The Regression to the Primitive

Amit Majmudar
May 23, 2013
Comments 1


Northrop Frye, discussing the arc of Shakespeare’s plays, says something very profound about Shakespeare’s late “Romances,” like A Winter’s Tale and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.


…as a dramatist, he [Shakespeare] reflects the priority of mythology to ideology…. Further, he reflects it increasingly as he goes on. Because of this, his later plays are more primitive than the earlier ones, not, as we might expect, less so. They get closer all the time to folk tales and myths, because those are primitive stories.


A brilliant insight, that: And one which we see paralleled exactly in the transition between the early-middle Tolstoy of the major novels, and the late Tolstoy of the parables and moral tales. Tolstoy, too, willfully regressed to less sophisticated forms of storytelling. In 1897’s What is Art?, he lists his examples of “supreme [literary] art: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Hebrew prophets, the psalms, the Gospel parables, the story of Sakya Muni, and the hymns of the Vedas.” Not a single novelist or playwright! Tolstoy famously despised the Shakespeare of King Lear, and there are passages in both his major novels disdaining the sophisticated, empty illusions of the theater (and it is with an anecdote of being backstage at a theater that What is Art? opens).

This regression to the primitive, after mastering the sophisticated art, has occurred, in our own day, in Cormac McCarthy, beginning with Suttree and Blood Meridian and becoming, today, the Cormac McCarthy of The Road; in the highly polished, formally intricate early W. S. Merwin, giving way to the W. S. Merwin of the punctuation-free, stripped-down, seemingly “artless” later poems.

I should also note that an opposite movement is also possible. Ibsen begins with verse dramas out of Scandinavian legend like Peer Gynt, and transitions to writing more urbane prose plays. Gustave Flaubert, characteristically, covers the spectrum. He begins with the saint’s tale The Temptation of St. Anthony, scraps it, moves through Madame Bovary, and ends up all the way in Salammbo–a highly researched, highly sophisticated historical novel. But then he circles back. He rewrites The Temptation of St. Anthony; publishes the parable-like short stories of Three Tales (1877), one of which is titled “Un Coeur Simple”—and, as if to prove my point, in 1880 writes a feerie, a genre of stage play, which is, according to Wikipedia, “influenced by romanticism’s interest in folklore and mythology” and “often inspired by fairy tales.” A sort of 19th-century descendant of the fairy-tale-like Shakespearean late romance.

One thought on “The Regression to the Primitive

  1. Within Anna Karenina the train, a modern invention, takes on a primitive role, at first with its social role, later an anatomical means of expression to finally an anthropomorphic ending.

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