3 JANUARY 1931, Page 25

Imaginary Conversations

Scenes and Portraits. By Frederick Manning. (Peter Davies. 7s. 6d. )

Timm are some unlucky and misguided people who say that they cannot abide the dialogue form, thus shutting themselves out from some of the most delightful things in literature— Plato, Lucian, the. Essay of Dramatick Poesy, Fontenelle, Berkeley, Landor, and Mr. Lowes Dickinson ; and they will miss another delight in not being able to read Mr. Manning. Not that Scenes and Portraits (first published in 1909) is written in the strict dialogue form ; it is on the Platonic rather than the Berkeleian model. Nor are they dialogues so much as conversations, a distinction which Landor made. " In conversation, as in the country, variety is pleasant and expected. We look from the ground before us into the remoter and much of more than one quality lies between. In con- versation we ought not to be didactic, in dialogue we may be." In this form of essay we are allowed to do more thinking for ourselves than we are in the monologue ; we do not cower before opinions hurled at us, nor feel that we are being forced or persuaded into a trap. The author permits us to watch him thinking round a question ; he does not give us his product ready-made ; and he convinces us of his intelligence by showing us both sides of a matter ; for a fool, as Halifax remarked, is one " that hath no dialogue within himself." Mr. Manning is not didactic ; he gives us two points of view, and enables us to see the ground between. Moreover, the method is peculiarly suited to what he has to say, for he is concerned with attitudes towards life which seem incompatible with each other. Thus he is able to bring aspects together in a way which would be difficult in a narrative, and impossible in the direct essay.

Mr. Manning himself appears to be an Epicurean Roman Catholic ; and if this may seem to be trying to get the best of both worlds, the answer is that Mr. Manning in reality gets little of either, since he is that very agreeable thing, a happy sceptic. This, I trust, is not to injure him in these days of discreet " enthusiasm." His affinities are—and here again are strange bedfellows—Pater and Anatole France, and he has admitted to Loisy. But he writes like none of these, and here his affinity is the glorious one of Landor : like Landor he can use what in other writers would be an affectation; without its seeming to be such. Thus, he writes "hath" for "has" where it makes for euphony and distinction, as before another sibilant. In the matter of form he is finished and rounded, like M. Paul Valsery : he does not leave us at the end of a dialogue with the last words echoing on the empty air. We get a complete "scene" as well as a "portrait," set about a dis- cussion or a tale ; and as we finish a conversation we are satis- fied, neither left hungry, nor given more than we can digest.

All the chapters are good : they carry us along, not only by the interest we take in the people and their ideas, but also by their style ; for Mr. Manning,is that increasingly rare thing, a conscious stylist with a recognizable manner. When Colonel T. E. Lawrence read the anonymous manuscript of Her Privates We, he declared that only one man could have written the book, and that was the author of Scenes and Portraits : he was right. But the earlier book is the better one, and it is somewhat ironical that this reprint should be advertised as by the author-of Her Privates We, rather than that the war book should have been baited with the title of this 'one. It appears that though one subject may not be better than another for the purposes of art, one is distinctly better for purposes of commerce. In literature even good wine needs a bush.

The conversations range from Adamite times almost to our own, for the last is between Leo XIII and Henan (himself no mean writer of dialogues), who meet in the Paradise of the Disillusioned it is the only Dialogue of the Dead. In the first, the least perfect in form, we meet a charming philosopher, the Bernard Shaw of his day, but without Mr. Shaw's facile optimism. The next is a conversation In the House of Euripides, where we hear Socrates bring out the views of Protagoras, who believes in God much as the modern scientists do :

" We are not concerned with the existence of the gods, but with our knowledge of their existence. It would bo equally foolish for us to deny, as to affirm, their existence. There may be a supreme reason acting on the world, whose ends we cannot understand, whose actions we cannot comprehend. It may be, that the world exists for some other purpose than the realization of our dreams. Perhaps we are only the superfluities, the parings of ivory, the winnowed husks from the threshing, by-products in the creation of something more perfect ; and perhaps the confused and obscure sense of the ideal, which works in us, and is at once our desire and our despair. is a dim consciousness of the growth of this beauty, a desire and despair of being one with it.

"The "Friend Of Paul" is an enchanting story of an old Roman Epicurean, who meets Paul of Tarsus at Corinth ; he is drawn by the power of the man, but does not feel that his philosophy can add anything to what he has already got ; the new ideas permeate every philosophy, and Paul's is only another version of them. In "The Jesters of the Lord" we meet St. Francis of Assisi, and assist at an interview with the Pope, where the sweetness of the would-be monk over-persuades the watchful administrator. At San Casciano we listen to Thomas Cromwell and Machiavelli saying to each other many things which are applicable at the present day ; but that is the test of all good dialogues between people who lived long ago, a test which these survive triumphantly, to be as full of meaning for the present as they pretend to have been significant in the past. But this dialogue is not only political, for the friends discuss Virgil and Dante as well as Luther, and the government of princes. All the dialogues bring us into the presence of living men, and take us back to their times which seem so like our own ; for all of them are concerned with something new coming into the world, at epochs, which like ours, seem ready

for some great change, when men feel that well an old age is out, and time to begin a new.

I have not thoroughly collated this edition with the earlier one. Some changes have been made, and much for the better, as at the end of the Protagoras dialogue. The Preface has gone, to be replaced by an epilogue, Apologia Dei, which expresses much the same idea of dualism as the Preface did. Thus God addresses Satan :

" You are the angel of division, dividing everything into a pair of opposites . . . . You behold that which is eternal r Eternity is empty of events') and you behold, also, time, in which are being, met movement, and change, birth and dissolution, these being us: ii•ets of time ; and time is but a mods of consciousness, though for inen it is the only mode."

But I would not leave the impression that these conversations are entirely philosophic ; they deal also with the mind clogged by its agreeable frame of flesh : and if they are philosophic, they are so in the only form which is palatable to one reader at least. If there are some who cannot read dialogues at all, there are others for whom philosophy can be read only in dialogue : and for these Mr. Manning has provided a volinne whiCh will be read and read again with very great pleasure.