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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part III: Fictional impressionists

3. The phenomenological impressionist

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1In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy phenomenology is explained as follows:

Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. […] In recent philosophy of mind, the term “phenomenology” is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc.: what it is like to have sensations of various kinds. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. Accordingly, in the phenomenological tradition, phenomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our “life-world”. […] In its root meaning, then, phenomenology is the study of phenomena: literally, appearances as opposed to reality. […] Originally, in the 18th century, “phenomenology” meant the theory of appearances fundamental to empirical knowledge, especially sensory appearances.1

  • 2   The distinction between reality as perceived and reality itself is, according to James Nagel (198 (...)

2The examination of the way in which the impressionists practiced phenomenology is the purpose of this section of the present study. As Victor Carrabino tersely settles, this connection is determined by analogies in the perceptive experience: «a similarity in perception between phenomenology and Impressionism exists» (Carrabino 1984: 269). As we have seen, impressionism as a perceptive experience can be said to be synonymous with a form of observation untainted by all prior knowledge concerning the subject observed, as well as by any systematic reflection and ordering of the same. According to Carrabino, this subjective vision and rendering of reality finds its counterpart in phenomenology, since impressionism «shares with phenomenology the same penchant in viewing reality not as it should be, but as it is, as it appears to the perceiver’s eye, once it has been bracketed from its spatial and temporal surroundings» (263)2. In looking at impressionism as a movement encompassing different artistic genres (the visual arts, music, and writing), Carrabino’s study The French Nouveau Roman: the Ultimate Expression of Impressionism, reads literary impressionism as an ahistorical, subjective, way of relying on the senses in its expression of reality, and studies the «phenomenological novels» of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor as the «ultimate expression» of impressionism (Ibidem).

3By the same token, critics such as Sven Møller Kristensen (1955: 119-37), Marlies Kronegger (1984), H. Peter Stowell (1984), and John Carlos Rowe (2009: 189-218), have made attempts to pinpoint the literary impressionists’ phenomenological approach to the perception of reality. Møller Kristensen’s chapter on fænomenologisk apperception in Impressionismen i dansk prosa 1870-1900 introduces the idea of phenomenological apperception as follows:

Den passive, fænomenologiske opfattelse medfører, at det først og fremmest bliver tingenes overflade, der nedfælder sig på papiret; det flygtige, ureflekterede indtryk fanger ofte kun den fremherskende egenskab ved en ting, og i fremstillingen kommer denne egenskab til at dominere. (1955: 119)

The consequence of a passive, phenomenological understanding is that it is first and foremost the surface of things that are fixed on paper; the fleeting, unreflective impression often captures but the most prominent quality of that thing, and it is this quality that comes to dominate the description.

4Kristensen then goes on to meticulous stylistic examinations of novelistic descriptions where the guiding principle is phenomenological apperception, an assessment interesting on its own, although his examples bear no resemblance to Tavaststjerna’s prose. As we will see, the significance of the protagonist’s perceptive act in Tavaststjerna’s short story is of a different, almost paranormal nature: if, in Impressionisten, too, ‘the surface’ and ‘the dominant quality’ of the thing observed are awarded the greatest importance, it is because they alone allow Marck, the impressionist, to predict future events.

5In her essay Literary Impressionism and Phenomenology: Affinities and Contrasts (1984), Kronegger locates the philosophical groundings of impressionism in Ernst Mach’s work Die Analyse der Empfindungen (The Analysis of Sensations) from 1885 and stresses, just like Carrabino, how sensorial perception provides a meeting ground for impressionism and phenomenology:

With Ernst Mach and the impressionists, the antithesis of ego and world, sensation and thing, vanishes. All that exists is in contact with everything else. The German critic Hermann Bahr calls Mach’s views the “philosophy of impressionism” […]. With Mach and the impressionists, man’s consciousness is the point of departure for any perception. Both impressionists and phenomenologists derive their conceptions of reality from sense impressions: it is in this context that there may be said to be an affinity between them. (Kronegger 1984: 524)

6While pinning down the nucleus of literary impressionism in an article entitled Phenomenology and Literary Impressionism: the Prismatic Sensibility, H. Peter Stowell correspondingly highlights the importance of a perceiving consciousness whose impressions are facts in the impressionist text: «The impressionist takes the world of appearances as reality, rather than struggle with the phantom issue of appearance versus reality. Each impression, then, is real» (Stowell 1984: 538).

  • 3   These affirmations agree with David Hume’s treatise on the supremacy of impressions compared to i (...)

7As our critical gaze now shifts from the painter-protagonists in the short stories investigated above to the examination of Impressionisten’s impressionable subject, we can conclude that Tavaststjerna’s short story resonates with phenomenology as practised by the impressionists in its presentation of the act of perception as the vehicle of knowing and understanding not simply objects, but people and identities. Reflection and analysis are here subordinate to the impression, the latter capable, on its own, of becoming a form of clairvoyance. No longer is there a gap between impression and knowledge, between appearance and reality: impression is knowledge and appearance is reality3.

3.1. K.A. Tavaststjerna: Impressionisten

8Tavaststjerna opens his short story with an explanation of painterly impressionism that perfectly resonates with Kronegger’s idea of the centrality of perception to impressionist representation. According to Kronegger, the act of perception is «more important than either the perceived or the perceiver. No longer is there me the narrator-protagonist, on the one hand, and that tree, on the other; there is only my seeing, retaining, or remembering that tree» (1984: 523). Impressionisten similarly makes its argument emphasizing that to the impressionists, the mental act of observation is more valuable than both their own role as observers and the subject observed:

  • 4   In Finland, as we have seen, impressionism had a smaller impact on the art world than in the othe (...)

När man nu till dags talar om impressionister, förstår man gärna en del franska målare, som sträva efter att i sin konst möjligast noggrant återgifva de intryck de erfarit vid åsynen af ett landskap, en person o. s. v., mera än själfva landskapet och personen» (Tavaststjerna 1892: 13; «Nowadays, when we speak of impressionists, we are likely to indicate by the term a group of French painters, who in their art strive to reproduce as carefully as possible the impressions they have taken in while observing a landscape, a person etc., rather than the landscape and the person themselves»)4.

9Proceeding from his first-person point of view, the impressionist in Tavaststjerna’s short story builds psychic knowledge from the appearance of things. As the story is set «tidigare än impressionismen fans till som skola» (1892: 13; «before impressionism existed as a school»), knowledge comes to the protagonist Marck not as the result of learning a technique by the rules, but as a strong intuitive act available to «känsliga nervsystem» (Ibidem; «sensitive nervous systems»): «han egde i hög grad den nervernas och förståndets känslighet, hvilken sedermera likt en epidemi gripit omkring sig i vida kretsar och aflat impressionisten som konst, spiritismen som religion, mystiken och symbolismen som literatur» (14; « he possessed to a great extent that sensitivity of the nerves and the intellect, which lately has come to generate impressionism in art, spiritism in religion, mysticism and symbolism in literature»).

10The plot is simple. Set in a Finnish coastal town first and in the urban environment of Helsinki later, the story unfolds in the time span of a year and centres on a group of friends captained by Marck, a young student who proves able to reveal the true nature of people and foresee their destinies by judging them from their appearances. It is mere intuition that enables him to identify criminals and predict his own death, which occurs at the end of the tale. Although Marck’s swiftly captured impressions unfailingly disclose the essence of persons, the anonymous narrator still calls attention to the problematic nature of subjective perception, and a rift soon opens up between the narrator’s «eftertanke» (16; «reflection») and Marck’s «instinkt» (Ibidem; «intuition»), judged by the former to be pure madness:

Vi hade då och då skarpa dispyter om hans metod, jag motsade honom af princip och kallade det narraktigt att låta sitt sunda omdöme förblindas af ett dunkelt intryck, som man knapt kunde göra reda för och som omöjligt kunde vara ofelbart. Han såg då på mig med en sällsam, tänkande blick, utan ett spår af skämtsamhet och sade:

– Dumme djur, som förlorat din instinkt!

Jag tog upp handsken och svarade att min eftertanke ersatte instinkten hundrafaldt. (Ibidem)

At times we had violent arguments regarding his method, I contradicted him on principle and defined it silly to allow one’s common sense to be blinded by an obscure impression of which no account could be given and which could impossibly be infallible. In response, he looked at me with strange, thoughtful eyes, and there was not a trace of jesting when he said:
– You are a foolish animal to have lost your instinct!
I grasped the opportunity and answered that my reflection compensated a hundredfold for any instinct.

11In the dispute between reflection and perceptive intuition, the authority of perception proves victorious in the end. Written in the early 1890s, when symbolism had started to conquer the art world, Tavaststjerna’s short story embraces a different kind of realism by suggesting that our deepest knowledge of the world comes from the sensations that are pressed upon us. The lack of analysis, the reliance on appearances and subjective impressions that characterize the protagonist’s perception motivate the title chosen for the short story, although the use of sensorial perception to acquire extra-sensorial, psychic knowledge transcends the idea of impressionism. Tavaststjerna’s characterization of impressionism must therefore be defined as broad and inclusive, embracing aspects of symbolism, and that of the impressionist as a far-sighted mastermind.


1  Smith 2013, at Accessed 2 February 2018. Italics in the original.

2   The distinction between reality as perceived and reality itself is, according to James Nagel (1980: 22) what separates impressionism from earlier conventions of realism: «the two may be harmonious, an assumption central to Realism, but more often there is discord caused by factors within reality that distort its sensory signals (distance, fog, obscure sounds, darkness, obstructions) or within the receiving interpretive intelligence (fears, dreams, fantasy, preoccupations). The logic of Realism depends on a consistent reliability of both interpretation and perception; the logic of Impressionism suggests that this correspondence is never certain and that the inscrutability and flux of life are its fundamental reality». Italics in the original.

3   These affirmations agree with David Hume’s treatise on the supremacy of impressions compared to ideas. As Ian Watt (1980: 171) writes: «David Hume […] opened A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) with the ringing assertion, “All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS.” He had then attributed greater “force and violence” to impressions, as opposed to ideas, which he defined as merely the “less lively perceptions” which occur when we reflect on our original sense-impressions». Italics and capital letters in the original.

4   In Finland, as we have seen, impressionism had a smaller impact on the art world than in the other Nordic countries and was represented, in the main, by Victor Westerholm, whose impressionist paintings did not gain the appreciation of the critics although they appear as «de mest fullödiga exempel på nordisk impressionism» (Gunnarsson 2002: 35; «the most perfect examples of Scandinavian impressionism»).


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