Anatoly Lunacharsky On Literature and Art 1909

Heroes of Action in Meditation


The greatest of all great heroes of action was the Greek Hercules, who might almost be regarded as idolised toil. The adoration of this semi-god actually exceeded the reverence accorded to many of the twelve gods of the Greek and Roman Olympus. This adoration constantly increased, reaching its height, probably, at the beginning of our era. Many highly cultured people of the time even believed that the senile Jupiter would hand over the reins of government, which were quite obviously falling from his dying hands, and the thunderbolts of heavenly justice which no longer frightened the criminally arrogant and godless ones, to his favourite son, the great toiler, fighter and sufferer, who twice triumphed over death itself.

Around Hercules in a glittering halo clustered all the great feats that could be conceived by the human mind which derived its colours both from everyday reality, so full of man’s great struggle with the elements, and from the heavenly phenomena which for ever astonished the tiller of antiquity – from the drama of the Sun’s daily and yearly journeys. The magnificent struggle of that heavenly body with darkness, clouds and autumn, its defeat and death, its victory and resurrection were all verbally clothed in earthly vestments, in the heroic vestments of the tragic sufferings of mankind’s toilers and fighters. But the Sun, transformed into a giant and seen as a living being, in payment for its earthly vestments, endows the images and likenesses bound to it and imbued with true reality, with a superhuman, unearthly scope, its mighty and unconquerable rhythm and unfailing light, the light of faith in eternal victory.

The story of Hercules is well known. His mother was a mortal, but his father was a god, the symbol of royal order. Despite the fact that this man-hero was very dear to his father’s heart, wrathful fate pursued him everywhere, in the guise of both superhuman and social forces. Even his own ungovernable powers were his enemies.

His labours and the danger that always threatened him began when he was still a babe in his cradle and he strangled the two serpents that were meant to kill him, as the morning sun dispersed the creeping mists.

If Zeus-Order had ruled the world, the right of the first-born and royal freedom for the hero, so generously endowed with strength, would have been incontestable. But vain fortune – a woman’s wiles, evil duplicity, as Pythagoras called it – upset and confused everything most horribly. Eurystheus, not Hercules, was born first, a weakling both in body and in spirit, and the great Hercules was fated to serve him for many a year. Thus, the myth, which still holds true for the Sun – because the Sun is the great toiler, carrying on its work relentlessly through suffering and temporary eclipses – explains the subservience of the great labouring forces to pitiful individuals crowned simply by the chance of birth, as the madness of fortune, as a stupid plot, hostile to the natural course of events.

No less significant is another aspect of the hero’s slavery, the slavery of love. Queen Omphale made him dress in female clothes and spin. The spinning queens of Aryan myths are the original “cloud maidens” who swiftly and silently spin the clouds. The winter Sun, devoid of its glittering vestments of rays, seems to be spinning its own cloaks of cloud. This poetic metaphor is revealed in the myth of Hercules and Queen Omphale. But, with the skill inherent: in the popular genius which has created our myths, the solar metaphor has a deep socio-psychological meaning as well, showing like the myth of Circe, the power of female charms.

The hero’s strong passions are often his own terrible foes. At times he cannot repress the flaming passions of his mighty body by any effort of reason. He runs amuck, bursts forth from his normal self and becomes a menace, both to himself and others. Aflame with insane rage, he kills his own children to his great and ever-lasting sorrow. Thus does the Sun with its scorching rays kill its own children, the living things it has nurtured into being.

Hercules’s life is a series of great labours and toil; he kills the Nemean lion, the Learnean hydra, he is debased to such an extent that he must clean the Augean stables which had not been cleaned for years and, as the Sun, he

descends to the kingdom of darkness and returns, having conquered death.

It is impossible to enumerate all the moving and significant myths woven about Hercules, the deliverer of Prometheus, the hero who died a terrible death for the love of his devoted and faithful wife Deianira, who set fire to himself voluntarily and burned to death in a great fire, as the Sun burns in the bloody fire of sunset in order to become resurrected and transfigured for a new existence, for a triumphant marriage with eternal youth – Hebe.

This mighty image fired the imagination of Polycletus, one of the world’s greatest sculptors and a friend of Alexander the Great.

History has not preserved his bronze statue, which so awed and fascinated his contemporaries. But in the National Museum at Naples there is a remarkable marble copy by Glycon of Athens, know as the Farnese Hercules.

Glycon has been accused of inaccurate proportions. His was a true copy, but the exaggerated form of the terrifying, colossal, hyperbolically bloated muscles was formerly mitigated by the dark bronze, while in clear, white marble they appear, according to the experts, in all but obnoxious relief. Perhaps. It is certainly a paradoxical sculpture. The first impression you have when viewing it is one of incredulity, and a rather unpleasant incredulity at that. The plastic beauty of the calm pose penetrates your consciousness later; the rippling muscles are too exaggerated.

But it is not a question of muscles, no matter how fantastic the anatomy, nor is it a question of the serenity which favourably distinguishes this statue from the alarming pseudo-plasticity of our contemporaries, something which holds true for any masterpiece of antiquity. It is a question of the astonishing concept of its creator. The Farnese Hercules’s greatest value is its significance as a philosophical poem in marble.

You see this giant and realise with mingled feelings of horror and delight that you sense a reflection of his great strength in your own body; you feel that the earth should sink under his fleet yet mighty soles, you have a vague sensation of the crushing power of his fist, his biceps, his titanic shoulder. The massive club and the skin of the monstrous lion he has killed complement the towering figure. If you walk around the statue and timidly view the back of the colossus, so alive, so full of resilient strength, you will see that in the hand he holds behind him are the golden apples of the Hesperides, the apples of happiness and immortality.

But is the conquering hero content? Is the greatest of all toilers content? Is the symbolic representative of mighty action, of tireless labour content?

The reader may recall Lev Tolstoi’s appeal to the practical world of our time. Its meaning is this: people are always preoccupied with their own affairs, which seem so very important to them; but do they not ascribe such importance and such apparently indisputable significance to them because the very commotion, which accompanies these affairs, never gives them a chance to come to their senses, a chance to stand aloof and take a good look at themselves? Would this all seem as unquestionably important if they could only stop and think, step aside for a moment from the clatter and noise of everyday life and gaze deep into their hearts, life and Nature? Tolstoi believes it would not.

Polycletus apparently shared this view. He transformed the symbol of lifelong heroism and triumphant toil into a symbol of the great hero’s moment of idleness, an image of disenchanted meditation.

He had killed the Nemean lion, this Hercules had, he had obtained the golden apples of the Hesperides and had brought Cerberus, the three-headed dog, up from Hades. But what of it? The triumphant toiler has lowered his head, he is reflecting sadly on his great labours and finding no consolation. What is it all for? Why this endless, onerous servitude? Does a man who has murdered his own children need immortality? Is not happiness a doubtful boon when there is such bitterness weighing upon one’s soul? The heroic toiler feels the icy, poisonous fingers of doubt gripping his heart.

Was not the Hellenic world lost in these reflections, faced as it was with the inevitable destruction of all the cultural structures it had erected? Was it not this sorrow that overcame the Greek, culture’s great toiler, when he heard Demosthenes’s bitter reproaches?

And did not Polycletus, the court sculptor of Alexander the Great, sense the fragility of this vast monarchy which his great master was building, cementing his doomed fortress with blood? And did not Polycletus want to tell Alexander

and all the “men of action” of his time how amazed he was at the breadth of their chests and shoulders, the endurance of their legs and the strength of their ever-victorious arms, and at the same time how surprised he was at the unusually small size of their heads?

Did not Polycletus want to cry out, as did Tolstoi: “Oh, Mankind, so richly endowed with power, determination and diligence, rest your tiny head on your mighty chest and reflect, are not your efforts in vain, are you not striving for the non-existent, are you not following the wrong path?” There is a tragic scepticism about Hercules, the ultimate scepticism and doubt in the fruitfulness of all effort.

And perhaps the meditation of the small head on the mighty toiler’s body is capable of producing such results. There is a story by Gleb Uspensky entitled Lost in Thought in which, laughing through his tears, our most sensitive and honest writer speaks of the disastrous effect a moment of idleness, a moment of inactivity, a moment of reflection has on the peasant.

But if Hercules’s head had been proportionate to his body, if his mental powers had been equal to his physical powers, would meditation have been as dangerous to his life and to the future of his creative labours?

This question brings to mind a natural analogy.

There is a statue by one of the later descendants of Michelangelo, Rodin’s Thinker, on the square opposite the Pantheon in Paris, erected at democracy’s will by popular subscription.

Here we see a body almost as mighty as Hercules’s, in a seated position, bent forward, crushed by the weight of unusual thought. The head is just as disproportionately small and the forehead just as narrow.

“Is this a thinker?” a Russian sculptor living in Paris shouted, pointing his cane at the small head and the wildly gloomy, distorted face. “Mais c’est un brute, tout simplement.”

I see: a thinker is a weak-chested, thin-legged and big-headed creature. Is that not so? However, my sculptor friend forgot that the most interesting thinker of our time is not a professor, dreaming up a new metaphysical apology for the existing system, not a scholar covered with library dust, nor even a naturalist in his laboratory, but none other than a simple labourer, thinking intensely, a man not used to thinking, pondering over his terrible fate, comparing his strength with his wretched lot, preparing for new exploits in the name of new ideals. Should this thinker rise, the very heavens will crack under the pressure of his shoulders and come crashing down on the heads of the Eurysthei.

They do not fear the most terrible flexing of the muscles of this gigantic back, but this tiny flexing of the muscles of the forehead making a deep ridge between the brows is truly terrifying to them.

Let us pass now from the bitter meditation of a heroic toiler to the magnificent portrayal of a tragic moment of idleness in the life of a hero of action, of energy that would seem totally spiritual in nature. Titian has left us such a portrayal in his famous portraits of Pope Paul III.


Pope Paul III of the Farnese family was one of the most intense, indefatigable thinkers known to history.

The epoch during which he ruled the Church was a most turbulent one. The Reformation was fast gaining momentum, and this wave of heresy, shattering the very foundations of the Church and wrenching entire nations away from it was enough to consume fully the spiritual energies of the man destined to stand guard over the interests of Catholicism. As if this were not enough, two outstanding monarchs, Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain, who was both King and Emperor, men of insatiable ambition and supported by tremendous forces, were waging a struggle for everything and against everyone, constantly threatening the self-same shaken Church.

Pope Paul III developed a grandiose, most cunning plan of action. He alternated between reconciling and provoking enmity between Francis and Charles; when necessary, he even took the Protestants’ side against the Emperor whose constant victories were causing him too great alarm. Everything served his politics, especially the marriages of his sons and grandsons; each and every marriage contract was a carefully planned diplomatic move.

A true faith did not provide the support needed for the Pope’s soul in his titanic struggle to strengthen “St. Peter’s

Throne.” He was a humanist and astrologer, a pupil of Pomponio Leto and the Florentine Academy; he corresponded with the all-but-godless Erasmus and enjoyed compiling horoscopes.

His paramount goal was the secular might of the papacy. The interests of the Church per se were secondary. England’s breaking away was a terrible blow to Catholicism, but though the Pope excommunicated Henry VIII, he helped to consolidate the Reformation in England under Edward VI for purely diplomatic reasons.

But when the need arose, the Pope, who was never a great believer, was ruthless in his cruelty. It was he who confirmed the Jesuit Order and instituted the Roman Inquisition.

However, great political aims and anxieties did not exhaust the indefatigable Pope’s field of action. A more petty goal, but the one apparently closest to the Pope’s heart, was the enrichment and exaltation of his illegitimate family. He married his grandson Ottavio to Margaret of Austria, and Orazio to the daughter of Henry II. He made his son Pierluigi Prince of Nepi, and did his best to present Milan to Ottavio. Contrary to the will of the cardinals, he transferred the Church cities of Parma and Piacenza to his family.

Undoubtedly, not a day passed without swarms of thoughts, the most diverse, worrisome and of varying importance – from a general evaluation of the world situation to a counter-intrigue against a treacherous plot hatched by petty courtiers – crowding the Pope’s small head, making deep furrows on his sharp, fox-like face with its pointed beard. Messengers and letters arrived and were dispatched, reports followed one another, the threads of great world dramas and petty court farces were all joined in the thin restless fingers. And these fingers were for ever weaving endless webs for great and small human flies, while the small cropped grey head kept plotting feverishly, putting everything in order, and the beady little eyes searched the souls of friend and foe.

The Pope found time for the fine arts. While still a cardinal he built a magnificent palace in Rome and a famous villa in Bolsena. He also had a large art collection. He summoned the great Titian to paint various works, but chiefly to immortalise his features with his magic brush.

The great Venetian worked really hard to portray the tireless Pope. He frequently took up his brush to this end, and

there are many portraits by Titian of Pope Paul III. The two in the Naples Museum are the best.

These two portraits are a great human document.

If you read about Titian in any history of art or in any of the numerous monographs on his works you will certainly find the greatest admiration and sometimes worship on the part of the authors. You will read of the unexcelled splendour and harmony of Titian’s palette, of the charm and beauty of his nudes and semi-nudes, of the almost sublime sensuousness, more passionate and languid but no less pure than the voluptuousness of the ancient Greeks. You will probably discover that Titian was one of the greatest romantic landscape painters, that he created his landscapes from memory, endowing them with velvety colours and the munificence of an August day. And you will certainly read of Titian the portrait painter. There was good reason why all the great men and women of the sixteenth century had their portraits done by him. This was the age of Shakespeare, the age of the blossoming of the individual, the age which, after the storms of the early Renaissance and amidst the storms of the Reformation, had carried to the surface of the worldly sea individuals unmatched in the greatness of their passions, the sweep of their torturous ambition, the scope of their activities, the complexity of their spiritual life. And it must also be said that kings, noblemen, popes, cardinals and senators, generals, scientists and artists of the sixteenth century, no longer possessing the touching simplicity or expansive frankness of the quattrocento, concealed their troubled souls beneath a mask of pomposity, signorilità, as they concealed their bodies beneath the folds of their heavy, magnificent dark robes.

The individual blossomed forth – at least at the top of the social ladder; he knew his own worth and felt that by creating history he would go on living after death. That is why any man or woman of even modest means and power considered a portrait to be a very serious business, a thing of paramount importance. That is why the sixteenth century has given us Holbein and Dürer, Titian and Morone. That is why the same century gave us Shakespeare.

But this is where the confusion usually begins. No one will deny that Titian is a portrait painter of great force. His drawing, at times vague in his paintings, becomes sharp and definite in his portraits; it is majestic in general outline, yet extremely economic and expressive. There is the same feeling of reserve in the use of colour, so lavish in some of his paintings, but always full of the highest aristocratic taste and noble beauty in his portraits.

But what about the soul? It is a synthetic soul that gives us the whole of Charles, the whole of Philip, Maximillian, Henry, Paul, and nearly a hundred – just think, nearly a hundred! – other remarkable personages, each captured in a single moment, a single pose, a single expression of the face and eyes.

Titian’s portraits are like magic books. As you stand before them, you feel their pages, so full of mysterious characters, begin to turn slowly, revealing ever-new mysteries. So much has already been said and revealed, yet so much remains unsolved, and you can delve deeper and deeper and always find the pure gold of the deepest psychology.

How was Titian able to achieve this? Do any of the thousands of pages written about him mention that he was a great sage and connoisseur of the human heart, a man of great powers of concentration and contemplation? No, they do not. He was a vivacious and even superficial galantuomo who loved splendour, wine, women and his paints until old age.

Faced with this mystery, people come out with the all-encompassing word: intuition. But does this word actually explain anything?

We have heard of great musicians who were obviously able to fathom the subtlest emotional stirrings and yet were unbelievable dolts. There are also quite a few numskull artists who have won great fame as sensitive landscape painters.

Let us assume that this is intuition. But how many reservations must then be made. First of all, no great composer was ever a stupid man; he might often have been a most unpractical person, a man who lacked a definite outlook or the ability to act logically, but he was always a sensitive and capable person, who could, if necessary, express his feelings and observations magnificently, in words as well as music.

The letters of Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner and Moussorgsky amaze one by their clarity and beauty of expression. And if these titans were truly men of outstanding intellect or, so to speak, had a very sensitive and intensely developed nervous system, then, I repeat, none of the great composers was ever a man of average intellect. Outstanding virtuosi are more often men of average or below-average intellect, but a virtuoso is, primarily, an impressionable individual who easily falls under hypnotic-like influence and who may be likened to a magnificent instrument. Naturally, you would never demand that a wonderful violin have an intellect as well.

The same applies, more or less, to intuition in landscape painting. Some impressionists, famed for their poetic landscapes and, at the same time, the virgin sterility of their intellect, are not at all poets or creators, but simply men with extremely keen powers of observation who are able to copy nature faithfully; the mood, i.e., the subjective element that they have introduced in their landscapes, is nearly always imitative and stolen from the true, intelligent masters.

When a true virtuoso or a sharp-sighted artist tries to create something original, i.e., something fantastic, for instance, something that has not been dictated by Nature or a great master, the result will inevitably be shabby.

Intellect, as reflected in sensitivity, a keenness of observation, the ability to synthesise, to stress that which is typical and characteristic and, at the same time, to combine freely and harmoniously elements provided by the environment, is the condition, without which an artist cannot be great. The greatness of an artist is usually in direct proportion to such intellect. However, it should neither be confused with the German Klugheit (practical reasonableness) nor with theoretical talents.

Corot, like Turner, one of the greatest landscape painters of the past century, was, as we know, an ultra-naive man whom everyone considered to be rather foolish. However, you need only read two or three letters written by the dean of the Fontainebleau School, in which he describes Nature, to realise what a sensitive poet and sage of Nature we are dealing with.

Let us now return to Titian. His nature was obviously not limited to voluptuous colour and an aesthetic love of women. How could it possibly have been limited thus? Did not the giants Giorgione and Tintoretto grow up beside him by the same Venetian lagoons?

Giorgione was also in love with colour, and his passionate sensuality carried him off in his prime. Look at his Concerto, his portrait of a knight of Malta, or the Uomo ammalato – is this not the same psychology we find in Shakespeare?

Tintoretto’s paintings are both tragic and deeply psychological. He is less epicurean and less of a colourist than the two other giants of Venetian art, and his works reflect, as it were, the pure essence of the elemental tragedy of the spirit which in Titian and Giorgione is combined with the luxuriant colours of sensuality and sometimes concealed by them.

This tragedy was born of the deep struggle of all against all which raged continuously in Venice under the bright covers of its semi-oriental splendour. Feasting and lovemaking were often cut short by the blow of a dagger, the cloudless life that resembled a goblet brimming with untold pleasures more often than not ended in the lead mines. One had always to be on guard; cruel cunning served as a sword, while virtuoso shrewdness was a shield. Only the most superficial of observers found the atmosphere of Venice sunny and cloudless; in fact it was an arena of offensive and defensive treachery. A century later this treachery was to degenerate into the endless knavery of malevolent plunderers. But in the sixteenth century the Venetian aristocracy still possessed true statesmanship, and its political plans encompassed the world. Scholarship, courage and unconquerable pride walked hand in hand with treachery.

Such was Titian’s background when he undertook to paint a portrait of the great Pope.

He studied him as a psychologist would, painting several portraits and coming ever closer to the man’s heart. Finally, he captured the very essence of Pope Paul III, not only that which was most characteristic of the individual, but that which was characteristic of his environment, of his age, as well.

Titian presented in two canvases the tragedy of one of the greatest men of action in all history.

The first is a large unfinished group: Pope Paul III is shown closeted in his study with his two grandsons, Cardinal Alessandro and the Duke Ottavio, with whom he is consulting on the affairs of the Farnese family.

Cardinal Alessandro seems rather indifferent. The beautiful eyes in his serene face are straightforward, intelligent

and confident. Why should he worry? With such a grand father he need not fear anything. Besides, the old man would never let any one play an active part, he must do everything himself, everything himself!

Young Ottavio, in magnificent court attire, bends low over his grandfather’s chair, listening attentively to what he is saying. There is both malice and pleasure in his eyes, for evidently the intrigue the old man has thought up will strike some enemy right to the core. His bent back is ready to straighten up like a steel spring and his feet seem impatient to be off, speeding to carry out the cunning orders.

The Pope, dressed somewhat sloppily, fidgeting in his chair, is completely carried away by his game. His fingers are alive, they illustrate his words with an expressive gesture. His neck is stretched forward, his piercing eyes burn with the rapture of creative effort; every nerve in his body is taut, he is aflame with the sport, he is in his element and, obviously, the more difficult the problem, the greater his delight.

But now his kinsmen have gone. The Pope is alone for a few moments. His head cools. One problem has been dealt with, another will soon demand his attention. This is a short pause, a moment of idleness. Just as a wheel falls when it stops rolling, so does the Pope feel tired when the heat of the affair at hand no longer supports him. Weariness brings doubt and hesitation.

These are not the doubts and hesitation that belong to the range of ordinary intrigue and calculations; they are quite different, of the kind usually hidden in the innermost reaches of the soul, locked away in its vaults behind a heavy door. But when the noisy voices of everyday affairs die down in the upper stories and a short pause sets in, they creep out like snakes to eat at the heart of Pope Paul III.

“What’s the use of it all?” Everything that has seemed of value in the feverish atmosphere of sport has suddenly lost its value. The great goals seem so alien, one’s kinsmen so indifferent, one’s own body so frail, and death so imminent.

The Pope leans against the back of his armchair, his bones ache, his back is bent, his head has dropped, he seems to have lost heart. His dull eyes stare vacantly at the floor. But this is not a state of light slumber, a moment of forgetfulness: look, the nervous hand on the arm of the chair is moving restlessly, revealing the inner tension, a new struggle against a new and unconquerable enemy.

Poor Pope Paul III! Despite all his efforts, the secular might of the popes, far from growing, had been steadily declining, until it was finally snuffed out altogether.

And what of the Farnese family? Camerino, who seized the Parma duchy by force, was murdered by conspirators, and when his deeply grief-stricken and terrified father resolved to desist from any further plundering in favour of his family – his grandsons decided to do without him and even took up arms against him. The most active of popes died in sorrow and bewilderment, having gained nothing!

In the two great portraits described here Titian presented the tragedy of any undertaking, no matter how great it might seem, if it is more an ambitious sport and fascinating gambling than true service to a genuine and deep ideal.

How many ministers, bankers and all other men of affairs there are who repeat: “Business before pleasure. Les affaires sont les affaires,” but in time of honest contemplation suddenly realise with horror that the “business” which has consumed their life and soul is both empty and as cold as ice!

And thus arise these strange parallels between the two thinkers, Polycletus’s Hercules and Titian’s Paul.