The Ancient Feud Between Philosophy and Art
THIS has been a century of strange conversions, and not least strange among these is Count Leo Tolstoy’s abdication of an art in which he had won worldwide reputation for the rôle of prophet and iconoclast. “What is Art ? ” he has asked himself, and his published answer,1 the outcome of fifteen years of meditation, is a denial of all that has made art noble in the past, and a challenge to those who seek to continue that tradition in the present. Furthermore he has put his theory into practice in a long and powerful novel, Resurrection. Naturally such a renunciation on the part of an undisputed master in the craft caused no small commotion among poets and critics. Many of these, chiefly of the French school, shrugged their shoulders and smiled at a theory that would reject the works of Sophocles and Dante and Shakespeare as “ savage and meaningless,” and find in Uncle Tom’s Cabin the acme of art toward which the ages have been tending. Others have taken the quasi prophet more seriously, and with much ingenuity have pointed out the seeming flaws in his argument.
Must I for my part confess that I have been chiefly impressed by the terrible and relentless logic of the book ? It is easy to smile; it is easy to denounce the work as “ literary nihilism put into practice by a converted pessimist.” Pessimist and fanatic and barbarian Tolstoy may be, and to judge from his portrait alone he is all these ; yet I know not how we shall escape his ruthless conclusions unless we deny resolutely his premises, and these are in part what our age holds as its dearest heritage of truth. Furthermore, his theoretic book may claim to be only the latest blow struck in a quarrel as old as human consciousness itself. Long ago Plato, himself a renegade from among the worshipers of beauty, could speak of “ the ancient feud between philosophy and art,” and to-day one of the barbarians of the north has delivered a shrewd stroke in the same unending conflict.
Least of all should we have expected to find in Greece this lurking antipathy between art and philosophy, for there, if anywhere in the world, truth and beauty seem to us to have walked hand in hand. It is curious that the school of Socrates, which did so much to introduce a formal divorce between these ideas, should have been so fond of the one word that more than any other expresses the intimate union of beauty and goodness. Kalokagathia, beauty-and-goodness, “ that solemn word in which even the gods take delight,” was ever on their lips. In the beginning, no doubt, this strangely compounded term conveyed the simple thought still dear to our own youth when a fair face seems naturally and inevitably the index of a noble soul. That indeed is the ideal which we believe the truest gentlemen of Athens actually attained ; we think we see it portrayed in the statues bequeathed to us by the land; it is at least the goal toward which Greek art ever strove as the reintegration of life. But after all we must confess that this harmony of the inner and the outer vision was but an ideal in Greece, such as has now and again glanced before other eyes, — only appearing not quite so fitfully there and approaching at times nearer the reality. Had it been anything more than a desire of the imagination, the history of the world would have been something quite different from the vexed pages of growth and decay which we now read. Perhaps, too, Joubert was not entirely wrong when he said that " God, being unable to bestow truth upon the Greeks, gave them poesy.” Achilles, fair without and noble within, was the glory of the race ; but too often the reality was like Paris, divinely beautiful and beloved of the goddess, but hollow at heart. From an early date the wise men of the land foresaw the threatened danger. Pythagoras, who descried the poets tortured in hell, was not the only prophet to denounce their travesty of the gods ; nor was Solon the only sage who looked askance on the stage.
But Socrates, the first man of the Western world to attain to full self-consciousness, was the first also to ask seriously, What are truth and goodness ? and what is beauty? And though in general he would deprive beauty of its peril, by reducing it to a mere matter of utility, yet at times he seems as a philosopher to have recognized its doubtful allurements. Xenophon reports an amusing conversation with his master on the nature of kissing, wherein Socrates in his usual style of badinage hints at this hidden peril. “ Know you not,” says he,
“ that this monster, whom you call beauty and youth, is more terrible than venomous spiders ? These can sting only by contact, but that other monster injects his poison from a distance if a man but rest his eyes upon him.” In another book we read Socrates’ misgivings in regard to the current meaning of the word kalokagathia. He with his contemporaries had supposed that a necessary harmony existed between virtue and a man’s outer semblance, until experience brought its cruel awakening. Beauty, which as a Greek he could not omit from the composition of a full man, became thenceforth for him, as for the rest of the world, mere grace of inner character, scarcely distinguishable from goodness itself. This idea is naïvely developed in a conversation with the country gentleman of the Oeconomicus, where Socrates asks his old friend how despite his homely exterior he has won the reputation of uniting perfect beauty and goodness.
If we are a little surprised to hear the contemporary of Phidias and Sophocles speak doubtfully of the office of beauty, what shall we think of his disciple Plato, who was himself in youth a poet, and who in manhood was master of all styles, and able to drape in the robes of fancy the barest skeleton of logic ? He, if any one, has given us “ the sweet foode of sweetly uttered knowledge,” and we further may say of him, with Sir Philip Sidney, “ almost hee sheweth himselfe a passionate lover, of that unspeakable and everlasting beautie to be seene by the eyes of the minde, onely cleered by fayth ; ” and yet Plato knew and could avow that to prefer beauty to virtue was the real and utter dishonor of the soul. I can imagine that to one bred on the visions of poetry and by birth a worshiper of all the fair manifestations of Nature, nothing could be more disconcerting than to follow the changes of Plato’s doctrine in this regard. In the earlier dialogues physical comeliness is but a symbol of inner grace, a guide to lead us in the arduous and perilous ascent of the soul; and his theory of love was to become the teacher of idealism to a new world. In the Republic the cardinal virtues are blent into one perfect harmony of character so alluring as to seem the reflection in his mind of all the visual charm he had seen in Hellas. But even here his change of attitude is apparent; this same dialogue contains that bitter diatribe against poetry and music which would banish inexorably all the magicians of art from his ideal state, because they draw the mind from the contemplation of abstract truth to dwell upon her deceptive imitations. The world has not forgotten and will never forget how these greatest Athenians turned away their eyes from what had given their land its splendid predominance. Socrates’ question, What is beauty? was the “ little rift within the lute,” that was to widen until the music of Greece became hushed forever.
We may liken the texture of art to that floating garment of gauze, inwoven with a myriad forms and symbols, in which the goddess Natura was wont to appear to the visionary eyes of the schoolmen : we may liken it to the clouds that drift across the sky, veiling the effulgence of the sun and spreading an ever variable canopy of splendor between us and the unfathomed abyss : we may better liken it to the curtain that hung in the temple before the holy of holies ; and the rending of the curtain from top to bottom may signify a changed aspect in the warfare of our dual nature. A new meaning and acrimony enter into the conflict henceforth. Christianity introduced, or at least strongly emphasized, those principles that were in the end to make possible such an utter revolt as Tolstoy’s. With the progress of the new era, the feud between philosophy and art will take on a thousand different disguises, appearing now as a contest between religion and the senses, and again as a schism within the bosom of the church itself. To the followers of Christ, the indwelling of divinity is no longer made evident by beauty of external form, for their incarnate deity came to them as one in whom there was “ no form nor comeliness ” nor any “ beauty that we should desire him.” Instead of magnanimity and magnificence the world shall learn to honor humility ; a different sense shall be given to the word equality, and the individual soul will assume importance from its heavenly destiny, and not from its earthly force or impotence ; the ambition to make life splendid shall be sunk in humanitarian surrender to the weak; the genial command of the poet, “ Doing righteousness make glad your heart,” shall be changed to the shrill cry of the monk, " But woe unto those that know not their own misery; and woe yet greater unto those that love this miserable and corrupted life.” Not that the old desire of loveliness shall be utterly routed from the world ; but more and more it will be severed from the life of the spirit, and appear more and more as the seducer, and not the spouse of the soul.
As in so many other things St. Augustine voices in this matter also the sentiment of the Christian world. He who in youth had written a treatise On the Fit and the Beautiful, turned after his conversion to bewail his unregenerate infatuation over the charms of Virgil. The grace of the natural world became for him only a “ snare of the eyes ; ” and so fearful is he of the “ delight of the ears ” that he hesitates to accept even the singing in the church.
To the same horror of the lust of the eye and the pride of life may be traced in part the anomalous attitude of the Fathers and later churchmen toward women. It was the mission of the new faith to promulgate the distinctly feminine virtues in place of the sterner ideals of antiquity,—love in place of understanding, sympathy for justice, self-surrender for magnanimity, — and as a consequence the eternal feminine was strangely idealized, giving us in religion the worship of the Virgin Mary, and in art the raptures of chivalry culminating in Dante’s adoration of Beatrice. But there is a darker side to the picture. Because the men of the new faith could not acquiesce in any simple life of the senses, woman must be either etherealized into an abstraction of religious virtues, or, if taken humanly, must be debased as the bearer of all the temptations of the flesh. She is the earthly vision of heaven or hell, — unless to some more human satirist she appears simply as purgatory. It is painful to read the continuous libel of the mediæval schoolmen upon woman ; from St. Anthony down she is the real devil dreaded by the pious, a personification of the libido sentiendi.
This same revolt from the senses reached a dramatic crisis in the eighth century under Leo the iconoclastic Emperor ; and iconoclasm, though largely the work of a single man, produced farreaching results in history, hastening the final disruption of the East and the West, and establishing the Pope more firmly on his seat. It may seem that Plato’s philosophic feud with art has assumed a grotesque disguise when championed by rude fanatic mobs wreaking their vengeance on altars and images; yet it is but the same quarrel in a new and more virulent form. It is significant, too, of an antagonism within the Christian fold itself which even to this day has not been fully allayed. The old dispensation had forbidden the making of graven images ; Christ had declared that God should be worshiped neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria ; his worship was to be of the spirit alone. And it was to satisfy this negative suprasensuous side of religion that the Byzantine Emperor instituted his reform. He failed, but was at least a forerunner of the Reformation which was largely a revolt of the northern races against the instinct of the south to lend form and color to abstract ideas. Luther was the great and successful iconoclast.
But no religious aspiration could entirely deaden the appeal of the senses. During the heat of the iconoclastic debate, John of Damascus had given fervent expression to the soul’s need of visible symbols. “ Thou perchance,” he writes, " art lifted up and set further apart from this material world ; thou walkest above this body as if borne down by no weight of the flesh, and mayst despise whatever thine eyes behold. But I, who am a man and clothed in the body, desire to converse with holy things in the body and to see them with mine eyes.” And again he asseverates that those who wish to be united to God in the mind alone should take from the Church her lamps, her sweet-smelling incense, her chanted prayers, and the very sacraments which are of material nature, — and all these things were indeed to be swept away in good time. But in the meanwhile Christianity had produced its own legitimate form of art, different utterly from the brave parade of paganism, yet not without its justification. The artist did not seek for pure beauty, for that intimate harmony of sense and spirit which had been the ideal of Greece ; matter is now constrained to express the humility, the ascetic disdain, the spiritual aspiration and loneliness of the soul. Yet one other, and perhaps the most essential aspect, of the faith, the humanitarian sense of brotherhood and equality, must wait for the nineteenth century for its complete utterance.
If the Reformation was but a prolongation of the iconoclastic sentiment with certain new elements of moral and political antipathy added, the Renaissance in the south was a deliberate attempt to reëstablish the old pagan harmony. But something artificial and hollow soon showed itself in the movement. The true balance was never attained, or if attained was held but for a moment; and the sensuous love of beauty severed from the deeper moral instincts of humanity, dragged out a spurious existence, until now it is seen in the most degraded forms of modern French art.
This is not the place to follow the conflict of our dual nature through all the ramifications of history. Those who wish to study it in its most dramatic moment may turn to the story of England in the seventeenth century, or read John Inglesant, where it developed into a romance of curious fascination. And to us of America at least the struggle of that period must always possess singular interest; for out of it grew the intellectual life of our nation, and even to-day the poverty of our art and literature is partly due to the fact that our strongest colonists brought with them only one faction of the endless feud.
For the feud is not settled and can never be settled while human nature remains what it is. To-day the man who approaches the higher intellectual life is confronted by the same question that troubled Plato. He who can choose without hesitation between art and religion, or between the new antinomy of literature and science, has climbed but a little way on the ladder of experience. There was a parable current among the Greeks, and still to be found in our modern school readers, which tells how the youthful Hercules in the pathway of life was met by two women who represented virtue and pleasure, and who bade him choose between the careers they offered. And it has often seemed to me that the fable might be applied without much distortion to many an ardent man who in his youth goes out into the solitudes to meditate on the paths of ambition, — his choice lying not between virtue and pleasure, but between the philosophic and the imaginative life. As he sits musing in some such solitude of the spirit, we can discern two feminine forms approach him, very tall and stately, — one of them good to look upon and noble in stature, clad in modest raiment, and with a brooding gaze of austerity in her eyes as if troubled by no vision of turbid existence ; the other more radiant in face, and richer and more alluring in form, with wide open eyes that might be mirrors for all the delightful things of nature, and dressed in a floating transparent robe wherein are woven figures of many strange flowers and birds. She of the fluttering garment comes forward before the other, and greets the youth effusively, and bids him follow her, for she will lead him by a pleasant path where he shall suffer no diminution of the desires of his heart, neither be withheld from the fullness of earthly experience, but always he shall behold a changing vision of wonder and beauty, and in the end be received into the palace of Fame. Here the youth asks by what name she is known, and she replies, “ My friends call me Fancy, and I dwell in the meadows of Art, but my enemies call me Illusion.” In the meanwhile the other woman has drawn near, and now she says to the young man : “ Nay, follow me rather, and I will show you the true value of life. I will not deceive you with cunning seductions of the eye and ear that lead only to distraction in the end. The road in which I shall guide you lies apart from the vanities and triumphs of earthly hopes ; the way of renunciation will seem hard to tread at first, but slowly a new joy of the understanding will be awakened in you, born of a contempt for the fleeting illusions of this world, and in the end you shall attain to another and higher peace that passeth understanding. I am named Insight, and by some my home is called Philosophy and by others Religion.” I can fancy that some such parting of the ways has come to many of those who by choosing resolutely have won renown as artists or seers. I can believe that some who have elected the smoother path have even in the full triumph of success felt moments of regret for the other life of ascetic contemplation.
More than one great artist, to be sure, has vaunted the perfect efficacy of his craft to satisfy the human soul; more than one poet has published his Defense of Poetry, and declared with Shelley that " the great instrument of moral good is the imagination, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” Even Horace has written his “ melius Chrysippo et Crantore ; ” and no doubt in the last analysis the poets are right. Yet still the haunting dread will thrust itself on the mind, that in accepting, though it be but as a symbol, the beauty of the world we remain the dupes of a smiling illusion. And something of this dread seems to rise to the surface now and again in the works of those who penetrated most deeply into art and life. So the pathos of Shakespeare’s sonnets may be chiefly due to the effect upon us of seeing a great and proud genius humiliated before a creature of the court. Not all his supremacy of art could quite recoinpense the poet for his uneasiness before the fine assurance of noble birth, or cover completely the “ public means which public manners breeds; ” but gathering the hints here and there in the sonnets and comparing them with the scattered passages of disillusionment in the plays, I seem to read a deeper discontent with the artistic life, a feeling that he had not been faithful to his own truer self.
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new ;
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely, —
he writes in one of the sonnets; and may it not be that this petulant discontent is partly responsible for his failure to care for the preservation of his works ?
Still more striking is the attitude of Michael Angelo in old age toward the occupation of his life. I trust I may be pardoned for quoting at length the well-known sonnet in which the supreme artist turns at last for consolation to a Love above his earthly love : —
My fragile bark with all my hopes aboard
Unto that common haven where the award
Of each man’s good and evil must appear.
Wherefore the phantasie I held so dear, —
That made of art my idol and my lord, —
Too well I know is all with errors stored,
And man’s desires that hind him helpless here.
Those amorous thoughts that lightly moved my breast,
What do they now when near two deaths I toss ?
One certain here, one threatening yet above.
Not painting now nor sculpture lulls to rest;
The soul hath turned to that diviner Love
Whose arms to clasp us opened on the cross.
It would be absurd to compare the words and actions of Tolstoy with the great names already cited, were it not that the Russian novelist is a true spokesman of certain tendencies of the age.
To be sure, the religious aspect of the ancient feud has for the present been much obscured, and the most notable conflict to-day is undoubtedly between the imagination and the analytical spirit of science ; but within the realm of art itself a curious division has appeared which is still intimately connected with the religious instinct though in a new form ; and on this present aspect of the question the actions of Tolstoy will be seen to throw an instructive light.
The humanitarian side of Christianity had been more or less concealed throughout the Middle Ages by the anxiety for personal salvation. In such a work as the Imitation the brotherhood of mankind taught by the Apostles was quite smothered by a refined and spiritual form of egotism ; nor can we imagine a St. John declaring, “ As often as I have gone forth among men, I have returned home less a man.” Both the isolation peculiar to such an ideal and the spirituality which it had in common with earlier Christianity were impossible after the humanism of the Renaissance and the skepticism of the eighteenth century. Instead of these many things conspired together at the opening of our century to emphasize that other phase of Christianity, the belief in the divine right of the individual and the brotherhood of man. Deprive this belief of spirituality, and add to it a sort of moral impressionism which abjures the judgment and appeals only to the emotions, and you have the humanitarian religion of the age. And naturally the most serious art of the times has reflected this movement.
So, for example, Wordsworth has been much lauded as the high priest of Nature, whereas in reality the important innovation introduced by him into English poetry is not his appreciation of Nature but his humanitarianism, his peculiarly sentimental attitude toward humble life. This, and not any feeling of the exigencies of art, — for his later work shows that he had no such artistic sensitiveness, — is the true source of his determination to employ “ the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society.” Art is no longer the desire of select spirits to ennoble and make beautiful their lives, but an effort to touch and elevate the common man and to bring the proud into sympathy with the vulgar. And this, too, explains Wordsworth’s choice of such humble themes as Michael, and The Idiot Boy, and a host of the same sort. The genius of Wordsworth was in this prophetic of what was to be the deepest religious instinct of the age ; and if this instinct has as yet produced few great poetic names besides that of Wordsworth himself and Longfellow, the strength of such a novel as Miss Wilkins’ Jerome and the public reception of such a poem as The Man with the Hoe (horresco referens) show perhaps how deep a hold the feeling is to have on the literature of the immediate future.
As a revolt against this ideal and a feeble prolongation of the aims of the Renaissance, the contrary school of Art for Art’s sake has arisen, in which beauty, like a bodiless phantom of desire, lures the seeker ever further and further from real life, weaning him from the healthier aspirations of his time, and only too often plunging him into the mire of acrid sensuality. The Goncourts in their Journal have admirably expressed the wasteful illusion of this search, “ Le tourment de l’homme de pensée est d’aspirer au Beau, sans avoir jamais une conscience fixe et certaine du Beau.” We wonder to what hidden recess of the world the old Greek vision of the union of beauty and virtue has flown, and if that too is only an empty phantom of the mind.
Such, it seems to me, is the present form of the ancient feud between philosophy and art, now waged within the field of art itself — if this ambiguous use of the word may be pardoned. The complexity of life of course does much to obscure the contrast of these two tendencies, but it is natural that a man of Tolstoy’s race, with his barbaric use of logic and his intemperate scorn of the golden mean, should see the contrast in its nakedness and fling himself into the battle with fanatic ardor. But perhaps he himself does not understand, and others may not at first perceive, how much he has in common with the decadent artists whom he attacks, and how the true opponent of that tendency would be the man of sufficient insight to present to the world a new and adequate ideal of the beautiful.
Tolstoy’s definition of art is very clear and consistent: “ Art,” he maintains, “ is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty, or God; it is not . . . a game in which man lets off his excess of storedup 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 toward well-being of individuals and of humanity. . . . To evoke in one’s self a feeling one has experienced, and . . . so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art.”
Tolstoy’s position is precise, but in the end does it offer any ideal more than the decadent who seeks beauty as a refined, or even gross, means of pleasure, or than the pure humanitarian who sympathizes with mankind without any ulterior spiritual insight ? I cannot see how the reformer has passed beyond mere impressionism, and impressionism is one of his most hated foes. The end of art for him is simply to transmit feeling from man to man. He distinctly denies the office of the intellect in art, ascribing this to science, yet he has left no room for the higher appeal to the will. The strength of the impression conveyed is the final criterion of excellence. The artist is amenable to no laws, and his work is not subject to interpretation or to criticism. “ One of the chief conditions of artistic creation,” he says, “ is the complete freedom of the artist from every kind of preconceived demand.” The whim of the individual is the supreme arbiter of taste. Sympathy, and not judgment, is the goal of culture. Nor does the old notion of beauty suffer less at his hands. To him the Greeks were but savages (it is a Russian who speaks), and their conception of the kalokagathia the result of sheer ignorance. There is no ideal which beauty serves, and its application to character is a mere abuse of words. To him, as to the decadents and the humanitarians, beauty is no more than a name for pleasure, and no explanation can be given why any object should please one man and displease another. So far we are on common ground ; but at this point occurs the division, and Tolstoy as a true schismatic throws himself on one side with the whole vehemence of his nature.
Seeing that the pursuit of beauty as something unconnected with character is a most insidious danger, and that art which possesses such an aim must inevitably become corrupt, he cuts the Gordian knot by discarding beauty altogether as one of the elements of art. In place of it he would complete his theory of impressionism and the divine right of the individual by adding the moral intention which makes of these a religion. The old ideal of art had been sought in the union of the higher intellect and the aspirations of the will touched with emotion ; and the final court of appeal was the taste of the man who had attained to the most perfect harmony of culture and to the fullest development of character. Tolstoy, on the contrary, carries his doctrine of individualism to the extreme. If the light treatment of so grave a subject may be pardoned.
What, and is not one man, fellow men, as good as another ?
’ ‘ Faith,’replied Pat, ' and a deal better too! ’ ”
Some criterion of value he must have, and to find this he turns to the judgment of the common Russian peasant. Nothing gives a better idea of the change of civilization than to compare Tolstoy’s constant reference of art to the simple untutored countryman, with the attitude of a man like Pindar in the old Greek days, or with the contempt of our Elizabethans for “the breath that comes from the uncapable multitude ; ” for it must be remembered that, after all, the Russian fanatic is a man of the age, and that hidden in the heart of each of us lies this same curious deference to the untrained individual. And in spite of this individualism, — or should we say in consequence of it ? — Tolstoy has attained a conception of universality as a basis for art. It was formerly the belief of the sages that by ascending the ladder of intellectual experience a man might leave behind the desires and emotions in which his personal life was bound up, and reach a purer atmosphere where only his truer universal self could breathe. And this obscurely and dimly was the belief of the poet. But Tolstoy would find the universal by descending. Art has nothing to do with the intellect or with the will, or yet with the exclusive emotions of a falsely isolated and corrupted aristocracy, but appeals to the heart of the humblest man, in whom the universal feelings of humanity have not been covered over by culture or luxury. At least, as a revolt against the exclusiveness of art for art’s sake, this acceptance of humanitarianism in its crudest form is a real advance. “ The feeling of pride, the feeling of sexual desire, and the feeling of weariness of life,” are indeed not the true themes of art, and better than these are “ humility, purity, compassion, love.” “ Art,” he says, is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is a great matter ; ” and we may forgive him much for that trumpet call. Art is indeed to him the handmaid of religion. Of the spiritual quest of the individual soul to sever himself from the world and to lose himself in communion with God, little or nothing remains: the very words sound meaningless in our ears. Let us not deceive ourselves : our religion is, as Tolstoy states, “ the new relation of man to the world around him; ” and in the effort to escape by means of humility and universal sympathy from the anarchy and selfishness of individualism, art, regarded as the transmission of feeling from man to man, may be a great force. It thus becomes with science one of the two organs of human progress, science pertaining to the intellect and art dealing with the interchange of emotions. Progress to Tolstoy, as to the rest of his generation, is the battle cry of the new faith, for “ religious perception is nothing else than the first indication of that which is coming into existence.” If you ask him toward what far-off divine event this progress tends, he will answer with the closing words of his book, the “ brotherly union among men.” Nor, until some ulterior goal is proclaimed, can I see that the humanitarianism of Tolstoy or of any other doctrinaire saves us from this vicious circle of attempting to unite men for the mere sake of union.
I have dwelt thus at length on Tolstoy’s theory of the new art rather than on his practice of it in Resurrection,2 because his theoretic writing seemed to me more fruitful and suggestive, and because — let me confess it — the novel has awakened in my mind a repugnance strongly at variance with the eulogistic reception it has gained at large. There is undoubtedly superabundant force in the book ; there is the visual power, so common in Russian novels, which compels the reader to see with his own eyes what the author describes ; there is profound skill of characterization, clothing the persons of the story in flesh and blood; but with all this, what have we in the end but “ the expense of spirit in a waste of shame ” ?
It would be an easy task to point out how perfectly the novel follows the author’s theory, and how completely it presents him as a decadent with the humanitarian superimposed. There is the same utter inability to perceive beauty as connected with a healthy ideal of character, and a consequent repudiation of beauty altogether. There is the same morbid brooding on sex which lent so unsavory a reputation to the Kreutzer Sonata. It would seem as if the author’s mind had dwelt so persistently and intensely on this subject as to induce a sort of erotic mania taking the form at once of a horrid attraction and repulsion. We are sickened in the same way with endless details of loathsome description that are made only the more repellent by their vividness ; nor can I see how the fascination of such scenes as the trial and the prison can be based on any worthier motive than that which collects a crowd about some hideous accident of the street. It is not science, for it is touched with morbid emotionalism. It is not true art, for it contains no element of elevation. It is not right preaching, for it degrades human nature without awakening any compensating spiritual aspiration. The travesty of life presented in the book may be explained — I do not know — by the barbarous state of Russian civilization. The coarseness of details, however, may well be charged to the individual mind of the man who in describing in his memoirs the burial of his own mother dilates on the odor of the body. This is not a pleasant fact to mention, but is in itself worth a volume of argument. Christianity was thrust upon the northern heathen at the point of sword and pike: it would seem as if this propagator of humanitarianism was bent on making converts by trampling under foot all the finer feelings and fairer instincts, all the decorum and suavity of human nature.
Such, at present, is the most notable phase of the ancient feud, so far at least as it concerns literature ; and from the horns of this dilemma — the mockery of art for art’s sake on one side, and on the other the dubious and negative virtue of the humanitarians — I find no way of escape, unless the world discovers again some positive ideal which beauty can serve. And if you say that this conflict is only one phase of an ever changing and never solved antinomy of human nature, and that the conception of the good and beautiful was an empty word of the philosophers, certainly I shall not attempt to answer in terms of logic, for I myself have been too long haunted by a similar doubt. And yet I seem to see dimly and figuratively the shadow of a solution. Call it a dream if you will; but what else was the vision of Jacob when he lay asleep and beheld a ladder stretching from the earth to the sky ? or the journey of Dante up the Mountain of Purgatory and from planet to planet? or Dionysius’ doctrine of the hierarchy of angels and principalities and powers reaching in unbroken succession from man to the Supreme Being ?
Somewhere in that same visionary land I beheld a great mountain, whose foot was in a valley of eternal shadows, and whose head was lost in the splendor of the pure empyrean. At first the eye was bewildered and could see only the strange contrast of the gloom below and the whiteness above ; but as I looked longer, I discerned a path that stretched from one to the other up the whole length of the slope, uniting them by gradual changes of light and shade. On this pathway were countless human souls, some toiling upward, others lightly descending, but none pausing, for there seemed to be at work within them some principle of unrest which forever impelled them this way or that. And their journey was a strange and mystic pilgrimage, through ever varying scenes, between the deep abyss far below, where monstrous creatures like the first uncertain births of Chaos wallowed in the slime and darkness, and high above the regions made dim with excess of light, where in the full noonday figures of transcendent glory seemed to move. And I saw that of all the pilgrims a few lifted their eyes aloft to the great white light, and were so ravished by its radiance that the objects before their feet were as if they did not exist. And of these few one here and there pressed on valiantly and in time was himself rapt from view into the upper radiance; but the others were blinded by the light, and lost their foothold, and were cast headlong into the loathsome valley. And I saw a few others whose eyes turned by some horrid fascination to the abyss itself, and thither they rushed madly, heedless of every allurement by the way. But by far the greater number kept their regard fixed modestly on the path just above or below, according as the spirit within led them to ascend or descend. And these seemed to walk ever in a kind of earthly paradise; for the light, streaming down from the empyrean and tempered to their vision by wont, fell upon the trees by the roadside and on the flowering shrubs innumerable and on the mountain brooks, and gilded all with wonderful and inexpressible beauty. And those that gazed above were filled with such joy at the fresh world before them that they climbed ever upward and never rested, for always some scene still fairer lured them on. And as they climbed, the light grew brighter and more clear, and the path more beautiful and easier to ascend, and so without seeming toil or peril they too passed from sight. But those others who cast their eyes on the pathway below were drawn in the same way by the beauty of the scene where the golden light glanced on the trees ; and with much ease and satisfaction to themselves they paced down and still downward, following the shifting vision and dallying with pleasure on the way, and never noticed how the light was growing less and the road more precipitous, until losing balance they were thrown headlong into the noisome valley.
So the division and conflict of human nature appeared to me in a parable ; but whether the vision has any meaning or is only an idle fancy, I do not know.
Paul Elmer More.