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On This Date: The Birth of John Ruskin

February 8, 2017


On this date in 1819 John Ruskin, the eminent Victorian writer, art critic, and cultural critic was born in London. I have written quite a lot about Ruskin’s ideas in my ongoing series of Big Ideas about literature. Check the archives for much more about Ruskin.

One of the major works of Ruskin is his multi-volume study of European architecture, The Stones of Venice. Here is a short clip from volume 2, chapter six: “The Nature of Gothic.” Here Ruskin in a virtuoso piece of description looks at the vast panorama of European geography from far up in the skies, somewhat like satellite photos we commonly see of Earth. But, of course, Ruskin wrote these words years before the invention of flight. Imagine carefully, as you read, this terrifically visual writing.

The Journey of Thought

It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild; but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it, or despise it. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence.


The charts of the world which have been drawn by modern science have thrown into a narrow space the expression of a vast amount of knowledge, but I have never yet seen any one pictorial enough to enable the spectator to imagine the kind of contrast in physical character which exists between Northern and Southern countries. We know the differences in detail, but we have nit that broad glance and grasp which would enable us to feel them in their fullness. We know that gentians grow on the Alps, and olives on the Apennines; but we do not enough conceive for ourselves that variegated mosaic of the world’s surface which a bird sees in its migration, that difference between the district of the gentian and of the olive which the stork and the swallow see far off, as the lean upon the sirocco wind.

Let us, for a moment, try to raise ourselves even above the level of their flight, and imagine the Mediterranean lying beneath us like an irregular lake, and all its ancient promontories sleeping in the sun: here and there an angry spot of thunder, a grey stain of storm, moving upon the burning field; and here and there a fixed wreath of white volcano smoke, surrounded by a circle of ashes: but for the most part a great peacefulness of light, Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue, chased as we stoop nearer to them, with bossy beaten work of mountain chains, and glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange, and plumy marble rocks, and of ledges of porphyry sloping under lucent sand.

Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colours change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland, and poplar valleys of France, and dark forests of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands: and then, farther north still, to see the earth with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood, and splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the northern seas, beaten by storm, and chilled by ice-drift, and tormented by furious pulses of contending tide, until the roots of the last forest fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness; and, at last, the wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight.

And, having once traversed in thought this gradation of the zoned iris of the earth in all its material vastness, let us go down nearer to it, and watch the parallel change in the belt of animal life: the multitudes of swift and brilliant creatures that glance in the air and sea, or tread the sands of the southern zone; striped zebras and spotted leopards, glistening serpents, and birds arrayed in purple and scarlet. Let us contrast their delicacy and brilliancy of colour, and swiftness of motion, with the frost-cramped strength, and shaggy covering, and dusky plumage of the northern tribes; contrast the Arabian horse with the Shetland, the tiger and leopard with the wolf and bear, the antelope with the elk, the bird of paradise with the osprey; and then, submissively acknowledging the great laws by which the earth and all that it bears are ruled throughout their being, let us not condemn, but rejoice in the expression by man of his own rest in the statutes of the lands that gave him birth. Let us watch him with reverence as he sets side by side the burning gems and smooths with soft sculpture the jasper pillars, that are to reflect a ceaseless sunshine, and rise into a cloudless sky: but not with less reverence let us stand by him, when, with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild and wayward as the northern sea; creations of ungainly shape and rigid limb, but full of wolfish life; fierce as the winds that beat, and changeful as the clouds that shade them.

There is, I repeat, no degradation, no reproach in this, but all dignity and honourableness: and we should err grievously in refusing either to recognise as an essential character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable character in that which it yet may be, this wilderness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp; this magnificence of sturdy power, put forth only the more energetically because the fine finger-touch was chilled away by the frosty wind, and the eye dimmed by the moor-mist, or blinded by the hail; this outspeaking of the strong spirit of men who may not gather redundant fruitage from the earth, nor bask in dreamy benignity of sunshine, but must break the rock for bread, and cleave the forest for fire, and snow, even in what they did for their delight, some of the hard habits of the arm and heart that grew on them as they swung the axe or pressed the plough.

Do you notice that Ruskin characterizes Western European architecture without showing a single building? He simply begins from the south at the Mediterranean and angles north up to the alps and the Germanic and Danish states. We see the laurel, orange, and “plumy palm” trees in southern Europe, the torrid zone. Going up much higher, we see the vistas of the Danube and Carpathians, the Loire and the Alps, the green pastures of Switzerland and France to the “mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moors” up north. In the last paragraph Ruskin shows us the power, energy, and the strong spirit of men required for survival in the North.



The Subversive Nature of Art and Literature–and what that means for the literary life

I started out The Literary Life in 2015 with this post–or manifesto, if you will. I think it is time to post it again with just a few tweaks.


Art, literature, is by its nature subversive of its contemporary social and economic order.

  • Art is contemptuous of philistine values.
  • Art is elitist. But the elite are not those of the conservative middle classes since these classes have no use for art—not real art. Members of these classes have conventionally been call philistines. The philistines now rule the United States and Britain.
  • The elite are those who, while yes, technically are of the power, privileged class, can rise above and realize the vacuity of philistine values.
  • All true art subverts philistine values. The great masterpieces of pure beauty, of pure art for art’s sake, subvert by their very existence. The great masterpiece of pure art, of pure literature, screams out “I exist,” “I transcend.” Imagine a great piece of marble such as the Pieta by Michelangelo pictured above. Certainly, the piece promotes an intense devotional response. But in economic terms it serves no purpose beyond beauty. But who cares?  Nothing of that sort matters to philistinism unless it can be commodified.

So, when our friends ask us how to distinguish great literature from among all the books lining the bookshelves down at Barnes & Noble, ask them to pay attention to which books pledge their loyalty to the social and economic orders of the day and which pledge their loyalty to pure art. Which books are primarily commodities for philistine market forces and which aim to subvert commodification? These questions are easily determined and require no particular literary acumen.

Some big questions arising today in our postmodern period about art and literature are: Why does philistinism abhor the word “elite”? Can a work of true art collaborate with philistine values? Or, Who are the philistines? Can those of us who are serious in our own tastes about literature really escape our personal philistinism? (Alas, I wrestle constantly with this and usually fail.) Can philistinism coexist with democratic values?

Questions, questions, questions. I want to keep talking about these big questions in this blog. Join in.

John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art, Part Two


October 27, 2016

Sometimes nowadays it’s not fashionable to talk about one work of literature being better than another much less that any given work of literature might be GREAT while a similar work might be not so great. Especially when it comes to contemporary literature or fairly recent literature. Is Cormac McCarthy a great novelist? What about Larry McMurtry? Are either what we might call a Great novelist? Usually we just let the question alone.

Even when it comes to the writers in the Canon we generally just let matters rest where they are. Of course there was that time back in the old days of the Canon Wars when a hardy few even questioned Shakespeare’s and Milton’s greatness.

Still–we generally can’t let the question go. What determines greatness in literature? It’s a Big Question.

But maybe help is on the way. Or not. Anyway, I’ve been working with John Ruskin here in The Literary Life lately, and for the last two installments I’ve been examining what this great thinker of the Victorian era had to say about greatness. Don’t forget, here’s a guy who had a mental breakdown because he was afraid he wasn’t being taken as a Great writer.

So I’ve posted an excerpt from Ruskin’s Modern Painters where he tackles this Big Question. Then yesterday I posted Part One of this series. There I quoted Ruskin on what matters in determining Greatness. All that’s well and good, but: What things are we not concerned with in determining what great art is? Remember, Ruskin said, “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

But then,  “I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.”

There you go. I hope that resolves all your questions. Of course there is the little matter of the “higher faculty of the mind.” A great idea, by which a work’s greatness is determined (and the more great ideas the better) can operate only on the “higher faculty” of your mind. So—do you have a higher faculty?

So, what makes a great writer or poet? Back to John Ruskin: “If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.”

You want to know which writer is greater than another? Add up the number of great ideas in each other’s work and compare them. Maybe I’m being a bit silly here and I apologize. Surely a work of literature that involves substantial ideas, substantial thinking, and that is received in a profound way by readers who really have a depth of mind that matters is a greater work of literature than another one that deals with less substantial thought. And the writer who in his or her whole body of work demonstrates such depth is greater than a writer whose work is less demonstrative of such. Right?

But what about works without such great ideas? What about comedy? (Shakespeare’s The Tempest?) Or farce? (Moliere’s A Physician in Spite of Himself?)

Or, what kinds of literary art in our time, I mean today, cannot be considered great (so says Ruskin) simply based upon their essential premise? Maybe fantasy? Or action thrillers? Cheap romance? I’d better stop before someone gets mad.

But, really, does John Ruskin have a point about what makes a work of literature GREAT. Is Ruskin correct? (Don’t forget the higher faculty of your mind when answering this question.)

I hope these discussions really make you think. I hope they are relevant to the literary life you lead. If you are new to The Literary Life blog click on #Big Questions in the tags and categories to see similar questions I have been treating this season and last.

If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner

John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art? Part 1

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October 27, 2016

Yesterday I posted to The Literary Life a short excerpt from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that handles one of the biggest of the Big Questions relating to art or literature: What makes one work of art great and another one not great. So I urge you to scroll back in the blog one day to that selection from Modern Painters. Now, all of Ruskin’s examples are from painting, but as far as I know everyone agrees, it is a given, that what Ruskin says about great painting also applies to Great Literature.

Ok, let’s think for a minute. How do we evaluate literature? Do we just say I like what I see and that’s good enough for me? Well, of course, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But if you are like me, especially as I was when I was pretty young, you surely have wondered why it a universal given that, say, William Shakespeare is a great–with a capital G—GREAT playwright and poet whereas (I know I am going to get into trouble for this) J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is not a GREAT playwright and writer. Or substitute any two extremes of writers that you like. There clearly is a difference that goes way, way beyond “O gee whiz everybody has a right to their [sic.] own opinion.” This might be a good time for you to go way back into the archives of The Literary Life to that series I had last year on “What is Good Taste?” in literature.

As then, I am not promoting my opinions so much as I am merely asking you to think about these Big Questions by seeing what some of the great minds of the past have thought about them.

I have posted several celebrated facts of John Ruskin’s life and reputation recently. So here, let’s see what Ruskin has to say about the matter at hand: how do we evaluate a work’s tendency to greatness?

First, what is the importance of an artist’s carefully trained technique or lack thereof in determining greatness?

Ok, go John Ruskin. Tell us. How about this quote: “Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.”

What, you say? You mean all that work you did at the Chicago Art Institute the last four years for your MFA doesn’t make your painting great? Or, look buddy, I got an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that’s not good enough?

Well, ahem, let’s get back to Professor Ruskin who says, “He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed.” All that technique and craftsmanship is not enough.

Again, “He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet.” And, it is “nothing more than language.”

But relax. You didn’t waste your time learning technique. Ruskin does provide a caveat to all the above. Matters of technique of all kinds are necessary for a work of art to be great, but they are “not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

Now, unfortunately, it seems to me as a critic that there are way to many writers or would-be writers who skip right past the whole technique and craft thing and head right toward saying (or “saying”) something great.

Of course, before Modernism, what mattered as far as technique and craft was pretty clear-cut. It’s always a good question to explore, for readers and writers, what matters by way of craft and technique, for us as postmodern readers and writers. Again, clearly some technical details do matter. What are they? Some things are obvious in, oh, say film production. but what about for poetry? For fiction? What about drama? I don’t know if I can tell you.  I could make a few guess, but I’ll bet there are those ready to tell you.

There we go, John Ruskin beginning his discussion on what makes a work of art great. Stay tuned for more.

If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner


John Ruskin’s Definition of Greatness in Art: Text from Modern Painters

ruskin-cartoon-as-teacher-an01150308_001_lJohn Ruskin as a Teacher. Contemporary Cartoon.

October 26, 2016

The next several blog posts on John Ruskin will relate to this excerpt from one of the massive works of art criticism and scholarship that primarily make John Ruskin’s reputation of one of the greatest thinkers of Victorian England and beyond. What Ruskin says here in relation to visual art has relevance to literary art as well.

from MODERN PAINTERS, “A Definition of Greatness in Art”

The Text from vol. 1, part 1, section 1, chapter 2

Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing. He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed. He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet. The language is, indeed, more difficult of acquirement in the one case than in the other, and possesses more power of delighting the sense, while it speaks to the intellect; but it is, nevertheless, nothing more than language, and all those excellences which are peculiar to the painter as such, are merely what rhythm, melody, precision, and force are in the words of the orator and the poet, necessary to their greatness, but not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….


[If] I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature; and I should cast out of the pale of criticism those parts of works of art which are not imitative, that is to say, intrinsic beauties of colour and form, and those works of art wholly, which, like the Arabesques of Raffaelle in the Loggias, are not imitative at all. Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.

   If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.



Liberalism versus Conservatism in Great Literature, Lionel Trilling–Part One


September 6, 2016

One of the most influential books of the intellectual life of the mid-20th century was Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, published in 1950. I recently rediscovered this book as one of those You Might Also Likes on Amazon. I was actually a bit surprised it was still in print. I shouldn’t have been. Like all great books of ideas what Trilling observed in the 1950s still has relevance for our generation and will no doubt have relevance for your children’s and your grandchildren’s generations.

Lionel Trilling was a legendary professor of literature at Columbia University, the author of numerous books of ideas as well as novels. He edited the influential Partisan Review for many years and pretty well kept the conventional literary establishment in line. Ironically, what he may be remembered best for today, at least in his role as a prominent professor of a major university was his encouragement, along with his wife and fellow professor Diane Trilling, of two unconventional students, later to be leaders in the utterly unconventional and anti-academic Beat Movement: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Ah well, what do you say?

As I began actually reading the book, I realized that although I had read many excerpts through the years, especially back in my years as a grad student at The University of Tennessee, I probably never read the entire book. The book as a whole collects essays published at various times through the 1940s. But Trilling was more than one of the numerous New Critics in his time. He was a cultural critic as well, writing about the Big Issues of the century.

Throughout this season I plan on bringing up Big Questions that have been formulated in the past by major thinkers about Great Literature. While I don’t plan on studying these books with you as in some college class, certainly not in a concentrated way all at one time, I would like to discuss some of the ideas.

So, let’s go. Trilling titles his book The Liberal Imagination. I remember wondering what he meant by “liberal,” and I could not imagine that his idea of what liberalism is would relate much to the common political label of the present.

But here’s a passage from his preface that struck me. It’s a long passage but read it all. And then let’s talk.

“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know, But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Trilling published The Liberal Imagination in 1950, so this preface was probably written sometime in 1949-1950, thus prior to the huge conservative freeze on intellectual life in the U.S. that occurred with the McCarthy witch hunts.

The relevant question, as always, is whether Trilling’s observations from 66 years ago still contain truth in 2016 or hereabouts. To put it another way, does Trilling’s statement about the intellectual vapidity of the conservatism of his day still apply?

In contrast, why would Trilling say that the dominant, the only intellectual tradition of his day is liberalism?

Now, I know that the subject of Trilling’s book, the liberal imagination, is not just about the conservative/ liberal political spectrum that has overtaken the language of the issue of which Trilling speaks. Trump versus Clinton. Eisenhower versus Stevenson. But he does not ignore this political dichotomy in his thinking.

In fact, that’s the point. Even when we broaden out the discussion to include all of philosophy, literature, art, and other intellectual disciplines, there are, he says, no conservative ideas in his time. There simply was no opposing intellectual tradition in tension with liberalism then in place. (By “ideas” Trilling is speaking of a structured philosophical theory with a concomitant diametric opposition.)

Trilling contrasts ideas with sentiments. Yes, there are plenty of conservative sentiments as always. But sentiments are merely urges toward something. They are not intellectual.

So, a comparison with second decade 21st-Century America: It’s easy enough to tick off the names of the great liberal intellectuals of today—Noam Chomsky comes to mind. But who are the conservative intellectuals? Are there any? Obviously. There are celebrated conservative thinkers, but what conservative thinkers of today are adding to the ideas current of our time.

By intellectuals I am concerned, as was Trilling, with those in the intellectual disciplines, as I mentioned above, such as the arts, philosophy, political philosophy, criticism, historical theory, and so forth.

Well, of course I am trying to bait you. But is it possible to have civil debate about these observations?

Wait a minute? If the only intellectual tradition available to us in early 21st century America is liberalism, what might be the dangers? Stay tuned for next time.

Meanwhile, why don’t you start a conversation about these ideas in the comments box? But if not that, think seriously about these questions. That’s part of living a literary life isn’t it?

If you are reading this blog from one of the social media, take a moment and click on the WordPress blog itself, read the pages about The Literary Life and about me. Then check out last season. If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner

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



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