Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/September 1893/Origin of Literary Forms

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WHAT in current language we call literature, the literary aesthetics of civilized peoples, poetry intelligently composed and revised according to complicated metrical laws—written works, made to be read, not sung, and addressed to a cultivated public—only represent the last term of literary evolution. Primitive literature is very different, and is everywhere the same. Its origin is extremely distant, and it is probable that it even preceded, in our most ancient ancestors, the invention of articulate language—that great step which sealed the transformation of the anthropopithecus into man. That precious acquisition, however, was not miraculous nor instantaneous. The first speech was certainly very rudimentary; and before conquering it, the anthropoids from which man slowly issued possessed, like all other animals, a vocal language constituted solely of modulated cries resulting from simple reflex actions, automatic, and corresponding to the necessities, the desires, and the feelings of beings of little intelligence. In the brain of the anthropopithecus the passage from the cry to speech marked the beginning of a complete psychical revolution. It must have been effected with great slowness, and supposes a life in society of a cyclic duration, for the isolated infant still does not speak. The first words were probably cried or sung. Our very young children still sing before speaking, and even begin with singing their first articulated sounds; and not till they are three or four years old is their speaking voice clearly distinguished from their singing voice.

As in the human species the singing voice is much the most ancient, it has also left very deep impressions on our mentality. Certain cries, certain timbres or modulations of the voice, will today awaken in the most civilized man latent and profound impressions, and excite emotions that seize the hearer's very heart. From this psychic basis bequeathed to us by our ancestors, from this mental paleontology, are derived our taste for music and its emotional power. Those cries, those passionate accents, have more power over us than the most moving discourse, because they have been, through the long chain of ancestral generations, the expression of intense feeling of which we have not ceased to be susceptible. At the bottom, traced back to its origin, music is nothing more than the aesthetic imitation of particularly expressive vocal emissions; consequently its psychical roots go down very deep into the past, to the time when man began to be differentiated from the animal. It is, therefore, very much of course that in all races song should constitute one of the principal elements of primitive æsthetics. This is a fact that we have been able to verify everywhere, even among the most inferior types of men, as among the Pécherais of Terra del Fuego, whose song constitutes in itself alone all their æsthetic expression. Yet this is a rare, an exceptional fact; for usually, in primitive æsthetics, song is closely associated with gestures and mimicry, which, from the origin of our species, were probably secondary to the voice not yet spoken, illustrating the significance of the cry; for vocal sounds and gestures are equally reflexive acts, and the voice is only the result of muscular contractions, of laryngeal gestures.

The more rudimentary articulated language is, the more necessary to it is the aid of mimicry. Our children gesticulate long before they have learned how to talk, and they continue to do so long afterward; and we first succeed in communicating with them by means of gestures. Even the adult man, of the highest civilization, rarely confines himself to articulate language alone. Nearly always gestures are added automatically to the words, to sustain them, as comment, or to moderate or intensify the expression. The refined rhetoric of artists in speech makes great use of mimicry, and the ancient rhetors of Rome esteemed action very highly. The literary æsthetics of all primitive peoples, therefore, comprised at once song, speech, and gestures. Thus we have seen the men of all countries and all races beginning in literary æsthetics by blending into an indissoluble trinity mimicry, music, and poetry, or, in short, song and the scenic dance. In fact, as we have often shown, articulate speech begins by being the least important member of that æsthetic trinity; a simple accessory of the song—that is, of rhythmical, cadenced modulations—it defines their sense, but can not separate itself from them, and often gives place to simple modulated cries, to interjections, and to onomatopœias. In fact, with different primitive peoples, we have found species of romances without words, traces of an ancient interjectional poetry which probably preceded spoken poetry. The interjectional refrains, frequent among primitive men and in our popular songs, are evidently survivals of this same æsthetics.

We have seen that in all the earth the object sought by the primitive peoples in their dances and ballets is less the pleasure of rhythmical motion, to which they are, however, very sensitive, than significant, scenic mimicry, reproducing acts and adventures fitted to excite a lively interest in the little social community of which they form a part. What they want most of all is an expressive spectacle, giving the idea of a hunt, a battle, a cannibal feast, and their incidents; but such a dramatic ballet supposes the existence of a close association, of that communal clan which we meet in the origin of all societies, and which has everywhere modeled primitive æsthetics. These choral dances, these opera-ballets of savages, constitute in all races the collective rejoicings or ceremonials of the clans. We have found them among the Tasmanians, the Papuans, the Kafirs, the Polynesians, the American Indians, the Hebrews, the Greeks, and other nations. These scenic diversions always represent events of capital interest for the little social unity; and the nature of the events differs according to the degree of civilization. With the American Indians, they refer to the hunt or to war; with the Chinese, to different incidents in rural life, labor, the harvest, etc.

These beginnings of literary æsthetics explain to us why, among civilized peoples, music excites many persons to movement, to action; it is because the two were long associated in the ancient clans. But it addresses itself to very intelligent persons, with whom the necessity for muscular activity yields to that for mental activity, to the feelings, to the thought, when music, instead of exciting the muscular system, awakens the heart or stimulates the mind. It, for example, inspires in a Stendhal the desire to cooperate in the enfranchisement of Greece; in an Alfieri, plans for tragedy; and in a John Stuart Mill, philosophical speculations. In all these cases, in short, music plays the part of an excitant that determines different reactions according to the various modes of the mental organization.

The taste for measured, rhythmical musical sounds is, as we have seen, both primitive and universal. From this very taste has sprung the invention of meter, or the art of closely marrying the words to the melody, and consequently of counting the words and even the syllables of the words when they have more than one, of regarding their accentuation in chanted poetry, the only form that originally existed. In the primitive choirs the air was the most important element; the words were probably regulated by it. They were fitted at first with much difficulty and very imperfectly, by recourse to exclamations, to interjections void of sense, in order to fill blanks and create rhymes. Sometimes among very inferior races the rhyme and the pleasure of pronouncing it were obtained by simply repeating a word or a short phrase, as the Fuegian and the Australian do. Very commonly the essential element of the meter is the more or less imperfect rhyme, the rhyme by assonance. The verse without rhyme of some civilized peoples, like the Greeks and Latins, which depends chiefly on the tonic accent of the words, supposes a language developed and highly refined; but at bottom it also rests on combinations of assonances. The primitive songs never Being written, very imperfect rhymes sufficed for them. It is only among civilized peoples that meter becomes learned and complex, when poetry is almost entirely in the hands of professionals.

Usually when meter becomes more rigorous the length of the verse increases. Taken by themselves long verses indicate a refined civilization and a perfected literary æsthetics. The primitive verses are nearly always short, partly because they express short ideas, and partly because the desire for the repetition of agreeable sounds and the taste for rhymes or what represents them are more lively as man is less developed.

In China, where metrical evolution can be followed step by step, the verse in use has passed very slowly from four feet to seven feet. Arabian verse has been expanded in another way—by combining two short verses in one; and in a like way in the French Alexandrines the hemistich is a survival of a former epoch when the verse was very short. In India, Sanskrit verse, uneven but generally short in the Rig Veda, has been lengthened in the epics to fifteen syllables, with a hemistich.

Poetic diction, with its music and its meter, enjoys everywhere a peculiar prestige. It gives play to aesthetic impressionability, and has a dignity unknown to common language. On the other hand, verse easily engraves itself in the memory, and the ideas which it expresses form a sort of mental fund to which a great importance is attached, for the choral poetry of the primitive peoples sang only of subjects especially interesting to the community. Hence it comes to pass in many countries that even in the heart of old civilizations, far detached from their origin, the poetic form suffices to give any idea a great authority. "Among the Indians," says an old missionary, "a verse, even when quoted inappropriately, gives a great weight to reasoning, and if it contains a comparison that seems to illustrate some circumstances of the subject under discussion the very best reasoning can not have equal force with the comparison."[1] In the same way Arabian orators fancy they obtain great force for their speeches by larding them with citations in verse; and the Greek writers believed it necessary to give the poetic form to every elevated subject, even to their philosophical systems.

During the primitive period of literary evolution abstract literature does not come in question; moreover, poetry in words is never separated from song, and rarely from mimicry; and this becomes dancing when the motions are controlled by a musical rhythm. Frequently, also, in these archaic festivals the words sung are only an accessory.

The characteristic traits of the clan, the first social unity, are now well known to us. The primitive clan is a small group, in which the individual exists only as an integrant part of the whole, where consequently all individual acts are subordinated to the interests and needs of the social body, where no one is abandoned but no one is free, where property is more or less common, and where sexual unions are subject to regulations that seem to us strange and even immoral, for they have usually a character of restricted, regulated promiscuity. These narrow associations have been real psychical laboratories to the human race, in which languages, indispensable for mutual understanding and the concentration of efforts, and myths have been created, besides common feelings, and particularly altruistic feelings, without which no society could endure.

In the communal clan there is little place for person and for literature, and literary æsthetics necessarily takes the shape of a collective spectacle—of those choral dances, those opera-ballets, in which all the members of the clan are in turn actors and spectators, and in which mimicry and song are associated to represent scenes of common interest.

In these very rudimentary dances instrumental music figures at first only as an accessory, but its function goes on increasing in proportion as it is perfected. At first it is contented with a stick, such as the Australians strike on the ground to mark the measure; then the stick is replaced by the tom-tom, which fills the same office more perfectly. To the tom-tom are added in succession, first, wind instruments, then stringed instruments, both becoming gradually less primitive and better constructed, and at least capable of accompanying the song, and, as a final achievement, of taking the place of the voice in the execution of anygiven air. History witnessed the latter part of this musical evolution in Greece, where music finally separated itself from vocal song, of which it had for a long time been only an accessory.

As of necessity, poetry proper has strictly followed the transformations of this aesthetics. For a long time the subjects represented in the choral dances of the clan had an entirely impersonal character. These subjects were mythological, warlike, funereal, and nuptial scenes, in which the rhythmical words had necessarily to express ideas and feeling in harmony with the scene played. It is not necessary to say that these feelings and ideas were extremely simple; but in substance and form they were of a nature to interest the whole of the little social groups.

The duration of the primitive age of the communal clan must have been enormous, and it has marked its impression on the larger and more and more individualist societies that came out from it, but which did.not free themselves in a day from the hereditarily transmissible tastes and tendencies—the legacy of a long ancestral education.

Nevertheless, literary aesthetics has suffered modifications with the progress of social evolution; for it has had to express feelings and ideas more and more complex and varied. With the progress of differentiation, or of social inequality, arose numerous conflicts between the strong and the weak, the patrician and the plebeian, the rich and the poor.

These vexations, these violences, suffered by some and exercised by others, excited numerous new feelings, and often more personal, than the ancient choirs could express and re-echo to their hearers. The property thus became more and more individual, and there resulted from it a gradually increasing restriction of the social relations which the communal clan had only loosely regulated. The restricted promiscuousness of the early ages was replaced almost everywhere by a marriage, sometimes polygamic, sometimes monogamic, but legal, and making of women things possessed. The ancient liberty of love was abolished, but the genetic instinct is in its nature exacting and rebellious. When we attempt to chain it we excite passionate desires, intense feelings, that subjugate the whole mental life. The genetic fetters resulting from the new social organization will therefore arouse in the human brain new impressions and ideas of shades different according to the individuals. But all these psychical elements, at once new and intense, sought expression and reflection in a literature made in their image. Hence resulted the gradual blooming out of a new lyric poetry, which gradually tended to substitute itself for the choral lyric of the earlier ages.

From this phase dates amorous poetry, which was destined to take so large a development. There are good grounds for supposing that women may have especially participated in the creation of this lyric of the erotic kind. This is still the case in some Slavic countries and in Kabylia; and it is possible that in Greece Sappho only gave a brilliant personification to a more especially feminine literature, of which few specimens have come down to us. The lyric poetry of men is less confined to the domain of the amorous feelings. It touches more varied subjects and those of a more general interest, notably mythical and historical legends, capable of interesting a whole virile population, but possible to be versified and sung by isolated artists.

To accompany these individual songs of every kind, suitable instruments were needed, not noisy enough to drown the voice of the singer, but of suffciently extensive register to follow all the shadings and modulations. Stringed instruments happily fulfilled this purpose; and thus all the superior races have invented or adopted them, while in Greece, one of them, the lyre, served to give a name to passionate and personal poetry.

By virtue of their improvement, literary arts, song, poetry and instrumental music became difficult of practice. To perform them required a special education, while in principle everybody could participate in the execution of the primitive choruses. Then appeared those popular artists, of whom the Hellenic rhapsodists, the Scandinavian skalds, and the Celtic bards are the best-known types, but of whom we find a few everywhere, even in tropical Africa, in Polynesia, and among the Tartar, Kabyle, Finnish, and Slavic populations.

At first these barbaric songsters limited themselves to following their own inspiration; but they were not slowly subjected to powerful influences. The priests on one side and the kings on the other attached them to themselves, and required them to sing the mythical legends or the achievements of their heroes and princes. Outside of these official subjects the professional bards took for the themes of their compositions everything of interest to their fellow-citizens that presented itself, and became thus the poetic annalists of all notable events. These poets, most frequently wanderers, were the first to give precise form to the popular traditions current among the people, and their songs, transmitted from generation to generation, constituted the material for the epics composed much later by less inspired but more skillful artists, at a period when epic customs were only a recollection.

We find many occasions showing how closely literature depends on the social and political state. At the origin of societies, during the age of the communistic clan, literature, always very poor, is the exact expression of what might be called the collective soul. When the sacerdotal castes, aristocracies, and despotic monarchies have been instituted, when power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a minority of privileged persons, the great revolution has an influence at once useful and injurious upon literature. Encouraged, corrupted, and exploited by the directing classes, by the worldly fortunate, poetry gains much in form and technics; meter ceases to be simple; the gross assonances of the past no longer suffice to charm more refined audiences; exact rhymes are required, and a skillful adaptation of syllables to a rigorously determined quantity. At the same time, poetical compositions cease to be only oral. They are written, and prosody must at once satisfy the eye and the ear.

The substance is modified along with the form, and becomes aristocratic like it. Certain gross features, which formerly shocked no one, are expunged; but with this the poem suffers a loss of its naive grandeur, its sincerity of standard, its epic charm. When they undertook to protect and reward poets, the powerful classes ruled them always, even without desiring it; whether they knew it or not, they took them away from some subjects and imposed others upon them. On the whole, the final result of this high patronage is usually lamentable; and by the single fact of its existence, sincere, elevated, independent literature, the only kind that is of value, languished and expired under the rule of the "grand monarch," Louis XIV. What was left was only a shadow, an attenuated poetry, which chiseled out the form without caring for the material; which, having no ideas to express, juggled with the words, and saw nothing but the melodic side in the verse; in short, an inferior poetry, which tended to confound itself anew with its twin sister, music, which it had previously had to quit in order to think better.

The evolution of the dramatic art was effected in a nearly parallel line with that of lyric poetry. Even more rigorously than that, dramatic literature is the slave of the social state, because it has necessarily a collective character. In the course of our studies we have found the general opinion, according to which the theater is the literary expression of an advanced civilization, to be false. On the contrary, the dramatic species goes back to the very origin of literary æsthetics, for choral and mimic dances constitute nearly all the literature of primitive peoples, and a rudiment of scenic art has been found, even in Tasmania, among an extremely inferior race. In reality scenic poetry preceded all other kinds, and most frequently constituted their mold. By the simultaneous employment of mimicry, song, speech, and instrumental music, the opera-ballet of the early ages was the form of æsthetics most fitted strongly to impress spectators and actors, and at the same time to satisfy a very lively psychical want, that of projecting mental images outward, of reproducing with all the relief of reality what exists in the brain only in the state of recollection or desire. The civilized theater is only the natural development of this opera-ballet, and it preserves an equal attraction and an equal power, even after losing the lyrical form, which dated from its origin.

Dramatic art was even more than lyric poetry subjected by the dominant classes; and in Greece, in India, and in Europe of the middle ages the clergy of the great religions seized such a powerful means of expression, confiscated it for a longer or shorter time, and even permitted it only with reluctance to become laic. Dramatic art being an essentially collective sort of literature, addressing itself to the multitude, could not express more than the average of the prevailing opinions, of the ideas current in the surrounding social medium; too original views, too special feelings, were not in its domain; in return it is, more than any other kind of literature, the reflection of the mental and moral condition of a class, accordingly as it is popular or aristocratic; and instead of correcting manners it continually confines itself to depicting them. In the golden age of Greece the theater was lyric and heroic; with social and political decay, Hellenic tragedy could not stand the competition of satirical comedy, which is a social protestation. At Rome, where social iniquity was at a very early period more crying than in Greece, the theater never had a heroic age.

In all times and in all countries literature has declined morally, and has lost its nobility, its force, and its æsthetic beauty, in periods of moral decomposition; but the first of all kinds of literature to be debased and corrupted was dramatic, for societies could not support any theater above their own standard. On the contrary, lyric poetry, compositions entirely personal, might protest as survivals for a longer or shorter time against the general decadence by expressing the sentiments of the minority, which will never bend to the new manners. In dramatic literature, or in literature in general, for the observation is true for all kinds, there is a sign of decadence no longer moral but intellectual, which is constant and which I will now point out. When we follow the evolution of literatures from their infancy to their old age, we are struck at seeing how, during their period of growth and vigor, they make little account of an æsthetic element, which is highly esteemed, on the contrary, in periods of decline; I mean what is called "the feeling of the beautiful in Nature." In the choral poetries this element is wholly wanting; they are preoccupied solely with mythical conceptions of subjects of social interest. In general, during the virile age of literatures, descriptions of landscapes hold only a very accessory place; on the other hand, descriptive literature develops beyond measure during the period of decadence, as has been observed in China and India, where the excess and often the insipidity of the word-paintings overwhelm the chief subject of the poems. This belated taste for description seems, therefore, to be a characteristic symptom. It indicates that literary vigor is exhausted; that the writer has few ideas, or is restrained from expressing them; or that political liberty is dead, social sympathy is extinct, and intelligence is reduced.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Mensuelle de l'École d'Anthropologie.

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  1. Lettre édifiantes, vol. xiii, p. 113.