Books 81 through 90 – Pater to Kipling
[Note: this is part of Powys’ One Hundred Best Books.]
81. WALTER PATER. STUDIES IN THE RENAISSANCE.
82. IMAGINARY PORTRAITS.
83. PLATO AND PLATONISM.
84. GASTON DE LATOUR.
Walter Pater’s writings are more capable than any in our list of offering, if approached at the suitable hour and moment, new vistas and possibilities both intellectual and emotional. That wise and massive egoism taught by Goethe, that impassioned “living to oneself” indicated by Stendhal, find in Walter Pater a new qualification and a new sanction.
Himself a supreme master of the rare and exquisite in style, he becomes, for those who really understand him, something more penetrating and insidious than a mere personality. He becomes an atmosphere, an attitude, a tone, a temper—and one too which may serve us to most rich and recondite purpose, as we wander through the world seeking the excitement and consecration of impassioned cults and organized discriminations.
For this austere and elaborately constructed style of his is nothing less than the palpable expression of his own discriminating days; the wayfaring, so self-consciously and scrupulously guarded, of his own fastidious “hedonism,” seeking its elaborate satisfactions among the chance-offered occasions of hour, or person or of place.
Walter Pater remains, for those who are permitted to feel these things, the one who above all others has the subtlest and most stimulating method of approach with regard to all the great arts, and most especially with regard to the art of literature.
No one, after reading him, can remain gross, academic, vulgar, or indiscriminate. And, with the rest, we seem to be aware of a secret attitude not only towards art but towards life also, to miss the key to which would be to fail in that architecture of the soul and senses which is the object of the discipline not merely of the æsthetic but of the religious cult.
For the supreme initiation into which we are led by these elaborate and patient essays, is the initiation into the world of inner austerity, which makes its clear-cut and passionate distinctions in our emotional as well as in our intellectual life.
Everything, without exception, as we read Pater becomes “a matter of taste”; but the high and exclusive nature of this taste, to which no sensations but those which are vulgar and common are forbidden, is itself a guarantee of the gentleness and delicacy of the passions evoked. His ultimate philosophy seems to be that—as he himself has described it in “Marius,”—of Aristippus of Cyrene; but this “undermining of metaphysic by means of metaphysic” lands him in no mere arid agnosticism or weary emptiness of suspended judgment; but in a rich and imaginative region of infinite possibilities, from the shores of which he is able to launch forth at will; or to gather up at his pleasure the delicate shells strewn upon the sand.
85. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW. MAN AND SUPERMAN.
Mr. Shaw has found his role and his occupation very happily cut out for him in the unfailing stupidity, not untouched by a sense of humor, of our Anglo-Saxon democracy in England and America. In Germany, too, there seems naïveté and simplicity enough to be still entertained by these mischievously whimsical and yet portentously moral comedies. It appears however that the civilization for which Rabelais and Voltaire wrote, is less willing to acclaim as an extraordinary genius one who has the wit to pierce with a bodkin the idolatries and illusions of such pathetically simple people.
Bernard Shaw takes the Universe very seriously. By calling it the Life-Force he permits himself to address it in that heroic vein reserved, among more ordinary intelligencies, for anthropomorphic deities. Bernard Shaw’s sense of the comic draws its spirit from the contrast between clever people and stupid people, and seems to appear at its best when engaged in upsetting the pseudo-historical, pseudo-philosophical illusions of Anglo-Saxons, in charmingly ridiculous pantomimes, which the redeeming humor of that patient race has just intelligence enough thoroughly to enjoy.
If he were himself less moralistically earnest the spice of the jest would disappear. His humor is not universal humor. It is topical humor; and topical humor derives its point from moral contrast,–the contrast in this case between the virtue of Mr. Shaw and the vices of modern society.
“Man and Superman” is undoubtedly his most interesting work from a philosophical point of view, but his later plays—such bewitching farces as “Fanny’s First Play,” “Androcles,” and “Pygmalion”—seem to express more completely than anything else that rollicking combative roguishness which is his most characteristic quality.
86. GILBERT K. CHESTERTON. ORTHODOXY.
Mr. Chesterton may congratulate himself upon being the only man of letters in England who has had the originality or the insight or the temperamental courage to adopt a definitely reactionary philosophy; whereas in France we have Huysmans, Barrés, Bourget, Bordeaux, and many others, whose persuasive and romantic rôle it is to prop up tottering altars; in England we have only Mr. Chesterton.
That is doubtless why it is necessary for him to exaggerate his paradoxes so extravagantly; and also why he is so important and so dear to the hearts of intelligent clergymen.
Mr. Chesterton’s grand philosophical “coup” is a simple and effective one—the turning of everything, complacently and hilariously, upside down. One has the salutary amusement in reading him of visualizing the Universe in the posture of a Gargantuan baby, “prepared” for a sound smacking. Mr. Chesterton himself is the chief actor in this performance and wonderful pyrotechnic stars leap into space as its happy result.
Mr. Chesterton has his own peculiar “religion”—a sort of Chelsea Embankment Catholicism, in which, in place of Pontifical Encyclicals, we have Punch and Judy jokes, and in place of Apostolic Doctrine we have umbrellas, lamp-posts, electric-signs and prestidigitating clerics.
Mr. Chesterton is never more entertaining, never more entirely at ease, than when turning one or other of the really noble and tragic figures of human intellect into preposterous “Aunt Sallies” at whose battered heads he can fling the turnips and potatoes of the Average Man’s average suspicion, dipped for that purpose in a fiery sort of brandy of his own whimsical wit. If we don’t become “like little children”; in other words like jovial, middle-aged swashbucklers, and protest our belief in Flying Pigs, Pusses in Boots, Jacks on the top of Beanstalks, Old Women who live in Shoes, Fairies, Fandangos, Prester Johns, and Blue Devils, there is no hope for us and we are condemned to a dreadful purgatory of pedantic and atheistic dullness, along with Li Hung Chang, George Eliot, Herbert Spencer and other heretics whose view of the Dogma of the Immortality of the Soul differs from that of Mr. Chesterton.
87. OSCAR WILDE. INTENTIONS.
88. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.
89. DE PROFUNDIS.
“Intentions” is perhaps the most original of all Wilde’s remarkable works.
His supreme art, as he himself well knew, was, after all, the art of conversation. One might even put it that his greatest achievement in life was just the achievement of being brazenly and shamelessly what he naturally was—especially in conversation. To call him a “poseur” with the implication that he pretended or assumed a manner, were just as absurd as to call a tiger striped with the implication that the beast deliberately “put on” that mark of distinction.
If it is a pose to enjoy the sensation of one’s own spontaneous gestures, Wilde was indeed the worst of pretenders. But the stupid gravity of many generals, judges and archbishops is not more natural to them than his exquisite insolence was to him.
Below the wit and provocative persiflage of “Intentions” there is a deep and true conception of the nature of art—a conception which might well serve as the “philosophy” of much of the most interesting and arresting of modern work.
Wilde’s extraordinary charm largely depends upon something invincibly boyish and youthful in him. His personality, as he himself says, has become almost symbolic—symbolic, that is, of a certain shameless and beautiful defiance of the world, expressed in an unconquerable insolence worthy of the very spirit of hard, brave, flagrant youth.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is perhaps the gayest, least responsible, and most adorably witty of all English comedies; just as “Salome” is the most richly colored and smoulderingly sensual of all modern tragedies. One actually touches with one’s fingers the feasting-cups of the Tetrarch; and the passion of the daughter of Herodias hangs round one like an exotic perfume.
In “De Profundis” we sound the sea-floor of a quite open secret; the secret namely of the invincible attraction of a certain type of artist and sensualist towards the “white Christ” who came forth from the tomb where he had been laid, with precious ointments about him, by the Arimathaean.
In “The Soul of Man” another symbolic reversion displays itself—that reversion namely of the soul of the true artist towards the revolutionary organization which, along with insensitiveness and brutality, proposes to abolish ugliness also.
The name of Oscar Wilde thus becomes a name “to conjure with” and a fantastic beacon-fire to which those “oppressed and humiliated” may repair and take new heart.
90. RUDYARD KIPLING. THE JUNGLE BOOK.
Whatever one may feel about Mr. Kipling’s other work, about his rampagious imperialism, his self-conscious swashbucklerism, his pipe-clay and his journalism, his moralistic breeziness and his patronage of the “white man’s burden,” one cannot help admitting that the Jungle-Book is one of the immortal children’s tales of the world.
In spite of the somewhat priggish introduction, even here, of what might be called his Anglo-Saxon propaganda, the Jungle-Book carries one further, it almost seems, and more convincingly, into the very heart and inwards of beast-life and wood-magic, than any other work ever written. The figures of these animals are quite Biblical in their emphatic picturesqueness, and never has the romance of these spotted and striped aboriginals, in their primordial struggles for food and water, been more thrillingly conveyed. Every scene, every situation, brands itself upon the memory as perhaps nothing else in literature does except the stories in the Old Testament. The best of all children’s books—“Grimm’s Fairy Tales” itself—takes no deeper hold upon the youthful mind. Mr. Kipling’s genius which in his other work is constantly “dropping bricks” as the expressive phrase has it, and running amuck through strenuous banalities, rises in the Jungle-Book to heights of poetic and imaginative suggestion which will give him an undying position among the great writers of our race.