1920s >> 1926 >> no-266-october-1926

Materialsm and Art by George Plechanoff

(Continued from last month.)


Let’s go further. In discussing imitation, we mention as directly opposing it the inclination of contradiction.

This should be studied carefully.

We know what an important role the “beginning of antithesis” plays in the feelings of men and animals, according to Darwin.

“Certain states of mind lead, as we have seen in the last chapter, to certain habitual movements which were primarily, or may still be, of service ; and we shall find that when a directly opposite state of mind is induced there is a strong and involuntary tendency to the performance of movements of a directly opposite nature, though these have never been of any service.”1

Darwin brings many examples which convincingly show that “with the beginning of antithesis” very much is explained in the expression of feelings. We ask : Is its action visible in the origin and development of customs?

When a dog throws himself on his back before his master, then his pose, combining all that is possible to think of as a contradiction to antagonism or resistance, is an expression of obedience. The beginning of antithesis is obvious here. That is also seen in the case described by the traveller Burton. The negroes of the Yuaniamuazi tribe, passing by the village inhabited by their enemies, carry no weapons, so as not to inspire a quarrel. Nevertheless in their homes, where they are comparatively out of danger, every one of them is armed at least with a club.2 If, remarks Darwin, a dog turns on its maw, as if to say to his master, “Look, I am your servant,” then the Vuaniamuazi negro, disarming when it seems he should be armed, in the same way tells his enemy : “The thought of self-defence is far away from me; I wholly rely upon your generosity.”

In both cases there is the same meaning and the same expression, i.e., expression through action, directly contrary to the one which would be inevitable in a case where instead of obedience, inimical intentions existed.

In customs serving to express grief there is also evident the beginning of antithesis. According to Du Shalie, in Africa after the death of a man who had occupied an important place in his tribe, many negroes attire themselves in dirty clothes.3 David and Charles Livingstone say that a negress never leaves home without ornaments except on those occasions when she is clad in mourning.4 In the negro tribe of Niam Niam, when a relative dies the near sur¬vivors cut off their hair, as a sign of grief.5

In all those cases the emotion is expressed by an action contrary to the one which is considered useful or agreeable in the normal course of life. And if there are many such cases to be pointed out, then it is clear that a great number of customs owe their origin to the action of the beginning of antithesis. And if this is clear, then we can suppose that the development of our aesthetic conceptions is also accomplished under its influence.

In Senegambi rich negresses wear slippers, which are so small that the foot does not go in fully, with the result that these dames are distinguished by a very awkward gait. But this awkward gait is considered extremely attractive.6 How could it become such? In order to understand this, it is necessary first of all to remark that the poor, working negresses don’t wear the above-mentioned slippers and have an ordinary gait. It is impossible for them to walk as the rich coquettes do, because it would cause a loss of time. And it is only on account of this distinction that the awkward gait of the rich women is so attractive ; time is not valuable to them, for they are released from the necessity of work. In itself this gait has no sense or value, but becomes significant only in its force of contrast to the gait of the working woman. The beginning of antithesis is obvious here, but notice that it is called forth by the existence of inequality in property among the negroes of Senegambi.

Let’s recall what we said earlier about the morals of the English nobility during the Restoration of the Stuarts, and you will agree that the inclination to contradiction displays a peculiar reaction in the social psychology of Darwin’s beginning of antithesis. Such virtues as industriousness, temperance, strictness of family morals, etc., were very necessary for the bourgeoisie, whose aim was to occupy a much higher social and political position. But were the vices contrary to the bourgeois virtues necessary for the struggling nobility? No, these vices sprang up not as a means of struggle for existence, but as a psychological result of this struggle : hating the revolutionary inclinations of the bourgeoisie, the nobility began to feel a disgust also toward their virtues and therefore began to demonstrate vices just the contrary. The action of the beginning of antithesis also in this case was brought on by social causes.7

It is known from the history of English literature how strongly the psychologic action of the beginning of antithesis, brought about by class-struggle, has reflected itself upon the aesthetic conceptions of the upper classes of society. The English aristocracy who lived in France during their exile, became acquainted with the French theatre and literature which presented a standard quite singular in character, and in its way the product of the refined aristocracy and therefore suited more to their own aristocratic tendencies, than the English literature and theatre of the Elizabethan age. After the Restoration, French tastes began to predominate on the English stage and in English literature. Shakespeare began to be treated as the French treated him afterwards, as strongly holding to classical traditions, that is as a “drunken savage.” His “Romeo and Juliet” was considered then as bad; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream “—”foolish and ridiculous” ; “Henry VIII” was found too “naive”; “Othello”— “mediocre.” 8 Such criticism of Shakespeare does not fully disappear even in the next century, Hume thought that Shakespeare’s genius seemed large in the same way that all ugly, disproportionately built bodies seem large. He blames the dramatist for his total ignorance of all theatrical art and conduct.

Pope regretted that Shakespeare wrote for the people and did without the protec¬tion of his prince and the encouragement of court. Even the famous Garrick, the worshipper of Shakespeare, tried to ennoble his “idol” in his performance of the grave-digger ; to “King Lear” he added a happy conclusion. But the democratic part of the public in the English theatres continued to feel the deepest devotion to Shakespeare. Garrick confessed that in changing Shakespeare’s plays he risked a wild protest from this part of the public.

His French friends paid him compliments in their letters regarding the “courage” with which he met the danger; “Car je connais la populace Anglaise,” adds one of them. 9

The licentiousness of manners of the nobility of the second half of the seventeenth century was reflected, as is known, on the English stage where it took indeed extreme measures. According to Edward Engels, comedies written in England between 1660 and 1690 almost all without exception belong to the domain of pornography.10 After all this we can say a priori, that sooner or later in England, at the beginning of this antithesis, the appearance of dramatic productions whose main aim would be the representation and exaltation of bourgeois virtues was inevitable.

As far as it is known, Hippolyte Taine noticed and more ingeniously than others emphasised the significance of this in the history of aesthetic conceptions.11

In his illuminating and interesting “Voyage aux Pyrénnées” he related a talk with one of his “table neighbours,” Mr. Paul, because it adequately expressed the author’s point of view.

“You go to Versailles,” says Mr. Paul, “and are perturbed by the seventeenth century tastes. But cease for a moment to judge from the point of view of your own needs and your own habits. . . . We are right when we are charmed by a wild landscape, as they were right when such a landscape seemed tedious. There was nothing uglier than this mountain for the people of the seventeenth century.12 It evoked many unpleasant pictures. People who only recently lived through the epoch of Civil Wars, and semi-barbarism, in view of this mountain, called to mind hunger, long rides on horseback under snow and rain, black bread half mixed with husk, served always in dirty, greasy hotels. They were tired of barbarism, just as we are tired of civilisation. These mountains give us a chance of retreat from our pavements, offices and stores. This is the only reason why you like this landscape and if it were not for this reason it would seem to you as ugly as it once seemed to Madame Mentenon.”13

We like the wild landscape as a contrast to city views, of which we are tired. City landscapes and trimmed gardens were liked by the people of the seventeenth century as a contrast to a wild site. The action “of the beginning of antithesis” is here undoubtedly patent. But just because there is no doubt, it clearly shows us to what extent psychological laws can serve as a source of explanation of the history of ideology in general and of the history of aesthetics in particular. The beginning of antithesis played an important role in the psychology of the people of the seventeenth century, as it plays an important role in the psychology of contemporaries. Why then are our aesthetic tastes contrary to the tastes of the seventeenth century? Because we live in an environment entirely different. Therefore we come to the known conclusion : the psychological nature of man makes it so that he can have aesthetic conceptions, and that Darwin’s beginning of antithesis (Hegel’s “contradiction”) plays an immense role, to this time unappreciated in the mechanism of those conceptions. But why does the given man have only these and not other tastes ; why does he like only these and not other things?—this depends upon his environment. The illustration given by Taine also shows well the character of those conditions; how the social conditions determine the nature and course of man’s culture.

The illustration by Taine shows social conditions, as a cause that makes the fundamental laws of our psychology, but in this illustration the discourse is only about our relations to the impressions made by nature. But the fact is that the influence of such impressions changes in accordance with our own relations to the change in nature, and our own relationship is determined by the course of development of our social culture. As an example Taine gives a landscape. It is to be remarked that in the history of painting a landscape in general takes a place far from perpetual. Michel Angelo and his contemporaries neglected it. It developed in Italy only at the end of the Renaissance, at the moment of its decay. Also for the French artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century it had no substantial meaning. In the nineteenth century this is abruptly changed; the landscape is beginning to be esteemed for the sake of a landscape, and such young painters as Fleur, Kaba, Th. Reausseau seek for inspiration at the bosom of nature, in the outskirts of Paris, in Fauntenebleau, and in Medon; the possibility of such inspiration was not sus-pected by the painters at the time of Le Brens and Bouche. Why? Because the social conditions of France changed and as a result the psychology of the French changed. And in various epochs of social development man gets for nature different impressions, for he looks upon them from different points of view.

The action of general laws on the psychical nature of man do not cease, of course, with only those epochs. But, as in various epochs, in consequence of variety in social relations, since different materials come into human minds, it is not strange that the results of its finish are different.

1 “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” (P. 50.)
2 Voyage aux grands lacs de l’Afrique orientale, Paris, 1862. (P. 610.)
3 Voyage and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. (P. 268.)
4 Exploration du Zambèse et de ses affluents, Paris, 1866. (P. 109.)
5 Schweinfurth; In the Heart of Africa v 2 (P. 33.)
6 L. J. B. Berenger-Ferand. Les peuplades de la Sénégambie. Paris, 1879. (P. 11.)
7 It is necessary also to remark that only because of their social position the nobility could put their brilliant vices against the common virtues of the bourgeoisie. In the psychology of the struggling peasantry or proletarian class the action of the beginning of antithesis could have been displayed in the same fashion.
8 Beljam. (Pp 40-41.) Compare Tains. (Pp. 508-512.)
9 About this see an interesting investigation by J. J. Jusserand. ”Shakespeare sous l’ancien regime.” 1698. (Pp. 247-248.)
10 Geschichte der englischen Litteratur. 3 Auflage, Leipzig, 1897. (S. 264.)
11 Tarde had a wonderful occasion to examine the psychological action of this beginning in his book, “L’Opposition universelle, essai d’une théorie des Contraries,” which came out in 1897. But for some reason he did not make use of it, and limited it with only few remarks about the indicated action. It is true, Tarde says, (P. 245) that his book is not a sociological treatise, but even in a treatise especially devoted to sociology, he certainly could not have mastered this subject had he not gotten rid of his idealistic view.
12 We must have in mind that the conversation is carried on in the Pyrenees.
13 Voyage aux Pyrénées cinquieme edition. Paris, 1867.

Translated for “Modern Quarterly” by Bessie Peretz.

(To be concluded).

(Socialist Standard, October 1926)

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