23 SEPTEMBER 1960, Page 30

Is It Peace ?


N his memoir of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman I Malcolm recounts how one day he and Wittgenstein were walking along the river in Cambridge when they saw a newspaper placard announcing that the German government had accused the British government of complicity'in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Wittgenstein was in- clined to accept the claim, whereupon Malcolm protested, saying that he couldn't believe that the British leaders were capable of such an under- hand thing. 'I added,' Malcolm writes,

that such an act was incompatible with the British 'national character.' My remark made Wittgenstein extremely angry. He considered it to be a great stupidity and also an indication that I was not learning anything from the philosophical training that he was giving me. He said these things very vehemently, and when I refused to admit that my remark was stupid he would not talk to me any more, and soon after we parted.

In one sense Wittgenstein was clearly right. To talk of 'national character,' if by this one means some change or modification that the individual psyche is supposed to undergo in defeience to the country in which it finds itself, is nonsense: and to try and explain the art, or the politics, or the morals of a particular country by reference to such a fictitious entity is to aban- don the methods of rationality altogether. Yet it is remarkable how often, even today, years after we are all supposed to have learnt better, this kind of explanation occurs, if not in the writing, then at least in the conversation, of intelligent or intellectual people. •

However, there is also a way of talking about national character in which the idea is innocuous. For we can use the phrase merely to refer to certain traits which characterise, over a longish period of time, the culture of a certain country: traits which persist and have a history, not be- cause they correspond to the underlying mentality or temperament of the country, but because, like jewellery or family jokes, they are handed down from one generation to another. It is by reference to such traits that art-historians, for instance, say that a certain Madonna must be French, or that a particular painting could not be by an Italian though it might be by a Fleming working in Italy. Such attributions are sometimes cast in the murky language of national psychology; but in so far as they make sense, they always con- tain an implicit reference to the skills, styles and conventions that pass from master to follower.

To talk, then, of the British Imagination,* or the American, or of the Mind of France, is either to talk nonsense or else it is to talk of certain

* THE BRITISH IMAGINATION. Times Literary Supplement, September 9. Sixpence. transmitted modes or dispositions. The channels of such transmission differ, of course, from one culture to another, from one age to the next. The personal relation of master to pupil, the pressure of the law, the practice of copying and pastiche, the diffusion of books and reproduc- tions; they have all made their contribution. Today one of the most effective agents of cultural unity is criticism. For the critic who singles out certain characteristics in one work as typical of its country is a vital agent in securing their reappear- ance in another work. And so we have I he paradox, that the search for a national character, pertinaciously enough conducted, is sure to pro- duce one. Since the war the Arts Council and British Council have conducted a campaign under the heading 'Wanted--A British Art.' The re' wards they offer are large enough for it not to be surprising that the number of suspects brought in yearly is steadily growing. It is, of course, an open question whether it is a good or a bad thing to have a selfconscic us national tradition in the arts. The advantages are likely to vary from one set of circumstances to another, while the principal disadvantage remains constant—smugness. From being an inherited aid to achievement in certain directions, national character can only too easily become a ready' made alibi for not trying in others. We have plenty of evidence for that in Britain today. A play is accused of muddle-headedness in concefr tion. `Ah, but,' we are told, 'the English have never had a taste for general ideas': and perht Ps Taine or Mill is cited in confirmation. Or, again, a well-regarded novelist is criticised for his notorious snobbery. 'But snobbery,' conies the retort, 'is just the reverse side of that thing which is so distinctive of the English novel: a concern with society, with manners.'

It would be quite false to suggest that smugness is the prevailing tone of the British cultural scene. Just what this tone is, one might feel, is most effectively conveyed in the British Imagine" tion: a mixture of self-satisfaction, curiosity about the outside world, and apprehension. There is the feeling that the old genteel tradition of English letters, in which the national character- istics are supposedly incorporated, though still perfectly sound, has also become a trifle stuffy, even boring. Wouldn't it be agreeable to throgi open the windows, let in a little more of all those things outside—provided, of course, what conies in comes in on our terms? The curiosity is quite genuine; but so also is the apprehension.

When I was a schoolboy in the late Thirties it was still the custom in avant-garde criticism to refer to the dominant literary tradition as in- habiting an Ivory Tower. Today it is an Ivory Tower with a watchman who ceaselessly scads

the horizon for novelty. When he sees anything coming, however, he behaves like the famous watchman in Jezreel who, spying the dust of Jehu's chariot, nervously asked : 'Is it peace? Is it peace?' Nowhere is this apprehension more conspicuously displayed than in the attitude towards what might be called, just because of the imprecision of the expression, the nouvelle vague in British writing—the wave which carries such diverse talents as Wesker, Osborne and Pinter. Twenty-five years ago genteel critics would have ordered the tide to recede. Today they enjoy the thought of getting their feet wet. But there the waters must stop.

A fair example of this kind of timidity was provided by the reception given to Look Back in Anger. The long declamatory speeches of Jimmy Porter were found easy to swallow, even agreeable in a bitter-sweet way: partly because of their tendency to rhetoric, which is felt to be ultimately harmless, partly (perhaps) because, as a contributor to the present Supplement rather revealingly asserts, they were held to express 'youth's blistering contempt for the so-called benefits of a Welfare State.' On the other hand, the regressive bears-and-squirrels play of Jimmy Porter and his wife, which was certainly the most audacious element in the piece, was either ignored or else dismissed as tasteless and embar- rassing.

One sentence in the Supplement sums up the attitude I want to indicate. 'Not less art, but more life is what the novel chiefly needs today.' The elegant antithesis, the half-serious, half- ironical attachment to abstract nouns, the genteel use of the word 'life' to flatter and to pacify a whole range of realities, some of which are interesting, some of which never will be, are symptomatic of this spinsterish desire for experience, tempered as it is by a concern for the ultimate proprieties.