The Overcoming of Naturalism
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
are now two questions that cannot be dismissed.
the question of what the new will be that is to overthrow naturalism.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
can be regarded as a reflection by idealism on its lost means.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is the new idealism?
heralds are already here: Puvis de Chavanne, Degas, Bizet, Maurice Maeterlinck.
Hope need not waver.
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
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.
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).