13 JULY 1956, Page 20

Art and Craft

BY KINGSLEY AMIS THE dilemma of the novel, the predicament of modern poetry, the quandary of the artist, the crisis of our culture—these topics have become as much a part of our daily reading as undersea fishing or vice in our capital city. But as long as a few people find time to turn out the necessary creative material for all these assessments and appraisals and evaluations and surveys, we cannot really com- plain. And the latest addition* to the literature of summation is both judicious and readable, a rare combination of qualities in this field. The Craft of Letters in England is designed to mark the occasion of the PEN International Congress in London, and it will certainly do that. Not only the visiting Brazilians, Swedes and Belgians, but resident Britons, too, will find it stimulating. Mr. John Lehmann has chosen his panel wisely, if a little unadventurously : we have Messrs. Francis Wyndham. Philip Toynbee, Roy Fuller, G. S. Fraser, T. C. Worsley, I. D. Lerner, Maurice Cranston and others writing on the novel (two essays), verse (two essays), the theatre, criticism, the literature of ideas and so on. All in all, this is an excellent compilation, with plenty of hard thought in it and plenty of material for discussion.

If I now turn at once to the game of Why-this and Why-not- that which no decent symposium can hope to evade, it is in order to get such fault-finding out of the way. Briefly, then: Why all the genuflection before the shades of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, who score more heavily in the index than any- body but Shakespeare and Mr. Eliot? Agreement might pos- sibly be wrested from me that there is more than one tenable opinion about the Bloomsbury lot, but to imply that they still influence English letters overwhelmingly, or even strongly, will strike some as misleading. Well, never mind. Although there may be a few such sins of commission, there are next to none of omission. I did look in vain for the names of Mrs. Hester W. Chapman and Mrs. Doris Lessing in the female- novelist section. I found no reference anywhere to Mr. Alexander Baron. And since Dylan Thomas got into the book in spite of the limitation implied in the last word of its title, I should have thought Messrs. Gwyn Thomas and R. S. Thomas might have got in as well. But I quite see that not everyone can hope to get in, and especially that the inclusion of Wales would force the inclusion of Ireland and Scotland, which might not prove unmixed gain.

A more interesting approach to this survey might be along the lines of the points of agreement between the contributors, some of which Mr. Lehmann has shrewdly extracted in his introduction. One he does not mention (it tends to be latent rather than open) is a suspicious and even hostile attitude towards universities, more notably the provincial ones. I should like, if I can, to still the fluttering hearts of the anti- academics by trying to convince them that even today seats of learning are often quite amiable places, where a good number , of both staff and students can read and write, where academicism in the bad sense is hated just as much, and some- times from a rather better-informed standpoint, compared with outside, and where lecturers in English are seldom seen fresh from the semantic's laboratory in white coats wet with formalin and the precious life-blood of master-spirits.

But really it is lecturers in philosophy, rather than those in English, who draw the fire. I have noted—not of course with 'concern,' just with annoyance—how non-philosophers are more and more taking it upon themselves to tell the philosopher what he ought to be doing. and using words like 'arid' and 'sterile' to label what they fancy he is doing. Soon, I suppose, they will be telling the statisticians to stop all that silly adding-up and start integrating the concept of the random sample into the needs of the modern consciousness. And already we find Mr. Cranston faulting modern economists with being obscure—obscure, that is, to non-economists. Mr. Cranston, again, faults modern philosophers with stylistic inelegance, with not treating their subject as a branch of literature. Now we all love style, but there seems no obliga- tory connection between it and philosophy or economics. The plea for more style ties up interestingly with Mr. Toynbee's assertion that plainness, dependence on ordinary speech, will no longer do for the novelist, and with Mr. Wyndham's asser- tion that it is `refreshing to find a young writer who can be accused of preciosity.' Is it? I would not be understood as faulting Mr. Cranston here, but there does seem to be a lot of sonority-hunger about, a rather shamefaced nostalgia for the old purple patch. As if in confirmation, the essays of two other contributors, Messrs. Alan Pryce-Jones and Paul Bloom- field, show here and there the cloven hoof of preciosity peep- ing out, as they might put it, among the rich skirts of urbanity.

The real complaint against the philosopher, however, is that he sells short not on style but on system. It is indeed true. as Mr. Cranston observes. that 'philosophy in England has ceased to be a substitute for religion,' and of this he clearly approves, but others would not do so. Certain minds must find it galling that the philosopher no longer provides the wherewithal for a sort of ontological debauch, that beauty, truth and goodness are no longer around to provide their own special brand of unilluminating uplift. From Wittgenstein to Ayer, not one of these fellows will give you a man-sized 'belief.' And of course you must have a belief if you want to do any serious writing; Mr. Eliot has gone on record to that effect. I wonder if a distinction could be made between an ideology, which compels formulation, and a set of ideas, which do not need to be formulated, or even held before the attention, to have their effect. However this may be, it seems unnecessary to do as Mr. Lehmann does and upbraid the philosopher for abdicating his function of manufacturing world-views. Nobody can order philosophy about. them the technique, and here were plenty of potential worship- pers, even more than in Carlyle's day, to write the books on them : those who take themselves seriously get taken seriously. To be spared all that for the time being, even if it means for- going some real talent, is not total disaster. There is some ground for equanimity in looking forward to an era of minor literature. Finally, there is a point of Mr. Fraser's I should like to take up. In a most interesting essay on the poet's media—his various outlets to his audience—Mr. Fraser has a good deal to say on the role of broadcasting. I agree very strongly that to write with the spoken word in mind, even if it encourages dilution, must help the poet, not of course because 'verbal music' is of the.least importance, but because the spoken word requires clarity. If a poet these days is interested in having his work read or heard, as distinct from having his name noticed, he must not only be clear after inspection, he must be clear instantaneously, on one superficial reading. (I do not mean that his work must yield up its all on one such reading.) Against these considerations must be set the inevitable 'disadvantages of the poetry recital. Poetry has the edge on music in needing no interpreter; it seems perverse to introduce one voluntarily. And readers are still usually bad, with an uncanny power of forcing their tones on the memory. This applies just as much when the poet does the reading himself: I have to make an effort, on having a look at 'The Teasers,' to forget how Profes- sor Empson recited it. Someone ought to tell some of the ordinary men readers, too, that contrary to their evident belief they are not there to do an imitation of Henry Ainley in Hassan. As for what some of the women readers ought to be told—I leave it to you!