What is Art

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”

— Tolstoy

If you ignore the parts about Christianity, Tolstoy’s definition of art is pretty sturdy. I don’t think that doing so undermines it, either. In fact, it’s been my personal litmus test for about fifteen years, and I can’t recall a time when it let me down. It’s broad enough to include most works of art I approve of, but (for the most part) excludes the ones I don’t.

The Mildew and the Flame

“You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame; and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth that frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years as well in the polished status as in the Parian cliff; but we men have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes. The walls and the ways would have stood — it is we who have left but one stone upon another, and restored its pathlessness to the desert; the great cathedrals of the old religion would have stood — it is we who have dashed down the carved work with axes and hammers, and bid the mountain-grass bloom upon the pavement, and the sea-winds chant in the galleries.”

— John Ruskin

I was wrong to believe it, but the reason I copied this down was because I’d thought Ruskin was saying something different. I thought he was saying nature doesn’t destroy, because its own process is neither creative nor destructive, it’s boring and steady. If someone didn’t build something out of it, nature would just maintain a constant, homogeneous state forever, but by building, mankind creates the conditions for inevitable destruction to occur. In other words, nature as nature doesn’t destroy, it just resumes. If you leave an egg in the nest, it won’t break because it won’t go anywhere. The tragedy is that if you carry it to the roof, you’ve created the future where it falls and cracks open. That’s not it, though.


We to whom humble journeyings were once permitted have now been transformed into physicists, biologists, students of the civilizations that beautify the depths of valleys and now and again, by some miracle, bloom like gardens where the climate allows. We are able to judge man in cosmic terms, scrutinize him through our portholes as through instruments of the laboratory.The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward on their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.

Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Roads avoid the barren lands, the rocks, the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheat-fields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.

But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened. The plane has taught us to travel as the crow flies. Scarcely have we taken off when we abandon these winding highways that slope down to watering troughs and stables or run away to towns dreaming in the shade of their trees. Freed henceforth from this happy servitude, delivered from the need of fountains, we set our course for distant destinations. And then, only, from the height of our rectilinear trajectories, do we discover the essential foundation, the fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevices of ruins has risked its precarious existence.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

Literary Criticism

“The imposition of a cause’s idea of reality on the writer’s idea of reality can only mistakenly be called reading.”

— Philip Roth

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

— Auden


Ipoh, the first major stop on the Kuala Lumpur run, has a station hotel, a late Victorian Gormenghast with long windows covered by sombre curtains. The brown drapery hangs in thick folds, keeping out the breeze and preserving the heat, which is paddled around the dining room by ten slow fans. All the tables are set, and the waiter, who might be dead, is propped against the wall at the far end of the room. It is fairly certain there is a suicide upstairs waiting to be discovered, and the flies that soar through the high-ceilinged bar are making for the corpse of this ruined planter or disgraced towkay. It is the sort of hotel that has a skeleton in every closet and a register thick with the pseudonyms of adulterers. I once walked into the station hotel at Ipoh with my little boy, and as soon as we crossed the threshold he began to cry. His innocent nose had smelled what mine couldn’t, and I rushed away with him, relieved, savouring the well-being of deliverance.

— Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

Tenacity, Mathematics

The Eddington machine would be the universal supercomputer. It would be made of all the atoms in the universe. The Eddington machine would contain ten vigintsextillion parts, and if the Chudnovsky brothers could figure out how to program it with fortran they might make it churn toward pi.

“In order to study the sequence of pi, you have to store it in the Eddington machine’s memory,” Gregory said. To be realistic, the brothers thought that a practical Eddington machine wouldn’t be able to store pi much beyond 1077 digits—a number that is only a hundredth of the Eddington number. Now, what if the digits of pi only begin to show regularity beyond 10 digits?

Suppose, for example, that pi manifests a regularity starting at 10100 decimal places? That number is known as a googol. If the design in pi appears only after a googol of digits, then not even the Eddington machine will see any system in pi; pi will look totally disordered to the universe, even if pi contains a slow, vast, delicate structure. A mere googol of pi might be only the first knot at the corner of a kind of limitless Persian rug, which is woven into increasingly elaborate diamonds, cross-stars, gardens, and cosmogonies. It may never be possible, in principle, to see the order in the digits of pi. Not even nature itself may know the nature of pi.

“If pi doesn’t show systematic behavior until more than ten to the seventy-seven decimal places, it would really be a disaster,” Gregory said. “It would be actually horrifying.”

“I wouldn’t give up,” David said. “There might be some other way of leaping over the barrier—”

“And of attacking the son of a bitch,” Gregory said.

— Richard Preston, The Mountains of Pi