“Literature of Today and Tomorrow”
Scribners, October 1936
Our civilization is changing itself, roughly speaking, from an instinctive to a deliberate civilization, to a planned civilization. Ever since the change began the emphasis has been determinedly on the material side, and the planning has been for material advancement and material comfort.
Though more than any other age we have begun to investigate the psychic, spiritual and mental sides of man, we have made less provision for them than did the old instinctive civilizations of which a large part was devoted to providing spiritual outlets. Granted that some of these outlets were of an infantile nature, they accomplished what they were intended to do — offered a consolation for the pains and failures of life.
In our time some of the governors of the world try to limit free expression in art, literature and religion without understanding that, though they may succeed in abolishing these activities, they cannot abolish the side of human nature that craves expression through them. Free expression in literature is further cramped by the efforts of some critics to force all literature into being a history of the times. Poetry, novels, drama, all are expected to be a history of today’s current social and political movements.
This notion in itself is probably the last manifestation of that form of realism which was founded on the “fact” and the “document,” a realism which was the literary doctrine of a material civilization. This material civilization has in the main been given us by the discoveries and inventions of practical science, a science which was envisaged by thinkers long before it actually came to dominate the world.
It was in the early nineteenth century that it first seemed credible that the experimental study of facts, of data, would in the end explain everything — man, nature, God and the universe — and that it would not only explain everything, but bestow everything that men longed for — happiness, health, security. “Facts” which began by being the matter of science proceeded to become the matter of literature, and it is this ascendancy of the “fact” which caused the change from the old philosophy of the beautiful, which was the æsthetic which till then dominated literary production, to an æsthetic which admitted almost everything as matter for literature.
The whole philosophy of the epoch was expressed by Hippolyte Taine in an often-quoted sentence: “Today the matter of all knowledge is little facts, well-chosen, important, significant, amply circumstantiated and minutely noted.” This sentence provided a new philosophy of literature, the literature of the scientific age, that is, the literature of realism which though now in its decline and disintegration is still the dominant literary mode, and, in popular conception, the modern literary mode.
What actually is realism in literature? It is the attempt to give a reproduction of life itself as actually lived. The ancients would, no doubt, say to give an imitation of life, though giving an imitation of life was never the design of the older literature: it was to give an imitation of life as lived by certain outstanding personages. Realism is the reproduction of life as lived by the average person, or by what in the author’s experience is the average person. The literary genre that was easiest to make the vehicle of this doctrine was the novel, and so the novelists proceeded to follow the Taine dictum to note “facts,” to choose the important and significant ones, and to circumstantiate them abundantly. The author, in short, began to keep a note-book, to note down all his observations and experiences of every-day life, and from this notebook procedure came all our great realistic novels, short stories and plays. Today, at this period of our transitional civilization when the realistic aesthetic has visibly run to seed or is being choked with weeds, it is well to look into what it actually stood for in the work of its great practitioners.
The first realistic novel was Gustave Flaubert’s . He took the outlines of the plot and the chief characters from actual happenings in his own neighborhood and made careful notes for the events, the emotions, the characters that he was going to reveal. Here, for example, is a sample of his note-taking for the character of Charles Bovary:
The result of this method of observation and note-taking was a novel that seemed to reveal life as ordinary people lived it and understood it: it gave the history of a country doctor, Charles Bovary, and his wife Emma, from childhood to the grave. That Bovary was a widower who had first been married to an elderly plain wife was one of the “little significant facts” that made for the realism of his character. His second wife, Emma, tried o make life conform to her dreams, her own dreams and the ones she had found in books. To break away from the ennui of existence with her good commonplace husband she succumbs to two lovers and during her relations with them experiences most of the gamut of human emotions and temptations. Finally she slowly disintegrates and dies a suicide.
This book not only crystallized the literary genre but fixed the novel as the chief literary form, the one most favored by writers and readers for nearly a century. It also set the pattern for novel-writing during the same period. It is very important to note the theme of this first realistic novel — that is, the theme as apart from the plot and the content, for we find it repeated over and over again by realistic novelists. The theme of Madame Bovary is the attempt to make life, everyday life, conform to one’s youthful dreams, and after the vain attempt to make it conform, the renunciation of all dreams. This is not only the theme of Flaubert’s other realistic novel , but is the theme of all the great realistic novels. Sometimes the renunciation of the dream comes violently as in Madame Bovary and , and it is well to remember that not only the theme of Tolstoy’s novel but also the plot is the same as Flaubert’s. However, for Tolstoy everyday life was the life of the aristocracy, and so the personages are aristocrats, while Flaubert’s are middle-class. The renunciation comes violently in Theodore Dreiser’s important novels. Sometimes there is a compromise between the life of dream and reality as in George Moore’s , Somerset Maugham’s , Arnold Bennett’s , Sinclair Lewis’ .
The theme and the pattern are substantially the same in all the practitioners of the Flaubertian novel, which means that “facts” with the great realists concern the interior life as well as the exterior. There were the “facts” of the imagination, the “fact” that life was dream as well as actuality, and they took both sides of life into consideration.
The men of genius among the realists — and in spite of the fact that realism was the literature of the scientific age these were but few—knew that the great conflict, and therefore the great reality of existence, was that between the life of the imagination and everyday life. They conceived life to be centered round this conflict and they set it down as they perceived it in the life of the ordinary man as they knew him — for that was the object of realism: to express the ordinary man. The ordinary man was simply the man that the circumstances of life permitted each author to become familiar with: the ordinary man for Theodore Dreiser was not the ordinary man for Heinrich Mann, or Somerset Maugham, or Tolstoy.
The theme, the characters, the happenings and the emotions which were observed and noted by the realistic novelist were involved in a plot, and it was this plot which first drew adverse criticism. In its outline the plot had no originality: it was simply the old classical form as it had come down from the Greeks, the plot with a beginning, a crisis, and a conclusion; the story with a beginning, a middle, and an end which was the form of all the classical plays, of all the old tales.
It was the plot on such lines, inherited from older literatures, that started the notion that this realistic novel was not realistic enough. In the latter part of the nineteenth century the new realists declared that such a plot, that any plot, was an imposition upon the novel and the short tale and should not be used at all. The plot was actually an encumbrance in revealing the life of the average human being. After all, they maintained, the life of such a person has no great crises or excitements, he very seldom has a story; the story is a literary convention. The life of the average human being is generally only a string of banal events which have no particular consequences, none of the developments nor coincidences which the novelist, even the realistic novelist, imposes on his people. The real art of the novel and the short story should be to present everyday life, which is in the main mediocre, neither especially interesting or uninteresting, more likely to be ugly than beautiful.
The matter proper to a novel should be a “slice of life,” and this slice need not have beginning, middle nor end, as ordinary careers have no real beginning, middle nor end. Neither should this “slice” be about an extraordinary happening in the experiences of a character, since extraordinary happenings in life were so exceptional that to deal with them in literature would contradict the realistic effect. It would likewise be a great mistake to go in for revealing great emotions — ordinary people did not have them; the thing to do was to study scientifically the physical state which gave the impression or the illusion of an emotion. Remorse, for example, was not an emotion; remorse was a disease and should be studied physiologically.
On these principles it became clear to the neo-realists that the realism of Flaubert in Madame Bovary and in L’Éducation Sentimentale was not scientific enough nor physiological enough, though he had devoured medical literature for all it could tell him of the soul and body and their disorders, and though he had submitted all his characters to physiological and psychological examination. The new realists declared that one did not ordinarily meet doctors’ adulterous wives or young gentlemen with independent means any more than one met Walter Scott’s heroes or heroines or Balzac’s millionaire misers.
The ordinary person was none of these; the ordinary person was the working man and the working woman; the “fact” the realists were leaving out of account was that ordinary life is the life of the greatest number; consequently the proper subject for literature was the life of the vast populace, and the language for the interpretation of life in literature should be the language used by the populace, or, as we would name them in present-day parlance, the proletariat. Likewise, personal and private passions were not so important: social passions were the real passions that moved the world.
All the extreme realistic doctrines, even the most ridiculous of them, were advocated by Zola and his followers. They also discovered for literary purposes the cruelty and wickedness of the bourgeoisie, and the great virtues of the proletariat. Zola himself, needless to say, was a writer too great to be held down in practice to any of the extreme doctrines; he cherished one or two of them, it is true, but at his best he forgot all about them.
What happened to the doctrine of realism is what happens to every doctrine once powerful in the world: it began at a high level, rose in the work of its greatest practitioners to a distinguished development, then began to deteriorate to a type of writing which expressed only the side of people susceptible to external observation.
Then, one asks, what is the secret possessed by the great realists? Chiefly, it has to do with the acceptance of the simple fact that man is a creature given to visions and imaginings, to vagaries, to dreamings of a life that never happens, and that the most realistic literature that ever got written down, realistic in the sense of what was true to man and life, was so because it showed the contradiction, generally the bitter contradiction, between the dream-life and the everyday-life, the ideal and the real. By the time the average reader has time left over from the common demands of living to catch up with a new idea either in literature or civilization, a new era or a new age has begun even though only a few people hear the low, gradually increasing, persistent murmur that will end by becoming a thundering voice. The revolt against every brand of realism has gone on in the inner courts of literature for over fifty years—against the doctrines, the technic, the content, and against the language.
We will deal first with the reaction against the language. Every initiator of a new literary mode has had, first of all, to do something with language when it began to lose tone and color from being used too long in a particular way. The old way of renewing the literary language was to refresh it from popular speech. This was all very well when Dante took over what he called “the illustrious vernacular,” or when Luther took over the language of the house-wife and the artisan, or when Wordsworth advocated the language of the common Englishman, the rustic. It had even fine results in our own day when Synge took over the language of the country people of his native land. But we have no “illustrious vernacular” any more; the popular language is becoming simply a degeneration of the written one. With the spread of popular education, with the radio and the cinema, everybody is not only talking in the same standardized way, but also writing in the same standardized way.
There is not a pin’s difference between the language and content of the advertising pages and the language and content of the literary section of magazines. I will give a sample from Harper’s Bazaar from a story in the advertising section and a story by a well-known author in the literary section, and I will challenge any reader who has not already read the matter to know which is meant to be the literature and which is meant to be the paid advertisement.
And here is quotation II.
The author of what is meant to be the literary story is James Hilton, author of . The author of the advertising-story is anonymous, but I really believe it to be the better-written of the two. When language becomes such a vehicle of expression, what would one do if one wished to express the mysterious reaches of the mind or heart? How would one imprint an original attaching each specific idea to the group that advocated it.
Language used to become worn-out even when used by artists, but in our day it was becoming threadbare; it had been developed too much on its purely practical side, especially throughout the nineteenth century. The emphasis on words had been on what might be termed their objective meaning, that is, their meaning as counters with an exchange value. Actually, if we take any words — “house,” “bridge,” “love,” each of them has at least three meanings — a sense-meaning, a sound-meaning, an association-meaning. As for the sentence, a too logical arrangement had been imposed on it. Logic, in fact, was an imposition inherited from all previous literature. Even in poetry emotions were developed logically in logically arranged lines. The older love-poems went :
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low
And the stars are shining bright.
And proceeded by a logical sequence to:
I die, I faint, I fail.
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
But the modern poets who wanted to express hitherto unstressed complexities of emotions believed that almost anything of the multitudinous ideas associated with love was matter for a love-poem. As a lover arising from dreams of his beloved was just as likely to associate his emotion with ideas of how to array himself as with exclaiming “I die, I faint, I fail,” T. S. Eliot, in , wrote:
I grow old, I grow old,
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with sea-weed red and brown,
Till human voices wake us and we drown.
This is the poetry of the association of ideas, or at least one type of such poetry; the lines represent the illogical moods and emotions of a man in love, the commonplace and the transcendental side by side.
However, the great, the overwhelming influence on all the literary transformations — on language, on content, on technic — was the new discoveries in psychology, the new knowledge of the mind arrived at in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. When all the old conventions were being shaken to pieces it was discovered that that universally accepted figure, the conscious man, the man that all laws, governments, civilizations had been built around, was also a convention. Man was conscious only to a small degree; the greater part of him was unconscious. This fact had peeped in and out of philosophy for a long time, but as it was very disturbing, the bulk of mankind preferred to ignore it.
The philosopher Hartmann expressed the discovery for the Germans; Charcot and Ribot for the French. Charcot was making experiments on the sub-conscious of his patients at the hospital of Salpêtrière, and he had among his pupils Freud and Janet. In America, about the same time, William James, who had been employed, of all things, as a census agent, got the opportunity while so employed to meet and study a wide variety of human beings. As a result of his census activities he declared, “We have all a subliminal self; that is, a self below the threshold of consciousness which may at any time make an irruption into our ordinary life. At its lowest this is only a deposit of forgotten memories, at its highest we do not know what it is at all.” It was James, too, who was responsible for the famous simile of the iceberg : that the conscious mind is like the smaller part of the iceberg that is above water, the unconscious like the greater bulk which is submerged.
All these discoveries were eagerly seized upon by that type of mind in literature which initiates new literary modes and ideas. Now the problem was: this sub-conscious part of man, can it be expressed? In what form of sentence, in what kind of language? Could it be got into literature at all, this part of man that was called the moving force of his being? For the moment we will concern ourselves with the attempts in prose, as the prose expression was the most difficult.
The first attempt was made in the ‘eighties, and this was done by a curiously talented novelist of very limited range, Edouard Dujardin (he is still living) who proceeded to express part of the mind of his character by the “interior monologue.” Now what is the “interior monologue” which has been so identified with our most advanced novelists, though it, like almost every other modern literary device, dates back to the nineteenth century? I know no better definition of it than Dujardin’s own; “The interior monologue is the discourse without auditor, unspoken, by which a person expresses his inmost thought, the thought nearest the unconscious, anterior to any logical organization, by means of sentences with a minimum of syntax. It is done so as to give the impression that it is poured out and is a slice of the interior life without explanation or commentary.”
Dujardin himself had not sufficient clue to the technique to be employed in rendering “the thought nearest the unconscious,” but he had made a beginning, and the writer who took the next step forward but who came a generation later, James Joyce, acknowledged his indebtedness to him. The interior monologue which was one of the most discussed features of Ulysses on its publication, is now a widely imitated device, but for purposes of illustration I will give a quotation from it:
Is this actually the way the mind works anterior to consciousness? An extraordinary light on the authenticity of the procedure was recently thrown on this problem through the case of a criminal dying in New York. Detectives attached to the criminal bureaus in our large cities are, like writers and doctors, students of psychology, and one of them had the idea of taking down a stenographic report of the utterance of a gangster, Dutch Schultz, while in that state of mind from a wound when he was incapable of imposing any logic on what he was saying. The whole stenographic report, not more than a couple of newspaper columns, was a real revelation of the content of the man’s mind. Compare the quotation from the novel with the following from this particular report. Whereas the Joyce extract runs on without punctuation-marks, the stenographer has put them into this interesting extract:
After all this experimentation what is likely to happen is that any day a man of genius may appear who will have so much command of the new material that he can express it in a manner both comprehensible and thrilling, opening new windows to the mind. Unless all the experiments in the direction of expressing the new discoveries eventually result in a literature comprehensible to the ordinary reader who, however, is not the ordinary man but the exceptional man, literature as an art will be practised only by an esoteric cult or it will die. And the written word will become the slave of merely practical aims — for giving information, for propaganda, for all that range of practical expression from the newspaper to the encyclopedia. In that case, the side of man that used to be expressed in great poetry, great plays, great novels will have to be taken over by the other arts. Whether literature will live as an art depends on how strongly it can charge the new knowledge with imagination, emotion and intellectual energy.