Scene: same as in the Prelude. The day after the play to which Estella, in the Prelude, invited her friend to accompany her.
Sophia: Forgive me, dear Estelle, for keeping you waiting. I had to attend to something for the children.
Estella: Here I am back again with you already. I long for your sympathy whenever anything stirs me deeply.
Sophia: Well, you know that I shall always sympathize most warmly with you in your interests.
Estella: This play, of which I spoke to you, Outcasts from Body and from Soul touched me so deeply. Does it seem to you odd when I say that there were moments when all I had ever known of human sorrow stood before me? With highest artistic force the work not only gives the outer mischances happening to so many people, but also points out with wonderful penetration he deepest agonies of the soul.
Sophia: One cannot, I fear, form a proper conception a work of art by simply hearing of its contents. But would like you to tell me what stirred you so.
Estella: The construction of the play was admirable. The artist wished to show how a young painter loses all his creative desire, because he begins to doubt his love for a woman. She had endowed him with the power to develop his promising talents. Pure enthusiasm for his art had produced in her the most beautiful love of sacrifice. To her he owed the fullest development of his abilities in his chosen field. He blossomed, as it were, in the sunshine of his benefactress. Constant association with this woman developed his gratitude into passionate love. This caused him to neglect, more and more, a poor creature who was faithfully devoted to him, and who finally died of grief, because she had to confess to herself that she had lost the heart of the man she loved. When he heard of her death, the news did not seriously disturb him, for his heart belonged entirely to his benefactress. Yet he grew ever more and more certain that her noble feeling of friendship for him would never turn to passionate love. This conviction drove all creative joy from his soul, and his inner life grew constantly more desolate. In this condition of life the poor girl, whom he had forsaken, came again into his mind, and a wrecked life was all that resulted from a hopeful and promising man. Without prospect of a single ray of light he pined away. All this is portrayed with intense dramatic vividness.
Sophia: I can easily see how the play must have worked upon your feelings. As a girl you always suffered intensely at the destiny of such people, who had been driven to bitterness by heavy misfortunes in their life.
Estella: My dear Sophy; you misunderstand me. I can easily distinguish between what is real and what is merely artistic. And criticism fails, I know, if one carries into it the feelings one had in life. What stirred me here so deeply was the really perfect representation of a deep problem of life. I was once again able to realize clearly how art can only mount to such heights, when it keeps close to the fulness of life. As soon as it departs therefrom, its works are untrue.
Sophia: I understand you perfectly when you speak like that. I have always admired the artists who could represent what you call the reality of life. And I believe a great many have that power, — especially nowadays. Nevertheless even the very highest attainments leave behind them in my soul a certain discomfort For a long time I was unable to explain this to myself, but one day the light came that brought the answer.
Estella: You mean to tell me, that your conception of the world has dispelled your appreciation of so-called realistic art.
Sophia: Dear Estelle, let us not speak of my conception of the world to-day. You know quite well, that the feeling I have just described was entirely familiar to me long before I knew anything at all about what you call my ‘conception of the world.’ And these feelings are not only aroused in me with reference to so-called realistic art: but other things also create a similar feeling in me. It grows especially marked when I become aware of what I might call, in a higher sense, the want of truth in certain works of art.
Estella: There I really cannot follow you.
Sophia: A vivid grasp of real truth must needs create in the heart a sense of a certain poverty in works of art. For of course the greatest artist is always a novice compared with nature in her perfection. The most accomplished artist fails to give me what I can get from the revelation of a landscape or a human countenance.
Estella: But that is in the nature of the case and cannot be altered.
Sophia: But it could be altered, if men would only become clear on one point. They could say that it is irrational for the soul to reproduce what higher powers have already set before us as the highest works of art. These same powers have implanted in man an impulse to continue the great work of creation, in order to give the world what they themselves have not yet placed before the senses. In all that man can create, the original powers of creation have left nature incomplete. Why should he reproduce nature's perfections in an imperfect form, when he has the ability to change the imperfect into perfection? If you think of this assertion as changed into an elemental feeling you will understand why I feel a sense of distress towards much that you call art. It is distressing to see an external sense-reality imperfectly, portrayed in realistic art. On the other hand, the least perfect representation of what is concealed behind the outwardly observed phenomenon may prove a revelation.
Estella: You are really talking. of something that nowhere exists. No true artist really tries to give a bare reproduction of nature.
Sophia: That is just why so many works of art are imperfect; for the creative function leads of itself beyond nature, and the artist does not know the appearance of what is outside his senses.
Estella: I see no possibility of our coming to any understanding with one another on this point. It is indeed sad that, in these most important problems of the soul, my best friend follows views so different from my own. I hope our friendship may yet fall on better days.
Sophia: On such a point we shall surely be able to accept whatever life may bring us.
Estella: Au revoir, dear Sophy.
Sophia: Good-bye, dear Estelle.