrence, however, sees the various mediums of communication as “words and thoughts and sighs and aspirations that fly from [us], they are so many tremulations in the ether”(2447).  Lawrence merely concedes that the lifeless elements are “tremulations” that may “reach another man alive” and “he may receive them into his life, and his life may take on a new color”(2447).

So, while Lawrence agrees with Lippi that the baser elements are important, he goes on at length to flesh out the reasons why life and the novel are substantially more important:  “All things that are alive are amazing.  And all things that are dead are subsidiary to the living”(2447).  He builds a wall between life and the novel—and the rest of existence: “I, who am man alive, am greater than my soul”(2447).  In this way then, while Lawrence agrees with Lippi that the parts cannot be distinguished from the whole, without excluding the essence—he differs in that he goes further to impose a privileged position upon the energy of life and novels, whereas Lippi simply thinks that art and the lesser units ought to have equal exposure in the spotlight life.

So Lawrence is circular in his theory, insisting “spirit” is limiting in its language—while touting the transcending power of the novel.  Indeed, despite arguing that limitations abound under labels, and that any “particular direction ends in a cul-de-sac”(2448)–Lawrence is still making divisions: “A character in a novel has got to live, or it is nothing….  We likewise, in life have got to live, or we are nothing”(2449).   Plus, he is proud of his specialness as an artist, in a way that Lippi is too humble ever to approach: “Being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog”(2448).

Ultimately then, at the root of their respective philosophies on art and life, Lippi is more adverse to divisions of all kinds, not putting himself or his art above the world, put equal to it.  One senses that he is not likely anymore proud of himself than the subjects he paints about, while Lawrence is more proud of the novels he writes than the objects described in them.

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