A friend of mine forwarded this recent publication in First Things: On the Square by David Hart, one of my more recently discovered favorite authors. However, in this comparative evaluation of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, while I agree with many of Hart’s points, loving both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I yet find myself diverging in several places, most notably at the more basic point of aesthetic theory which he uses to differentiate their artistic ranking. Here, I have recapitulated my essential response to Hart’s essay from On the Square, but have taken the opportunity to expand a little on the issues I touched upon there.
I would certainly agree that it is possible to “rate/rank” authors/artists to a certain extent, and yet one often has the feeling that, at a certain point, as a friend of mine is want to point out, comparing the relative greatness of, say, Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, begins to get a bit dicey. I do not ascribe to the relativistic stance that simply fulfilling the aesthetic aim which one has set out to achieve creates an equivalency between artists, since it still leaves the more basic question of whether or not the objective beauty which was achieved was greater in one artist than another as well. Just because Michelangelo and Rothko were attempting to do different things with their art, and both were proportionately successful to their aim, it does not follow that somehow Rothko was as great an artist as Michelangelo, because the final result of Michelangelo’s art is, simply at a glance, infinitely more beautiful than Rothko’s. Furthermore, as von Hildebrand is want to point out, a flower is more aesthetically beautiful than a worm, though a worm is ontologically superior, and both fulfill their natural and aesthetic roles perfectly, thereby positing the “pleasing to the eye (senses)” as the determining principle, and hence the question of subjective judgment returns as if an uninvited guest through the back door (not that this is ultimately where von Hildebrand ends up, and nor where we would want to, but the dilemma persists at this point).
So, that being said, I suppose if the measure of the greatness of one’s literary art was the degree to which one created utterly believable, and thus utterly comprehensible characters with whom we could easily empathize or relate to, or moreover if it was the extent to which the characters could actually inhabit our world and the degree to which one was able to render beautiful and transparent the ordinary and the natural, then I would agree with Hart’s analysis at this basic theoretical point, historical/religious points of contention which he delineates not withstanding. I have always argued, like Hart, that Dostoevsky’s characters are “theatrical”, meaning they could only exist in the novel, never in real life, and that they are often “types” rather than “real” individuals. But then again, I’ve never felt this to be the founding premise of art, nor the highest criterion for tasteful discernment, and so I don’t think I can quite concur with these premises as the basis of comparative judgment for the relative merit of one’s art. It’s like the old trick of making the rules of the game such that only you can win: if the purpose of literature, or the measure of mastery, is what Hart says it is, then Tolstoy wins. But if it’s not, the question remains open.
Hart’s basic contention, that Tolstoy’s purely artistic greatness outshines Dostoevsky’s based on Tolstoy’s ability to create utterly believable characters and representations, reveals a certain underlying aesthetic principle which preferences, for lack of a better analogy, photographic realism to painting, or perhaps a better comparison is neo-scholastic realism to baroque art (a topic I will address in a later post, since the baroque requires a degree of rehabilitation in light of our modern sensibilities). To me, it is analogous to saying that Canova was a better sculptor than Michelangelo, because if you look closely at Michelangelo’s work, none of his characters are “real” or “believable” in the sense that 19th century realism intends; they could not “inhabit our world” realistically because of their often contorted positions, augmented features, etc, and yet they are dramatically and formally infinitely superior to Canova’s beautiful realism, precisely because their goal is not simply to reflect reality beautifully, but to point beyond it through its depths (not that Tolstoy fails at this, but Dostoevsky, I think, is greater in this regard).
It is these depths that the artist is after, otherwise one’s art is simply pretty, not beautiful, since the work can never transcend itself (not that either author is guilty of this). Certainly art needs to be “at home in the world”, and certainly the artist must be able to portray reality, and so in one sense, Hart’s focus is correct, and his guest is able to slip in the back-door, as it were, but not without radically changing his outfit. It is not so much that portraying reality is not part of the aesthetic criterion, but that there are deeper levels of reality which often require “artifice” to reach (as demonstrated by Michelangelo’s sculptures), ones that Dostoevsky is able to penetrate precisely because his method and style, his tensions, dissonances, and resolutions are more suited to plumbing the depths, and his characters, either because or in spite of being theatrical, have greater ontic weight; they reveal an even greater reality than a narrowly conceived realism can account for. If it is a certain “gracefulness of expression” that one detects in Tolstoy that one misses in Dostoevksy, perhaps comparing Raphael to Michelangelo represents a more suitable analogy, but even here the criterion becomes tendentious. In the very least, I do not think the criterion for Hart’s judgment would hold sway across all the arts, at least as I understand it to be explicated in his essay. Further, simply on a side note, I can agree that Dostoevsky’s characters are merely pyschological chimera no more than I can agree that Dostoevksy has so many passages which one simply has to tolerate, as if by implication Tolstoy’s long narratives do not.
Balthasar, in talking about Soloviev’s relation to Dostoevksy, points out with his usual lucidity, and far greater eloquence, the gist of my general contention:
“In ancient culture, ‘poets were at once prophets and priests’, and it is only in the subsequent division of labour that poets elevated an isolated art to the status of an idol: ‘For such priests of pure art, perfection of external form comes to be the main consideration.’ Realism quite rightly reacted against this; but ‘in the ineffectual hunt for the pseudo-real detail, the actual reality of the whole is once more lost.’ Dostoevsky had an eye for inner reality, and he is the pledge of the poetics of the future.”
H.U.v.Balthasar, GL III Lay Styles, p. 343
All of this also brings to mind the question of matter vs. form, style vs. content. Likewise, it would seem that one would have to accept a certain trajectory of Gilson’s “Arts of the Beautiful” as the starting point for one’s objective standard of judgment in order to come to Hart’s conclusions, while distancing oneself from other parts of the trajectory (the relation of truth to beauty in art). Would one have a greater art if one was technically more procifient but imaginatively and creatively inferior to one who had slightly lesser “talent” but superior imagination and creative and compositional ability? I think I would take the latter. Is art simply in the technical mastery (Gilson), or is it in the wholistic mastery of both technical proficiency as well as imaginative and expressive power? Is the “factual truth of bodies” (Canova) more important or more expressive than the “truth revealed by bodies” (Michelangelo)?… which is the major difference between, respectively, neo-scholastic and realism art of the 19th century compared with the baroque. Interestingly, in drama, one has to “act” in order to appear real and convincing, whereas those who simply act normally appear to be bad actors. But perhaps Hart’s point is more nuanced than I am arguing…these are my first reactions.