Mikhail Kuzmin: “On Beautiful Clarity,” 1910
When the solid elements united into dry land and moisture girded the earth with seas, ran over it as rivers and lakes, then the world first left the state of chaos over which moved the dividing Spirit of God. And further on — by means of limitation, clear furrows — there resulted that complex and beautiful world which, accepting or not, artists strive to know, to see in their own way, and to imprint.
In the life of each man there come moments when, as a child, he will suddenly say: “I and the chair”, “I and the cat”, “I and the ball”; then, as an adult, “I and the world”. Whatever his future attitude towards the world, this divisive moment is always a profound turning point.
Partially similar stages are undergone by art periodically — now its deposits are measured out, distributed and formulated, now forms which have been brought to perfection are broken by a new source of chaotic forces, a new invasion of barbarians.
By looking about, we see that periods of creativity striving toward clarity stand unshaken, like beacons leading to a single goal, and the insurge of the destructive tide imparts but a new sheen to the eternal stones and brings new treasures into the storehouse it has attempted to overturn.
There are artists who bring people chaos, unreasoning horror, and the splintering of their spirit, and there are others who give the world their harmoniousness. There is no particular need to say how much the latter, assuming equality of talent, are higher and more purposeful than the former, and it is not difficult to guess why in a troubled time authors who bare their ulcers more powerfully excite the nerves, if they do not sear the hearts, of masochistic listeners. Without stopping to examine the fact that aesthetic, moral, and religious duty constrains a man (and especially an artist) to search for and discover within himself peace with himself and with the world, we consider it indisputable that the creations of even the most unreconciled, unclear and formless writer are subordinated to the laws of clear harmony and architectonics. The wierdest, most troubled, and darkest of Edgar Poe’s inventions, the untrammelled fantasies of Hoffmann are especially dear to us precisely because they are embodied in a crystal form. What then can be said about a humdrum Moscow tale which is clothed in such incomprehensible, dark cosmic trappings that the rare intelligible lines seem like our best friends after a separation? Would not a suspicious person claim that the author is putting fog about in order to force one not to understand something which does not contain anything particularly worth understanding? This lack of fit between form and content, the absence of contours, unnecessary fog and acrobatic syntax could be called by not a very pretty name . . . we modestly term it — tastelessness.
Let your soul be whole or split, let your perception of the world be mystical, realistic, sceptical, or even idealistic (if you are so misfortunate), let the creative devices be impressionistic, realistic, naturalistic, the content lyrical or narrative, let there be mood, impression — whatever you like; only I beg you, be logical — and may I be forgiven this cry from the heart! — logical in the conception, the construction of the work, the syntax.
Neglect of logic (unintentional) is so alien to human nature that if you were forced to name ten objects having no connection between them it is doubtful you could do it. An interesting conclusion might be obtained by listing just the nouns from a poem: it would undoubtedly seem to us that the reason for the distance of one word from another in meaning is just the lengthy path of thought and, consequently, the denseness of the verse, but not at all the absence of logical dependence. Still less tolerable is a similar absence of logic in form, especially in prose, and least of all in the details, in the construction of periods and phrases. One would like to write the scene from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in gold letters on the walls of the “Academy of Prose”, if we had such a thing:
MAISTRE DE PHILOSOPHIE:On peut mettre les paroles premierement comme vous avez dit:Belle Marquise, vos beaux yeux me font mourir d’amour.Ou bien: D’amour mourir me font, belle Marquise, vos beaux yeux.Ou bien: Vos yeux beaux d’amour me font, belle Marquise, mourir.Ou bien: Mourir vos beaux yeux, belle Marquise, d’amour me font.Ou bien: Me font vos yeux beaux mourir, belle Marquise d’amour.MONSIEUR JOURDAIN :Mais de toutes ces facons-la, laquelle est la meilleure?MAISTRE DE PHILOSOPHIE:Celle que vous avez dite: Belle Marquise, vos beaux yeux me font mourir d’amour.
Oh yes, monsieur Jourdain, you’ve said it very well, just the way it should be said, although you assure us you have never studied!
Perhaps the technique of prose speech is not so well- developed as the theory of verse and verse forms, but what has been done for oratorical prose, i.e. declaimed before an audience, may apply whole-heartedly to words not intended to be read aloud. There we learn the structure of periods, cadences, introductions, conclusions and ornamentation by means of rhetorical figures. We study, so to speak, the laying of the stones in the building whose architect we wish to be; and we must have a sharp eye, a true hand, and a clear feeling of systematicity, perspective, proportion, in order to achieve the final result. It is necessary that the entire structure should not collapse from an improperly placed arch, that the particulars should not obscure the whole, that the most unsymmetrical and disturbing project should be realized by conscious and regular means. This will be precisely that art about which it was said:ars longa, vita brevis. Besides unmitigated talent, it is imperative to have a knowledge of one’s material and form, and the correspond- ence between it and content. A story, by its form, does not ask for and does not even particularly admit of an exclusively lyrical content, without anything being narrated (of course, not a story about a feeling, an impression). A novel demands a plot element all the more, in connection with which one must not forget that the cradle of the novella and the novel was the Romance countries, where the Apollonian view of art was more developed than anywhere else: dividing, forming, exact and well-proportioned. And the models of the short story and the novel, beginning with Apuleius, the Italian and Spanish novelists — through Abbe Prevost,LeSage, Balzac, Flaubert, to Anatole France and, finally, the incomparable Henri de Regnier — must be sought of course in the Latin lands. The name of the last of these authors is especially dear to us, not only as the most contemporary, but as an unerring master of style, who will give no grounds for fearing that he will burden the roof of an Empire house with chimneys or will build a Gothic belltower onto a Greek portico.
Finally we have pronounced the word which is so ill- used at the present time in both invectives and dithyrambs — the word “style”. Style, stylishly, stylist, stylizer — these would seem such clear, definite concepts, but nevertheless forgery seems to take place which creates confusion. When the French call Anatole France a stylist unmatched since Voltaire’s time they of course do not have his Italian historical novels exclusively in mind: he is in everything a marvellous stylist, in his articles, in his contemporary novels, in whatever you will. This means that he preserves the ultimate purity, logic, and spirit of the French language, making cautious conquests without trans- gressing the boundaries of that language. And in this regard Mallarme, let us say, is by no means a stylist. To preserve the purity of a language does not mean to deprive it somehow of flesh and blood, to polish it, to turn it into kosher meat — no, but rather not to force it, and to observe its character strictly, its inclinations and its caprices. One may roughly term this grammar (not textbook, but experimental), or the logic of native speech. Based on this knowledge or feeling for language, advances are possible in the sense of neologisms or syntactic innovations as well. And from this point of view we may undoubtedly call Ostrovskij, Pecerskij, and especially Leskov, that treasure house of Russian speech who should be kept as a reference book on the level of Dal’s dictionary, stylists; we would hesitate, however, to call Andrej Belyj, Z. Gippius and A. Remizov stylists.
But as soon as we take the saying “style is the man”, we are prepared to place these authors at the head of our list. It is clear that here some sort of completely different concept is being defined, a relatively recent one, because, let us say, it is quite difficult to distinguish novelists one from another by their manner. It is obvious that here we are concerned with peculiarities of language, that aroma, that ‘je ne sais quoi’ which must be present inevery gifted writer, which distinguishes him from another as do appearance, the sound of the voice, etc. But if this is present in everyone (talented, worthy), then there is no need to underline it, to single it out, and we refuse to call an author who develops his “own” style to the detriment of the language’s purity a stylist, all the moreso since both these qualities are perfectly compatible, as is apparent from the examples cited above.
The third concept of style, which has put down especially sturdy roots in our own Russia, is closely tied with the quality of the period piece, the stylization; however, about this last word we shall speak separately.
It seems to us that in this case what is under consideration is a particular, special correspondence of the language with the given form of the work in its historical and aesthetic significance. Just as the form of a tercina, a sonnet, or a rondo cannot be filled with just any content, and artistic tact prompts us to an appropriate form for every thought, every feeling, so it is even more advisable in prose works to speak using the appropriate language about every subject, about any time or epoch. Thus Pushkin’s language, while continuing to preserve the irreproachable purity of Russian speech without losing its aroma, somehow unnoticeably but distinctly alters, depending on whether the poet is writing “The Queen of Spades”, “Scenes from Knightly Times”, or the fragment “Caesar journeyed”. We may say the same thing about Leskov as well. This quality is precious and almost imperative to the artist who does not wish to limit himself to a single circle, a single time for his depictions.
This inevitable and legitimate device (in connection with historicity) has given cause to near-sighted people to confuse it with stylization. Stylization is the transfer of one’s conception to a certain epoch and the investment of it with the exact literary form of the given time. Thus we count as stylizations Balzac’s “Contes drolatiques”, Flaubert’s “Trois contes” (but not Salammbo, not St.Antoine), Henri de Regnier’s “Le bon plaisir”, Turgenev’s “Song of Victorious Love”, Leskov’s legends, V. Brjusov’s The Fiery Angel, but not S. Auslender’s stories, not Remizov’s “Limonar'”.
In fact these last authors, desiring to use well- known epochs and adapting their language to this desire, are far from the thought of taking ready-made forms, and only people who have never had ancient novellas or genuine apocrypha in their hands can consider these books total stylization. The last could be considered an artistic counterfeit, an aesthetic game, a tour de force, were it not that contemporary authors despite themselves deposit all their love for the antique and all their individuality in these forms, which not by chance they recognized as the most appropriate for their conceptions; this is especially obvious in The Fiery Angel, where the absolutely Brjusovian clashes of the heroes, the Brjusovian (and infallably Russian) language combines so astonishingly with the exact and genuine form of the German autobiographical story of the seventeenth century.
Summing up everything that has been said, if I could exhort anyone, I would say this: My friend with talent, that is, the ability to see the world in your own way, in a new way, with an artist’s memory, with the power to distinguish the necessary from the incidental, with a plausible invention — write logically, observing the purity of colloquial speech, possessing your own manner; feel clearly the correspondence of a given form with a certain content and the language befitting it, be an experienced architect in both the petty details and the whole, be comprehensible in your expressions. But I would whisper into my beloved friend’s ear: If you are a conscientious artist, pray that your chaos (if you are chaotic) will be illuminated and ordered, or for the time being contain it in a clear form: let stories tell stories, let dramas have action, keep lyrics for verse, love the word, like Flaubert, be economical in means and niggardly in words, precise and genuine — and you will find the secret of an amazing thing — beautiful clarity — which I would call clarism.
But the way of art is long, and life is short, and are not all these exhortations only good wishes for myself alone?
Information about the computer file:
Title: On Beautiful ClarityAuthor: Mikhail Alekseevich KuzminTranslator: John Albert BarnsteadEdition: Version 1 of the ETC Kuzmin Collection edition of Responsibility: John Barnstead, chief editorResponsibility: Vivien Hannon, editorPublisher: Electronic Text Centre, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada: Kuzmin Collection, May 2002Source: Translated from Encoding: Encoded in TEI-conformant SGML.
Copyright © 1999 by John Barnstead