you will remember, was in continuation of our conversation
on decadence, when Socrates had diverted me into an
admission that madness, idiocy and debauchery were the
three diseases of the mind, and that each found its
counterpart in art. He had already given me some instances
of what he meant by a tendency to madness in letters;
and when I had asked him if there were any examples
of idiocy as well, he had replied that they are too
numerous to mention.)
he said, "you must not be frightened by the word
idiocy; after all, it is only the name for one sort
of exaggeration in our human make-up. Remember what
you said just now, that idiocy always shows an excess
of the emotional and physical qualities, as compared
with the mental. When you ask me, for instance, of the
idiotic in literature, and I tell you they are over-abundant,
you seem surprised. Perhaps I had better ask you what
great writer of our own day seems to you most sane and
should think," said I, "that Tennyson might
be taken as a good example of the poet, sane in body
and in mind and full of emotion, too."
said he. "Certainly that poet cannot be said to
lack emotion; and his great popularity proves that he
was not detached from our practical world, the world
of fact and reality. He is never, like Blake, orphic
and scarcely intelligible. And yet you are not to think
of him, either, as merely a popular poet. One who could
write the 'Morte D'Arthur,' and 'In Memoriam,' and the
splendid ballad 'The Revenge,' and those faultless lines
to Virgil, and that lyric. 'Crossing the Bar,' must
find his proper place surely among the great English
poets, beside Burns and Gray and Keats and Wordsworth.
But Tennyson did other things as well. You doubtless
recall the May Queen.
must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear?
how would you characterize that poem?"
should say it was sentimental. Surely sentiment is a
very good thing in any art!"
it is sentimental, as you say. And the sentimental quality
is exactly the one I wish to emphasize. It is also a
poem of good finish. It is not lacking in beauty of
form; it is not removed, either, from the sphere of
our human interest. You could not say that it is the
least visionary. You would never dream of saying that
it is the product of poetic madness. Indeed, you would
never imagine that the author had an hour of anything
approaching madness in his life."
course not," I broke in. "Tennyson was a sane,
wholesome Englishman; he was a type of man far too rare
in these days."
said Socrates, "he was a sane, wholesome Englishman,
He was the laureate of sane, wholesome Englishmen. But
I want you to observe that it takes something besides
sanity and wholesomeness to make art of the very first
order, to make a poem of the very first order. It takes
thought. You yourself have told me that you prefer to
hold (for our present purposes) to that threefold division
of man's endowments, into the physical, the emotional
or spiritual, and the mental.
if you will read that poem of Tennyson's, 'The May Queen,'
carefully and coolly, I am inclined to think that you
will admit it is lacking in mental ability, lacking
in thought. It does not contain any new thought. The
thought is commonplace and out-worn. The poet has injured
his work with an excess of emotion and sensuous beauty,
so that it is an ill-balanced piece of art. It is very
fine as an expression of sentiment, pure and simple,
if you will: but when one asks of it, is it a great
poem, the answer must be no. It is not great because
there is one side of man's activity, the mental side,
wholly unrepresented in it. Now in real life, to abound
in emotional and sensuous traits, and to be lacking
at the same time in mental qualifications, is to exhibit
the taint of idiocy. Therefore I should say that 'The
May Queen' was a fair sample of the idiotic in modern
English literature. How prevalent one fault is I need
hardly point out to you. Do not think I detract from
Tennyson's greatness. The world must have its sentimental
poetry; and Tennyson did other things to give him a
permanent regard among critics and poets themselves.
I am only concerned in showing you the tendency of his
faults, the tendency in art of which he affords examples.
'The May Queen,' as you remark is a poem of sentiment,
and has its value as such. It is one of his early poems,
and youth is the time for sentiment. But turn over to
his poem on 'The Fleet,' beginning
you, if you shall fail to understand
What England is, and what her all in all,'
is addressed to Parliament, and it concludes:
you, that have the ordering of her fleet,
If you should only compass her
When all men starve, the wild mob's million feet
Will kick you from you place,
then too late, too late.
that lyric," continued Socrates, "was not
the work of a man past his prime. It appears in the
same volume with the lines to Virgil and the 'Locksley
Hall Sixty Years After.' His 'Crossing the Bar' and
'Vastness' were still to be written. Yet you will note
how, again, it is the element of thought that is lacking
here as in the 'May Queen.' The poet has a very practical
subject, he is not removed from the sphere of our everyday
interests and he is very much moved with his theme.
But he so signally fails to apply brains to it that
you recognized at once the futility of the production.
It is so impotent as to be ludicrous.
wild mob's million feet
Will kick you from your place.'
has the pitiful yet irresistible absurdity of the idiot.
It is not the word of a great poet; it is the utterance
of a weak mind. Only our regard for Tennyson's other
work makes us hesitate to call it a product of imbecility.
But, then, you see why may we not consider that men
will sometimes lapse into imbecility, just as they sometimes
lapse into insanity and into debauchery? I believe we
may. And if you will think of Wordsworth, you will find
in him another instance of the inherent taint of imbecility
which great minds may show. You will grant me, he is
a great poet. He is so by virtue of a small and very
excellent body of work left to us. But with him this
excellence was very rare, so rare that you may almost
say it was evidence of divine inspiration. So very occasional
were his excursions beyond the jingle of imbecility.
Recall his 'Daffodils':
wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.'
beautiful a poem that is! How it surpasses the efforts
of all ordinary men! Then recall
mercy to myself, I cried,
If Lucy should be dead!'
bathos! Yet the same man wrote them both. Would you
call him a genius with long lapses into imbecility,
or an imbecile with occasional flashes of genius? And
if you want any other instances of the idiotic in art,
you have only to take up a magazine or a new book of
verse. Are they not corroded with sentiment? Are they
not endowed with just those traits which in real life,
you would say were undoubted marks of imbecility?"
Socrates," I said, "all those books and magazines
represent the great mass of our civilization and culture.
You surely cannot mean to imply that we are a set of
imbeciles, as set of idiots together."
do not wish to imply anything," said he. "I
only wish to note that the great mass of your current
art and literature has traits which in actual life would
be taken to indicate a condition bordering upon imbecility.
And I believe, if you think of the matter carefully,
you will see that what I say is true. You must remember
that we are a branch of the English race, that race
which has such a bent for the practical, so that we
are in little danger of becoming visionary or detached
from an interest in affairs. We are in no danger of
having too many Blakes and Emersons. We are not likely
to be accused of wildness of madness as a nation. We
have too much of the German or Saxon element in us for
that. No one ever speaks of the mad Germans. It is the
Celts, the Irish, who are called mad. On the contrary,
it is the excess of the German in us that gives us that
overplus of sentiment which has been shown so continuously
in English literature. When you remember the middle
of this century, you cannot help bringing to mind the
sentimentality with which it was pervaded. It was a
maudlin age. What it inherited from Wordsworth it fostered
in Tennyson. In nearly all of Wordsworth's work you
behold poetry in its dotage; in a great deal of Tennyson's
you behold it in its nonage. Both poets in their poor
and uninspired moments are different types of feebleness
of mind. And this was the age which had Mrs. Hemans
for a poet, and many other persons of that sort. Is
it any wonder that a poet like Browning or a novelist
like Meredith should seem quite mad to such a generation?"
think then, do you, Socrates, that even at the present
hour we are beset with what you call a tendency to imbecility?
You consider that our weakness lies entirely in that
are perhaps a few hopeful exceptions," replied
he. "For instance, what do you make of a poem like
saw a man pursuing the horizon:
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this:
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never"-
"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.'
have you to say to me of such a composition."
have no idea what you may mean by symbolism," said
Socrates, "but you must note that the fault of
this sort of writing is not the fault of
wild mob's million feet
Will kick you from your place,'
mercy to myself, I cried,
If Lucy should be dead!'
does not suffer from lack of thought. The thought may
be too curious, or too obscure, or too fanciful, but
you feel it is there somewhere. At least the poem has
a semblance of thought. Its fault is rather the fault
the red slayer think he slays
Or if the slain think he is slain.'
perceive in it an impractical and visionary drift or
tendency. It is not framed to deal with the real facts
of life; it is detached from the actual; it has not
common sense. In short, it shows decided traits of insanity.
And then again, another poem by the same author:
was, before me,
Mile upon mile
Of snow, ice, burning sand.
And yet I could look beyond all this,
To a place of infinite beauty;
And I could see the loveliness of her
Who walked in the shade of the trees.
When I gazed,
All was lost
But this place of beauty and her.
When I gazed
And in my gazing, desired,
Then came again
Mile upon mile
Of snow, ice, burning sand.'
here you will observe," continued Socrates, "the
tendencies which appeared in the first poem have become
pronounced and exaggerated. A mild lunacy in the one
has become settled madness in the other. So that I should
say Mr. Crane is at least one exception to the general
prevalence of imbecility. And then, too, there is that
beautiful poet, Emily Dickinson. She too, with her decidedly
Emersonian manner of expression, her mystic and pregnant
stanzas, is a very tonic stimulus to our slothful thinking.
It seems to be that one would have to class her with
Blake and Shelley, with the seers of visions and the
dreamers of dreams, with the rapt saints and prophets,
the thoroughly inspired."
Socrates, since you have spoken of the appearance of
traits of madness and traits of imbecility in literature,
I almost shrink from asking you about traits of debauchery.
It is something which we do not like to think about.
It seems to be a tendency much more debasing than the
other two, much more within our own control, and much
more widely spread."
need not fear," Socrates replied. "For although
a tendency to debauchery may be a very general human
calamity, I do not think it is very prevalent in art.
You told me that it seemed to you debauchery implied
an excess of the physical and mental endowments in a
man, overbalancing the emotional or spiritual part in
him. So that one of the characteristics of debauchery,
or rather the chief characteristic of it, is insincerity.
The ingenuity of the mind and the activity of the senses
combining to find play and scope, without, as we say,
having much heart. And a lack of heart, a lack of zeal,
a lack of conviction, insincerity in short, is that
trait which marks a tendency towards debauchery in art.
Perhaps one might say, therefore, that the debauchee
in real life has his counterpart in the dilettante in
the realm of art. So that everything consciously imitative
or derivative, everything done by way of a jest in literature
or art, is of the nature of debauchery, anything done
for the effect merely, anything which does not embody
the honest feeling of the artist. This is a pretty large
subject, and you may look at it from a number of different
sides. But I take it, we are regarding art and poetry
from a very serious point of view, the point of view
which allows us to include all the great poets of the
world and all the great thinkers and teachers, like
Job and Dante and Omar and the rest. Well, in that case,
you will see how important a thing art is to the world,
and how really horrified the world is at anything like
dishonesty or insincerity in art. The judgment of time
shows us that men can overlook imbecility or the excess
of sentiment, that they can overlook madness or the
excess of visionary thinking, but they find it hard
to forgive debauchery or the taint of insincerity in
art. I spoke of things done by way of a jest in art.
That points you to another line of inquiry too long
to follow just now; but you will notice that humor,
which is such a salutary disinfectant against the approaches
of imbecility and madness in us, has little power to
ward off the ravages of debauchery. And have you ever
thought of this? that ridicule, which is such a powerful
weapon against the foibles and follies of mankind, is
quite inefficient against real evil? Evil, the one thing
which we would most gladly eradicate, it quite impervious
to our most deadly and mortant poison. You can only
ridicule petty foolishness; I doubt if you can ridicule
vice at all. For while madness and idiocy are beyond
the reach of ridicule, vice is of itself a sort of ridicule.
In vice, in debauchery, the mind and body have thrown
off the alliance with the heart, and gone on a career
of mockery and jeering by themselves. Evil is the irony
of the universe, the giant sarcasm of existence, the
titanic gibe in the teeth of good. It was when Eve tasted
the apple that she first saw the point of the joke.
And when she was forced to sew fig leaves together,
she did not know whether to laugh or to cry. Before
the catastrophe neither laughter nor tears had been
heard in Eden, but humor and shame were the two shadows
that followed the man and the woman out of the Garden.
Now, to speak poetically for the moment, you might say
that art, in its highest ambition, would attempt to
lead us back into the Garden, leaving our shadows behind
mean to say that when art becomes inspired, when it
gives us those tremendous utterances on which whole
nations are built and religions are founded, it leaves
humor behind it. It is a very serious thing. And it
is just in these moods, as we have seen, that art is
approaching the visionary stage, the region bordering
on insanity, where the weak go mad, sinners experience
salvation, and the strong write books of poetry which
the generations treasure as inspired. Not wonder then,
with religion in sight at one extreme of the trend of
art, we look with disfavor upon any frivolity or incongruity
or insincerity at the other. Much humor is, or course,
innocent. By innocent, I mean it does not sin against
beauty. But debauchery in itself has nearly always elements
of the absurd in it.
is not so much the product of devilish malignity as
of devilish glee and wanton whimsicality. So I should
be inclined to say that all caricature and parody are,
in themselves, of the nature of debauchery in art. And
when I recall the depth of depravity and ugliness to
which the popular idea of the comic can descend, I feel
sure of it. The hideous distortions of the human figure
and face which our comic papers present to us and which
we consider perfectly decent and respectable, are in
reality awful blasphemies against beauty. Those endless
and shocking travesties of the features of the Jew,
the negro, the Irishman, we only look upon them without
wincing because of our long education in vulgarity.
But they have the gist of their humor, whenever they
are revolting, in an essential debauchery of the soul.
However, I dare say it is wrong to speak of such things
as art at all. Yet they do have a place and a very considerable
place in the public eye."
Socrates," I said, "I asked you to help me
find out what people mean by decadence in art and literature,
and you seem to me to be hurrying me to the conclusion
that everything in those departments of human activity
is either debauched or insane or imbecile. Do you not
call that being degenerate? Are you not worse than Nordau
himself? Do you not prove too much?"
said Socrates, quite blandly, "I do not prove too
much. It is Nordau who does not prove enough. If he
had followed his logic to the end it would have brought
him face to face with all the mad poets and saints and
founders of religion in the world. He would have included
Gautama, and Confucius, and Mahomet, and Swedenborg,
and Blake, and Moses, and St. Paul, and John Wesley
in the universal ruin of his polemic. But he could not
afford to be logical. He was writing for the normal
man, the man of average intelligence. He was writing
with the temper and capacity of the man of average intelligence.
And there are few things the man of average intelligence
abhors as he does logic. The average intelligence produces
works of art which seldom show any inspiration or madness,
which seldom show any humor or tendency to debauchery;
but which do indeed show not a little sentiment or the
tendency to imbecility. To the man of average intelligence
Emerson was a harmless lunatic, and Thoreau and John
Brown pernicious fanatics-quite mad. The only logical
expounder of Mr. Nordeau's theory of degeneration is
that wonderful philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who
calls St. Paul a neurotic refined Jewish Pascal; declares
that in the whole New Testament there is only one figure
we can genuinely honor- that of Pilate; and alludes
to the founder of Christianity as an 'interesting decadent.'
That is really the logical position for the Nordans,
the people of average intelligence who talk about decadence,
to take. But then it requires more than average intelligence
to take it."