Polar opposites as in appearance they look, the two literary doctrines of Naturalism and Art-for-Art’s-Sake, as propounded by Zola and Mallarmé, are really both expressions of the same megalomania. The aesthete is, at least, frank about this. He says: “Art is the only true religion. Life has no value except as material for a beautiful artistic structure. The artist is the only authentic human being: all the rest, rich and poor alike, are canaille.”
The naturalist is more disingenuous. Officially, he says: “Down with all art that prettifies life. Let us describe human life and nature as they really are.” But his picture of life “as it really is” is a picture of human beings as animals, enslaved to necessity, who can only manifest behavior and are incapable of personal choice or deeds. But if human beings are really as the naturalist describes them, then they cannot be loved or admired. Who can be? Only the naturalist himself for his accurate clinical observations. Like all kinds of behaviorists, he does not apply his dogmas to himself. He does not say: “My books are examples of behavior, conditioned by blind reflexes.” The hidden link between the naturalist and the aesthete is revealed by the total absence in both of any sense of humor. [links added]
An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses (as in the example of the naturalist above, who suggests that books are nothing but examples of conditioned behavior). They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.
Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.
All too often, reductionist analyses fail to answer the most basic questions about their enterprise: Why is one necessary? How would it be accomplished? What explanatory power or insight do we gain with the new language of description that is now afforded by these ‘nothing-but’ locutions that you provide us? What would we lose in its place? A reduction for reduction’s sake seems extremely unappealing.
This is not to discount the explanatory power that some reductionist analyses have afforded us, especially within the sciences. But even there, occasionally, as the misguided efforts to reduce biological explanations to exclusively physical and chemical ones shows, the seductive allure of the catch-all, explain-all impulse dies hard. That same urge fuels the intemperate extension of the reductive net to catch all manner of fish, be it literature, psychology, or the social sciences.
Auden is right: the reductionist is megalomaniacal and a bore. He fails to see that what makes inquiry interesting is the creation of meaning in rich and diverse forms; he’d rather channel that fundamental impulse into some narrowly circumscribed channel. And Auden is right too, about the lack of a sense of humor. The universe is laughing at you behind your back anyway; why not join in and crack a joke or two yourself?