Literature the Mirror of Man
(1866 - 1912) ~ American Anarchist, Feminist, and Freethinker, With Roots in Individualism and Collectivism : Yet the ascetic also had the soul of a poet. In her poetry and even in her prose, Voltairine eloquently expressed a passionate love of music, of nature, and of Beauty. (From : The Storm!.)
• "We are so free! and so brave! We don't hang Brunos at the stake any more for holding heretical opinions on religious subjects. No! But we imprison men for discussing the social question, and we hang men for discussing the economic question!" (From : The Economic Tendency of Freethought.)
• "For the basis of all political action is coercion; even when the State does good things, it finally rests on a club, a gun, or a prison, for its power to carry them through.)" (From : Direct Action.)
• "...so long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men." (From : Anarchism and American Traditions.)
Literature the Mirror of Man
Perhaps I had better say the Mirror-reflection,—the reflection of all that he has been and is, the hinting fore-flashing of something of what he may become. In so considering it, let it be understood that I speak of no particular form of literature, but the entire body of a people’s expressed thought, preserved either traditionally, in writing, or in print.
The majority of lightly thinking, fairly read people, who make use of the word “literature” rather easily, do so with a very indistinct idea of its content. To them it usually means a certain limited form of human expression, chiefly works of the imagination—poetry, drama, the various forms of the novel. History, philosophy, science are rather frowning names,—stern second cousins, as it were, to the beguiling companions of their pleasant leisure hours,—not legitimately “literature.” Biography,—well, it depends on who writes it! If it can be made so much like a work of fiction that the subject sketched serves the purposes of a fictive hero, why then—maybe.
To such talkers about literature, evidence of familiarity with it, and title to have one’s opinions thereon asked and respected, are witnessed by the ability to run glibly off the names of the personages in the dramas of Ibsen, Björnson, Maeterlinck, Hauptmann or Shaw; or in the novels of Gorki, Andreyev, Tolstoy, Zola, Maupassant, Hardy, and the dozen or so of lesser lights who revolve with these through the cycle of the magazine issues.
Not only do these same people thus limit the field of literature, (at least in their ordinary conversation,—if you press them they will dubiously admit that the field may be extended) but they are also possessed of the notion that only one particular mode even of fiction, is in fact the genuine thing. That this mode has not always been in vogue they are aware; and they allow other modes to have been literature in the past, as a sort of kindly concession to the past—a blanket-indulgence to its unevolved state. At present, however, no indulgences are allowed; whatever is not the mode, is anathema; it is not literature at all. When confronted by the very great names of the Past, which they can neither consign to oblivion, nor patronize by toleration for their undeveloped condition, names which are names for all ages, which they need to use as conjuration words in their comparisons and criticisms, names such as Shakespeare or Hugo, they complacently close their eyes to contradictions and swear that fundamentally these men’s works are in the modern mode, the accepted mode, the one and only enduring mode, the mode that they approve.
“Which is?”—I hear you ask. Which is what they are pleased to call “Realism.”
If you wish to know how far they are obsessed by this notion, go pick yourself a quiet corner in some café where light literature readers meet to make comparisons, and listen to the comments. Before very long, voices will be getting loud about some character at present stalking across the pages of the magazines, or bestirring itself among the latest ton of novel; and the dispute will be, “Does such a type exist?”—“Of course he exists,”—“He does not exist,”—“He must exist,”—“He cannot exist,”—“Under such conditions,”—“There are no such conditions,”—“But be reasonable: you have not been in all places, and you cannot say there may not be such conditions; supposing—” “All right: I will give you the conditions; all the same, no man would act so under any conditions.” “I swear L have seen such men—” “Impossible—” “What is there impossible about it?—”
And the voices get louder and louder, as the disputants proceed to pick the character to pieces, speech by speech, and action by action, till, nothing being left, each finally subsides somehow, each confirmed in his own opinion, each convinced that the main purpose of literature—Realism—has either been served, or not served, by the author under discussion. To such disputants “Literature the Mirror of Man,” means that only such literature as gives so-called absolutely faithful representations of life as it is demonstrably lived, is a genuine Mirror. No author is to be considered worthy of a place, unless his works can be at least twisted to fit this conception. With some slight refinement of idea, in so far as it recognizes the obscurer recesses of the mind as entitled to representation as well as the externals, it corresponds to the one-time development of portrait painting, which esteemed it necessary to paint the exact number of hairs in the wart on Oliver Cromwell’s nose, in order to have a true likeness of him.
As before suggested, I do not, when I speak of Literature as the Mirror of Man, have any such 12x18 mirror in view; nor the limitation of literature to any one form of it, to any one age of it, to any set of standard names; nor the limitation of Man to any preconceived notion of just what he may logically be allowed to be. The composite image we are seeking to find is an image wrought as much of his dreams of what he would like to be, as of his actual being; that is no true picture of Man, which does not include his cravings for the impossible, as well as his daily performance of the possible. Indeed, the logical, calculable man, the man who under certain circumstances may be figured out to turn murderer and under others saint, is hardly so interesting as the illogical being who upsets the calculation by becoming neither, but something not at all predictable.
The objects of my lecture then are these:
1. To insist on a wider view of literature itself than that generally accepted.
2. To suggest to readers a more satisfactory way of considering what they read than that usually received.
3. To point to certain phases of the human appearance reflected in the mirror which are not generally noticed, but which I find interesting and suggestive.
You would think it very unreasonable, would you not, for any one to insist that because your highly polished glass backed by quicksilver, gives back so clear and excellent an image, therefore the watery vision you catch of yourself in the shifting, glancing ripples of a clear stream is not an image at all! With all the curious elongating and drifting and shortening back and breaking up into wavering circles, done by that unresting image, you know very certainly that is you; and if you look into the still waters of some summer pool, or mountain rain-cup, the image there is almost as sharp-lined as that in your polished glass, except for the vague tremor that seems to move under the water rather than on its surface, and suggest an ethereal something missing in your drawing-room shadow. Yet that vision conjured in the water-depth is you—surely you. Nay, even more,—that first image of you, you perceived when as a child you danced in the firelight and saw a misshapen darkness rising and falling along the wall in teasing mockery,—that too was surely an image of you—an image of interception, not of reflection; a blur, a vacancy, a horror, from which you fled shrieking to your mother’s arms;—and yet it was the distorted outline of you.
You grew familiar with it later, amused yourself with it, twisted your hands into strange positions to see what curious shapes they would form upon the wall, and made whole stories with the shadows. Long afterwards you went back to them with deliberate and careful curiosity, to see how the figures stumbled on by accident could be definitely produced, at will, according to the laws of interception.
Even so the first Man-Images, cast back from the blank wall of Language, are uncouth, ungraspable, vague, vacant, menacing—to the men who saw them, frightful. Mankind produced this paradox: the early lights of literature were darkness!
Later these darknesses grew less fearsome; the child-man began to jest with them; to multiply figures and send them chasing past each other up and down the wall, with fresh glee at each newly created shadow-sport. The wall at last became luminous, the shadows shining. And out of the old monosyllabic horror of the primitive legend, out of Man’s fright at the projection of his own soul, out of his wide stare at those terrific giants on the wall who suddenly with shadow-like shifting became grotesque dwarfs, and mocking little beasts that danced and floated, ever most fearful because of their elusive emptiness; out of this, bit by bit, grew the steady contemplation, the gradual effacement of fright, the feeling of power and amusement, and the sense of Creative Mastery, which, understanding the shadows, began to command them, till there arose all the beauty of fairy tales and shining myths and singing legends.
Now any one who desires to see in Literature the most that there is in it; who desires to read not merely for the absorption of the moment but for the sake of permanent impression; who wishes to have an idea of Man not only as he is now, but through the whole articulate record of his existence; who would know the thoughts of his infancy and the connected course of his development,—and no one has any adequate conception of the glory of literature, unless he includes this much in it—any such a reader, I say, must find among its most attractive pages, the stories of early superstitions, the fictions of Fear, the struggles of the Race-Child’s intelligence with overlooming problems. Think of the Ages and Ages that men saw the Demon Electricity riding the air; think that even now they do not know what he is; and yet he played mightily with their daily lives for all those ages. Think how this staring savage was put face to face with world-games which were spun and tossed around him, and compelled by the nature of his own activity to try to find an explanation to them; think that most of us, if we were not the heritors of the ages that have passed since then, should be staggered and out-breathed even now by all these lights and forms through which we move; and then turn to the record of those pathetic strivings of the frightened child with some little tenderness and sympathy, some solemn curiosity to know what men were able to think and feel when they led their lives as in a threatening Wonder-house, where everything was an Unknown, invested with crouching hostility. And never be too sure you know just how men will act, or try to act, under any conditions, if you have not read the record of what they have thought and fancied and done; and after you have read it, Oh, then you will never be sure you know! For then you will realize that every man is a burial-house, full of dead men’s ghosts,—and the ghosts of very, very ancient days are there, forever whispering in an ancient, ancient tongue of ancient passions and desires, and prompting many actions which the doer thereof can give himself no accounting for.
There are two ways of reading these old stories; and as one who has gotten pleasure and profit, too, from both, I would recommend them both to be used. The first way is to read yourself backward into it as much as possible. Do not be a critic, on first reading; put the critic asleep. Let yourself seem to believe it, as did he who wrote it. Read it aloud, if you are where you will not annoy anybody; let the words sing themselves over your lips, as they sung themselves over the lips of the people who were dead so long ago,—in their strange far-away homes with their vanished surroundings; sung themselves, just as the wind sung through the echoing forests, and murmured back from the rocks; just as the songs slipped out of the birds’ throats. You will find that half the beauty and the farce of old-time legend lies in the bare sound of it. Far, far more is it dependent on the voice, than any modern writings are. And surely, the reason is simple enough: for it was not writing in its creation; ancient literature addressed itself to the ear, always, while modern literature speaks to the eye.
If once you can get your ears washing with the sounds of the old language, as with the washing of the seas when you sit on the beach, or the lapping of the rivers when the bank-grass caresses you some idle summer afternoon, it will be much easier for you to forget that you are the child of another age and thought. You will begin to luxuriate in fancies and prefigure impossibilities; then you will know how it feels to be fancy free, loosed from the chain of the possible; and once having felt, you will also understand better, when you re-read with other intent.
When you are ready for such re-reading, then be as critical as you please,—which does not necessarily mean be condemnatory. It means rather take notice of all generals and particulars, and question them.
You will naturally pose yourself the question, Why is it that the bare sounds of these old stories are so much more vibrating, drum-like, shrilling, at times, than any modern song or poem? You will find that the mitigating influence of civilization,—knowledge, moderation,—creeping into expression, produces flat, neutral, diluted sounds,—watery words, so to speak, long-drawn out and glidingly inoffensive. In any modern writing remarkable for strength, will be found a preponderance of “barbaric yawp”—as Whitman called it.
Fear creates sharp cries; the rebound of Fear, which is Bravado, produces drum-tones, roars, and growls; unrestrained Passions howl in wind-notes, irregular, breaking short off. God carries a hammer, and Love a spear. The hymn clangs, and the love-song clashes. Through those fierce sounds one feels again hot hearts.
Those who perceive colors accompanying sounds, sense clean cut lights streaking the night-ground of these early word-pictures; sharp, hard, reds and yellows. It is our later world which has produced green tintings not to be told from gray, nor gray from blue, nor anything from anything. In our fondness for smoothness and gradation we have attained practical colorlessness.
If it appears to you that I am talking nonsense, permit me to tell you it is because you have dulled your own powers of perception; in seeking to become too intellectually appreciative, you have lost the power to feel primitive things. Try to recover it.
Another source of interesting observation, especially in English literature of early writing: this time the eye.
It is admitted by everybody that as a serviceable instrument for expressing definite sounds in an expeditious and comprehensible manner, English written language is a woeful failure. If any inventor of a theory of symbols should, would, or could have devised such a ridiculous conception of spelling, such a hodge-podge of contradictory jumbles, he would properly have been adjudged to an insane asylum; and that, every man who ever contrived an English spelling-book, and every teacher who is obliged to worry this incongruous mess through the steadily revolting reason-and-memory process of children, is ably convinced. But Man, English-speaking Man, has actually—executed such conception; (he probably executed it first and conceived it afterwards, as most of our poor victims do when they start on that terrible blind road through the spelling-book). Whether or no, the thing is here, and we’ve all to accept it, and deal with it as best we may, sadly hoping that possibly the tenth generation from now may at least be rid of a few unnecessary “e’s.”
And since the thing is here, and is a mighty creation, and very indicative of how the human brain in large sections works; since we’ve got to put up with it anyway, we may as well, in revenge for its many inconveniences, get what little satisfaction we can out of it. And I find it one of the most delightful little side amusements of wandering through the field of old literature, while in the critical vein, to stray around among the old stumps and crooked cowpaths of English spelling. Much pleasure is to be derived from seeing what old words grew together and made new ones; what syllables or letters got lopped off or twisted, how silent letters became silent and why; from what older language planted, and what its relatives are. It is much the same pleasure that one gets from trailing around through the narrow crooked streets and senseless meanderings of London City. Everybody knows it’s a foolish way to build a city; that all streets should be straight and wide and well-distributed. But since they are not, and London is too big for one’s individual exertion to reform, one consents to take interest in explaining the crookedness—in mentally dissolving the great city into the hundred little villages which coalesced to make it; in marking this point as the place where St. Somebody-or-Other knelt and prayed once and therefore there had to be a cross-street here; and this other point as the place where the road swept round because martyrs were wont to be burnt there, etc., etc. The trouble is that after a while one gets to love all that quaint illogical tangle, seeing always the thousand years of history in it; and so one’s senses actually become vitiated enough to permit him to love the outrages of English spelling, because of the features of men’s souls that are imaged therein. When I look at the word “laugh,” I fancy I hear the joyous deep guttural “gha-gha-gha” of the old Saxon who died long before the foreign graft on the English stock softened the “gh” to an “f”!
Really one must become more patient with the “un-system,” knowing how it grew, and feeling that this is the way of Man,—the way he always grows,—not as he ought, but as he can.
I have spoken of forms: word-sounds, word-symbols; as to the spirit of those early writings, full of inarticulate religious sentiment, emotions so strong they burst from the utterer’s throat one might almost say in barks; gloomy and foreboding; these gradually changing to more lightsome fancies,—beauty, delicacy, airiness taking their place, as in the fairy tales and folk-songs of the people, wherein the deeds of supernaturals are sported with, and it becomes evident that love and winsomeness are usurping the kingdom of Power and Fear,—through all we are compelled to observe one constant tendency of the human mind,—the desire to free itself from its own conditions, to be what it is not, to represent itself as something beyond its powers of accomplishment. In their minds, men had wings, and breathed in water, and swam on land, and ate air, and thrived in deserts, and walked through seas, and gathered roses off ice-bergs, and collected frozen dew off the tails of sunbeams, dispersed mountains with mustard seeds of faith, and climbed into solid caves under the rainbow; did everything which it was impossible for them to do.
It is in fact this imaginative faculty which has fore-run the accomplishments of science and while, under the influence of practical experiment and the extension of knowledge such dreams have passed away, this much remains and will long, long remain in humankind, covered over and shamefacedly concealed as much as may be—that men perpetually conceive themselves as chrysalid heroes and wonder workers; and, under strain of occasion, this element crops out in their actions, making them do all manner of curious things which the standard-setters of realism will declare utterly illogical and impossible. Often it is the commonest men who do them.
I have a fondness for realism myself; at least I have a very wicked feeling towards what is called “symbolism,” and various other things which I don’t understand; but as the “Unrealists,” the “Exaggeratists,” the whatever-you-call-them express what I believe to be a very permanent characteristic of humankind, as evidenced in all the traces of its work, I think they probably give quite as true reflections of Man’s Soul as the present favorites.
These early literatures, most of which have of course been lost, were the embryos of our more imposing creations; and it is a pleasant and an instructive thing to follow the unfolding of Monster Tales into Great Religious Literatures; to compare them and see how the same few simple figures, either transplanted or spontaneously produced at different points, evolved into all manner of Creators, Redeemers and miracles in their various altered habitats. No one can so thoroughly appreciate what is in the face of a man turned upward in prayer, as he who has followed the evolution of the black Monster up to that impersonal conception of God prettily called by Quakers “the Inner Light.”
Fairy Tales on the other hand have evolved into allegories and Dramas,—first the dramas of the sky, now the dramas of earth.
Tales of Sexual exploits have become novels, novelettes, short stories, sketches,—a many-expressioned countenance of Man. But the old Heroic Legend,—and the Hero is always the next born after the Monster in the far-back dawn-days, is the lineal progenitor of History,—History which was first the glorification of a warrior and his aids; then the story of Kings, courts, and intrigues; now mostly the report of the deeds of nations in their ugly moods; and to become the record of what people have done in their more amiable moments,—the record of the conquests of peace; how men have lived and labored; dug and built, hewn and cleared, gardened and reforested, organized and coöperated, manufactured and used, educated and amused themselves. Those of us who aspire to be more or less suggesters of social change, are greatly at a loss, if we do not know the face of Man as reflected in history; and I mean as much the reflection of the minds of historians as seen in their histories as the reflection of the minds of others they sought to give; not so much in the direct expression of their opinion either, as in the choice of what they thought it worth while to try to stamp perpetuity upon.
When we read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle these items which are characteristic of the whole:
“A. D. 611. This year Cynegils succeeded to the government in Wessex, and held it 31 winters. Cynegils was the son of Ceol, Ceol of Cutha, Cutha of Cymric.”
“614. This year Cynegils and Cuiehelm fought at Bampton and slew 2046 of the Welsh.”
“678. This year appeared the comet star in August, and shone every morning during three months like a sunbeam. Bishop Wilfred being driven from his bishopric by King Everth, two bishops were consecrated in his stead.”
—when we read these we have not any very adequate conception of what the Anglo-Saxon people were doing; but we have a very striking and lasting impression of what the only men who tried to write history at all in that period of English existence, thought it was worth while to record.
“Cynegils was the son of Ceol, and he of Cutha, and Cutha of Cymric.” It reads considerably like a stock-raiser’s pedigree book. The trouble is, we have no particular notion of Cymric. Probably if we went back we should find he was the son of Somebody. But at any rate, he had a grandson, and the grandson was a king, and the chronicler therefore recorded him. Nothing happened for three years; and then the chronicle records that two kings fought and slew 2046 men. Then comes the momentous year 678 when a comet appeared and a bishop lost his job. No doubt the comet foretold the loss. There are no records of when shoemakers lost their jobs that I know of, nor how many shoemakers were put in their places; and I imagine it would have been at least as interesting for us to know as the little matter of Bishop Wilfred. But the chronicler did not think so; he preserved the Bishop’s troubles—no doubt he did just what the shoemakers of the time would also have done, providing they had been also chroniclers. It is a fair sample of what was in men’s minds as important.—If any one fancies that this disposition has quite vanished, let him pick up any ordinary history, and see how many pages, relatively, are devoted to the doings of persons intent on slaying, and those intent on peaceful occupation; and how many times we are told that certain politicians lost their jobs, and how we are not told anything about the ordinary people losing their jobs; and then reflect whether the old face of Man-the-Historian is quite another face yet.
Biography, as a sort of second offspring of the Hero legend, is another revelation, when we read it, not only to know its subject, but to know its writer,—the standpoint from which he values another man’s life. Ordinarily there is a great deal of “Cynegils the son of Cutha the son of Cymric” in it; and a great deal of emphasis upon the man as an individual phenomenon; when really he would be more interesting and more comprehensible left in connection with the series of phenomena of which he was part. As an example of what to me is a perfect biography, I instance Conway’s Life of Thomas Paine, itself a valuable history. But it is not so correct a mirror of the general attitude of biographers and readers of biography as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, except in so far as it indicates that the great face in the glass is changing.
It is rather the type of what biography is becoming, than what it has been, or is.
There are two divisions of literature which are generally named in one breath, and are certainly closely connected; and yet the one came to highly perfected forms long, long ago, while the other is properly speaking very young; and for all that, the older is the handmaid of the younger. I mean the literatures of philosophy and science.
Philosophy is simply the coördination of the sciences; the formulation of the general, and related principles deduced from the collection and orderly arrangement of the facts of existence. Yet Man had rich literatures of philosophy, while his knowledge of facts was yet so extremely limited as hardly to be worth while writing books about. None of the appearances of Man’s Soul is more interesting than that reflected in the continuous succession of philosophies he has poured out. Let him who reads them, read them always twice; first, simply to know and grasp what is said, to become familiar with the idea as it formed itself in the minds of those who conceived it; second, for the sake of figuring the restless activity of brain, the positive need of the mind under all conditions to formulate what knowledge it has, or thinks it has, into some sort of connected whole. This is one of the most pronounced and permanent features seen in the mirror: the positive refusal of the mind to accept the isolation of existences; no matter how far apart they lie, Man proceeds to spin connecting threads somehow. The woven texture is often comical enough, but the weaver is just as positively revealed in the cobwebs of ancient philosophy as in the reasoning of Herbert Spencer.
Concerning the literature of Science itself, in strict terms, I should be very presumptuous to speak of it, because I know extremely little about it; but of those general popularizations of it, which we have in some of the works of Haeckel, Darwin, and their similars, I should say that beyond the important information they contain in themselves (which surely no one can afford to be in ignorance of) they present the most transformed reflection of Man which any literature gives. Their words are cold, colorless, burdened with the labor of exactness, machine like, sustained, uncompromising, careless of effect. The spirit they embody is like unto them. They offer the image of Man’s Soul in the time while imagination is in abeyance, reason ascendant.
This coldness and quietness sound the doom of poetry. A people which shall be fully permeated with the spirit and word of Science will never conceive great poems. They will never be overcome long enough at a time by their wonder and admiration, by their primitive impulses, by their power of simple impression, to think or to speak poetically. They will never see trees as impaled giants any more; they will see them as evolved descendants of phytoplasm. Dewdrops are no more the jewels of the fairies; they are the produce of condensation under given atmospheric conditions. Singing stones are not the prisons of punished spirits, but problems in acoustics. The basins of fjords are not the track of the anger of Thor, but the pathways of glaciation. The roar and blaze and vomit of Etna, are not the rebellion of the Titan, but the explosion of so and so many million cubic feet of gas. The comet shall no more be the herald of the wrath of heaven, it is a nebulous body revolving in an elliptical orbit of great elongation. Love—love will not be the wound of Cupid, but the manifestation of universal reproductive instincts.
No, the great poems of the world have been produced; they have sung their song and gone their way. Imagination remains to us, but weakened, mixed, tamed, calmed. Verses we shall have,—and many fragments,—fragments of beauty and power; but never again the thunder-roll of the mighty early song. We have the benefits of science; we must have its derogations also. The powerful fragments will be such as deal with the still unexplored regions of Man’s own internity—if I may coin the word. Science is still balking here. But not for long. We shall soon have madmen turned inside out, and their madness painstakingly reduced to so-and-so many excessive or deficient nerve-vibrations per second. Then no more of Pe’s “Raven” and Ibsen’s “Brand.”
I have said that I intended to indicate a wider concept of literature than that generally allowed. So far I have not done it; at least all that I have dealt with is usually mentioned in works on literature. But I wish now to maintain that some very lowly forms of written expression must be included in literature,—always remembering that I am seeking the complete composite of Man’s Soul.
Here then: I include in literature, beside what I have spoken on, not only standard novels, stories, sketches, travels, and magazine essays of all sorts, but the poorest, paltriest dime novel, detective story, daily newspaper report, baseball game account, and splash advertisement.
Oh, what a charming picture of ourselves we see therein! And a faithful one, mind you! Think what a speaking likeness of ourselves was the report of national, international, racial importance—the Jeffries-Johnson fight! Nay, I am not laughing. The people of the future are going to look back at the record a thousand years from now; and say, “This is what interested men in the year 1910.” I wonder which will appear most ludicrous then, Bishop Wilfred in juxtaposition with the comet star, or the destiny of the white race put in jeopardy by a pugilistic contest between one white and one black man! O the bated breath, the expectant eyes, the inbitten lip, the taut muscles, the riveted attention, of hundreds of thousands of people watching the great “scientific” combat. I wonder whether the year 3000 will admire it more or less than the Song of Beowulf and the Battle of Brunanburh.
Consider the soul reflected on the sporting page. Oh, how mercilessly correct it is! Consider the soul reflected on the advertising page. Oh, the consummate liar that strides across it! Oh, the gull, the simpleton, the would-be getter of something for nothing whose existence it argues! Yea, commercial man has set his image therein; let him regard himself when he gets time.
And the body of our reform literature, which really reflects the very best social aspirations of men, how prodigal in words it is,—how indefinite in ideas! How generous of brotherhood—and sisterhood—in the large; how chary in the practice! Do we not appear therein as curious little dwarfs who have somehow gotten “big heads”? Mites gesticulating at the stars and imagining they are afraid because they twinkle. I would not discourage any comrade of mine in the social struggle, but sometimes it is a wholesome thing to reconsider our size.
A word in defense of the silly story. Let us not forget that lowly minds have lowly needs; and the mass of minds are lowly, and have a right to such gratification as is not beyond their comprehension. So long as I do not have to read those stories, I feel quite glad for the sake of those who are not able to want better that such gratification is not denied them. I would not wish to frown the silly story out of existence so long as it is a veritable expression of many people’s need. There are those who have only learned the art of reading at all because of the foolish story. And quite in a side way I learned the other day through the grave assertion of a physician that the ability to read even these, whereby some little refinement of conception is introduced into the idea of love, is one of the restraining influences upon sexual degradation common among poor and ignorant young women. The face of man revealed in them is therefore not altogether without charm, though it may look foolish to us. I said there were some appearances in the Mirror not generally remarked, but which to me are suggestive. One of these is the evident delight of the human soul in smut. In the older literature these things are either badly set down, as law and cursing, as occasionally in the Bible; or they are clothed and mixed with sprightly imaginations as in the tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer; or they are thinly veiled with a possible modest meaning as in the puns of the Shakespearian period; but in our day, they compose a subterranean literature of themselves, like segregated harlots among books. Should I say that I blush for this face of Man? I ought to, perhaps, but I do not: all I say is, the thing is there, a very real, a very persistent image in the glass; no one who looks straight into it can avoid seeing it. Mixed with the humorous, as it often—rather usually—is, it seems to be one of the normal expressions of normal men. We deceive ourselves greatly if we fancy that Man has become purified of such imaginations because they are not used openly in modern dramas and stories, as they were in the older ones.
It may be dangerous to say it, but I believe from the evidence of literature as a whole, that a moderate amount of amusement in smut is a saving balance in the psychology of nearly every man and woman,—a sign of anchorage in a robust sanity, which takes things as they are—and laughs at them. I believe it is a much more wholesome appearance, than that betrayed in our fever-bred stories and sketches which deal with the abnormalities of men, and which are growing more and more in vogue, in spite of our cry about realism.
Personally, I am more interested in the abnormalities, which I find very fascinating. And I am very eager to know whether they will prove to be the result of the abnormal conditions of life which Modern Man has created for himself in his tampering with the forces of nature,—his strenuous industrial existence, his turning of night into day, his whirling himself over the world at a pace not at all in conformity with his native powers of locomotion, and other matters in accordance. Or will they prove to be the revenge of the dammed up, cribbed, cabined, and confined imagination, which can no longer exert itself upon externals,—since the Investigating Man has explained and mastered these or is doing so—and now turns in to wreak frightful wreck upon the mind itself?
At any rate, the fact is that we have some very curious appearances in the Mirror just now; madmen explaining their own madness, diseased men picking apart their own diseases, perverted men analyzing their own perversions, anything, everything but sane and normal men. Does it mean that in our day there is nothing interesting in good health, in well-ordered lives? Or does it mean that the rarest thing in all the world is the so-called normal man, whom tacit consent assumes to be the commonest? That everybody, while outwardly wearing a mask of reputable common sense, is within a raging conglomeration of psychic elements that hurl themselves on one another like hissing flames? Or does it mean simply that the most powerful writers are themselves diseased, and can only paint disease?
I put these questions and do not presume to answer them. I point to the mirror,—the Ibsen Drama, the Andreyev Story, the Maeterlinck Poem, the Artzibashev novel,—and I say the image is there. Explain it as you can.
For the rest, let me recall to you what I told you was my intent:
First: To insist on a more inclusive view of Literature; you see I would have it extended both up and down,—down even to the advertisement, the sporting page, and the surreptitious anecdote,—up to the fullest and most comprehensive statements of the works of reason.
Second: To suggest that readers acquire the habit of reading twice, or at least with a double intent. When serious literature is to be considered, I would insist on actually reading twice; but of course it would be both impractical and undesirable to apply such a method to most of the print we look at.
Those who are confirmed in the habits of would-be critics will have the greatest trouble in learning to read a book from the simple man’s standpoint,—and yet no one can ever form a genuine appreciation of a work who has not first forgotten that he is a critic, and allowed himself to be carried away into the events and personalities depicted therein. In that first reading, also, one should train himself to feel and hear the music of language,—this great instrument which Men have jointly built, and out of which come great organ tones, and trumpet calls, and thin flute notes, sweeping and wailing, an articulate storm—a conjuring key whereby all the passions of the dead, the millions of the dead, have given to the living the power to call their ghosts out of the grave and make them walk. Yea, every word is the mystic embodiment of a thousand years of vanished passion, hope, desire, thought—all that battled through the living figures turned to dust and ashes long ago. Train your ears to hear the song of it; it helps to feel what the writer felt.
And after that read critically, with one eye on the page, so to speak, and the other on the reflection in the mirror, looking for the mind behind the work, the things which interested the author and those he wrote for.
Third: To suggest inquiry into the curious paradox of the people of the most highly evolved scientific and mechanical age taking especial delight in psychic abnormalities and morbidities,—whereby the most utterly unreasonable fictive creation becomes the greatest center of curiosity and attraction to the children of Reason.
A Mirror Maze is literature, wherein Man sees all faces of himself, lengthened here, widened there, distorted in another place, restored again to due proportion, with every possible expression on his face, from abjectness to heroic daring, from starting terror to icy courage, from love to hate and back again to worship, from the almost sublime down to the altogether grotesque,—now giant, now dwarf,—but always with one persistent character,—his superb curiosity to see himself.
From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org
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