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.