“The Fountain Overflows” by Rebecca West

What is an artist in The Fountain Overflows?

During the Modern period of literature, writers continually asked questions about “high” art and its relationship to life—to politics, “low” art, literary tradition, and popular culture. Having lived through the Modern period, Rebecca West discusses
these questions in The Fountain Overflows (1957). Throughout the novel, West constructs a dichotomy between two characters—Cordelia, the Not-Artist for whom art is a means; and Rose, the Artist for whom art is an end. Yet West’s definition of the “artist” remains ambiguous; instead of strictly delineating the “artist,” the novel instead presents a fluid view of art and the artist.

 

Feminist novelist and journalist Rebecca West (1892-1983) is most famous for her novella "The Return of the Soldier," the first English-language book written about shell-shock, and her reports on the Nuremburg trials.

 Constructing a Dichotomy: Cordelia and Rose’s Contrasting Views of Music

 An “artist” is someone who makes or does art; to decide who is an “artist,” one should first define “art.” Therefore, to understand West’s presentation of the artist or musician in The Fountain Overflows, one must first discuss Cordelia and Rose’s opposing views of music. For Cordelia, music is a means to an end—for example, Cordelia plays music to
garner praise: Cordelia is “not an artist”[1] because “there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the
desire to please.”[2] Music, for Cordelia, is a path to relative financial stability: when their mother asks why she wants to
perform professionally, Cordelia cries, “Because I want the money.”[3] Once Cordelia has enough money to live independently, she will use her violin-playing to leave her family.[4]

For Cordelia, music is something good and beautiful that she can use. When Rose, looking through a window, watches Cordelia performing for a large crowd, Rose realizes that Cordelia has accomplished something good in spite of her dreadful violin-playing: she has given her audience a glimpse of beauty. Rose explains:

‘Certainly Cordelia had not given these people music. But she had given them something, something, something which reminded me of the hour we had just spent on the Thames, watching the glassy river run past our plunging oars, the water netted like cracked
glass…the glassiness of glass.’[5]

Rose does not say that Cordelia gave her audience “music” as Rose defines music. Yet Cordelia’s “music” has done something good: the beautiful sight of Cordelia playing the violin “refreshes the eye like water.”[6] Cordelia’s impassioned response to Cousin Jock’s despair emphasizes her view of music as a means: “What’s the harm in cancer,” she cries, “if there’s all this
music in the world?”[7] If music can ameliorate or even cure cancer, then music is a beautiful means to a good end.

In contrast, Rose—who says of herself, “I was really a musician”[8]—does not even think to use music as a means. For Rose, the physical world cannot be an end, and thus does not matter nearly as much as music. Throughout the novel, Rose, Mary, and her mother—those in the family whom Rose considers truly musical—express their ultimate unconcern for physical ends with the phrase, “It will be all right.”[9] For “true” musicians such as Rose, music is the only end.

Moreover, in the final scene—the most important scene in this discussion—Rose experiences a crisis: she realizes she does not understand music and doubts her identity as an artist. Here West presents music, not as a good and beautiful thing that one
can use, but as a non-thing, as a question. Mary tells Rose that “music” is about people like Rosamund: “about life….and specially about the parts of life we do not understand.”[10] For Mary, who “can’t say” what she means, music is something one does; a
musician struggles to understand life “by explaining it by music.”[11]

Rose, who has just admitted to failing to understand Rosamund,[12] then asks herself: “What was music? I suddenly felt sick because I did not know the answer.”[13] Rose the character now begins to doubt that she is an artist: “[I]t was idiotic that I should become a musician. I had no musical gifts.”[14] Rose the character—although she knows that music is not a beautiful thing as
Cordelia supposes—does not yet fully understand that music is an action as Mary does. Yet Rose the narrator does understand: by asking the question “What is music?” Rose confirms herself as an artist; by seeking to understand music,
Rose is doing music.

Rose learns this lesson only moments later, when their host asks her and Mary to play Schumann’s duets. Instantly the sisters agree—not because they will be paid extra for playing an extra song, but because they love the song. The sisters were
“fascinated” by the duet which, as they had “never been taught” it,[15] they had to discover on their own; Rose talks of the duet as a question that she and Mary struggled to answer, as a place she and Mary had to discover, as a part of life that is difficult to understand. Then Rose realizes that, by questioning the nature of music, she is, and has been doing, music: “I was a musician in my
own right, though I could not yet say to what degree….so I went with my sister back into the concert-room.”[16]
When Rose realizes that music is something one does—a quest to understand life’s paradoxes—she reclaims her identity as an artist. Thus, West presents the artist as someone who, like Rose, struggles to understand life.

 

West published her semi-autobiographical novel "The Fountain Overflows" in 1957.

Deconstructing the Dichotomy: Pride, Aristotelian Happiness, and Water Imagery

But the dichotomy between Cordelia the Non-artist and Rose the Artist is too simple. West complicates her depiction of the artist in several ways. For instance, Rose and Mary’s motivation for practicing the Schumman duet supports an interpretation
of music as a means: they studied it “simply for” their “own amusement,”[17] to make themselves happy. Happiness can be considered the end of all human action; as Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics:

“[W]e also choose them [goods or actions] for the sake of happiness, supposing that through them we shall be happy…Happiness, then, is apparently something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the end of all things achievable in action.”[18]

If Rose and Mary play the piano because it makes them happy, as the word “amusement”[19] suggests, then they use music as a means to attain happiness. Moreover, by playing music, Rose and Mary struggle to comprehend “the parts of life we do
not understand”[20]—they use music to understand life. Therefore, Cordelia’s understanding of music as a means to an
end is correct. If Cordelia understands the nature of music and Rose does not, then Cordelia might be the Artist and Rose the Non-artist.

West further complicates her depiction of the artist with water imagery. The novel’s final image is of water sweeping Rose away: “I was swept on by the strong flood of which I was a part.”[21] This image, following Rose’s re-affirmation of herself as an artist, decisively undermines it. Rose has recently compared her artistic parents to “two springs” that flow down a mountain and into the world “as a great river.”[22] It is possible that Rose has no more musical talent than Cordelia, and that
both girls think of themselves as “artists” (though they mean different things by the word) simply because their parents are artists. West’s title—The Fountain Overflows—supports this reading.

But not even West’s water imagery is simple. She applies this imagery, not only to the Aubrey family, but also to the “young composer” Rose and Mary meet at the end of the novel. West carefully juxtaposes him with Cordelia, noting that “he was
as essentially musical as Cordelia was unmusical”[23]; also, he has “grey eyes clear as water”[24]
and Cordelia “refreshes the eye like water.”[25] He is musical, and Cordelia is not; yet both receive the water imagery that
refers most powerfully to Mr. and Mrs. Aubrey. Since West graces both Cordelia and the characters Rose thinks “artistic” with water imagery, one infers that the nature of art and the artist is fluid, like water.

Conclusion

The Fountain Overflows ends with an image of a flood—thus, the reader may infer that such imagery is vital to one’s understanding of the novel. Although Rose the narrator constructs a dichotomy between Cordelia the Non-artist and herself as
the Artist, West’s own definition of an “artist” appears to be fluid. For West, an artist both uses beautiful music to bring happiness to oneself and others and “does” music in a quest to understand life’s paradoxes—although the second use of music might be “higher” or more important, pursuing the first makes a person no less an artist.


[1] Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (London:
Macmillan, 1957), 128.

 

[2] Ibid., 129.

 

[3] Ibid., 139.

 

[4] Ibid., 383.

[5] West, 285.

 

[6] Ibid., 285.

 

[7] Ibid., 305.

 

[8] Ibid., 145

 

[9] Ibid., 1, 8, 18, 28, 33,
40, 55, etc.

 

[10] West, 390.

 

[11] Ibid., 390.

 

[12] Ibid., 390.

 

[13] Ibid., 391.

 

[14] Ibid., 391.

 

[15] Ibid., 392.

[16] West, 392.

 

[17] Ibid., 392.

 

[18] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by
Terence Irwin (Indianaoplis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999), I.7.5,
8.

 

[19] West, 392.

 

[20] Ibid., 390.

[21] Ibid., 392.

 

[22] Ibid., 391.

 

[23] Ibid., 391.

 

[24] Ibid., 391.

 

[25] Ibid., 285.

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