Anita Brookner was never one for easy hyperbole, only for that which was earned and justified by time. One wonders what she would have made of 2020. No doubt she would have reserved judgement.
Her essays and reviews are often at their most piquant when considering something from which she withholds praise. I've been reading 'Descent into the Untestable', a review in Soundings of a book of 1980 on regression in the arts from the eighteenth into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Analysis of large movements, notions such as the Enlightenment and Romanticism, will be familiar to readers of Brookner. In Providence (1982), Kitty Maule and her students mount lofty seductive arguments: Existentialism as a late manifestation of Romanticism - and the like.
But Dr Brookner herself would caution her own pupils: Art doesn't love you and cannot console you. Here she argues for the limitations of art. 'Artistic traditions are self-generating and at best reflexive. One cannot live by the light of ideas expressed in pictures, although their images will colour one's thinking'.
Mr Harbison, the author of the book under review, fails in Brookner's eyes to provide the necessary underpinning. Pictures, she counsels, occasionally need the corroboration of the written word: 'Quite simply, a different kind of information is being imparted'. Look at the writing, she says, and you'll find that the eighteenth century, though it may have been when it all went wrong, might also have been the last time when 'it might just have come out right'. She repeats this line, I think, in an early interview. It is the writers, not the painters, who will save us - those writers who are, as she said, saints for the godless. Montesquieu and Diderot she reveres: 'neither of them afflicted with any beliefs they could not verify'. Fragonard and David do no more than 'weight the argument'.
If we ever wondered why Brookner turned always from art to writing, or perhaps why she never herself seems to have picked up a brush, the answer is here. Here also is her answer to suggestions of the Apocalypse, for the unfortunate Mr Harbison apparently believes we are living at the end of the world:
If the Apocalypse is really just around the corner the correct attitude would seem to be one of lively curiosity.