6 FEBRUARY 1948, Page 18

Decline and Fall

MR. TURNELL has already established himself as an acute and stimu- lating literary critic, and this book can only add to his reputation. He possesses in a rare degree the qualities of imagination and sensi- bility, which in his case are both stimulated and controlled by scholarship and by sharp perception of the interrelation between the arts and the historical conditions under which they are created. One is even more grateful for such qualities in a critic when they are applied to the study of a foreign literature, for it is useless to suppose that we can overcome the barriers of language and tradition without the assistance of studies like Mr. Turnell's. The classics of other nations are apt to remain fot'us towering Alps of literature, alien, aloof, inviolate, unless we have professional guides like Mr. Turnell to show us the way to their summits. I feel bound to say that I have read few books in the last year with greater pleasure and enlightenment than The Classical Moment, and if one does not always agree with Mr. Turnell, that is because he himself has placed one in a position to disagree. And after ally what a pleasure it is to read criticism with which one can rationally agree or disagree.

Mr. Turnell's theme is the three great dramatists of the French seventeenth century, which opens with the birth of Corneille in 5606

and closes with the death of Racine in i699. As the century opens with the birth of the first and closes with the death of the last of these three writers, so they record its progress, or rather its decline, which Mr. Turnell sees as a unitary and complete process. Corneille repre- sents a stable aristocratic society, confident in itself, where there is no gap between private virtue and public duty, and where the con- ception of honour unites the individual with society. Moliere's is the spirit of criticism applied to this society, still healthy yet verging towards decline ; he exposes its follies and vices while maintaining a firm faith in the possibility of being an " honest " man. Racine is the poet of disintegration, when the human heart has turned against its environment, which is felt as alien and hostile, and whose laws are felt as constrictions on the urge to self-satisfaction. Here honour has become a purely personal matter, consisting essentially of follow- ing the dictates of the heart though they necessarily lead to disaster. And it is precisely the pressure of this conflict which leads the poet into his astonishing analysis of the obsessions and furies of thwarted and frustrated passion.

But do movements and processes of this kind accomplish them- selves so precisely and methodically? The very neatness of the chronology impels one to doubt. Is it so easy to distinguish stability and decay, health and sickness, in society and literature, and do their states so accurately correspond? The old always has the new in its womb ; the new always has seeds of decay, and it is precisely because of this that, for all the subtlety, insight and sensitiveness with which Mr. Turnell develops his theme, one may feel that the theme itself is not sufficiently flexible and complex for its subject matter. • Yet it would be presumptuous to dismiss Mr. Turnell's conclusions so easily, and if one were to argue them with him I have no doubt one would succumb to his greater knowledge. The Classical Moment is to my mind one of the most stimulating and valuable works of criticism