Realism for Realism's Sake
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
IT has lately become a fashion to speak of realism, so called, as if it were a recent discovery or invention, like the telephone or the electric light. Realism in literature and art has always existed, and, when unaccompanied by the imaginative faculty, has always occupied a secondary place. Every age has produced writers who have attempted faithfully to paint the life of their period, and they have painted it best who did not seek merely to photograph it. There were great warriors before Agamemnon. There were great novelists before Gogol, Tourguéneff, Dostoievski, and Tolstoi; and there were dirty writers before Zola, whose vaunted realism is to be questioned. Photography has its limitations, and its perspective is invariably false. Zola’s pictures of French social life and manners are obviously the grossest exaggerations. Society, as he reflects it, could not hold together a twelvemonth. Is every poor girl in Paris a courtesan, and is every well-born married woman somebody’s mistress ? Is everything honeycombed with corruption ? Is that all the author can tell us of his own country ? Then he had better not tell it. The plain fact is that Zola’s romances have been widely read, not because they were truthful, but because they were nasty. They had the novelty of being more startlingly brutal than any other books not taken charge of by the police. I speak of them in the past tense, for their popularity is waning. The minority report of human decency is against it, and will kill it. The popularity of most novels is a short-breathed business. Each century has its own particular vintage, with a bouquet so delicate as not to bear transportation from one cycle to another. Only the fittest survives. Contemporary judgment seldom settles the question. Who would have doubted the immortality of Richardson, when the blonde and brown lashes of half the girls in England were heavy with tears over his long-waisted heroines ? But the Clarissa Harlowe style went out with the poke-bonnet, and has not returned even in a ghostly fashion, as that did with the Salvation Army. We wonder at the taste of our greatgrandparents, and our great-grandchildren in turn will wonder, with more reason, at ours.
Meanwhile, Zola’s writings have done vast hurt to all civilized nations, — barbaric nations were happily spared the precious Rougon - Macquart family, — and especial hurt to France and French literature, which did n’t need hurting. They have demoralized many a clever French story-teller, like Maupassant, for example, and have left a nauseating flavor in the mouth of mankind.
In art and fiction realism is an excellent and necessary thing; but it is neither necessary nor excellent by itself. It is a means, and not an end. In a novel or a painting the workman shows his quality in the selection of his material as well as in the handling of it. The mere realist is sadly self-hampered in this matter of selection. He is shut out from heroic themes by the eccentric theory that the agreeable is not just as real as the commonplace or the repulsive. “I will find you a soul in the commonplace,” he says. There is n’t any soul in an ash-barrel, and who wants a reproduction of one ? The mere realist would not know what to do with an incident like that related by Lieutenant Greely in his Arctic journal, where a half-frozen sailor, wandering in a snowstorm, takes off his coat and wraps it about the feet of a dying comrade. (What a mawkish and ridiculous performance for the latter part of the nineteenth century !) The realist, pure and simple, if he touched the subject at all, would describe the patch on the coat, and give you the approximate market value of the garment. The realist, in the higher sense, would make the pathos and the glory of that deed vivid things to your heart and your imagination. There are two sides to realism.
There have always been in the world men and women capable of exalted thought and heroic action ; sympathetic stories of the lives of such men and women have always appealed to generous and intelligent souls, and will continue to do so until the earth cools off, and the coming glacier puts an end to matters. And that glacier will do a good thing when it puts an end to realism for realism’s sake. The reflection quite reconciles me to the idea of the little mundane interruption which is promised us a few hundred thousand years hence.