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My Sovereignty

自由的精神就是对自己是否正确不是很有把握的精神。——哈耶克

 
 
 

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‘The Contemporary Novel’: an essay by T. S. ELIOT  

2015-08-18 21:26:21|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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We hope you enjoy this piece from the TLS, which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. Also in this week’s issue: “Tom” Eliot’s salad days; excitable Virginia Woolf; Mary Butts at the heart of trans-Channel modernism; what have the French done for London? – and much more.

The original English typescript of T. S. Eliot’s “The Contemporary Novel”, located in the Houghton Library, Harvard, was translated into French as “Le roman anglais contemporain” for the Nouvelle revue fran?aise of May 1, 1927. Eliot took up the invitation to write this “chronicle” early in 1926. After it appeared, he wrote to Edmund Wilson on June 3 to say that he could have the article for the New Republic, promising to send him a copy of the English text; however, on August 3 he had to inform Wilson that he had “sent the only copy of the English text to my mother. I have written to ask her to forward it to you if she has read it, but as she has been ill you may not receive it very promptly”. The copy was not sent; it remained in his mother’s collection and unpublished in English until now. It will appear in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The critical edition; Volume Three – Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, edited by Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli and Ronald Schuchard. This will be published in September on the Project Muse website by Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber, followed in December by Volume Four – English Lion, 1930–1933, edited by Jason Harding and Schuchard, with sequential pairs of the eight-volume edition appearing annually and available by subscription. R.S.

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In his little book on Nathaniel Hawthorne, published many years ago, Henry James has the following significant sentences:

“The charm [of Hawthorne’s slighter pieces of fiction] is that they are glimpses of a great field, of the whole deep mystery of man’s soul and conscience. They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it.”

The interest of this passage lies in its double application: it is true of Hawthorne, it is as true or truer of James himself. “They are moral, and their interest is moral”; this is the truth about all of James’s long series of novels and stories; a series of novels and stories which fell, accordingly, exactly upon the generations least qualified to appreciate the “moral interest”. Note the term “deeper psychology”. James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.

It is in trying to find some principle of unity among the bewildering diversity of forms and contents of the contemporary novel in England and America, that I am led back to Henry James. The conclusion is certainly not a cheerful one; for I can find unity – or rather, unanimity – only in the fact that they all lack what James seems to me so preeminently to possess: the “moral preoccupation”. And as I believe that this “moral preoccupation” is more and more asserting itself in the minds of those who think and feel, I am forced to the somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times. The production of novels in England at the present time is, it is true, vast; I have only read a few; but I think that the names I can cite are amongst the most highly considered.

I am aware too that in my opinion of Henry James I come into conflict with so distinguished an authority as M. Abel Chevalley.1 Were M. Chevalley alone in his opinion, I should consider it great temerity to disagree with him. Not only is M. Chevalley as thoroughly documented as any English critic; but a foreign critic with so much knowledge of the language and literature, and with the acumen and judgement which M. Chevalley displays elsewhere, is quite likely to have perceptions, and a line of reasoning starting from a new angle of vision, which will render him decidedly formidable. But in this case M. Chevalley’s opinion happens to be, in general, the opinion of that of most English and American critics of Henry James; so that he raises no objection for which I am unprepared.

It would be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose. It would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud. All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.

We will take four examples of very different types and orders of value: D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett and Aldous Huxley. Mr. Lawrence, it would seem, is serious if anybody is, is intently occupied with the most “fundamental” problems. No one, at any rate, would seem to have probed deeper into the problem of sex – the one problem which our contemporaries unanimously agree to be serious. No line of humour, mirth or flippancy ever invades Mr. Lawrence’s work; no distractions of politics, theology or art [are] allowed to entertain us. In the series of splendid and extremely ill-written novels – each one hurled from the press before we have finished reading the last – nothing relieves the monotony of the “dark passions” which make his Males and Females rend themselves and each other; nothing sustains us except the convincing sincerity of the author. Mr. Lawrence is a demoniac, a natural and unsophisticated demoniac with a gospel. When his characters make love – or perform Mr. Lawrence’s equivalent for love-making – and they do nothing else – they not only lose all the amenities, refinements and graces which many centuries have built up in order to make love-making tolerable; they seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm. This search for an explanation of the civilized by the primitive, of the advanced by the retrograde, of the surface by the “depths” is a modern phenomenon. (I am assuming that Mr. Lawrence’s studies are correct, and not merely a projection of Mr. Lawrence’s own peculiar form of self-consciousness.) But it remains questionable whether the order of genesis, either psychological or biological, is necessarily, for the civilized man, the order of truth. Mr. Lawrence, it is true, has neither faith nor interest in the civilized man, you do not have him there; he has proceeded many paces beyond Rousseau. But even if one is not antagonized by the appalling monotony of Mr. Lawrence’s theme, under all its splendid variations, one still turns away with the judgement: “this is not my world, either as it is, or as I should wish it to be”.

Indeed, from the point of view which I have indicated, Mr. Lawrence’s series of novels mark, from the early (and I think the best) Sons and Lovers, a progressive degeneration in humanity. This degeneration is masked, and to some extent relieved, by Mr. Lawrence’s extraordinary gifts of sensibility. Mr. Lawrence has a descriptive genius second to no writer living; he can reproduce for you not only the sound, the colour and form, the light and shade, the smell, but all the finer thrills of sensation. What is more, into detached and unrelated feelings, in themselves and so far as they go feelings of importance, he has often the most amazing insight. In Aaron’s Rod there is a passage in which an Italian marquis explains the difficulty of his relations with his wife.2 You hear the marquis speaking English perfectly, but with a slightly foreign intonation; you follow every rise and fall; it is a living voice. And the situation he describes is one which might occur to anybody, not necessarily a very complex or very highly cultivated person, but which has never been set forth with such accuracy or completeness before. It is revealed. And yet, when you read on, you feel that Mr. Lawrence has not grasped the meaning, that indeed its meaning, whatever it might mean for us, is meaningless for Mr. Lawrence. And this is one of the directions in which psychology – not psychology for the psychologists, for that is a science with the right to go where it likes, but psychology in its popular inferences – may have misled the novelist: in suggesting that momentary or partial experience is the standard of reality, that intensity is the only criterion.

Mrs. Woolf is a very different type from Mr. Lawrence. She is not only civilized but prefers civilization to barbarism; and she writes with great care, always extremely well and in one at least of the great traditions of English prose, and sometimes with astonishing beauty. She also has a remarkable descriptive gift (witness two short pieces, “Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall”), a gift which is very much under her control.3 She does not like Mr. Lawrence abandon herself to the ecstasy of one moment of perception; her observation is employed continuously and involves an immense and unremitting toil of arrangement; illuminating not by flashes but by a continuous mild and steady light. Instead of seeking the primitive, she seeks rather the civilized, the highly civilized, only with something left out. And this something is deliberately left out, by what may be called a moral effort of will; and being left out it is in a sense, a forlorn sense, present. Of all contemporary authors, Mrs. Woolf reminds me most of Joseph Conrad. For if you expunge from Conrad’s book the Strong Man – the isolated man battling against the forces of nature, or the forces of the jungle – and this Isolated European of Conrad’s tales is a diminished relic of the moral issue, the “deeper psychology” of Shakespeare or Racine – you have the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s novels. If the strong man is a loss – and I am not sure that he is – then Mrs. Woolf at least deserves credit for having performed at Kew and at seaside watering places what Conrad performed in the tropics and south seas.

But Mrs. Woolf, if she does not construct life like Mr. Lawrence out of the detached, constructs it out of the connected: for it is in a sense a construction, though not a structure. And in this way she also, by being a psychologist, is restricted to something near the surface. To make such a judgement implies, of course, a whole theory; for it could not be said that her work, or Mr. Lawrence’s either for that matter, is in the common sense “superficial”. You may say that it is more profound. But in that case you also must have your theory.

Mrs. Woolf’s work is what Mr. Lawrence’s could never be, the perfection of a type; it is the most faithful representative of the contemporary novel; representative, though there is nothing quite like it; perhaps more representative than the work of Mr. Joyce. To follow a new line a novelist must have not only great gifts but great independence. You cannot simply “restore” the “moral interest”; the decayed strong man of Conrad has already become a sentimental relic. You must rediscover it, as something new. Mr. Aldous Huxley, who is perhaps the sort of writer who must produce thirty bad novels before he arrives at the good one, has a certain natural, if undeveloped talent for seriousness. Unfortunately, this talent is accompanied, and oppressed, by a talent for rapid assimilation of the unessential, and a gift for chic. Now a gift for chic, combined with a craving for seriousness, is always likely to produce that dreadful monster, a chic religiosity. This is what is to be feared for Mr. Huxley. In his last long novel, Those Barren Leaves, some mystical or ascetic impulse seemed to detach itself for a moment from the composition of adolescent self-analysis and smart caricature, though only as a lyric cry of a hungry heart.4 It had not become definite enough to inform the characters and the atmosphere in which they lived. Mr. Huxley is at least dissatisfied with himself and the society which, in a recent short story, “The Monocle”, he so accurately and desolately photographed.5 But Mr. Huxley, with a powerful strain of sentimentality in his nature, might still collapse into an amusingly modern variant of René or Werther.

Mr. Huxley is tormented; Mr. David Garnett, a far more accomplished writer, is secure. Mr. Garnett is one of the most interesting examples of psychologism. His intention, prima facie, is to revive the simple and direct narrative in the “tale of wonder”. He is said to admire Defoe, whose style he sometimes adopts with astonishing virtuosity. There is no prose writer of the day who displays more pure technical skill in “writing”. But if we examine his two first tales, Lady into Fox and A Man in the Zoo, with a little care, we find the inspiration to be wholly unlike that of Defoe. The “simple narrative” is a fa?ade; the two tales are post-Balzac, and exactly as much post-Balzac as the time between the dates of birth of Balzac and Mr. Garnett. For the theme is that of “Une Passion dans le Désert”: the abnormal, or at any rate peculiar relations possible between man and beast. To these possibilities Mr. Garnett has a very rare and exquisite sensibility. Only, while Balzac gives this relation, in his story, a real moral significance – the story is a miracle of humanization – Mr. Garnett withdraws it: the theme is reversed, the human is assimilated, with every trick of ingenuity, to the beast.6 And accordingly Balzac’s story is dramatic, and Mr. Garnett’s is not. Now the structure of Henry James’s books is dramatic. Conrad’s, in spite of some appearances, are not dramatic. And the contemporary novel is not dramatic.

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1. Abel Chevalley (1868–1934) was a French critic and linguist whose Le Roman anglais de notre temps (1921; The Modern English Novel, 1925) includes a chapter on “Henry James et le roman psychologique”. When he accepted Jean Paulhan’s invitation to write his piece for the NRF, Eliot requested a copy of the book, stating that he did not want to write about the subject without taking Chevalley’s views into account.

2. Eliot also discussed Aaron’s Rod (1922) in his “London Letter” in the Dial for August 1922 and in “Contemporary English Prose” (1923).

3. E. M. Forster reviewed these “two little – stories, sketches, what is one to call them?” – in Eliot’s journal, the Criterion, of April 1926. Kew Gardens was first published in 1919. Eliot himself probably wrote the unsigned short notice of a new edition in the Criterion of January 1928: “. . . this, which is certainly one of the most lovely of her short pieces, and perhaps the best introduction to her work as a whole, has been out of print for some years (we guard jealously one copy of the first edition) . . .”.

4. Those Barren Leaves (1925) had been reviewed in the Criterion of April 1925 by Conrad Aiken, who admired the writer’s “technical virtuosity” but wished he would “give up these emancipated house-parties and exquisite boudoirs”. Eliot wrote to thank him for his “brilliant, eminently just” review.

5. Eliot had published “The Monocle” in the Criterion of January 1926.

6. Edmund Wilson, who had read the French version of this essay and hoped to publish it in English, wrote to Eliot that he was surprised by his remarks about Lady into Fox (1922), thinking that “it was simply the story of a lively and fickle girl married to a very steady and sober-minded man, to whom she is unfaithful. I thought the animal part was merely a metaphor for his point of view about her”. In his reply Eliot wrote, “whatever Garnett thinks he meant I am sure that this curious approximation of the human and animal is a real inspiration. The best part of A Man in the Zoo is the account of the affection of the man for his tiger cat; his feeling towards the lady is tame and conventional but his feeling for the cat is really inspired”. A Man in the Zoo was reviewed in the Criterion of July 1924 by “F. M.” (Vivien Eliot): “Having imagined a fantastical premiss, that of a man electing to be exhibited in a cage in the Zoological Gardens . . . Mr Garnett makes the relationship beween a man and an animal natural and just, and makes the animal much more desirable and delicate a companion than, for instance, the negro who . . . comes to occupy the next cage”. 

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