[Today we observe] two broad categories of art: Romanticism, which recognizes the existence of man’s volition—and Naturalism, which denies it.
[The] basic premises of Romanticism and Naturalism (the volition or anti-volition premise) affect all the other aspects of a literary work, such as the choice of theme and the quality of the style, but it is the nature of the story structure—the attribute of plot or plotlessness—that represents the most important difference between them and serves as the main distinguishing characteristic for classifying a given work in one category or the other.
The practitioners of the literary school diametrically opposed to mine—the school of Naturalism—claim that a writer must reproduce what they call “real life,” allegedly “as it is,” exercising no selectivity and no value-judgments. By “reproduce,” they mean “photograph”; by “real life,” they mean whatever given concretes they happen to observe; by “as it is,” they mean “as it is lived by the people around them.” But observe that these Naturalists—or the good writers among them—are extremely selective in regard to two attributes of literature: style and characterization. Without selectivity, it would be impossible to achieve any sort of characterization whatever, neither of an unusual man nor of an average one who is to be offered as statistically typical of a large segment of the population. Therefore, the Naturalists’ opposition to selectivity applies to only one attribute of literature: the content or subject. It is in regard to his choice of subject that a novelist must exercise no choice, they claim.
The Naturalists have never given an answer to that question—not a rational, logical, noncontradictory answer. Why should a writer photograph his subjects indiscriminately and unselectively? Because they “really” happened? To record what really happened is the job of a reporter or of a historian, not of a novelist. To enlighten readers and educate them? That is the job of science, not of literature, of nonfiction writing, not of fiction. To improve men’s lot by exposing their misery? But that is a value-judgment and a moral purpose and a didactic “message”—all of which are forbidden by the Naturalist doctrine. Besides, to improve anything one must know what constitutes an improvement—and to know that, one must know what is the good and how to achieve it—and to know that, one must have a whole system of value-judgments, a system of ethics, which is anathema to the Naturalists.
Thus, the Naturalists’ position amounts to giving a novelist full esthetic freedom in regard to means, but not in regard to ends. He may exercise choice, creative imagination, value-judgments in regard to how he portrays things, but not in regard to what he portrays—in regard to style or characterization, but not in regard to subject. Man—the subject of literature—must not be viewed or portrayed selectively. Man must be accepted as the given, the unchangeable, the not-to-be-judged, the status quo. But since we observe that men do change, that they differ from one another, that they pursue different values, who, then, is to determine the human status quo? Naturalism’s implicit answer is: everybody except the novelist.
The novelist—according to the Naturalist doctrine—must neither judge nor value. He is not a creator, but only a recording secretary whose master is the rest of mankind. Let others pronounce judgments, make decisions, select goals, fight over values and determine the course, the fate and the soul of man. The novelist is the only outcast and deserter of that battle. His is not to reason why—his is only to trot behind his master, notebook in hand, taking down whatever the master dictates, picking up such pearls or such swinishness as the master may choose to drop.
The Naturalists object that a plot is an artificial contrivance, because in “real life” events do not fall into a logical pattern. That claim depends on the observer’s viewpoint, in the literal sense of the word “viewpoint.” A nearsighted man standing two feet away from the wall of a house and staring at it, would declare that the map of the city’s streets is an artificial, invented contrivance. That is not what an airplane pilot would say, flying two thousand feet above the city. The events of men’s lives follow the logic of men’s premises and values—as one can observe if one looks past the range of the immediate moment, past the trivial irrelevancies, repetitions and routines of daily living, and sees the essentials, the turning points, the direction of a man’s life.
The Naturalists object that the events of men’s lives are inconclusive, diffuse and seldom fall into the clear-cut, dramatic situations required by a plot structure. This is predominantly true—and this is the chief esthetic argument against the Naturalist position. Art is a selective recreation of reality, its means are evaluative abstractions, its task is the concretization of metaphysical essentials. To isolate and bring into clear focus, into a single issue or a single scene, the essence of a conflict which, in “real life,” might be atomized and scattered over a lifetime in the form of meaningless clashes, to condense a long, steady drizzle of buckshot into the explosion of a blockbuster—that is the highest, hardest and most demanding function of art. To default on that function is to default on the essence of art and to engage in child’s play along its periphery.
Although Naturalism is a product of the nineteenth century, its spiritual father, in modern history, was Shakespeare. The premise that man does not possess volition, that his destiny is determined by an innate “tragic flaw,” is fundamental in Shakespeare’s work. But, granted this false premise, his approach is metaphysical, not journalistic. His characters are not drawn from “real life,” they are not copies of observed concretes nor statistical averages: they are grand-scale abstractions of the character traits which a determinist would regard as inherent in human nature: ambition, power-lust, jealousy, greed, etc.
No matter how concrete-bound their theories forced them to be, the writers of the Naturalist school still had to exercise their power of abstraction to a significant extent: in order to reproduce “real-life” characters, they had to select the characteristics they regarded as essential, differentiating them from the non-essential or accidental. Thus they were led to substitute statistics for values as a criterion of selectivity: that which is statistically prevalent among men, they held, is metaphysically significant and representative of man’s nature; that which is rare or exceptional, is not. (See Chapter 7.)
At first, having rejected the element of plot and even of story, the Naturalists concentrated on the element of characterization—and psychological perceptiveness was the chief value that the best of them had to offer. With the growth of the statistical method, however, that value shrank and vanished: characterization was replaced by indiscriminate recording and buried under a catalogue of trivia, such as minute inventories of a character’s apartment, clothing and meals. Naturalism lost the attempted universality of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, descending from metaphysics to photography with a rapidly shrinking lens directed at the range of the immediate moment—until the final remnants of Naturalism became a superficial, meaningless, “unserious” school that had nothing to say about human existence.
The obvious question, to which the heirs of statistical Naturalism have no answer, is: if heroes and geniuses are not to be regarded as representative of mankind, by reason of their numerical rarity, why are freaks and monsters to be regarded as representative? Why are the problems of a bearded lady of greater universal significance than the problems of a genius? Why is the soul of a murderer worth studying, but not the soul of a hero?
The answer lies in the basic metaphysical premise of Naturalism, whether its practitioners ever chose it consciously or not: as an outgrowth of modern philosophy, that basic premise is anti-man, anti-mind, anti-life; and, as an outgrowth of the altruist morality, Naturalism is a frantic escape from moral judgment—a long, wailing plea for pity, for tolerance, for the forgiveness of anything.