Masaryk and Belles-Letters

Masaryk, who had previously studied in Vienna and Leipzig and later taught as Privat-Dozent at Vienna University, accepted his appointment as lecturer at the Czech university in Prague in 1882 somewhat unwillingly and even with distaste. As he said many years later, he feared the provincialism of Prague; he felt himself a foreigner amongst Czechs and estranged from their national life. His Czech was rather rudimentary; he was unacquainted with the literature of the country and had misgivings about the situation of Czech literature and philosophy. Before his appointment he had only visited Prague once, during a journey from Marienbad to Vienna, and had been unfavourably impressed. This was hardly surprising in view of the way in which he chose to spend his time. He went to a seedy theatre where he saw “a stupid farce”, and to a café where he observed “peculiar prostitution”._1

From the very beginning Masaryk considered himself, rightly or wrongly, superior to his Czech colleagues and so he conceived the ambition to introduce a spirit of Positivist criticism into Bohemia, where according to him no sense of critical enquiry or exchange of opinions existed._2 Gradually he assembled a small group of academics, journalists and politicians who assumed the name Realists, and undertook to “castigate and improve” Czech life in accordance with his own ideas._3 The term Realist, so frequently used by Masaryk and his followers, was coined by F. Pazdirek to replace the term “Positivist” which Masaryk rejected._4 Its vagueness and its faint connotations of real, reality, and so on, appealed to Masaryk, who liked to use similarly ambiguous terms; appeals from his adversaries for a definition went unheeded._5

Soon after his arrival in Prague, before embarking on social and political criticism, Masaryk assumed the role of aesthetician and literary critic by publishing, in 1884, an essay O studiu děl básnických (On the study of poetical works)._6 Although he promises in the introduction to show in concreto how empirical aesthetics should deal with “literary works”, he immediately restricts the field of his study.

He states that he will not speak of a literary work in its historical context nor examine its relation to the development of culture, but only discuss the work on its own. But, in doing so, he will disregard form and discuss only content, mainly from the psychological standpoint. He begins by stating that, as the aim of both the scientist and the artist is cognition of the world, and as humankind interests humankind most, the true aim of both scientific and artistic cognition is humankind. But whilst the scientist analyses the world in its parts, compares them and arranges them into wholes, the artist perceives all the things in Nature directly through his or her imagination. Art does not imitate Nature; the artist also builds his or her world from its elements but not in the abstract way of a scientist. Science is always in a state of flux, necessitating corrections and additions; it evolves. Art, on the other hand, does not evolve. What genuises like Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare and others learnt, remains for ever. Therefore artistic cognition is the highest form of human cognition. A work of art must be universal. Because art does not imitate Nature, its essence is not in realism; it is as “unrealistic” as science. The poet should strive for the external ideas of which Plato wrote and to which every noble soul aspires. In fact the poet and philosopher have the same cognitive object – the whole world – they use the same means of expression, namely language; they both seek to answer the same mysteries of the world and their works are very similar as to content. This essay, which is written in a somewhat contorted style, was hardly original, following, as it did, Schopenhauer in its claim for the cognition of the artist being higher than the cognition of the scientist, and following Hegel and Taine in its likening of the poet to the philosopher.

One might ask what induced Masaryk to begin his career at Prague University by publishing this study. The answer lies in his deliberate neglect and even contempt for the aesthetic side of literary works, for what the contemporary aestheticians called form. It was an attempt to attack the formism cultivated by J. Durdík who was his colleague at the Faculty of Arts, and one might not be mistaken in assuming that the motive was personal rivalry._7 Masaryk does not quote Durdik but it is clear that his essay is intended as an attack on Durdik’s conception of the literary work. It appears, however, that he did not trouble to wade through the 1300 or so pages of Durdik’s works. Had he done so, he would have found his ideas refuted before he had put pen to paper._8 The essay, published by courtesy of the literary revue Lumír, passed unnoticed, but Masaryk never gave up his Tainean idea of the poet equalling the scientist, enlarged later by the no less Tainean belief that art conveys historical truth about man in a certain time and place. He retained this conviction into old age when he said to Karel Čapek, “For me belles-lettres were always as important a source of knowledge as science”._9 The views expressed in his early essay were summarised more than ten years later in his article on Naturalism:

How do the philosopher and scientist differ from the artist and from the novelist in particular? The scientist explains the world; the artist creates it within himself anew. There is the scientist – here is the artist. The scientist is more objective; he confronts the world – the artist is more subjective, he does not confront the world but encloses it within himself and presents his own new world. The scientist is wise – the artist is strong. Science instructs – art uplifts. The scientist tells you in the clearest way what he cognises – with the artist you must feel, you must grasp by feeling what he is full of because he depicts what cannot be said – the world and life cannot be sufficiently expressed with words; they can only be lived, and therefore created anew. Science gives certainty, through art you see because you live. Both science and art seek the truth – there is only one truth but you learn it in a different way through art. Truth, most truthful truth, truth truly – that is a device common to both._10

A year after publishing O studiu děl básnických, Masaryk stated in his periodical Athenaeum, which was devoted to the criticism of scholarly literature, that belles-lettres play as important an educational role in the life of a nation as science, and he expressed the need for taking up “critical brooms” to end anarchy in Czech belles-lettres._11 In 1886 when his friend Jan Herben (1857–1936) founded the monthly Čas Masaryk undertook this task himself and contributed criticism of prose, poetry and drama. In 1894 he became the editor of the monthly Naše doba and wrote literary criticism more or less regularly until 1897. He only rarely signed it with his own name, using various pseudonyms. His first piece of criticism, a lengthy review of Jaroslav Vrchlický’s play, Exulanti, was signed F. O. Pisarevský._12 This was in order to indicate that, like Dmitri Pisarev, he would not be concerned with aesthetics but with the moral philosophy and social purpose of the work. At the end of the article he remarks, “And now we are waiting for some Dobrolyubov to explain it all to us.”

Masaryk’s most important studies on belles-lettres in Naše doba are devoted to the Faustian epic Twardowski by Jaroslav Vrchlický (1850 – –1912),_13 to the Naturalism of Emile Zola,_14 and to a thorough discussion of “Faustism” and titanism as manifested in the works of Goethe and Müsset._15 Masaryk was primarily a sociologist and philosopher of history, and his assessments are those of a would-be social reformer and moralist with little interest in literary criticism.

Masaryk’s criteria are quite simple. In the first place he is interested in a writer’s thoughts and opinions._16 On this basis he can easily dismiss Vrchlický:

Mr Vrchlický has as yet not presented a precise opinion on the Czech question... He sings about humanity but in his humanity he has no place for his own nation._17

Mr Vrchlický is no more than a philosophical impressionist. Do not look in him for a solid, unified and definite world-outlook. Least of all look for the solution of any problems. Mr Vrchlický is aware of them because he knows world literature but he does not try to solve them. One day he judges in one way, the next day in another way, even if he contradicts himself._18

The second criterion used by Masaryk is that of the necessity of truth in literary work, not in a transferred sense but as “the faithful representation of commonplace things”, as George Eliot expressed it in Adam Bede. Masaryk writes, “Read in Adam Bede the chapter on realism and it will be clear to you what realism means”._19 This insistence on truthfulness provides him with a good deal of material for ironical criticism. Three examples are sufficient. In Zola’s Le Docteur Pascal the doctor, who is in his sixties, and his niece, who is under twenty, are together in a room in their night attire. Masaryk comments: “I cannot understand how Zola as a realist did not notice that Pascal and Clotilde must have caught a terrible cold because there was a storm outside, it was raining, there was a draught in the room – and not a single sneeze!”_20 Apart from being shocked by the fact that Pascal sleeps with his own niece, Masaryk cannot believe that they could love each other in such a way because of the great difference in their ages: “Is it possible that Clotilde could love Pascal so passionately? Sixty is sixty and no normal young girl can love a sixtyyear-old man so passionately and sensually”._21 In Zola’s L’Ceuvre the country girl Christine takes a hackney cab in Paris and is assaulted by the cabman. Masaryk writes: “To stress the naivety of Christine, Zola tells us about an indecent assault perpetrated on her by the cabman – imagine for yourselves that situation in the hackney cab – and the horses did not even bolt!”_22

Masaryk’s third and most important criterion is ethical. The work, with which he usually identifies its hero and the poet himself, must be moral. It must have unity, “harmony of reason with the heart”, and therefore be socially beneficial. Goethe did not overcome scepticism; there is no unity in his Faust. All he offers is the gospel of unnatural dualism:

“The aesthetic element overrules the ethical. Goethe flees from science and philosophy to superstition, just like Musset and the Romantics.”_23

Faust experiments both in life and with life as he experimented in his laboratory. Faust’s is a type of conscious egoism, rational, philosophical egoism, terrible egoism._24

Faust is a true Titan; he is a superman. But he does not fight his battle to the end. In spite of his strength he does not win. Faust’s head is aflame, but his heart is too cold. Just like Comte, Goethe is more interested in new teaching than in a new life. He is a Titan in his reason but a weakling in his heart. A strange amalgam of revolutionary philosophy and a reactionary life._25

But finally Goethe is pardoned. He had many vices (he spoke a lot about love but did not introduce children in his works, and who can love without loving children?); he was a dilettante and an aesthete but he impresses because he was honest enough to admit his faults.

When he adopted morality as one of the main criteria in his evaluation of literary works, Masaryk was faced with the problem of deciding how his concept differed from that of the conventional interpretation provided by familiar ethical systems. He asks: “How do we recognise the fundamental truths of morality? What should decide my own morality? Or more explicitly: am I able to deduce the principles of morality from my reason or from my feelings?”_ 26 And he answers or rather evades these questions by saying: “I want to base morality on religion but on a different religion from which is officially offered. The sort of religion it is not possible to discuss here”._27 On the other hand, he was quite sure what he understood by the term “immorality” and clearly expressed it early on in Der Selbstmord, where he puts forward his one-sided interpretation of suicidal moods caused, as he insists, by the loss of faith: “Now it should be clear what we understand as the immorality of suicides.” _28

On the whole it seems that our modern life only serves us as means to a premature awakening of the sexual instinct. Novels, mostly only immoral, pictures of various kinds, and above all the theatre in big towns, the ballet, drinking dens, the press (witness our magazines!), etc., all play their part in this respect and the whole moral atmosphere is very bad. Amongst the causes of this the foremost place is occupied by alcoholism which awakens sexual desires and all that contributes towards this end._29


Together with abortion, contraception is becoming the current evil of modern society. This marital masturbation is gradually spread ing from France around the whole of Europe. Our dailies, even the quality dailies, recommend various firms which can be of service in this respect. What has happened in France will happen in other countries; on the one hand, tender and moral family feelings will disappear, on the other, the population will degenerate physically._30

Sexual morality or rather immorality became for Masaryk the main symptom in the syndrome of the maladie du siècle which had stricken modern humanity. The Renaissance undermined the medieval idea of the world based on a homogeneous religion by spreading scepticism and indifference. Later, science destroyed the last vestiges of faith but could not replace it, and modern humanity staggers between faith and disbelief, defiance and weakness, anarchy and allegiance. In their revolt against Providence human beings become Titans and commit either violence or suicide. In his essays on Zola, Musset and Goethe, Masaryk attempts the analysis of the psychological state of modern humanity on the basis of belles-lettres and later summarises his findings:

If we analyse not only the modern novel, but all modern and in particular post-revolutionary European literature, we notice two types of se-xual morality. I have analysed this in my studies on modern Titanism (Faustism), in particular in the cases of Zola, Musset and Goethe [...].

Parisian sexual mysticism, always fluctuating between the Madonna and the Venus Vulgivaga, nor is it the Jesuitism of sensuality which adopts with the deepest perversity the ascetic ideal because it pays tribute to the ascetic dualism of the body and soul – Protestant decadence is simpler, more open, cruder, without any burning reproaches of conscience. It is a less excited decadence, sexual metaphysics à la Schopenhauer. If I quote Bleibtreu as the theoretist of Protestant decadence, Bourget is a typical representative as well as the analyst of the Catholic (French) decadence (witness his book on love!)._31

At the time Masaryk was writing on modern humankind and religion, his views were already out of date. He took them from Paul Bourget,_32 Ferdinand Brunetière,_33 Max Nordau,_34 Leo Berg,_35 and many others. But although he proposes to arrive at an analysis of the psyche of modern humanity through the examination of belles-lettres, Masaryk in fact proceeds in the opposite direction. He uses poems, novels and dramas to support his premisses, and interprets them from the standpoint of his preconceived idea.

This is most evident in his treatment of Musset. He equates Musset’s conception of love with hatred, speaks about the sexual depravation and perversity of his characters, and explains Octave’s suicide in La Confession d’un enfant du siècle by his loss of religious faith. According to Masaryk, Octave had no choice. He had to consider committing murder either by murdering his mistress or taking his own life. Blinded by his preconceived idea, Masaryk fails to see that Octave was affected not by religious but by erotic scepticism. Indeed, like many Romantics, Octave has faith. He firmly believes in love and lives for love. He is struck only when his faith is betrayed and only then does he revolt against God.

Similarly mistaken is Masaryk’s interpretation of Musset’s “Rolla”. Masaryk sees Rolla as a passive egotist who dies in a delirium in which pleasure alternates with cursing and blaspheming. In fact, like Octave, Rolla realises that love is the source of all beauty and goodness: “J’aime – voilà le mot que la nature entière crie au vent qui l’emporte, à l’oiseau que le suit! Sombre et dernier soupir que poussera la terre quand elle tombera dans l’éternelle nuit!” It is not physical passions, which, as Masaryk remarks with contempt, Rolla had to buy for money, but love which finally came to him thanks to Marie. For Masaryk it was obviously impossible that a man could fall in love with a prostitute. To prove his preconceived idea, Masaryk has to ignore the ending of the poem. Rolla contemplates the sleeping Marie and feels that she shares his suffering – “oui voilà la statue que je devais trouver sur ma tombe étendue”. Marie wakes and describes her dream in which she has seen three men carrying a coffin with Rolla inside. Rolla gets up, approaches her bed and asks why she is taking his place; Marie then realises that she is lying on a tomb. Rolla tells her that it will come true; he will kill himself that night because he is ruined. Marie kisses him and offers him her golden necklace to sell, but Rolla drinks a conveniently placed phial of poison, kisses the necklace and dies. Surely it is not difficult to understand the meaning of the last two lines and their connection with medieval concepts: “Dans ce chaste baiser son âme était partie/Et pendant un moment tous deux avaient aimé”.

The obsession to prove his thesis blinded Masaryk when reading poetry not only figuratively but literally. At the end of his study on Musset he writes:

The loss of faith leads by its scepticism to death – “le p_cheur se tut car il ne croyait pas”, ends one of the earliest of Mussets poems “Portia”. “The fisherman killed himself because he did not believe.” But if a simple fisherman killed himself how else could the Voltairean sceptic end? By physical or moral suicide. Musset himself drank himself to death with absinthe._36

The catch is that far from killing himself the fisherman did not kill limself precisely because he did not believe:
– – – – – – Dieu rassemble
Les amants, dit Portia; nous partirons ensemble. Ton ange en t’emportant me prendra dans ses bras. Mais le pêcheur se tut, car il ne croyait pas. Masaryk simply read “se tua” instead of “se tut” or mistranslated it.

Masaryk’s essay series on modern humankind and religion was preceded in 1895 by a lengthy study on Zola. It seems that he was prompted to undertake this laborious task (his discussion of Le Docteur Pascal alone takes up more than 70 pages) by the article by his adversary Durdík, written four years previously._37 Although rejecting Zola for his impropriety, Durdík praises him because he takes such care of form and speaks of ‘la science de la forme’: “The stress on form is a hopeful sign of more light. It is an important reason for the justification of Naturalism that aligning itself against one-sided or mystical aesthetic systems it serves unconsciously the true, sober teaching of formist aesthetics”._38 This was not the only remark which Masaryk could not help but see as a snub to his critical method. There were several others, more direct: “He who only looks for real truth in a work of poetry, has not yet reached the standpoint of aesthetics; he may be an historian but not a true perceiver and critic”. Masaryk’s own essay would require a special study; suffice it to say that it is based almost entirely on George Brandes,_39 Max Nordau _40 and, above al, Brunetiêre? _ 41 whose judgements Masaryk either paraphrases – or just translates. It is written in a purely subjective vein, full of irritation and unwarranted mockery. It falls below the standard not only of Durdík’s systematic study of Naturalism_ 42 but also that of Vojtěch Kalina,_ 43 one of the few Czech critics of that time to acknowledge Zola’s talent as “a poet” in prose. As for a definition of Masaryk’s method as a literary critic, it is easier to say what it was not rather than what it was. It contained elements derived from psychology, sociology and moral philosophy, but paid no attention to inventiveness, imagination, the relationship between convention and tradition and, to use more modern terminology, it ignored the work of literature as a structure of linguistic signs.


Čapek, Karel: Hovory s T. G. Masarykem, Prague 1937, pp. 76 –77, 83.

Ibid., p. 94.

Masarykův sborník II, Prague 1927, p. 293.

The term “realistický” in connection with Masaryk’s programme was used for the first time in F. Pazdirek’s article in Slawische Warte 2, 1 February 1889. See Masarykův sborník, HI, Prague, 1928–29, p. 217.

Cf. “Could these gentlemen explain to us the meaning of their term? Is it the realism of Aristotle, of Herbart, is it the quasirealism of Schopenhauer, the semi-realism of Kirchmann, the fashionable transcendental realism of Hartmann, etc., etc” Zákrejs, F.: Volné rozhledy, Osvěta, XXI, I, 1891, p. 277.

Lumír, XXI, 1884, pp. 266 – 8, 280 –2, 298–301; published the same year as a book at Masaryk’s expense.

Cf. T. G. Masarykovi k šedesátým narozeninám, 2 nd edition, published as Masarykův sborník, IV, Prague 1930, p. 338.

Cf. “If somebody sets the poet the task of enlarging the true and noble essence of the world, the dignified knowledge about the tasks of humanity and high-minded principles, he draws him into the realms of philosophy even if the poet dislikes philosophising.” (Durdik, Josef: Poetika jakožto aesthetika umění básnického, Prague 1879– 81, p. 135.) “From the standpoint of formist aesthetics we insist that the value of the poem depends on its internal form.” (Ibid., p. 128.) “The critics of a poem often sin because they do not judge the poem itself but only that which it expresses.” (Durdik, Josef: Všeobecná aesthetika, Prague 1875, p. 125.)

Čapek, Karel: Hovory, p. 94.

Zolův naturalism, Naše doba, III, 1895, p. 138.

Jak zvelebovat naši literaturu naukovou, Athenaeum 2, 1885, p. 270.

Čas I, 1887, p. 17.

Několik myšlének o literárním eklekticismu, Naše doba II, 1895, pp. 314–37, 385–407.

Zolův naturalism, Naše doba III, 1895, pp. 1–16, 120 –38, 220 –32; Naše doba IV, 1896, pp. 289–301, 423–37.

Moderní člověk a náboženství: Moderní titanism, Naše doba V, 1897, pp. 33–42, 96 –120; Moderní titanism. A. de Musset: Nemoc století, Naše doba V, 1897, pp. 142–57; Goethův Faust: Nadčlověk, Naše doba V, 1898, pp. 385– 95, 481– 92, 585– 99.

Naše doba II, 1895, p. 666.

Ibid., p. 567.

Ibid., p. 567.

Naše doba IV, 1895, p. 10.

Naše doba III, 1895, p. 10.

Ibid., p. 11.

Ibid., p. 221.

Naše doba V, 1898, p. 487.

Ibid., p. 390.

Ibid., p. 488.

Ideály humanitní. In: Čas XIV, 1901; quoted from Ideály humanitní, Prague 1927, p. 65.


Der Selbstmord, Vienna 1881; quoted from the Czech edition, Sebevražda, Prague 1904, p. 83.

Přednášky o praktické filosofii, 1884 (lithographed); quoted from Masaryk, T. G.: Mravní názory, compiled by Z. Franta, Prague 1925, pp. 143–4.

Ibid., p. 142. Cf. passages on sexual continence and masturbation in Čapek, Karel: Hovory, p. 51.

Otázka sociální, Prague, 1898; quoted from Otázka sociální, ed. V. K. Škrach, Prague 1946, vol. II, pp. 94–5.

Essais de psychologie contemporaine, Paris 1883– 85.

Le Roman naturaliste, Paris 1883.

Entartung, Berlin 1892.

Das sexuelle Problem in der modernen Literatur, Berlin 1891.

Naše doba V, 1897, p. 38.

Durdik, Josef: O naturalismu v básnictví, Osvěta XXI, I, 1891, pp. 97–109, 208–14.

Ibid., p. 214. i39 Ibid., p. 211.

Brandes, Georg: Menschen und Werke, Frankfurt on Main 1893.

See Note 34.

See Note 33.

See Note 37.

Emile Zola, Osvěta XXV, I, 1895, pp. 209–21, 406 –20.