A Literary Mania (1920)


It is an ungenerous platitude and a true one, to say that by far the greater part both of our actions and our thoughts have for their roots noting but dogma and cant. It is as true of politics as it is of religion; and it is becoming daily truer of the hitherto untrammeled field of criticism. In politics we have had our Robespierres, and we are still suffering from the effects; the political market is glutted with liberté, egalité, fraternité. Mr. Wilson has succeeded Jean-Jacques, and Lenin is still with us. In religion Bossuet has followed has followed hard on the heels of Luther, only to be displaced by the sing-songs of “independent morality” and the emasculated doctrines of modern Sunday schools. But literature, all through the ages, has made a strong stand and fought a brave fight against the Scylla and Charybdis of cant and dogma.

It was not till, weakened and unmanned by the terrible inroads of Taine and Brunetiére  that our modern criticism succumbed to the temptation to make of literature an exact science. Not until the shade of Sainte-Beuve had been laid to rest, that the French mania for classification took firm hold upon us. Today we could no more “appreciate” Shakespeare without applying certain scientific laws to the progression of his genius, without dividing him into as many compartments as there are stages in literature, without splitting him up into a “before and after,” than we could thoroughly enjoy the movies without music. It is as much an essential of our literary self-consciousness as fur coats are of our social standing. We could no more attribute the proper “literary emphasis” to Charles Lamb or William Hazlitt without first knowing what prenatal influences shaped their minds, without placing them in the wake or the beginning of a classic or romantic movement, than our literary consciences would allow us to split infinitives. Even in our moments of larger recklessness we cannot altogether forgive a dramatist’s transgression of the “law of time and place.” Voltaire is as unintelligible to us as Zeno if we do not know that “he marks the transition from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century”; French classicism would be a hopeless riddle to us if M. Lanson did not tell us that it is a “combination of rationalism and aesthetic taste.”

In short, literature would be a complete waste of time if we could not seat ourselves before it as we would before a vivisection table, dissecting here a phrase or a general movement, scrutinizing there a “tendency” or the fulfillment of an immutable law. In our mad rush to classify, to make literature “accessible to every home,” personality and style go by the board. Whatever cannot be made to fill a text-book on the “Origin and Development of the Novel” or the “Evolution of the Drama,” whatever, in sort, is real literature we cheerfully ignore. It has no vendible character; it cannot be spouted in a classroom—it has not even value as erudition. All that can be expected are a few workable rules, a few “literary tests” which can be indiscriminately applied and unswervingly followed. This is criticism; this takes the place of appreciation.