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Monday, November 15, 2010

Tolstoy's Concept of the Religious Art as Reflected on Steinbeck's "The Pearl"

A Post-graduate Paper on Literary Criticism

In 1898, Leo Tostoy wrote his major work on criticism, What Is Art?, as an attempt to define art in terms of his own Christian faith.

Tolstoy states that good art is a means of communication, of progress, and of the movement of humanity forward toward perfection (Smith and Parks, 677).

What Is Art? envisions a kind of art that is accessible and comprehensible to everyone, and that which unifies men into universal brotherhood. For this to materialize a work of art should evoke "infectiousness" to the reader. "The stronger the infection the better is the art." (675)

According to Tolstoy, there are three conditions to the degree of the infectiousness of art. These are the individuality of the feeling transmitted, the clarity of expression and the sincerity of the artist. By individuality, he means, the more personal the feeling art transmits, the more strongly the reader relates to it. By the clarity of expression, he means that in the work, the reader finds for the first time the exact meaning and expression for the feeling he has long known and felt. However, of the three conditions of infectiousness, the degree of sincerity in the artist is the most important. For when the receiver of the art feels that the artist himself is infected by his own work, and the artist creates art for himself and not only for others, the mental condition of the artist infects the reader. (677)

Tolstoy further states that the absence of any of these conditions excludes a work from the category of art and falls under what he calls a "counterfeit art."

But what is good art and what is bad art in terms of subject matter? The essence of Christian perception is the recognition by every man of his sonship to God and the feeling that will unite him with God and with others. If religious perception exists in the society, then art should aim at this and be appraised on the basis of this religious perception.

However, a great amount of counterfeit art was developed to entertain the upper class of the Renaissance period. The great misfortune of the time is that people did not embrace the supreme religious art but rather those which were against Christian principles.

Be that as it may, the Christian ideal has changed and reversed everything. As Tolstoy puts it, the ideal is no longer about the greatness of an individual, but his humility, purity, compassion and love. The hero is no longer the benefactor but the beggar; not the merciful but the one least deserving of mercy.

By this Christian ideal the writer aims to study John Steinbeck's 1947 novella The Pearl.

The Pearl is a retelling of a Mexican folk tale about a poor fisherman and his wife and child. When the fisherman Kino finds an extraordinary pearl, he hopes that it will bring comfort and health to his family. But soon he discovers that instead of a new house, new clothes and an education for his son, the great pearl brings greed, envy and ultimately death to his family.

The Pearl is in the category of what Tolstoy calls the religious art which transmits feelings flowing from a religious perception of man's position in the world in relation to God and his neighbor. It answers Tolstoy's Christian ideal of art which discusses not about the rich, but the poor; not about those who dwell in palaces, but those who dwell in brush houses and huts; not about those who rule, but those who acknowledge no authority but God's.

From a hand-me-down lesson given by Kino's father, each man and woman is like a soldier sent by God to guard some parts of the castle of the universe. Some are designated to watch over the barricades while others are appointed to some deep dark quarters by the walls. Regardless of the assignment, each one must be loyal to his post to shield the castle from the assaults of Hell. This somehow educates Kino on man's destiny as willed by God. To go against this bidding will lead him to his destruction. This is a warning of the things to come in Kino's life.

In The Pearl, most of the characters are the ones in the lower class of the society. They are those who dwell in brush houses and huts; the ones who have corncakes as the only breakfast known outside of feast days; the ones whose only known conversation every morning is the sigh of satisfaction. But more than representatives of the social poor, the characters in The Pearl are symbols that portray a social group and its ideals.

Kino is an honest and dignified pearl diver who works to support his family. He functions well in the traditional way of the village. Kino depends on nature for his existence. When the waters are rough, he cannot go on fishing. When the sun sets, his workday ends.

As Kino moves away from the mental and cultural tradition of his village, he becomes isolated. His marching toward the city to find a better deal for his pearl is a symbolic move toward a more complex civilization. He envisions in his hands the benefits of a civilization that will free him and his family from the servitude of poverty - power, money and an education for his son Coyotito. Consequently, Kino loses his innocence and brings about his downfall when he tempts fate by going beyond his social limitations.

Juana represents the integrity of a simple way of life. She is the loving and devoted wife, the unwavering force in Kino's life. She has great inner strength and determination. Such is shown when Coyotito is bitten by the scorpion. She acts immediately and sucks out the poison while muttering a Hail Mary and some ancient magic in her head. On the other hand, Kino hovers, is helpless, and is in the way.

Juana has a strong survival instinct where her family is concerned. When the doctor refused to treat Coyotito, Kino responded by punching the gate; Juana put a seaweed poultice on the child's shoulder. Juana moves along with the rhythm of nature, and is aware of her social boundaries. Unlike Kino, she does not believe in pursuing the seemingly unattainable.

Coyotito, the son, represents nature in its most undeveloped stage; the victim of powers greater than himself.

The Doctor is the symbol of evil in man's society. In his book of principles, money counts more than human life and professional pride. He embodies the arrogance of the powerful in society toward the powerless.

Tolstoy's idea of infectiousness through the individuality of the feeling transmitted is shown in the novella's theme on man's struggle for existence. Although Kino's way of life may differ from ours, it contains the same kinds of struggles that everyone faces at some time - the struggle for food and shelter, and the struggle to defend himself from the attacks of nature (the scorpion) and from other human beings who burn his hut, destroy his canoe, hunt him down, and kill his child.

Steinbeck's clarity of expression brings to life in its moving description the evil of man and the rage of man wronged. When Kino's old canoe is destroyed by his enemies, it was an evil beyond thinking for "the killing of a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat. For a boat does not have sons, and a boat cannot protect itself, and a wounded boat does not heal." Seeing this, Kino, now a wounded animal, runs to his house. It does not occur to him to take one of the canoes of his neighbors. "Never once did the thought enter his head, any more than he could have conceived breaking a boat." In Steinbeck's remarkable lines, sorrow is felt to the core and pain to its roots.

As Tolstoy says, the most important of the art's condition of infectiousness is the sincerity of the artist in his craft. The sincerity of Steinbeck in writing The Pearl can be reflected on his 1962 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: "Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed...The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry, for courage, compassion and love… a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature" (National Steinbeck Center, 2).

And if great works of art embody the understanding of the meaning of life, The Pearl moves closest to this understanding through Kino and his family as they realize that "there are only good and bad things and black and white things and good and evil things, and no in-between anywhere." In the end, they learn that poverty is not a lesson God would like to teach the poor. Poverty is that part of the castle in the universe God has assigned some men and women to guard, with dignity, from the assaults of iniquity, of greed, and of envy.

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