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Eclecticism 2/4

Eclecticism is not Romanticism. They are easy to mistake for each other, because they are interested in the same things, but the resemblance is superficial: they share the same interests, but their attitudes are opposite.

By Romanticism I mean a disposition which values experience over event, one which values events only by the experiences they entrain; and I mean a permanently possible human temperament, not a certain edifice of German philosophers and English poets. Nor do I mean whatever that defect of character may be that magazine writers allude to when they expect the appellation romantic to vanquish their enemies.

Eclecticism, instead, values the experience by the event. This is partly the result of technology. So many events are within our power that we must discriminate among them with a high-handedness that our forebears would have condemned in a king. Consider Chinese art. A Westerner can still find something strange and exotic in it – a speaking though untranslated mystery in those steep island-mountains in fog or forest sea – but though there is still an experience there, it is not one that we can build on, because the matching event has become a common one: China is the third side of the airplane door.

Surprisingly, eclecticism does not prize local color – that is, the accumulation of differences. We have such a range of events available to us that we never lack for the pleasures of dislocation; we do not need to exaggerate them. Eclecticism postulates that all strangeness, once rightly understood, is bridgeable and sympathetic; that there is always, behind any strangeness, something banal and predictable. Strangeness, though it thrills the mind, is, in the end, safe. It cannot really balk, or challenge, or humble you. The adventure of an eclectic traveler is not in a new self, but in carrying the old one to a new and (temporarily) striking setting. The most brilliant gestures of an eclectic art are not those that create a way into strangeness, but those that assimilate strangeness to the everyday.

To an eclectic sensibility, the familiar becomes the convex mirror of the world. The city must be a microcosm. They have in many cases already attained a cultural completeness: at the beginning of the twenty-first century the residents of any great city may expect that what is worth seeing, doing, or knowing in the world will come to them. This same phenomenon repeats itself at lesser scales: in symbolically synoptic curiosity cabinet–apartments; and in lives accompanied by a practice of logging (blogging, even), wherein the whole age is reflected in miniature by every life within it.

Thomas De Quincey gave Romanticism its written constitution when he distinguished the literature of power from the literature of knowledge. This distinction, of course, exceeds the usual bounds of the literary. The literature of knowledge is simply the instrumental and obsolescive part of human achievement; the literature of power is the harvest of human achievement – the right that a stranger may have to our attention without being of use to us, the right that the dead have to the attention of the living.

De Quincey’s distinction is not one of subject, but of method. Grote and Herodotus both wrote on Greek history. Grote is part of the literature of knowledge; Herodotus is part of the literature of power. Newton and Goethe both made theories of optics. For us, Newton’s theory is of knowledge; Goethe’s is of power.

But eclecticism denies this distinction. This denial might suffice to define it. Eclecticism belongs to the age of materialism and relativism. It is absurd to speak of permanence or universality for the productions of a race without an essence to return to, without claim on a heritage or a prospect of eternity. If an eclectic finds certain works more strongly affecting or influencing than others, the difference cannot be a distinction of kind; it can only be a distinction of degree. If all lights must in time go out, then no single light can be so great but that an accumulation of lesser lights can equal it.

There is also the expectation that an honest criticism must discover the instrumental purpose of every work, and thereby anticipate the manner of its obsolescence. This gives us the spectacle of critics who can elegantly explain away everything about greatness except why they chose to spent time their time on it. Knowledge is expected to provide power; power is expected to answer to knowledge; and altogether unromantically, the prepared appreciation is always preferred to the spontaneous.