Monday, August 27, 2007

Romance and Realism: The Exaggeration in Romances the Result of the Great Romanticists’ Frantic Desire to Capture All Types

When I was a boy the literary world was convulsed be a controversy as to whether literature ought to be realistic; and the two writers always chosen as types of the Realist were Zola and Ibsen. Being in the most voracious stage of youthful curiosity, I read them both, or, rather, I read Ibsen, and as much of Zola as I could get through. I will not pretend that there was nothing that I enjoy in Zola, but it was not a type of enjoyment which I feel particularly proud to remember, or on which I care to dwell in this place. Even this kind of gratification was so diluted be the mountainous dullness of all that was not offensive in his books that I preferred to obtain it where I could get it in smaller compass and to some extent disinfected by fun. Small and cackling and unworthy, as such fun usually was, there was yet something in it that recalled the great cleansing wind of laughter that blows from the turrets of Theleme. There was no breath of this in Zola: his work reminded me only of a stretch of soft mud diversified by a few dead dogs and decaying vegetables- as depressing as it was noxious.

Ibsen was another matter altogether. Ibsen was a great genius; and I read him with a delight of which I have no reason to feel ashamed. But it puzzled me then, and it puzzles me now, what people can possibly have meant by calling him a realist. Of course no art can really be realistic in the sense of copying life. But if ever there was a great artist who defiantly flung away al decent pretenses of such copying, that artist was Ibsen. Assuredly the most reckless writer of melodrama that ever made his hero leap over Niagara on horseback, or his villainess coerce his heroine be threatening to cut out portions of her brain, would never have dared to present the public with such a plot as that of “The Lady from the sea” or “The Master Builder” as a probable story of contemporary middle-class life. Nor can it be said that such fantasies are the blots on Ibsen’s art; they are the triumphs of his art. Cut them out, cut out the wild Duck and the Rat Wife, the frantic imaginings of Ellida, and the black cloud of supernatural doom that broods over Borkman and you have plays like “The Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler”- plays saved from stupidity only by that perfect stagecraft, the sense of which was sure and unfalling instinct with Ibsen as it was with Shakespeare. Cut out everything else- especially everything that the Ibsenites used to praise in him- and you have “Peter Gynt,” his unapproachable and unforgettable masterpiece.

It always seemed pretty clear, and it seems clearer still now that the dust of it has settled, that the parties to rather futile controversy of which I have spoken attached no clear or defining meaning to the word “Realist.” A man was so-called sometimes because he dealt with topics generally excluded from literature, which is a mere matter of local and temporal custom: sometimes because he took a rather gloomy view of the life he described, which is a matter of temperament or philosophy: sometimes because he was rather dull, which is a matter of taste. Let us see if we cannot draw some broad lien of artistic cleavage which may separate the Realist from the- Romanticist- or whatever you like to call his antithesis.

It is clear that you cannot distinguish them by saying that the Realist draws on his observations and the romanticist on his imagination. The Realist who put down all that he had observed, exactly as he had observed it, would be unreadable, and the Romanticist, whose imagination bore no relation to anything that he or anyone else had observed, would be unintelligible. We have examples on both sides approximating nearly enough to these two extremes to enable us to form some estimate of their appalling nature. But all good artistic work consists in the application of invention, selection, and arrangement to the raw material of observation.

Nevertheless it seems to me that a real distinction is possible which you may call a distinction between Realism and Romance if you like, though it is not a good name for it.

Take, at the one extreme, Jane Austen. That remarkable young woman applied a perfectly astounding acuteness of observation and the most delicate powers of character-draughtmanship, criticism, and humor to the painting of a particular kind of life that she had herself experienced. She did not, of course, “transcribe life:” she was an artist. She selected, arranged, invented. But she gave us in the end what convinces us as a very exact picture of a tiny section of English society in the dawn of the nineteenth century. Beyond that section she never wandered. There is not, so far as I remember, a single character of the smallest importance in any of her novels that does not enjoy the income of an ordinary member of the professional classes. And the very wealthy are almost as completely left out as the populace. The years during which Jane Austen was writing were the very years during which the English aristocracy was enjoying that last great riot of extravagance that we call the Regency. But that riot leaves her work as untouched as does the riot of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. It is hardly possible to convince one’s self that some of the naval officers of whom she wrote must actually have served under Nelson. It is almost as difficult to recall the fact that the Bath which she describes is the Bath of Brummell and Sheridan. So little does she seem to see anything outside the little world she has set herself to paint.

Now in Jane Austen this limitation of subject is association with a temperament and talent peculiarly quiet, critical, and averse to sensationalism. But that association is not of the essence of her artistic method. That method can be and has been used by men passionately romantic, lovers of the startling and even incredible. Mr. Kipling, for example, fills his Indian tales with portents and catastrophes, madmen who see blind faces in their dreams, lepers who turn men into beasts by witchcraft. Yet his method is, at root, Jane Austen’s method. He takes a slice of life that he knows and paints it, paints it perhaps with violence and exaggeration, but paints it in such a way that for the moment we believe it. Whenever Mr. Kipling has tried to work in any other fashion I think he has failed.

Now, just as the temper and the taste of the writer may be altered without fundamentally changing the method, so may the range of the writer’s observations. Thackeray, for example, had a far wider range than Jane Austen. He presents his readers with social types as far apart as Lord Kew and Capt. Costigan. But it is still the description from the inside of social circles with which the artist was familiar. Thackeray describes more than Jane Austen because he knows more. But he is still describing the life he knows best.

If this method be called Realism, then Realism as full possession of Anglo-American fiction to-day. From Mr. Henry James’s studies of rich Americans to Mr. Zangwill’s studies of poor Jews, from the epigrammatic novel of the smart set to the pessimistic novel of the mean street, practically all the fiction that is now being produced is an attempt, successful or unsuccessful, to describe some particular word.

So much is this that it may be difficult to make modern people realize that a totally different kind of novel once existed in England. It has behind it the tradition of many- Fielding, Smollett-nay, Shakespeare himself. The last great name, with which it may be said to have died, is Dickens.

This kind of novel begins with a man going out into the street and shutting his door. It may not actually begin that way, but that is the essence of it. A man does not come in to tell us about his world. A man goes out to see the world- the varieties of human experience- and tells us about them as he comes across them. The difference does not lie in the relation of the narrative to observation. No novels give one a sharper impression of having been based on transfigured experiences than those of Dickens- except, perhaps, those of Fielding, who belongs to the same school. The wanderer is as much an observer as the inhabitant, perhaps more so; though he observes different things.

Nevertheless the second type of novelist will always give, as compared with the first, a certain impression of extravagance and exaggeration: and that for the very good reason that it is the exaggeration and extravagance that strikes the attention of the wanderer as a mountain or a high tower strikes the attention of a man surveying a vast landscape. He strays through section after section of society, picking up here a preposterous peer, there a preposterous plumber. These people exist all right-not of course in the exact shape into which the creative imagination of the artist transforms them- but the fantastic Dickens character, the incredible dickens remark are there for those who have eyes to see and ears o hear. A man did say to a friend of mine whom he met for the first time and on a purely business footing: “All my family are so inferior to me.” These things happen. But it requires the Dickens eye and the Dickens ear to catch them: and in the eagerness they trouble not to catch anything else, but hurry on to the next impossible fact.

For instance, Jane Austen describes in her novels a number of clergymen, and one of them is an absurd clergyman. In that there is nothing extravagant: Jane Austen would naturally have met absurd clergymen in her social circle. But Dickens, looking in at the window, so to speak, would have culled Mr. Collins like a flower of spring, and, neglecting the many comparatively sensible clergymen whom Jane Austen so carefully and accurately characterized, would have gone on along the open road in search of an absurd rat-catcher.

That is the whole difference. You may call it the difference between Realism and Romance. You may call it the difference between Intensive and Extensive Fiction. I would rather cal the second the Novel of the Open Road.

I am not saying that this form of art is of its nature better or greater than the other. Both have their great names and their well-earned immortalities. But I say that of these two kinds of fiction we have forgotten one, and that in consequence we misunderstand its masterpieces.

It will return.

From the New York Times November 3, 1912

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