Escola Superior de Educação do Instituto Politécnico do Porto (ESE-IPP), Portugal
by Miguel Ramalhete Gomes. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Munira H. Mutran
São Paulo: Humanitas/FAPESP, 2015.
Munira H. Mutran’s A Batalha das Estéticas (The Battle of Aesthetics) is an anthology, with informative headnotes, of critical texts by George Moore, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats, collaboratively translated into Portuguese by Mutran and Alzira Leite Allegro. This book combines two strands of Mutran’s substantial body of scholarly work, building not only upon her 2002 monograph, Álbum de Retratos. George Moore, Oscar Wilde e William Butler Yeats no Fim do Século XIX: Um Momento Cultural, but also on her organization of two anthologies (1996; 2006) of Irish short stories translated into Portuguese. Above all meant for a student audience, this anthology will also be of great use to anyone interested in Irish literature and culture. Indeed, in less than 200 pages, Mutran provides an excellent introduction to the critical thought and literary work of these three authors, as representative instances of a larger shift in literary practices and aesthetic tenets during the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.
The first half of the book opens with a general introduction followed by three sections in which translations of carefully chosen excerpts of critical texts by Moore, Wilde, and Yeats are presented and briefly commented on by Mutran. The final bibliography, although it could also have included more recent references, is balanced and a good starting point for further reading. In her well-argued introduction, she sets the boundaries of the anthology: from Paris to London and Dublin, during the passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, as several movements, such as Romanticism, Realism, Aestheticism, Decadence, and Naturalism, proposed radically different ways of representing reality. Mutran begins by pointing out that the battles fought by these movements are themselves versions of much older artistic oppositions between imitation and creation, and makes it clear that the terms themselves, “romanticism” as well as “realism”, are multi-faceted and open to interpretation. Mutran thus employs a unifying device for the three main sections of the book, namely the metaphors of the mirror, the veil, and the lamp, as used respectively by Stendhal, Wilde, and Yeats. She then introduces the role of the writer-critic as essential in understanding the dialogues between writers, artists, and critics during this time, a series of creative interactions that Mutran pursues well into the period of Modernism. Such dialogues not only helped to establish these writers’ diverse positions, but also contributed to challenge and modify their aesthetic tenets.
The first section of the anthology, entitled “George Moore: In the Labyrinth of Choice, the Door to Realism”, is based on a set of autobiographical texts, namely Confessions of a Young Man, Hail and Farewell, and Conversations in Ebury Street. As with the other two sections, this is introduced by a brief biographical outline. Making use of several excerpts from Moore’s accounts of the quarrels around Impressionism, Mutran underlines an important inter-artistic thread that is also present in the excerpts by Wilde and Yeats. Moore’s initial distaste for the Impressionists is soon replaced by a growing admiration and the belief that a new aesthetics and new values must be found; his own literary efforts, starting with decadent poems and short stories are shattered by reading Zola, after which Moore attempts to find a naturalist aesthetics applicable to poetry. His subsequent disillusionment with Zola leads him eventually to Balzac as the model for his literary form of choice, the novel, whereby Moore declares his escape from what he perceives as the shallowness and stagnation of Aestheticism, Naturalism, and Symbolism.
In the following section, called “Oscar Wilde’s Aversion to the Mirror”, both Mutran and Allegro offer very fine translations of excerpts from Wilde’s best-known critical texts, such as “The Critic as Artist”, “The Decay of Lying”, “Pen, Pencil and Poison”, the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, and “The Soul of Man under Socialism”. Wilde’s style and witty paradoxes come through clearly both in his bouts against Realism and mimesis and in his advancement of artists as those who create (or veil), rather than imitate (or mirror). In order to do so, Wilde opposes arts from other times and places to what he perceived to be the inartistic exactitude of naturalist writing. He warns about choosing modern topics, set against using stories such as Hecuba’s, which, because they carry no external message to Wilde’s epoch, can become a fit subject for a tragedy, very much as Wilde himself did with the story of Salomé. His defence of an art untouched by external criteria culminates in the declaration that art must be useless. It should lead not to instruction but only to a sterile emotion, without a message or any wish to influence.
The final section, entitled “For W. B. Yeats, the Mirror becomes Lamp”, is equally composed of elegantly translated excerpts drawn from some of Yeats’ most celebrated critical texts, including, among others, “A General Introduction to my Work”, “The Celtic Element in Literature”, “Symbolism in Painting”, “The Symbolism of Poetry”, and “The Autumn of the Body”. In these, Yeats begins by expressing a preference for romantic literature, at the expense of neoclassical authors; from the realists, and like Moore and Wilde, he singles out Balzac, while also addressing Stendhal’s “mirror” metaphor, to which he opposes a form of art that is expressive and symbolic, moved by a visionary energy, captured later in his symbol of the “lamp”. Yeats’ interest in essences thus leads him to choose an imaginative art based on myths and legends. The last three excerpts are longer explorations of Yeats’ most distinctive topics: the difference between allegory and symbol, once more with references to other arts; the difference between symbols and metaphors, based on their relation to things and essences, as well as on the difference between emotional and intellectual symbols; and a spiritual concern not with things, but with the essences of things. His section ends with an appeal for a return to mythic writing that, as Mutran explains, would be amply used as the “mythical method” of Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and, of course, Yeats himself.
This first half of the book is followed by a selection of representative literary works by the same three authors — Moore’s “Home Sickness”, from the short story collection The Untilled Field, translated by Augusta Vono; excerpts from João do Rio’s translation of Wilde’s Salomé; and Munira H. Mutran’s own translation of excerpts from Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen — as well as a translation by Onédia Pereira de Queiroz of James Joyce’s “Clay”. This final choice is explained in an afterword, entitled “The Victory of Synthesis”, in which Mutran briefly analyses each text in turn, as realisations of the topics discussed in the anthologised critical texts. Finally, her comments on Joyce’s “Clay” allow Mutran to illustrate persuasively the argument that Joyce produced a synthesis of the three paths followed by Moore, Wilde, and Yeats –- that is – the modernist synthesis of myth and symbol in combination with creative Realism and Naturalism.
In short, not only will this anthology contribute to the promotion of Irish literature and culture in Brazil and other Portuguese-speaking countries, but it will also be of great use to students of these three Irish authors as well as of the history of nineteenth-century Aestheticism.