By Charles Matthews

Thursday, April 28, 2011

14. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 289-309

Realism: Naturalistic Determinism (August Strindberg, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt). Melioristic Realism (Leo Tolstoy)

August Strindberg: A Naturalistic Manifesto

Not so sweeping or strident as Zola's manifesto, Strindberg's is a preface to his 1888 play Miss Julie, which deals with the sexual encounter of an unconventional young woman with her father's manservant. The preface concentrates largely on Strindberg's ideas about the role of the theater in the "scientific" age and his attempts "to modernize the form" of drama. It reflects the influence of Darwin: "Life is not so mathematically idiotic as only to permit the big to eat the small; it happens just as often that the bee kills the lion or at least drives it mad."

Edvard Munch, Portrait of August Strindberg, 1892
Strindberg calls for dispensing "with those inferior, unreliable instruments of thought called feelings, which become harmful and superfluous as reasoning develops. The fact that my heroine rouses pity is solely due to weakness; we cannot resist fear of the same fate overtaking us." He dismisses complaints that his plays are depressing: "That my tragedy depresses many people is their own fault.... My tragedy 'The Father' was recently criticized for being too sad -- as if one wants cheerful tragedies!" He claims to take delight in witnessing human beings in difficulties: "I my self find the joy of life in its strong and cruel struggles, and my pleasure in learning, in adding to my knowledge."

Strindberg argues for greater complexity in the characters presented in drama: "the summary judgments of authors -- this man is stupid, that one brutal, this jealous, that stingy, and so forth -- should be challenged by the Naturalists who know the richness of the soul-complex and realize that vice has a reverse side much like virtue."
My souls (characters) are conglomerations of past and present stages of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rag and tatters of fine clothing, patched together as is the human soul. And I have added a little evolutionary history by making the weaker steal and repeat the words of the stronger, and by making the characters borrow ideas or "suggestions" from one another. Miss Julie is a modern character, not that the half-woman, the man-hater, has not existed always, but because now that she has been discovered she has stepped to the front and begun to make a noise. 
His dialogue is naturalistic in that he lets "people's minds work irregularly, as they do in real life where, during a conversation, no topic is drained to the dregs, and one mind finds in another a chance cog to engage in." He contains the action in a single setting, to heighten the realism of the scenery, and eliminates footlights. And he chafes at the conventions of stage acting:
I have few illusions about getting the actors to play to the audience instead of with it, although this is what I want. That I shall see an actor's back throughout a critical scene is beyond my dreams, but I do wish crucial scenes could be played, not in front of the prompter's box, like duets expecting applause, but in the place required by the action. So, no revolutions, but just some small modifications, for to make the stage into a real room with the fourth wall missing would be too upsetting altogether.
He admits there are too many conventions and traditions to bring about the naturalistic theater he desires, but he goes on writing plays for that wished-for theater: "While waiting for such a theatre we may was well go on writing so as to stock that repertory of the future."

Edmond and Jules de Goncourt: The Fad of Naturalism

The Goncourts were anything but dogmatic about naturalism, and in their journals they admitted more of the role of the unconscious and the imaginative than Zola might have allowed. But in reading Poe they found something that pointed toward "the literature of the twentieth century," including "analytic fantasy" and "the basis of the novel transferred from the heart to the head, from the passion to the idea, from the drama to the denouement." Their own fiction they saw as reflecting "the passion for the study of living reality.... We are like a man accustomed to drawing from a wax dummy who has suddenly been presented with a living model, or rather life itself with its entrails warm and active, its guts palpitating."

Where they part from Zola is putting more emphasis on the ethical effect of literature, to depicting "the moral emotion." Zola himself admitted to them that his theoretical writing was, as they put it, "rather flamboyant humbug," and that he considered "the word Naturalism as ridiculous as you do, but I shall go on repeating it over and over again, because you have to give things new names for the public to think that they are new.... I took a nail and with a blow of the hammer I drove it one inch into the public's brain; then with a second blow I drove it two inches in.... Well, that hammer of mine is the journalism I write myself around my novels."

At a farewell dinner for Turgenev before he returned to Russia, the talk turned to love, which Zola believed was a popular topic only because of "the prospect of copulation." Only Turgenev insisted "that love was a feeling with a special colour of its own." The Goncourts speculate that their view stemmed from the fact "that neither Flaubert, for all his bragging about such matters, nor Zola, nor I have ever been seriously in love and that we are all incapable of describing love. Only Turgenev could do it, but he lacks precisely that critical judgement that we could bring to the task if we had been in love as he has."

They continued to insist that their Germinie Lacerteux was the prototypical naturalist novel, "and [Zola's] L'Assommoir was written from beginning to end on the lines laid down in that book." Later, they would "abandon naturalism for what the young writers are now using to fill its place -- dreams, symbolism, satanism, etc., etc."

Leo Tolstoy: Art as Ethical Communication

Leo Tolstoy, c. 1897
Tolstoy's notoriously against-the-grain essay "What Is Art?" (1898), with its denunciations of classical Greek art, Beethoven, Wagner, and Shakespeare, among other touchstones of Western civilization, will always be something of a stumbling-block for admirers of his fiction. It represents his idiosyncratic turn toward a kind of Christian populism, and some have dismissed it as an aging man's disillusionment with the way the world has turned out. It is nevertheless a challenge to theorists of aesthetics.

He begins by excluding "beauty' from consideration, because it "confuses the whole matter." Pleasure, he asserts, is not the end of art. Communication, the transmission of feelings from one person to another, is. "If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art."
Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetic physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and humanity.
And most of all, it is not to be restricted to what we might call high culture -- "what we hear and see in theatres, concerts, and exhibitions; together with buildings, statues, poems, and novels" -- but is found everywhere, in "cradle-song, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensils," and so on. Some people, including Plato, have feared art because of "its power to infect people against their wills" and have called for it to be banished from the commonwealth. On the other hand, there are those who "only fear lest they should be deprived of any enjoyment art can afford, and they patronize any art." Tolstoy thinks the latter group are more mistaken than the first and that the consequences of its way of thinking "are far more harmful."

He then dissects the familiar trinity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, arguing that because "beauty is nothing but what pleases us," it can't be identified with the other two, "for the good most often coincides with victory over the passions while beauty is at the root of our passions." He observes that "Socrates and Pascal ... considered that learning the truth about unnecessary things does not accord with goodness," and asserts that "With beauty, truth has not even anything in common, but for the most part is in contradiction with it, for truth generally exposes the deception and destroys the illusion which is a chief condition of beauty." (It should be pointed out that Tolstoy is slippery about defining his terms, with the result that a lot of his argument here is an exercise in question-begging. As a philosopher he was a great novelist.)

His test for the value of art comes down finally to communication: "I can only conclude that art becoming ever more and more exclusive, has become more and more incomprehensible to an ever-increasing number of people." In narrowing its audience, as we have seen the symbolists argue that it should do, Tolstoy would say that it has become "perverted."
The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number, is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself; but at the same time it is so common and has so eaten into our conceptions, that it is impossible to make sufficiently clear its whole absurdity.... The majority always have understood and still understand what we also recognize as being the very best art: the epic of Genesis, the Gospel parables, folk-legends, fairy-tales, and folk-songs, are understood by all.
He rejects the argument that one must learn to appreciate art that is not immediately accessible, that requires some habituation to its form or effects, regarding it as "the truest indication that what we are asked to understand by such a method is either very bad, exclusive art, or is not art at all.... if the aim of works of art is to infect people with the emotion the artist has experienced, how can one talk about not understanding?" This is simplistic in the extreme, but it's not so far from the arguments advanced by Hans Arp, for example, whose "concrete art" was meant to be immediate in its effect. Tolstoy superadds the idea that art must communicate "the emotion the artist has experienced," but many symbolists not only reject that premise, but assert its impossibility. Tolstoy also omits to provide any means of verifying whether the audience's experience of the work actually communicates what the artist intended.
There is one indubitable sign distinguishing real art from its counterfeit -- namely, the infectiousness of art. If a man without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint, on reading, hearing, or seeing another man's work experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with others who are also affected by that work, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art.
Again, who is to say that the viewer/reader/hearer in this case is truly "united" with the creator or with his or her fellow audience members? And Tolstoy goes on to modify his original premise: the feeling elicited by the work must be one "of joy and of spiritual union with another." And a further modification: "The stronger the infection the better is the art."
And the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions: --
(1) On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted; (2) on the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted; (3) on the sincerity of the artist, that is, on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.
So much for the artist removing himself from the creation, like God from the universe. We are left once again with the difficulty of proving so slippery a thing as "sincerity," though this now becomes the sine qua non of Tolstoy's theory, as he insists that "the artist should be impelled by an inner need to express his feeling." He claims that "peasant art" is always sincere, and that "our upper-class art" is always lacking sincerity because it "is continually produced by artists actuated by personal aims of covetousness and vanity." (Tolstoy's criteria may linger today in some music criticism, which seems to gauge the value of an artist's work on whether he or she has "sold out." There was something Tolstoyan, for example, in the horrified reaction of folkies when Bob Dylan went electric.)

"Art, all art, has this characteristic, that it unites people," Tolstoy claims, after doing his best to craft a theory that is, if anything, divisive. And here he brings in his idiosyncratic brand of Christianity:
Christian art is such only as tends to unite all without exception, either by evoking in them the perception that each man and all men stand in a like relation towards God and towards their neighbour, or by evoking in them identical feelings, which may even be the very simplest, provided that they are not repugnant to Christianity and are natural to every one without exception. 
That's a pretty large proviso, of course. He goes on to refine the point: "Christian art, that is, the art of our time, should be catholic in the original meaning of the word, that is, universal, and therefore it should unite all men." Tolstoy here blinds himself to the disunity of Christianity, and to the fragmentation of belief itself that has been a feature of Western civilization since the end of the Middle Ages. Tolstoy's Christian art can take two forms: "art transmitting feelings flowing from a religious perception of man's position in the world in relation to God and to his neighbour" and "art transmitting the simplest feelings of common life, but such always as are accessible to all men in the whole world." The second would seem to be problematic in a world that is not universally Christian, but Tolstoy forges ahead: "Only these two kinds of art can be considered good art in our time."

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