Literary Reality

Literary Reality (1915)

By ROBERT LYND

    I read a preface the other day in which the writer, in a happy phrase, spoke of the “literary reality” of Dickens’s characters. Dickens claimed for his characters something more than that. He was not content that they should be real people in literature: he was anxious that they should be accepted as exact representations of real people in life. “What is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions,” he wrote in this connection, with special reference to Martin Chuzzlewit, “is plain truth to another. . . . I have never touched a character precisely from the life, but some counterpart of that character has incredulously asked me, ‘Now really, did I ever really see any one like it?'” This test — not of literary reality, but of literary realism — was applied to the novels of Dickens towards the end of the nineteenth century, and as a result Dickens fell out of fashion for a time. No one could deny his genius as an observer, but his observation was thought little of by many people as the observation of a caricaturist. His characters were considered to be mean without being true to life. They were ugly without being fascinatingly filthy. They were not sufficiently idealized, on the one hand, to satisfy the romantic and the aesthetic; and, on the other hand, were not sufficiently chipped and rubbed and dulled into the semblance of commonplace people observed by a commonplace eye to please those who had a taste for what was called realism. They lost their hold, one might say, because many people came to care more for literary realism than for literary reality.

    On the whole, I think, this recurrent demand for realism makes for sanity in literature. At the same time, it is obvious that it is not realism, but reality, which is the ultimate excellence in fiction or in drama. Realism is the result of observation; reality is the result of imagination. And, though no artist is of great importance who is entirely deficient in either of these gifts, who can doubt that imagination without observation is artistically (if not absolutely) preferable to observation without imagination? Imagination by itself can give reality to three-headed elephants and genii that come out of bottles like a smoke, and a world where men drink magic ale that keeps them perpetually young. Observation alone, on the other hand, would be impotent to give reality to the passion of a Romeo and Juliet, or to the anguish of a Prometheus on the rock, or to the drunkenness of a Falstaff. Observation can clothe a man and skin a man and disembowel a man. But it cannot make a man. It can only make the imitation of his dress, his habits, his gestures. The nineteenth-century demand for naturalism was the outcome of a scientific as much as of an artistic impulse. Men longed for documents about their fellows. They no longer wished to know how some distant pedestalled figure out of a world in which people dressed more like actors and actresses than men and women made love. They were anxious to know how the spotty little man in the bowler hat with moustache askew made love. They desired information more than imagination. Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer says in one of his books that Mr. Henry James came to Europe in order to prepare Blue Books about European society for his countrymen. If Mr. James can be described as a compiler of Blue Books, what of the real realists of the nineteenth century? When Flaubert gave Madame Bovary as a sub-title “Moeurs de Province,” be made it clear that he, too, was affected by the Blue Book ideal of literature. Huysmans, Zola, Ibsen, Gissing (to lump men of genius and of talent together)—one may like or dislike them, but the student of social history at least will have to turn to them for the valuable information they contain about the civilization of different parts of Europe in the nineteenth century. It would be unfair, however, to suggest that any of the greater novelists and dramatists among the realists were primarily concerned with issuing reports. They had a passion for truth, but it was artist’s truth, not statistician’s truth, at which they aimed. They rebelled against the falsification of life in the romances—against the pretence that stuffed lovers were real people, that the beggar maid was sure to meet her Cophetua, that life was, apart from an occasional villain, beautiful, that mawkishness was love, that happiness was where it was not. The figures of romance—of the general run of romances—had ceased to have any reality, literary or otherwise. They were tawdry lies, dolls for grown-up people. The artistic as well as the scientific spirit was bound to be restive till it had smashed those waxen faces. Even the most hideous face of a real man is more endurable than the monotonous vacuity of the face of a doll. The realists certainly did not shrink from making the faces of their men and women hideous. It was as if they were uttering a malicious protest. They seemed to be saying, “There you are. Take life at its foulest, its dullest, and its most miserable, and yet how beautifully interesting it is compared with those sickening and pretty shams!” Not that this will serve as a summary of the realistic movement. The realists went about their work not merely with the enthusiasm of protest but with the enthusiasm of discovery. They had entered into possession of a new world—the world of sexual psychology, of slums, of men and women who dwelt not in castles but in stables and in sties—and must have felt as if literature had recovered its youth. Some of them were also inspired by the ideal of literature as a means of social redemption. Ibsen regarded himself as a prophet of a new society as well as of a new form of drama. In the end there was a danger that writers of imaginative literature might become more interested in facts about people or problems about people than in people themselves. Zola could endow mobs and systems with life, but he could seldom endow a man or woman with life. In Gervaise in L’Assommoir he drew one of the most real and distressingly tragic figures in modern literature. But that was because his imagination somehow for the time broke out of bounds. Ibsen was different. Even in his most realistic phase he never lost the individual character in characteristics. His plays are horribly and beautifully filled with real people from Dr. Stockmann and Nora Helmer to Gregers Werle and the husband of Hedda Gabler. This is because, unlike Zola, Ibsen approached his characters in the mood of the poetic creator. When Brandes said in a phrase that has become famous that Ibsen had once had a Pegasus shot under him, he was wrong. Ibsen’s Pegasus was never shot. It carried him into unaccustomed regions: that was all. At the same time it is interesting to find the poetic creator in him ultimately turning away once more from the straight roads and treeless levels of realism. Nothing could be more significant of the difference between literary realism and literary reality than the intense reality of the later characters of Ibsen after he had thrown realism overboard. Is there any character in drama who more unquestionably and impressively—almost to a painful degree—exists than Solness, the master builder? And his wife weeping over her nine beautiful dolls—how emotionally one accepts her as a created being! These people may be no more like flesh and blood as observed by common eyes than sylphs and salamanders. But Ibsen by his immense imaginative will has forced us to accept them as people who are as real as ourselves—the images and echoes of ourselves when we are stirred below the surface.

    This is to admit in a measure that, even apart from realistic literature, we expect the characters in drama and fiction to conform to some kind of reality. Faust may not be conceived realistically in his adventures with Mephistopheles, but he is conceived realistically in the passion of his soul. Lear as he divides his kingdom may be like a figure in a fairy-tale, but in his tragic disillusionment he is the voice of the pain of the human race. Reality is something more than the representation of facts which can be proved. It is something recovered from the depths, something of the nature of which we know as little as of the life of a man before he is born. The great figures in literature are real, not always because they square with the life we understand, but frequently been use they seem to carry about with them the secrets of the life we do not understand. The Greeks did well to demand of their tragic poets not figures of common life, but figures of ideal life. Tragic literature was to them the reflection of life seen, not as a drama of society, but as a drama of the gods. Those figures “greater than life” are certainly not less laden with reality than the lesser life-size figures of the realistic novelist. As a matter of fact, it is extraordinary how seldom the characters in realistic literature are more real than people one has merely been introduced to. Scarcely ever are they as real as one’s friends—one’s friends who are always in point of fact “greater than life,” as gorgeously exaggerated as Hamlet or Uncle Toby. It would be true to say that we create our friends, while we merely observe the rest of humanity.

    I do not wish to be regarded, however, as attacking realism as a literary method. Obviously, to condemn any artistic method which has again and again been justified by its results is mere narrowness. All one can ask of any method is that it shall create real figures for the imagination — figures which send forth the soul on its travels. It was the bane of romance in its decadence that it never made a sign to the soul. It was all lies and pasteboard: at best, it was a pillow to soothe one into unconsciousness. Realism was at least a heroic reminder that literature was a form of vigilance, not a method of inducing slumber. The literature of the realists may not have opened its eyes to the greatest things, but it did at least open its eyes. Perhaps neither are the figures in Dickens which have the greatest reality always among the greatest things. Bailey, that exquisite exaggeration of a “boots,” and Mr. Pecksniff in liquor, as he sways on the landing and speculates on Mrs. Todgers’s idea of a wooden leg, have the literary reality of Helen and Cleopatra, but certainly neither of them is greater than life-size. But the difference between Bailey and Cleopatra is only the difference between comic reality and tragic reality. They are both real with the intimate reality of one’s own feelings rather than with the observed reality of one’s next-door neighbors. Dickens, like every great artist, filled the world with new existences, where realists are content with laboriously copying the old.

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