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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ecstasy and Selection
The Speaker, May 3, 1902

Hieroglyphics. By Arthur Machen. London: Great Richards.

Optimism is said to be unpopular just at present, and optimism in criticism lies under a specially withering disdain. But for all that criticism will have to become more optimistic or lose altogether its hold upon the future. The only bad thing about criticism is its name. It is derived from a word signifying a criminal judge, and hitherto it has in consequence been supposed that criticism had to do with literary crimes. The favourable judgment of the critic has always been, in the ordinary opinion, to acquit a man of a sin, not to convict him of a merit. If criticism were in a sound state it would have discovered some one epithet to express the value of Coleridge instead of half a hundred epithets to express the uselessness of Marie Corelli. Optimism, or the utmost possible praise of all things, ought to be the keynote of criticism. It may appear to be an audacious assertion, but it may be tested by one very large and simple process. Compare the reality of a man's criticism when praising anything with its reality when excluding anything, and we shall all feel how much more often we agree with the former than with the latter. A man says, for example, "The Yorkshire moors are incomparably splendid," and we wholly agree. He goes on, "their superiority to the mere hills of Surrey-" and we instantly disagree with him. He says, "the Iliad, the highest expression of man's poetical genius," and all our hearts assent. He adds, "towering high above all our Hamlets and Macbeths," and we flatly deny it. A man may say, "Plato was the greatest man of antiquity," and we admit it; but if he says "he was far greater than Aischylus," we demur. Briefly, in praising great men we cheerfully agree to a superlative, but we emphatically decline a comparative. We come very near to the optimism of that universal superlative which in the morning of the world declared all things to be very good.

One of the results of this fact is that when a critic is really large-minded and really sympathetic and comprehensive, and really has hold of a guiding and enlightening idea, he should still watch with the greatest suspicion his own limitations and rejections. His praise will almost certainly be sound, his blame should always remain to his own mind a little dubious. A good example of this is Mr. Machen's very thoughtful and interesting book Hieroglyphics, a book of rambling and conversational criticism. The work is dominated by a very clear and imaginative and sustained critical principle. The principle is, in my opinion, absolutely right. By the light of it the author proceeds with great ability to admit some writers to greatness and to reject others, making the selection not by any superficial or snobbish feeling for mere tone and form, but by a real sense of original creative impulse. And yet I believe that in almost all cases his acceptations are right and his rejections wrong.

Mr. Machen's test of literature is roughly expressed by himself in the word ecstasy. As I shall point out later, I think he puts too narrow an interpretation on this excellent key-word. But that narrowness is not the ordinary narrowness of the aesthetic critic. He realises one fact, for instance, which alone ought to give his work a high place among really delicate and profound estimates of literature. That is to say, it points out that Pickwick is a mystical work, celebrating like the Odyssey the wanderings of man amid the unknown. Mr. Machen, in indicating that Dickens is essentially a poet, indicates something which the present writer has prayed day and night might be adequately expressed by somebody somewhere. In fact, if there is anything  wrong with Mr. Machen's casual comparison between the wanderings of Ulysses and the wanderings of Pickwick it is that The Pickwick Papers have the character of a fairy tale in a sense that the Odyssey has not the character of a fairy tale. After all, the plain difference is that Ulysses may have had the most prodigious adventures in the world, but Ulysses is trying to get home; Mr. Pickwick is not trying to get anywhere except, unconsciously, to fairyland.

But the general complaint I have to make against Mr. Machen's view resolves itself into the fact that the moment he begins to say which authors possess or evoke this ancient and essential ecstasy, I agree with him entirely touching the authors who, according to his view, do possess or evoke that ecstasy, and I entirely disagree with him touching those who, according to his view, do not. In his opinion, for example, Keats is a poet and Pope is not. In his opinion Dickens is a genius of a high literary order and Thackeray is simply a clever man. Lastly, at his hands Jane Austen is treated with scanty respect and George Eliot scarcely with ordinary intellectual decency. Before we proceed to a more serious study of these judgments, it is as well to make the critic's whole position clear, and I trust I have by this time made it so. His test, briefly, of whether a book is or is not great literature is the test of whether it deals, under whatever grotesque forms, with the unknown and incalculable part of man, the mysterious promptings and the limitless desires, or whether it deals merely with those external habits or inconsistencies that can be definitely seen and attested and measured. In other words, any good description of a boy's dreams of running away to sea would fall within his definition, and any good description of the awkward way in which he touched his hat to the schoolmaster would fall outside it. The distinction between the two cases would be that one contained the ecstasy human and almost superhuman and the other did not.

Only, as I have suggested before, the critic should beware at this point. It is one thing to say that one has oneself the primal ecstasy of man in the contemplation of one's own collection of sea-birds' eggs. It is quite another thing to say that one's next-door neighbour certainly has not the primal ecstasy in the contemplation of his collection of foreign tramway tickets. The first is probably right. The second is almost certainly wrong. And Mr. Machen is wrong to my fancy in most of the figures whom he rejects from the Pantheon of great literature. His great mistake is in forgetting that the ecstasy is a "wind that bloweth where it listeth," and which may assume a great many different forms. A man may experience the great ecstasy in consequence of his admiration for natural beauty, as in the case of Keats; or, again, he may experience it in consequence of his admiration for the intellect and the honesty and responsibility of the intellect, as in the case of Pope. Surely no one can read those tremendous lines which conclude the Dunciad without feeling that their surging, insatiable protest against liberality being drowned in prejudice, and fact being utterly confounded by fiction, was really a phase of the great literary ecstasy. Pope may be defending the intellect, but he is not defending it intellectually; he is defending it passionately. The same again applies to Thackeray, whose outlook upon life was essentially a poetic one, properly understood; like St. Paul, he praised the fools of the world, and had as much joy in the sadness of humanity as Dickens had in its joy.

Generally, therefore, the best advice that can be offered to Mr. Machen and everybody else is to talk as much as possible about the ecstasies they have found in literature and as little as possible about those they have failed to find. It is almost impossible that they can be wrong in finding it in Homer. Mr. Machen has never found it, and I have never found it myself, in George Eliot; but there is certainly a greater probability that we are wrong there. And if I may give, in conclusion, an instance of one of the contradictions into which Mr. Machen's thoughtless fastidiousness leads him, I may point out that in one passage he actually says that his transcendental theory in these matters involves him in a disapproval of democracy. Now, I should have thought that if there was one thing more palpable than another it was that the spiritual view of man and art absolutely involved democracy as a legitimate consequence. If there really be this tremendous and spiritual majesty in man on which Mr. Machen bases his whole case, surely it is patent upon the face of it that it would be utterly ridiculous to ask in the case of two souls thus terrible and majestic which was a Lord Mayor and which was a greengrocer. In the presence of this transcendental nobility in both of them it is not bigoted, it is simply ludicrous, to insist on external differences, whether merely material, as in the matter of riches, or merely intellectual, as in the matter of education. A mystic cannot help believing in equality just as a gentleman cannot help being courteous to his landlady. Looking down upon anything or anybody is impossible to a mystic, and impossible to a gentleman.

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