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Infectiousness as Tolstoy’s Sole Measure of Excellence in Art

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I’ve just finished reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Ok, I guess that’s a confession. What is a grownup doing reading Little Women? Or, what is a grown man doing reading Little Women? Alas, I’m a sucker for 19th-century sentimental literature. Besides, it’s a good Christmas read—which is when I started it—but it is a 600 page ordeal.

But think about a novel like Little Women. It is sentimental, full of plenty of good feeling. Alcott clearly was trying to communicate feeling (as well as plenty of strong moral precepts about proper ways for young women to become proper wives and “spinsters”). Evidently she succeeded considering the appeal of the novel through many generations.

But is Little Women art? Leo Tolstoy, as we have seen, has strong ideas about how to determine what is art and what is not art. He even has contempt for that which claims to be art but really is counterfeit art.

Let’s apply Tolstoy’s criteria from What is Art?

In Chapter 15 he states, “If a man is infected by the author’s condition of soul, if he feels this emotion and this union with others, then the object which has effected this is art; but if there be no such infection, if there be not this union with the author and with others who are moved by the same work then it is not art. And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.”

Further, “The stronger the infection the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits.

The question in judging artistic merits of a work of literature, then, is not merely whether the feelings transmitted are infectious, but how infectious are the feelings? The more the better. It’s all a matter of quantity: “And not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.

What novel or book are you reading right now? Are its feelings infectious? How infectious?

Try Tolstoy’s system out. Why not? Don’t question the system. I’ll take that up next post. Let us know your results.

Think about it.

Paul Varner


Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art


In the last post I quoted Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art from Chapter 5 of What is Art? and asked your thoughts. As might be expected, Tolstoy spends much of his time developing out his definition.

Just for the sake of getting your ideas, I want to give two quotes from Chapter 15. Remember the idea of infectiousness from the last post? This idea comes to be a dominant concept in judging real art from counterfeit art.

Tolstoy says, “There is one indubitable indication distinguishing real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of art. If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint, on reading, hearing, or seeing another man s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art.”

The work of art unifies us not only with the original writer but with other readers who are similarly infected with the same feelings, right?

Tolstoy continues: “And however poetical, realistic, effectual, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy, and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).”

What do you think about this idea that real art is distinguished from counterfeit by “the infectiousness of art.” What does it mean? Is Tolstoy correct?

Let’s see your comments. And why not respond to each other’s ideas?

Think about it.

Paul Varner

Tolstoy’s Ultimate Definition of Art


I have been writing recently about the idea of what makes a work of literature art, based upon Leo Tolstoy’s treatise What is Art? And several of you have been posting your excellent responses. Look back at what readers have been saying about this series and post your own responses.  Perhaps even respond to others and start a conversation going.

In developing his argument, Tolstoy, we have seen, establishes ways in which literary art communicates and what kinds of communication make something art and, specifically, what kind don’t. If you want to refer to Tolstoy’s actual text, we have been looking through Chapter 5. (I have a link in an earlier post in this series.)

The preparatory work being finished, Tolstoy eventually states his definition of art. So here we go. Is Tolstoy right or wrong?

First, here is what art does: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling this is the activity of art.”  

So, the writer first feels a strong experience and through the literary tools at hand transmits his or her feelings to the readers.

Then Tolstoy states his definition of what literary art is: “Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.

Notice the word “infect.” Readers are infected by the writer. They feel a similar intensity of feelings and emotion as the writer originally felt.

Ok, can you make an application relating to literature today or perhaps some of the Great Literature you have studied in the past? Is Tolstoy right?

But, you know, there’s also another question you might be considering. You may already be thinking it. For most of the modernist period in which many of us grew up and were educated, the value of feelings was minimized. We were taught, and many still accept, that truth is discoverable only through objective, reasoned inquiry. Well, if the main purpose of art is to transmit feelings, is art valuable?

Think about it.

Paul Varner

What, According to Tolstoy, Is Not Art?


Let’s continue our series What is Art?, based upon ideas by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In the post last Saturday I showed how in Book V of What is Art? Tolstoy begins his definition process for what art is by establishing that art communicates feelings from the soul of the poet to the soul of the reader. Fine. But plenty of things communicate feelings from one person to another. “If a man,” Tolstoy says, “infects another or others directly, immediately, by his appearance, or by the sounds he gives vent to at the very time he experiences the feeling; if he causes another man to yawn when he himself cannot help yawning, or to laugh or cry when he himself is obliged to laugh or cry, or to suffer when he himself is suffering that does not amount to art.” Probably no one would disagree.

But what Tolstoy is going to do is make a distinction between what is art and what is not art on the basis not just of communication of feelings but on the basis of the sincerity of that communication of feelings one soul to another.

What, then, in our own time is not art, according to Tolstoy’s criteria?

What about popular romance novels? The reader certainly experiences feelings communicated by the author. At times the passionate feelings are intense. Are popular romances art?

What about Westerns and action novels? Don’t we feel the tension in the air as the moment of decision in the gunfight arrives? Don’t we thrill at the chase scenes? When the villain gets blown to smithereens by some clever stratagem of the hero, doesn’t our heart race? Are popular Westerns and action novels art?

What about Detective stories? The emotional rewards we feel in trying to solve the mystery before the author reveals all to us–Is this art?

Well, surely popular horror novels are art. Oh how our blood curdles as the sticky situations abound one after another. We even have nightmares from the feeling communicated by the author. Isn’t this art? Surely, Leo, you’ll grant us our horror novels, right?

No. All these fail to rise to the level of art because of the lack of sincerity or lack of genuine feeling communicated by the author. Everything we feel from these kinds of popular novels written for the market is contrived. Certainly, the authors have no genuine feeling.

I once had a laughing box that I bought at a novelty store. It had a battery and when you pressed the switch a little recording of maniacal laughter would begin. The laughter would grow in intensity the longer the switch was on. I kept it in my desk drawer at my office so that when a student would come in and want to question a grade I could pull out the laughing box. Well, that’s why I had it, but I never really pulled it out for that reason. The point is that I could switch on the laughing box and everybody in the room would start inevitably laughing. You just couldn’t help yourself. It was funny. That laughing box communicated feelings to its listeners. But was there any sincere emotion communicated?

Tolstoy would probably say most of the genre fiction I mentioned above falls short of his sincerity test. Actually, most literature falls short.

Is Tolstoy right? Let’s hear from you. Send in your responses.

Think about it.

Paul Varner



Art Communicates Soul to Soul: Leo Tolstoy, “What is Art?”


For Leo Tolstoy a work of literature does not justify itself merely by its existence. There is no such thing as Art for Art’s Sake. The function of the work is to communicate. He says, “Speech, transmitting the thoughts and experiences of men, serves as a means of union among them, and art acts in a similar manner.”

Of course all texts communicate similarly to this. But art and literature go further: “The peculiarity of this latter means of intercourse, distinguishing it from intercourse by means of words, consists in this, that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.”

Literature communicates the author’s feelings. But communication requires a reader. What is the responsibility of the reader in order for the work of art to be effective? Tolstoy says, “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.”

Art is communication of the feelings of one soul, the poet’s, to another, the reader’s.

Again, Tolstoy says, “And it is on this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling, and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

Well, fine, all these ideas may seem fairly reasonable. But wait. One of the issues in poetry, especially, since the late modernist period of the post World War II generations has been that of subjectivity versus objectivity.

Does the poet unashamedly bare his or her soul to the world or should the poet aim for as much detachment from the subject matter as possible? Some “confessional” poets such as Sylvia Plath were at one time criticized for expressing personal feelings.

For the reader, or the critic, does it matter what the poet felt when composing the poem? In fact, do we care what the poet intended at all? Actually, shouldn’t we approach the poem, or any text, as if the poet is dead and has left no trace of intentions whatever? Do intentions matter anyway?

Obviously, Tolstoy would say the answers to these questions would all be “You bet it matters.” In fact, these answers would be determinative in reading literature.

Is Tolstoy right? How do his ideas play out in literature today? I’ve been getting some excellent comments lately. Send in your ideas and read what other readers have written in previous posts.

But, ok, art communicates soul to soul. That’s fine. What doesn’t? In other words what is not art. Click in to The Literary Life next Thursday.

How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?


How do we know whether something we are reading is art or not. That’s a big question that comes up all the time in our literary lives, wouldn’t you agree? What’s the difference between Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and, say, a romance by Danielle Steele? Are both novels really art? Ok, feel free to defend Steele if you like, but, is there any question of the greatness of Anna Karenina? Plug any name you want in place of Danielle Steele in this question, but there is one thing we surely agree upon and that there is a difference between Tolstoy’s novel and a novel by any of 100s of authors such as Steele on the shelves at the local Books-a-Million. So, we face the question of what is art and what is not, right? The problem is not in the question of whether there’s a difference, but in the question of what’s the difference.

Let’s see what Tolstoy himself says about how we know what’s art and what’s not. If you haven’t been reading The Literary Life, I am developing a series on what art is based upon Tolstoy’s highly influential treatise What is Art? published in 1897. Tolstoy follows one particular tradition in answering the question. The passages I am looking at today come from Book V, if you are curious.

Of the four questions and approaches to the consideration of art that I outlined last Tuesday, February 2nd, Tolstoy rejects the question of aesthetics. In fact, he attacks all the various theories of beauty of his day in What is Art?

Aesthetic theories, he says, are either of the mystical or transcendental sorts, or they appeal to the hedonistic. The former is absurd and the latter is inadequate: “The satisfaction of our taste cannot serve as a basis for the definition of the merits of food.”

Tolstoy is equally scornful of the popular aestheticism of his day—the idea of art for art’s sake. Any kind of art, or literature that can only appeal to the educated classes, or as he says, to the initiates, he condemns outright.

Thus, along with a number of other works of art held in esteem though time, Tolstoy attacks Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, partly on this ground.

No, for Tolstoy, essence does not matter in art. It is not what a work of art is but what it does. And for him art is the communication of feelings: “Art is a human activity consisting of this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” And, as we will see later, the degrees of infectiousness and sincerity become chief criteria in judging art.

The first thing for you then to think about is where do you fall between these two polarities—Art is or Art does? (Of course, these are not the only choices, but for now just consider these two.) In other words, what makes something art? Never mind for now whether it’s good art or not. Just, what makes it art?

For example, there you stand with the hordes in The Louvre gazing at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa on the wall. What makes the Mona Lisa art? The mere fact of its existence right there in front of you? Would a similar painting be art if it was one of those masterpieces forgotten for years and found rolled up in somebody’s attic and sold in a Sotheby’s auction for millions? Was it a  work of art all the time it was rolled up and neglected? Why?

Or does the painting do something? Does it move us in certain ways? Again, take any given work of Great Literature. Is Shakespeare’s Hamlet really art simply because of its existence? Or is the fact that we identify with Hamlet and feel powerful emotions of pity for him yet fear that we too could be brought to such a pass under similar circumstances?

What do you think? Post your comments. Think about it. As a spoiler alert, Tolstoy is going to consider sincerity the standard of judgment for determining art.

WHAT IS ART? By Leo Tolstoy


Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Howl Obscenity Trial

In June 1957 the owner and publisher of City Lights Books in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the bookstore manager of City Lights, Shig Murao, were arrested and brought to trial for publishing and distributing obscenity. The obscene material was the famous Pocket Poets #1 issue of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Ginsberg’s poems were filled with what then was considered obscene language and descriptions of obscene sexual situations. Both prosecution and defense brought in some of the most celebrated writers and critics of the day to solve the question: Was Howl and Other Poems really art, or was it titillating trash? The judge ruled in Ferlinghetti’s favor. Today Ferlinghetti’s poet Allen Ginsberg is considered one of the canonical icons of late 20th-century American poetry.

This court trial gave historical significance to the question What is Art? But the question is asked everyday by editors, writers, librarians, teachers, school principles, art museum curators, and readers of literature and aficionados of all the arts.

Let’s spend a few days looking at how one writer treated the question. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those monumental novels, presented his ideas in What is Art? published in 1897, at the end of his life. He died in 1910.

As I mentioned in the last post, I’m by no means expecting you to go off and read this little short book simply in order to understand the posts in my blog. I’ll cite the relevant quotes needed to understand what Tolstoy’s main ideas are. But just in case here is a link to the full text if you like:

And here is a short summary of the parts of Tolstoy’s treatise I will be looking at the next few weeks to use as a reference point to come back to occasionally,

Simple Summary of Relevant Portions of What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

For Tolstoy, art is not related to enjoyment. That raises questions right off the bat. You might even want to ask yourself how enjoyment is not even in the picture.

The problem with definitions of art, Tolstoy thinks, is that they consider the object of art rather than its purpose. Art “is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings.” He says, “Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced or is producing the art, and with those who also receive/received the same artistic impression.” Thus, Art transmits feelings.

Yes, Art is communication. It communicates. It does not just exist for its own sake in a simple art for art’s sake condition. Moreover, its communication is not the conveying of information. (More on this in the next post.)

You probably know that long after Tolstoy wrote his great novels he converted to an extreme version of Christianity and founded a religious cult. If you don’t know this story, you should see the wonderful film about the Tolstoy’s last days, The Last Station (2009) for which Christopher Plummer was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Given this context, Tolstoy’s theory of art is naturally related to his idea of Christianity.

So, religion is the highest comprehension of life by all of society. Good art brings men nearer to their religious perception and that of the whole of society. True art has to correspond to religious sentiment of time and place. In the Renaissance, art first became corrupt. Tolstoy’s concern then is the issue of true art versus counterfeit art. How do we determine the genuine thing from the pretender? The infectious quality of the art indicates its value, and the infection depends on clarity, individuality, and sincerity

Art is progressive. So is feeling. Christian art especially must emphasize unity, brotherhood, and sonship or, as Tolstoy would say, common feelings.

I’ll probably leave the Christian elements out of our discussion, not because I don’t think them relevant, but because I am concerned with Tolstoy’s answer to the question of what art is more than his application, which is the religious part of his argument.

Stay tuned for next Saturday’s post: “How Do We Know If It’s Art or Not?”

As always, my blog posts are intended to be interactive. Please jot down your ideas and questions in the comment box. For those reading in LinkedIn and Twitter, please enter your comments in the actual blog itself for all readers to see. I if you don’t mind I would like to place any comments elsewhere in the blog comment box. And discuss these ideas with other readers. Re-tweet and Re-blog, please.

Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature



Ok, the question for me at the moment is what books am I going to put up on this gorgeous new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary last December. It’s just now getting here from the special order department. The problem is that it’s going to sit in our living room next to its nearly identical mate from a previous anniversary. That one has all my very best books, all hardback, beautiful bindings, matching sets—the works. I’ve got a few more matching sets of books—the complete works of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, that kind of thing. But I really need space for books I really use day in and day out. Our house is getting overrun with books. How do I choose? Well, I’m certainly not going to put all my 100s of cheap paperback Westerns in my new bookshelf. Ah, the pains and dilemmas of a Literary Life.

Well. I’m starting a new series on one of the Big Questions of literature—the question of What is Art? You know, we’ve all asked ourselves “I like it, but is it really art?” Last Thursday’s post started setting up the series and you might want to go back to that post. I also want to say a few more things by way of introduction to the series before we see what Leo Tolstoy said on the subject beginning next Tuesday. Let’s consider that field of philosophy called The Philosophy of Art

Four Key Questions Usually Asked About Art and Literature

The philosophy of art is appropriately complex, worried over by philosophers and critics endlessly, for good reason. As rich and varied as the arts themselves are, so are the debates over the nature of art itself. University Courses, entire departments, endless books through the ages are devoted to the philosophical questions of art.

So, clearly in a blog such as The Literary Life, there is not much I can do but attempt to simplify for the moment some of the ways we approach to the really Big Questions of art, and in my case, literature.

The textbook discussions—and thus the party line—generally fall into four areas, typified by the following four questions:

  1. Questions of quality: What is good art and what is bad art? Or what makes a novel, poem, or symphony great? How do we evaluate the quality of a poem or a novel?
  2. Questions of ontology: Of origins, essence, being–such as what is an “original” work of art? And what makes something a work of art in the first place? In other words, what is art?
  3. Questions of aesthetics: What is the essence of beauty within the work and how does it manifest itself? Originally the study of sensory experience, aesthetics evaluates the experience of the studied effect the work has upon the appropriately qualified audience.
  4. Questions about Ultimate Value: Why is Great Literature important, anyway?

For a moment, then, let’s consider this last question because it is a question that goes beyond what art is but also asks what its purpose, function, and importance are in our lives. This is the contextual framework I hope to keep in mind as we consider this month what it is that makes something truly a work of art, particularly what it is that makes a work of literature a work of art.

Here’s the typical argument. Great Literature matters because it provides the perceived history and carries down the essential stories of a civilization’s culture.

Ok, but plenty of literature and art, such as poetry, most visual art, and great music, do not necessarily tell stories, develop narratives, and may not actually convey any information in the sense of story or history.

And then much literature serves simply to divert similar to the same way a decorative, pleasant painting’s main purpose may be to cover an otherwise bare wall. Or some music is simply soothing and serves mainly to make a stressful day more relaxing. I’m a fan of the Spa channel on Sirius XM.  And for the majority of people such concerns are the only ones that matter and arguments for some literature being greater than other really are not important.

But surely such uses of art seem to trivialize and demean it. Beethoven’s great symphonies, Rembrandt’s monumental paintings in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the epics of Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy—these works inspire virtually a religious fervor, and we define Western Civilization in terms of them.

With these things in mind let’s start talking about the Big Question: What is Art? And I really mean let me hear from you about what you think. Please jot down your ideas and questions in the comment box. For those reading in LinkedIn and Twitter, please enter your comments in the actual blog itself for all readers to see. And if you don’t mind I would like to place any comments elsewhere in the blog comment box. And discuss these ideas with other readers.

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