Ethel D. Puffer – The Psychology of Beauty: Criticism and Aesthetics

Excerpt from The Psychology of Beauty: Part I – Criticism and Aesthetics

It is not so long ago that the field of literary criticism was divided into two opposing camps. France being the only country in the world where criticism is a serious matter, the battle waged most fiercely there, and doubtless greatly served to bring about the present general interest and understanding of the theoretical questions at issue. The combatants were, of course, the impressionistic and scientific schools of criticism, and particularly enlightening were the more or less recent controversies between MM. Anatole France and Jules Lemaitre as representatives of the first, and M. Brunetiere as the chief exponent of the second. They have planted their standards; and we see that they stand for tendencies in the critical activity of every nation. The ideal of the impressionist is to bring a new piece of literature into being in some exquisitely happy characterization,— to create a lyric of criticism out of the unique pleasure of an aesthetic hour. The stronghold of the scientist, on the other hand, is the doctrine of literary evolution, and his aim is to show the history of literature as the history of a process, and the work of literature as a product; to explain it from its preceding causes, and to detect thereby the general laws of literary metamorphosis.

Such are the two great lines of modern criticism; their purposes and ideals stand diametrically opposed. Of late, however, there have not been wanting signs of a spirit of reconciliation, and of a tendency to concede the value, each in its own sphere, of different but complementary activities. Now and again the lion and the lamb have lain down together; one might almost say, on reading a delightful paper of Mr. Lewis E. Gates on Impressionism and Appreciation, that the lamb had assimilated the lion. For the heir of all literary studies, according to Professor Gates, is the appreciative critic; and he it is who shall fulfill the true function of criticism. He is to consider the work of art in its historical setting and its psychological origin, “as a characteristic moment in the development of human spirit, and as a delicately transparent illustration of aesthetic law.” But, “in regarding the work of art under all these aspects, his aim is, primarily, not to explain, and not to judge or dogmatize, but to enjoy; to realize the manifold charms the work of art has gathered unto itself from all sources, and to interpret this charm imaginatively to the men of his own day and generation.”

Thus it would seem that if the report of his personal reactions to a work of literary art is the intention of the impressionist, and its explanation that of the scientist, the purpose of the appreciative critic is fairly named as the illuminating and interpreting reproduction of that work, from material furnished by those other forms of critical activity. Must, then, the method of appreciation, as combining and reconciling the two opposed views, forthwith claim our adherence? To put to use all the devices of science and all the treasures of scholarship for the single end of imaginative interpretation, for the sake of giving with the original melody all the harmonies of subtle association and profound meaning the ages have added, is, indeed, a great undertaking. But is it as valuable as it is vast? M. Brunetiere has poured out his irony upon the critics who believe that their own reactions upon literature are anything to us in the presence of the works to which they have thrilled. May it not also be asked of the interpreter if its function is a necessary one? Do we require so much enlightenment, only to enjoy? Appreciative criticism is a salt to give the dull palate its full savor; but what literary epicure, what real boo-lover, will acknowledge his own need of it? If the whole aim of appreciative criticism is to reproduce in other arrangement the contents, expressed and implied, and the emotional value, original and derived, of a piece of literature, the value of the end, at least to the intelligent reader, is out of all proportion to the laboriousness of the means. Sing, reading’s a joy! For me, I read.

But a feeling of this kind is, after all, not a reason to be urged against the method. The real weakness of appreciative criticism lies elsewhere. It teaches us to enjoy; but are we to enjoy everything? Since its only aim is to reveal the “intricate implications” of a work of art; since it offers, and professes to offer, no literary judgments,—having indeed no explicit standard of literary value,—it must, at least on its own theory, take its objects of appreciation ready-made, so to speak, by popular acclaim. It possesses no criterion; it likes whate’er it looks on; and it can never tell us what we are not to like. That is unsatisfactory; and it is worse,— it is self-destructive. For, not being able to reject, appreciation cannot, in logic, choose the objects of its attention. But a method which cannot limit on its own principles the field within which it is to work is condemned from the beginning; it bears a fallacy at its core. In order to make criticism theoretically possible at all, the power to choose and reject, and so the pronouncing of judgment, must be an integral part of it.

"Lin Ye and muse" by Jonathan Becker
“Lin Ye and muse” by Jonathan Becker

To such a task the critic may lend himself without arousing our antagonism. We have no pressing need to know the latent possibilities of emotion for us in a book or a poem; but whether it is excellent or the reverse, whether “we were right in being moved by it,” we are indeed willing to hear, for we desire to justify the faith that is in us.

If, then, the office of the judge be an essential part of the critical function, the appreciative critic, whatever his other merits,—and we shall examine them later,—fails at least of perfection. His scheme is not the ideal one; and we may turn back, in our search for it, to a closer view of those which his was to supersede. Impressionism, however, is at once out of the running; it has always vigorously repudiated the notion of the standard, and we know, therefore, that no more than appreciation can it choose its material and stand alone. But scientific criticism professes, at least, the true faith M. Brunetiere holds that his own method is the only one by which an impersonal and stable judgment can be rendered.

The doctrine of the evolution of literary species is more or less explained in naming it. Literary species, M. Brunetiere maintains, do exist. They develop and are transformed into others in a way more or less analogous to the evolution of natural types. It remains to see on what basis an objective judgment can be given. Although M. Brunetiere seems to make classification the disposal of a work in the hierarchy of species, and judgment the disposal of it in relation to others of its own species, he has never sharply distinguished between them; so that we shall not be wrong in taking his three principles of classification, scientific, moral, and aesthetic, as three principles by which he estimates the excellence of a work. His own examples, indeed, prove that to him a thing is already judged in being classified. The work of art is judged, then, by its relation to the type. Is this position tenable? I hold that, on the contrary, it precludes the possibility of a critical judgment; for the judgment of anything always means judgment with reference to the end for which is exists. A bad king is not the less a bad king for being a good father; and if his kingship is his essential function, he must be judged with reference to that alone. Now a piece of literature is, with reference to its end, first of all a work of art. It represents life and it enjoins morality, but it is only as a work of art that it attains consideration; that, in the words of M. Lemaitre, it “exists” for us at all. Its aim is beauty, and beauty is its excuse for being.

The type belongs to natural history. The one principle at the basis of scientific criticism is, as we have seen, the conception of literary history as a process, and of the work of art as a product. The work of art is, then, a moment in a necessary succession, governed by laws of change and adaptation like those of natural evolution. But how can the conception of values enter here? Excellence can be attributed only to that which attains an ideal end; and a necessary succession has no end in itself. The “type,” in this sense, is perfectly hollow. To say that the modern chrysanthemum is better than that of our forbears because it is more chrysanthemum-like is true only if we make the latter form the arbitrary standard of the chrysanthemum. If the horse of the Eocene age is inferior to the horse of to-day, it is because, on M. Brunetiere’s principle, he is less horse-like. But who shall decide which is more like a horse, the original or the latter development? No species which is constituted by its own history can be said to have an end in itself, and can, therefore, have an excellence to which it shall attain. In short, good and bad can be applied to the moments in a necessary evolution only by imputing a fictitious superiority to the last term; and so one type cannot logically be preferred to another. As for the individual specimens, since the conception of the type does not admit the principle of excellence, conformity thereto means nothing.

The work of art, on the other hand, as a thing of beauty, is an attainment of an ideal, not a product, and, from this point of view, is related not at all to the other terms of a succession, its causes and its effects, but only to the abstract principles of that beauty at which it aims. Strangely enough, the whole principle of this contention has been admitted by M. Brunetiere in a casual sentence, of which he does not appear to recognize the full significance. “We acknowledge, of course,” he says, “that there is in criticism a certain difference from natural history, since we cannot eliminate the subjective element if the capacity works of art have of producing impressions on us makes a part of their definition. It is not in order to be eaten that the tree produces its fruit.” But this is giving away his whole position! As little as the conformity of the fruit to its species has to do with our pleasure in eating it, just so little has the conformity of a literary work to its genre to do with the quality by virtue of which it is defined as art.

The Greek temple is a product of Greek religion applied to geographical conditions. To comprehend it as a type, we must know that it was an adaptation of the open hilltop to the purpose of the worship of images of the gods. But the most penetrating study of the slow moulding of this type will never reveal how and why just those proportions were chosen which make the joy and the despair of all beholders. Early Italian art was purely ecclesiastical in its origin. The exigencies of adaptation to altars, convent walls, or cathedral domes explain the choice of subjects, the composition, even perhaps the color schemes (as of frescoes, for instance); and yet all that makes a Giotto greater than a Pictor Ignotus is quite unaccounted for by these considerations.

The quality of beauty is not evolved. All that comes under the category of material and practical purpose, of idea or of moral attitude, belongs to the succession, the evolution, the type But the defining characters of the work of art are independent of time. The temple, the fresco, and the symphony, in the moment they become objects of the critical judgment, become also qualities of beauty and transparent examples of its laws.

If the true critical judgment, then, belongs to an order of ideas of which natural science can take no cognizance, the self-styled scientific criticism must show the strange paradox of ignoring the very qualities by virtue of which a given work has any value, or can come at all to be the object of aesthetic judgment. In two words, the world of beauty and the world of natural processes are incommensurable, and scientific criticism of literary art is a logical impossibility.

But the citadel of scientific criticism has yet one more stronghold. Granted that beauty, as an abstract quality, is timeless; granted that, in the judgment of a piece of literary art, the standard of value is the canon of beauty, not the type; yet the old order changeth. Primitive and civilized man, the Hottentot and the Laplander, the Oriental and the Slav, have desired differing beauties. May it, then, still be said that although a given embodiment of beauty is to be judged with reference to the idea of beauty alone, yet the concrete ideal of beauty must wear the manacles of space and time,— that the metamorphoses of taste preclude the notion of an objective beauty? And if this is true, are we not thrown back again on questions of genesis and development, and a study of the evolution, not of particular types of art, but of general aesthetic feeling; and, in consequence, upon a form of criticism which is scientific in the sense of being based on succession, and not on absolute value?

It is indeed true that the very possibility of a criticism which shall judge of aesthetic excellence must stand or fall with this other question of a beauty in itself, as an objective foundation for criticism. If there is an absolute beauty, it must be possible to work out a system of principles which shall embody its laws,—an aesthetic, in other words; and on the basis of that aesthetic to deliver a well-founded critical judgment. Is there, then, a beauty in itself? And if so, in what does it consist?

We can approach such an aesthetic canon in two ways: from the standpoint of philosophy, which develops the idea of beauty as a factor in the system of our absolute values, side by side with the ideas of truth and of morality, or from the standpoint of empirical science. For our present purpose, we may confine ourselves to the empirical facts of psychology and physiology.

When I feel the rhythm of poetry, or of perfect prose, which is, of course, in its own way, no less rhythmical, every sensation of sound sends through me a diffusive wave of nervous energy. I am the rhythm because I imitate it in myself. I march to noble music in all my veins, even though I may be sitting decorously by my own hearthstone; and when I sweep with my eyes the outlines of a great picture, the curve of a Greek vase, the arches of a cathedral, every line is lived over again in my own frame. And when rhythm and melody and forms and colors give me pleasure, it is because the imitating impulses and movements that have arisen in me are such as suit, help, heighten my physical organization in general and in particular. It may seem somewhat trivial to say that a curved line is pleasing because the eye is so hung as to move best in it; but we may take it as one instance of the numberless conditions for healthy action which a beautiful form fulfills. A well- composed picture calls up in the spectator just such a balanced relation of impulses of attention and incipient movements as suits an organism which is also balanced—bilateral—in its own impulses to movement, and at the same time stable; and it is the correspondence of the suggested impulses with the natural movement that makes the composition good. Besides the pleasure from the tone relations,—which doubtless can be eventually reduced to something of the same kind,—it is the balance of nervous and muscular tensions and relaxations, of yearnings and satisfactions, which are the subjective side of the beauty of a strain of music. The basis, in short, of any aesthetic experience—poetry, music, painting, and the rest— is beautiful through its harmony with the conditions offered by our senses, primarily of sight and hearing, and through the harmony of the suggestions and impulses it arouses with the whole organism.

But the sensuous beauty of art does not exhaust the aesthetic experience. What of the special emotions—the gayety or triumph, the sadness or peace or agitation—that hang about the work of art, and make, for many, the greater part of their delight in it? Those among these special emotions which belong to the subject-matter of a work—like our horror at the picture of an execution—need not here be discussed. To understand the rest we may venture for a moment into the realm of pure psychology. We are told by psychology that emotion is dependent on the organic excitations of any given idea. Thus fear at the sight of a bear is only the reverberation in consciousness of all nervous and vascular changes set up instinctively as a preparation for flight. Think away our bodily feelings, and we think away fear, too. And set up the bodily changes and the feeling of them, and we have the emotion that belongs to them even without the idea, as we may see in the unmotived panics that sometimes accompany certain heart disturbances. The same thing, on another level, is a familiar experience. A glass of wine makes merriment, simply by bringing about those organic states which are felt emotionally as cheerfulness. Now the application of all this to aesthetics is clear. All these tensions, relaxations,—bodily “imitations” of the form,—have each the emotional tone which belongs to it. And so if the music of a Strauss waltz makes us gay, and Handel’s Largo serious, it is not because we are reminded of the ballroom or of the cathedral, but because the physical response to the stimulus of the music is itself the basis of the emotion. What makes the sense of peace in the atmosphere of the Low Countries? Only the tendency, on following those level lines of landscape, to assume ourselves the horizontal, and the restfulness which belongs to that posture. If the crimson of a picture by Bocklin, or the golden glow of a Giorgione, or the fantastic gleam of a Rembrandt speaks to me like a human voice, it is not because it expresses to me an idea, but because it impresses that sensibility which is deeper than ideas,—the region of the emotional response to color and to light. What is the beauty of the “Ulalume,” or “Kubla Khan,” or “Ueber allen Gipfeln”? It is the way in which the form in its exquisite fitness to our senses, and the emotion belonging to that particular form as organic reverberation therefrom, in its exquisite fitness to thought, create in us a delight quite unaccounted for by the ideas which they express. This is the essence of beauty,—the possession of a quality which excites the human organism to functioning harmonious with its own nature.

We can see in this definition the possibility of an aesthetic which shall have objective validity because founded in the eternal properties of human nature, while it yet allows us to understand that in the limits within which, by education and environment, the empirical man changes, his norms of beauty must vary, too. Ideas can change in interest and in value, but these energies lie much deeper than the idea, in the original constitution of mankind. They belong to the instinctive, involuntary part of our nature. They are changeless, just as the “eternal man” is changeless; and as the basis of aesthetic feeling they can be gathered into a system of laws which shall be subject to no essential metamorphosis. So long as we laugh when we are joyful, and weep when we are sick and sorry; so long as we flush with anger, or grow pale with fear, so long shall we thrill to a golden sunset, the cadence of an air, or the gloomy spaces of a cathedral.

The study of these forms of harmonious functioning of the human organism has its roots, of course, in the science of psychology, but comes, nevertheless, to a different flower, because of the grafting on of the element of aesthetic value. It is the study of the disinterested human pleasures, and, although as yet scarcely well begun, capable of a most detailed and definitive treatment.

This is not the character of those studies so casually alluded to by the author of “Impressionism and Appreciation,” when he enjoins on the appreciative critic not to neglect the literature of aesthetics: “The characteristics of his [the artist’s] temperament have been noted with the nicest loyalty; and particularly the play of his special faculty, the imagination, as this faculty through the use of sensations and images and moods and ideas creates a work of art, has been followed out with the utmost delicacy of observation.” But these are not properly studies in aesthetics at all. To find out what is beautiful, and the reason for its being beautiful, is the aesthetic task; to analyze the workings of the poet’s mind, as his conception grows and ramifies and brightens, is no part of it, because such a study takes no account of the aesthetic value of the process, but only of the process itself. The same fallacy lurks here, indeed, as in the confusion of the scientific critic between literary evolution and poetic achievement, and the test of the fallacy is this single fact: the psychological process in the development of a dramatic idea, for instance, is, and quite properly should be, from the point of view of such analysis, exactly the same for a Shakespeare and for the Hoyt of our American farces.

The cause of the production of a work of art may indeed by found by tracing back the stream of thought; but the cause of its beauty is the desire and the sense of beauty in the human heart. If a given combination of lines and colors is beautiful, then the anticipation of the combination as beautiful is what has brought about its incarnation. The artist’s attitude toward his vision of beauty, and the art lover’s toward that vision realized, are the same. The only legitimate aesthetic analysis is, then, that of the relation between the aesthetic object and the lover of beauty, and all the studies in the psychology of invention—be it literary, scientific, or practical invention—have no right to the other name.

Aesthetics, then, is the science of beauty. It will be developed as a system of laws expressing the relation between the object and aesthetic pleasure in it; or as a system of conditions to which the object, in order to be beautiful, must conform. It is hard to say where the task of the aesthetician ends, and that of the critic begins; and for the present, at least, they must often be commingled. But they are defined by their purposes: the end and aim of one is a system of principles; of the other, the disposal of a given work with reference to those principles; and when the science of aesthetics shall have taken shape, criticism will confine itself to the analysis of the work into its aesthetic elements, to the explanation (by means of the laws already formulated) of its especial power in the realm of beauty, and to the judgment of its comparative aesthetic value.

Ethel D. Puffer

First published by Project Gutenberg, February, 2003.

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