Anybody who has ever watched a home video knows how painful is the passing of unedited time.  No matter what or who is the subject of the exposition—sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, deep conversation, one’s own or other people’s children, Osama bin Laden—time in the raw is all but unbearable.  Clearly, it is only through the faculty of art that one can ever grab hold of this amorphous, molasses-like mass of undifferentiated minutes and hours, infuse it with excitement, comeliness, and meaning, and refine it into some fragment of life more or less deserving of the name.  Which, incidentally, echoes the old gnostic contention that the great demiurge created the finite universe out of endless chaos principally for the purpose of his own entertainment.

Yet art is widely perceived as the domain of the irrational, the elemental, and the hermetic and is often, with much justification, held up in opposition to those other domains where reason, order, and clarity seem to hold sway.  And the art that made the world—at least in the eyes of anyone who has ever read a Russian novel, or heard a passage of German Romantic music, or regarded a modern painting with sympathy—is no exception.  For the world, in those anxious eyes, alas, bears hardly any resemblance to a Corinthian column or a leaf from Principia Mathematica.

Still, steadfastly though our world refuses to get fitted up for the Procrustean organon of anesthetizing science, incisive logic, and convenient symmetry, our culture is intended to act as something of an Apollonian damper on all that fiery Dionysian stubbornness.  And this, in art as in life.

Consider for a moment the plight of the jealous lover, for instance, in the half-century from Dumas-fils to Proust.  There is a man deeply conditioned by his culture, and there he stands, with his coat collar up, at 22 minutes past midnight, in a cobbled alleyway appertaining to some terribly fashionable arrondissement, gazing with despair into the dimly lit window above wherein a shadow, or perhaps two, may be glimpsed through imperfectly drawn curtains.  And as the illuminated, but then, of course, inexorably darkening, window frames, focuses, and edits his very life, so, too, does his culture frame, focus, and edit his feelings, making them—well, why shouldn’t I say it?—yes, making them art.

Now compare that to what a senior vice president, European operations, at Bankers Trust would be doing, were he to find himself today in the same fix upon taking up with a Hungarian stripper of infinite sophistication and charm, mercifully a figure as plausible in the 21st century as in the 20th or the 19th.  He would almost certainly begin by installing what is known in the trade as “clandestine audio monitoring” into her silvery Nokia, whereupon his life would become just what it had always been—boring.  Boring, because unedited, artless, raw, a nauseating stream of ultimately meaningless episodes, insights, juxtapositions.

“But at least he would know the truth,” a myope may argue.  Not at all—and I say this as a certified myope myself, with 20/400 vision, which I once attempted to correct by wearing spectacles.  Forgive this politically correct turn of phrase, but I found that the spectacles did not make me see better, just differently.  I am sure that every astronomer who has had occasion to use the most powerful telescopes in the world will confirm that our eye for the truth is always bigger than our stomach.

“But is she two-timing him, that’s the point!”  The point of having a car, it would seem, is to get from A to B in a hurry.  In John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, however, I read that the average American “puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles, less than five miles an hour, not much more than he could travel on his own feet,” out of his emotional attachment to his vehicle.  So, even when regarded statistically, truths are never as empirical as they first appear.  “But what you’re saying, then, is that he should be playing some kind of game, performing some prelusive ritual, some ludicrous obeisance to the ideal of courtship?”  I certainly am.  If the poet player is never bored when he is at the gaming table, it is because art defeats boredom.  Besides, as I say, there is simply no other way of ever seeing the truth because, without art, truth is largely invisible.

The received view of science, writes Gray, encourages us to believe that “we can understand the natural world, and thereby bend it to our will.”

Yet, in fact, science suggests a view of things that is intensely uncomfortable to the human mind.  The world as seen by physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg is not an orderly cosmos.  It is a demi-chaos that humans can hope to understand only in part.  Science cannot satisfy the human need to find order in the world.  The most advanced physical sciences suggest that causality and classical logic may not be built into the nature of things.  Even the most basic features of our ordinary experience may be delusive.

Our culture, in short, is failing us.  Instead of caging the fire of the human soul in the ice of reason, and furnishing us with a serviceable phenomenology—as well as a beautiful choreography—in the process, it reduces everything under its lightless sun to the same boring gray mush of tepid rational assumptions to which, as a matter of practical reality, nobody pays the slightest attention.  Indeed, a rational god is much easier to ignore than a human one, and the eventual consequence of elevating reason to that exalted position is every Tom, Dick, and Harry (“Wha’?  I got brains too, man!”) feeling himself at one with the godhead.  The final result, in short, is absolute solipsism.

Once society reaches that freezing point, all art—that is to say, all thought, all fun, all entertainment—stops forthwith, because, like the notion of a human God, the idea of art is exclusive, aristocratic, and based on universal acceptance of an authority that cannot be readily shared or easily acquired.  The Lord was like this, runs the idea, just like every Tom, Dick, and Harry in some senses, certainly, but also unimaginably, unreachably better than they in so many other senses.  Why?  Because He was born that way, stupid, with a silver spoon in His mouth!  Don’t you remember?  A whole bunch of kings came to adore Him and to congratulate the new mum.

The poet, too, sits at his desk, twiddles his thumbs, and looks for a word to rhyme with “insurance,” just like any advertising-agency flunky moving his lips to the tune of a winning jingle.  But one is a nobleman; the other, a commoner; and, when society no longer acknowledges the chasm between them (“Wha’?  I got rhymes too, baby!”), it grows barbarous in that chilling, atom-age, uniquely modern, as yet not fully understood sense in which human existence is perceived to hold no more meaning than the existence of slime mold.  And, lest we forget, much the same chasm separates lover and private investigator, philosopher and newspaper journalist, gambler and greedy stockbroker.