THE PRESENT STATE OF LITERATURE II. • DIAGNOSTIC
Fr is not to be thought that in the sum of activities one age can have greater value or glory than its fellow-ages. In each moment, each atom of time, life beats up from chaos into space ; fills out and irradiates the framework of the universe ; accomplishes a new infinity of forms ; then passes back, from space into chaos, to gather fullness and strength for the next impulsion. And on that journey it has been sucked and snatched into innumerable channels ; it has eddied and twisted till even this pencil—this hand—this idea—can take substance and exist. An old shape has worn thin from detrition : it yields and is swept away. A new channel or a new knot defines itself. All things in manifestation have been strained and are infinitesimally shifted. But one moment and another, one season and another, one age and another, the same life has worked itself out ; there is no fluctuation in its power ; it does not show itself now more, now less ; only the modes of its expression change, and the history of the universe continues.
Suppose, then, that our own age is analytic and not creative ; suppose that its virtue rests in science, not in the arts ; suppose that it produces, not a few men of genius, but a mul- titude of talented men. Well, it is an age as good as any other, and there is no cause for complaints of decadence. It is not finally more admirable when an age concentrates its gifts upon a few men : the sciences are as noble as the arts. What mankind has lost, men have gained ; there are more men of average good endowments than ever before ; the consciousness of civilization is more widely spread. It will mean, of course, that nothing will stand up before future ages as a work of greatness ; we shall have set no standards ro astonish and delight posterity, but we shall have carried through, like patient draught horses, more than the customary weight of tradition ; we shall have been good souls, if prosaic.
We believe that one activity is better than others only when we attach our hearts to this or that mode of life, not to the whole. But, for all this, if it is in my composition to love one aspect and forget the rest, why then I love it, and I am in harmony with myself in loving it. I am not concerned now with that eternal view of life in which all things are equal : no ; let us put it that I love literature ; then I am sad for this age, and reasonably sad. If I love nobility, if I love honour, if it seems best to me that life should be concentrated and quick-moving, not general and slow, if, in a word, I love great men, then I am sad for this age, and say, out of my individual self, that it is poor, mean, and democratic, an age of half-men. And certainly if I look back and affirm that such and such ages were better, if I dream myself into satisfaction with a remote past, I am being foolish and helpless ; but the reconciliation of these opposites comes in this : we do not live only in this age, we live part in the next. The next age is as much ours as this : indeed, it is more ours, for We can in some degree choose what that age shall be. The next age follows out of this, as this the child of the past ; but as history hurries by us and includes us, we can add ourselves to it and change its course. We can mark the causes of our present disharmony, and struggle against fate to rectify the balance. Do you think it possible, when you see the mass of detail and of small exploration which is blinding us, that books shall be written, statistics collected, cases recorded, till the earth is one library of unconsulted, unconsidered authorities ? Do you think it possible that the skirts of fame are to be dragged at by a million million writers, always more with each new year, the dead still living and cumbering men's minds ? Surely, no. This order will have its day, and the habits and interests of men will change. And if we are to remain, in"-the ruthless competition of history, notable among other ages, it can only be by ourselves forming the interests and anticipating the judgments of posterity.
Let us try, then, to see what has caused the even stature and mediocrity of our thought. Let us, if we are at all greedy, see how we may trick time into affording us fame. We shall not precisely explain our present poverty in the creative arts by calling in the industrial system, machinery, free education, the rise of materialism ; all of those are parallel effects rather than causes. It is a change in the consciousness of man which is responsible for all of them ; they are inter- connected by this change, they arc not the cause of it. Never- theless, it should be useful to show something of the inter-connexion.
And particularly we can observe the relation of our industrial system to a decay in the arts. The industrial system has involved a new gradation in society. The old aristocracy— which to some extent was an aristocracy of leisure and cul- tivation—has given way to new powers. We can hardly call this an age of plutocracy ; for there is no plain government at all when the ranks of society so merge into each other and are so confused. There are almost infinite degrees of power ; for the possession of wealth, upon which power now so much depends, passes from small to great through so many stages that it is impossible to make a cut across society and say, " Here is one class or caste, here is one estate in the common- wealth." In earlier times the classes were well differentiated ; now. and then a man could throw himself from one class into another ; but the achievement demanded some measure of genius, and in some degree it was final ; he had won the prize he set himself to gain. But now the advancement of an in- dividual demands application, and he never achieves any especially recognized position ; he finds that he has not risen anywhere worth speaking of ; there arc still as many grades above him as below, it must seem.
Now this would not be dangerous or miserable if there were any lasting importance and value in gradation by wealth. But the criterion is purely material and has no relation to any superiority of spirit or genius. The commonest aim for ambition, therefore, becomes divorced from all genuine merit. The social system becomes, as it were, an immensely long ladder which has nothing honourable at the top. Still, it remains uncomfortable and disreputable to be poor ; it is constricting and irritating ; a poor man if,•11c.nied many of the incitements and aids of culture and freedom. We find, then, that writing is made an instrument of advancement in a system where advancement is only of negative worth ; and it happens that often our novelists and playwrights and even our poets cannot but use what talent they have to help them in their finances. At the worst, they become arrivistes ; more vulgarly than was possible before : when society was more rigid and less " progressive,"
if you lifted yourself from one grade there was another grade to receive you ; there you were, among equals— you had no opportunity to put on airs. But even those writers who refuse to address an audience which will pay them must now write with a deliberate pride in themselves. They must write for " self expression " and that is a worse way of writing than the other. No one should be anxious to know whether he is " expressing himself " or not ; the impulse to write should be strong and natural ; the audience in the writer's mind should
be neither himself nor his actual contemporary public ; it should be the whole of past, present, and future mankind. After all, that audience is not addressed explicitly or con- sciously, though ; it is rather that his mind should be in a mood of communication.
In either case, the trouble springs from the loss of an honotirable and -easy • bearing of selfhood. Awareness of self, of the constellation of life in one unique consciousness, has either died of become agitated and inquiring and
incomplete. And what is that awareness ? It is. cft:m called, in idealistic, semi-serious criticism, a " philosophy of life " ; it would be safer to call it a sureness of personal outlook, a confidence in the writer that he sees and speaks the truth final to himself, an abolition of doubt.
There have been books published recently on the philosophy of Thomas Hardy ; but can anyone believe that the petulant and forced irony of Thomas Hardy is philosophical ? To consider the governance of the universe malignant and irre- sponsible is neither whole nor provocative ; it is an attitude that affords a chance of self-congratulation for one's own superior insight and pity. Optimism and pessimism are alien from philosophy ; for the first task of philosophy is to include and explain them both. It has even been sug- gested that Bernard Shaw has a coherent and stimulating vision of life, and that behind his cheering buffoonery and self-exploitation there lurks a vast body of serious thought.
St. Joan, they say—a tract for a semi-Rationalist Association. Even Henry James, nearer to greatness than either of these, yet spun his novels more from his extreme inability to understand manners than from any certainty of knowledge of life.
The true professional philosophers, too (and this is not so much of a by-track as it may seem), are over-burdened with the past and do not come forward with any individual mastery of the country of thought. Neo-Kantians, we have ; neo-Hegelians, neo-realists, and neo-neoplatonics, where " new " so obviously means " secondhand." It is my hourly expectation that someone will discover himself a neo-Christian. But two less derivative modern philosophies will better show the good-for-nothingness of our thought. The true, asserts Pragmatism, is useful. Well, we should naturally think, let it be so ; now we shall hear what " useful " is ; here we shall have a philosophy which attempts to make clear the final purposes of mankind. But no ; we are merely - argued into believing that truth is relative and that uses vary. And William James writes a book for our encourage-
ment on The Varieties of Religious Experience. Here, we
might imagine, we shall be given the testimony of an open and sensitive man. But no ; William James informs us that so-and-so has felt such-and-such ; it seems to have cheered him up immensely ; we can quite well take it as useful to have religious experiences. No word of his own witness : no travail in his own thought. Still more to the point is the Philosophy of " As if." Truth advances by Means of fictions, Herr Vaihinger asserts. We can never arrive quite at truth ; but we can make better and better fictions. Would it not seem the duty of Herr Vaihinger, as a philosopher, to keep moderately quiet about this analysis and advance the progress of philosophy by some magnificent fiction ?
Here at last we have come to the centre. What has failed us most is the ability to make " fictions," as Herr
Vaihinger calls them, "theses" as they are orthodoxly named. And it is only cowardice, pure fright before the documents of analysis, that holds us back. What has failed us, in other words, is the ability to deduce. There is a certainty and absolute awareness covered up and bewildered by contra- dictory opinions in every individual ; with that awareness caught and expanded he can look down upon facts and see them in a white and perfect light. We do not need synthesis : for that depends half upon record : we need plain thesis, dogma, self-authority ; an exercise of spirit which in its fullness is termed intuition.
[The concluding article of this series, "Prophecy," will appear in the Literary Supplement to the Spectator of December 13th.]