In many of his poems, essays and lectures, Geoffrey Hill has let his readers or listeners know that he is haunted by the likelihood of “appearing a fool.” “To undertake any assessment of the meaning of value is to risk appearing a fool. To pronounce upon human values may expose one as an ethical charlatan,” he says in the second paragraph of his Rhetorics of Value. Aware of perfection, he feels himself falling short. He is obliged to let people know about it too – why – when he could have said nothing – he could have gone on with the essay and left those sentences out? Why obligation? Coetzee is dissatisfied when he senses a blank gap between the other arguments about Richardson's Clarissa but he is writing at the expense of strangers.
Richardson himself saw that the nine volumes of Clarissa had failed because people didn't comprehend every aspect of his mind, though he was praised and enriched, “and contemporary readers traveled to the Upper Flask, the tavern Clarissa and Lovelace stopped at in Hampstead” and the other author who had satirised him, Henry Fielding (who wrote his first novel because he was unhappy with Pamela), was rapturing in a letter, “Let the Overflowings of a Heart which you have filled brimfull speak for me” (October 15, 1748), still he was going to write his postscript to answer his failure.
The more pains have been taken to obviate the objections arising from the notion of Poetical Justice, as the doctrine built upon it had obtained general credit among us; and as it must be confessed to have the appearance of humanity and good-nature for its supports. And yet the writer of the History of Clarissa is humbly of opinion, that he might have been excused referring to them for the vindication of his Catastrophe, even by those who are advocates for the contrary opinion; since the notion of Poetical Justice, founded on the modern rules, has hardly ever been more strictly observed in works of this nature, than in the present performance.
Dissatisfaction is a fuelling force, so Ruskin believes when he tells his students in The Elements of Drawing to start by shading a tiny strip of paper; they should need nothing more than this to show them how bad they are. “By getting a piece of gray shaded ribbon, and comparing it with your drawing, you may arrive, in early stages of your work, at a wholesome dissatisfaction with it.”
Widen your band little by little as you get more skillful, so as to give the gradation more lateral space, and accustom yourself at the same time to look for gradated spaces in Nature. The sky is the largest and the most beautiful; watch it at twilight, after the sun is down, and try to consider each pane of glass in the window you look through as a piece of paper colored blue, or gray, or purple, as it happens to be, and observe how quietly and continuously the gradation extends over the space in the window, of one or two feet square. Observe the shades on the outside and inside of a common white cup or bowl, which make it look round and hollow; and then on folds of white drapery; and thus gradually you will be led to observe the more subtle transitions of the light as it increases or declines on flat surfaces. At last, when your eye gets keen and true, you will see gradation on everything in Nature.
By this formula, dissatisfaction is not a key to knowledge, it is the key to the state of humility that will keep you calm and quiet so that knowledge can come in, but what if the dissatisfaction doesn't stop, I wonder. It is not a car, it is not a bus, it doesn't have a route on a timetable with a start and stop point; and what if it burns on and burns on like a coal seam – then Ruskin is – deciding that the fuel will burn anyway, so cook something while you're there.