AIDS AND DANGERS TO NAVIGATION
Towards a Point of View
The critic's business is to help the public.
... To put the public in the way of esthetic pleasure, that is the end for which critics exist, and to that end all means are good.
It would be a simple matter to get started on a book of criticism, if one had an axe to grind. Theories we enjoy, and expect to play with. But our position is distressingly simple. We like certain novels and stories, and wish to talk about them; and we are halted at the threshold by wondering why we like them, and why anyone should care to listen to our talk about them.
Perhaps it would be best to adopt a theory. There are, of course, a variety conveniently at hand. We might classify fiction according to
genre and ordain a hierarchy of values. If we define the genre of the Short Story, we shall find ourselves excluding Chekhov beacause he neglects plot, and then creating a new genre to include Chekhov. And that will not explain why we like Chekhov and are indifferent to O. Henry.
At one time we agreed enthusiastically with Matthew Arnold about the obligation to proclaim the best that has been known and thought in the world. Since that early day we have wondered more and more about the meaning of "best." Is, for example,
The Red Lily the "best"?
Then there is the slogan: "The adventures of the soul among masterpieces." Perhaps. But what are masterpieces, and for that matter, what is the soul?
And there is research work into the life of an author, the tracing of his sources, the ordering of his work into periods and establishing dates. Literary geology. There is also literary sociology, the study of social and political backgrounds, "One cannot really enjoy
Pelle the Conqueror or Germinal without a survey of the modern Labor Movement." Someone mutters–"if that is the price!" And what of the social and political background of Thaïs?
Rather than set up shop with this shelf-worn stock, we prefer to keep our doors closed.
Then, what of the newer theories?
We turned, as it happened, to John Dewey and Conrad Aiken, and straightway collided with the "escape" theory of the pyscho-analysts. It was immensely interesting–and left us, as critics, without a leg to stand on. Here we all are in a universe that hems us in with restrictions; a universe so fertile in unforseen contingencies that, even if we were provided with fully developed intelligences and with all the tools of science, we couldn't dodge thunderbolts and earthquakes. The universe would still be a difficult proposition if we were "all there." But we are not. Most of us are seriously damaged before we begin to talk, and what our family environment fails to accomplish, our education usually completes, and we are turned out almost a hundred per cent deficient. Who could think straight, with the burden of so many minds–animal, savage, infantile, mediaeval?1
"In all our reveries and speculations . . . we have three unsympathetic companions sticking closer than a brother and looking on with jealous impatience–our wild apish progenitor, a playful or peevish baby, and a savage. We may at any moment find ourselves overtaken with a warm sense of camaraderie for any or all of these ancient pals of ours, and experience infinite relief in once more disporting ourselves with them as of yore. Some of us have in addition a Greek philosopher or man of letters: some a neoplatonic mystic; some a mediaeval monk." (J.H. Robinson,
The Mind in the Making, pp 66-77.)
We get caught in social and economic traps. We find ourselves in surroundings that at best frustrate some of our most interesting possibilities, and at worst are likely to be ideally unsuited to us. We do what we can to alter our environment so that our impeded impulses may have freer play. But under the best conditions, declares Dewey, who is no pessimist, there is so much maladjustment between the environment and the activities of man that some impulses will find no employment in ordinary activity and will have to be released in other ways. We suffer from what Aiken calls "major psychic frustrations." Out of them we have evolved the "universal language of healing which we call art." Addiction to day-dreams and art–not to mention alcohol–is due to the failure to secure wish-fulfilment and the need to escape from the universe that baffles us and drives us into one more satisfactory, one with greater clarity, order, beauty, proportion, meaning–a harmonized universe.
The application of this theory is delightfully various. Applied to the artist it reveals the source of his inspiration in his frustrated impulses. The history of the novel furnishes many examples of the effort of criticism to relate the artist to his work. Early critics so entangled Fielding with his scapegrace Tom Jones and his gambler Captain Booth–on the naïve assumption that what he made them be and do, he must himself have been and done–that it has taken all the apparatus of modern scholarship to clear Fielding's from these aspersions. One laughs over reviews of
Jane Eyre: because Charlotte Brontë has Mr. Rochester relate in detail his illicit love affairs in Paris, it was solemnly set down that if indeed a woman had written this book, she must be one who had long since justly forfeited the companionship of the virtuous among her sex. Nowadays, enlightened by pyscho-analysis and versed in repressions, we say: all this is indeed immoral; how moral, therefore, the artist must be! Note how Gertrude Atherton and Rebecca West reproach May Sinclair concerning the eroticism in in Anne Severn and the Fieldings: they accuse her of seeking literary expression for her balked desires, because she has been virtuous and unadventurous in her personal life. Would authors whose pages are passionless and pure wish the opposite inference to be drawn about their lives?
There are many incidental advantages in psycho-analyzing the artist. When Strindberg, for instance, creates cannibalistic women like his Laura, in
The Father, he is releasing himself first of all–or trying to–from his own fixation on his mother. If we are told that he had the Oedipus complex we understand how his relations with women are marked either by intense love or intense hatred. This hatred finds expression in the play when the husband throws a lighted lamp at his wife. Working vicariously, this art-form releases inhibited souls who have longed to throw lighted lamps at their wives and haven't dared. Most people of course are profoundly uneasy–people who don't wish to believe in the truth of the characterization of the woman. And to them it is very consoling to have it disclosed that Strindberg himself had the Oedipus complex. They need not believe what he says about women, if they can believe in the complex.
To the one hundred per cent American, it is a satisfaction to have Mr. Van Wyck Brooks trace the source of Henry Jame's preference for the "complex order and the colored air of Europe" to the obsessions of the elder James, who regarded American life as "a quicksand in which everything one held most dear was in peril of being engulfed and lost." He implanted his own illusions in the mind of his small son and gave him his romantic prepossession in favor of Europe. The average citizen is thus assured that there is nothing wrong with the United States; he rather welcomes the additional assurance that there was something wrong with the James family. But the process begins to look dangerously involved, when the critic finds it necessary to go back to the complexes of the artist's father.
The objection has been made that this sort of criticism is science, not art: the literary product is merely the starting point for pathological analysis. The result is "elucidation, not appreciation." But whatever the result, psycho-analytic criticism is too entertaining to drop without one or two further illustrations.
Consider the literature of a whole period as evidence of the need of "escape." Sometimes such literature is characterized by a common preoccupation with certain themes and emotions, and informed with a common spirit–unhappy, or rebellious, or disillusioned, or sentimental, or swaggeringly optimistic. By studying these indications, we may discover what is hampering free human development in that nation and generation. Take Russian fiction before the Revolution. For many decades almost the only escape for the sensitive and gifted man was in imaginitive activity, in artistic creation. The roads to overt activity were barred, or led to Siberia. So dammed-up impulses broke through into the channel of literary expression. If the Tsar's police had not closed up Tolstoi's school, into which he was pouring his abundant energy, we might possibly not have had
War and Peace.
A recent book on the short story2
Short-Story Writing, an art or a Trade?
in the United States discusses the "cleanness" of our literature, and finds that this cleanness is not shown, not in abstention from the treatment of sex, but in a peculiar angle of treatment. Our literature is "vulgar with the lowest kind of sex-consciousness, but it doesn't go too far." It has the cleanness of our motion pictures. "Is there any reason why a production entitled Du Barry in Europe should be rechristened to read Passion for American exhibition? Is there any reason why Barrie's Admirable Chrichton should become Male and Female as a photo-play? Is there any reason for such titles as Sex, The Restless Sex, His Wedded Wife, The First Night, The She Woman, The Leopard Woman, Wedded Husbands, Why Wives Go Wrong, Forbidden Fruit, The Primrose Path, What Happened to Rosa, Why Change Your Wife, The Woman Untamed, etc. It surely does not require an erudite psycho-analyst to find the reason for this avalanche of suggestiveness. . . . Strong elemental forces long suppressed erupt in irrepressible, if furitive curiosity."
If psycho-analyzing the artist is pathological criticism, psycho-analyzing the literary tastes of a people is sociological criticism. Trying to account for our own special tastes in art might be regarded as the autobiographical branch of sociological criticism–a clinical procedure, shocking to the delicacy of most.
Let us examine this squueamishness. We read novels, listen to music, look at paintings, attend the theatre–all to escape from ourselves into somebody else's day-dreams, and to find in imagination the satisfaction denied us by the circumstances of our lives; for we all have potentialities that our environment never calls to play. In some way these balked impulses must find expression. If we analyze our tastes and relate them to the facts of our experience, we can guess at our "major psychic frustrations." Some books we shrink from, just as some "cases"–and as most people (except very introspective types)–shrink from the pyscho-analyst. and such books, quite as much as those we like, may reveal what is wrong with us. All this is immensely interesting, we may feel; but the less said about it to others, the better. It is as dangerously revealing as telling our dreams.
Yet isn't this just what the critic does, when he airs his likes and dislikes in public? So far, it has only been artists, alive and dead, who have been ushered into the clinic for diagnosis or dissection. But the turn of the critics is coming–perhaps at the hands of the artists. Even book-reviewing, usually regarded as a safe occupation, has for us become invested with terrors, since we heard a novelist, with a cool competence, lay bare the hidden complex of a reviewer of her book. The only hope for the naïve critic of the future is a painstaking rationalization of his tastes and standards, subtle enough to multiply the difficulties of the revengeful artist in search of complexes.
In this matter of standards, the "escape" theory leaves the critic at a loss. It leads Conrad Aiken to the logical conclusion that since the dime novel and the lurid melodrama and the cosmetic musical comedy all create illusion for some people, thus enabling them to escape from themselves, they are art. If that is true, we must agree with William Allen White,3
The New Republic, 12 April, 1922. who has noted that some people prefer Harold Bell Wright, some like Booth Tarkington, some actually read the Dial. "Why quarrel over the forms into which we cast our heart's desire?" Why talk of standards? Why should we care whose work identifies us to posterity–Harold Bell Wright's, or Booth Tarkington's, or Sherwood Anderson's? The novel is for the day, like the newspaper or the skyscraper. It finds its market. The book the reader buys "tells him what he wishes to know. . . . Good or bad it fills him with the spiritual pabulum he needs." If art is merely an escape, the end of Conrad Aiken is William Allen White, whose critical landscape is as flat as the plains of Kansas.
In the sentence just quoted appear the words "good or bad." But what, on this theory, is good and bad? Standards are implied, but where is the foundation upon which they could be erected? Perhaps they are moral standards.
But before we examine the claims of the moralists that good or bad in literature is judged by the effects on behavior, we should like to relieve ourselves by recommending that they adopt the escape theory.4
It would extricate them from some of their dilemmas. Take the case of the motion picture exhibited in Boston weekdays and Sundays. On weekdays the city censors pass on the films; on Sundays, the State censors. The latter are the mroe sensitive moralists. They insisted that the child in this play should be represented as legitimate; so on Sundays the child was legitimatized; and on weekdays returned to its more natural state of illegitimacy. If they would only regard tolerantly every excess in literature as a safety valve–both for the artist and for all whose repressions require a harmless outlet! Like doctors administering castor oil, they would watch the sex-repressed take a dose of D.H. Lawrence or Sherwood Anderson. For they would understand that in the license of literature lies in the safety of the state. But the people who will most certainly reject the escape theory of art are the censors. And perhaps there is some evidence to support their point of view.
The moralists have claimed that art has an effect upon activity; that the reader will act upon upon the suggestions of his readings. Balzac, for instance, was an immoral influence. But for his novels, certain types of adventurers and unscrupulous climbers would never have appeared in French society. At least he depicted them and presently they emerged. And they point accusingly to the attempts of young Russians to be the "sick souls" of Dostoevsky. One may answer that the sick souls and the adventurers would not have sprung up at all, if the social conditions had not been favorable to their growth. Or one may quote Oscar Wilde–if the moralists will admit his testimony–to the effect that nature imitates what art presents to her:"you may have noticed how, for some time, Nature has set herself to resemble the landscapes of Corot." As André Gide explains this paradox, we see what works of art might have taught us to notice; whenever a painter expresses a fresh vision, we at first see this novel aspect as untrue, bizarre; then as we become accustomed to it, we recognize in nature what the artist has seen. And this is equally true, he goes on, for the inner landscapes of psychology. We look at people in the light of certain habits and traditions. But how many states of the soul, strange, pathological, abnormal, do we not detect around us and within us, after we have been enlightened by Dostoevsky? For he opens our eyes to certain phenomena which are perhaps not even rare, but which we had simply not learned to notice.
Yet if the moralists are not satisfied with these answers–and they wouldn't be–we may concede to them a point. To the adventurous, vicarious experience may be the starting-point of personal experience. One may go to literature seeking, consciously or unconsciously, not merely escapes but solutions. "This is a dangerous book," said a girl, of one of Wells's studies of marital infidelity;"if I had been facing an emotional crisis when I read that book, I should have been tempted to do as that woman did." Perhaps her escape was also a solution.
There may be such subtle interaction between literature and life that it is almost impossible to resolve them into seperate elements. The more one becomes involved with both literature and with life, the more puzzling, intricate, and fascinating such interrelationships become. For one returns to the actual universe after a temporary escape–to actual experience after the holiday of vicarious experience. And the chances are one has not been bored. Perhaps the moment of escape is sufficient to itself, a "consummatory experience." At this point Clive Bell and William Allen White join hands–a meeting of extremes! For Clive Bell declares (
Art): "There are moments in life that are ends to which the whole history of humanity would not be an extravagant means. Of such are the moments of esthetic ecstasy." He names it ecstasy; White and Aiken call it escape or "spiritual pabulum": but they all regard it as an end.
Clive Bell, however, the profounder psychologist, sees it as a means as well, and so leads us out of the critical impasse where the escape theory had landed us. He relates this moment of esthetic ecstasy to the subsequent life of the person who has felt it: "men and women who have been thrilled by the pure esthetic significance of a work of art go away into the outer world in a state of excitement and exaltation which makes them more sensitive to all that is going forward about them. Thus they realize with a heightened intensity the significance and possibility of life."
One comes back, then, with an increased capacity for experience. In that sense the moralists are right, in claiming that reading influences action. How we live becomes a test of the value of the art that has afforded us a healing release. Does it lead us out into wider and richer, more vivid and fruitful experience? Does it furnish both release and intensification? The kind of intensification Middleton Murry has in mind when he says that Chekhov's work fills us with a new zest for living, "an eager desire that our stunted sensibilities should put forth fresh roots into the life that surrounds us."
At this point we find ourselves about to ask a rhetorical question. Do the cosmetic musical comedy, the dime novel, the sentimental movie–which all furnish escapes–intensify the capacity for experience? And somebody will be sure to answer: "They do for me." There we are again, with no basis for critical discrimination, just when we thought we had discovered one. But try another example. We enjoy the detective story of the passing moment. We also enjoy
The Brothers Karamazov, and both in a sense offer an escape from the monotony of a respectable life. They give us murders and mystery, suspense, false clues, pursuit, excitement. And afterwards? The detective story may lead us to take a kind of intellectual interest in the motives and clues and hypotheses of the current murder case, and to speculate on how much more skilfully we could have covered up our trail, if we had done the deed. And The Brothers Karamazov? Never, after the experience of reading that, can crime appear a mere puzzle of clues, a mere pursuit and capture, an outward thing. It has become linked up with some of the profoundest speculations upon the problem of evil, the mysteries of heredity, and the degree of human responsibility. Because Dostoevsky has revealed the strange potentialities that lurk in human beings, awaiting some favoring atmosphere to become realities, the people around us become much more exciting. Our curiosity is heightened and our perceptions sharpened. And in that state we are much more likely to have disturbing times with our fellows. Of course, we are assuming without argument that the life of fullest and richest experience is to be desired. If one wishes to slip through with just as little experience as possible, then one had better stick to the detective story and the latest best-seller and the sentimental movie, the shilling shocker, and every form of literary expression that standardizes human beings and empties them of all but the crudest and most obvious meanings.
So we venture, by this test, to place
The Brothers Karamazov further up in the artistic hierarchy than the Sherlock Holmes story. Why talk of standards and hierarchies, we repeat? Because we can't help it. We have an irresistible desire, fretted to activity by this "escape" theorizing, to justify our preference for The Ambassadors over Babbitt, for The Red Lily over Cytherea, for Chekhov over O. Henry. But, as Aldous Huxley says, when he declares Bach's Mass in D superior to a certain collection of insipid popular songs, "arguments on both sides are ultimately based on conviction and faith." The best argument he can advance is that the Mass in D contains the song-book–as The Brothers Karamazov contains the detective story. One is a part and a very small part of a great whole of human experience, to which the Mass in D much more nearly approximates. Its range is larger; it includes the range of the lesser thing, and reaches out into remoter spheres of experience. It is in a real sense quantitatively larger; and "to the democrat who believes in majorities, this is an argument which must surely prove convincing."5
On the Margin, p. 74.
Out of all this discussion, we can extract two questions for the critic to ask of a piece of fiction: does it create the illusion that enables us to escape? and does it intensify our capacity for more sensitive experience? Both are questions that in the present state of our knowledge and psychology–individual and social–the critic can safely answer only for himself. But if he has escaped through a certain door, he can put up a sign–This way out! "Primarily," says Clive Bell, "a critic is a sign-post. He points to a work of art and says–stop! look! . . . He may exclaim; indeed, if he be a critic, he should exclaim, for that is how he arrests the public. He may go on to seek some rough equivalent in words for his excited feelings. But whatever he may say will amount to little more than steam let off."6
Critics are really nothing more than connoisseurs in pleasure, quoting Clive Bell again–connoisseurs who know that "nothing is more intensely delightful than the esthetic thrill. Now, though many are capable of tasting this pleasure, few can get it for themselves: for only those who have been born with a peculiar sensibility, and have known how to cherish it, enjoy art naturally, simply, and at first hand. . . . But fortunately it is possible for the peculiarly sensitive, or for some of them, by infecting others with their enthusiasm, to throw these into a state of mind in which they, too, can experience the thrill of esthetic comprehension. And the essence of good criticism is this: that, instead of merely imparting to others the opinions of the critic, it puts them in the state to appreciate the work of art itself. . . . He should be able, at a pinch, to disentangle and appraise the qualities which go to make up a masterpiece, so that he may lead a reluctant convert by partial pleasures to a sense of the whole."