The Literary Life

Home » Series

Category Archives: Series

Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art

75d59715e0c9369e7d208f3984ba6e71

Tolstoy on Distinguishing Real Art from Counterfeit Art

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 11

In Part 10 I quoted Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art from Chapter 5 of What is Art?  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 Part 10? 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?

Think about it.

Paul Varner

Advertisements

The Union Between Writer and Reader

The Union Between Writer and Reader

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 9

def1d4bb69184c9c2b71eac859712ddc

When you read any kind of Great Literature, whether your latest novel or the book of poetry on your nightstand, what is your relation with the author of that book? Have you ever considered this question? I’m sure you have, but let’s put a bit of theory to it.

When you read, you feel something for what the author says, I assume. Well, here is Leo Tolstoy from What is Art?

“The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s—as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.”

Or consider this idea that

“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist. . . .”

Examine Tolstoy’s ideas. Have you ever experienced this kind of feeling with a work of art? What was it? What was it like? Did you ever experience the same feeling when you read the same book years later?

Paul Varner

How Do We Judge Art (Sincerity)?

How Do We Judge Art (Sincerity)?

0f535c23f63aec6e7305ede507e79c41

Is There Any Problem with these Criteria from Leo Tolstoy for Judging Art? Part 7 (Continued).

As we have seen in previous posts, and especially in the most recent post, according to the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whether something is art or not depends upon the degree of infectiousness the reader feels transmitted from the author.

Ok, so for Tolstoy, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he or she transmits.

We have looked at the first two criteria previously, so let’s go after the third criteria today.

Of his three criteria, Tolstoy considers the last, sincerity, as the culmination of the others and as the ultimate standard of judgment.

He says, in What is Art?,

“But most of all is the degree of infectiousness of art increased by the degree of sincerity in the artist. As soon as the spectator, hearer, or reader feels that the artist is infected by his own production, and writes, sings, or plays for himself and not merely to act on others, this mental condition of the artist infects the receiver; and, contrariwise, as soon as the spectator, reader, or hearer feels that the author is not writing, singing, or playing for his own satisfaction, does not himself feel what he wishes to express, but is doing it for him, the receiver, a resistance immediately springs up, and the most individual and the newest feelings and the cleverest technique not only fail to produce any infection but actually repel.”

Further, for Tolstoy, Sincerity includes the other two degrees of infectiousness.

The problem is how sincerity is to be determined. And that’s always the rub, isn’t it? Here’s how Tolstoy eventually determines sincerity in What is Art?: readers will intuitively determine sincerity themselves by the intensity of their emotion.

My title for this post asks you if you see any problem with Tolstoy’s criteria for judging art. As before I am asking you to look about you. What about the idea of sincerity that is revealed in the novel or poetry you have been reading lately?

Is Tolstoy right?

Paul Varner

How Do We Judge Art? (Clarity)

How Do We Judge Art? (Clarity)

b77eca73c6e9279174bb79e5b87f21ac

Is There Any Problem with These Criteria from Leo Tolstoy for Judging Art?

Series: Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, Part 7

As we have seen in previous parts of this series, and especially in the most recent post, according to the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whether something is art or not depends upon the degree of infectiousness the reader feels transmitted from the author.

Ok, so for Tolstoy, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he or she transmits.

We looked at the first criteria last time.

Now let’s tackle the second criteria today with the third continued in the next post of the series.

Concerning the degree of clearness, or clarity, with which feeling is transmitted from author to reader, Tolstoy says, in What is Art?,

“The clearness of expression assists infection, because the receiver, who mingles in consciousness with the author, is the better satisfied the more clearly the feeling is transmitted, which, as it seems to him, he has long known and felt, and for which he has only now found expression.”

Moreover, for Tolstoy, clarity means that for the feeling transmitted to be clear, it would be simple. It must come across immediately in opposition to intellectualism that would require sterile analysis separated from emotion or feeling. It must be accessible to common readers.

My title for this post asks you if you see any problem with Tolstoy’s criteria for judging art. As before I am asking you to look about you. What about the idea of clarity that is revealed in the novel or poetry you have been reading lately?

Is Tolstoy right?

To Be Continued

Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Lives of the Heart, Part II

March 29, 2017

hirshfieldjane_100314_066_400px

Continuing where I left off in my ongoing series on Jane Hirshfield’s early work, let’s continue to look at The Lives of the Heart, published in 1997. If you are just now clicking into this series just scroll down to the previous posts or click on Jane Hirshfield under Categories for the entire series at one time.

Obviously from the title these poems celebrate the heart, the center of human nature that keeps us at the core of our existence. Hirshfield explained to Katie Bolick of The Atlantic, “that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. . . .At some point I realized that you don’t get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.” For example, in “Secretive Heart” we find at its center life, the heart, is about the most mundane of material objects-such as an old Chinese cauldron “still good for boiling water,” but evidently not for much else.

It is one of a dozen or more,

it is merely iron,

it is merely old,

there is much else to see.

 

The few raised marks

on its belly

are useful to almost no one.

 

Heart looks at it a long time.

What do you see? I ask again,

but it does not answer.

My next installment in this series will be April 5. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The Lives of the Heart, Part I

March 28, 2017

livesoftheheart41n7ezk0jsl-_ac_ul320_sr214320_

In her 1997 collection of poetry Hirshfield develops fully a new imagery of the lion and of the heart. Lions appear with mythic power in such poems as “Knowing Nothing,” “Spell to be said Upon Waking,” “Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple between Them,” and “Each happiness Ringed by Lions.”

In an interview by Katherine Mills, Hirshfield explains her idea with the lions: “the lion is fierceness and beauty; undeniable presence; danger; power; passionate love; transformation. Perhaps, for me. . .lions are the earthly answer to Buddhism.” Thus, in “Knowing Nothing”:

The lion has stalked

the village for a long time.

It does not want the goat,

who stands thin and bleating,

tied to its bit of wood.

 

The goat is not the reason.

The reason is the lion,

whose one desire is to enter-

Not the goat, which is

only the lure. . .

but the one burning life

it has hunted for a long time

disguised as hunger. Disguised as love.

Which is not the reason.

Here the paradox of the lion’s ferocity and its longing to assert itself—of its love—keep us searching but not finding the reason of life experience: “Love is not the reason./Love is the lure.”

jane-hirshfield-2012-448

My next installment in this series will be March 29. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The October Palace

March 17, 2017

octoberpalace51zjy1m3dil-_ac_ul320_sr210320_

In October Palace, published in 1994, we finally see a fully mature poet, no longer a developing talent. Hirshfield now moves beyond the formulas of writers’ workshop poems and finds the unique voice and range of experiences that has continually brought her the prizes and grants necessary for a sustainable poetic career.

Perhaps the overall theme of October Palace is that every moment of one’s life possesses its own meaning. This theme can be seen, perhaps most obviously, in “Percolation.” The speaker is in the midst of wasting a day confined inside because of the rain. But as she meditates upon her confinement, and as she becomes aware of a frog croaking “a tuneless anthem,” she develops serenity from the conviction that: “Surely all Being at bottom is happy:/ soaked to the bone, sopped at the root. . . .” And she discovers that life-giving peace must be wrung out of all experience,

yielding as coffee grounds

yield to their percolation, blushing, completely seduced, assenting as they give in to the downrushing water,

the murmur of falling. . . .

In many of her poems Hirshfield enjoys relating narratives from various folk and historical legends. For example, in “A Plenitude,”one of my favorites, Hirshfield considers the nature of fullness, completeness—plenitude-by relating a common story from Renaissance art:

But there is the story, too,

of a young painter meeting the envoy of a Pope.

Asked for a work by which his art

could be weighed against others’, he dipped his stylus—

with great courtesy, according to Vasari—

in red ink, and drew a single, perfect O.

jane-hirshfield2-518x350-e1458567030990

My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part II

March 16, 2017

hirshfieldjane_100314_066_400px

One of the more memorable poems from Of Gravity & Angels is “Dialogue” which begins: “A friend says,/’I’m always practicing to be an old woman.’” Another friend considers herself differently: “’I see myself young, maybe fourteen.’” The speaker, however, identifies with neither friend:

But when I lean to that mirror

a blackbird wing rises,

dark, flashing red at the shoulder,

 

and no woman is there

to pin flowers over the

place where her left breast falls.

 

Another often read poem is “The Song”:

The tree, cut down this morning,

is already chainsawed and quartered. . .

Not an instant too early, its girl slipped away.

She is singing now, a small figure

glimpsed in the surface of the pond.

All material nature has its own spirit. Here the spirit leaves the tree but never completely. In the same way as the tree will grieve its lost spirit, “the wood, if taken too quickly, will sing/ a little in the stove, still remembering her.

My next installment in this series will be March 17. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: Of Gravity & Angels, Part I

March 15, 2017

gravity-and-angels9780819521361-us-300

As I said in an earlier post in this series, most of what I am posting comes from some papers I wrote and published many years ago. As I re-read Hirshfield today I probably would have different and more updated ideas about her work. And nearly everything I am including in this series does not have the hindsight that might would come after keeping up with Hirshfield’s later work. Especially, I would probably have a different perspective since her 2015 important Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, which is her most mature statement of her philosophy of poetry. Nevertheless, Of Gravity & Angels remains one of my favorite books of contemporary poetry.

Jane Hirshfield’s second book of poetry, published in 1988 continues to demonstrate he mastery of language yet nearly half of the poems in this volume include the pronoun “I.” For most of the poems, the self remains integral to the text.

At her public readings and in her interviews, the poet frequently talks of her love for horses and her use of horses in her poems. In “After Work,” we see a typical Hirshfield horse poem. The poem takes a straightforward description of an habitual moment in her life, the after work feeding of the horses, and transforms the experience into meaning:

I stop the car along the pasture edge,

gather up bags of corncobs from the back,

and get out.

Two whistles, one for each,

and familiar sounds draw close in darkness. . .

The horses come and eagerly devour corncobs brought by the speaker. But, despite the personal nature of this ordinary experience, Hirshfield objectifies it. The horses don’t “just” come. They come “conjured out of sleep”; they come with “each small noise and scent/heavy with earth, simple beyond communion.

hirshfield2-485x227

My next installment in this series will be March 16. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

Series: Jane Hirshfield’s Early Poetry: The First Book, Alaya

March 13, 2017

janehirshfieldbw110180

Jane Hirshfield’s first book of poetry was part of the Quarterly Review of Literature’s poetry series of 1982. “Alaya” on the one hand means “home” but also is, Hirshfield has said, “a Buddhist term meaning ‘the consciousness which is the storehouse of experience,’ of memory. . . .the place where seed-grain is kept.”

“The Gift” from Alaya points in the direction of Hirshfield’s tendency in her later work to objectify all reality, even the personal:

From how many hands

your body comes to me,

and to how many will I pass it on. . . .

Here “your body” comes, not “you come to me,” and the speaker will pass “it,” the body, on, instead of passing on such things as his memory, his influence, or even his love. The poem is remarkable for its early mature handling of imagery and phrasing. The person addressed, for example, exaggerates “nothing” and leans “into the wind” and is “lost/but like a flock of geese.” But, of course, flocks of geese don’t really get lost. The poem ends as many of Hirshfield’s poems do, and as many poems written in writing workshops often do, with a significant metaphor to draw meaning from the experience of this poem:

Slowly now,

lift the lid of the box:

there is nothing inside.

I give this to you, love. . . .

The movement of the poem, then, would ordinarily be seen as a movement from the physical, the body, to the immaterial, the soul, but a Hirshfield poem, perhaps because of the poet’s Zen beliefs, will not distinguish between physical and immaterial. The soul and body are indistinguishable. Despite the objective displacement of the self in “The Gift,” however, much of Hirshfield’s early poetry maintains a personal point of view both in Alaya and in her next book. Nevertheless, “The Gift” has become one of Hirshfield’s most anthologized poems and one often posted on social media.

My next installment in this series will be March 15. Follow The Literary Life blog and share on your social media. Paul Varner

%d bloggers like this: