“A Critical Credo”
Scribners, April 1926
Of all the minor aesthetic sensations, that which is given by unusual form is the most piquant; it has the merit of flatteringly presupposing a certain amount of intellectual, if not cultural, sophistication in the minds of the audience. But a too great interest in form obliterates all sensitiveness to the major sensations which really great literature brings. A man who spends his spirit wringing meanings from Mallarmé, who has a subtle taste for Laforgue, or who can fall into ecstasies over is immune, temporarily, anyhow, from any real passion for , or for , or for , or for . It has indeed happened that whole epochs have been thus immune, as for a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, when Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer were considered either gross or dull. At present, it seems as if some such moment were again approaching: great literature is becoming grossly unsubtle to so many of our literary connoisseurs, as is evident from Mr. T.S. Eliot’s reactions to Shakespeare shown in his book of criticism, , and by the reaction to Dante shown in a book published with all the hall-marks of authority, entitled , by Mr. I.A.R. Richards, a professor in Cambridge University; it is equally shown in this country by the host of critics who explain and eulogize the work of literary innovators like Jean Cocteau, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore.
It will be some time before we have a normal period in literature again, and this for many reasons: the inability of writers to humanize the scientific and other explorations which are transforming our conceptions of life and the universe, and their uncertainty in the face of the complicated variety of readers which makes up the present-day audience for literature. Undoubtedly, many critics have felt that some restatement of literary values, or, at all events, some restatement of the purpose and quality of great literature, was becoming necessary. The enthusiasts for the newer literature are firmly convinced that something so epoch-making has happened that it is impossible to write again in the old literary forms. Form is the important thing, they believe, and the new forms have changed the world.
Believers in the significance of form are in reality the oldest kind of conservatives in literary history; they appear at periods when creative vigor begins to run thin, and they have always ended up in the same way, with the belief that form in itself has a significance apart from what it contains. This inevitably leads to the sort of criticism which seeks to codify literary principles, and to the sort of critic who abstracts from the work of the writers he admires certain qualities which he elevates into literary canons, and he regards no writer as important who does not follow them.
At the moment we have the genesis of that sort of critic among us. For the newer criticism is inclined to cut off entirely all writers or artists whose work does not approach in technic that of certain writers fashionable among intellectuals. For instance, how many of our younger critics extract their poetic standards from the work of Mr. T.S. Eliot and, what is equally dangerous. their general critical standards from his critical work? Equally their ideas and standards in narrative writing are extracted from the work of James Joyce. It is characteristic of so much contemporary criticism that it can confuse the value of a remarkable writer like Joyce with that of a writer whose work is merely on the margin, as Eliot’s is – on the margin of emotion, on the margin of thought, on the margin of profundity: that is, it deals not with profound emotion or profound ideas, but with thin super-refinements which are undoubtedly the real presentments of certain contemporary neuroticisms of thought and feeling.
Now actually the importance of the new forms is only superficial; something more far-reaching than the invention of ingenious or even significant form is happening in literature. The material of literature – or what we have regarded as the material of literature for so long-is undergoing a change, a change gradual, but so vast that it makes one wonder whether literature as an expression of the human mind may not, with the advance of science and what is called the progress of the world, be disappearing altogether as a human activity. The sort of emotional conflict which makes literature may grow rarer and rarer as civilization advances. I tis obvious indeed that much of this conflict arose from taboos and censors forced on humanity by gradually changing social and moral ideas, or by difference in race, class, religion, and social customs generally. Emotional conflicts which are still common in Europe either do not exist in America or exist in a much less degree; while social conditions which in European countries make the material for immense tragedy do not exist in America at all.
In that remarkable German moving-picture, , not only the social conditions but the emotions involved are barely possible outside Europe. Again, happenings which once formed the material for tragedy everywhere are gradually ceasing to have a universal appeal. It is hardly again possible in literature to make much out of a situation arising out of illicit love, where the mother of an illegitimate child, used equally by Hardy, by Hawthorne, and by Goethe. Yet it was once the most obvious material, such as could hardly fail to be moving even in the hands of the crudest writer. It is very doubtful indeed if a moving tragedy of sex-passion like that of Tolstoy’s can be done again in literature. Events such as these may gradually become like the tragedies in Greek literature – merely happenings peculiar to the conditions of life or religious belief at certain ages of the world.
We remember the material of Greek literature – the tragedy of a man marrying his mother, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the profound humiliation which turned Medea into the murderess of her children – fearful tragedies, which on account of the tremendous personal emotion involved still keep their sway over the human mind. But the incidents themselves ceased to be significant material for literature when Roman civilization displaced the Hellenic, and different and more trivial themes took their place. The Romans chose to devote so much of their time and energy to wars, conquests, and colonizations from the very beginning that strong feeling or profound reflection, both of which grow up only in leisure, came merely spasmodically into their literature, and but twice with any real intensity – once in the blazing lyrics of Catullus, and once in the philosophic poetry of Lucretius. Greek literature was the literature of a leisured people who had time to pursue to their conclusion ideas and emotions which stirred them; Latin literature was the literature of a busy people who were always doing practical things, and so when the Latin mind began to express itself and Roman civilization to develop, the material of Latin literature became very different from that of Greek.
The idea so commonly expressed that the material of literature is always the same and is common property, and “becomes significant only when expressed in appropriate form which gives it taste, intensity, and pervasiveness,” is consequently erroneous, as is the idea that it is appropriate form which converts the crude material into literature. The material is always changing, and, far from the form making the material into literature, it is the quality of the mind of the artist which makes it into literature, and the form is something incidental which evolves during the making. The moment form becomes the deliberate aim of the artist the result can only be second-rate work, for, instead of a passionate desire to say something, there exists merely a desire to say something in a novel form, and a probing curiosity takes the place of a passion in the artist’s mind.
Literature, then, is determined by the conflict of significant mind with significant material; the material is always changing, but the qualities which make the artist’s mind significant are always the same: these are excess of intellect excess of imagination, excess of emotion, excess of vitality – qualities possessed by all great artists, whether writers, sculptors, or painters, and which distinguish alike Michael Angelo and Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Goethe. The second determining force, is so much a product of the age and race and period that, although it cannot be counted on, it can always be accounted for – that is, the exact elements which produce it can be observed and summarized. Significant minds, however, are, as far as we know, so much the sport of nature that their appearance at any time is simply an uncontrollable and unaccountable accident. Taine’s idea that literature is determined by three forces – race, milieu, moment – is, at best, a half truth; these three forces determine, not literature but merely the material of literature. There are in instances in the history of the world where the race, milieu, and moment supplied the material, but where the mind that could work on it did not appear. The Roman Empire supplied significant material in plenty, but significant mind occurred too infrequently to make Roman literature a really great literature. And, although relatively there are few who can use it, America at the present day almost certainly supplies significant material. On the other hand, the significant mind has occasionally appeared without having any adequate material to work on. Dryden’s is such a case.
In addition to the material and the mind of the artist, the public is a real determining factor in the quality of the literature of any period, although hardly any artiss except a few of the very great ones will admit the importance of their public. And yet, in a certain sense, every artist – certainly every great artist – produces what his public wants, for the artist’s public is that audience which, like him, feels the need of expression through him and what it needs to express is what he expresses. How profoundly true to their race, period, and the needs of their public are the works of the great artists – Goethe, Dante, Shakespeare, Molière! You can from their work pick out all the qualities, all the thoughts, all the ideals of the time which needed expression. In Goethe, we have the idea which has haunted the Germanic race – if one had one’s life to live over again: the Faustian idea. In Dante, within the framework of mediæval Catholic philosophy, we have the conception of woman – the angel guiding man, the Divine Mother, which haunts all the art of the Italian people. In Shakespeare we have the passion for greatness and the snobbish passion for what they call the great which belong to the English race. In Molière we have the passion for reality. And its literature as a whole will always show the cardinal defect of each race. In French literature we find the defective quality to be imagination; in English literature we find the defective quality to be intellect; in Italian literature the defect is in vitality – unlike the English and the French, the Italians have never had the vitality to keep up a continuous literary expression. In German literature the defects are far subtler; it exhibits a lack of intensity in vitality and imagination.
It is sometimes difficult for a critic in his own time to gauge the significance of the material; therefore contemporary criticism, even by the best critics, is often astray. It ought never to be impossible, however, for the genuine critic, to recognize the significant minds of his own time – this is, in fact, the chief quality of mind which distinguishes him from other literary artists.
Significant mind and significant material, their conflict with each other, their relation to each other – these, I maintain, make the only hard and fast criterions of literature: all others have to be created anew by the critic when confronted with a new work of art. In a previous paragraph they were roughly applied to whole literatures; if we now apply them to a number of well-known writers in various branches of literature, what will be the results?
I will take, more or less at random, a few well-known writers whose names occur to me. The work of Bernard Shaw is so widely known that it is of general interest. Shaw’s mind, it will be obvious even to the general reader who is not a critic, is characterized by excessive vitality and excessive intellect, but is defective on the side of imagination and emotion. His material is generally not very significant, but he has one quality of a great writer – the quality of being entertaining to the best minds of his own time. The power, however, of profoundly influencing or moving them, which can only be the result of intellect working with strong emotion, he has not. He has no real power of creating character; there is no Shaw world as there is an Ibsen world or a Shakespeare world; instead of creating human beings he assembles a series of qualities, opinions, and ideas which he attaches to a lay-figure. The result is often a very lively and diverting automaton which never becomes part of our experience as does Hamlet, or Brand, or Johm Gabriel Bjorkman. Gabriele d’Annunzio has been before the eyes of the world just as much as Bernard Shaw, but his work is not really widely known. However, his has been made available for English readers in Symons’s splendid translation, and I will take it for granted that it is familiar to people interested in literature. It is indeed a beautiful and moving play, and excellently displays the dominant qualities of d’Annunzio’s mind – excess of emotion and excess of vitality. He is defective in intellect and imagination, and, though his material is often significant, it is sometimes ruined by the puerility of his mind, so that, with many of the lineaments of a great writer, he eventually falls below the level of even the second-rate. His reputation, however, has kept up, while that of Maeterlinck, who is a greater writer, has declined through the decay of his powers. Maeterlinck is intellectually far the superior of d’Annunzio, though emotionally somewhat his inferior; his other qualities were not only subtler and rarer but more evenly balanced, and, though none of them were of the highest order, he is defective in none as d’Annunzio is on the intellectual side. His material had profoundly racial qualities; he brought into French the mysticism of the Fleming, the loneliness and vespertine philosophy of a small people.
In another writer often compared with Maeterlinck, W. B. Yeats, we find in a greater degree the same sort of racial significance. For this poet, race and milieu supplied the characteristic material of his poetry; he became a unique figure through bringing into English poetry the racial experience, the racial myths, and the racial longings of another people. There is in his poetry that quality so often regarded wrongly as mysticism—the desire to sacrifice things held dear by other people for some generally quite illusory benefits—a fantastic devotion to remote and unfriended ideals that belong to a people for whom the desire to destroy what seems evil is overwhelming, but the desire to build up, an illusion. With cardinal deficiencies of emotion and vitality, he is yet almost a great poet. We see at once the defects of his genius in his own conception of what a writer expresses; he conceives that a writer expresses, not his own self, but his antiself; that a man gives expression to something he is not but wishes to be; that writing is, as it were, a compensation for something he has not got—this is the conception of a man whose intellect too strongly dominates every other aspect of his genius. He has indeed a lack of comprehension for those very great men whose emotions and vitality were each so overwhelming that they demanded equal expression, and whose work was the expression of the overpowering urge that they experienced. That quality in which a writer is deficient is the one in which he will be most powerfully influenced by other writers: Yeats has been influenced by almost every writer of his time who expressed strong emotion or subtle emotion – by d’Annunzio, by Maeterlinck, by William Morris.
These writers, of course, definitely belonged to the older generation, and are considered old-fashioned by most of the younger critics, though once they, too, were regarded as belonging to the advance guard and the left wing by an older generation of readers and critics. Yeats and Maeterlinck were considered incomprehensible, too mystical, and too symbolistic – it will be remembered that symbolism was the great movement when they were young, and Bernard Shaw and d’Annunzio were both thought very shocking, each, of course, for different reasons.
The writers of our own left wing have suffered from having been so much praised by critics whose standards were bounded on all sides by significance of form and from being decried by critics for whom their originality and modernity was more or less a complete barrier against their comprehension of them. Of the best known of these left-wing writers the two most important are James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Now these two writers are remarkable for the same reason that any writer in the history of literature is remarkable—the work of each is again an example of the action of significant mind on significant material. The material of both Joyce and Proust is strongly determined by the race to which they belong, by their milieu, and by the moment. Race and milieu alone, of course, have distinguished the material of many important writers, but, in the case of these two, the moment really influences them in a remarkable way. Each exemplifies in his work two important scientific discoveries reduced to terms of literature: the discovery of the subconscious and the Einstein idea of the relativity of time. Both Proust and Joyce reveal their characters in terms of the subconscious and both translate into terms of art the Einstein idea of time. That the last idea is unconscious in both of them is probable, and is only an example of how the same great ideas come to men of genius in different terms. Marcel Proust and James Joyce are not only of great consequence in our time, but are actually sure of some measure of immortality—how great this will be depends upon the lasting significance of their material, and it is just this lasting significance of material which it is difficult for the contemporary critic to estimate.
That the subconscious has been more significantly, more profoundly, less obviously revealed by Dostoievsky I am convinced, and not only the subconsciousness of individuals, but the subconsciousness of men in the mass, so that the men he creates in his novels become characters in real life years later. We say when we read some revealment of the under-mind in a character of Joyce or Proust, “How subtle, how true, how interesting,” but of Dostoievsky’s revealment, so far as it goes into the mind, not only of the man, but of humanity, we feel as we feel before all those great products of the mind, like Michael Angelo’s , that they were wrung not out of the experience of a single man, but out of the experience of man since the beginning of time. Before Joyce’s Bloom and Proust’s Swann we pause and marvel, our imagination and intelligence roused to wonderment, but before , what can we do but pause and weep: such agony, such ecstasy, such subtlety of love and hate—all the gamut of all the emotions of men in all their marvellous ramifications—love blurred with hatred, parental and filial devotion blurred with cruelty. In comparison with Dostoievsky the work of Joyce and Proust seems to have a somewhat too complete and excellent and urbane finish; it is polished off into a psychological exactitude by a too conscious application of the discoveries of Freud—that is to say these authors lack Dostoievsky’s height of emotional power.
In contemporary American literature significant mind is rare. Let us consider a couple of the best-known American writers who at the same time enjoy a high esteem with critics and cultivated readers. The one who is in highest favor among the younger intelligentsia is Sherwood Anderson, and with their estimate I am in entire agreement. He is the one contemporary American story-writer with a genuinely free imagination, genuinely strong emotion, so that his material beneath his touch becomes transformed as only a creative artist can transform it. He has added to the significance of the material for all other artists who follow him. Sinclair Lewis, whom one of our most distinguished critics has compared to Flaubert, has, on the contrary, seriously damaged for other artists the material he uses instead of adding to its significance by the power of a transforming imagination, and has actually somewhat exhausted it for other writers: and have become docketed, and ticketed and placed in pigeonholes; they are labels and do not walk the world as free ideas. Sinclair Lewis has not treated them with a free creative imagination, but has, to use a phrase of Taine’s, written like a citizen for fellow citizens. We have in his work a perfect example of what happens to significant material passed through a mind that is not significant. He labels the material instead of transforming it.
I have chosen these writers mainly because their work is of immediate interest, and not because I think that they are the greatest writers of our day. The special contemporary interest in Joyce and Proust is natural, for it is the normal thing for the younger generation of readers to be most excited by those authors who particularly express the ideas of their time—a fact forgotten by some academic critics. This excitement may be given by a writer who is quite secondary in comparison with an older writer of great achievement. The preferences of the younger generation—even the outrageous follies of their preferences—cannot be overlooked: they are often indications of new currents, of new stirrings and strivings unnoted by the elders.