Oeuvre is a clear and at the same time almost untranslatable word. One could say "creation," but still that connotation in which oeuvre issued from the French literature remains to be understood.
People are accustomed to judge art in all its manifestations rather light-mindedly. Someone has read two poems and is prepared to judge a poet. Someone saw three or four paintings, or reproductions of the paintings, and is ready to judge the artist. One novel alone suffices to define the author. One book of essays is sufficient for making an irrevocable decision while having a cup of tea.
The proverbial "cup of tea" so often mentioned in works of literature does not entail any obligations. Possibly, also, the opinions uttered at the tea table should not be binding, and yet they often do have profound results. In these conversations, the "cup of tea" people do not stop to think that separate works are only petals of the entire oeuvre. It is not likely that an experienced gardener or a botanist would presume to judge the whole plant from one petal of a flower.
Everyone has had occasion to hear very definite judgments about authors from people who in reality have read but one volume of the works of that author. And how often are judgments pronounced solely on the basis of newspaper reviews without the trouble being taken even to read that which was criticized. Then, truly, for the appreciation of a whole creative work, no matter to what realm it belongs, the concept of oeuvre must be brought out particularly clearly. In order to form a just opinion of any author, not only is an adequate acquaintance with the entire scope of his creativeness needed but one should view the works in the chronological order of their creation.
The full scope of one's creativeness is like a necklace of gems matched in a definite order. Each work expresses some psychological moment in the life of the creator. The life of the artist is molded out of these moments. In order to understand the effect one should know the cause. One should understand why that particular order was followed in the creative process. What outer and inner circumstances accumulated to produce successive pieces of the whole creativeness? This would mean judging the design of the whole necklace from only one or two of its gems.
Decidedly, in all realms of creativeness — literature, music, painting — an attentive and solicitous attitude is needed everywhere. Everyone has had occasion to read and hear about someone's attributing to an author a great deal of something absolutely foreign to him, quoting only fragments from an originally unbroken flow of thoughts. It is not only unqualified laymen who attempt to judge. In every field of endeavor self-appointed judges are to be found.
I remember some fellow law students pondering how they would apply the acquired knowledge. One intended simply to practice law, one wanted to become an administrator, one was planning to become a prosecuting attorney; but one, a rather jolly student, said, "And I, probably, will have to judge all of you." Who knows? Maybe this jest helped to launch him into a judge's career, toward which, in the final analysis, he had no special inclination.
As in many professions, so, also, in judgments about a creative process, a great deal is molded quite casually. But because of this haphazardness almost irreparable results may issue.
It is said that values in general change thrice in a century — according to generations, as it were. To observe this sinuous line of valuations is quite instructive. How many extraneous considerations will influence public opinion! Rivalry of publishers, or greed of art dealers, finally, all varieties of envy and animosity are reflected upon the evaluations with such complexity that for a future research historian it would be almost impossible to discriminate between them. Many examples of this could be cited.
We recall two rival publishers who deliberately slandered an author in whom they were both interested so that they could acquire at a lower price the right of publication of his works. And these specific disparagements were recorded in some reviews. We remember an art dealer who by all possible means tried to reduce temporarily the value of the works of a certain artist, in order to buy up a sufficient quantity of his works and afterward to commission somebody to restore the reputation of the forgotten artist.
There is no need to recall certain episodes from the world of collectors, where rivalry. drives people to most unworthy actions. It is important to remember, however, that the appraisals of creativeness are particularly convoluted and personal. We remember how a certain music lover one day warned a well-known musician not to play on that day because an influential music critic had a toothache.
But when to all these ways of life one adds the desire not to study thoroughly an oeuvre in its entirety, then the situation becomes verily tragic.
Let us think of any prolific writer. Could one form an opinion of him without knowing all his works successively? True, one may judge separate works of an author, but such an opinion should refer to one work and not to the entire creative oeuvre.
It is most important to evaluate a great personality not only from his biography but by surveying the accumulative processes of his creativeness and all the ways in which it was expressed. Hence, one is reminded once again of this word oeuvre, so apt in its true meaning. It impels one to think quite broadly, to encompass an entire manifestation and study broadly its influence and consequences.
Leaving the consideration of personal oeuvre, history also evaluates the oeuvre of an entire nation, an entire epoch. If a historian does not learn to appraise the small accessible facts, by what means could he approach and embrace broad tasks? Prior to thinking about these broad tasks, one should think about the conscientiousness of private and personal judgments. He who chooses to remain always within the boundaries of truth, will learn to discern the quality of all that is incidental, and will cautiously compare causes and effects. It is one thing to simply rejoice at a certain work, but it is quite a different matter to rejoice at a beautifully strung complete necklace in which are to be found many precious stones in unusual combinations. Just now, when there are so many ruptures and confusions, the clear-cut, honest, and heartfelt grasping of each subject is especially urgent and timely. We read that recently Stokowski gave a definite opinion about the harm of mechanized music for true creativeness. Stokowski justly pointed out that even in the very vibrations there is a vast difference between those transmitted directly and those transmitted mechanically. And certain instruments are altogether not perceptible in mechanized transmission.
At this time, when music, the stage arts, and painting are subject to all sorts of machinations, precisely now the evaluations of creativeness should become still more exact, deep, and thorough. Precisely now, when the contemporary way of life strives toward brevity, abruptness, and chance, it is especially essential to aspire to evaluations based upon the entire oeuvre.
Although translatable with difficulty, oeuvre is an expressive word.
February 25, 1935