Hermann Bahr

The Overcoming of Naturalism

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The Overcoming of Naturalism

The supremacy of naturalism is over, its role is played, its spell is broken. Among the broad masses of the foolish who trot along behind a trend and usually first seize on every issue long after it has been settled, there may still be talk of iL But the vanguard of culture, the knowledgeable, the conquerors of the new values, turn away from iL New schools appear that want to have nothing more to do with the old slogans. They want to be free of naturalism and beyond naturalism.

There are now two questions that cannot be dismissed.

First, the question of what the new will be that is to overthrow naturalism.

Second, the question of the future destiny of naturalism. How it should adjust to such a change, what value it will hold for the next gen­eration, and what it will finally mean in the totality of developments.

Many traces of the new are already apparent. They permit of a number of interpretations. For a while, it was psychology that took the place of naturalism. To abandon the images of the external world in order to search out instead the enigma of the lonely soul-this was the catchword. One plumbed the last secrets slumbering in the depths of man. But diagnosing these conditions of the human soul no longer satisfied the restless fever of evolution. Instead, they demanded lyrical expression by means of which their pressure could first be relieved. We had come to psychology through a consistent naturalism, since psychological reality can be grasped only by us. Once its impulses were accommodated, we finally progressed from psychology to the necessary overthrow of naturalism. From this resulted the forming of the individual out of himself instead of imitating someone else, searching out the mysterious instead of following the extraneous, and above all expressing that other existence wherein we feel differently and which we know as reality. At the end of the long journey in search of the eternally elusive truth, the old feeling of the song by Petöfi, "Dreams, mother, never lie," had become widespread.' And art, which for a time had become the marketplace of reality, once again became "the temple of dream," as Maurice Maeterlinck had called it. Aesthetics did a turnabout. The artist's nature was no longer to be a tool of reality in order to realize its image. On the contrary. Reality again became the raw material of the artist in order for him to proclaim his nature in intelligible and effective symbols.

At first glance, it seemed an obvious reaction-a return to the classicism we so wickedIy maligned as well as to romanticism. The opponents of naturalism were right. Its whole splurge was just an episode, an episode of aberration. And had we immediately paid heed to the well-intentioned admonishers who never tired of casting suspicion on it and deploring it, we might have been spared the humiliation of the entire business and many a hangover. We would have remained with the old art and would have had no need of acquiring it only now as the very newest art.

We could, it is true, find various defenses for it, apologies of different sorts, and something nearly like a historical justification- even if natural­ism were truly just a straying from the right path. We could say: granted, it was a deviation. But then it was one of those necessary, indispensable, and salutary deviations without which art cannot move further, cannot move ahead. Its goal, to be sure, was always and always will be to express an artistic nature and to summon it forth from itself toward power over all others with such energy that they will be subjugated and forced to follow it. But precisely for the sake of this power, it needs the right material in order to have an association with the others. In ancient times this was self­ evident. But philosophical deformation lost it. Early man, however he undertook to express his inner being, could not do it any other way than by means of the things which in fact formed his inner being. Otherwise he had nothing in himself. He bore reality, the original form of reality, the way he received it, untransformed, and when he vented himself ex­ternally it could be only into reality. Every wish, every hope, every belief was mythology. But when the philosophical indoctrination concerning mankind arrived, that is, the instruction in thought, then the accumulated experiences of the soul were abbreviated to a set of symbols. Man learned to transform the concrete into the abstract and to preserve it as idea. And then postclassical idealism sometimes forgot that when a nature wishes to operate externally it must first reverse this process, moving from the abstract again back to the concrete. That is because the abstract, as an abbreviation and governor of the concrete, works only on him who has already possessed it for a long time. Hence naturalism became a useful and inevitable admonition. As such, one could support it even though the new art actually returned to the old.

But there is, after all, a difference between the old art and the new, if we examine it a bit more rigorously. To be sure, both the old art and the new art seek the expression of man. In that regard they are in agree­ment in their opposition to naturalism. But when classicism says man, it means reason and feeling. And when romanticism says "man," it means passion and the senses. And when modernism says "man" it means the nerves. So much, then, for the great unanimity.

I believe, therefore, that naturalism will be overcome by means of a nervous romanticism or, perhaps better said, by means of a mysticism of the nerves. Then naturalism would no longer be a corrective for philosophical deformation. It would be instead the release of the modern, for only in this thirty-year friction of the soul against reality could the virtuosity of nervousness develop.

Naturalism can be regarded as a reflection by idealism on its lost means.

Idealism lost the material for ideal expression. Now the necessary gathering and supplying has taken place. All that remains is for the old tradition to be taken up again and continued.

Or naturalism can be regarded as the principal school of the nerves, one in which the artist is developing and perfecting entirely new feelers, a sensibility of the finest and most delicate nuances, a self-consciousness of the unconscious for which no example exists.

Naturalism is either a pause for the recuperation of the old art or it is a pause for the preparation of the new. In any case, it is an intermission.

The world had renewed itself. Everything has become entirely different, all around. It began with the observation of the external. That is the first direction restless curiosity turned. To portray the unfamiliar, the external, in fact, the new. First phase.

But it was precisely that way that man also renewed himself. He is what matters now. To say how he is- second phase. And more important, to assert what it is that he wants: the urgent, the impetuous, the licentious- wild lust, the many fevers, the great enigmas.

To be sure, psychology, too, is just prelude. It is merely the awakening of naturalism from this long self-alienation, the rediscovery of the joy of the exploration of the self, the harkening to one's own impulses. But it goes deeper: proclaiming oneself, the egotistical, the singular individuality, the wonderful new. And this is to be found in nervousness. Third phase of the modern.

The new idealism is distinguishable from the old in two ways. Its means are those of the real world, its aim is to carry out the orders of the nerves.

The old idealism is genuine rococo. It expresses natures. But natures were then understood to be reason, feeling, and ornament. Take Wilhelm Meister, for example.2 But romantic idealism tosses reason out, hangs feeling on the stirrup of the racing senses and gallops off against ornament. It is disguised entirely in Gothic. But neither the old nor the romantic idealism give any thought to first transposing themselves out of themselves into reality. Without that, they feel sufficiently alive in naked inwardness.

The new idealism expresses the new human beings. They are nerves. Everything else has died out, withered and sterile. They experience only with the nerves, they react only from the nerves. Events transpire on the nerves and their effects proceed from the nerves. But language is rational or sensuous. That is why they can make use of it only as an idiom of flowers. Their manner of talking is always metaphor and symbol. They can often change it, since it is neither dangerous nor compulsive. And in the end it remains always disguise. The content of the new idealism is nerves, nerves, nerves and- costume. The decadence supplants the rococo and the Gothic masquerade. The form is reality, the quotidian external reality of the street, the reality of naturalism.

Where is the new idealism?

Its heralds are already here: Puvis de Chavanne, Degas, Bizet, Maurice Maeterlinck. Hope need not waver.

When nervousness becomes completely liberated and man, especially the artist, becomes entirely subordinate to the nerves, without regard for the rational and sensuous, then the lost joy will return to art. The imprison­ment in the external and the bondage of reality cause great pain. But now there will be a joyful liberation and an optimistic, audacious young pride when nervousness feels sovereign and able to assume the tyrannical or­ganization of its own world. Naturalism was a lamentation for the artist, since he had to serve it. But now he removes the tablets from the real and inscribes his own laws on them.

It will be something ebullient, hurrying, light-footed. The burden of logic and the weighty affliction of the senses are gone. Reality's ghastly delight in misery is going under. When the unfettered nerves are free to dream, a rosiness suffuses everything, a rustling, as from green shoots, can be heard, and there is dancing like that of the spring sun in the first morning wind; it is a winged, earth-freed ascent and soaring in azure voluptuousness.

"Die Überwindung des Naturalismus," 1891. Translation based on text as given in Hermann Bahr, Zur Überwindung des Naturalismus: Theoretische Schriften 1887-1904, ed. Gotthart Wunberg (Stuttgart: Kohihammer Verlag, 1968), 85-89. For an interesting new look at “The Overcoming of Naturalism," see Andrew Barker, "Hermann Bahr und die Uber­windung des Naturalismus," Hermann-Bahr-Symposion: Der Herr aus Linz, 9-14.

1.         Sandor Petöfi (1822-49), Hungarian Romantic and revolutionary poet.

2.         A reference to the eponymous hero of Goethe's Wi1he1m Meisters Lehrjahre (The Apprenticeship of Wi1helm Meister; 1796).