The Vanished Luxury of a Private Art

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OCTOBER 30, 1950

The Vanished Luxury of a Private Art

 

To compare the writers of 1923 and 1950, that is to say five years after their respective World Wars, has a dramatic interest, but there will be a distinctly artificial element in the inquiry. To begin with, dates that are important to history rarely coincide with the crucial dates of literature. Then, the two wars themselves are only superficially alike. The former was an incompetent mass slaughter satisfying to no one, a shattering collection of blunders which disgusted human intelligence afterwards; the second was more ingeniously conducted and had a hypnotic satisfaction for those concerned with its immense technical side. But where the earlier, more destructive war merely succeeded in breaking or gently weakening the governing class in every country—except America?—the second destroyed peoples, political opponents and the elementary axioms of humane civilization. It was a war against value. It is hard to find points of contact between the generation of 1923 and its well-furnished disillusion, and our bleak, unfurnished intellectual world where value has been incinerated.

In England, a thoroughly established literary culture existed at the time of the First World War; until 1931 there were many literary periodicals and there were several clear literary movements. One can point to controversies: the battle between the Sitwells and the dying Georgians; the quarrel between the Bloomsbury of Virginia Woolf and the dissidents in Cambridge that was to lead to Leavis’ criticism; the severities of T. S. Eliot's Criterion; and finally the great political row of the thirties. In France Proust had written throughout the first war and in England the continuity was unbroken. By 1950 scarcely any literary periodicals remain. Cyril Connolly’s Horizon went last year; this year John Lehmann’s New Writing has gone. There are no new literary movements; and no one seems to wish to start any. The ardor of intellectual life has been absorbed and neutralized by the state-building cultural organizations, like the BBC, by economic worry and the suspicion that the future is short. The private venture has gone with the disappearance of private income; leisure and independence are finally impossible and inflation has killed that voluntary poverty which used to be the economic basis of Western culture. It is the artists themselves, obliged to become administrators, who are forced to regard the practice of art as a vanishing, and even a disreputable, luxury in a country whose energies and judgments have become exclusively social. (Ought the miners to be told about the modern novel? How to introduce the workers to literature? Is it true that this is futile and that the workers, who nevertheless no longer exist as an amorphous group, will be interested only in a culture of their own? When, if ever, are we to see a sign of that? Isn't it possible that it may not be a literary culture, that painting and written literature are finished? Have they not at last been destroyed by machine society? By radio, cinema, television? Among the workers, the older kind of cultivated trade unionist has given place to the specialist who knows nothing outside his political job. Socialism has lost its intellectually exciting side. Is it not significant that in England music alone is flourishing? New composers, no new writers.)

 

I shall return to these simplifications later. Let us go back, first of all, to 1923. I have said that literature has little relation to the critical dates of history. The years 1915 and 1930 are the important literary dates of the first postwar period. If we look at the names that appear within a year or two of the earlier date we shall find Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, Ronald Firbank, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Lytton Strachey. Earlier names are Norman Douglas, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell. In France, Gide, already well established, is in the midst of Dostoevsky. Two names of genius—there are none in 1950—must be added: Joyce (Ulysses, 1922) and Eliot (The Waste Land, 1923). All these writers, except Huxley and Eliot, had begun to write before or during the war. They had been formed in the last assured sunlight that Europe was to know. Although the work of these people dominated the twenties, they were not the true postwar generation. Except for the figure of Eliot, there is no sign of it, and Eliot’s arrival at that moment has some ambiguity. His entrance into English literature, like that of Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, seems belated; his air of being contemporary a deception. The sense of tradition in Eliot seems closer to Hawthorne than to ourselves. (Hawthorne himself felt remote in the middle-class England of Thackeray.) The real postwar generation did not appear until the late twenties and early thirties. To the complaint that there are no young writers now, we must point to the past and say that it takes ten years to get over a war.

 

What I falsely call the generation of 1923 was overrun by the armored writers of the thirties. That political attack was itself killed by events, and the reputations of 1923 recovered. Very naturally. They were brilliant writers and the last to produce figures of genius. They were men and women of strong intellectual digestion and decisive minds. They lived through a war more appalling than our own. They had to stomach the first national revolution the world had known since the revolution in France. They watched the destruction of the nineteenth century. They were violently shaken, but their capital of civilization was still large. They enjoyed iconoclasm. They admitted Freud and Lenin to sit at opposite ends of the liberal table. If tradition had collapsed, they were able to place a revolutionary reliance on their own brains and personality. So much so, one has often felt, that (like Picasso in painting) figures like Joyce and Eliot were ruinous. They felt able, through personal integrity, to sustain any moral or esthetic loss; in Eliot the loss of belief in modern society itself.

The wandering voice of Virginia Woolf, the deceptive meanderings of Forster, have the poise and iron of authority in them. Hence the brilliance of the period, its recklessness, its innovations, its daring curiosity; hence its fatal conviction that nothing so unclever, so stupid, so obviously bad for everyone and so irrational, as another war could occur or that an intellectually second-rate doctrine like Fascism could succeed. I do not say that these writers were complacent; there is more complacency in Shaw and Wells. Around the brilliance of each figure in 1923 there is a corroding fringe of shadow, a consciousness of living not in the world but in the strong artificial light of Bloomsbury and Cambridge; but they were—and felt themselves to be—an elite. D. H. Lawrence, the miner’s son, felt this. T. E. Lawrence, the man of action, felt it too, and was frightened of his isolation. Sir Osbert Sitwell has pointed out this was the one moment in English social history when the intellectuals outplayed the aristocracy on their own traditional ground: the creation of fashion and modes of speech. The first serious social upheaval in England for a century had produced in cultivated circles a group of powerful and gifted declasses who left their mark on thearts and, later on, in the Spanish Civil War, were to act dramatically in politics, the Rudins of their time.

But in 1923 itself the remarkable thing (very remarkable when we compare it with 1950) was the rule of conversation. In any generation the men of genius give out the subjects; the men of talent talk about them. One has the impression that 1923 was a kind of small Wellsian Utopia—it had even had its Wellsian World War—civilized and devoted to the Wellsian notions of conversational balloon-flying and making love. (Eliot and Keynes—the two bankers of the time—had expressed doubt that the conversation would continue untroubled.) Huxley’s novels were neo-Peacockian talk. The amateurishness and the weakness, the unofficial quality of talk were carefully sought by Forster; Virginia Woolf’s essays were personal conversations and her self-communing novels sought that exact moment of intimacy which can befelt in the silences of good conversation. The novels of D. H. Lawrence—himself a genius who provoked intense conversation—are written in the guessing, slung together, talking manner with its insights and repetitions; it is notable that he was proud of contradicting himself, as a good talker may be. In Joyce there is a similar strain. The impersonal, official idiom of the traditional novel is broken down into an interior monologue which is the mind talking to itself; and it is not an accident that the collapse of belief in orthodox statement of all kinds which followed the First World War should be reflected in the very manner and nature of its prose as well as in the ferment of amateur discussion in intellectual life. One of the chief rages of Fascism was directed against "the endless and fruitless discussions of the intellectuals," and—in their more dour fashion—the Communists took a similar line. A glance at Continental writers shows that conversation had the same prestige. It is most evident in the work of Gide. Free of orthodoxy, he is obliged to comment almost day by day on the effects of each new dose of experiment, revolution and liberty.

 

By 1950, if we look at the table where the talk used to flow, it is almost silent. Talk stopped when "awareness" went out as a cant word, when "bogus" and "phony" came in; it went out, that is to say, when propaganda arrived—the voice prevaricating at the committee meeting and on the air, resorting to primitive incantation among the tribes. The politicals are the only talkers left; noticeably, some of their voices have become religious. Silone's has; Orwell seemed to be drifting toward a mild religion of decency and kindness. If we are to put figures at opposite ends of the table in 1950, the Freud who wrote The History of an Illusion—one of the chief failures of augury in its time— will be replaced by Jung, the Pope, Kafka, Kierkegaard, even one of his Existentialist disciples; and for Lenin we can put any state builder. At the table itself, there is once more a prewar generation; as in 1923, a postwar generation has hardly appeared. We seem to be one, even two, steps down from the highest rung of Western civilization, feeling our way toward the step below. We call it, and we may be right, broadening the basis. But no Eliot, no Joyce, no Auden, no Sartre—above all, no Camus—in England. The English Socialist state is Victorian in its achievement of general social overwork. (What interests us in Lawrence now is not his ideas but the vivid fact that he could do what he wanted.)

The background of our dilemma has been sketched, in lines that are true because they are elusive, in the conversation between Oedipus and Theseus in Gide’s Theseus, the book he finished in Algiers at the time of the liberation of France. Theseus-Stalin has saved his country from the Minotaur, the lovely and sybaritic monster (bourgeois culture, supported by so much tribute and human sacrifice.), and in his old age the cunning and immoral state-builder recalls his successes and his errors with the detached pleasure of a tank commander. The misfortune of the active life, Theseus reflects, is that the committing of necessary crimes gives no forewarning of the necessary crimes of others and indeed dulls observation and judgment. The behavior of Phaedra was a complete surprise to him. Oedipus, on the other hand, is the living exemplar of tragedy as the human lot. He is the victim of original sin for whom man is his own sacrificial victim, self-blasted but not quite subdued. At least he lives; at least he holds on to the necessity of pride. If as nothing else, Oedipus lives as a warning. For Theseus, the modified Commissar, whose cunning still remains, the important thing is that Oedipus, the exemplar, shall be persuaded to remain in his house and State and add the fame and curiosity of his extraordinary condition to its horror.

The allegory fits the falsely-called generation of 1930 very well. One or two emergent postwar talents are on the side of Oedipus. Gide’s Theseus has something of the hedonist and cynic and we find his note in those of the very young who had "a good war" and who half enjoy the corruption that went with it. But against Theseus the citizen, the dominant imaginations of our decade have come to place the private man, the man of pain. Guilt, the personal wound, the damaged and ambiguous soul are their subjects. Sartre has spoken, typically, of the complicity between torturer and tortured. Camus has noted the last minute reluctance to be liberated. After the disillusion of the thirties the bourgeois has either decided to be bourgeois or (more sensibly to my mind) has rejected the utility for the artist of criticism by category. To say, as Gorky did, that Dostoevsky stinks of the petit bourgeois like a goat, tells us nothing about Dostoevsky, something about Gorky, and overrates goats.

 

In England, as is well-known, we are adept at having it both ways. We believe we can have social justice and deal with original sin at the same time. Only our Catholic intellectuals disbelieve this, and they, whose number increases, exaggerate the general tendency rather than deviate from it. Their tendency is to reverse the moral of Gide’s fable and to make Theseus abandon his State and throw in his lot with Oedipus on his endless journey, lamenting and living by the exposure of their wounds. The traitor, the renegade are more interesting to the Catholic Graham Greene than the hero, and—in a very different context—so they are to Elizabeth Bowen, who is not a Catholic. There is a recognition that the civilized mind is split; the split gives a confused, double vision and that is what these writers seek. Contemporary literature is a response to the hysteria of the English, American and Russian commissars or managers, an attempt to convince them that they share in the common guilt. It is an attempt to begin again from the irrational level and upon that to create the basis of a new humanism.

So the general guilt was the subject of Camus’ La Peste; grief and guilt, of George Barker’s poems, News of the World, and his new prose work, The Dead Seagull. They dominated Auden. Guilt is classical in the curious novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, which are superficially Jane Austen but have more in common with Greek tragedy. In the variable novels of Henry Green, especially in Back, which describes the delusions of a returned prisoner, the hero’s disorders are the defensive protest of the human mind against the damage done it by social hysteria and the new, Kafka-like bureaucracy of the war. This is the theme of Kafka, planted in the warmer, soggier, more pragmatic and cantankerously human English climate. For us it is not a lunatic’s tragedy that we do not find the ruler of The Castle; the important thing is that the act of trying to find him shall be recognized as a fundamental human quality, to be weighed in our favor. This is a more "committed" form of what Forster would call the importance of feebleness.

It is true that the general attitude of our decade might be called pessimistic; and the Orthodox and Marxists of either camp—strangely united—can point to the fragmentation, the privacy, the decadence of the dominant writers as further examples of cultural decay or bourgeois decline. But from the point of view of the humanists this is nonsense, and nineteenth-century nonsense at that. The architects of the modem world spend a good deal of their time in destruction; we must look to the people they have damaged. It was Orwell who saw this most clearly as a social phenomenon. Orwell believed in the martyrdom of man, in the decency of "the people."

 

The real task, as the generation of 1930 has seen it after its political indoctrination during the wars of 1936 and 1939, is not to create a "people’s culture," about which I teased our instructors early in this article, but to reinstate the authority of the inner life. This has been treated by some as a religious act—hence the religious revival—but it is, before anything else, a stand for the free imagination. In 1923, private life meant the insistence on personal values in a small elite of people; Katherine Mansfield had her nerves; D. H. Lawrence wanted his small colony of friends and to hear only his own voice; Aldous Huxley was non-attached when he wrote everything from Crome Yellow to Point Counter Point, and his subsequent "conversion" to religious non-attachment was no conversion at all. (Hence the impression it made.) He simply remained unattached on a larger moral scale, and he, too, is a colony man. In 1950, the basis of the conception of private life is far wider. It no longer means the elite; its class and racial extent are large. Some writers have found it possible to make "the people" imaginatively or intellectually interesting, which they were supposed not to be. We may even remind "the collective" that it has a private life, and may have a collective unconscious.

The evil of the generation of 1923 was that it could not understand the precariousness of its position—what generation can understand itself?—only Eliot, like Henry James before him, on their two islands in the past, had a detached view. The year 1923 saw itself as a beginning; it was really the end of the nineteenth century. In 1950 our literature can of course be read as a preparation for the anarchy or the barbarism to come; our manias may be no more than the disconnected and dying recollections of a destroyed civilization, personal fragments, some treasured tick or illness, the admired cancer, paralysis or incurable infection which give us our oddity and our role, as if we were beggars who take pride in selling our wounds on the street. Or again, resting from violence—which we have known now from childhood—we may throw up the meaning of humanism for the name of it, as Koestler seems to do when he argues for the preventive war. Popular literature has indeed reached a high point of cynicism. Perhaps the safeguard of 1950 is that we are getting used to having little hope; but perhaps that is also why we have developed so much psychological ingenuity. Since we knew 1923 we must have more than a touch of that erratic generation in us; our successors in five years’ time may be graver, more inured and equable men.

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