Ancient Art and Ritual
by Jane Ellen Harrison
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The young are often temporary artists: art, being based on life, calls for a strong vitality. The young are also self-centred and seek self-enhancement. This need of self-expression is a sort of artistic impulse. The young are, partly from sheer immaturity, still more through a foolish convention, shut out from real life; they are secluded, forced to become in a sense artists, or, if they have not the power for that, at least self-aggrandizers. They write lyric poems, they love masquerading, they focus life on to themselves in a way which, later on, life itself makes impossible. This pseudo-art, this self-aggrandizement usually dies a natural death before the age of thirty. If it live on, one remedy is, of course, the scientific attitude; that attitude which is bent on considering and discovering the relations of things among themselves, not their personal relation to us. The study of science is a priceless discipline in self-abnegation, but only in negation; it looses us from self, it does not link us to others. The real and natural remedy for the egotism of youth is Life, not necessarily the haunting of cafes, or even the watching of football matches, but strenuous activity in the simplest human relations of daily happenings. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."

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There is always apt to be some discord between the artist and the large practical world in which he lives, but those ages are happiest in which the discord is least. The nineteenth century, amid its splendid achievements in science and industry, in government and learning, and above all in humanity, illustrates this conflict in an interesting way. To literature, an art which can explain itself, the great public world lent on the whole a reverent and intelligent ear. Its great prose writers were at peace with their audience and were inspired by great public interests. Some of the greatest, for example Tolstoy, produced their finest work on widely human subjects, and numbered their readers and admirers probably by the million. Writers like Dickens, Thackeray, Kingsley, Mill, and Carlyle, even poets like Tennyson and Browning, were full of great public interests and causes, and, in different degrees and at different stages of their lives, were thoroughly and immensely popular. On the other hand, one can find, at the beginning of the period, figures like Blake and Shelley, and all through it a number of painters—the pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists—walking like aliens in a Philistine world. Even great figures like Burne-Jones and Whistler were for the greater part of their lives unrecognized or mocked at. Millais reached the attention of the world, but was thought by the stricter fraternity to have in some sense or other sold his soul and committed the great sin of considering the bourgeois. The bourgeois should be despised not partially but completely. His life, his interests, his code of ethics and conduct must all be matters of entire indifference or amused contempt, to the true artist who intends to do his own true work and call his soul his own.

At a certain moment, during the eighties and nineties, it looked as if these doctrines were generally accepted, and the divorce between art and the community had become permanent. But it seems as if this attitude, which coincided with a period of reaction in political matters and a recrudescence of a belief in force and on unreasoned authority, is already passing away. There are not wanting signs that art, both in painting and sculpture, and in poetry and novel-writing, is beginning again to realize its social function, beginning to be impatient of mere individual emotion, beginning to aim at something bigger, more bound up with a feeling towards and for the common weal.

Take work like that of Mr. Galsworthy or Mr. Masefield or Mr. Arnold Bennett. Without appraising its merits or demerits we cannot but note that the social sense is always there, whether it be of a class or of a whole community. In a play like Justice the writer does not "express" himself, he does not even merely show the pathos of a single human being's destiny, he sets before us a much bigger thing—man tragically caught and torn in the iron hands of a man-made machine, Society itself. Incarnate Law is the protagonist, and, as it happens, the villain of the piece. It is a fragment of Les Miserables over again, in a severer and more restrained technique. An art like this starts, no doubt, from emotion towards personal happenings—there is nothing else from which it can start; but, even as it sets sail for wider seas, it is loosed from personal moorings.

Science has given us back something strangely like a World-Soul, and art is beginning to feel she must utter our emotion towards it. Such art is exposed to an inherent and imminent peril. Its very bigness and newness tends to set up fresh and powerful reactions. Unless, in the process of creation, these can be inhibited, the artist will be lost in the reformer, and the play or the novel turn tract. This does not mean that the artist, if he is strong enough, may not be reformer too, only not at the moment of creation.

The art of Mr. Arnold Bennett gets its bigness, its collectivity, in part—from extension over time. Far from seeking after beauty, he almost goes out to embrace ugliness. He does not spare us even dullness, that we may get a sense of the long, waste spaces of life, their dreary reality. We are keenly interested in the loves of hero and heroine, but all the time something much bigger is going on, generation after generation rolls by in ceaseless panorama; it is the life not of Edwin and Hilda, it is the life of the Five Towns. After a vision so big, to come back to the ordinary individualistic love-story is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Art of high quality and calibre is seldom obscure. The great popular writers of the nineteenth century—Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Tolstoy—wrote so that all could understand. A really big artist has something important to say, something vast to show, something that moves him and presses on him; and he will say it simply because he must get it said. He will trick it out with no devices, most of all with no obscurities. It has vexed and torn him enough while it was pushing its way to be born. He has no peace till it is said, and said as clearly as he may. He says it, not consciously for the sake of others, but for himself, to ease him from the burden of big thought. Moreover, art, whose business is to transmit emotion, should need no commentary. Art comes out of theoria, contemplation, steady looking at, but never out of theory. Theory can neither engender nor finally support it. An exhibition of pictures with an explanatory catalogue, scientifically interesting though it may be, stands, in a sense, self-condemned.

We must, however, remember that all art is not of the whole community. There are small groups feeling their own small but still collective emotion, fashioning their own language, obscure sometimes to all but themselves. They are right so to fashion it, but, if they appeal to a wider world, they must strive to speak in the vulgar tongue, understanded of the people.

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It is, indeed, a hopeful sign of the times, a mark of the revival of social as contrasted with merely individualistic instincts that a younger generation of poets, at least in France, tend to form themselves into small groups, held together not merely by eccentricities of language or garb, but by some deep inner conviction strongly held in common. Such a unity of spirit is seen in the works of the latter group of thinkers and writers known as Unanimists. They tried and failed to found a community. Their doctrine, if doctrine convictions so fluid can be called, is strangely like the old group-religion of the common dance, only more articulate. Of the Unanimist it might truly be said, "il buvait l'indistinction." To him the harsh old Roman mandate Divide et impera, "Divide men that you may rule them," spells death. His dream is not of empire and personal property but of the realization of life, common to all. To this school the great reality is the social group, whatever form it take, family, village or town. Their only dogma is the unity and immeasurable sanctity of life. In practice they are Christian, yet wholly free from the asceticism of modern Christianity. Their attitude in art is as remote as possible from, it is indeed the very antithesis to, the aesthetic exclusiveness of the close of last century. Like St. Peter, the Unanimists have seen a sheet let down and heard a voice from heaven saying: "Call thou nothing common nor unclean."

Above all, the Unanimist remembers and realizes afresh the old truth that "no man liveth unto himself." According to the Expressionist's creed, as we have seen, the end of art is to utter and communicate emotion. The fullest and finest emotions are those one human being feels towards another. Every sympathy is an enrichment of life, every antipathy a negation. It follows then, that, for the Unanimist, Love is the fulfilling of his Law.

It is a beautiful and life-giving faith, felt and with a perfect sincerity expressed towards all nature by the Indian poet Tagore, and towards humanity especially by M. Vildrac in his Book of Love ("Livre d'Amour"). He tells us in his "Commentary" how to-day the poet, sitting at home with pen and paper before him, feels that he is pent in, stifled by himself. He had been about to re-tell the old, old story of himself, to set himself once more on the stage of his poem—the same old dusty self tricked out, costumed anew. Suddenly he knows the figure to be tawdry and shameful. He is hot all over when he looks at it; he must out into the air, into the street, out of the stuffy museum where so long he has stirred the dead egotist ashes, out into the bigger life, the life of his fellows; he must live, with them, by them, in them.

"I am weary of deeds done inside myself, I am weary of voyages inside myself, And of heroism wrought by strokes of the pen, And of a beauty made up of formulae.

"I am ashamed of lying to my work, Of my work lying to my life, And of being able to content myself, By burning sweet spices, With the mouldering smell that is master here."

Again, in "The Conquerors," the poet dreams of the Victorious One who has no army, the Knight who rides afoot, the Crusader without breviary or scrip, the Pilgrim of Love who, by the shining in his eyes, draws all men to him, and they in turn draw other men until, at last:

"The time came in the land, The time of the Great Conquest, When the people with this desire Left the threshold of their door To go forth towards one another.

"And the time came in the land When to fill all its story There was nothing but songs in unison, One round danced about the houses, One battle and one victory."

And so our tale ends where it began, with the Choral Dance.


[54] Ethics, X, 4.

[55] H. Bergson, Life and Consciousness, Huxley Lecture, May 29, 1911.

[56] Religion is here used as meaning the worship of some form of god, as the practical counterpart of theology.

[57] Mr. D.S. MacColl.

[58] D.S. MacColl, Nineteenth Century Art, p. 21. (1902.)

[59] It is interesting to find, since the above was written, that the Confession of Faith published in the catalogue of the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition (1912, p. 21) reproduces, consciously or unconsciously, Tolstoy's view: We have ceased to ask, "What does this picture represent?" and ask instead, "What does it make us feel?"


For Ancient and Primitive Ritual the best general book of reference is:

FRAZER, J.G. The Golden Bough, 3rd edition, 1911, from which most of the instances in the present manual are taken. Part IV of The Golden Bough, i.e. the section dealing with Adonis, Attis, and Osiris, should especially be consulted.

Also an earlier, epoch-making book:

ROBERTSON SMITH, W. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, 1889 [3rd edition, 1927]. For certain fundamental ritual notions, e.g. sacrifice, holiness, etc.

[For Egyptian and Babylonian ritual: Myth and Ritual, edited by S.H. HOOKE, 1933.]

For the Greek Drama, as arising out of the ritual dance: Professor GILBERT MURRAY'S Excursus on the Ritual Forms preserved in Greek Tragedy in J.E. HARRISON'S Themis, 1912, and pp. 327-40 in the same book; and for the religion of Dionysos and the drama, J.E. HARRISON'S Prolegomena, 1907, Chapters VIII and X. For the fusion of the ritual dance and hero-worship, see W. LEAF, Homer and History, 1915, Chapter VII. For a quite different view of drama as arising wholly from the worship of the dead, see Professor W. RIDGEWAY, The Origin of Tragedy, 1910. An important discussion of the relation of tragedy to the winter festival of the Lenaia appears in A.B. COOK'S Zeus, vol. i, sec. 6 (xxi) [1914].

[More recent works on Greek drama: A.W. PICKARD-CAMBRIDGE, Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy, 1927; G. THOMSON, Aeschylus and Athens, 1941.]

For Primitive Art:

HIRN, Y. The Origins of Art, 1900. The main theory of the book the present writer believes to be inadequate, but it contains an excellent collection of facts relating to Art, Magic, Art and Work, Mimetic Dances, etc., and much valuable discussion of principles.

GROSSE, E. The Beginnings of Art, 1897, in the Chicago Anthropological Series. Valuable for its full illustrations of primitive art, as well as for text.

[BOAS, F., Primitive Art, 1927.]

For the Theory of Art:

TOLSTOY, L. What is Art? Translated by Aylmer Maude, in the Scott Library.

FRY, ROGER E. An Essay in AEsthetics, in the New Quarterly, April 1909, p. 174.

This is the best general statement of the function of Art known to me. It should be read in connection with Mr. Bullough's article, quoted on p. 129, which gives the psychological basis of a similar view of the nature of art. My own theory was formulated independently, in relation to the development of the Greek theatre, but I am very glad to find that it is in substantial agreement with those of two such distinguished authorities on aesthetics. For my later conclusions on art, see Alpha and Omega, 1915, pp. 208-220.

[CAUDWELL, C., Illusion and Reality, 1937.]

For more advanced students:

DUSSAUZE, HENRI. Les Regles esthetiques et les lois du sentiment, 1911.

MUeLLER-FREIENFELS, R. Psychologie der Kunst, 1912.


Abstraction, 224

Adonis, rites of, 19, 20, 54-56 ——, gardens of, 149 ——, as tree spirit, 149

AEschylus, 47

Aesthete, not artist, 214-215

Agon, 15

Anagnorisis, or recognition, 15

Anthesteria, spring festival of, 147-149

Apollo Belvedere, 171

Aristotle on art, 198

Art and beauty, 213 —— and imitation, 230 —— and morality, 215 —— and nature, 198 —— and religion, 225 ——, emotional factor in, 26 ——, social elements in, 241-248

Ascension festival, 69

Bear, Aino festival, 92-99

Beast dances, 45, 46

Beauty and art, 211

Bergson on art, 134

Birth, rites of new, 104-113

Bouphonia, 91-92

Bull-driving in spring, 85 ——, festival at Magnesia, 87

Cat's-cradle, as magical charm, 66

Censor, function of, 216

Charila, spring festival, 80

Chorus in Greek drama, 121-128

Dancing, a work, 30-31 ——, magical, 31-35 ——, commemorative, 44

Daphnephoros, 186

Death and winter, 67-72

Dike as way of life, 116

Dionysis, 12, 150

Dionysis as Holy Child, 103 —— as tree god, 102 —— as young man, 113-115

Dithyramb, 75-89

Drama and Dromenon, 35-38

Easter, in Modern Greece, 73

Eiresione, 114

Epheboi, Athenian, 12

Euche, meaning of, 25

Expressionists, 232

Futurists, 232

Ghosts as fertilizers, 149

Homer, influence on drama, 145-166

Horae or seasons, 116

Idol and ideal, 227

Impressionism, 231

Imitation, 21-23 ——, ceremonies in Australia, 64

Individualism, 241

Initiation ceremonies, 64, 106-113

Jack-in-the-Green, 60, 187, 190

Kangaroos, dance of, 46

Landscape, art of, 199-201

Maeterlinck, 200

May-day at Cambridge, 57

May, queen of the, 57-61 ——, king of the, 193

Mime, meaning of, 47

Mimesis, 43-47

Music, function of, 233

New birth, 106-113

Olympian gods, 202

Orchestra, meaning of, 123-127

Osiris, rites of, 15-23, 51

Ox-hunger, 81

Panathenaia, 178

Panspermia, 148

Parthenon frieze, 176

Peisistratos, 146

Peplos of Athena, 180

Pericles on religion, 178

Personification and conception, 70-73

Plato on art, 21-23

Pleasure not joy, 213

Post-impressionists, 238

Prayer discs, 24

Presentation, meaning of, 53

Psychical distance, 129-134

Representation, 34-41

Resurrection, rites of, 100

Rites, periodicity of, 52

Ritual forms in drama, 188-189

Santayana on art, 220

Semele, bringing up of, 81

Spring song at Saffron Walden, 59 —— at Athens, 77

Stage or scene, 142-145

Summer, bringing in of, 67-71

Tammuz, rites of, 18-20

T{)e}l{)e}t{-e}, rite of growing up, 112

Theatre, 10-13, 136

Themis, as ritual custom, 117

Theoria and theory, 248

Threshing-floor at dancing-place, 124

Tolstoy on art, 132, 238-241

Totemism and beast dances, 46, 47

Tragedy, ritual forms in, 119-122 ——, origin of, 76

Tug of war, among Esquimaux, 62

Unanimism, 249-252

Vegetation spirit, 72

Winter, carrying out of, 68-72

Wool, sacred, 12

World-soul, 246

Wreaths, festival of, 189 ——, at Greek weddings, 190

Zola on art, 242

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Printed in Great Britain by The Camelot Press Ltd., London and Southampton


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