Twin stars: the anxiety of sibling rivalry between literary titans.
The remark reverberates with issues. There is the esthetic question of whether the mission of the artist is to "imitate" the ideal or the real; the semantic question of how to define these two overused terms; the philosophical question of whether a writer is a pessimist or an optimist; and the psychological question of where does detached, principled esthetic judgment leave off and subjective personal bias begin? To what extent, in short, was the relation between those two literary titans shaped not just by philosophical-artistic differences over their common art but also by personal dislike, professional rivalry, or just plain quotidian jealousy?
What makes this dictum even more fascinating is that it is archetypal. The paradigm is that in various periods two artists flourish concurrently and, conscious of each other's presence, see themselves--or are seen by contemporaries, or come to be seen by posterity--as towering over everyone else. What, one cannot but wonder, did they think of each other?
Artists are, of course, revered by others in their field when they are safely ensconced in the past but not necessarily when they are rivals for attention. Although it was easy for, say, Hemingway to praise Shakespeare because the latter was long dead, would he have used the same language had they been contemporaries? What arouses curiosity about such confrontations is precisely the jumbling of the esthetic with the personal. We have heard much about the anxiety of influence, about how the artist is haunted by the achievements of his predecessors and mentors, but what about the anxiety caused by a kind of sibling rivalry?
As it happens, at least one such major confrontation appears in a different country during each of the traditional major phases of Western culture--Classical Greece, Medieval Germany, Renaissance England, Enlightenment France and England, Nineteenth-Century Russia, Modern America.
Analysis of the first three pairs is hampered by limited documentation. We know nothing else, for example, of what the two Greeks thought of each other. Still, one striking thing about the Sophoclean sentence is its justness as a piece of literary criticism. Certainly that is how another contemporary, Aristophanes, saw Euripides. And ever since then, scholars have remarked on the difference between the two tragedians as involving something like the ideal and the real. The iconoclastic, free-thinking Euripides was, according to the critical consensus, by far the most modern of the ancient dramatists (Ferguson 238).
The absence of evidence of personal rivalry between the two Greeks is somewhat made up for by the next pair. The two major medieval chivalric works, Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, were completed nearly simultaneously in Germany in 1210. The authors' dislike of each other resulted in one of the more famous literary quarrels in medieval literature (Batts 11; Norman 57-59). Though documentation is scanty, the difference between the two men appears to have been partly social, partly esthetic, partly moral. If the aristocratic Wolfram refers often to weaponry, the bourgeois Gottfried, who shows little interest in mainstream Arthurian military and literary conventions, refers rather to musical and artistic matters(Jones 48). Their heroes are accordingly different: the martial Parzival has no formal schooling, while the sophisticated Tristan immerses himself in music and books, learns languages, and travels. Parzival is an exemplar of conjugal love, Tristan of adulterous courtly love. Clearly the poets had divergent notions of human fulfillment (Poag 38).
The Sophoclean distinction also fits the Shakespeare-Jonson pair, albeit less obviously. (Jonson was throughout the seventeenth century as highly regarded as Shakespeare.) What Shakespeare thought of Jonson cannot be ascertained, but Jonson's views on Shakespeare are on record. He delivered himself of obiter dicta that constitute a recurring negative critique of the other's work. But when writing a magnificent poetic eulogy on Shakespeare, he presented his rival as uniquely great, timeless, and universal (1: 1241-43). In other words, facing a clash between his own esthetic theories and Shakespeare's artistry, he had the largeness of soul to go with the latter. The crux of the contrast between them is a variation on the one between Euripides and Sophocles; instead of a conflict between the real and the ideal, we have one between the realistic and the imaginative. When they write about ancient Rome, for instance, Jonson is, as one biographer put it, archaeologically correct, but Shakespeare is true to life (Chute 269-71).
Much better documented and more complex were the tensions among the last four sets of twin stars. If the differences between Euripides and Sophocles were, as far as we know, only over esthetic matters, and the ones between Shakespeare and Jonson were partly esthetic and partly personal, albeit with good temper apparently being maintained, the differences between Voltaire and Rousseau were at first philosophical and then personal, and bitterly so at last. Voltaire, the older man, was the monarch of European culture, and the ambitious Rousseau had initially to cope with an awesome father figure. Voltaire was, moreover, urbane and witty, his irony never long in abeyance; Rousseau, by contrast, was ill at ease in society, humorless, devoid of wit. If Voltaire quarreled with authority figures, Rousseau, who was partly paranoid, quarreled with everyone.
Disputes reflecting their philosophic and temperamental differences repeatedly erupted on the occasion of the publication of one of their major works. The first was Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, which, with a thesis that flouts the conventional wisdom of the Age of Reason, presents civilized life as in many ways inferior to primitive existence. Disliking Rousseau's puritanical attack on literature, progress, wealth, and luxury and expressing regret that so much ingenuity was used to prove men to be merely beasts, Voltaire insisted that the greatest crimes are caused by ignoramuses and not, as Rousseau would have it, by cultured people (Portable 375-78).
The argument between them turned from anthropology to theodicy as a result of the lethal Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire wrote "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster" impugning divine benevolence. Rousseau responded by asserting that evil was man's own fault; the many people killed in the quake had been lured by the artificiality of life in the crowded city instead of being safely scattered in the countryside and living there close to nature (Green 142). Voltaire's poem, according to Rousseau, exaggerated man's misery and turned God into a malevolent being. Such a work could only make people feel wretched, to no purpose(Crocker 294-96; Wade 122).
Voltaire responded that he was too ill to reply at length and lapsed into silence. Rousseau maintained in his Confessions that Candide (published three years later and devoured by all of Europe) was Voltaire's eventual reply but that he, Rousseau, had not read it! (400).
The third clash between them turned the discussion from theodicy to the role of reason. When Rousseau published the New Heloise, a pre-Romantic work celebrating feelings at the expense of rationality, Voltaire, the archetypal Enlightenment man of reason, could not understand Rousseau's approach. He found the book boring and pointless. Attacking it in various pseudonymous letters, he called Rousseau the most conceited of living authors; lamenting the style, grammar, and sense of structure, Voltaire especially complained of the platitudinous moralizing by what he thought to be the immoral main character in the book(Orieux 341; Besterman 424-25).
If each man at first esteemed the other's mind but derogated the other's heart, the differences between them grew increasingly personal and acrimonious. One of Rousseau's later letters to Voltaire was filled with hate, contempt, and self pity. "I dislike you very much, monsieur, for you have inflicted wrongs on me of the most painful kind." After a series of "I hate you" ejaculations, he concluded, "Lastly I hate you because you want me to hate you." Voltaire understandably did not reply but remarked to a friend that Rousseau, alas!, had gone mad (Guehenno 2: 47-48; Green 176; Orieux 340). We are obviously a long way from Sophoclean equanimity in the assessment of self and rival.
Rousseau's hatred of Voltaire was reaching its zenith. Though at first Rousseau, while conceding Voltaire his genius, wit, and style, had accused him only of a malice that brought misfortune on self and others, he now came to see Voltaire as the exemplar of the depravity and hypocrisy of civilization itself. He proceeded to attribute to Voltaire a pamphlet containing an attack on the Bible and Christianity. Since Voltaire had written the work anonymously in order to avoid imprisonment, Rousseau's revealing the identity of the author caused Voltaire to explode with righteous indignation. He called Rousseau at once mad and dishonorable: it was high treason in times of persecution to betray a fellow writer and philosophe. He had so far respected Rousseau but now would attack him at every opportunity as a false brother to be destroyed, as nothing less than "an enemy of the human race" (Orieux 406).
The essential difference between the Enlightenment sage and the new Romantic individualist was brought out when Voltaire remarked about his rival, "True merit does not consist in singularity but in being reasonable" (Guehenno 2: 177), and again when he complained that Rousseau "issues decrees like the Parlement, without giving reasons" (Orieux 443)--criticisms that express the rationalist's distaste for Romantic irrationalism (as well as, of course, a commonsensical man's dislike of an authoritarian personality).
While this feud was taking place in France, across the channel a similar altercation was going on between two major literary figures. Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding are the founding fathers of the realistic novel, i.e. the prose narrative tracing the pursuit of amatory and vocational fulfillment in the world of the middle class. Both men were conscious of being literary innovators, as Richardson in 1741 claimed to introduce a "new species of writing," and Fielding a year later made a similar claim about his "comic epic in prose" (Watt 208). Both turned to fiction writing at virtually the same time after trying their hand at other ventures. Both wrote three ambitious novels, of which one is a classic. And, to top it off, their careers began with a collision with each other.
There the resemblances end. The two men were the proponents of radically different visions of life and the inventors of radically different ways of writing. Richardson, a printer by trade and thoroughly middle class in origins and mentality, was puritanical, pessimistic, humorless, moralizing, didactic, vain, and insecure. Fielding, aristocratic and classically educated, was worldly, tolerant, self assured, and witty. Richardson's notion of virtue is mechanical and (in Clarissa) otherworldly, while Fielding's is flexible, mingling earthiness with open-mindedness, and seeing people, whether good or bad, as complex (McKillop 127). Richardson wrote epistolary novels that probed the consciousness of his heroines in a confined domestic sphere, while Fielding wrote, with detachment, of adventure on the open road, involving all classes, all sorts of people and locales, and varied experiences. The narrator is non-existent in the one and omnipresent and all important in the other. For Richardson, character is central and individualized, an approach that results in psychological development and emotional intensity; for Fielding, plot is central, scenes are brief, and character is generalized. Richardson's identification with the emotions of the main character and with the details of the vulnerable feminine sensibility contrasts with Fielding's comic distance, hyperbole, and masculine extroverted robustness. Richardson overwhelms the reader with details; Fielding preaches and practices selectivity and succinctness. Naturally the two men could not understand each other any more than could Voltaire and Rousseau. But they were, in Fielding's pithy words (which apply to all these twin stars), "Rivals for that Coy Mistress Fame" (Thomas 275).
In 1740, Richardson published his first novel, Pamela, about a young servant woman who withstands the sexual advances of her aristocratic master until he agrees to marry her. Despite its moral tone, the book mingles, as one scholar notes, "prudery and prurience, sermon and striptease" in a manner not too distant from pornography (Thomas 177). The book took the reading public by storm. One out of a number of dissidents was Fielding, who rushed into print a bare few months later a short tale, Shamela, which parodied and ridiculed every aspect of Richardson's book (Battestin 151). Fielding thought that Pamela, far from being a moral paragon, was a hypocrite who used sex as a means of social climbing. By temperament, he disliked the maiden purity theme as well as the prescriptive use of the novel form as a vehicle of instruction (Wright 59).
In ridiculing Pamela, Fielding had, after years of writing for the stage, suddenly found his vocation in narrative fiction. Within a year he published his first "serious" novel, Joseph Andrews, which begins an alternative tradition of novel writing (Battestin 151). Fielding's Preface presents his book as a moral and artistic response to Richardson's. It begins by continuing, albeit "allusively" rather than "imitatively" (Battesin 8), the critique begun in Shamela of Richardson's bad morals, bad art, and narrow view of life, but after ten chapters turns to new matters. Except for one slight reference, Richardson made no public response to Shamela or Joseph Andrews, but, nursing his grievance privately, he accused Fielding (in a letter of 1749) of abusing Pamela with "hints and names taken from the story, with a lewd and ungenerous engraftment" (Thomas 179).
Pamela and Joseph Andrews are interesting and important, though imperfect, books. There now took place an eerie repetition of history. Just as two of the major medieval literary works, Tristan and Parzival, were concluded in the same year, so were the long, supreme masterpieces of these two pioneers, Clarissa and Tom Jones, written and published in 1748 simultaneously. The two works offer a marked moral contrast: in Richardson, the heroine fends off unwanted sexual attention, while in Fielding the heroine actively pursues a hero she knows to be sexually active.
Hard as Fielding had been on Richardson's first novel, he now was just as strikingly laudatory on Clarissa; after all, the new heroine was nothing like Pamela. He sent Richardson an advance copy of Tom Jones and wrote a letter full of praise. Feeling "raptures of admiration and astonishment," he singled out the "true comic force" in the portrayal of the widow Bevis and found the scene after the rape of Clarissa "beyond anything I have ever read" (Watt 211, 235). In a literary journal, he wrote of Richardson's "deep Penetration into Nature," of his "Power to raise and alarm the Passions," which "few Writers, either ancient or modern, have been possessed of.... Sure this Mr. Richardson is Master of all that Art which Horace compares to witchcraft" (qtd. in McKillop 167).
Generous as is this appraisal, Richardson could not reciprocate. All biographers and critics speak of the disgraceful malice, the vanity and jealousy, the venom, and the ad hominem attacks that pervade his responses to Tom Jones. Despite--or because of--its being very popular, Richardson at first refused to read it. He was disturbed that the ladies in his milieu liked this truly "coarse-titled" novel, with its "very bad Tendency" (McKillop 172). Bitter that his book was outsold and eclipsed by Fielding's, Richardson said that Fielding prostituted his talent "to fill his Pocket, by accommodating it to the reigning Taste" and by trying "to whiten a vicious Character, and to make Morality bend to his Practices" (McKillop 173). He spoke resentfully of the "innfrequenting Sophia" and of the "spurious Brat Tom Jones" as unaccountably bringing Fielding his success (Watt 188; Thomas 358). Why, he lamented, did Fielding need to make Tom "illegitimate," a "kept fellow" who is in love with a girl "tra[i]psing after him, a Fugitive from her Father's House"? The answer is that Fielding "knows not how to draw a delicate Woman--he has not been accustomed to such Company." Richardson liked neither the novel nor the author's "Principles both Public and Private." Fielding is "too immoral ... to take any other Byass than that [which] a perverse and crooked Nature," together with "Evil Habits," has given him (McKillop 173). Richardson, in short, was still unable to understand or tolerate Fielding's moral permissiveness, ironic stance, and joie de vivre.
So curiously parallel were the writing careers of the two men that in their next (and last) major novel their artistic powers flagged, and the public reaction consequently was disappointing. No less curious is the fact that the two authors, however mutually hostile, clearly influenced each other and drew somewhat closer in vision. Amelia (1751) is darker than Fielding's previous works, and Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (1754) is sunnier (Kinkead-Weekes 470). Tom Jones probably prompted Richardson to offer the virtuous hero, Grandison, as a response to Fielding's scapegrace (McKillop 204). Clarissa likewise perhaps prompted Fielding to write a book with a first person narrative, with no introductory chapters, with minimal commentary and irony, with sexuality as a central issue, and with a female moral paragon (for whom the book is named, as in Richardson) who retains her integrity and is treated in a somewhat idealized, sentimental fashion (Alter 170).
Grandison came out too late for the dying Fielding to assess it, but Richardson's reaction to Amelia is more of the same. Still unable to stomach Fielding's work, he lambastes Amelia, after admitting that he had not gotten past its first volume.
I was equally surprised at and concerned for his continued lowness.... It's beyond my conception, that a man of good family, and who had some learning, and who really is a writer, should descend so excessively low in all his pieces. Who can care for any of his low people? (qtd. in Alter 171)
He thought Amelia a disappointment, an odd judgment considering his low estimation of Fielding's previous books! Seeing many autobiographical touches in it, as well as in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, he notes that the disheveled and wanton subject matter is "all drawn from what he has seen and known." The conclusion is that "he has little or no invention.... He designed to be good, but knew not how, and lost his genius and low humor in the attempt" (Rogers 195).
He was, notes a critic, disgusted by the very strengths of the book--its picture of the corruption and perversity of society (Alter 172). Though he speaks of Fielding's "continual lowness," the problem is that the smug Richardson ignored the poverty and squalor that outraged Fielding and that prompted the latter to forward (in other writings) thoughtful remedial ideas (Rogers 207). Richardson was blaming the messenger. To Fielding, political rottenness and hypocrisy are far worse sins than sexual indiscretions.
If we were to apply the Sophoclean formula to these two writers, Richardson, at least in moral matters, is the idealist and Fielding the realist. The formula becomes more difficult to apply to the many other differences between them. Because of the modern desacralizing of sex and because of the attendant sexual revolution (a change more in attitude than in behavior), as well as because of the modern preference for irony, Fielding has been much more congenial to modern taste during the past century. To give Richardson his due, however, one need recall that his subtle, detailed, even obsessive study of character and sensibility in Clarissa not is only great in itself but also helped prepare the ground for the masterpieces of Sterne, Proust, and Joyce (Watt 280). That is no small achievement.
In nineteenth-century Russia, the twin stars were the novelists Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky--Tolstoy, the epic poet of the normal and the natural, vs. Dostoyevsky, the psychologist of the neurotic and the exceptional; the cosmopolitan Tolstoy vs. the slavophiliac Dostoyevsky. Though they at first responded warmly to each other's early books, trouble came when they produced their major works.
In 1868, Dostoyevsky, having read half of War and Peace, found it to be, in spite of various defects, "quite a major work" (Selected Letters 274). He notably liked the novel's celebration of "Russian" rather than French or Western principles. But he demurred in 1870 when someone called it a "work of genius" and one of Russia's greatest books. Such a judgment he found impossible; Pushkin was the real genius whose stories "offer a new word," and "no matter how far and high Tolstoy goes," he will be merely developing Pushkin's breakthrough (Complete Letters 243, 237).
Politics intervened in 1877, when Russia went to war with Turkey. Almost alone among the intelligentsia, Tolstoy, the urbane veteran of earlier wars and nascent pacifist, opposed the war. Dostoyevsky expressed regret that so great an author had "cut himself off from the community" in so important a matter (Troyat 373). This divergence finally affected Dostoyevsky's response to Anna Karenina, which was then coming out in installments.
Dostoyevsky was initially repelled by the book. Its subject matter, the travails of upper-class families, seemed to him to be a rehash of Tolstoy's earlier work (in a genre, moreover--landowner literature--Dostoyevsky thought obsolete). The shallow, horse-obsessed, aristocratic Vronsky was worthy only of an ironic treatment by the author. Finding the novel therefore conventional and boring, he wondered why everyone raved about it (Diary 591-92, 610).
But as the story unfolded, Dostoyevsky grew to admire the way the major characters, who were petty and shallow, became illuminated by death and humiliation; their hate and deceit turned into forgiveness and love, and social status became immaterial. Such moments of insights are rare, and Tolstoy revealed that they do exist (Diary 611-13). And such insights were to Dostoyevsky uniquely Russian. In Europe, violations of the laws of society are punished by human justice, but for a Russian like Tolstoy they are judged in the heart: Anna offended Nature's laws and suffered internally for it (785-86). The novel thus triumphantly presents evil as ingrained, beyond the reach of society and socialism. With "immense psychological analysis of the human soul, with tremendous depth, ... with a realism of artistic portrayal hitherto unknown in Russia," Tolstoy shows that no utopia will eliminate "abnormality," "evil," and "guilt." The solution is "mercy and love" (787). This novel, by intimating that only Russia had writers with the gift of universality, rebutted the European sense of Russian inferiority and gave hope that Russia would eventually produce as well great science and economics. The man who wrote it was therefore "a sublime artist" (611).
But in the last installment of the novel, Tolstoy took an unpopular stand on the war with Turkey, and this apostasy turned Dostoyevsky against the novel once more. Levin, Tolstoy's putative mouthpiece, became the focus of Dostoyevsky's scathing criticism. Contemptuous of slavophilia, Levin saw the war as a conspiracy by mercenaries, drunks, and louts foisted on an indifferent populace. "This is not," concluded a saddened Dostoyevsky, "what I had expected from such an author" (755, 777-79, 792-95).
Levin's refusal to let his private life be distracted by the religious victimization of his Slavic brethren was bad enough. Especially outrageous was to have Levin say, in speaking of his apathy concerning the fate of the Slavs, "I am of the people myself," as though Tolstoy, through Levin, presumed to speak for all the Russian people on this critical issue (777, 807). No less infuriating was Levin's self exculpatory statement that, if he saw innocent people attacked in the street, he "would not kill" in response--by way, no doubt, of justifying Tolstoy's pacifism. (Later, Tolstoy in turn declared himself repelled by Dostoyevsky's love of war and by his argument, echoed by the Church, that fighting and laying down one's life for others is legitimate [Letters 360].) This insensitive, selfish, blind Levin, concludes Dostoyevsky, is presented by Tolstoy as an exemplary "truthful, honest man," and the author of that novel is supposed to be a "teacher of society." "What, then, do they teach us?" (Diary 813)
Sharp as was their philosophical difference over the war, Dostoyevsky also had a personal reason for his dissent on Anna Karenina. He was, quite simply, envious of Tolstoy. As early as 1869-70, he took note of the fact that War and Peace was highly acclaimed, while his own The Idiot received bad reviews. A few years later, the same thing occurred: several critics whom he met spoke of Anna Karenina with "ridiculous enthusiasm" but said nothing about his own A Raw Youth (Troyat 314). Seeking an explanation--or rationalization--for his problem, the status-obsessed Dostoyevsky (who now planned to write a huge novel on the scale of War and Peace) complained that his "great" rivals (Turgenev, Goncharov, Tolstoy) were socially and financially well off and therefore did not have to rush into print prematurely (Complete Letters 240). If he himself had had the money and consequently the time that those three had, he could have written something "that people would be talking about a hundred years later" (268).
The alleged injustice had become starkly apparent in 1874 when Tolstoy sold Anna Karenina to a magazine for a high rate. "And to think that they were hesitant when it came to giving me 250 rubles, while they are only too eager to pay 500 to Leo Tolstoy! They underrate me a bit too much ... and that is because I have to live off my work." Rather like the indigent Rousseau jealous of Voltaire's wealth and fame, Dostoyevsky took note of the ironical fact that Tolstoy hardly needed any advance at all, while Dostoyevsky himself, who lived by his work and was often on the edge financially, was therefore slighted (Selected Letters 403).
In 1880, the two men thought of each other again. Tolstoy was rereading the House of the Dead, which he had loved long ago; he still could not think of a better book in all of modern literature, Pushkin included. "If you see Dostoyevski, tell him I love him" (Letters 338). Yet when Turgenev tried to persuade Tolstoy to attend, in his capacity as a great Russian writer, the commemoration of the centennial of Pushkin's birth, Tolstoy, revealing some of the insecurity or resentment that appeared in Ben Jonson, Rousseau, and Richardson, feared he would be less popular than Dostoyevsky and deliberately stayed away. Nor was he mistaken in his anxiety, for at the very same time, Dostoyevsky, still gnawed at by envy and ambition, was hoping that, if his upcoming speech on Pushkin were a success, he might perhaps reach Turgenev's and Tolstoy's eminence as a writer. Each was wary of the other. The speech, in the event, proved to be a smashing success, and Tolstoy was better off absent (Troyat 418).
When Dostoyevsky died soon thereafter, a weeping Tolstoy vented his complex feelings about his rival. Though he had never had any contact with him, "suddenly when he died I realized that he was the very closest, dearest and most necessary man for me." He confessed to being, like all writers, envious but asserted that he had never measured himself against Dostoyevsky, "never." Everything "good and real" that Dostoyevsky did made Tolstoy happy. Having always considered him a friend, Tolstoy thought that they would some day meet, and now, when it was too late to do so, he blamed himself that they did not. "I cried and am still crying" (Letters 340)
Yet, when his feelings subsided, Tolstoy resumed his animosity. If Dostoyevsky's objections to Tolstoy were based partly on politics and partly on envy, Tolstoy's were mainly esthetic (with, of course, a dash of envy as well). Except for the House of the Dead, he had little good to say of Dostoyevsky's books. They contained fine passages but also dreadful stuff. The style was turgid, the characters were poorly outlined and too "original" (Troyat 400). In their tendentiousness, the novels contained a bizarre mixture of Christian ideas, submission to authority, and praise of war. The artistry was also poor: Tolstoy could foretell from the beginning of Crime and Punishment how the rest of the novel would go. The trouble with the Idiot was that Dostoyevsky lacked the courage to make the innocent Christian, Prince Myshkin, healthy because, being himself sick, he felt compelled to create everyone else in his own image. Nor was Tolstoy able to finish reading the Brothers Karamazov, which was "anti-artistic, super.cial, attitudinizing, irrelevant to the great problems." He disliked the exaggerations, the implausibility, the "shapeless style," the grammatical errors, the crowd of epileptic, alcoholic, paranoid characters (Diaries 673; Letters 709).
Tolstoy particularly reprehended the widely held view of Dostoyevsky as a "prophet and saint," someone immersed in the conflict between Good and Evil. However moving, clever, genuine, and interesting he manages sometimes to be, Dostoyevsky, a "man who was all struggle," should not be "set on a pedestal" (Letters 363). How, Tolstoy wondered, could critics talk of the author of the Brothers Karamazov in the same breath as of the author of War and Peace, even if only to contrast them? (Troyat 698)
Late in his life, in October 1910, Tolstoy, wanting to recollect Dostoyevsky, tried to reread the first volume of the universally praised Brothers Karamazov. He found the jokes intrusive and the conversations "impossible, completely unnatural.... All the characters speak the same language." Astonished at Dostoyevsky's "slipshod manner, artificiality, and fabrication," he could only skim through it because "it's so disorganized" (Diaries 673-74).
Though Dostoyevsky had found serious defects in what he conceded to be major works by Tolstoy, the latter was unwilling, at least in his later years, to grant Dostoyevsky's novels even such a status. Modern readers find curious an outlook that praises the House of the Dead far more than the quartet of great Dostoyevsky novels, but one must recall that a common bond between the two men (and no other prominent Russian writer of that time) was that each was moved by what he saw as the Christian dimension in the other's work--in the House of the Dead and Anna Karenina. It was, to be sure, a different Christianity: Dostoyevsky, says one critic, sinned his way to God, Tolstoy reasoned his way there (Simmons 360).
Which of the two rival Russians deals with men as they should be and which with men as they are is difficult to say, as is also the case with another pair of famous novelists who, a few generations later, were in a like tortured relationship. Faulkner and Hemingway, both in their prime in the 1930-1950 period, made quite a contrast. Faulkner wrote mainly about an imaginary, exotic county in his corner of Mississippi; Hemingway, the lifelong traveler, placed his American characters in his major novels in Italy, France, Spain, Cuba. Faulkner was the eccentric stylist with sentences that covered entire pages, with syntax that dissolved into a stream of consciousness, and with daring experiments in structure, plot, and character portrayal. Hemingway, conservative in his plotting, achieved eccentricity with sentences at the opposite extreme, notorious for brevity, simplicity, almost childishness.
At first, things went smoothly between them. For some twenty years from 1925 on, Faulkner referred to Hemingway as either the best American fiction writer or as his personal favorite (Blotner 1: 443, 738, 777, 787, 2: 1145; Baker 439). Hemingway in turn was very respectful of Faulkner's work and sometimes, when speaking to James T. Farrell or to Jean Paul Sartre, ranked Faulkner above himself (Blotner 2: 1191; Karl 729; Baker 297). Despite complaining of the absence of a moral fiber in Faulkner, Hemingway recognized Faulkner's ability long before the critics discovered him and praised him publicly when he himself had the greater reputation.
In 1945, Hemingway wrote to his son that Faulkner can write "half whore and half straight.... God, I'd love to have his talent." In another letter of that time, Hemingway criticized Faulkner in language he had used of Fitzgerald: he "has the most talent of anybody and he just needs a sort of conscience that isn't there" (Meyers 431). And, of course, Faulkner is not selective enough, never throws anything away. "I would have been happy just to have managed him" (Karl 729; Blotner 2: 1191).
If Faulkner complained that Hemingway never sends the reader to the dictionary (Karl 758), Hemingway's response in effect was that poor Faulkner really thought that big emotions come from big words. If Hemingway believed that Faulkner was imperfect because undisciplined, Faulkner believed that Hemingway was imperfect for being too disciplined (Charlton 100).
In later years, their esthetic differences became heated on several occasions. In 1947, Faulkner, during a talk to college students, ranked contemporary American writers and put himself second, after Thomas Wolfe, and Hemingway fourth. Why? Because Hemingway was too careful, too afraid of making mistakes in diction; he lacked courage (Baker 461; Blotner 2: 1231-33). The remarks leaked out of the classroom and ended up in a New York newspaper. The reaction was immediate and comical. The hypersensitive, egotistical, publicity-hungry Hemingway was deeply hurt. Some deep-seated insecurity about his own masculinity caused him to willfully misinterpret "courage" in a physical sense (Meyers 432). And to pile childishness on top of folly, Hemingway went to the trouble of soliciting from an American Army general a letter of recommendation. The general, having been with Hemingway during some World War II battles in Normandy, vouched for Hemingway's courage by telling of the writer's exploits as a war correspondent in the line of fire (Baker 461; Oates 219).
Faulkner wrote a letter of apology, making the obvious point that he was referring only to Hemingway's "craftsmanship as a writer," to his not having the artistic "courage to get out on a limb as the others did" (Oates 220). This apology notwithstanding, Faulkner's remark about Hemingway was to haunt Hemingway the rest of his life, partly because Faulkner repeated it (Blotner 2: 1235). A year later he declared that Hemingway took no chances and lacked the courage to experiment (1266). When visiting Japan, Faulkner said that Hemingway did not risk failure (Karl 907). And in 1955 he was still explaining that by "coward" he meant that Hemingway did not try for the impossible but stayed "with what he knew" (Baker 647).
A second incident occurred in 1952, when Faulkner, in turning down a request to review The Old Man and the Sea for the New York Times, praised Hemingway in a curious fashion. He said that writers are wolves when together and dogs when single and that Hemingway is a wolf without a pack: Faulkner meant this as praise of Hemingway's integrity and of Hemingway's not needing protection from the pack. But Hemingway, somehow believing that Faulkner was in effect calling him "just another dog" as he had seemed to be calling him a physical coward five years earlier, blew up again. He wondered why Faulkner could not just have refused to review the book without making the insult. He took solace in the judgment that his own novel was at least free of the tricks and rhetoric that he thought had marred Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech (Baker 503; Oates 220).
This was a sore point for Hemingway, who had himself been expecting the Nobel Prize. Not only that, but when, in 1950, Faulkner was the one to win the Prize, Hemingway at once cabled him congratulations and was chagrined that Faulkner never bothered to reply (Baker 489, 503). In 1954, Hemingway, contending in a fit of sour grapes that no Nobelist ever wrote anything good after winning the prize, called Faulkner's ambitious new novel, A Fable, "false and contrived," put together with liquor and without syntax (Baker 526).
In 1955 it was Hemingway's turn at last to win the Nobel Prize. On this occasion he said privately that Faulkner was an alcoholic who had sold out to Hollywood when turning Hemingway's novel, To Have and To Hold, into a film script. He was perhaps annoyed that Faulkner's script actually may have improved the book (Karl 777; Meyers 433).
Clearly, as with the other rival writers, the personal dimension had become part of their philosophical and esthetic differences. Perhaps Hemingway could not accept that in the end Faulkner was the greater writer, or perhaps the trouble with both men, thought John Steinbeck, was that they were too obsessed with their future fame (Charlton 101). And so were most of these twin stars. Those who got along least--Voltaire and Rousseau, Richardson and Fielding, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Hemingway and Faulkner--never met and even seemed to have deliberately avoided meeting each other. And that is one reason for being deeply curious as to how Sophocles and Euripides got along.
The remark by Sophocles is neither isolated dictum nor minor matter. Here, early in the story of Western civilization, is a generalization that will have a long history, for one can indeed say that, broadly speaking, literature (like philosophy and art) has only two basic approaches--to describe either what is or what might or should be. Recall Raphael's objective portrayal of the central difference between the two great schools of Greek philosophy over the nature of reality: Plato pointing skyward, Aristotle directing attention to the world of here and now.
Machiavelli drew a similar contrast between himself and his predecessors, although he, unlike Sophocles and Raphael, added a value judgment. His claim to relevance, he asserted, was that others who wrote on politics dealt with how people "ought to behave" (come si doverrebbe vivere) whereas he wrote about them as they "actually are" (come si vive) (66); success in politics, sometimes even sheer physical survival, depends on choosing the superior approach. If Machiavelli celebrates "realism," Keats in some ways does the opposite in the course of a Sophocles-like assessment: "[Byron] describes what he sees--I describe what I imagine. Mine is the hardest task. You see the immense difference" (625). In yet another contribution to this discussion, Coleridge used to say that "everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian" (qtd. in Mill 2: 1003) (or, according to W. S. Gilbert, a liberal or a conservative). Such comments prompted a wag to infer that there are two kinds of people--those who divide the human race into two types and those who do not.
The former, the binary dividers, have a point. It is often the case that an issue has at bottom only two sides to it: one connected with something "ideal," however that is interpreted, and the other with something "real" or pragmatic or quotidian or unsavory. Certainly if one is looking for an overarching principle or a common denominator, one can speak of one member of each of the above pairs--Euripides, Gottfried, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Fielding, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner--being politically or morally or esthetically exotic, imaginative, experimental, or romantic, and of the other member--Sophocles, Wolfram, Jonson, Voltaire, Richardson, Tolstoy, Hemingway--being disciplined, conservative, cautious, or classical. Counter arguments, to be sure, come immediately to mind, and even more arguable is how the terms "ideal" and "real" are to be defined and applied. But that either/or designation, that sense of "difference," that great divide in temperament is perennial and unavoidable.
On the other hand (if one may talk in either/or terms!), these twin stars were exact opposites of each other only from certain points of view. The degree of their differences varied; sometimes they even resembled each other. (By definition, writers cannot in any case be too much alike, for then they will be merely clones or copies of each other. Every generalization has, furthermore, its exception: a very few major writers--like Boccaccio and Petrarch or like Melville and Hawthorne during a brief period in the Berkshires when their orbits crossed--achieved, despite vast differences in their masterpieces, a rare communion.) Nor did the ideal-real dichotomy always come into play overtly. Something other than Sophocles's formulation was also at work in these rivalries.
One must take into account the fact that people are not made for protracted cooperation. (The punishment administered to the adulterous lovers in Dante's Inferno is to have them in each other's arms forever.) Put even two saints in a room and soon they will be squabbling over the minutiae of saintliness. And writers are far from being saints. These rivalries are, then, due to the propensity of all people, signally artists, to define themselves in part by who they are not. If one does not have rivals or enemies, it may well be psychologically necessary to invent them. In the ensuing strife, philosophical and personal elements will be hopelessly entangled.
Perhaps no one has described that syndrome so precisely as has La Bruyere in 1688:
Men find it difficult to appreciate one another, and are little inclined to mutual approval; nothing can please or satisfy them about another man's deeds, behavior, thoughts and expression; they are less concerned with what is being told them or read to them than with what they would have done themselves in like circumstances, or what they would think or write on such a subject, and they are so full of their own ideas that there is no further room for anyone else's.... It is common and quite natural to judge another man's work in relation to one's own. (218-19, 232)
Since no two people can agree for long, the interesting thing becomes how they choose to articulate their differences, real or imagined. That is, of course, a matter of the details.
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MANFRED WEIDHORN received his degrees from Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin. He has taught at the University of Alabama and at Brooklyn College. He is currently the Guterman Professor of English at Yeshiva University in New York City. He has published ten books and over eighty essays.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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