I’ve long thought, yet never tried to explain in depth, why I think literature, meaning the words on the page, constructed and organized at some length, is the highest form of art. There are, of course, many forms of art: film, music, painting, podcasts. The category continues to expand. And although nearly every writer ever has proclaimed that writing aspires to the qualities of music (and I would tend to agree), words themselves have a certain quality that plants them in a deeper part of my mind than even the most memorable tune. They tend to simply exist in another memorial dimension.
Tolstoy said “music is the shorthand of emotion,” and he is right. Music exists outside language. It skips the degrees-removed germane to linguistic or imagistic articulation. The instantaneous emotional resonance of a song will always supersede the eventual emotional reaction to words composed in its likeness. Yet I would argue that cogitation itself, the interpretive move made between the words and the spirit, sears the verbal-notational structure more completely. If a song immediately grabs our bushel of nerves and sets them all on fire, literature slowly lights the extremities, eventually ending in a blaze perhaps not as momentous, but more memorable because of its up-building instances along the way.
The meander of a sentence — chopped by a series, linked through commas, butting up against semi-colons — draws out the emotional payoff through a unique tracking. As each word constructs a fuller picture, a sensational gestalt emerges, and although the same could be said for a crescendo, the granularity of words themselves, which individually contain a universe of potentialities, causes the mind to process their import at a slower rate. The bane of literature is the banality imposed by articulation; yet this banality itself, and the writer’s ability to transcend it, generates a distinctly memorable impression. It is the impression of rhythm enhanced by the feat of animate language. The achievement of literature comes from its beating back of language’s limitations to produce musical feeling, in an effort to forge a non-native sentiment, to make of worldly invention otherworldly feeling.
The apprehension of the artist’s endeavor, the making fluid of something rigid, manifests in the reader as assiduous attention and detailed memory. This in no way diminishes the work done by musicians, painters, etc. Van Gogh, a tuning fork for eternity, defies this world, transcends almost everything known to man and cannot be escaped. But since the human mode is defined by its parameters, one of them being the limitation of speech, literature serves as an existentially referential and intimately human degree of expression. Maybe it is not so much literature’s innate qualities as it is our human predictability that something using language, our own invention, appeals so deeply to us. Literature may simply be the highest form of flattery, not art — the injection of language with a musical heart, the created used to manipulate the creator. Yet the difficulty of accomplishing such a feat classifies it as something above the mundane, defying the fundamental matrix of human experience. It is inextricably bound to our ancient, desperate attempt to concretize our instinct, and therefore its achievement adheres, in perhaps the most detail, inside the mind. In using the human to transcend it, literature assumes a sort of divinity. Literature, precisely because of its artifice, reaches; music, existing in nature, older than humans themselves, does not have to slog through the rigid structure of language. It exists purely in the realm of the spirit. Music is more inextricable than language from the human experience. It pre-dated it.
So, music remains closer to our emotional switchboard. It is capable of whispering in our ears as a slave whispers into the ear of his emperor, reminding him of his mortality and the power of the gods. Music dictates our emotional fate. But, as we have discovered, we can kill our gods, and literature, through its distinctly human discourse, shows us how. It enters freely into the beast that wrought it, breaking things and re-building them. But the difference, sometimes, is that it never leaves.