Maurice Beebe (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Beebe, Maurice. Introduction to Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce, pp. 3-18. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

[In the following introduction to what is generally considered the definitive study of the künstlerroman, Beebe examines the theory of...

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SOURCE: Beebe, Maurice. Introduction to Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce, pp. 3-18. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

[In the following introduction to what is generally considered the definitive study of the künstlerroman, Beebe examines the theory of the “Divided Self” whereby the main character of a book is an outward expression of the author himself; he also explores the “Ivory Tower” tradition in which the writer “exalts art above life” and the “Sacred Fount” theory where the artist equates art with experience.]

No sooner has Denis Stone, the young poet in Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow, confessed that he is writing a novel than he is chagrined to hear a new acquaintance describe the plot of the story:

“Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the Luminous Future.”

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. He made an effort to laugh. “You're entirely wrong,” he said. “My novel is not in the least like that.” It was a heroic lie. Luckily, he reflected, only two chapters were written. He would tear them up that evening when he unpacked.

Mr. Scogan paid no attention to his denial, but went on: “Why will you young men continue to write about things that are so entirely uninteresting as the mentality of adolescents and artists? … As for the artist, he is preoccupied with problems that are so utterly unlike those of the ordinary adult man—problems of pure aesthetics which don't so much as present themselves to people like myself—that a description of his mental processes is as boring to the ordinary reader as a piece of pure mathematics. A serious book about artists regarded as artists is unreadable; and a book about artists regarded as lovers, husbands, dipsomaniacs, heroes, and the like is really not worth writing again.”1

Mr. Scogan is not clairvoyant; he is simply well read. The story of Percy could be that of several hundred sensitive young heroes of novels, for by 1921, when Crome Yellow was published, both the artist and the adolescent had become hackneyed subjects of fiction. The tradition of artist fiction, which had developed steadily for more than a century, reached a crest in the first two decades of the twentieth century. William York Tindall has gone so far as to say that “from 1903 onwards, almost every first novel by a serious novelist was a novel of adolescence.”2 Mr. Scogan is justified in linking stories of adolescents with stories of artists, because the story of a sensitive young man is usually that of a potential artist; when the novel is autobiographical, as most are, it is the story of the artist who wrote the book.

Less justified is Mr. Scogan's blanket dismissal of a form of fiction which includes some of the most distinguished novels of the past century: Pierre, Lost Illusions, Sentimental Education, The Way of All Flesh, Sons and Lovers, The Tragic Muse, Jean-Christophe, Remembrance of Things Past, The Counterfeiters, Doctor Faustus, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.3 If it be objected that Mr. Scogan is speaking as the “ordinary adult man” and that few of these novels have attained popular success, the list could easily be expanded to include such nineteenth-century classics as Wilhelm Meister, David Copperfield, Pendennis, and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel; or such twentieth-century best-sellers as Of Human Bondage, Martin Eden, Maurice Guest, The Song of the Lark, The Constant Nymph, Lust for Life, Sparkenbroke, Sinister Street, The Fountainhead, The Horse's Mouth, The Alexandrian Quartet, and Look Homeward, Angel.

Fictional portraits of the artist are valuable in at least two ways. First, a portrait of the artist helps us to understand the novelist who wrote it. The novel can be seen in much the same manner as the writer's letters, diaries, notebooks, prefaces, or memoirs—though, of course, the careful critic will not make a one-to-one equation between a work of art and an autobiography. Nonetheless, the very fact that the artist-novel is a product of the imagination, in which the experience it uses is distorted and transcended, makes it often more revealing than primary documents, for writers frequently tell more about their true selves and convictions under the guise of fiction than they will confess publicly. The second main value of the portrait-of-the-artist novel is to be found in its cumulative impact. A comparative study of many portraits of the artist enables us better to understand the artist in general. Ideas that may seem eccentric or special in an individual portrait of the artist take on added significance when the same ideas are expressed again and again by other novelists. Thus a knowledge of the whole tradition helps to illuminate each work within that tradition.4

Artists have always prided themselves on their individuality, but the most surprising fact about portrait-of-the-artist novels is their similarity. From the beginnings of the genre in the late eighteenth century to the present time, the artist-hero is an easily recognized type. The person blessed (or cursed?) with “artistic temperament” is always sensitive, usually introverted and self-centered, often passive, and sometimes so capable of abstracting himself mentally from the world around him that he appears absentminded or “possessed.” Granted most or all of these traits, he has an excellent chance of becoming an artist if he also has talent and the ability to apply himself. In many artist-novels, however, the story concludes with the hero not yet an accomplished artist. Except in temperament, Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is still more young man than artist at the novel's conclusion, and when we reach the end of Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdee, we find that Marcel is at last ready to write the book we have just read. In both instances, as in many others, the hero attains this state only after he has sloughed off the domestic, social, and religious demands imposed upon him by his environment. Narrative development in the typical artist-novel requires that the hero test and reject the claims of love and life, of God, home, and country, until nothing is left but his true self and his consecration as artist. Quest for self is the dominant theme of the artist-novel, and because the self is almost always in conflict with society, a closely related theme is the opposition of art to life. The artist-as-hero is usually therefore the artist-as-exile.

Although the artist-hero claims individuality in that he is different from the majority of men, his quest for his true self usually ends in the discovery that he is very much like other artists, that in fact he embodies the archetype of the artist. Joyce's novel is not a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of the artist, and the distinction is important. In artist-novels the same themes appear so frequently that they assume the dimension of myths that may express universal truths, and just as we can distinguish between an artist and the artist, we can best understand individual portraits of the artist if we establish first the nature of the genre by finding an overall pattern in the works as a group. That pattern can be found, I think, in three interlocking themes: the Divided Self, the Ivory Tower, and the Sacred Fount. Each must be considered individually before we can see how they function together to form an archetype of the artist-novel.


Much literary scholarship is based on the assumption that the more we know about the life and background of a man, the better we can understand him as an artist and the more capable we are of interpreting his works. But an underlying assumption in the artist-novel is that creative man is a divided being, man and artist, a historical personage who merely serves as the medium through which the creative spirit manifests itself. The man is a human being of normal appetites and desires, for whom life is essentially the process of dying. The artist is a free, detached spirit which looks down on the man from a distance and is concerned not so much with the consumption of life as with the transcendence of life through creative effort. The man must spend himself, but the artist-spirit saves itself by becoming one with its works and thus escaping the bonds of time.

The theme of the Divided Self has a psychological basis in the nature of the introverted person. Thoreau, for example, writes:

With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by a theatrical exhibition; on the other hand, I may not be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only.5

Alphonse Daudet recorded “that other self” which observed himself weeping beside his father's deathbed,6 and Yeats, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, built a theory of art around the second, inner self of the artist.

I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the water's edge
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And, standing by these characters, disclose
All that I seek.(7)

The artist's double, most theorists agree, comes from the artist's subconsciousness, yet seems to look down dispassionately on the artist himself. Coleridge must have had something like this in mind when he wrote, “The eye hath a two-fold power. It is, verily, a window through which you not only look out of the house, but can look into it too.”8

If the artist-hero is usually an introvert, it is perhaps because the artist-novel, especially when it is autobiographical, is by its very nature an act of introspection. At any rate, many of the artists of fiction share an ability to step outside the self and to recognize a difference between the artist and the man. Disraeli's Contarini Fleming reflects on “the separation of the mere individual from the universal poet.”9 Arnold Bennett's frustrated artist, Edwin Clayhanger, discovers an “impartial observer” in himself.10 Dreiser's Eugene Witla “was troubled with a dual point of view—a condition based upon a peculiar power of analysis—self analysis in particular, which was constantly permitting him to tear himself up by the roots in order to see how he was getting along.”11 The hero of St. John Ervine's Changing Winds “had a strange sense of fear that was inexplicable to him. He seemed to be outside himself, outside his own fear, looking on at it and wondering what had caused it.”12 The ability to become detached from the self is shared by artist-heroes as different from each other in other respects as Michael Fane, the hero of Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street, and Edouard of Gide's The Counterfeiters. The former confesses, “Sometimes I feel as if there wasn't any me at all, and I'm surprised to see a letter come addressed to me.”13 Edouard writes: “It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I cannot understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be actor and watcher at the same moment!”14 So common are split selves in artists that Aldous Huxley was able to satirize the concept in his short story, “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow”: from midnight to early morning the body of the sophisticated Greenow is occupied by the sentimental anti-self, “Pearl Bellairs,” whose gushing best-sellers support, embarrass, and ultimately destroy the man through whom she acts.15 Huxley's story, like Henry James's “The Private Life,” applies the doppelgänger theme common in fiction to the situation of the artist, but it may well be that there would be fewer stories about doubles if writers were not so peculiarly aware of a division in themselves.

Another psychological basis for the theme of the Divided Self may be found in the nature of the creative process. Any writer knows that there is a moment when calculation stops and the author seems to be carried along by a force beyond himself. Today we are likely to be scornful of “inspiration,” and it may well be that the something that takes over in the creative process is not a divine afflatus descending upon the artist but a subconscious force arising from within. Whatever it is, thousands of artists have testified to the experience of inspiration, and there may be something after all in William Faulkner's insistence that “the writer's got to be demon-driven”16 or Joseph Conrad's reluctance to revise one of his works because “all my work is produced unconsciously (so to speak) and I cannot meddle to any purpose with what is within myself.—I am sure you understand what I mean—it isn't in me to improve what has got itself written.”17 But the “I” here is not Conrad. It is Captain Korzeniowski, a humble seaman, who on another occasion said, “You know I take no credit to myself for what I do—and so I may judge my own performance. There is no mistake about this. … It [Nostromo] is a very genuine Conrad.”18 Critics of fiction often confuse the “I” of the storyteller with the person who wrote the work, but as early as 1877, Edward Dowden, discussing George Eliot, another novelist who, like Conrad, wrote under a pseudonym, noted that the personality which dominates her novel is “one who, if not the real George Eliot, is that second self who writes her books, and lives and speaks through them.” This “second self,” he continued, is “more substantial than any mere human personality” and has “fewer reserves”; while “behind it, lurks well pleased the veritable historical self secure from impertinent observation and criticism.”19

Literary scholars may scoff at the separation of the person from the creator, but the psychologist Jung finds in this division the basis for his theory of the artist:

Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory attitudes. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other side he is an impersonal, creative process. Since as a human being he may be either sound or morbid, we must look at his psychic make-up to find the determinants of his personality. But we can only understand him in his capacity of artist by looking at his artistic achievement. We should make a sad mistake if we tried to explain the mode of life of an English gentleman, a Prussian officer, or a cardinal in terms of personal factors. The gentleman, the officer and the cleric function as such in an impersonal role, and their psychic make-up is qualified by a peculiar objectivity. We must grant that the artist does not function in an official capacity—the very opposite is nearer the truth. He nevertheless resembles the types I have named in one respect, for the specifically artistic disposition involves an overweight of collective psychic life as against the personal. Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with a free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense—he is “collective man”—one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic life of mankind.20

Here, perhaps, is Stephen Dedalus' “uncreated conscience of my race.” Willa Cather comes even closer to Jung's theory of the artist in her The Song of the Lark. Thea Kronborg becomes aware of a second, observing self when as a young girl she is seriously ill: “She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up.”21 When she reaches maturity and achieves prominence as a singer, she realizes that this other self is her artistic personality. Why do people care for her?

It was something that had to do with her that made them care, but it was not she. It was something they believed in, but it was not she. Perhaps each of them concealed another person in himself, just as she did. Why was it that they seemed to feel and to hunt for a second person in her and not in each other? … What if one's second self could somehow speak to all these second selves? … How deep they lay, these second persons, and how little one knew about them, except to guard them fiercely. It was to music, more than to anything else, that these hidden things in people responded.22

The time-and-eternity theme which appears frequently in artist-novels is, I think, closely related to the myth of the Divided Self. To escape death and become immortal, the artist-self would somehow remove himself from the bonds of the chronological time which drives him relentlessly from cradle to grave. Opposed to chronological time is subjective time, which cannot be clocked: minutes are sometimes hours, hours can be minutes. Subjective time is universal. But, for most of us, such time is as fleeting, as transitory as the seconds the clock ticks off. What the artist tries to do is to capture lost time and imprison it in the form of his art-work. The man must die, but the artist in him can achieve immortality in his works. This is a common theme in literature from Keats's Grecian Urn to Yeats's Byzantium. For instance, Gerald Lovel, the poet-hero of J. Westland Marston's unwieldy novel in verse, Gerald, finds his motivation as a poet in his desire to transcend time through art:

A Statue's silence—is the Sculptor's voice.
The Painter's immortality resides
In his own forms, and objects. …

Even the objective, imitative work of art is, in this sense, capable of being immortal. But when the work of art is subjective, when it reflects the consciousness of its creator, the artist feels that he can achieve a personal self-extension through eternity:

                                                                      And thus the Sons
Of Genius have prerogative to stand
Exempt from Time's decree; Immutable
In change!(23)

Joseph Frank, in his essay, “Spatial Form in Modern Literature,” has shown that the attempt to capture time in the spatial form of the art-work is characteristic of many modern artists.24 To explain the simultaneous appearance of this trend in a number of writers working independently of one another, Frank relies, in part, upon the theories of Wilhelm Worringer. In Abstraktion und Einfühlung, Worringer demonstrated that historical fluctuations between naturalistic and nonnaturalistic art may be understood only if one substitutes what Alois Riegl called Kunstwollen, or will-to-form, for the will-to-imitate which had been considered responsible for the creative impulse. Naturalism is the prevailing style in cultures which have attained harmonious balance with their environment; abstract styles are produced when man is not in harmony with the universe, when the artist, distrustful of the outside world, directs the will-to-form to the subjective world. Because the modern era is of the second type and because one characteristic of nonnaturalistic art is the attempt to remove all traces of time value, much modern art has utilized spatial form. By emphasizing “climates of feeling,” the Worringer-Frank theory overlooks the fact that the psychology of the individual artist is also important in determining the art-form.

Acknowledging his debt to Riegl and Worringer, Otto Rank has extended the theory of Kunstwollen to include the “urge to eternalization” which he considers basic to the creative impulse: The artist would escape time through the medium of his immortal art. The kind of artistic personality, as well as the cultural environment, determines the art-form:

What the artist needs for true creative art … is life in one form or another; and the two artist-types differ essentially in the source from which they take this life that is so essential to production. The Classical type, who is possibly poorer within, but nearer to life, and himself more vital, takes it from without: that is, he creates immortal work from mortal life without necessarily having first transformed it into personal experience as is the case with the Romantic. For, to the Romantic, experience of his own appears to be an essential preliminary to productivity, although he does not use this experience for the enrichment of his own personality, but to economize the personal experience, the burden of which he would fain escape. Thus the one artist-type constantly makes use of other life than his own—in fact, nature—for the purpose of creating, while the other can create only by perpetually sacrificing his own life. From the spiritual point of view the work of the Classicist, more or less naturalistic, artist is essentially partial, and the work of the Romantic, produced from within, total. The totality-type spends itself perpetually in creative work without absorbing very much of life, while the partial type has continually to absorb life so that he may throw it off again in his work.25

Although Rank does not specifically relate his classification of artist types to the question of spatial form, it is the Romantic, denying the chronology that common sense tells us exists in the world, who finds totality in the fusion of space and time within the individual consciousness. As Rank implies, it is the Romantic or totality-type of artist who is most likely to be alienated from the mundane world outside his ego. And it is this type of artist with whom I am dealing. Here again, though, we are faced with the paradox that what the artist is as artist is not necessarily what he is as man. In fictional portraits of the artist the artist-self is usually of the “totality-type,” but this self may be in conflict with another self that yearns for experience and is of the partial type. The knowledge that “one must die to life in order to be utterly a creator” does not stop Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger from envying and loving “the blond and blue-eyed, the fair and living, the happy, lovely, and commonplace.”26 In fact, Mann implies that if Tonio is superior to his Bohemian friends, it is largely because he embodies the perfect balance of artist and bourgeois.


If we grant the divided nature of the artist, we can readily see why he is pulled in contrary directions. The man seeks personal fulfillment in experience, while the artist-self desires freedom from the demands of life. One result is that conflicting traditions of art have existed side by side for more than a century. What I call the Sacred Fount tradition tends to equate art with experience and assumes that the true artist is one who lives not less, but more fully and intensely than others. Within this tradition art is essentially the re-creation of experience. The Ivory Tower tradition, on the other hand, exalts art above life and insists that the artist can make use of life only if he stands aloof—“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”27

Crucial in this statement by Joyce is the comparison of the artist with God, for the Ivory Tower tradition equates art with religion rather than experience. The frequency with which the authors of artist-novels describe the creation of art as “divine,” the sanctuary of the artist as “holy,” or the nature of the artist as “godlike” or “priestly” is a heritage from the classic analogy of creator with Creator.28 Until the nineteenth century, the analogy between God and artist could be assimilated into orthodox religious faith: the artist is like God; he is a kind of secondary god whose power comes from God. The artist imitates God, and the world-in-itself which is the work of art is like God's world in that it is ordered and unified by a just and benevolent power. Poetic justice reflects divine justice. With the gradual collapse of religious values during the nineteenth century, however, an important change appears in the artist-as-God concept. When the artist loses his belief in God and can see in the universe no evidence of a divine plan, but only chaos and disorder, then he no longer considers himself a secondary god, but a successor to God. The old God, as in Joyce's description, is an “indifferent” one who pares his fingernails and leaves the world to its own direction. But because the modern artist retains control over his creation, he feels justified in claiming that a “well-made” work of art is superior to the real world.

God looks down on the world. It is for this reason perhaps that when the artist assumes the role of God, he visualizes his place as one from which he can look down on his fellowmen, secure in his superiority and closer to the heavens than the earth. Scholars have attempted to find the first recorded use of the Ivory Tower as a metaphor for the artist's ideal retreat, but who originated the phrase during the early nineteenth century matters little.29 That it was familiar by mid-century is shown by Gerard de Nerval's use of the term: “The only refuge left to us was the poet's ivory tower, which we climbed, ever higher, to isolate ourselves from the mob. Led by our masters to those high places we breathed at last the pure air of solitude, we drank oblivion in the legendary cup, and we got drunk on poetry and love.”30 If ivory implies the purity of the absolute, the tower implies height and open vistas. Traditionally, artists have preferred garrets to cellars. In one of its many forms, the Ivory Tower is that lofty perch from which Hawthorne, in “Sights from a Steeple,” visualized himself a “spiritualized Paul Pry, hovering invisible round man and woman, witnessing their deeds, searching into their hearts, borrowing brightness from their felicity and shade from their sorrow, and retaining no emotion peculiar to himself.”31 It is the Invisible Lodge of Jean Paul Richter, the Palace of Art of Tennyson, the Great Good Place of Henry James. It is the House of Usher, Axel's castle, Faust's alchemic chambers, and Joyce's Martello Tower. But whatever it may be called, the Ivory Tower is always the artist's private retreat.

In fact, the concept of the Ivory Tower is so familiar that it requires little elaboration. Just as Huxley satirized the theme of the Divided Self in his “Farcical History of Richard Greenow,” Albert Camus could be sure that readers would recognize the target of his mock-serious story, “The Artist at Work.” In this story Gilbert Jonas, a painter who believes only in his “star,” is forced to work in a crowded apartment with his wife and children, where he is subjected to continual interruptions from his family, friends, and patrons. Fortunately the apartment has unusually high ceilings, and Jonas is able to build himself a loft high above the turmoil. As time passes, Jonas finds it increasingly disagreeable to leave his sanctuary. He begins to sleep there, and his meals and supplies are handed up to him by his wife, Louise, and his best friend, Rateau. His muse escapes him even there, and he sits in darkness patiently waiting for the return of the star that has abandoned him temporarily. The voices below become more and more distant, until finally

He put out the lamp and, in the darkness that suddenly returned, right there! wasn't that his star shining? It was the star, he recognized it with his heart full of gratitude, and he was still watching it when he fell, without a sound.

“It's nothing,” the doctor they had called declared a little later. “He is working too much. In a week he will be on his feet again.” “You are sure he will get well?” asked Louise with distorted face. “He will get well.” In the other room Rateau was looking at the canvas, completely blank, in the center of which Jonas had merely written in very small letters a word that could be made out, but without any certainty as to whether it should be read solitary or solidary.32

Like other artist-thinkers of the past few decades, Camus reacted against the concept of the Ivory Tower. “The Artist at Work” suggests that when the artist denies his own humanity and rejects the need for social engagement, he loses the ability to produce. For Camus, the artist must leave his Ivory Tower to tap the Sacred Fount of life.


The Sacred Fount tradition is rooted in the concept of art as experience. Prior to Freud and the twentieth-century view that the artist is one who compensates through his work for his inability to participate actively in society or to lead a satisfying passional life, it was generally assumed that the artist differs from other men by the intensity of his emotions and that he therefore lives more rather than less fully than other men. For Wordsworth a poet is a man “endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness … a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life which is in him.”33 And George Edward Woodberry summed up the conventional nineteenth-century attitude when he wrote: “The sign of the poet … is that by passion he enters into life more than other men. That is his gift—the power to live. The lives of poets are but little known; but from the fragments of their lives that come down to us, the characteristic legend is that they have been singularly creatures of passion.”34

To assume that the artist is by nature a man of feeling and passion is to assume a close relation between art and experience. In fact, one implication of the Sacred Fount myth is that life and art are interchangeable. Life can be converted directly to art, but to do so is to destroy life. Similarly, art and the artist may be destroyed by life. In Henry James's The Sacred Fount, the artist-narrator theorizes that in any marriage or love affair one party becomes more vigorous, youthful, intelligent as the other is drained of these qualities. Ironically, the narrator himself indulges in a love affair with the life around him, turning human relationships into an elaborate, ingenious, artistic structure, but is himself left depleted when the life he has tried to control and manipulate proves stronger than he. In one of Balzac's parables of the artist, La Peau de chagrin, the fatal skin shrinks in direct ratio to the intensity with which the artist lives so that he can actually see the decreasing measure of his days. Much the same idea is behind the many variations of the “magic portrait” stories, such as Poe's “Oval Portrait,” Hawthorne's “Prophetic Pictures,” or Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. In such stories the assumption is made that life can literally be transferred from flesh to canvas: as the portrait takes on life, the model's life seems to wane away, or, in Wilde's reversal of the myth, the portrait ages while the model remains as he was painted. The inference of the Sacred Fount myth is that life and art are so closely related that one can exhaust or destroy the other. Because there is only so much life to be lived, that which is turned into art is made unavailable for living: the more kite-string in the air, the less in the hand, and one cannot have it in both places at once. Hence the continual struggle between life and art.

To assume that creativity must be expended either in life or in art often leads to a confusion between sex and art. The religious of all times have defended chastity as a means of preserving creative energy. Thoreau writes in Walden: “The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”35 And a century later the novelist-hero of Alberto Moravia's Conjugal Love feels that he cannot complete his book unless he abstains from sexual relations with his wife. To assume that there is only one kind of creative energy leads to the view that the artist must spend himself, sacrifice his physical being, in artistic creation. In an extreme form this idea is expressed allegorically in “The Artist's Secret,” one of Olive Schreiner's Dreams.

There was an artist once, and he painted a picture. Other artists had colors richer and rarer, and painted more notable pictures. He painted his with one color, there was a wonderful red glow on it; and people went up and down, saying, “We like the picture, we like the glow.”

The other artists came and said, “Where does he get his color from?” They asked him; and he smiled and said, “I cannot tell you”; and worked on with his head bent low. And one went to the far East and bought costly pigments, and made a rare color and painted, but after a time the picture faded. Another read in the old books, and made a color rich and rare, but when he had put it on the picture it was dead.

But the artist painted on. Always the work got redder and redder, and the artist grew whiter and whiter. At last one day they found him dead before his picture, and they took him up to bury him. The other men looked about in all the pots and crucibles, but they found nothing they had not.

And when they undressed him to put his grave-clothes on him, they found above his left breast the mark of a wound—it was an old, old wound, that must have been there all his life, for the edges were old and hardened; but Death, who seals all things, had drawn the edges together, and closed it up.

And it came to pass that after a while the artist was forgotten—but the work lived.36

The necessity to preserve creative force is one justification for the Ivory Tower. However, most of the writers in that tradition think of the artist as a being distinct from ordinary men and thus not subject in the same degree to the carnal appetites; he finds the source of his art in observation or introspection. For such artists the problem of the single creative force is less crucial than for those who find the source of art in experience. When the idea of the single force combines with the idea of art as experience, a conflict naturally arises. The artist must tap the Sacred Fount, but in doing so runs the risk of dissipating creative energy in the mere process of living and therefore proving incapable of transforming experience into art.

In the portrait-of-the-artist novel the Sacred Fount theme is most often expressed in terms of the artist's relationship to women. In many artist-novels—James's Roderick Hudson, Flaubert's Sentimental Education and Gissing's New Grub Street, to name but three—the artist is destroyed as artist because of his submission to love. In other novels, the artist feels that he cannot function without love. Hardy's The Well-Beloved, Wyndham Lewis's Tarr, Dreiser's The “Genius” and Norris's Vandover and the Brute are examples of novels in which the artist-hero must have romantic fulfillment to produce artistically. Although he may be destroyed by the search for such fulfillment, he must go to Woman in order to create—just as a man can father children only through women—and his artistic power is dependent on the Sacred Fount.

There are, of course, many variations of these three basic themes in the artist-novel, and there are many other themes as well. But the situation of the typical artist-hero is essentially what I have outlined here: the Divided Self of the artist-man wavering between the Ivory Tower and the Sacred Fount, between the “holy” or esthetic demands of his mission as artist and his natural desire as a human being to participate in the life around him.


  1. (New York: Harper, 1922), pp. 30-32.

  2. Forces in Modern British Literature, 1885-1946 (New York: Knopf, 1947), p. 176.

  3. Dates of initial publication of the many works of fiction referred to throughout this study are provided in the index.

  4. Aside from a few essays and specialized studies, little has been written on the general topic of the artist in literature. However, I have found the following useful in varying degrees: R. P. Blackmur, “The Artist as Hero,” in his The Lion and the Honeycomb: Essays in Solicitude and Critique (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955), pp. 43-50; Theodore Robert Bowie, The Painter in French Fiction: A Critical Essay, University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages (Chapel Hill, 1950); Van Wyck Brooks, “The Hero as Artist,” in his Sketches in Criticism (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1932), pp. 93-99; Ralph Stokes Collins, The Artist in Modern German Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1940); Gerald Jay Goldberg, “The Search for the Artist in Some Recent British Fiction,” South Atlantic Quarterly, LXII (Summer 1963), 387-401; Philip Gilbert Hamerton, “Artists in Fiction,” in his Thoughts about Art (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880), pp. 101-124; George C. Schoolfield, The Figure of the Musician in German Literature, University of North Carolina Studies in the Germanic Languages (Chapel Hill, 1956); Maurice Z. Shroder, Icarus: The Image of the Artist in French Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961); D. J. Smith, “Music in the Victorian Novel,” Kenyon Review, XXV (Summer 1963), 517-532; and James M. Wells, “The Artist in the English Novel, 1850-1919,” Philological Studies [West Virginia University], IV (September, 1943), 77-80. Proceedings of a panel discussion on the artist-hero novel held at the MLA Conference on English Fiction in Transition, December, 1961, are available in English Fiction in Transition, IV (third issue, 1961), 11-36, and V (first issue, 1962), 27-34.

  5. The Variorum Walden, ed. Walter Harding (New York: Twayne, 1962), p. 122.

  6. Cited by Daniel Schneider, The Psychoanalyst and the Artist (New York: Farrar, Straus and Co., 1950), pp. 104-105.

  7. (London, Macmillan, 1918), p. 7.

  8. George Whalley, Poetic Process (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 75.

  9. Benjamin Disraeli, Contarini Fleming: A Psychological Romance (New York: Knopf, 1926), p. 255.

  10. Clayhanger (New York, 1910), p. 568.

  11. The “Genius” (New York: John Lane, 1915), p. 359.

  12. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1917), p. 482.

  13. (London: Martin Secker, 1923), pp. 248-249.

  14. The Counterfeiters, with Journal of “The Counterfeiters,” trans. Dorothy Bussy and Justin O'Brien (New York: Knopf, 1951), pp. 64-65.

  15. From Limbo (1920). Reprinted in Cyril Connolly, ed., Great English Short Novels (New York: Dial Press, 1953), pp. 477-533.

  16. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, eds., Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957-1958 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959), p. 19.

  17. Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), p. 160.

  18. Baines, p. 287.

  19. Quoted by Kathleen Tillotson, The Tale and the Teller (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1959), p. 22. An excellent discussion of the “second self” as it affects point of view is to be found in Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 67-77.

  20. C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W. S. Dell and Cary F. Barnes (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Company, 1945), pp. 194-195.

  21. The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather, Library Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), II, 11.

  22. The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather, II, 273.

  23. Gerald, A Dramatic Poem; and Other Poems (London: C. Mitchell, 1842), pp. 8-9.

  24. Sewanee Review, LIII (1945), 221-240, 433-456, 643-653.

  25. Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality (New York: Knopf, 1932, pp. 48-49.

  26. “Tonio Kröger” in Stories of Three Decades, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Knopf, 1951), pp. 100, 132.

  27. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Modern Library, 1928), p. 252.

  28. The best discussions of the artist-God analogy are to be found in Meyer C. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953); Milton C. Nahm, The Artist as Creator: An Essay of Human Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956); and Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1941).

  29. See, for example, Robert Finch, “Ivory Tower,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XXV (October, 1955), 23-37.

  30. Sylvie [1853] in Selected Writings of Gerard de Nerval, ed. Geoffrey Wagner (New York: Grove Press, 1957), p. 50.

  31. “Sights from a Steeple,” in his Complete Works, Riverside Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883), I, 280.

  32. Exile and the Kingdom, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Knopf, 1958), pp. 157-158.

  33. Cited in Abrams, p. 102.

  34. Cited in Marguerite Wilkinson, The Way of the Makers (New York: Macmillan, 1925), pp. 13-14.

  35. The Variorum Walden, p. 184.

  36. So Here Then Are Dreams (East Aurora, New York: Roycroft Press, 1901), p. 55.

Ursula R. Mahlendorf (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Mahlendorf, Ursula R. Introduction to The Wellsprings of Literary Creation: An Analysis of Male and Female “Artist Stories” from the German Romantics to American Writers of the Present, pp. xii-xx. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1985.

[In the following introduction to Mahlendorf's book-length examination of the künstlerroman, she surveys the ways in which the künstlerroman can be studied psychologically.]

A Künstlernovelle and Künstlerroman (artist story and artist novel) contains the creation of a work of art as a central event of its plot. Based on the creative work and psychology of a fictitious sculptor, painter, poet or musician, “artist stories” have fascinated German authors and readers continuously since the Romantics of the early 19th century.1 Under German Romantic influence, American writers, beginning with Hawthorne in The Artist of the Beautiful (1844) have shared this fascination. Despite Günther Grass's devastating parody in The Tin Drum (1959) the genre in German letters is far from exhausted, as Christa Wolf's sensitive A Model Childhood (1977) has shown. Recent evidence of the continuing vogue in American letters are Philip Roth's novella The Ghost Writer published in the New Yorker (June/July, 1979) with allusions to Thomas Mann's artists and John Irving's best-seller The World According to Garp (1976) with direct echoes of so unlikely (and misunderstood) a work as Franz Grillparzer's artist story The Poor Fiddler (1842).

Why does the artist figure appeal even to a non-literary audience? Fictionalized artist biographies like Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy provide participation in a richer life, insight into works of genius and the mysteries of their conception and birth. Biographies of well-known artists also cater to popular hunger for access to the secret of greatness, always enthralling to the imagination. Artist stories, though less sensational, appeal to similar curiosities. But they usually deal with imaginary or little-known artists and their plot accords with the writer's personal vision of the meaning of artistic existence and the origins of artistic achievement.

In the following chapters, I will analyze seven artist stories in depth. Throughout this study, I will use the words art and artist as generic terms and as equivalents for the German words Kunst and Künstler. This usage reflects a central thesis of this book: that early childhood creativity expresses itself in many ways, and is not limited to a specific gift, medium, or activity. In the course of development, the future artist may come to prefer a specific medium, art form, or sense modality. But an artist may retain the flexibility of childhood. Some of the writers we will discuss practiced two, or even three arts, although they became celebrated for only one; several settled on writing late in life. E.g., Hoffmann was a musician until his mid thirties though he had been sketching and writing since boyhood. He turned to writing because it paid him better than music and he used his sketches to illustrate his tales.

The studies comprising this volume began more than ten years ago from two entirely different points. When I read Freud's essay Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny, 1919), it struck me that Freud's interpretation of Hoffmann's The Sandman did not consider the fact that the hero was an artist. To my mind, Hoffmann's making his hero a poet was crucially important. This led me to look at Hoffmann's theory of artistic creation and its reflection in his work as a whole. Further study of The Sandman brought up general questions about creativity. What function, for example, did Hoffmann attribute to literary creation in an artist's life, in theorizing (letters, essays, autobiographical accounts) and in his fiction? What emotional, psychosocial and intellectual development did he ascribe to his artist protagonist between childhood and maturity? When and why did his creative career begin?

An essay of mine on Mann's Doctor Faustus arose from curiosity about the psychological meaning of music to Mann's protagonist. As I worked on these and other studies on the artist figure,2 I began reading widely on theories of creativity. It seemed to me that, in general, social scientists (psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, sociologists, philosophers) distrust, and therefore dismiss, attempts by writers and artists to explain the creative process. Nietzsche's half-joking comment in Zarathustra best summarizes the attitude: “… poets lie too much.” Writers and artists, in their turn, distrust the scientists, fearing that psychological questions may trivialize or invalidate their work, and meet inquiries with derision and obfuscation. Hence Shaw's reply to a psychologist who asked what had done the most for him as a writer, “My father's pocketbook.” As literary scholars we have modestly insisted since the beginning of our discipline in the 1880s that our work is valid only if it is restricted to gathering and ordering data, keeping records (for instance, the admirable task, now finally appreciated, of compiling editions and concordances),3 and to saying “Words about Words about Words.”4 This purism has led to exclusion of our inquiries into artistic and literary creativity from the growing body of such research by social scientists. The result has been neglect of the area of our expertise and sensitivity: matters of style and form. I see my work as a part of the recent interdisciplinary endeavor to end the separation of the study of literature from the study of the natural, physical and social sciences5 and to make works concerned with man's emotions and thoughts accessible and useful to the other sciences of man.

For an overall view of a writer's insights into creation, we must turn to his essays on aesthetics, autobiographical fragments, and his stories about artists. In fiction about artists, writers tend to use the hero to portray aspects of their own creative struggle. Each work reveals crucial facts about the writer's own psyche. The assumption underlying my study is that when an author composes a story about another artist, he lays bare the psychological roots of his own creativity and illustrates what makes it flourish and grow. In addition to giving us conscious views about the creative process, these stories reveal aspects of which the writers are unconscious. This supplies us with another dimension of the creative process. Combined with other autobiographical material, these works provide a comprehensive picture of the artist's psyche during the creative process. In studying artist stories and their writers, I found a remarkable consistency between their theory and fiction. I have therefore become convinced that the insight of writers into the wellsprings of literary creation deserves serious psychological as well as literary investigation.

When we study the creative process of a writer and examine how it was acquired and how it operates, we must include consideration of the medium—language, imagery, narrative forms and techniques. In the following analyses we shall therefore investigate the relationship between psychology and style. The in-depth look at a writer's development yields information about origins of stylistic and formal patterns. I believe that close study of the connection between psychology and style can lead to a new understanding of a writer's work, especially as to underlying meaning and form. In turn, this understanding can provide a tool for evaluating literary quality.

When I began, I wanted to include a historical dimension, and therefore I chose stories from different literary movements, from Hoffmann's The Sandman (1816) to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947). I thought this diachronic approach would enable me to observe changes in the way writers viewed the creative process, and possible changes in the process itself. But historical factors proved less important than early environment, family composition, the degree of comfort, encouragement of individual development within, and the pressures on the childhood family. If early learning was so crucial, then there had to be significant differences in the origins of creativity in males and females. When I looked for artist stories by German women writers, I found none until Christa Wolf's A Model Childhood of 1977. Looking at other Western literatures, I found that the genre, a story about a female artist written by a woman, did not exist until the turn of the century, that the earliest and finest examples came from American literature and that differences between men and women (disregarding biology and literary tradition) were indeed greater than those between Hoffmann and Kafka one hundred years later. Since this is so, I assume that the results of my study are not affected by the neat but accidental distribution into male German writers and female American writers. We might say that the creative process is a basic musical theme, on which every artist plays his own variation, its pattern depending on person and background. The woman artist's theme, however, besides being an individual variation, reverses the male artist's theme.

The reader can see from my continuous attraction to these stories and their authors that I experienced a strong countertransference (usually of the positive kind) to them.6 This had the advantage of a strong identification with the protagonists and hence an empathy for their dilemmas. It had the disadvantage of wanting to protect myself against feeling the impact of their failures and therefore being tempted to superimpose explanatory, intellectualized frameworks on the stories for my safety (the usual hazard of the psychological interpreter). It carried with it the danger of identifying all too closely with the protagonists and hence being blind to the complexities of the text and to my own historical and biographical contexts. Interpretation involved constantly keeping a rein on my expectations of the text, checking my perceptions against the author's contexts, questioning myself why I was asking a given question, checking other interpretations, other hermeneutical frameworks and psychological theories to find out what questions I was not and should perhaps be asking, and sensitizing myself, again and again, to minimal clues in the web of the text.

My psychological orientation has undergone considerable modifications during the investigation, modifications which, I recognize in retrospect, reflect some of the important changes in psychoanalytic psychology over the last fifty years. Every author presented a variation on creative difficulties, which was not always accessible to analysis by the same psychological models or theories. For example, the schizophrenia of Büchner's poet could not be understood in terms of Freudian oedipal psychology, which in turn was useful to the study of Hoffmann's artist. The only adequate frameworks for Büchner's work were theories of schizophrenia dealing with double-binding, and communicational and personal failure. Even the oedipal dilemmas of Hoffmann's story, so well discussed by Freud, are greatly modified by pre-oedipal development. Hence I had to include the entire recent study and theory of infantile psychosocial and cognitive development. In addition, I had to look at the post-Freudian authors' areas of agreement and disagreement with Freud in terms of theoretical frameworks differing from the Freudian. British psychoanalysis (Spitz, Anna Freud, Winnicott, Balint—to name a few), the self psychology of Heinz Kohut and the Chicago school, and recent psychiatric, psychological, and psychoanalytic studies on transitional objects and child development provided concepts necessary to study aspects of creativity rooted in earliest mother-child relationships and inaccessible to the oedipal Freudian framework. From early on, I wanted to include women writers, because they contribute to understanding the minimal conditions required for artistic development and how creation can be frustrated. Freudian oedipal theory was of little help here; conceptual frameworks extending to the mother-child symbiosis and the social group were more useful.

Late in my undertaking, I became dissatisfied with reliance on the drive energy model provided by classical Freudian analysis. Surveying my authors, I could see sources of creative energy other than instinct, than libidinal and aggressive psychic energies which were sublimated by creative labor. In many of the stories I analyzed, I found that psychic energy for the creative process came from the social environment. This was energy internalized in the early primary group, restimulated by later encounters and companions. For my authors, creation was social and personal. Thus I found helpful the explanatory frameworks of Kohut, Balint, and Ammon, which locate creative energy in the earliest mother-child relationship and the primary social group.

No single theory accounts for all the facets presented by my authors. Consequently, I took from each theoretical framework what was necessary to understand the creative process as seen by the writer himself. The scholar not acquainted with psychoanalytical inquiry will find that I also examine the creative process and its depiction in works of literature by the traditional methods of literary biography and criticism. The first chapter discussion of the psychological meaning of form and of major psychological and psychoanalytic theories of creativity is intended to acquaint readers with psychological issues and approaches to the study of the creative process so that later discussions may be more readily understood. For the benefit of the reader not readily conversant with the various schools of psychoanalytic theory, a glossary of terms as used in this study is appended.

Through many years of psychological and psychoanalytic inquiry and introspection I have become convinced that psychoanalytical methods and theories have an important place in literary study. I have explored the dynamics of interpersonal relationships portrayed in literature in various psychiatric and academic settings and feel that the interdisciplinary approach is true to the tradition of subjectivity which produced Freud, Jung, and the beginnings of psychoanalysis. And since Freud and early psychoanalysis, as Bruno Bettelheim recently reminded us,7 are very much rooted in the German language and its literature, I considered that I was reclaiming for literary study a heritage which we Germanists had sorely mis-used.

Of course, much in psychoanalysis has changed since Freud's time. As a sub-specialty of psychiatry, it has been enriched during the last fifty years by an enormous mass of clinical data from research by clinics, teaching hospitals, child care institutions, and private facilities. And it has been modified by other theories of human behavior; most significantly, for our purposes, by those of interpersonal dynamics and infant development. From this rich array of data and theories, literary scholars can formulate new questions concerning the writer's problems with his craft, their relationship to his life history (early life history especially) and the psychological function of a writer's creative process in his life. Ignorance of this wealth of theories and supportive data has led even respected monthlies such as The Atlantic or publishing houses like Farrar, Strauss and Giroux to take seriously such confused, ill-informed attacks on psychoanalysis and Freud as Jeffrey Masson's The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory.8 Reading these strange accusations and claims, I felt tempted to join with Paul Robinson in bewailing “the dilapidated state into which [Freud's] legacy has fallen,” and blaming it on “the decline of intellectual and literary standards” since Freud's day.9 More convincing motivation for such attacks, and the alacrity with which they are adopted, is what Freud identified as “the narcissistic blow” psychoanalysis continues to deal to man's pride by asserting that man is not master of his own thoughts.10

More serious to psychoanalysis and to all introspective and empathic psychologies are the challenges coming from the growing neurosciences. Freud himself felt that one day many mysteries of mind and soul would be understood as biological processes. Indeed, advances in neurobiology, neurochemistry, neurolinguistics, immunology, systems and living systems theory have generated the popular belief that biochemical solutions to psychological problems are so near that psychological insight and working-through in therapy are fast approaching obsolescence. Such optimism (or pessimism, if one fears abuse of such knowledge) rests on error: great as the advances in the neurosciences have been, they are far from resolving the mysteries of the human mind. Only isolated processes have been made comprehensible (for instance, the workings of a given neurotransmitter, analogous to one brick in a whole building). The vast complexity of many simultaneous, ever-changing brain processes in interactions with the many matter, energy and information processes of the environment are far from being understood. But even if they are comprehended, human understanding of other human beings through introspection and empathy cannot be replaced. It seems more likely that psychoanalysis, “the science of complex mental states, the science of man's experiences,” as Heinz Kohut described it, will pose “the ultimate challenge to scientific thought: to be objective and (in its explanations) phenomenon-distant in the area of the subject, the human soul, the human experience itself.”11


  1. The genres of the “artist novel” and “artist novella” have found repeated treatment in the various histories of the German novella and the German novel, and it is not my intent to deal with them here. On artist figures as motifs in novel, novella, and drama, cf. the bibliography in Wilpert, Reallexikon der Literatur (Hamburg: Körner, 1959).

  2. Cf. “Arthur Schnitzler's The Last Letter of a Litterateur: The Artist as Destroyer,” American Imago, vol. 34, 3 (1977), 238-276. “Aesthetics, Psychology and Politics in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus,Mosaic, vol. 11, 4 (1978), 1-18. “Grillparzer's The Poor Fiddler: The Power of Denial,” American Imago, vol. 36, 2 (1979), 118-146.

  3. Karl Kroeber, “The Evolution of Literary Study, 1883-1983,” PMLA, 99, 3 (1984), 326-339.

  4. Murray Krieger, “Words about Words about Words: Theory, Criticism, and the Literary Text,” ACADEME, 70, 2 (1984), 17-24.

  5. Charles Altieri in “A Report to the Provinces: Reflections on the Fate of Reading among Behavioral Scientists.” Profession 82: Selected Articles from the Bulletins of the Association of the Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages, 27-31, finds as do I that social and behavioral scientists are beginning to appreciate the humanist's concern for emotion and its study through subjective narrative.

  6. Sebastian and Herma Goeppert in Psychoanalyse interdisziplinär (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1981), give an excellent account of the hermeneutics of literary countertransference.

  7. Cf. Freud and Man's Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).

  8. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1984); also “Freud and the Seduction Theory: A Challenge to the Foundations of Psychoanalysis,” The Atlantic Monthly, February 1984, 33-53.

  9. Paul Robinson, “Freud's Last Laugh,” The New Republic, March 12, 1984, 29-33.

  10. “A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-analysis,” Standard Edition, vol. XVII, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1973), 141 ff.

  11. “The Psychoanalyst in the Community of Scholars,” in The Search for the Self, II, ed. Paul H. Ornstein (New York: International Universities Press, 1978), 685-724. My italics.

Roberta Serat (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Serat, Roberta. “Origins of the Künstlerroman.” In Voyage into Creativity: The Modern Künstlerroman, pp. 17-27. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

[In the following essay, Serat traces the origins of the modern künstlerroman from its manifestation during the German Romance period to its current form.]

Although the voyage motif traditionally embodies both social and psychological elements, during the Romantic period the emphasis is concentrated on the latter as the artist becomes aware of his difference from other members of society. Rousseau's Confessions1 and Goethe's Werther2 present early delineations of this manifestation of creative temperament, the romantic hero who feels the need to discover his sense of identity. In order to realize his individuality he is confronted with the need to separate himself from existing social orders and revolt against outworn literary canons of the preceding generation:

Je forme une entreprise qui n'eut jamais d'imitateur. Je veux montrer à mes semblables un homme dans toute la vérité de la nature; et cet homme ce sera moi. … Je ne suis fait comme aucun de ceux que j'ai vus; j'ose croire n'être fait comme aucun de ceux qui existent.3

The assertion of the artist's individuality presupposes his need to separate himself from society. Yet his voyage out of society and consequent isolation are not achieved without a certain amount of suffering and indignation. Later Baudelaire's albatross will draw admiration only when it soars alone in the sky. The poet, symbolized by the albatross, is overcome with mixed emotions of pride and resentment; he realizes that on earth, amidst society, he fails to find understanding and often becomes an object of ridicule:

Le poète semblable au principe des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exile sur le sol au milieu des huées
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.(4)

The romantic artist, initially isolated by his sensitivity, is further alienated by his choice of career, for la vie bohème certainly did not coincide with the increasing demands of society's practical workday existence. Chateaubriand speaks of the romantic mal du siècle, which intensifies as society becomes increasingly more demanding and oppressive:

Plus les peuples avancent en civilisation,
Plus cet état du vague des passions augmente.(5)

Baudelaire will later assert that the city is the source of man's dissipation and despair. The artist is torn between a conscious need for solitude and peace and an unconscious attraction toward urban stimulation. Inevitably, as the poet fails to resolve the conflict between country and city life, he becomes isolated from both styles of life and emotionally alienated from humanity. He has little choice save to voyage away from and out of society. The artist's journey becomes a means of escape, precipitated by social and psychological pressures. His quest is expressed by the need to lose himself, or more precisely, to lose the self which has not been recognized by society:

Il est l'heure de s'enivrer. Pour n'être pas les esclaves martyrisés du temps, enivrez-vous; enivrez-vous sans cesse. De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise.6

No one has more eloquently summed up the romantic attitude than Baudelaire: the artist in society needs to be free.7

Romanticism has also been characterized as a revolt against reason (see Lucas, 1957), a revolt that has been precipitated and enforced by the poet's need to voyage out of a society that calls itself rational, logical, and of compos mentis. The Enlightenment, apogee of the eighteenth century, emphasized the concept that life falls into rational patterns comprehensible to the human mind. If theories about men's nature, the cosmos, and society were to be established, these laws would have to be intelligible to reason. The eighteenth century had discovered its ideal in the philosopher gentleman who was rational, intellectual, and moral. But with the advent of the rising middle class, the social status of the philosophe meant less and less to the young man in search of a more natural and compatible world. During the French Revolution and in succeeding years, opposition to the Enlightenment became clarified. The young Romanticists began to revolt against their predecessors' emphasis on rationalism, artificial conventions, and unemotional literary expression. For the Romantic, nature was not subject to laws stated with mathematical exactitude nor universal truths based on reason. Experience could not be decomposed into rational parts. The heart as well as intuition were the true sources of knowledge. Men could learn not only by logic, but by freeing their instincts. Emotions and passions were exalted as the ultimate in life. The Romanticists stressed sensitivity, sympathy, and empathy as the hopes for a better future. Inevitably, such attitudes intensified and expanded the nature of the artist's voyage toward the unknown, toward a world of rare flowers and rich odors. It was impossible for him to live amidst the sterile severity of his forefathers, for reason was no longer to be respected nor desired.

Romanticism has also been interpreted in psychological terms,8 and its literature reflects the artist's interest in the psyche and emotions:

In brief, the essence of Romantic art lies in the artistic object's being free, concrete, and the spiritual idea in its very essence—all this revealed to the inner rather than to the outer eye.9

The mysteriousness of creativity and its unconscious origins intrigued the Romantic author. His literature expressed a new and profound concern for the role and function of the artist in the process of creating, concentrating on the artist's unconscious abilities. The romantic artist no longer considered himself a copier, but a creator endowed with divine powers. He was able to explore the hidden regions of his psyche by consciously observing his own person, and he thereby kindled a heightened interest in observing his own past. He studied his artistic formation and emotional reactions to external stimuli and he discussed his findings and ideas in a literary coterie. Artists from all fields met together to discuss their goals and achievements. In Paris, Berlin, Jena, and London the romantic artists supported one another in a common effort to create. Mutual admiration and constructive criticism, as well as imitative behavior, dominated literary gatherings; inevitably, mimetic patterns of prose forms prevailed.

The beginning of the Künstlerroman was introspective in nature and paraphrastic in structure. The Künstlerroman found support during this literary period as an excellent medium of recreating the past in order to understand one's present; patterns of introspection, preservation of the ego and expression of one's emotions served a priori as motivating forces. The romantic artist searched for a homeland where he could live in a community and work in harmony with his fellow artists. The Künstlerroman, as a literary expression, helped him reach this longed-for Utopia. It became more than a literary genre for the romantic artist; it became his homeland and salvation. More important, the act of writing the Künstlerroman enabled the author to direct his undefined sensibility into an order that could be individually achieved. Each Künstlerroman varied slightly due to the author's biography and his attitude toward his past. But structurally the Künstlerromane were similar, all being modeled after Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.10

The Lehrjahre, a chef d'oeuvre of Goethe's early literary productivity, coincided with Germany's Sturm und Drang and Classical periods.11 The youthful Storm and Stress poets considered the artist a prophet, superior to the common man, but still integrated into society. The Classicist shared the same concept: the artist was not an outsider but an important member of the community, developing his talents with the sole objective of serving society. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, symbolically portrayed as a poet, is an “actor-writer”12 who meanders through various situations and encounters unusual experiences and personalities. His raison d'être is to emerge as a cultivated, classical gentleman who can offer his talents and experiences to society.13

The Romanticists, nourished and nurtured on the Lehrjahre, were dissatisfied with Goethe's revised edition of 1793-96.14 In this second version the protagonist leaves the theatrical company to enter society, resolving to relinquish his individuality and subjectivity in order to serve society as a surgeon.15 The Romanticist, taking a different position, envisioned the artist physically as well as spiritually separate from society. For this reason, the romantic author could not accept an artist-protagonist, as Wilhelm Meister is symbolically portrayed, who would sacrifice his individuality for society. The German Romanticists, foreshadowing the Künstlerroman, adapted the Lehrjahre for their own purposes. They used Goethe's theme and Bildung structure, but they separated their artist-protagonist from society. The German Romanticists refuted the conclusion of the Lehrjahre and considered their Künstlerromane as “Anti-Wilhelm Meisters.” The origin of the modern Künstlerroman finds its roots in the German Romantic period. The Künstlerroman emerged from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as an outgrowth of its structure, a refutation of its ending, a variation in its theme, and a continuation of the voyage motif.

In order to understand the origins of the Künstlerroman Herbert Marcuse, in his doctoral dissertation, looked to Germany and its literary Romantic period.16 He states that Madame de Stäel, influenced by Goethe and the Schlegel brothers, introduced the key German romantic concepts: freedom of artistic expression, powers of imagination, emphasis on subjectivity, experimentation with prose, and idealization of nature. However, Madame de Stäel extracted only those elements that appealed to her. Consequently, French Romanticism, emerging more than twenty-five years after the outset of German Romanticism, did not inherit directly or completely all German doctrines and principles. The same situation repeated itself in England; Scott and Coleridge transmitted only a portion of the new romantic literature and thought. (Both authors had translated many German works and traveled to Germany.) Nor in the United States can Romanticism be considered a true representation of its German counterpart. The American artist had a dual problem: his mal du siècle was initiated not only by his dissatisfaction with society, but with his search for a literary tradition. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville struggled with the metaphysics of art and its relationship to the American artist.

Marcuse's main thesis in Der Deutsche Künstlerroman is that the German Romantic period gave birth to the Künstlerroman. The artist's status in Germany during the Romantic period was unique in comparison to his French, English, and American brethren. Marcuse reiterates that the German romantic poet was not considered a part of society. He was labeled a pariah and grouped with the bohemian, minstrel, and itinerant actor. The art he produced had no basis in reality, served no social purpose, and influenced no political movement. In contrast, the English or French romantic artist participated in society. He composed poems and prose with the object of serving the political and social movements of his time. Byron, Shelley, Lamartine, de Vigny, and Hugo were artists but also patriots. Art was for them not an ethereal, idealistic expression of the non-existent, nor empty words of theory and dreams. On the other hand, the German Romantic did not actually experience such things as social calling or public commitment. His sonnets and dreams were not politically oriented but rather were reserved for a small elite of poets and artists.

The German Romantic artist's perennial conflict between the desire to isolate himself from humanity and the need for social roots caused a serious problem. To resolve this conflict the author sought to create a literary asylum. The Künstlerroman emerged as a solution; the artist established roots by creating a spiritual biography and tangible identity. In order to alleviate any future anxiety the Romantic artist unconsciously rejected the present and embraced the past. Popularity of the literary confessional genre, dreams of chivalric heroism, and memories of his own childhood influenced the artist to turn toward the past. Inevitably the artist centered all his attention on himself. Fichte called this the egocentricity; the Storm and Stress poets called it genius. The artist delighted in meandering through memories that were uniquely his; dreams and recollections offered an escape from urban problems and social conflicts. And as the artist voyaged through important experiences and persons of his childhood, a new reality emerged. In order not to lose this moment priviligé the artist called forth the Muses to help immortalize these memories; in doing so, the Künstlerroman was written. The artist developed the plot out of his own past and used the Bildung pattern as his structure. In Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre Goethe uses the term Bildung to mean the full development of a person's possibilities. Goethe, as well as the authors of the Künstlerromane, embellished the Bildung theme with autobiographical elements and created a protagonist with whom they identified themselves. This protagonist is an artist and consequently becomes easily identifiable—being either an extension or revision of the author's own personality. The use of autobiographical elements for a protagonist who is an artist was a unique method of presenting background data; this method was used consciously or unconsciously by the authors of Künstlerromane.

During the eighteenth century there were many intellectuals and artists traveling and even emigrating from their native country. Keats was dying in Italy, Byron in Greece, and Shelley in Italy. Wordsworth had spent one winter in Goslar, Germany, and Chateaubriand in the Mississippi Valley of the New World. A. W. Schlegel resided in France, Switzerland, and Germany during eight years of tutoring Madame de Stäel's children. And many others traveled to learn, experience, and study more closely the sources of influence that had been filtering into their native country. Late eighteenth-century and early nienteenth-century literature reflected these movements to foreign lands. The protagonist of the artist novel was placed in a strange country discussing in foreign words his new ideas. The voyage motif followed literary fashion, kept the plot moving and contributed to a portrayal of educating the human spirit. The “Grand Tour” theme was the gentleman's way of gathering knowledge, culture and prestige. This all adds up to Bildung.

In keeping with the conventions of eighteenth-century fiction, Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, is structured on the voyage theme. In the Lehrjahre, the Künstlerroman's embryo, the voyage motif is represented on three levels. The most obvious voyage occurs in Wilhelm's business journey, which is expected to strengthen his father's affairs. Wilhelm journeys from one town to another, attempting to collect several pending debts and also renew past acquaintances. Meister Senior dryly comments on the attributes of such a voyage:

Let him look about him in the world and at the same time carry on our business in distant parts. One cannot do a young man more great kindness, than initiate him early in the future business of his life. … One must try all things.17

Meister Senior believes that traveling stimulates the imagination and offers new learning experiences. Yet, the opportunity to reinforce business connections and collect forgotten debts should not be overlooked. The practical should be coordinated with the aesthetic in this preromantic work. On Wilhelm's business journey he meets a troupe of itinerant actors. Attracted and intrigued by their way of life, he joins their merry group and journeys with them to various towns and eventually becomes their director, manager, and scenarist. In a letter to his beloved Mariana, Wilhelm explains his choice to abandon business for theater.18 The life of an itinerant actor satisfies his joie de vivre and love for the unknown more profoundly than the life of debits and expenditures. Wilhelm's later, most important journey takes him deeper into the understanding of the artist's ontological development. The artist's ultimate desire is to encounter life and create art out of this experience. A stranger Wilhelm meets on his journey serves as Goethe's porte-parole:

He alone is worthy of respect, who knows
what is of use to himself and others, and
who labors to control his self-will. Each
man has his own fortune in his hands; as
the artist has a piece of rude matter, which
he is to fashion to a certain shape. But
the art of living rightly is like all arts:
The capacity alone is born with us; it must
be learned and practised with incessant care.(19)

As Wilhelm voyages through life he learns to understand himself and art; art is divine and symbolizes the highest form of human expression. The artist has received from God talents and skills that are denied to ordinary mortals. And only the artist, beholder of divine gifts, can interpret the real meaning of life. Wilhelm speaks such thoughts in Book II:

The poet must live wholly for himself,
wholly in the objects that delight him.
Heaven has furnished him internally with
precious gifts; he carries in his bosom a
treasure that is even of itself increasing;
he must also live with this treasure, un-
disturbed from without, in that still
blessedness which the rich seek in vain to
purchase with their accumulated stores. …
Now fate has exalted the poet above all
this; as if he were a god. … From his heart,
its native soil, springs up the lovely
flower of wisdom; and if others, while
making, dream, and are pained with fantas-
tic delusions from their every sense, he
passes the dream of life like one awake and
the strangest of incidents is to him a pact
both of the past and of the future. And
thus the poet is at once a teacher, a prophet,
a friend of gods and men. … Nay, if thou
wilt have it, who but the poet was it that
first formed gods for us; that exalted us
to them, and brought them down to us?(20)

Wilhelm speaks as a Romantic, emphasizing the divine role of the artist. But before Wilhelm can emerge as the poet “at once a teacher, a prophet, a friend of gods and men,” he must pass through various stages of life. His voyages, in the guise of businessman, actor, and artist, constitute a spiritual biography in which the embryo of a gifted individual matures and develops into a poet. Wilhelm's biography serves as a point of departure for all heroes of the Künstlerroman. Wilhelm and our modern artists are unable to remain stationary. Life is for them a series of voyages into unknown regions; art is their raison d'être, the Künstlerroman their finished artistic product.

As the artist voyages through life he passes through a series of situations that educate him. He learns while he lives and develops his character while he experiences. The theme of education appears as the principal constituent of the Bildung pattern. Goethe dedicated much thought to Wilhelm's moral and cultural development. In the revised edition of 1793-96 Goethe gives more importance to the Bildung theme than the theme of establishing a National Theatre. We can understand his concern in intertwining the two major themes of voyage and education in order to give the reader a more complete picture of Wilhelm's development into an artist. During the eighteenth century, pedagogical literature reached an avid public. Lessing, in his Education of the Human Race, equated the early history of man with childhood. Herder, Pestalozzi, and Basedow shared in the realization of the child's complex personality. Rousseau, in his literature as well as in his personal life, emphasized that children should be removed from parental influence and urban surroundings in order to preserve their innocence. And Goethe attributed the adult's level of cultivation to his early formative years. In Book V, Wilhelm is his author's porte-parole:

To speak in a word; the cultivation of my
individual self, here as I am; has from
my youth upwards been constantly though
dimly my wish and my purpose.(21)

Goethe believed that every talent and capability, however slight, is inborn. Education's objective is to recognize these innate talents, to develop them, and individualize their expression. The Romanticists adopted Goethe's emphasis on practical education derived from life's experiences. For the intellectuals and pedagogues of the Romantic period, the individual was to learn through living and the artist was to create by experimenting. The Künstlerroman carries the seeds of such learning theories by nature of its definition, and its Goethean inheritance.

Goethe's Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, portrays man's individuality as his most sacred attribute. Autobiographical data, social encounters, and theories of education play important roles in reinforcing Wilhelm's individuality. Analogous to Bildungsromane heroes, Wilhelm Meister is depicted as an “impressionable, vacillating individual, endowed with exceptional powers of mind and spirit. … They are more sensitive and gifted than the average young man; their perception sharper, their failures more heartbreaking, their struggles for adjustment to the world more desperate than those of their fellows.”22 Wilhelm is the archetypal Bildungsroman hero who is always busy finding something to do and envisioning life as an artistic, creative process.23 Yet more significantly, Wilhelm is not only the hero of Goethe's Bildungsroman, but also the forefather of the Künstlerroman's hero. He is portrayed as the symbolic artist who dedicates his life to the development of his individuality and the education of his being. Wilhelm Meister is the frère semblant not only of the romantic hero, but of the modern artist—the ancestor of all artists who need to be free, to rise above the crowd and create. Thus, his story of formation has served as model and inspiration for the modern Künstlerroman.

A century later, with renewed interest in the individual, popularity of psychoanalysis and theories of artistic creativity, there occurs an important reappearance of the Künstlerroman in Germany, England, and the United States.


  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions (1765-67 Books I-VI, 1769-1770 Books VII-XII; rpt. Paris: Garnier Frères, 1964).

  2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther, trans. Harry Steinhauer (1774; rpt. New York: Norton, 1970).

  3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, Book I, p. 3.

  4. Charles Baudelaire, “L'Albatros,” Les Fleurs du Mal (1845; rpt. Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1961) p. 11.

  5. François René de Chateaubriand, René, chpt. 2, III, 9 (1802; rpt. Paris: Garnier Flammarion, 1969).

  6. Charles Baudelaire, “Enivrez-vous,” Le Spleen de Paris (1869; rpt. Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1962) p. 167.

  7. The romantic artist's search for freedom has passed through various stages of expression. During the early romantic period the artist, as depicted by Byron, was unable to attain peace. Inadvertently he isolated himself, but his isolation was a distinguished, refined form of social separation that differed very much from the later romantic's position. Baudelaire's rebel-artist was by no means a gentleman; he was a decadent figure seeking solace in artificial sources. His isolation was not only a negation of humanity in general, but a rejection of his literary audience in particular. He made few concessions to his reading public, did not seek to satisfy their tastes, and as such, he estranged himself culturally and morally from society.

  8. F. L. Lucas in Literature and Psychology, p. 100 states that “the basis of all Romanticism becomes clearest if approached from the side, not of literary or social history, but of psychology.”

  9. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, 1820-29, publ. 1835, extract in The Portable Romantic Reader, ed. Howard E. Hugo (New York: Viking Press, 1957) p. 55.

  10. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1795, trans. Thomas Carlyle (1824; rpt. New York: Collier Books, 1962).

  11. The Sturm und Drang movement dominated the 1770s of Germany, to be followed by the Classical period of the 1780s and then the Romantic period of the 1790s. From 1777 to 1785, during the first Weimar years and prior to the Italian journey, Goethe worked on Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung, the first version of what later became in 1791-96 Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.

  12. During the Sturm und Drang period the actor was considered an artist serving society by his ability to entertain in such numerous roles as musician, juggler, gymnast, and poet. His peripatetic existence was similar to that of the itinerant minstrel wandering from one city to another, joining theatrical companies or remaining independent. Wilhelm Meister is portrayed in the Lehrjahre as such an Actor-Dichter.

  13. Roy Pascal, The German Novel (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1956), p. 11.

  14. Goethe wrote the first five books in the early Weimar period between 1777 and 1785. This is the version known as Wilhelm Meisters Theatralische Sendung. He began revising it with the collaboration and encouragement of Schiller, and completed Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre in 1796. The revised edition subordinates the original theme of Wilhelm's desire to establish a National Theatre in Germany for the Bildung theme. Goethe expresses his added interest in depicting the individual's development and education for social purposes.

  15. Later Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (New York: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1915) adopts the “Bildung” pattern, tracing the development of Philip Carey to the point when he emerges as a surgeon and offers his services to society.

  16. Herbert Marcuse, Der Deutsche Künstlerroman, Diss. University of Freiburg, 1922.

  17. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, p. 56.

  18. Ibid., p. 77.

  19. Ibid., p. 82.

  20. Ibid., p. 91.

  21. Ibid., p. 274.

  22. Susanne Howe in Wilhelm Meister and his English Kinsmen: Apprentices to Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1930), p. 7, presents a complete study of the English Bildungsroman using Goethe's Lehrjahre as model. Ms. Howe presents her thesis by stating “The Apprentice Novel in England was derived mainly from the German Bildungsroman as represented by its archetype Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.

  23. Ibid., p. 10.

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