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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Grant Allen
The Speaker, June 23, 1900

Grant Allen. A Memoir by Edward Clodd. London: Grant Richards.

Mr. Edward Clodd is one of the ablest of folk-lore scholars, and there must always be something a little unfair about the position of the folk-lore scholar, the man who has to dissect gods like beetles. He may not be what is called a free-thinker, for it is one thing to dissect beliefs, and another to vivisect them. But he will commonly have this misfortune of the free-thinker, that he cannot altogether be a "free-feeler," that he has to remain cold and restrained among intoxicating things. He has to keep his head on that dizzy brink of credulity, that land of half-belief, the border of elfland, on which the mass of humanity has always lived. This must of necessity react upon him; he cannot half believe, cannot play with an idea, for fear it should play with him. He is at a disadvantage in dealing with anything that is light, irrational and elvish, and it must be admitted that, to our fancy, it is with a step somewhat too heavy and cautious that Mr. Clodd follows through the forest the faun, Grant Allen.

We do not go so far as to ask Mr. Clodd to treat Grant Allen as mythical. We do not insist (though our proofs are, of course, ready) that there were six Grant Allens confused under one name; we refrain from demonstrating that Grant Allen is only the solar god passing through the Zodiac in the twelve monthly numbers of that monstrous, yet almost universal myth, The Strand Magazine.

Doubtless Mr. Clodd has, in his own slightly superstitious mind, evidence of the reality of the apparition Allen. But we strongly believe that Grant Allen would rather have been torn in pieces as an engaging fable than presented as the solid and solemn person depicted in this book. Grant Allen was a genial and chivalrous man; that much is obvious. He was also (to descend to lower matters) something of a genius. But for all that Mr. Clodd has taken him much too seriously. He was, it seems to us, one thing essentially, and it lay at the root of all his versatile successes- he was a brilliant conversationalist. Perhaps this is only the same thing as saying that he was an Irishman. He had what we may venture to define as a centrifugal mind; he excelled in throwing off (as over a cup of coffee and a cigar) wild, yet suggestive ideas; we say "throwing off," because the ideas, ingenious, picturesque and entertaining, belong, nevertheless, to that class of ideas that a man is uncommonly glad to get rid of.

All his paradoxes, his absurdities, his irrelevancies had this conversational character. We remember an article he wrote in favour of "Cremation" in which he left that dull subject miles behind, and wandered off into fantastic abuse of Christianity, taking its forms of burial as a text. He cannot possibly have imagined that this was sound or strategic controversy, but he knew that it was good conversation. For the sake of another example, we may mention his last book, Hilda Wade. As a story it is as mechanical and unreal as a Bow Bells novelette, and very much duller. But as we read, the foolish figures of the dramatis personae fade away, and we are listening to a scientific man with an imagination talking delightful nonsense about the homesickness of mountaineers and women who are destined to be murdered. Out of the whole of Mr. Clodd's book there is one passage, quoted from Mr. Purcell, which we think contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is, in its way, delightful:-
"To find myself in agreement with Mr. Allen," says Mr. Purcell, "on any question whatever, critical, social, political, would indeed be a painful breach of a friendship which has subsisted for a quarter of a century without one cloud of acquiscence, concession or retraction on either side. His philosophy I denounce as heretical, yet delight in it: it is a pleasure to confound his detestable cut-throat polities, his panaceas for social ills I regard as the deadliest poison, yet I would not have him drop them"
Mr. Clodd dismisses this passage as "humorous:" it is more than that, it is psychological. We fancy Mr. Allen got more fun and more profit out of the breezy antagonism of Mr. Purcell than out of the grave veneration of Mr. Clodd.

We have called Grant Allen a faun: the simile is not wholly fanciful. His very love of beast and bird, his knowledge of everything in woods and hedges, was not altogether a cold spirit of science: it was partly a kind of animal ecstacy. Even in his face, with its smiling eyes and long, goat-like beard, there was something of the look of Pan. So long as he was this, so long he was both charming and inspiring. But surely Mr. Clodd is wrong when he gives the general impression that Grant Allen stands among the great disciples of Darwin. He had abundance of knowledge, doubtless, as well as wit, but when all is said and done he stands in that class of men who think of a good way of saying something, and proceed to say that thing, as opposed to those in whom the thing exists long before the words. If any one wishes to see the point of this second class, and know how wit greater than Allen's may be the servant of wisdom, not its master, he need only turn to a short letter in this book signed T. H. Huxley.

But, after all, the best proof of the essentially faunlike and naturalistic character of Grant Allen's mind is to be found in the mishaps that befell him when he followed after his blind advisers and took himself seriously. From respect to a strong intellect we do not dwell upon The Woman Who Did- that almost indecently funny book. As literature it will be chiefly remembered from that exquisite Gilbertian touch in which the heroine blushes at the word "marriage" as at the name of a lewd passion. As a tract it certainly established nothing beyond a faint and feeble movement in the direction of establishing (by the episode of the child) the orthodox Christian position. Mr. Clodd, one of the most highminded of modern thinkers, is reduced to the most curious phrases in expounding this book. He so far forgets his own ingrained rationality as to appeal from the Christian ideal to "the Stoic life according to Nature." According to humanitarians like Grant Allen and Mr. Clodd, Nature is one of the worst guides conceivable in all matters of peace, war, government, industry and the ordinary relations between man and man. Why in the name of common-sense should she be any better guide on the relations of the sexes? The New Hedonism, as expounded by Mr. Clodd, amounts apparently to this, that Nature is detestable when she commands us to be strong, but infallible when she commands us to be weak.

But all Grant Allen's ethical views, whether eccentric or otherwise, serve to throw up in a very striking way the moral health of the man himself. He was one of those men, whom one meets occasionally, to whom this great tribute is to be paid: that they are really to be trusted with a hedonistic philosophy. Few could boast a higher claim. It was Grant Allen's pleasure to be good. When all is said, it was simply the Celtic purity of the man that made him so perilous a legislator for the mass of men. Mr. Clodd speaks with natural indignation of those who thought that a man who wrote The Woman Who Did "must be a libertine." But the idea would never have have occurred to us: we should rather say that the man who wrote it could not be a libertine. A libertine would have more knowledge of the world.

It is needless to say that Mr. Clodd's work is raised above any cavil in point of literary construction and arrangement. The hand has not lost its cunning which has presented so many other myths besides the Grant Allen myth here imposed on the public. But a myth we will venture to call it, because it is falsified to the root by a fault- unconscious like all great faults- that it regards Grant Allen as a man of the Darwinian and agnostic era, instead of what he really was- a man of this aesthetic and paradoxical decade. Sometimes he was silly enough to suit the phrase "fin de siecle." He had, to our mind, absolutely nothing in common with the great Darwinian philosophers. He had not their simplicity of character, their concentration of purpose, their humility of claim. He was of the race of the inevitably interviewed. He not only trumpeted the merit of his good books, he trumpeted the very badness of his bad ones. He made a vaunt of pot-boiling and bad workmanship. Circumstances might arise that might justify the sin of bad art; but the boiling of pots is in its nature a domestic and not a public ceremony. But Grant Allen had not the high good taste which the older rationalists carried on from the eighteenth century; he was a cynic, a phrase-maker, a "personality," the child of this awful age of good conversation. Above all, he had not the deepest and quietest trait of the great Darwinians- their profound sense of religion. Mr. Clodd admits that he repudiated Agnosticism on the ground that there was "nothing to be known." It may seem startling that such a rationalist should have failed to see the elementary point of logic that to assert a universal negative is a far more undemonstrable dogma than the vision of a million angels; but on the one matter of the invisible, this brilliant man exhibits in every way a child-like and almost engaging simplicity. On this one point he was like a savage who cannot think or count beyond ten. It is of no avail and of no significance to him that the great discoverer of Natural Selection describes in his peroration the breath of God stirring the simple forms: that the greatest of his lieutenants saw ever before him the just and terrible Chess-player. These men pass easily from speaking of mollusca and infusoriae to speaking of these matters. Yet it is at this precise point of passage that an expression of bewilderment comes upon the face of the faun.

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