I have been thinking of the freshness of memories and of their power to lend enchantment to the distant past, and I have been marveling at the way in which our minds involuntarily suppress and brush aside anything that spoiled the charms of those happy moments when we were actually living them. I have been comparing this kind of idealization, for such it is, with the effect that great works of art have on the imagination. A great painter concentrates the interest by suppressing details that are useless, offensive, or foolish; his mighty hand orders and prescribes, adding to or taking away from the objects in his pictures, and treating them as his own creatures; he ranges freely throughout his kingdom and gives you a feast of his own choosing, whereas, with the second-rate artist, you feel that he is master of nothing; he wields no authority over his accumulation of borrowed materials. Indeed, what possible order can he establish in a work where everything dominates him? All that he can do is to invent timidly and to copy slavishly and therefore, instead of suppressing the other aspects as one’s imagination does, he gives them equal, if not greater importance by the slavishness of his imitation, so that everything in his work becomes confused and insipid. If, among this hotchpotch of other people’s ideas, some degree of interest or even of charm should appear because of the personal inspiration he may have put into the work, I liken it to real life and to the flashes of pleasure and disgust that go to compose it. And just as in the patchwork compositions of my semi-artists the good is smothered by the bad, so in our lives, we scarcely noticed the moments of happiness, spoiled as they are by our continual anxieties.
Can any man say with certainty that he was happy at a particular moment of time what he remembers as being delightful? Remembering it certainly makes him happy, because he realizes how happy he could happen, but at the actual moment when the alleged happiness was occurring, did he really feel happy? He was like a man owning a piece of ground in which, unknown to himself, a treasure lay buried. You would not call such a man rich, neither would I call happy the man who is so without realizing it, or without knowing the extent of his happiness.