In comments to a post below, Elis draws attention to an article written by Raymond Chandler in 1912, in which he attacks the narrow-mindedness of a contemporary wave of realism. Chandler writes of these so-called realists: ‘Boldly declaring that they will cast aside all factitious optimism, they automatically choose the dark aspect of all things in order to be on the safe side; as a result unpleasantness becomes associated in their minds with truth, and if they wish to produce a faultlessly exact portrait of a man, all they need to do is to paint his weaknesses’.
Reading these words now I am reminded, unsurprisingly, of our good friend Pyetr Turgidovsky, whose philosophy of unalloyed misery has much in common with late nineteenth and early twentieth century ‘realism’. Nothing but the sordidness of life will do for Turgidovsky; depression, dullness, dirt and desolation; these are his subjects. But would he call himself a realist? Most probably. I don’t doubt that he believes, essentially, in his gospel of unhappiness. Yet there is a quality to his ‘realism’ missing from these earlier forms: a passion, perhaps even an exaggeration, which leads some, still, to the conclusion that Turgidovsky’s ultimate goal is satire. He pushes misery so far that there is nothing to do but smile.
I’m not so sure about this conclusion. To push Turgidovsky through Chandler’s closing comments may, however, nudge us towards a better understanding of the famous nihilist. The greatest ‘realists’, he argues, are in fact ‘the most courageous of idealists, for they exalt the sordid to a vision of magic, and create pure beauty out of plaster and vile dust’. Anyone who has read the description of dead bodies in Turgidovsky’s latest work, Delicious Air of Life (or the Ugly God-damned Wife), will probably agree that here, amongst all the blood and bruises, we find more than enough ‘pure beauty’ to confirm that Turgidovsky is, should you wish to take this line, a ‘courageous idealist’.