My old teacher, the classicist (and Scots Nationalist) Douglas Young, once interrupted a boring conversation about television by declaring loudly, “Speaking of Aeschylus . . . ” When one of his naive colleagues insisted, “But Douglas, no one was speaking about Aeschylus,” Young responded, “Yes, but I want to be speaking of Aeschylus.” This month, when I ought to be writing an essay on why virtually every really good American poet of the 30’s hated Franklin Roosevelt, I have decided, instead, to be speaking about Aeschylus, or rather about the moral and social significance of literature.
What is art good for, anyway? The older critics used to declare that the functions of poetry were two; entertainment and instruction. There may be other, more vital functions for all I know, but the billions of dollars we Americans spend on films, television, and popular music attest to the importance of “the arts” as entertainment and to the value we place upon even very bad art.
But entertainment is, to a very great extent, a morally and politically neutral quality. We may be entertained by a caricature of Ronald Reagan or a spoof on Jesse Jackson; some people enjoy Jane Austen, while others take their pleasure from the Marquis de Sade. The difference lies in the character and outlook of the readers, and our character and outlook are formed, to some extent, by the books and films and music that we have enjoyed.
The formation of character is a problem that lies at the center of ethics. What is the purpose to a theory of goodness, if it does not provide some account of how people actually become good? Some aspects of our character we inherit as human beings with specific ancestors, but these aptitudes are only the raw materials out of which persons are made, and while we cannot make bricks out of sand—or silk purses out of sows ears—sand can be turned into building blocks, stained glass windows, abrasive sandpaper, or cat litter.
Among the major forces that determine our character—the influences of home and church and friends, for example—I include the arts, even in their crudest and most vulgar forms. “Experience,” said Poor Richard, “keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.” But in one very important sense, there is no school but experience in which we learn the greatest lessons of life. We cannot learn how to become decent and unselfish men and women or loyal citizens by memorizing lists of rules or copying the tricks of argument taught by the ancient sophists in Athens and by the modern sophists of the philosophy departments at Harvard and Yale. We learn our moral and social lessons by doing and being done to. Speaking of Aeschylus, it is his lesson of pathei mathos, the wisdom that comes from suffering (in its broadest sense).
The heroes of tragedy do not have an easy time of it, imbibing the lessons of experience. Unfortunately, it takes us years to realize the consequences of folly and self-indulgence and decades to discover how to love our neighbors as ourselves. A man with no assistant but his own conscience might take a lifetime in learning the simplest moral truths—so circumscribed are we within the little social spheres we inhabit.
Most of us live within small social groups of a few dozen friends, colleagues, and neighbors who belong to one or two social classes. We can only fall seriously in love once or twice in our lives, and most of us are able to have at best a halfdozen children, to work at one or two professions. We lose a parent only twice. We die once in a lifetime.
In books, however, the whole world is ours. Hamlet may ask of the player, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,” but the suffering and vengeful wife of Priam has taught generation after generation something of what it is like to lose everything including your own moral balance.
A writer can pack an entire lifetime into a novel of three to four hundred pages or distill the essence of a love affair into a sonnet. If for most of us everyday life has the power of near beer, then fiction is more like Burgundy or claret, while poetry and music have the strength of cognac or Chartreuse. Perhaps a better metaphor can be drawn from perfume, since it takes thousands upon thousands of petals to produce a single drop of attar of rose. It is only in art that we can live, “breathing concentrated otto, an existence a la Watteau.”
But, someone ought to object, the writer only can live one life, and some of them write more books (as was said of Livy) than most people read. The truth is that whether a writer writes many novels, like Dickens, or a few, like Flaubert, their best work is usually compressed into three or four really good books. Wordsworth wrote thousands of pages of verse that helped to sink his reputation until Matthew Arnold culled a selection of 317 pages (octavo). At his best a good writer goes deep into the meaning of human experience, and in one lifetime he can only plumb the depths a few times without dying of asphyxiation.
I have been speaking up till now as if all literature were a dialogue between an individual writer making sense of his experience and an individual reader who sees himself reflected in the mirror that the writer has held up to nature. The situation is rarely that simple. Writers, like all of us, are creatures of convention—political conventions, social conventions, aesthetic conventions. They are swayed, as much as the next man, by the rules, platitudes, and proverbs that constitute the trial-and-error wisdom of a people. To understand the mind of a people, study its proverbs. “We count him a wise man,” says Selden, “that knows the minds and insides of men, which is done by knowing what is habitual to them. Proverbs are habitual to a Nation, being transmitted from Father to Son.”
Rustic people are fond of proverbs, as Aristotle accurately observed, and literature is never so conventional, never so proverbial as it is in its earliest, most folkish stages. Some years ago the late Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book, The Uses of Enchantment, in which he defended the educational uses of fairy tales. The tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and other European folklorists are the end result, he argued, of generation after generation of storytellers reworking and refining a story until it conveyed the essence of a human dilemma. Stepparents, for example, always pose a problem for children. Whether the real parent’s loss is due to death or divorce, it seems disloyal to accept a stranger in replacement. In early modern Europe, the high rate of women dying in childbirth made the stepmother a near universal source of anxiety for children, and it is by reading such tales as Hansel and Gretel that children were able to come to grips with their feelings. In contemporary America, irresponsibility and divorce have taken the place of death, but the problem of stepparents is as serious as it was in the 16th century. Unfortunately, we think we know better than our ancestors, and various stepparent associations have conspired to remove Hansel and Gretel from children’s schoolbooks. (More recently a group of witches has made a similar demand. What’s next, a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Bug-eyed Monsters?)
In forming the character of individuals and cultures, literature exerts a more powerful influence than the more formal rules we chant in catechism or civics classes. This is nowhere more evident than in the disparity between the official morality of modern America and the reality of a life that is all too well reflected in popular films. Today, in our schools, we attempt to impart certain values that we believe to be important to our way of life. We say that we want our children to treat others fairly, overlooking distinctions of race, sex, religion, wealth, and even physical appearance.
Looking out over America today, torn by violent animosities of race, sex, class, and creed, it would be hard to maintain that we are succeeding. In many important respects, we treat each other worse than we did in the bad old days of President Buchanan—James, that is. We have given women the right to, vote and compete in the marketplace; at the same time we men are walking out on our wives and children at an unprecedented rate, stranding large numbers of young mothers in poverty.
More ominously, the incidence of sexual assault against women,, especially on college campuses, is now so high that we treat rape more as an inconvenience than as a capital crime. The Baptist preachers who interceded on behalf of Mike Tyson should have been demanding the death penalty for his crime, not a suspended sentence. For all our public pronouncements on sexual equality and the dignity of women, ours is an age of pornography and exploitation.
We have meted out the same cruel measure of rights to our older citizens, endowing them with rights and pensions while sending them off to retirement villages like so many superannuated elephants we are glad to be rid of. Once a year schoolchildren troop into nursing homes to play grandchildren to the abandoned “seniors” who have real grandchildren somewhere. We have advocacy groups, social workers, and public-interest lawyers, all making a profit out of the misery of old age, but the bottom line is that keeping the elderly alive is costing too much, and the new slogan is “death with dignity.”
The early Greeks, who believed in no rights that could not be backed up by the sword, nonetheless revered the wisdom of old age. In the Iliad, which is the encapsulation of four centuries of folk memory, Homer portrays the warrior’s savage individualism in the starkest terms. Achilles abandons his friends to slaughter, simply because he has been deprived of his honor (in the shape of a concubine) and wishes that all the Greeks and Trojans would kill each other off, leaving the booty to himself and his friend Patroclus. When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles is not content with killing his enemy but insists upon dragging his body, day after day, around the walls of Troy. Finally Hector’s aged father, Priam, makes his way by night to the Greek camp in order to plead with Achilles for his son’s body. The old man’s method of argument is highly instructive. Does he dazzle his enemy with an array of logical arguments or appeals to natural law or citations of precedents? No, after offering the customary ransom, he says:
“Have respect for the gods, Achilles, and pity him, bringing to mind your own father. For I am far more wretched and have suffered what no mortal man has ever suffered—to reach my hand out in supplication to the face of the man who killed my child.” So he spoke and stirred up a longing in Achilles to lament his father.
The spectacle of Priam’s suffering causes Achilles to reflect upon his own father and to put himself and his own family in the position of Hector and his. Until now Achilles has been more than human in his prowess and in his rage, but through empathy he learns to be merely human, not by reasoning but by experiencing, by empathizing. We, sharing in the experience, learn the same lesson. This, perhaps, is what is meant by a humane education.
Vergil, in a brilliant passage of the Aeneid, appears to draw the same conclusion. Aeneas and his band of defeated Trojans, after years of unhappy wanderings, are driven by a storm to the North African coast. Separated from the main body of their comrades, Aeneas and a few friends make their way to Carthage, where they see a temple of Juno under construction. The sculptural ornaments of the temple turn out to be scenes from the Trojan War. “What place,” Aeneas asks his friend, “what part of the world is not full of our suffering? Behold Priam. Here there are the rewards due his merit. The things men do draw tears, and touch the mind with thoughts of death.”
Art—in this case sculpture—has caught the moral drama of the war and touched the hearts of the alien Phoenicians who are settling Carthage, and when Aeneas meets the queen of the city, she tells him that her own suffering has made her more receptive to the Trojans’ plight: “Acquainted with grief, I am learning how to help the unfortunate.” What allows her to learn this trick of connecting her own suffering with that of the Trojans? Art. Queen Dido, from her own experience and from seeing and hearing the tale of Troy, has discovered a common humanity that unites Greeks, Trojans, and Phoenicians.
In considering these passages of Homer and Vergil, we come close to the heart of the ancient view of literature. In the Poetics Aristotle was only summing up and sharpening the edge of commonplace Creek opinions. All art is mimesis, that is, mimicry or impersonation. “Mimicry grows up in human beings from their childhood, and man differs from other beasts in this, that he is the most imitative of creatures, and through mimicry he learns his first lessons; there is also the fact that everyone takes pleasure in [regarding] imitations. . . . The very things that we view with pain [when they really happen], the images of these things, when accurately represented, we take pleasure in watching.” Aristotle’s reason for the pleasure of secondhand pain is that men by nature desire to learn and that we take pleasure in recognizing the original of a likeness.
There is, perhaps, a bit more to it than simple recognition. After the great storm, when Aeneas’ fortunes are at their lowest ebb, he tells his comrades: “Perhaps some day we shall enjoy recollecting even this.” Memory is the most basic of the arts; Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses, in part because the epic poets claimed to be representing the events of history as they really happened.
The pleasure of poetry lies in the recollection and recreation of past experiences, including the experiences of the dead. Although they certainly claimed to be accurate, the poets have always lied, as Plato and Nietzsche complained. But we all lie in our memories, remembering the days of our youth as more golden (or blacker) than they were, recollecting the impossible beauty of our first loves, or even recounting the stories of Mallarmean fish that are larger and lovelier for getting away. Every day of our lives we “lend artistic verisimilitude to a bald and otherwise unconvincing narrative,” and he is an artist who can “summon up a remembrance of things past.”
Most of us do not get much beyond memory and rely upon the stories of novelists, poets, and filmmakers as the scenarios of our own moral narratives. Like the projectionist in Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. who falls asleep watching the film, we step into the picture and become a participant in the action. When Robert Coles began studying the moral life of poor Southern children, he was at first annoyed by the omnipresence of television in their homes and by the children’s habit of referring to movies instead of to their own lives: “I wanted to hear more about what was actually happening to the child. My training had taught that a cartoon or a movie essentially underlined or amplified an existing psychological reality. . . . ” As his work progressed, Coles began to realize the value of films as vehicles for expressing and exploring the moral beliefs of the children and adults he was interviewing. After discussing a young segregationist’s views in connection with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Coles concluded:
Perhaps the word imagination is . . . the one required to do some justice to us moviegoers: moral imagination as it is lent energy by that inert celluloid going round and round for a hundred minutes or so. . . . then the mind recovers the remembered words, the scenes that engage with a person’s own scene, his or her life situation.
None of the films used by Coles were overt propaganda; indeed, nothing so spoils a work of fiction as the author’s sermonizing or, worse, his attempt to be his own literary critic and interpret the meaning of his story. The intellectual novelist, if he is any good, must be constantly on guard against the temptation to explain away his story.
Intellectuals rarely do make good novelists, because the process of creating a story is not primarily an intellectual task. Anthony Trollope was a very unlikely candidate for literary eminence. He was grubby and untidy as a child, a poor student who only occasionally ascended to the heights of mediocrity. As a young employee of the British postal system, he was neither punctual nor disciplined, and like Johnny Eames, the hero of The Small House at Allington, it took him longer than most “hobbledehoys” to find himself.
As for his intellect, it was hardly any better than that of John Eames who could never manage to read Creek. His opinions were, for the most part, the utterly conventional views of a moderately liberal defender of the imperial status quo, and since he could not argue he generally attempted to win his point by outshouting his opponents. And yet, and yet, there is no novelist who gives us a deeper or wiser glimpse of human nature in all its varieties.
How can this be? How can a completely ordinary man, one is tempted to say dullard, succeed in a genre where much brighter men (e.g., Edmund Wilson and Henry Adams and George Santayana) made fools of themselves? The explanation lies in Trollope’s lifelong habit of reverie. Like many hobbledehoys, young Anthony found the world of his imagination more comfortable than the harsh jungle of Winchester College:
I was always going about with some castle in the air firmly built in my own mind. . . . For weeks, for months . . . from year to year, I would carry on the same tale. I learned in this way to maintain an interest in a fictitious story, to dwell on a work created by my own imagination, and to live in a world altogether outside the world of my own material life.
In Trollope’s view, the effect of literature upon the reader is its appeal to the imagination. To succeed in making his readers “so intimately acquainted with his characters that the creations of his brain should be to them speaking, moving, living creatures,” the novelist must “know those fictitious personages himself.” His characters must “be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them.”
To submit to one’s own creations is not a rational or considered act. It cannot be part of a plan or serve an ideological purpose. When Trollope tries to make a point openly, as he does in The Warden, he lapses into satire and caricature, but when he is content to marshal the troops of his imagination, the reader can sympathize with his most repellent characters.
Trollope could never bring himself to like Dickens, precisely because his heroes and villains are such extreme cases. We hate the Dickensian demons and wish them dead for being so beastly to Oliver Twist and Little Nell, but Trollope’s villains we can dislike in the same way that we dislike the enemies we cross, swords with at the office or on the vestry, and if, for a moment, we can put ourselves in Bishop Proudie’s shoes, we may learn not to demonize the officious little humbugs who rule our world.
Trollope was fortunate in not being too bright; he had to trust instincts more basic than reason. Whatever an artist might believe about his work, he is inevitably making sense of the materials furnished to him by his deceitful memory, and in making sense he turns pain into pleasure, hi our own lives, we sometimes do painful things, like attending a high-school reunion or arranging one last meeting after the end of an affair, simply to round off the experience or suck some bitter lesson out of it. We read on to the end of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, not because we imagine things will turn out well (although even the most cynical reader can scarcely anticipate the conclusion), but because we need to know. The greatest fictions—whether tragedy, epic, or novels—are tales of detection. Is Orestes responsible for his mother’s death? Who killed Laius? Some years ago, the question of who shot J. R. seemed to occupy half the world for an entire summer.
In their own lives, men and women—burdened, as they are, with the grave responsibility of living from day-to-day—have little time for reverie and nostalgia. Trollope could afford to obsess himself with his characters, because like a good Victorian he had learned how to make a business out of his weakness. If there is a writer who did manage finally to submerge himself entirely into the pool of his own remembering, it is Proust. From the first page of his masterpiece, he draws the reader into the hypnotic realm that lies between sleeping and waking. When an accidental taste of tea and cake opens the gates to the past, he sets about telling the story of his uneventful life, which is really the story of the writing of the novel. Near the end, when Marcel has realized that he only exists to write this novel, he reflects upon his possible readers:
Ils ne seraient pas, selon moi, mes lecteurs, mais les propres lecteurs d’eux-mêmes, mon livre n’étant qu’une sorte de ces verres grossisant. . . . Mon livre, grâce auquel je leur fournirais le moyen de lire en eux-mêmes.
His novel was to be a magnifying glass, a book that readers could use as a means of reading in their own selves.
Somewhere in his table talk, Coleridge praises Claudian as a writer who displays the transition from the objective poetry of the ancient world to the subjectivity of modern literature. It is easy to find exceptions to Coleridge’s distinction, but whether one chooses Claudian or some other writer as the point of departure, Christian literature has, in fact, tended to illuminate the inner reality of conscious life more than it has shed light on the outer world of rocks and trees and other people. One could trace a line from St. Augustine’s Confessions through Pilgrim’s Progress to the poetry of the Romantics (Coleridge, in particular, but also Lamartine and Musset) to A la recherche du temps perdu.
Unlike so many modern masters, Proust was, although reactionary, not a Christian reactionary, but like Joyce and Faulkner, Eliot and Pound, he insisted upon the integrity of the inner life. The bourgeois order of the fin de siecle was already a fragmented world, exalting division of labor in the factory, demarcating the separate spheres of the sexes, deepening the cleavage between public and private life, work and home, business and hobbies. It was the golden age of hobbies, when men who had made or inherited their bundle could find nothing better to occupy themselves with than model railroads and golf.
“And so I entered the broken world,” sang the drunken son of an Ohio candy manufacturer, “to trace the visionary company of love.” If Christendom lay shattered in fragments by the end of the First World War, there were plenty of king’s horses and king’s men eager to put it back together again: Communists, Nazis, democrats, at the same time as they were driving wedges into the fissures, they were also patching the pieces together into ideological nations whose only cement was obedience to the party state. Reactionary Christians—Eliot and Peguy, for example—repudiated the deconstruction of experience represented by the bourgeois order, but they also opposed the attempts of Lenin, Hitler, and Roosevelt to reconstruct unity within the total state.
The best modern poems and novels—like all good poems and novels—are deeply subversive, because the moment we first glimpse the integrity of conscious experience as represented by a coherent narrative, we begin to discover that our own lives have their own integrity, their own worth, quite apart from the money we get and spend and pay in taxes. A man who can tell the story of his own life can never be fully a slave. That is why early Christians were so active in preaching the gospel and comparatively indifferent to reforming society. It also explains why the faithless clergy of these latter days have reversed the priorities.
The Christian faith is not so much a matter of doctrine or even of ritual as it is of experience: the experience of conversion and prayer, the experiences of the church to which we give the name tradition. The Gospels are nothing, if they are not the stories of a life, and Christians draw nearer to God by contemplating that life, by reading ourselves into the story, and ultimately by practicing an imitation of Christ.
If there were races of rational beings that think analytically and tell no stories, we and they would have nothing to say to each other. All our wisdom, all science is an account of how the world got to be the way it is. Genesis and Hesiod’s Theogony, the Big Bang theory and The Origin of Species are all stories used to justify the ways of God to man. “I love to tell the story,” the old song goes, “of Jesus and his glory.” As human beings we are condemned to a lifetime of storytelling, and as the heirs of a long civilization, whose record constitutes the longest of all stories, we are obliged to pass on these stories to the little savages we rear in our houses and indoctrinate in our schools. That, quite simply, is what literature is good for.