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ArribaAbajoGaldós in nineteenth-century perspective

Sherman Eoff

The heading of the present essay might have carried as subtitle: «Thoughts on a socio-psychological approach to Galdós, eleven years afterwards». For the discussion to follow arises from the writer's questioning himself about the validity and possible significance of what he said in The Novels of Pérez Galdós, published in 1954. In that book a demonstration was given of a specific method of analysis that visualizes the Galdosian social novel as being essentially the story of an individual character deeply planted in his social environment. It was a concentrated endeavor held within a single perspective and had perhaps the natural weakness of the usual thematic study in that it subjected each novel to a preconceived plan of appraisal. Needless to say, not all of Galdós' social novels follow the same narrative plan or exhibit precisely the same kind of techniques in character portrayal. Consequently, one may justifiably hold that a kind of analysis that adheres to a single avenue of approach can at best provide only a restricted view of any given novel.

A further understandable criticism could arise from the emphasis on personality change as having primary interpretive importance. In a good number of cases the author insisted that the change in a protagonist's personality constituted the essence of the «story»; a defensible viewpoint, it seems to me, with respect to some of the most important novels, though possibly to be regarded more as an aspect than as an indispensable characteristic of the works as a whole. The psychological content of the novels, nevertheless, must surely be regarded always as paramount in Galdosian criticism; and it is equally plain that the kind of character portrayal confronting the critic is not typically an intensive analytical dissection of complex psychological activity. It is more often the rather casual recording of human experience that is based on the observation of an individual's normal interests and preoccupations.

The advantages of concentrating on this so-called socio-psychological approach probably are not to be found in the psychological analysis itself, which, after all, was a fairly simple application of common information; and certainly there was no intention of harnessing literary interpretation in scientific trappings. The important point is that the pursuit of a special kind of objective provided a useful vantage ground for viewing the novelist in a comprehensive way. It formed in effect a base on which a pyramid was constructed that reached into various strata of social, moral, and philosophical thought. One of the interesting results -for the author at least- was the great significance of Galdós' nineteenth-century background as a factor in the criticism of his works. This was largely a realization that grew out of the study and increased as it progressed. From the outset, however, the writer was thinking primarily of the intrinsic nature of the Galdosian novel as seen from within. Some note was taken, it is true, of various threads of thought that may have influenced Galdós. The insistence on developing character or personality change, for example,   —4→   was partly out of deference to the heavy presence of evolutionism in the nineteenth century and the general emphasis on the concepts of adaptation, change, and growth. Yet no special effort was made to interpret the novelist in terms of his historical epoch.

Now, in retrospect, I am inclined to recommend what in a sense is a reversal of the former method, that is, the choice of nineteenth-century thought as a broad base on which to observe the intrinsic nature of a Galdosian novel. We like to think that a work of art in its own integrity commands our respect without reference to its particular location in time. At the same time we have to admit that an author's bonds of unity with his historical epoch may hold the qualities that make his art independent of history; and it is thus important to observe in Galdós that which is explained by his historical circumstances and is nevertheless free of them. His conception of human personality, for example, which is essentially socio-psychological and as such harmonizes with the trend in the social sciences during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, is also rich in the kind of moral and metaphysical thought that sees personality liberated from the very social ground in which it is nourished. The metaphysical aspects of the character portrayal, of course, are themselves colored by the philosophical ideas of the age. In short, we are forced to recognize that it is impossible to separate an author from his epoch. Probably we are inclined too often to take this fact for granted without exploiting its full significance.

In Galdós' case, especially, the author's identity with his age has a primary significance. The extension of thought involved reaches out in all directions to include physiology, psychology, sociology, the physical sciences, technology, the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, the prominence of the bourgeoisie, the rise of the proletariat; and over all this a philosophical consciousness attuned to a historical (evolutionary) conception of the universe. The student of Galdós is obliged to become a student of the nineteenth century.

A thorough investigation of this large area would undoubtedly reveal many specific aspects that are of interest in themselves. But the point I wish to emphasize is the desirability of holding the particular within a perspective of the general. A full appreciation of Galdós requires that we regard him in a comprehensive way, and the great amount of information uncovered by scholars must be centralized around certain major poles of orientation. For only by concentration on major ideas can an artist's deepest significance be understood. To look upon Galdós as being a product of the nineteenth century is one of the most profitable comprehensive ways of grasping his importance. In an effort to bring the subject into focus, let us consider for a moment two or three broad perspectives in which Galdós normally is observed.

Probably the most common tendency among those who study and discuss the novelist has been to identify him with Spain and things Spanish. Spanish writers of the twentieth century, especially, because of their intense preoccupation with their country's problems, have weighed their works heavily with national color; and Spanish critics themselves have found it difficult to appraise one of their own save in terms exclusively Spanish.Viewers from the outside, in their desire to understand, have necessarily been drawn into this vortex of   —5→   self-examination. So it is that they have observed Galdós against the background of his personal circumstances and the locally controversial ideas of his own day; they have witnessed the general indifference to the novelist on the part of the generation of 1898; and since the civil war they have seen his name brought to the front once more, not with wide acclaim but at least with the recognition by some that he possesses a fundamental quality that could serve as basis for the restoration of national morale. In all this range of observation, the spectator from the outside is impressed above all with the picture of one Spaniard talking to another, sometimes apparently with little thought of a world beyond the national borders.

It is undeniably important to think of Galdós as a Spaniard located in a Spanish setting. He has left an unforgettable record of Spanish society and has in effect succeeded in creating a collective national character. He has demonstrated, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, ways of modernizing the thinking habits of his countrymen; and he has made us feel the presence, amidst numerous unfavorable features, of a strong national moral fibre. It is therefore necessary that scholars and critics examine this broad aspect of Galdós' novels. Such investigation is a natural continuation of attention to the novel of ideas, which, along with the subject of realism, occupied in large part the interest of critics among Galdós' contemporaries of the 1870's and 1880's.

As time removes us farther and farther from Galdós' epoch, questioning naturally increases concerning his place in literary history; and in recent years more and more thought seems to have been given to subject matter that tends to place the novelist in the relatively neutral perspective of «universality». What there is of wide and lasting value in an author's works, of course, is not as easy to define as his purely local features, but it is a question that is constantly with us. The subject no doubt can best be approached indirectly by choosing a concrete basis of judgment, such as an examination of the novelist's role as artist. Scholarship has in fact contributed in this way by investigating artistic and technical aspects of the Galdosian novel, having to do with methods, devices, style, narrative structure, character portrayal, and the like, all of which throw light on the breadth and texture of Galdós' understanding of human nature. Through concentration on the novelist's art, visualized as art, insight is gained into the qualities that have universal appeal.

There is another way to find a solid footing on which to stand while appraising Galdós' place in history. As we shift our attention from its focus on a national writer toward emphasis on an artist of universal appeal, we can bring it to bear on a kind of middle ground that may properly be called European -of nineteenth-century Europe-, which not only is important to an understanding of Galdós the Spaniard but also helps to explain much of his lasting worth in the world of art at large. That he was very much a citizen of Europe as well as of Spain no one will deny. Bibliographical and biographical research continues to give evidence of his breadth of outlook. His affinity with certain European writers is known, and comparisons have been made, but this general nineteenth-century-European area remains perhaps the field of study that holds the greatest promise of results. Specifically, we may ask, is there not value in thinking still further of Galdós in comparison with Balzac   —6→   in their roles of social historians; in placing him alongside Zola, with attention to the conception of literature as a social instrument, in addition to the question of naturalism; or in thinking of Tolstoy and his preoccupation with the common man, to say nothing of his interpretation of Christianity? In studies of this kind, let us insist, it is necessary to keep in mind that we are dealing with large areas, in which common bonds of interest lead different writers to express in their own way some of the ideals of an age. When we place Galdós against a common background with other great writers of his day, we can see clearly that his literary personality -perhaps at its best- bears the heavy mark of his century, that in fact it proclaims a substantial part of «the nineteenth-century message». In any case, concentration on the novelist in this single broad perspective can only deepen our understanding and appreciation of him.

I do not propose to draw the outline of a full picture, but I wish to suggest some of the advantages of thinking about generalities that may be too casually taken for granted. In the first place, the professional attitude with which Galdós regarded his mission as novelist was apparently a feeling of dedication to the new and what has proved to be -momentous literary movement known as realism. The youthful enthusiasm with which he embraced the general principles of realism may have decreased in his later years, but not the seriousness of purpose which led him through various phases of preparation and composition and which now seem to have entailed much more deliberateness than was once supposed. Research is constantly revealing evidence of the persistence with which Galdós worked, and one can be sure that he was a most serious and dedicated professional.

Now, it may be that some of the marks of professional thoroughness having to do with methods and techniques appear to a twentieth-century audience to be rather simple or at least unnecessarily obvious. But there is a great deal of subtlety in Galdós, and we can understand why scholars like to investigate multiple aspects of a novelistic production that continuously rewards them with new discoveries. The reward is greatest when we look for subtle connections in the realm of ideas. For the desire to keep up with modern thought, which the youthful Galdós showed, stayed with him through the most fruitful part of his career, and the roots of the ideational content of his novels reach deep into his intellectual environment. To what extent the novelist consciously incorporated contemporary ideas in his writing it may be difficult to say. But there can be little doubt that bonds of relationship and influence exist, and probably in every major ramification of nineteenth-century thought.

Perhaps the most fundamental way of approaching the study of Galdós in relation to nineteenth-century thought is through an examination of his reaction to the scientific rationalism of his age. We should keep in mind that the position which he maintained between a healthy respect for the physical and the social sciences and a loyalty to the human values that are independent of the sciences, was not a compromise between two contrary viewpoints but an effort to coordinate two possibly compatible ideals. The unifying, philosophical force in this seemingly dualistic world was the general idea of evolution. The novelist's own interpretation of various aspects of evolutionary theories unquestionably underlies not only his advocacy of material and social progress   —7→   but becomes a potent influence in his study of human character and his vision of human destiny. Within this evolutionary perspective, for example, the novelist's liking for paradox can advantageously be regarded from the viewpoint of Hegelian theory. Without affirming that Galdós actually studied the big names of European philosophical thought in his day, we can be fairly certain that he was conscious of them and in some way absorbed their ideas. So it is that Kant, Hegel, and even Schopenhauer become important points of reference. It is easy, it seems to me, to think of Galdós as being an inveterate optimist, but there are moments in his career, possibly at the time of Fortunata y Jacinta, when a Schopenhauerian influence seems to be exerting its hypnotic spell. In the same novel, which is an exceptionally rich storehouse of possibilities for interpretation, one might even be inclined to look to Kierkegaard; an unusual intellectual companion for Galdós it would seem, but the more one studies this novelist the less one is surprised by the multiplicity and variety of his intellectual aspects.

As we think of the desirability of bringing Galdós into a sharper nineteenth-century focus than we have yet achieved, let us not forget that the advantages of comparative studies hold true with respect to writers of different centuries. Of special interest is a comparative view that places Galdós in perspective with decidedly twentieth-century writers like Baroja and Unamuno. For one thing, such a comparison makes us sharply aware of the importance, for interpretive purposes, of the question of meaning: the belief in the first place that the world has meaning, and in the second place, that the novel is an instrument with which to demonstrate meaning.

Emphasis on the fact that Galdós was the champion of a literature of meaning can hardly be overstated. Not content with merely depicting contemporary life and customs, he felt impelled to incorporate in his narratives a variety of social, moral, and religious themes, and these appear to have been always in accord with a controlling philosophical principle. It was not necessary for him to have a clear understanding of what the meaning of life is. It was sufficient only for him to believe that there is a meaning. Seeking after it thus became a challenge and a strong motivating force that is evident not only in the form of ideational themes, but in his novelistic methodology as well. His characters, for example, are generally driving ahead vigorously, sometimes futilely, but definitely, toward a goal. His narrative method, too, is characterized by purposiveness, virtually every chapter serving as a meaningful step toward a conclusion. At its worst, literature of strictly controlled meaning can be mere sermonizing, but it can also be subtle, with an appearance of perfect naturalness while being guided by a firm orientation that gives solidity and substance to the composition as a whole. In this connection, the contrast in methodology between Galdós and Baroja is striking. Although the latter seems always to be searching for meaning, he writes as though he considered the search hopeless. His protagonists, generally without firm orientation, appear to be going nowhere in particular, simply because there is no place to go. This by no means indicates that Baroja is less an artist than Galdós or less interesting to read. It may even help to explain why a reader can enjoy page after page of Baroja's fictional episodes without caring particularly whether he is headed   —8→   in any definite direction. (The same can be said of Cela.) Writing is, in its effort to capture the present moment, its own excuse for being. With Galdós, on the other hand, seldom is a descriptive or narrative scene independent of the objective at which the author is aiming; and since the reader is conscious of this narrative purposiveness, he may sometimes become impatient with any appearance of unnecessary delay in arriving at the narrative goal that is known to await him.

This contrast in novelistic method is also a contrast between a philosophical outlook that sees the world as a purposeful process, and one that reflects above all the depressiveness of a lack of purpose. Even Unamuno, who is obsessed with a sense of responsibility to establish meaning, goes about his task with the emotional uneasiness of one who seeks by the brute force of his own personal will to wrest meaning from a so-called purposeful order in which he only halfway believes. The philosophical and emotional plague of the twentieth century, the dark shadow of unmeaning, of course, has its roots in the nineteenth century, which was never able to shake off the heavy mesmerism of the natural sciences and ended with a marked spiritual tiredness. Galdós, however, from the beginning of his career, maintained a determined course of positive action, though losing in his later years his vigorous creative energy. He did not fall victim to scientific rationalism, and he consequently does not evince the anguish of such writers as Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. A non-conformist within the area of his personal and purely Spanish environment, he was a most exemplary, and healthy, conformist within the broad perspective of modern scientific thought and hence made a remarkable adjustment to his century by cooperating with it.

Now, if Galdós has lasting appeal, it is most likely to be found definitely colored by certain aspects of his peculiarly nineteenth-century quality. Without doubt, his personal brand of realism, in so far as its outward form is concerned, has diminished in popularity, just as much of the nineteenth-century manner of writing novels has gone out of style. But even the casual reader must feel the strength of his character portraits, and the wholesomeness of his ideas about individual personality even though he may find nothing spectacular in the portraits themselves. The fact is that Galdós succeeded in elevating the humblest, most unspectacular kind of human being to a place of high honor in the human family and he did so simply and unpretentiously. He was able to create heroics out of the unheroics of life, and in this accomplishment he demonstrated the very essence of nineteenth-century realism.

Can we not say, further, that Galdós' philosophical posture lays claim to posterity's admiration, even though it may be temporarily out of style? Kierkegaard and Dostoievsky were precursors, it is said. They were precursors of the twentieth-century soul-searching anxiety, an unhappy confrontation with the human predicament. But did not Galdós see this same agitation as a mere step, a necessary and inevitably social step, in a larger view of existence? The cosmic vision which he held is vertical and dynamic; that is, it is essentially an evolutionary view of gradual development along a line from lower to higher states of being. The predominantly characteristic view of the twentieth century is horizontal, as of a plane on which man stands, confronted with an existence   —9→   that crowds out all reliance on previous or future states and holds the individual in a lonely spot contemplating the prospects of having to make the best of his single moment isolated in time, cut off from purposeful movement. Within the perspective represented by Galdós, by contrast, the individual can dare to reach for a goal that lies, possibly only vaguely perceived, outside the restless uncertainty of the present moment.

The individual human being making his way amidst other individuals, with their help or with their hindrance, struggling, advancing, falling back, and advancing again-this is the solid, substantial human world that Galdós depicts for us. If we ponder the view that he leaves us, we must realize the impact of the good old-fashioned doctrine of the necessity of earning one's reward; and we can harmonize this thought with the currently prominent idea that man's total reality rests in his own hands. Past, present, and future are joined simply by admitting the concept of goal into the picture, the goal being to possess in the present moment a reality that is always past, present, and future at the same time. The Galdosian interpretation of life thus invites us to combine the old with the new and permits us to embrace the pressing demands and doubts of the present while supplying us with a firm basis for confidence.

If this «philosophical» emphasis seems unduly extended in the direction of abstract ideas, it is only because Galdós is rich enough in philosophical substance to demand that we think of this essential aspect of his novels, which demonstrates for us probably the most durable elements of nineteenth-century thought. With justification the Anales galdosianos makes its appearance. As a vehicle of dedication to a special subject, it will find a fertile field of endeavor awaiting it.

Washington University.