Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Words and Men. — Part 5 (1934)

From the February 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

The romantic revulsion against industrial and commercial society had also a political aspect. Wordsworth expressed sympathy for the Jacobins and wrote in favour of the theories of the French Revolution, at least for a while; Byron was always ready to defend the underdog and in fact died fighting for the independence of Greece; Shelley never tired of attacking despotic and repressive politicians like Castlereagh. In France Lamartine was a prominent Reformist speaker and delivered fervently humanitarian orations; Victor Hugo attacked oppressive measures and red-tape officialdom, and was ultimately exiled for his denunciations of Napoleon III. These men were none the less Romantics; they were imbued with lofty and generous feelings, but those feelings were, on the whole, an avoidance of thought, not a means to it.

The Victorian age of English literature (about 1840-1880) marked the era of definite bourgeois ascendency. Industrial capitalism had found its feet and was at last firmly enthroned. The horrors of the Industrial Revolution were fading, and the god of Things as They Are could settle complacently on his throne, conscious that after all everything was for the best in the best of worlds.

This facile optimism pervades all Dickens' work, notwithstanding his exposure of bad conditions and appeals for reform. Though his characters are diverting and his novels full of entertaining scenes, he remains, from a social point of view, a charity-monger. Ruskin, who couched his hatred of ugliness and of unbridled competition in finely resonant prose, also trusted to charity or to philanthropic legal enactment for “the betterment of mankind." In poetry the great exponent of Victorian complacency was Tennyson, “the Lullaby Laureate"; although at times he could write melodious verse, he was also responsible for some of the most jingoistic ballads in the language. Browning also was in the main satisfied with the existing order, but he has far more scope and virility than Tennyson. The Jeremiah of the new order was Carlyle, an old-fashioned Tory soured by the changes of the Industrial Revolution. Thackeray, fascinated by social success but disillusioned with regard to human beings, produced vivid descriptions of town society tinged with satire.

In France, as capitalism developed, the pendulum swung from romanticism to the most fervent realism. Balzac, in the many volumes of his "Human Comedy" (1829-1850), attempted a vast canvas portraying every nook and cranny of contemporary bourgeois life. Flaubert sprang into instant fame in 1857 with his “Madame Bovary," one of the finest reproductions of small-town inanities, petty-bourgeois aspirations, and feminine neuroses ever written in novel form. In poetry Leconte de Lisle led the impersonal school which carried anti-romanticism to its highest peak with flawless descriptions of animals or scenery, sedulously avoiding any personal or individual reference. This was to a large extent an automatic reaction from the exuberances of Hugo and Lamartine; it had its roots in the increasing pace of production and sub-division of labour which were rapidly sapping the individuality of the mass of mankind.

Personal poetry, however, soon reappeared in the morbidly introspective, quiveringly sensitive, neurotically complex works of Baudelaire. “Flowers of Evil" appeared in the same year as “Madame Bovary," and caused an even greater scandal. The book is a perfect illustration of the emotional chaos and intellectual agony that ensue when an acutely sensitive and highly intelligent man finds himself unable either to conform to, escape from, or even comprehend a society which thwarts and dazzles him by turns.

Victorian smugness was followed by a colourful attempt to counteract the “filth of civilisation" by the pre-Raphaelite movement; there was one poet among them—Swinburne. He is chiefly noteworthy for his unrestrained abuse of the Church and his glorification of Garibaldi. Thus once more the irony of history turns things upside down: the hatred of developed capitalism takes the form of supporting those nationalist movements which are prerequisites to capitalist development.

Apart from attacks on capitalism in general, a swing away from conservatism made itself felt in Meredith—writer of novels, many of which pay little heed to social problems but yet do not take even high society circles over-seriously—and in Hardy, whose grimly realistic description pairs oddly with his mystical, brooding fatalism. Hardy attacked conservatism on the field of morals, and fled from the problems and squalor of industrialism to those of a well-nigh extinct peasantry.

One of the greatest enemies of capitalism in English literature was William Morris; although, perhaps, it is not his literary work that chiefly commands respect, it is important in that it bears throughout the imprint of his passionate detestation of all things capitalist and his unshakable conviction that the mass of men had in the past known happiness and would know it again, but to immeasurably fuller extent, under Socialism. Morris's influence in literature has been considerable, but not always fortunate. His Arts and Crafts movement, virile in his own hands, was emasculated when dissociated from an understanding of history and society.

Towards the end of the century the short story became popular in France with de Maupassant’s vital cameos of petty bourgeois society. Many of them are spicy, yet almost insipid. There is a hollowness about them as there is about the drawing-room life with which they deal. de Maupassant’s technique has never been bettered: he is a byword for economy of style—“everything that is necessary and nothing that is not.” At the same period Zola thrust the working-class into literature. Although he is often called a realist, for careful accuracy of description and vivid characterisation Zola ranks far below Flaubert and Balzac; he surpasses them, however, in his social vision, seeing society as a whole rather than in a series of pigeon-holes. He knew there was a class-war, and ranged himself with the exploited. “Germinal” and “Earth,” his best novels, deal with the aspirations and struggles of the miners and farm labourers respectively. Emotional about them he may be, even sentimental, but here is no charity-monger, nor a romantic flying to a Utopian past.

One of the greatest literary figures of this age, whether in France or England, was that delightful satirist, Anatole France. Scholarly, but never pedantic; restrained, but always pregnant with meaning; passionate without heat or violence, his polished sentences flow irresistibly over the whole field of human endeavour and submerge it in unquenchable irony. Ultimately his outlook is defeatist: he conceives man's stupidity to be ineradicable; but his delicate analysis of social movements, of historical incidents and of individual psychology, makes him rich and delightful reading for all critics of modern society. He has the venom of a Swift, the malice of a Voltaire, the delicacy of a Jane Austen, tempered by the experience of history and given enormous range by the complexity of modern life. “Penguin Island,” his masterpiece, was undertaken in order to “debunk” the Dreyfus case, but developed into a complete parody of French history. Its sly allusions, illuminating anecdotes and subtly ironical comments crowd too thickly upon the pages to be fully savoured at a first or even second reading. 

We have now considered English and French literature from the tenth century to the close of the nineteenth. Later and contemporary works will not be dealt with here. This is not a detailed history but a survey of tendencies exemplified by typical authors. Many figures of great interest must be excluded, for reasons of space. Moreover, in order to make known authors who are often passed over in spite of their significance, relative prominence has been given to men of earlier periods, as compared with recent writers with whom most readers are familiar.

Literature is essentially an outcome of human personalities. Personality itself is the action and reaction between a human physiology and its social environment—complexity reacting on complexity. Hence literature has room for an infinity of gradations and modifications. When we state that literature reflects the movements in society to which its economic basis, the mode of production, gives rise, we do not mean that they are reflected with the precision of a mirror, but rather as in the ruffled surface of a pond: the reflections may be shimmering and irregular in outline, but their main substance is unmistakable.
Stella Stewart


No comments: