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Tolstoy’s Ultimate Definition of Art


Tolstoy’s Ultimate Definition of Art

Series: Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Part 12

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?

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 Leo Tolstoy, Is Not Art?


What, According to Leo Tolstoy, Is Not Art?

Series: Leo Tolstoy: What is Art, Part 6

Let’s continue our series What is Art?, based upon ideas by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In Part 5 of this series I showed how in What is Art? Chapter 5 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? I know, I beat up on Romance readers last time. Still, in Romances the reader certainly experiences feelings communicated by the author. At times the passionate feelings are intense. Are popular romances art? Be careful before you answer. Don’t just say it depends on what you call art. That’s the whole point of this series—to think about what is art and what is not.

Well, 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’s, 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, Leo will say. 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.

So what do you think? Is Tolstoy right?

Let’s keep going. Part 7 of this series asks How Do We Judge Art?

Paul Varner




Great Literature and Its Cultural Contexts, Continued


Let’s keep considering the Great Writers of English Literature and seeing how they responded to their roles as part of the power structure of the ruling class of Great Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s how Cultural Studies work at its most basic.

Let’s accept the fact that the British Writers of, say, the nineteenth century, were a major part, a highly influential part of the power structure of the most powerful nation in the world at the time, and let’s think about what the values were of that power culture and how those values shaped the world then and how those values persist today.

Great Britain was the greatest colonial power of its day. Its empire covered the globe and its former colonies still feel its cultural dominance, right? The values of Great Britain’s power class we now know have proven terribly destructive to most of the world. And yet many of us as part of the power class of the current most powerful nations in the world may be blind to the terribly destructive cultural values of our predecessor as most powerful nation on earth.

Of course, you may say “So what,” and even among intellectuals, most simply leave such issues at that. But for those who consider Cultural Studies professionally, this question has long been settled across the board. How do you answer the question “So what?”

Let’s see your comments.

That’s it for my series on Ways to Approach Great Literature. Now, go back to your study and pick a fine volume of Great Literature from your shelves and lose yourself in their poetry, fiction, or drama.

As for me and The Literary Life blog, how about we take up perhaps the biggest question of all about literature and art: What is Art? And we will do so by examining what one of the greatest writers ever had to say: Leo Tolstoy.



More Problems with Elitist Approaches to Great Literature


Here I am rubbing my fingers across the fine red mahogany of my new bookshelf Jeanine bought me for our anniversary and looking at and smelling the fine leather bindings of my precious books written by the greatest authors of our civilization. I feel very smug right now.

What have we been talking about on this blog? Oh, yes. Different attitudes toward and approaches to Great Literature. Those of us privileged enough to lead a Literary Life are pretty special. Just think about what other people are like. Poor souls.

But wait. Do we really want to be perceived as elitists, as literary snobs? Are we really comfortable assuming we know who is great and what works matter? Just consider for a minute: who decides what constitutes the Great Literature that these Major Writers supposedly produced? Is there such a thing as Great Literature that transcends all culture, all gender or racial concerns, a literature that by independent, universal, timeless standards is merely great?

What are some implications for those of us who would answer yes to all of the above?

If you are reading The Literary Blog for the first time you must notice that I am mainly asking questions and rarely giving any kind of answers. But I guess that’s always been my approach to any issue. I’m pretty suspicious of questions that have easy answers. Obviously there are those kinds of questions in life. But the Big Questions about life, about art, about humanity, about politics generally don’t have easy answers.

So let’s talk. Post your reactions to these questions in the Comments box. Then engage with each other is robust discussion. There’s where truth lies.

Stay tuned for Thursday’s post and let’s keep asking questions.

Elitism: Great Literature for the Sake of Great Literature


Elitism: Great Literature for the Sake of Great Literature

Why do we value Great Literature in our lives? That’s a pretty big question. Let’s look at several different ways we can allow literature a prominent place in our lives.

One way is to look at the great writers and their great works of art that they produced purely for the sake of studying and appreciating their great literature. That’s it. Why say anything more. I mean, there’s got to be much to say for this attitude. Let’s just sit back and be elitists? After all, we have proper literary taste, right?

Obviously, there can be much said for this attitude without the elitist label. After all, if great art is in fact humanity’s highest achievement (certainly a common idea), then studying the great art of particular periods, or of the past in general, is one of the highest activities we can do as educated people, right? So, we need no apology for studying great art merely for the sake of studying it. I mean, after all, most universities have entire colleges, much less departments, devoted to literature and art in general.

But, beyond that, part of what makes a highly educated person is a deep understanding and appreciation of great art and literature. Or, as I used to tell my students, nose sufficiently in the air, “So what will set you apart from the underlings you will work with in your highly paid profession will be that you have read Shelley and they haven’t.” Well, maybe another Big Question ought to be what is the place for snobbery and elitism in our literary lives? (I need to find that emoticon for “just joking.”)

Obviously, a deep study of Great Literature gives us a deep and abiding appreciation for humanity. The major writers of Western Civilization touch on the great universal concerns that we all can identify with.

But, there are problems aplenty with such an attitude and such an approach toward literature. Can you see the problems? Let’s start a discussion. Give out your ideas in the comments at the bottom of this post.

Then stay tuned for my take on problems with the elitist approach to Great Literature. Re-blog, re-text, and let others in your network know about The Literary Life. And please click the follow button.

What Does It Mean to Lead a Literary Life?


For my anniversary present Jeanine bought me a very nice, very large bookshelf with beautiful wood and finish, exactly the kind of shelving anyone dedicated to reading the great authors would love having, I would guess. (Alas, the bookcase in the image is not mine.) I can’t wait to get some of my very best books up on the shelves and begin enjoying my simple library.

Of course, that got me to thinking. Here we are in January and the beginning of another season of reading, reading, reading, and, for me, of writing and blogging. By season I mean the academic year. I’m sure I will always run my life by it rather than the calendar year. But January means new beginnings and reexamining old thinking.

If you’ve been following The Literary Life blog, you know that for the most part I write about what I call the Big Questions of literature. Maybe someday I will get around to writing heavily again about specific authors and specific novels, plays, or poems. But when I think of actually living a life in which Great Literature matters, it seems to me that the Big Questions really matter.

After all, why do any of what we are doing? Purely for enjoyment? No I don’t think so.

Satisfaction, yes, but not enjoyment in the same sense some people enjoy watching The Bachelor on Monday nights.

So–the Big Questions. Those of you who began following my blog last fall will remember my series on literary taste where I asked the Big Questions about taste, such as What is Taste in Literature? Do you have Taste? and so forth.

Let’s look ahead to what’s coming up this winter and spring on The Literary Life blog when we will tackle such Big Questions as what are the ways we usually approach Great Literature? What is Art? Can we define greatness in literature? What is poetry and what value does it have? What is the function of criticism? And much more. In looking at these Big Questions we will work with the ideas of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin, Arnold, Mill, and Emerson.

As with the series on Taste, I really want to work these posts assuming some level of discussion and questioning. I have lots of questions. Not many answers, but plenty of ideas to think about concerning the Big Questions. I know you are all thinking people who read and absorb Great Literature not merely for the immediate thrill or good feeling, but with the same relentless questioning you apply to matters of your own profession and your other interests. So stay tuned for the next post.



Literary historians usually credit Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) with initiating the movement in the U.S. of developing its own literary traditions apart from European traditions. One of Emerson’s most important essays about literature as such is “The Poet.”

We have been examining the idea of proper literary taste over the last several weeks, and I have played off several common ideas about the whole idea of literary taste currently assumed by many against the seemingly conservative ideas of the Enlightenment thinker David Hume. Following up from those posts I would like to take up very briefly another idea about the nature of taste from Emerson.

Since critics in his day, in Hume’s day, and in our own day have had profound influence on what proper literary taste is assumed to be, let’s see what Emerson says about these critics.

So here’s the question: What is the most important qualification for a person of taste, for a critic—for you?

At the beginning of “The Poet” Emerson says, “Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons with knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual.”

Have you ever thought about the quality of one’s soul in determining his or her taste and as a qualification for prescribing such taste upon you? This may seem like a funny question, perhaps even quaint. But don’t dismiss it. Has Emerson got a point?

Now don’t confuse Emerson’s idea of a soul with conventional ideas in some branches of Christianity about one’s soul. Emerson was a New England transcendentalist, after all.

Take this idea of the beautiful soul even further, though. How important is the quality of one’s soul in reading, appreciating, and responding to great literature? Write your ideas in the comment box.

To finish up here, Emerson expounds on his idea of the beautiful soul in reference to literary taste in this, one of his most famous statements:

But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.



Ok, so here you are, a person who loves to read and unlike so many others you know who profess to read a lot, you really like to read the classics. You can work your way through a Shakespeare play, a Henry James novel, even a David Foster Wallace novel (how about that?) with no problem. You even like great poetry. You are a certified person of taste. You deserve a sticker for your sticker book. Enjoy being smug.

Or maybe you just like to read and you’ve always wanted to know who it is that decides what literature matters and what doesn’t. In other words, who decides proper literary taste?

I would love to say I can tell you what proper literary taste is, but I have spent much of my professional life reading more cheap paperback Westerns than anybody you probably have ever known. Believe me, I know from experience: tell somebody with real taste that you read paperback Westerns and you’ll find out quick just what kind of taste people think you have.

Our friend David Hume, the Enlightenment thinker we have been looking at the last few weeks, in Of the Standard of Taste, felt he knew pretty well who it is that decides proper taste: the critics, that’s who.

Does he have a point? After all, the critics writing in The Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other similar media certainly maintain powerful influence.

While Hume would not rule out our present-day very powerful critics from his treatise on standards of taste, he also would include qualified readers who have discriminating critical taste as judges of literature. Some people, he says, must be acknowledged to have better judgment than others about the aesthetic value of art, of literature.

Maybe that’s you and me. Let’s see.

So, what are the qualities required to have such taste? David Hume gives his qualifications for this discriminating critic. And he is writing about the person, not just the process of critical reading.

A proper judge of taste must have a strong sensibility, “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, due attention to the object.” These qualities are not optional, according to Hume. Without them, “we shall be unable to judge of. . . catholic and universal beauty.” Without a strong sensibility, a person will be unable to determine the relationship “which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it.” If the only kind of literature you care about is cheap shoot ‘em up Westerns, you might ought to question your sensibility of discernment in literature.

“One obvious cause,” Hume says, “why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. . . .” A delicate sentiment does not come easily and in our time with the prevailing tastes in popular culture for violence, physical and emotional, as well as anything with shock value, delicacy of sentiment rarely seems even to exist.

A proper judge of taste must be someone with great experience in literature who has plenty of opportunity to compare artworks. How can we expect any sort of measure of taste, be it ever so general or undefined, from someone whose knowledge of literature, from the greatest to the basest, is significantly limited?

Thus Hume says, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to [this] valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.” A person of proper literary taste, then, must be able to clear the mind of all prejudice.”

“But where are such critics to be found?” Hume asks, and perhaps you are asking. Especially in the second decade of the 21st century?

What do you think? As I said in my last post, we have plenty of critics around us today, publishing their ideas everywhere—in books, on the web, in blogs like mine, in peer reviewed journals, everywhere. Clearly they can’t be dismissed and aren’t dismissed. What they say carries plenty of weight. But they disagree with each other at seemingly every point of discussion, right?

David Hume ends his essay on the standard of taste saying, “It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have preference above others.”

Do you agree that in fact some people do have very bad taste in literature? If so, would you not also agree that other people have better taste than those with very bad taste in literature? Do you agree that in our culture of the 21st century there is such a thing as bad taste and, at least, better taste? Whether you or I accept prevailing standards of taste, don’t they exist anyway? We can ignore them if we wish, but does that change anything ultimately?

These are the questions that matter. Not what David Hume said or thought. I used David Hume in this series on taste simply to place in front of you ideas about taste that much of our culture would find outdated but which nevertheless might still have some validity no matter how much we might deny them.

So, who decides proper literary taste today?

Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.



If you are a person for whom great literature matters and are clicking into The Literary Life for the first time as a result of seeing my title above on one of the social media sites, you might be a bit put off by a question about proper literary taste, or more to the point, about bad literary taste. If so, please read the other short posts on my blog from recent weeks on the idea of #Taste to have a context of a question like this.

David Hume in Of the Standard of Taste, with whom we have been working, gives several criteria for good taste, which we will look at next. But first he takes a look at improper taste and why people have it. Taste is universal, he claims, but not all people possess taste.

People who are disordered, for example: “A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours.”

Are you “disordered?” Ok, not a fair question. But do you trust your Uncle Louie who you only see at Thanksgiving to have the same proper taste as you presumably have? Or maybe ask yourself, do you know people who clearly do not have proper taste under virtually any definition of taste? Forget good taste for the moment. Is there in fact such a thing as undeniably bad taste? (Case in point, velvet paintings of Elvis.) Well, ok, then. Why?

To some degree all of us have some defects in taste: “In each creature, there is a sound and defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment.” Remember that for Hume “sentiment” is the subjective element in taste whereas “judgment” is the objective and universal side.

So consider how this helps explain our own occasional bad taste even when we really have good taste.

But, probably more importantly, many of us simply do not possess what Hume would call “those finer emotions of the mind” that are “of a very tender and delicate nature.” And even when we possess such, often circumstances get in the way of our proper taste: “Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles.”

Ok, it looks like we are not to rely upon ourselves when developing proper taste. Our sentiments might guide our preferences for this author or that. Some of us might think the Harry Potter novels are tasteful reading and others might shun anything written after 1900. These are simply our sentiments at work guiding our reading. But what about universal proper taste? Who decides for all the rest of us what matters and what doesn’t?

Well, that’s always the sticking point as we have put up in front of us from the beginning. For David Hume, only properly qualified critics have acumen enough to discover universal principles of taste.

Let’s just consider what a properly qualified critic is in the next posting. But even before we see what our representative from the eighteenth century thinks, what do you think? We have plenty of critics around us today, publishing their ideas everywhere—in books, on the web, in blogs like mine, in peer reviewed journals, everywhere. Clearly they can’t be dismissed and aren’t dismissed. What they say carries plenty of weight. But they disagree with each other at seemingly every point of discussion, right? What about the critics? Stay tuned.

Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.



Is there such a thing as a correct standard of taste for literature? This is a question I have been dealing with in the last few posts concerning taste in The Literary Life. For the mere sake of having a text off which we might bounce our ideas, I have been referring to David Hume’s treatise from the Enlightenment, Of the Standard of Taste.

So Hume differentiates between our personal sentiment for a work, author, or type of literature and literary judgment which is not personal and is not determined by us as individual readers.

And here’s the rub for us today so far removed from the eighteenth century. Who determines the judgment of literary works? What determines a literary work’s worth? Who decided Fydor Dostoevsky was such a great novelist?

I remember years upon years ago when I entered graduate studies in English at the University of Tennessee (Go Vols!) that these were burning questions for me. Who decides who or what matters? And how do we decide? I wanted to be able to decide. I wanted to be a critic. Years after I finished I never came any closer to answering these questions than when I entered—or so I thought.

Hume, in his Enlightenment way, develops his argument first by shooting down the idea that all opinions about art matter equally. Isn’t it true that “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty”? In other words, isn’t beauty merely in the eye of the beholder?

No, it’s not merely in the eye or mind of the beholder, Hume responds. To illustrate, he refers to extremes. Take two very different writers, one a great genius, the other—well, the other extreme. Most people have no problem seeing differences between extremes. Here’s Hume’s statement as he pits John Milton, still overwhelmingly regarded as second only, perhaps, to Shakespeare and Joseph Addison, the greatest essayist of his time, against a lesser light: “Whoever would assert on equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he maintained a molehill to be as high as a mountain, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.”

Nobody has a problem seeing obvious disparities in the extremely great and the extremely bad. (Of course, we know that is not always the case.) But if there are clear extremes such as comparing taste for the greatest of writers, such as Shakespeare, with tastes for the very worst (I’ll let you fill in names here), then there must surely also be distinctions in taste among preferences for writers or types of literature at all levels, right? Henry James or Gustav Flaubert? Which one?

That’s the argument. Clearly there are differences between good taste and bad taste at extreme situations. If so, then there must be differences for judgment elsewhere.

What do you think? Make comments. Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.

But, the obvious next logical conclusion is that therefore there must be universal standards of taste that we agree upon though we may be unaware. What are those elements of taste that are universal? Stay tuned.

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