Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Words and Men. — Part 1 (1933)

From the October 1933 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Socialist analyses literature

To analyse literature we must first discover its sources. Three things are fundamental to the subject: rhythm, speech and writing. A survey of the origins and relationship of these three is, therefore, essential if we are to understand the vigorous growth and complicated development of the many phases of literature in later ages.

Let us begin with rhythm, which is the basis of all art-forms. Rhythmic sound in particular was almost certainly the earliest form of art. The reason lies in what may be called brain and nerve economy: regular pauses, or the periodic recurrence of stress, help listeners to focus their attention, and were early used as part of the ritual at tribal feasts. Such feasts would be accompanied by regular bursts of meaningless sound, of speech and of movement; these evolved into music, poetry and dancing, the three at first occurring simultaneously as a composite art-form very closely linked with religious rituals, and later branching off into their specialised channels. It will be noted that rhythm cannot occur as an art- form until there is some social existence, some degree of communal organisation.

Secondly, we must examine speech. Every higher land-animal is able to make sounds with its lungs, throat and tongue. Man, as he became social, developed from these purely emotional animal sounds—expressions of pleasure, pain, desire or fear—a system of labour-cries; they were closely connected with the need for rhythm already mentioned. and helped men to concentrate and economise their energy. To communicate with each other at this stage men seem to have had a crude gesture language, imitating with their hands the action to be done or the things desired. (This is a spontaneous impulse and can readily be observed in monkeys and young children; adults sometimes use it to supplement their words.) Frequently, of course, the rhythmic labour-cries and the gestures of the hands would take place at the same moment; thus arose a sub-conscious association between them. When, therefore, developing society and more complicated labour introduced the problem of "talking with your hands full," men easily compromised by letting their tongues, lips and palates give a rough and ready imitation of the previous hand-gestures, at the same time calling attention to their desires by emitting sounds from the lungs and larynx. Innumerable and convincing examples of the resemblance, in a given word, between the movements of the speech-organs and the corresponding hand-gestures are to be found in all the most primitive languages (A detailed exposition of this theory of the origin of speech can be found in "Human Speech," by Sir Richard Paget.) Now, this process was not necessary—and therefore could not exist—until human society existed; and it became more and more complex in direct ratio to the amount and organisation of labour and of collective activity generally. The languages of savage tribes, for example, have a mere four or five hundred words, as compared with the hundreds of thousands in French, German or English.

Without speech there is no thought; indeed, thought may be summarised as “inward speech," although this definition must be used warily. Many people contest it because they mistake for thought certain highly complicated emotions or reflex actions; neither of these is necessarily connected in any way with speech, but abstract rational thought cannot be dissociated from it. Words are the only means of crystallising complex associations, first of facts then of ideas, and storing them away for future reference and still further association. Since, therefore, thought is dependent on speech and speech on social organisation, it is clear that the form of society and the mode of production not only condition the form taken by thought, but decide its very existence.

Our third fundamental, writing, was an offshoot of painting, which in turn began as a form of "sympathetic magic”—that is, objects or incidents were depicted out of a passionate desire that they should appear or happen. (For painting as a form of Sympathetic Magic .see “Ancient Art and Ritual" by Jane Harrison; Home University Library.) This use of painting to record desires naturally led—as speech and thought developed—to its use in recording ideas; as thoughts, keeping pace with social evolution, became more complex, systems of writing grew increasingly intricate.

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It is not possible in these articles to survey the literary history of the whole world; ancient literature is closely interlaced with religious rituals and legends, and should be dealt with under the heading “Religion" rather than here; while modern developments are so bewilderingly diverse, and offer so many fascinating by-paths and magnetic individual writers, that we are tempted at every turn not to see the wood for the trees.

Nevertheless, modern literature is more easily understood than ancient, because we have at our disposal more historical facts relative to the period. It is besides more familiar and more palatable to the modern reader. We shall, therefore, after glancing at ancient and classical literature, approach our own times as rapidly as possible. It is necessary to narrow the field of observation; we shall for that reason confine our examples almost entirely to France and England, whose respective literatures afford the most abundant proof of the influence of social and economic forces on literary as on all other history.

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Greek drama is considered one of the comer stones of European culture. Its early forms have marked religious characters, and are obviously the direct outcome of tribal thanksgiving rituals, particularly of the communal dances.

As primitive society gave place to Barbarism and later forms—coincident with the development of tools, the change from small to large-scale agriculture, and the growth of commodity-production and a system of exchange—a chieftain class emerged, and literature more and more became a glorification of “heroes." It is noticeable that in such literature there is never any hint that ordinary men may become heroes; they are born, not made. And such was indeed the state of society at that time; men remained permanently, as a matter of course, in the class into which they were born. To this period belong the Homeric legends in Greece, the Hiawatha in North America, the Kalevala in Scandinavia, and the Cuchulain and Finn cycles in Ireland—all concerned with hunting exploits or wars between tribes and petty nations, and all frequently recording almost identical incidents.

Satires originated early in song-duels (these are still to be found among some African tribes) in which two groups, each having a leader or soloist, took turns to abuse and taunt each other in the most picturesque language they could muster. Simple allegories or parables, and through them symbolism in general, sprang from magical ceremonies intended to ensure good crops or propitiate spirits.

In the palmy days of Athens, under the chattel-slavery system, the ruling-class enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and leisure. Men studied each other and contemplated the universe. Ritual drama became human tragedy with Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, while the rapid advance of scientific knowledge in physics, mathematics and astronomy brought about the development of prose-writing. Plato, Herodotus, Socrates and Democritus all testified to the advance of learning, and with it of clear, precise expression, at this period. Similarly in Rome some time later the lucid, majestic rhythms of Cicero and the incisive dryness of Caesar reflected both a high degree of knowledge and a simple but rigid economic and political system. The poetry of Rome was mainly didactic or professorial; this again was symptomatic of chattel-slavery, for the knowledge was graciously imparted by a cultured few to the less enlightened of their fellow-rulers.

In the early and relatively static period of feudalism originality was sternly discouraged. Only “aristocratic" literature was countenanced; that is, songs and ballads directly commissioned by the lords and barons from singing poets (“troubadours") who plied for hire from castle to castle and, of course, piped whatever tune their buyers fancied. The best preserved and most famous of such lays are the French “ Songs of Deeds" (Chansons de Geste) of which the best known is the Song of Roland, story of the half-mythical Emperor Charlemagne and his bodyguard of twelve peers. The skeleton of this song-story is provided by ancient legends of the sun surrounded by the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and by rituals of the great Earth-Mother cult and of ancestor-worship; but these crumbling bones are clothed in most mediaeval flesh, and the behaviour and outlook of the characters are essentially feudal, particularly in their unswerving loyalty to their lords and their blind submission to an abstract Duty.

With the twelfth century Western Europe was entering upon the later stage of feudalism; the towns were increasing in number and size, commerce was extending, and a citizen or “burgher” class, independent of and opposed to the Lords of the Manor, was growing in power and confidence year by year. At this time Italy, self-contained and relatively prosperous, was the leader of thought and culture.

The divergent interests of barons and burghers reflected themselves in literature; a struggle began between conservative lyric poetry—given up to adulation of lords and sanctification of ladies— and the satirical realism of the "fabliaux” (notably “Reynard the Fox”) which were being chanted in the towns by the growing merchant class. These burlesque ballads depicted homely town life and mocked at courts and castles; their heroes were citizens and journeymen; they turned nobles and often priests into grotesques. At the same time we notice a growing use of dialect and colloquial speech in literature, as against Latin or the stilted old-fashioned Court language.

At this period also drama, which for centuries had been entirely religious in character, began to have a secular flavour. Irreverent comic relief or worldly advice was inserted between scenes of the Passion and Mystery Plays, and there grew up the Morality plays, in which, although the subject matter was still saturated with religious allusions and aspirations, the central characters were not supernatural but human beings.

The irruption of the burgher (or “bourgeois”) class into literature is seen at its height in Italy about 1300 with Dante, in England about 1400 with Chaucer, and in France about 1450 with Villon. This sequence is exactly in line with economic development in these three countries. The three poets, however, do not present exactly identical attitudes and emotions, for they did not write at exactly identical periods in relation to their respective countries. Dante was the very embodiment of bourgeois revolt, the supreme individualist ; he came before the success of the Italian burgher class, while' they were still weak and galled by the restrictions of feudalism, and is therefore essentially gloomy. Chaucer, on the other hand, wrote when the burghers of England, having gained power, were consolidating it, and he is full of pleasant humour and cheerful philosophy. The Frenchman, Villon, most interesting of the three, can be set in neither category. Nearer the threshold of the new society than Dante, he was both more jovial and alert—for life was growing fuller and held ever more diverse interests— and sourer, more sardonic, for life’s pitfalls and restrictions were more apparent and more keenly felt. His poetry reflected, accurately and subtly, bitterly and brazenly, the prolonged battle that was taking place between the old and the new, a battle contested not only in society at large, but in individual brains, and in particular the poet's own.
Stella Stewart.

(To be continued.)

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