Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Peril to Letters

Beauty and the Machine Age

THE VERY RAPID CHANGE through which Western Europe is passing leads me to ask a question, the answer to which I conceive to be of moment to my generation.

Is it not possible that literature—the highest of merely human arts—will perish? We have inherited it from the past (including under that term times still within living memory). Till lately we thought it secure; we took it for granted. Is it now so sure?

The whole scheme of our lives is passing through a material revolution which (though each reacts on the other) is not the cause but the effect of a moral one. But people have hardly as yet appreciated the magnitude of the change.

Nearly all our finest matter in the way of letters has been produced under conditions of sufficient isolation in communion with the processes of nature and under conditions of sufficient ‘elbow room’ in time. One might draw up a category at random of a dozen situations or a hundred each of which has produced the highest verse and prose in the past: the silent contemplation of landscape, the slow journey by foot or horse, the contrast between the small city and its neighboring fields, the entry of a boat under sails into a harbor.

Take this last example, the entry of a sailing boat into the harbor. There is, in the diversity of experience, in its majesty of movement as a rule, or again in its rarer occasions of peril and stress, but especially in its consonance with the nonmechanical, not man-made forces around the boat, a particular quality which you will never find under conditions always similar and perpetually repeated precisely because they are mechanical; which you will never find in movements whereof the major parts depend on mechanism.

Now, at this point (it is a digression but it is pertinent) many will answer:


‘What does it matter? If we live in a new world we will describe that new world just as our fathers described their world—which remained so much the same from the highest antiquity of civilization to but a few years ago. Our theme id infinite, just as their theme was infinite. We have, to excite our desire to produce, material as ample and as stimulating as anything they knew. There is no peril. Letters are safe. They will add to themselves a new and great chapter; that is all.’

To this objection I would answer:—
‘Description is not the point. Beauty is the point. How shall Beauty flourish in this new air?’

A writer who can only evoke reality is not a great writer. No one sustains the culture of mankind, or bequeaths it a great thing, because he merely registers an emotion or merely provokes one. A man speaking to men is great in proportion as he can call up the unseen, and clothe in definite substance, can incarnate, can render permanent our three dear old friends, the Good, the Beautiful, and the True—and especially the one in the middle. For while it is the business of the inspired to present the Good, and of philosophers to present the True, writers, like other artists, can at least support and complete the triple task by putting forth the Beautiful.

Well, how are you going to get that task accomplished under regular, exactly repeated, blind environments? How are you going to get it in the midst of a deafening metallic noise? How are you going to get it under conditions such that the processes stimulating you to description are too rapid for distillation of beauty as well as too violent, and, above all too mechanical?

In connection with this consider the tendency of all the modern social curve toward the destruction of leisure; not only of that occasional leisure which a man working, however hard, with his pen or at teaching or at any other liberal profession could always find in an older world, but of that more expanded leisure wherein flourished as in a native air the writer of every kind—the scholar, the romancer, the poet, the historian. It is not insignificant that the greatest historians have been men granted such full leisure by patronage or endowment or private fortune.

The time in which we live tends to destroy such amplitude of leisure not because, as its enemies vaguely say, it is a time of haste and fuss. To say that is to say something circular; to reaffirm instead of explaining. No, the time in which we live is tending to destroy the old conditions of amply sufficient leisure because it is chiefly concerned with the settling of that very difficult political problem, the insecurity and nervous ill ease of a nation occupied almost entirely in mechanical labor.

Mechanical labor, organized under highly centralized and very large groups of capital, whether these be privately owned or communally or co√∂peratively directed, is and ungrateful task. Men who never felt rebellious against the labor of the fields and the household are rebellious against industrial work. They are not happy, save in its absence, and they feel it unjust that certain among their fellow citizens can enjoy a leisure which they, bound to the industrial system, cannot enjoy. That sense of injustice it is imperative that we should remedy or the industrial machine will stop working. We are attempting to remedy it. But in doing so we are destroying the ‘social atmosphere’ of leisure. For this feeling of injustice is not so strongly felt against the very few and very large fortunes—moderate, but  sufficient  to secure leisure. Now, it was precisely this large body of moderate and secure fortunes which gave society as a whole its atmosphere of leisure. The tendency of the modern industrial system to enregiment the workers into a mechanical life for the advantage of comparatively few and very wealthy men does not  menace an unstable future.

But what is unstable and is menaced, and what does seem to have little chance of survival, is the old, widely spread leisure of that cultivated middle class which gave us most of our verse and nearly all the best of our prose, and, what is essential to both, a certain social medium, present throughout the state, in which great verse and high prose can not only have their being, but can also be judged by a sound critical sense.

Note how to-day, when men ask, in some popular competition or other, who is the greatest writer in their scale, they reply—ninety-none out of a hundred of them—with the name of some one who is producing fiction which sells on an enormous scale to a class knowing little or nothing of true leisure. Some few of these Best Sellers are excellent writers; some mediocre in their art, most quite negligible. Under the old and true tests, literature was sifted through the appreciation of a leisured class large enough to judge securely and sufficiently widespread to give its tone to the commonwealth. That organic function in the state—the critical faculty which created fame and handed down the corpus of letters to posterity—is disappearing. Perhaps it is already lost.

Now, let it be granted that this is not an evil. Let it be granted that an ignorance of, and contempt for, beauty—as for truth and for good—can do not great harm to the commonwealth. Personally, I think this modern claim a contradiction in terms; but no matter; let us for argument’s sake admit that the loss of our old sense of loveliness is an advance. There still remains the really interesting historical point, whether we are not racing toward a period in which there will be a breach of continuity with the past. We may be on the edge of such a gulf far deeper, and with an effect more drastic, than the gulf of the early Dark Ages.

It has been very well said that no period tells, with regard to itself, what posterity will want to know. That is three-quarters of the difficulty in writing history. For instance, we, when we read of the fourth or fifth centuries, are interested in race and language. But the people of the time were interested in theology, and give us most meager and contradictory accounts of language and race. Or again, when we write of the seventeenth century, and of the great social and religious changes therein, we are interested in numbers. The people of the time only occasionally referred to numbers, and that in the roughest manner and with no statistical concern in their minds. They were occupied in the consideration of powerful persons and how such would act, and in the conflict of principles. They were not much bothered by majorities. And when we try to find out how the numbers stood we are baffled.

Well, the converse is true. Not only does the past not tell us what we want to know about it, but men lose interest in great patches of the past. They get completely out of touch with it. Hitherto this only happened for comparatively brief periods, as, for instance, the eclipse of feeling for the Gothic between the mid-sixteenth century and the very end of the eighteenth century. Does it not look as though we were about to enter a world in which men would first of all cease to understand, and soon after cease to take interest in, the emotions proceeding from leisure, the emotions proceeding from a life in consonance with nonmechanical and natural processes?  Does it not look as though, after a certain amount of such indifference, we should lose all touch with, not some period of our past, but all our past? It is one of the many things which alarm me in a contemplation of the world into which I have survived.

…And that new Peril through Industrialism is symbolized by a new, inhuman noise.

I sat but a few weeks ago in an English garden of such beauty as only English gardens in South England still know. It was a deep summer evening in the late August of last year. The place was in the very depth of Hampshire field and wood, remote from any town or even village. It stood near a hamlet of a few roofs and the downs were about it. As I watched the divine bronze of the western sky drooping slowly to silence and the repose, a loud-speaker, some hundred yards away, more powerful than a company of men, bawled through its gigantic snout a Yankee nigger song of (to me, at least) a very novel barbarity. Even as this noise appalled the air there approached along the little English lane under the tall elm trees a noise increasingly in volume abominably. It recalled a machine gun, or, more closely, a riveting machine. It passed in a shattering assault of violence and hurled itself away. It was a motor bicycle; and there are a score of them within two miles of that secluded Eden, all in use perpetually.

Such murder is now everywhere admitted and received. It invades every remote acre and has taken root in the ancient solitudes. How, then, shall letters hold their own?

~Hilaire Belloc: In the New Statesman, London Independent Weekly. Republished in Littell's The Living Age, Jan. 15, 1930.

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