Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Words and Men. — Part 4 (1934)

From the January 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the old aristocracy merged into the titled bourgeoisie, literary form and substance gradually extended to comprehend more and more of the interests of the bourgeoisie. The growth of sciences was reflected in the increasing use of prose and its extreme virility and terseness. The firm establishment of individualistic society produced the novel as an accepted and popular art-form. The need of commercial society to know the happenings of its different sections and localities called into being the regular news-sheets, and we have the beginnings of journalism. Daniel Defoe, a class-conscious bourgeois, has been called the first English novelist and the first journalist, Though he slightly preceded the first regular periodicals, he was a prolific and imaginative pamphleteer and one of the first to issue graphic topical accounts of spectacular events. His Robinson Crusoe (1719), directly descended from the Elizabethan narratives of authentic voyagings, is a masterpiece of homely and convincing detail and the first outstanding landmark on the road to realism: Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens—the genealogy is plain.

Pope, who applied flawlessly classical technique to topical and even trivial subjects, represents both the culmination and the collapse of aristocratic poetry. Steele and Addison, elegantly witty essayists, supplied the popular demand for news and culture; all their Tatler and Spectator articles show clearly the steady growth of detailed realistic description, always, of course, of bourgeois households and habits. Both were recognised leaders of literature, and it is significant that both also held high political office. Johnson followed them with similar forms, but more widespread knowledge.

The master-stylist, however, of this—or perhaps of any—age is Swift, whose terse, bare, virile language clothes with forceful economy his scalding invectives on human society. He saw the deficiencies and evils of social life without in the least understanding their cause. His best-known work is Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a satirical romance which commonly fails of the appreciation it deserves; no one who delights in social criticism couched in superb language can afford to miss it. A lesser work, The Modest Proposal, is a vitriolic pamphlet which for irony has never been surpassed.

Swift’s passionate outcry against man’s claim to be a reasonable being itself demonstrates the extensive sway of the cult of “Reason” at this time. For the best examples of this cult we must turn again to France, where the forces of incipient capitalism straining at the leash of feudal institutions were producing ideas of revolt. Commercial production was dammed up; the capitalists were becoming more and more conscious of the need to attain power; and a revolutionary literature was thrown up by the political and economic aspirations of the would-be dominant class. Those embryonic theories of Liberty, Justice, Reason and Universal Science, which were proclaimed during the Renaissance, were now brought down to earth, and exemplified by reference to everyday experience. The symbol par excellence of feudal conservatism and repression being Holy Mother Church, the struggling capitalists directed much of their energies full tilt against that "infamous” institution. A weapon lay ready to their hand: the struggles of the English capitalists had also been aimed largely at Catholicism, and criticism had gone beyond Puritanism: it had produced the elements of materialism in the writings of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke.

The rebellious thinkers and writers of eighteenth century France seized upon this rudimentary materialism and used it to express the discontent with current social organisation which was then rife. The chief body of theory and discussion of this time appeared in the Encyclopaedia, but the best known single figures of the period are Voltaire and Rousseau, two men who expressed similar class aspirations with a wealth of difference. Voltaire, "as artful as a monkey, as cruel as a cat,” virulent enemy of the Church and passionate upholder of “justice” as against aristocratic class-dominance, was yet conservative and whole-heartedly despised the lower orders. “The people must not be educated,” he declared; he would have had society a ”benevolent despotism,” corresponding with his deistic idea of the universe. His snappy, sarcastic style, his apt retorts and comments have made his name a byword for witty denunciation.

The Encyclopaedists, however, offer the most comprehensive view of the intellectual ferment in France during the 50 years before the Revolution. The Encyclopaedia, 1751-1780, corresponded roughly to the now firmly established news-sheets in England. Conceived and largely executed by Diderot, it was to be a complete survey and interpretation of the whole of human knowledge. It contained full technical information, with engravings, on a wide range of subjects, but its particular value lay in its incessant propaganda for materialism and the “Rights of Man.” Locke’s Sensationalism (“There is nothing in the mind which was not previously in the senses”) and the Natural Man theory were either openly discussed and demonstrated or else skilfully woven into articles on quite alien subjects. The theory that man in himself is a kindly and reasonable creature but that he has been corrupted and warped by evil social institutions was valuable in spite of its limitations. Its supporters maintained that men are not individually responsible for their characters, and that men and their actions are formed by the circumstances in which they live; change those circumstances and men will react accordingly. So far, so good. But the theory in essence assumes a “natural man,” a state of grace or Golden Age from which man has departed; it is thus quite unhistorical and foredoomed to inconsistency and sentimentalism. Nevertheless, it was an important step towards historical understanding.

The Encyclopaedia attracted enormous attention. Many copies were confiscated; contributors and printers were imprisoned, but it continued to appear, and to captivate all thinking persons with its indomitable common sense. Diderot himself must have special notice, for he epitomises every tendency of importance in that age. He went further than Voltaire himself in religious criticism, for there is sufficient evidence to warrant the belief that he was a thorough-going atheist; he was the first to attempt “realist” or bourgeois drama, thus paving the way for Beaumarchais’ Figaro' (1775 and 1784); he was the first to write a full-length novel with a propagandist purpose; his celebrated art-criticisms, while not always sound, are always intelligent and stimulating; and from him Rousseau directly and admittedly derived his most celebrated theories. He swam perpetually on the crest of the intellectual wave, and in a flash here and there overtopped his times by almost a century; but his work is scrappy, often difficult to trace, and overlaid with that lip-service to orthodoxy which was often the only road to publication. Engels refers to his “Rameau's Nephew" (a conversation leaping from topic to topic over a wide range) as a “masterpiece of dialectic," and it is worth remarking that Rousseau's “Origins of Inequality," which Engels mentions in the same breath, was written at Diderot's suggestion and to his plan.

Rousseau adopted the idea of man’s perversion by corrupt institutions and gave it poetical, even voluptuous, expression. He became the seer and visionary of the coming order, the lion of a thousand banquets. His luscious style, his overflowing emotionalism, brought to his feet legions of admirers whom the logic and argument of the intellectuals had failed to stir. “Julie" (1761), a novel in the manner of Richardson’sPamela," enjoyed unprecedented popularity, becoming the rage of court and city immediately on publication. It is almost entirely concerned with man’s natural goodness. of heart and his susceptibility to sweet reason.

In England, meanwhile, the novel had emerged fully fledged from the hands of Richardson, who describes with loving detail the day-by-day existence of well-to-do families. Fielding, who began by parodying Richardson and ended as ardent a novel-writer as the man he jibed at, made the novel lighter, shorter, more selective. Smollett did not confine himself to the leisured class, but introduced “low life" and “robustious" humour.

Poetry now was inclining towards the romantic school. The Industrial Revolution was getting under way, and the growing complexity and sordidness of life were producing the beginnings of a reaction. A “back to Nature’’ movement—connected to some extent with Rousseauism and the Noble-Savage-Golden-Age theory—became increasingly popular; Thomson, Collins and Gray foreshadow it; Cooper, and especially Burns, give it frank and full expression. With the turn of the century the return to Nature is in full career in the writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the Romantic movement is well under way.

At the very core of Romanticism lies the desire to escape from reality; as the real world becomes grimmer and more squalid, sensitive men seek refuge in dream worlds of varying kinds. Sometimes they wish simply to return to the country life of their parents; sometimes past history, more or less remote, takes on a glamorous enchantment for them; sometimes they turn to exaggeratedly colourful painting or to eccentric clothes. The English Poetic Romantics were Byron, Shelley and Keats, all full of haunting phrases and pitiful despair; the content of their work is wholly emotional. To the Romantic, thought is a weary burden which only lands him in self-hatred.

In prose Romanticism was less extreme. The link between eighteenth and nineteenth century novels is Jane Austen, whose minute attention to apparently useless detail belongs essentially to the realists, but whose determined refusal to mention the existence of any sort of social problem, at the time of the Combination Laws, The Six Acts, and the Luddite Riots, places her emotionally with the Romantics. Chief of English Romantic novelists was Scott, whose influence was greater on the Continent than here.

After the French Revolution events moved swiftly. Economic development proceeded apace, and literature did not lag behind. As France began to catch up with England industrially, her literature showed similar tendencies to ours; her tardy beginning meant increased pace, and we find the swing from realism to romance much more hotly dismissed and carried to far more fantastic extremes in France than in England. Moreover, the promise of the “Reason" cult was not fulfilled. The new society proved no more reasonable than the old. An extremely violent reaction against classicism and philosophy set in; this linked up at once with romantic influences from England. Scott was much translated and enjoyed a great vogue in France.

History, or rather very pseudo-history, became the fashion with the picturesque and soulful dramas of Victor Hugo, such as “Hernani" and "Ruy Bias." The poetry of Lamartine is bathed in melodious tears for the rapid flight of time and the vanity of human wishes. de Musset and de Vigny have more vigour, but the one despises himself and the other hates life, both natural and social; and neither has any very practical solution to their problem of unbearable existence. In short, the French Romantics are a miserable band, broken upon the wheel of advancing capitalism without any conception of what is happening to them save that they are crushed and bleeding and do not know how to escape.
Stella Stewart.

(To be concluded.)

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