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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Realistic Literature and the Russian Novel

By Melchior de Vogüé (1848–1910)

Translation of Grace Elizabeth King

CLASSICAL literature considered man on the summits of humanity, in the great transports of passion; as the protagonist in some very noble and very simple drama, in which the actors divided among themselves certain rôles of virtue and wickedness, happiness and suffering,—conformable to ideal and absolute conceptions about a superior life, in which the soul of man worked always to one end. In short, the classical man was the one hero whom all primitive literatures considered alone worthy of their attention. The action of this hero corresponded to a group of ideas,—religious, monarchical, social, and moral,—that furnished the foundation upon which the human family has rested since its earliest attempts at organization. In magnifying his hero for good or for evil, the classical poet was proposing a model of what should or should not be, rather than an example of what really existed. For a century, other views have insensibly come to prevail: they have resulted in an art of observation more than of imagination,—an art which is supposed to represent life as it is, in its entirety and in its complexity, and with the least possible prejudice on the part of the artist. It takes man in the ordinary conditions of life, characters from every-day routine, small and changeable. Jealous of the rigorous logic of scientific processes, the artists propose to inform us by a perpetual analysis of sentiments and acts, much more than to move us by the intrigue and spectacle of passions. Classical art imitated a being who governs, punishes, rewards, chooses his favorites from a select aristocracy, and imposes upon them his elegant conventions of morality and language. The new art seeks to imitate nature in its unconscious ableness, its moral indifferences, its absence of choice; the triumph of the general over the individual, of the crowd over the hero, of the relative over the absolute. It has been called realistic, naturalistic; but would not democratic suffice to define it?

No: a view which stopped at this apparent literary root would be too short-sighted. The change in political order (political change) is only an episode in the universal and prodigious change that is being accomplished in the whole world about us. Observe for a century the work of the human mind in all its applications: one would say that a legion of workmen had been busy in turning over, to replace upon its base, some enormous pyramid which was leaning upon its apex. Man has begun again from the bottom to explain the universe; and he perceives that the existence of this universe, its greatness and its ills, proceed from an incessant labor of the infinitely small. While institutions were returning the government of the States to the multitude, science was referring the government of the world to atoms. Everywhere in the analysis of physical and moral phenomena, ancient causes have been decomposed, or so to speak crumbled away: for the simple sudden agents proceeding with great blows of power, which once explained for us the revolutions of the globe, of history, of the soul, has been substituted the continual evolution of infinitesimal and obscure life…. Is it necessary to insist upon the application of these tendencies to practical life? Leveling of the classes, division of fortunes, universal suffrage, liberties and servitudes on an equal footing before the judge, in the barracks, at the school,—all the consequences of the principle are summed up in this word Democracy, which is the watchword of the times…. Literature, that written confession of society, could not remain a stranger to the general change of direction; instinctively at first, then consciously, doctrinally, she adapted her materials and her ideas to the new spirit. Her first essays at reformation were uncertain and awkward: romanticism (we must now acknowledge it) was a bastard production; it breathed revolt. In reaction from the classical hero, it sought its subjects by preference in the social depths: but, permeated still by the classical spirit, the monsters it invented were its old heroes turned wrong side out; its convicts, courtesans, beggars, were even hollower windbags than the kings and princesses of earlier times. The declamatory thesis had changed, but not the declamation. The public soon grew tired of it. Writers were asked for representations of the world more sincere, and more in conformity with the teachings of positive science, which was gaining ground day by day: readers wanted to find some sentiment of the complexity of life; beings, ideas, and the spirit of rationality which in our day has replaced the taste for the absolute. Thus realism was born…. Moral inspiration alone can make us pardon realism for the hardness of its processes. When it studies life with rigorous precision, when it unravels down to the minutest rootlets of our actions in the fatalities that cause them, it responds to one of the exactions of our reason. But it deceives our surest instinct when it voluntarily ignores that mystery which subsists above and beyond rational explanation: the possible quality of the divine. I am willing that the realist should affirm nothing of the unknown, but at least he should always tremble on its threshold. Since he prides himself upon observing phenomena without suggesting arbitrary interpretations of them, he should accept this evident fact: the latent fermentation of the evangelical spirit in the modern world. More than to any other form of art the religious sentiment is indispensable to realism; the sentiment that communicates to it the charity which it needs. As realism does not recoil from the ugliness and misery of the world, it should render them endurable by a perpetual pity. Realism becomes odious the moment it ceases to be charitable…. Oh, I know that in assigning a moral end to the art of writing I shall cause a smile among the adepts of the honorable doctrine of art for art’s sake;—I must confess that I do not understand that doctrine.

To summarize my ideas of what realism should be: I seek some general formula to express both its method and its power of creation. I find only one: it is very old, but I do not know a better or a more scientific one, or one that comes closer to the secret of all creation: “God made man out of the dust of the ground.” See how just the word is, how significant,—the dust! Without prejudgment or contradiction of detail, it contains all that we guess about the origin of life; it shows us those first thrills of humid matter in which was formed and perfected the slow series of organisms. Made out of the dust of the earth: that is all that experimental science can know…. Yes, but there is something else than experimental science; the dust of the ground does not suffice to account for the mystery of life;… the formula must be completed to account for the duality of our being: therefore the text adds, “And he breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living being.” This “breath,” drawn from the source of universal life, is the mind, spirit, the sure and impenetrable element that moves us, infolds us, frustrates all our explanations, and without which they are insufficient. The dust of the earth: that is the positive knowledge that we can obtain in a laboratory, in a clinic, about the universe, about a man; it goes very far, but so long as the breath does not intervene, a living soul cannot be created, for life begins only where we cease to comprehend.