“The Old and the New”

Forum and Century, October 1939

“The Old and the New”

Forum and Century, October 1939

It would be difficult to find two ideals of novel writing more opposed to each other than those represented in Joyce’s and Mrs. Buck’s theorizings on the Chinese novel — , on the occasion of the presentation to her of the Nobel Prize “for rich and genuine epic portrayals of Chinese peasant life and for master- pieces of biography.”

Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake represents, for good or for ill, the very last word, up to the present and maybe for a long time in the future, in the development of the novel. It is a step further in the revelation, in the understanding of Man the Unknown, the most unknown creature in the universe, than any we have had up to the present.

Finnegan’s Wake will be read by people who have an avid interest in what goes on in the mind and the emotions; it will be read by people interested in the renewal of language, in the sounds of language, and in the fantastic, unexpected word and idea associations that take place in the mind; it will be read by people interested in such things as the racial mind and the racial experience. But it will be read especially by those who have followed the way literature has been going for the past seventy years, for it represents the perfectly logical development of that way, and its influence will stretch far beyond the narrow circle of those who read the book. But I do not believe that that narrow circle will embrace more than a couple of thousand or that a single one of them will comprehend it totally — except, perhaps, some lonely and persistent reader on the banks of the Liffey who can retire indefinitely to an attic with a bottle of whisky under one arm and a musical instrument of some kind under the other, to read of and ponder on an Earwicker who is himself and who contains all the past and future that is in himself.

Finnegan’s Wake is the revelation of the goings on in that part of the mind which contains the raw and confused materials of consciousness, and the events of the whole book take place in the minds of people who are in a state of dream, whether sleeping or waking. As we spend at least one third of our lives in sleep and over two thirds of it in some state of dream, it is fitting that some writer should devote himself to exploring what takes place in our minds and emotions during those periods; it is fitting, if we are to give any allegiance to the modern conception of literature as an attempt to portray the whole of man.


But to return to Mrs. Buck’s address: her idea of a novelist is “a story-teller in a village tent who, by his stories, entices people into his tent.”

If one limits novels simply to stories told by men in tents or at the gates of cities, one cuts out all the modern developments of fiction. All sorts of long-established literary forms are concerned with stories — epics, ballads, plays, even satires. But we call that form which developed late — the long fictional narrative in prose, constructed according to a pattern — a novel.

The novel has had some sort of development in every Western country since the middle eighteenth century and probably in the Orient long before. There is, for example, a remarkable Japanese novel, translated by the Oriental scholar, Arthur Waley, as , which has a striking resemblance to the most advanced form of Western novel. But what Mrs. Buck calls the “Chinese novel,” judging both by her description of it and by her translation of the narrative which in English is entitled , is not a novel at all but an assemblage of traditional tales such as are to be found in the early literature of every country.

In all literature, early narrative, whether in prose or verse, developed out of stories people invented and passed from mouth to mouth, growing in transit as gossip grows. From time to time great artists or a single great artist took hold of them, gave them form, and made them literature, as distinct from folklore. This is the way the oldest literature we know had its beginning, the way the epics attributed to Homer or to two Homers started, the way the , the way the , the , started, it is even the way all sorts of modern masterpieces, like Goethe’s , Tennyson’s , and Yeats’s had their beginnings.


What is, from our point of view, wrong with a book like All Men Are Brothers is that no great Chinese artist came along to give shape to the material accumulated in it. Like all primitive literature of the kind, it is made up of episodes tenuously related to each other, moral digressions, primitive fancies and beliefs, tales of magic, and a mixture of stories about animals and men. How different is this loosely jointed narrative from the novel of eleventh-century Japan, The Tale of Genji! In the Chinese novel, the artless long-windedness, all right for any ancient traditional story- teller, interferes with our comprehension of the characters and their movements; the values, when they do dimly emerge, are never kept long before us. We can read sections, of course, with great interest, but it is only with what might be called the zest of the explorer that a modern reader can get through All Men Are Brothers.

The Tale of Genji, on the other hand, is one of the most readable and entertaining novels ever written; there is in it a whole procession of life, a whole civilization, a perpetually exciting world where each character is a separate creation, thinking and doing things we can understand and sympathize with and where nothing is really alien to us. There is a theme all through it not dissimilar to that in that most modern novel, , that perpetual human regret for the passing of things, for the passing of loves, of flowers, of dynasties, the passing of locks and hinges into the stiffness of rust, the closing of doors that will never open again. In fact, the story called The Tale of Genji is a real novel, and Mrs. Buck cannot persuade me that the Chinese narratives are novels in that sense at all.

The Chinese novel, she tells us, was the peculiar product of the common people. Usually early stories are the product of all the people, and, if Mrs. Buck wants us to understand that the upper classes in China had no part in story making, then this would certainly make the Chinese different from every other people.

She tells us that “the novel in China was never an art nor did any Chinese novelist think of himself as an artist.” Now it is only in modern times that the word “artist,” for a practitioner of the fine arts, came into vogue; the old division was between the servile arts and the liberal arts, according as to whether bodily labor was or was not involved: painting, for example, was a servile art; arithmetic and logic were liberal arts. Until fairly recent times a not uncommon meaning of “artist” was magician, and “art” was the art of magic; but, on the whole, an artist was simply a man with something to make, whether it was a ship, a poem, or a grammar. Therefore, there was no reason why a collection of stories assembled in the thirteenth century should be called by a term not then evolved: if the term evolved in China, it could not have been used in the very modern Western sense in which Mrs. Buck uses it. The word “artist” as applied to a writer and the word “art” as applied to writing are so recent that this usage still puzzles many quite well educated people.

Mrs. Buck informs us that the novel was not mentioned among the kinds of writing enumerated by a Chinese literary critic in the eighteenth century, but I doubt if she would find it in the enumeration by a European critic of the same time. The word “poetry” was commonly used to designate every sort of imaginative writing, and this is often still done by the Germans in our own times. In fact, it would save a lot of trouble for the critic if the word “poetry” were still used to cover high imaginative writing of every kind.

Mrs. Buck has, on almost every page, an attack on persons whom she vaguely describes as “scholars”; sometimes by “scholars” she means Chinese scholars, sometimes scholars in general — among whom, she doubtless remembered, were members of that Academy before which she was delivering this address. On the whole, she seems to be confusing pedantic pedagogues, for whom literature is a sort of archaeology, with scholars. Anyhow, she says the scholars made “rules to control the rush of genius.”

Here are summarized a few of Mrs. Buck’s own rules: The novelist should not make shapes and styles and techniques and new schools; he must not think of “pure literature” as his goal; he must not even know “pure literature” too well (query: what is “pure literature”?). She tells us further that the process which creates is not the process which deduces the shapes of art and that the instinct which creates the arts is not the same as that which produces art. The common people, she continues, are the only ones who can really judge the work of the novelist.

All these rules or injunctions may be very appealing to Mrs. Buck, but it might be disastrous if any reader or writer were to take them with undue seriousness. As for the novelist’s not making styles or techniques, that is just what some very great novelists have done — Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, Henry James. As for Mrs. Buck’s statement that the novelist is born for the “primary process of creation,” it should be said that the creative power is very rare and that, if a dozen living novelists in the whole world have it, we are in a lucky epoch. Novelists in the bulk are simply equipped with a sort of storytelling talent combined with an instinct for self-expression that is quite another thing from creative power. The few first-class writers I have known all hesitated to call themselves creators and sometimes even to call themselves writers.


When Mrs. Buck tells us that she learned her art from the Chinese village storytellers or from the man telling a story in a tent, she is putting herself into competition with Boccaccio and with Chaucer, and these writers are what she despises— clerks, scholars —and both of them were fathers of the modern novel. , by Howard Patch, is a book by a scholar about a scholar who was one of the great storytellers of the world, one of the great artists of the story.

As we know, he retold stories that were still part of the traditional storyteller’s repertoire in his day. Some that he retold had been developed by other storytellers, such as Boccaccio, but, from whatever source he took them, he did something with them that all writers who use early stories have to be aware of: he intensified values.

All writers who go to the early storytellers have to intensify values that were left obscure and uncertain. Gilbert Murray Howard Patch shows that Chaucer did likewise: he cut the stories away from ” the world of mere glamour and supernaturalistic thrills.”

When we mention “values,” we enter a world altogether away from the untutored storyteller’s, whether that storyteller be a Chinese in a tent or an American purveyor of stories for the magazines that sell by the million. When Mrs. Buck tells us that she wants her stories to be in such magazines, she must know that what the bulk of readers want is a world of mere glamour and some substitute for the old supernaturalistic thrills, maybe sensual or sexual thrills.


The great value of On Re-reading Chaucer is the author’s infectious delight in the vitality, the humor, and the speech of Chaucer. It will, one hopes, turn readers to Chaucer; no one should allow the surface strangeness of Chaucer’s spelling to turn him from the Canterbury Tales. Turn off the radio, shut up the modern magazines and novels, and I will guarantee to the reader of stories like Troilus and Cresyde, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Knight’s Tale (provided he reads them aloud) a delight that he will get from few modern novelists. Of course. Master Geoffrey could be long-winded, but he knew it and records that the tale he told in his own person, The Tale of Sir Thopas, was stinted by Mine Host — “No more of this for Goddes dignitee.”

Howard Patch’s own book, accomplished as it is, is on the long-winded side, on the tedious side — as is almost all university and professorial criticism. University critics appear, paradoxically enough, to get a little remote from life, withered through too much association with youth. The method and style of books like On Re-reading Chaucer is a little withered. University critics have got them- selves into a rut, a convention of organization and vocabulary; a lot of them write as if we were still in the pre-encyclopedia, pretelephone, and even preprinting era and so fill their pages with unrevealing, unnecessary references. They need to streamline their criticism so as to get out of their thesis-convention of expression.

Howard Patch’s book would have gained appreciably if he could have left out the lengthy digressions, platitudinous citations from professors, ruminations about love and lust, unnecessary discussions on the Aristotelian cause of tragedy or on All this sort of thing should be barred altogether, unless it can be résuméed by the author in a flashing sentence or two that throw a light on the whole subject.

It requires both hard labor and tense mental energy for a critic to deal with his subject so as to keep the raw material of scholarship at the back of his mind rather than at the front of his work. It requires effort also to convey chronology in some more living way than the usual professorial method of setting down dates in figures.


Between Mark Van Doren’s and Howard Patch’s On Re-reading Chaucer, there is the difference between an accomplished writer — a critic who is expert — and one who confuses the sort of training and information that a teacher of Chaucer acquires with what should go into a book on Chaucer.

Mark Van Doren, too, is a professor, but he knows there are encyclopedias, date books, treatises on folios, and variant readings which anybody interested can look up. His Shakespeare is neither biographical nor historical, philosophical nor psychoanalytical, does not discuss dates or texts, has no lumbering digressions, and is sparse in citations from other critics. What citations Mr. Van Doren gives add to the vitality of his chapters — those from old Doctor Johnson being a special delight.

What Mark Van Doren has set out to do is simply to write a criticism and interpretation of thirty-four plays, taking each separately, and of a collection of poems. The total result is a book on Shakespeare of far more depth and imaginative appeal than any that has appeared since Bradley’s .

The best criticism has been written by men who could write in other literary forms besides the critical one: Mark Van Doren’s poet’s training has made him an expert in expressing himself without verbiage and in helping him to pick out unerringly from Shakespeare the passages that show most wonderfully the dimensions of Shakespeare’s genius. He knows every shade of meaning in every word, in the music of every line. Mark Van Doren must be one of the best living Shakespearean scholars in the only sense in which such a one can be of service to literature — that is, he is a scholar in the poetry and plays that Shakespeare produced.

Besides being good, this is very original criticism. The interpretation is subtle, fresh, and new; the chapters on the poems, on Othello, on Antony and Cleopatra, on Macbeth will give a thrill to even the most blasé reader of books on Shakespeare. It is true that, like Homer, Shakespeare has to be interpreted anew for every generation, and I am inclined to think that Mark Van Doren’s is the interpretation for our time.

What makes his different from other interpretations is his fine sensitivity to the poetry, his sense of how everything in the plays is integrated — the character, the scene, the symbol, the sound of the verse. How much of Othello is in this single line —

Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them

— and of Cleopatra in —

I have immortal longings in me.

Is it too much to ask that the new Shakespearean actors read this book in search of light on the characters they impersonate? Has Othello ever been played as he is revealed here — “a great and fearful man” with that “element of mystery and magic native to his original environment”? It would perhaps require supersubtlety to play Macbeth as he is revealed here, but an able direction could suggest that shifting and changing world where, as this critic shows us, the unnatural is in the ascendant; and a new staging of Antony and Cleopatra might show us “lovers whose youth is past, without illusion . . . who prefer each other’s untruth to any truth that has yet been tried.”


Both Chaucer and Shakespeare, in their days, belonged to new literary movements; both represented in their modes of expression an intensification of values that has appeared dimly in their predecessors and contemporaries. Now it is perhaps an accident if a new movement in literature or a new original writer is entirely comprehensible to contemporaries. Some of our most difficult writers today may be easy reading to our descendants; it may even happen that Finnegan’s Wake, one of the most complex and difficult works ever written, may seem the real literary expression of this age of transition in which we are getting out of a tried order and into an untried one.

Such a book as Finnegan’s Wake is a natural and logical development from the theories and productions of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. Before every happening in the phenomenal world, Rimbaud thought that a poetic expression of it or divination was manifested. Now we have for the first time, in Enid Starkie’s , a real biography of this innovator and the first detailed interpretation of the style of writing that he initiated.

It seems a long time since Rimbaud flung on the world his poetry of reaction against the literature of realism, his poetry of a deliberate seer. But if he were alive now he would be eighty-five, a contemporary of Bernard Shaw and some other living writers.

Rimbaud was one of the few completely original minds that we have had in literature. He knew almost everything by intuition and divination and he had but little time to learn them, as his literary career was over before he was twenty. In dream and in action he was a man of superhuman energy. Before he was twenty, he made himself the pioneer of a new type of poetry.

His theory was that real poetry had died with the Greeks and had, in the modern world, to be created all over again. The one who would perform this act of creation, however, would first have to disrupt in himself the norm, the exterior, practical, and conventional life.

Deliberately Rimbaud set out to make himself a seer. He took up the study of magic; he set himself to engage in experiences outlawed or distrusted by normal judgment. The common interpretations of real life that passed as literature he mocked at; the necessary thing was to create something new, even if a new language had to be invented to garb it.

He did not go so far as to invent this new language but he disrupted the old language and its grammar, using language in association meanings rather than in normal and practical meanings — which, however, he included too, so that often his vocabulary had several strata of meanings. In consequence his poetry is difficult to read, but it is not beyond the comprehension of a reader experienced in poetry.

This youth was a great poet and a great seer, but he was also something of a scoundrel and something of a lunatic. The relation between him and Paul Verlaine was glossed over for some time by writers in English, but Miss Starkie tackles it disinterestedly, without any futile moralizings. Rimbaud and Verlaine were in love, and they got a great deal of spiritual and intellectual excitement out of the relationship, while it lasted.

Before he was twenty, Rimbaud was through with it all — through with Verlaine, through with poetry. When he died, at thirty-seven, he had accomplished two pioneering feats: when he devoted himself to composition, he was the pioneer of a new type of poetry; when he devoted himself to action, he became one of the pioneers of European exploitation of trade in Africa, for in Abyssinia he had been a merchant in coffee and perfumes, also a gun runner and a slave trader. The book that Enid Starkie has written has a twofold interest; it is exciting as the life of an adventurer and the life of a poet; and both these lives were so strange as to be incredible.

It was perhaps the degrading and disastrous outcome of his relation with Verlaine that made Rimbaud cut himself off from Europe and the literary life forever. After his disappearance in the East, the gradually increasing group of his admirers declared he had left behind him the secret of the poetry of the future.

What is in Rimbaud’s poetry that has made it so influential? It holds a vision of the world completely different from that in traditional European literature. A reader, to understand a poem like Rimbaud’s best-known poem, must begin by discarding the notion that literature has to have a logical meaning; he has to use all the faculties he possesses — his emotions, his intellect, every sort of imagination he can draw on; he has to sense word associations and image associations; he has to derive a fresh meaning of a word from its sound. And then, when he has finished reading the poem, he has put so much of himself into it and got so much out of it that he and it can never separate again.

The only drawback to Enid Starkie’s exciting biography is that she presents no translation of the poems; one has to be a better French scholar than the ordinary foreign reader of French to understand Rimbaud’s poetry. There does exist, however, a narrative poem on Rimbaud’s life by Leonard Bacon, , in the appendix to which there is an English version of “Le Bateau Ivre.” This may be a help to a beginning reader of Rimbaud. And it should be noted that this strange poem has its inspiration in the impact of the American adventure writers, Fenimore Cooper and Captain Mayne Reid, on the mind of European youth. Their books gave a new scenery and new types to literature.


The vision of America that is in “Le Bateau Ivre” was shared by many imaginative Europeans; something of it is in the preface to Eugene Jolas’ :

I would suddenly find myself catapulted into an incredible dream-America, a real-unreal ambiance. . . . Influenced by my reading of the lives and adventures of Columbus, Cortez, Pizzaro, I saw myself the leader of a great army that succeeded after heroic battles in defeating enemy hordes on the Pan-American continent.

Eugene Jolas, as a good disciple of the author of Finnegan’s Wake, as a good disciple of Rimbaud, believes that dreams, waking or sleeping, have a prophetic significance.

The word-or-object symbols of the dream reproduce the conflict between the lower and the higher forces. The clash between the irrational forces of the past and the cosmological forces of the future can be seen in the new sense of time which the night life reveals to us.

Now the difference between the old and the very modern literature is precisely in this concern with time — this modern concern which has obsessed the philosophers as well as the poets and the novelists. This new formulation of time and the significance of dream brings me back to Finnegan’s Wake. But I have to confess that, like every other reader of that book, I do not yet completely comprehend it. If there are enough readers of this department interested, I will return to it in a later article, when I know more about it.

The Chinese Novel: Nobel Lecture Delivered before the Swedish Academy at Stockholm, December 12, 1938 John Day, 1939
Published in volumes from 1921 to 1933
By an unknown author living in the region of the Danube between 1180 and 1210
Vyasa, c.400 BCE
Ferdowsi, between c.977 and 1010 CE
1808 (Part One), 1832 (Part Two)
In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust, 1913-1927
The Rise of the Greek Epic 1907
Adventures in Criticism 1896
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