Pure Poetry Searches The Human Heart To Find Laws Of Moral Existence
So pure poetry, and the other forms of great literature, search the human heart to find in it the laws of moral existence, distinguishing man from beast. Or so it was until almost the end of the eighteenth century. Since then, the egoism of one school of the Romantics has obscured the primary purpose of humane letters. And many of the Realists have written of man as if he were brutal only — or brutalized by institutions, at best.
So arose Ambrose Bierce’s definition in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906): “Realism, n. An accurate representation of human nature, as seen by toads.” In our time, and particularly in America, we have seen the rise to popularity of a school of writers more nihilistic than ever were the Russian nihilists: the literature of disgust and denunciation, sufficiently described in Edmund Fuller’s Man in Modern Fiction (1958).
To members of this school, the writer is no defender or expositor of standards, for there are no values to explain or defend; a writer merely registers, unreservedly, his disgust with humanity and himself. This is a world away from Dean Swift — who, despite his loathing of most human beings, detested them only because they fell short of what they were meant to be.
Yet the names of our twentieth-century nihilistic authors will be forgotten in less than a generation (How True!!!!), I suspect, while there will endure from our age the works of a few men of letters whose appeal is to the enduring things, and therefore to posterity. I think, for instance of Gironella’s novel The Cypresses Believe in God (1951) (You missed that one, Russell).
The gentle novice who trims the hair and washes the bodies of the poorest of the poor in old Gerona, though he dies by Communist bullets, will live a great span in the realm of letters; while the scantily-disguised personalities of our nihilistic authors, swaggering nastily as characters in best sellers, will be extinguished the moment when the public’s fancy veers to some newer sensation. For as the normative consciousness breathes life into the soul and the social order, so the normative understanding gives an author lasting fame.
Real Love And Real Hatred Are Absent From Modern Novels
Malcolm Cowley, writing a few years ago in Horizon of the recent crop of first novelists, observed that the several writers he discussed scarcely had heard of the Seven Cardinal Virtues or of the Seven Deadly Sins. Crimes and sins are only mischances to these young novelists; real love and real hatred are absent from their books. To this rising generation of writers, the world seems purposeless, and human actions meaningless. They seek to express nothing but a vagrant ego. Jacques Barzun, in The House of Intellect , has some shrewd things to say about the unjustified pride of the decade’s array of aspiring writers.
And Mr. Cowley suggests that these young men and women, introduced to no norms in childhood and youth except the vague attitude that one is entitled to do as one likes, so long as it doesn’t injure someone else, are devoid of spiritual and intellectual discipline empty, indeed, of real desire for anything.
This sort of aimless and unhappy writer is the product of a time in which the normative function of letters has been greatly neglected. Ignorant of his own mission, such a writer tends to think of his occupation as a mere skill, possibly lucrative, sometimes satisfying to one’s sanity, but dedicated to no end. Even the “proletarian” writing of the twenties and thirties acknowledged some end; but that has died of disillusion and inanition.
If writers are in this plight, in consequence of the prevailing “permissive” climate of opinion, what of their readers? Comparatively few book-readers nowadays, I suspect, seek normative knowledge. They are after amusement, sometimes of a vicariously gross character, or else pursue a vague “awareness” of current affairs and intellectual currents, suitable for cocktail-party conversation.
The young novelists described by Mr. Cowley are of the number of Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” Nature abhors a vacuum; into minds that are vacant of norms must come some new force; and often that new force has a diabolical character.
The Person Who Reads Bad Books Instead Of Good May Be Subtly Corrupted; The Person Who Reads Nothing At All Maybe Forever Adrift In Life
A perceptive critic, Mr. Albert Fowler, writing in Modern Age, asks the question, “Can Literature Corrupt?” — and answers in the affirmative. So literature can; and also it is possible to be corrupted by an ignorance of humane letters, much of our normative knowledge necessarily being derived from our reading. The person who reads bad books instead of good may be subtly corrupted; the person who reads nothing at all maybe forever adrift in life unless he lives in a community still powerfully influenced by what Gustave Thibon calls “moral habits” and by oral tradition. And absolute abstinence from printed matter has become rare. If a small boy does not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), the odds are that he will read Mad Ghoul Comics.
So I think it is worthwhile to suggest the outlines of the literary discipline which induces some understanding of enduring values. For centuries, such a program of reading though never called a program — existed in Western nations. It powerfully influenced the minds and actions of the leaders of the infant American Republic, for instance. If one pokes into what books were read by the leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Constitution and the principal men of America before 1800, one finds that nearly all of them were acquainted with a few important books: the King James version of the Bible, Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare, something of Cicero, something of Vergil.
This was a body of literature highly normative. The founders of the Republic thought of their new commonwealth as a blending of the Roman Republic with prescriptive English institutions; and they took for their models in leadership the prophets and kings and apostles of the Bible, and the noble Greeks and Romans of Plutarch. Cato’s stubborn virtue, Demosthenes’ eloquent vaticinations, Cleomenes’ rash reforming impulse — these were in their minds’ eyes; and they tempered their conduct accordingly. “But nowadays,” as Chateaubriand wrote more than a century ago, “statesmen understand only the stock market — and that badly.”
Sheer Experience, As Franklin Suggested, Is The Teacher Of Born Fools.
Of course it was not by books alone that the normative understanding of the framers of the Constitution, for instance, was formed. Their apprehension of norms was acquired also in family, church, and school, and in the business of ordinary life. But that portion of their normative understanding which was got from books did loom large. For we cannot attain very well to enduring standards if we rely simply on actual personal experience as a normative mentor. Sheer experience, as Franklin suggested, is the teacher of born fools.
Our lives are too brief and confused for most men to develop any normative pattern from their private experience; and as Newman wrote, “Life is for action.” Therefore we turn to the bank and capital of the ages, the normative knowledge found in revelation, authority, and historical experience, if we seek guidance in morals, taste, and politics. Ever since the invention of printing, this normative understanding has been expressed, increasingly in books, so that nowadays most people form their opinions, in considerable part, from the printed page. This may be regrettable sometimes; it may be what D. H. Lawrence called “chewing the newspapers”; but it is a fact. Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master.
Another fact is that for some thirty years we have been failing, here in America, to develop a normative consciousness in young people through a careful program of reading great literature. We have talked about “education for life” and “training for life adjustment”; but many of us seem to have forgotten that literary disciplines are a principal means for learning to adjust to the necessities of life. Moreover, unless the life to which we are urged to adjust ourselves is governed by norms, it may be a very bad life for everyone.