« PrejšnjaNaprej »
IS THE MODERN NOVEL A WORK OF ART?
BY PROF. R. C. SCHIEDT.
THE novel has become the all-absorbing power of modern literature. It threatens like the rod of Aaron to devour all rival forms of written thought. Even treatises on ethics or politics or theology dare not venture abroad except under the charming cover of a love-story; and the very fact that everybody in these days read leads to the conclusion that artistic fiction constitutes the mental food of the world. Hence the novel is used as a means to revolutionize society; through it startling dogmas are proclaimed, new and strange organizations are formed, and a new codex of morals is prescribed. Thus any discussion that touches on art of. this kind is practically a discussion about manners and morals of our daily life. We are therefore perplexed how to define the character of modern fiction as bred by modern science and modern democracy. Its advocates assure us that it holds its citizenship in the community of the fine arts with as much dignity as it ever was held by its predecessor, the romance. And yet we must acknowledge that there is a broad chasm between the polite literature of the past one hundred years and that which precedes, beginning with Homer and including Walter Scott. If we compare the simplicity of Homer with the work of the sculptor, the glow of Shakespeare and the tender coloring of Dante with the poetic reflex of the painter, we can only predicate of the modern artistic fiction the mechanism of the camera which gives all in the field of vision in its exact proportion and in its fulness of detail. The actualities of life with which it exclusively deals
do not lead upward to the ideal of our humanity, but downward to the lowest degree of the existing caricatures of our fallen nature.
Yet idealism alone can be called the "Very Art," or the truth of art. "Actual human nature is every moral baseness," says Schiller; "but true human nature can only be noble." However, such men as Spielhagen, Zola, Henry James, W. D. Howells and others, who take pleasure in passing criticism on their own art, a thing which neither Dickens nor Scott ever would have done,-seem to have forgotten this broad distinction between themselves and their predecessors, although their theories imply a vast superiority of the modern novel, or, at least, considerable progress in the development of artistic fiction. Their claim would be readily granted if confined to the technique of their works. Every one acknowledges the progress in the technique from Benozzo Gozzoli to the Caracci; but no one will therefore admit that the aesthetic value of the Galeria Farnese, with its exhibition of extraordinary skill, is in the least superior to a single fresco of the Campo Santo, with all its defects in drawing and perspective. However, the claim of our modern writers not only refers to the technique, but especially to the essence of their productions. Mr. Howells says: "The modern novel is finer than its predecessor;" and if we interpret him rightly, he emphasizes the much greater care devoted to the study of passions and emotions, the finer shading of characters and a more profound knowledge of society and its influence upon the individual. He and his cotemporaries seem to be ignorant of the fact that the art of the past only gives the essential, but at the same time all that is essential. It seems to be characteristic especially of American writers to ignore the prerogatives of the past and to set aside all consideration for right proportions. In their estimation Dickens and Thackeray belong to an old-fashioned antiquity. Even Mr. Henry James, though educated in a classic atmosphere, expresses such an admiration and enthusiasm for M. Aphonse Daudet, that he leaves the reader under the impres
sion that men like Fielding are of absolutely no account to Americans. Fortunately, Mr. Lowell's eulogy on the author of "Tom Jones" shows that the leading American minds know how to appreciate the true masters of fiction. There are, however, not a few representative critics on the other side of the Atlantic who place any novel writer of modern times above Homer and Thucydides.
Such immature judgments are lauded as highly progressive and vigorous; in reality, they rest upon a complete misunderstanding of fundamental principles. These modern critics do not stand nearer "nature's heart" than their opponents; on the contrary, they have burned behind them the bridge that spans the chasm between nature and our civilization. A boy nurtured in the simplicity of a country home, far away from the tumult of newspapers, will not for a moment hesitate to choose between the "Vicar of Wakefield" and "Numa Roumestan;" but the city gentleman or lady, well versed in newspaper editorials and thoroughly acquainted with the artificial views of modern society, would hardly prefer the pure wine of Goldsmith to the intoxicating liquid of M. Daudet. The age of electricity has on its coat of arms the birth of Minerva; the present generation does not seem to be the result of the normal process of growth. Formerly men were aware that they had a body beneath their garments; to-day this fact seems greatly disputed. We know that our dress, i. e., our civilization, is extremely complicated, and we imagine the more complicated, the more valuable. Therefore the massing of details which characterizes our literature and corresponds to our scientific habits. A microscopical anatomy of human nature, sometimes purely physiological as found in M. Zola and Maupassant, sometimes purely psychological as characteristic of G. Eliot, J. Turgenjew, etc., is entirely foreign to the works of earlier writers. The same complication must be predicated of the style: all sciences, every technique, are forced into service; all archaisms and neologisms are collected; strange and startling antitheses are used, in order to make the description
more effective, but all without avail. And strange as it may seem, England, the home of good taste, moderation and sobriety, excels in this tendency. Even the most talented writers overwhelm the reader with an abundance of adjectives, in order to compete with the many scribblers who overcrowd the market with so-called moral pictures.
It is, therefore, not without interest to inquire into the muchdiscussed and disputed question: Is the modern novel a work of art?
The whole intellectual life of the nineteenth century, especially that of its second half, is governed by the scientific habits and the new codex of morals which gained ascendency shortly before the French Revolution, reaching the zenith of their power with the final defeat of romanticism. But both the scientific and the moral criterion are not only not in harmony with art, they are entirely incompatible with it; they are art's negation. Artistic fiction has suffered most of all under the influence of these modern principles because its form is especially adaptable to scientific treatment and moral suasion. Of course, there were men long before the Revolution who erred in this direction; even the Greeks had their Pauson and their Pyreikos; but they were exceptions. In these days all our culture and education, being under the law of books, are governed by analytical and moral diction. No doubt, humanity is, in its habits of life, the same as it ever has been; but its views are changed; life is defined in terms of science and morality.
It is the office of science to inquire into the creative forces at work in the universe and to investigate their causes; science analyzes and destroys the individual life in order to find its laws, i. e., that which is common to individual phenomena. Art, on the other hand, endeavors to know and to explain the world by comprehending and reproducing the esssential outlines or the idea of the individual life. Art eliminates the merely accidental in order to bring the essential into relief, or, as Macaulay has it, "Analysis is not the business of the poet;
his office is to portray, not to dissect." Now, since we hold that the general is only an abstraction of our mind, and real life finds its expression only in the essential, it must follow that art is, in one sense, truer than science. However, that side of the question does not belong to our discussion. We only want to show that the so-called scientific treatment of a subject belonging to the sphere of fiction can only injure art, just as science is slighted when measured from the standpoint of art.
M. Zola, for example, in relinquishing the claim to the title of an artist, implores in vain the men of science to do him special honors for services rendered in behalf of science. His works are, after all, merely products of his imagination, and therefore entirely worthless for science, which only deals with actualities, and never bases laws upon phantasies. Besides, all scientific labor is collective and progressive, that of the artist is individual and absolute. Every new work of science supersedes its predecessor-at least partly-until it becomes in turn obsolete. The scientific act is immortal, but the scientific work must perish. Is M. Zola, really so conceited as to think "Nana" and "Potbouille" are scientific acts, i. e., rings in the infinite chain of science? Certainly not; perhaps these gentlemen are, after all, not so serious in their interest for science. What they want is to produce works of art with the instruments. of science and from material which is the result of science, simply because they have lost on the one hand the tools necessary for works of art, and on the other hand the criterion for the choice of the material has become an unknown quantity to them. Is such undertaking not sure of failure in the start?
The instrument, if this expression is allowed, by which science accomplishes its purposes, is the process of reasoning, that of art is imagination. Science only recognizes a conscious knowledge of things, art an unconscious; and as the artist only reproduces that which he has received directly and unconsciously through imagination or intuition, so the artistic spectator or reader comprehends his subject only intuitively, not con