CLASSIC AND DECADENT LITERATURE
There are fundamentally
always two kinds of art: the classic and the decadent. "What are called classic," writes
Most people are undoubtedly familiar with the romantic aspect of decadence as exemplified in the music of composers such as Liszt, Beethoven (particularly his late works), Schubert, Chopin, Weber, et al., where 'the whole' is generally subordinated to 'the parts' and sentiment gets the better of form. Likewise most people are familiar with the classicism of Mozart, Haydn, the early Beethoven, and even much of Mendelssohn, where 'the parts' are generally subordinated to 'the whole' and form gets the better of sentiment. This classic/romantic dichotomy is especially apparent in music, but it is also apparent in the arts of poetry, literature, sculpture, architecture, and painting, where one or another of the two creative tendencies is usually found to predominate.
Some artists, it is true, seem to be a subtle combination of both classicism and decadence (to use the more comprehensive term), or at least they display a mostly classic or decadent approach to their respective arts at different stages in their creative lives. But a majority of artists seem to be mainly one or the other, and to remain fairly consistently so, throughout the course of their creative lives. It also seems that the classic tends to alternate with the decadent, and that an epoch in art may be characterized by the prevalence of whichever tendency happens to predominate during that time. On average an art epoch tends to last between twenty and forty years, and each successive epoch becomes a revolt, in one way or another, against the preceding one. This is especially true of the early twentieth century, which heralded in the works of authors like D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, and John Cowper Powys a classical revival in reaction to the predominating tone of fin-de-siècle decadence which had immediately preceded it.
There are, however, always exceptions to the general rule, and one finds certain writers producing works seemingly quite out-of-character with the prevailing tendency of their epoch: writers, for example, like Knut Hamsun, who wrote predominantly classic literature during the last decade of the nineteenth century, and, conversely, Aldous Huxley, who, in his otherworldly and mystical predilections, was arguably an outsider in relation to early twentieth-century classicism! Of course, one could argue that Hamsun, who continued to write in a predominantly classical spirit well into the twentieth century, was really a herald and forerunner of the classical revival, and that Huxley was effectively a protracted extension of fin-de-siècle decadence. But whatever the case, it should be apparent that this general alternation between the two schools of art provides the necessary incentive for each school to flourish in the manner most suited to itself, since without a tension of opposites there would be little or no chance of maintaining either!
I began by citing Havelock Ellis' definitions of the two main kinds of art, and in order to clarify the differences between them, as well as extend our study of this into an investigation of the leading creative tendencies of a number of individual authors, I would like to define, in greater detail, exactly what I consider to be the two chief forms of literary classicism and decadence respectively.
Firstly, there is the classicism of what Ellis calls "The love of natural things", which is to say, the appreciation of nature both as it confronts our vision as external phenomena and our understanding as internal phenomena. Thus these natural phenomena may range over a vast area of experience which encompasses anything from the splendour of a brightly-burning sun glimpsed at midday to the celestial beauty of certain star formations seen at midnight; from the mystery of birth to the mystery of death; from the changing generations of man to the constancy of human life; from the daily intake of food and drink to the daily voiding of excrement and urine, and so on. The love of natural things, which was brought to such a high pitch in the pagan culture of the early Classical Age, only to be superseded by Christian decadence, with its emphasis on the Beyond and the futility of worldly life, finds one of its earliest and most notable Western supporters in Michel de Montaigne, who lived towards the close of the Middle Ages and whose legendary tower, containing thousands of mostly classical writings, provided him with both the necessary vantage-point over and isolation from his age through which to transcend its decadent limitations and, by turning his scholarly attention back towards the ancient Greeks, to indirectly point the way forward towards the long-awaited future revival of the classical ideal, as understood by a love of natural things.
In more recent times, however, one finds this form of classicism brought to a veritable apotheosis in D.H. Lawrence, who must surely rank as one of the few great classic poets of Western literature, as also in some of the works of André Gide, notably Fruits of the Earth, and still more recently in Gide's great classical heir and spiritual disciple, Albert Camus, whose outstanding fictional character, Patrice Mersault, remains one of the most poignant examples of twentieth-century classicism that we possess. With his emphasis on sun and sea, human love and human happiness, sensual enjoyment, travel, frugality, physicality, etc., Camus returns us to the simplicity and ancient nobility of pagan life, and never more seductively so than in lyrical essays like Nuptials (1939) and Summer (1954). "Over the sea," he writes in Nuptials at Tipasa, "hangs the vast silence of . Every beautiful thing has a natural pride in its own beauty, and today the world allows its pride to seep from every pore. Why, in its presence, should I deny the joy of living, if I can avoid enclosing everything in this joy? There is no shame in being happy. But today the fool is king, and I call fools those who fear pleasure." - This indeed is the voice of the classicism we are attempting to define, a voice which has become stronger since the decline of Christian values and which, while by no means the only voice to be heard in the modern world, is certainly one of the loudest!
But there is another voice which runs roughly parallel with what may be termed secular naturalism, and has also become louder in recent times. I refer, of course, to the voice of religious naturalism. This classicism extends beyond the largely aesthetic surface appreciation of nature by those authors dedicated to secular naturalism, and embraces a pantheistic or semi-pantheistic appreciation of it, such as one finds to varying extents in Goethe and Rousseau in the eighteenth century, in Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Arnold in the nineteenth century, and in Hardy, Hesse, and, most poignantly, John Cowper Powys in the twentieth century. This religious aspect of man's relationship to nature is perfectly expressed in Wordsworth's Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, wherein the poet tells of:-
"... a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man."
Likewise we find, in his essay On Nature, Emerson writing: "It seems as if the day was not wholly profane, in which we have given heed to some natural object." - This, then, is the positive side of classical naturalism, the side we find predominating in John Cowper Powys, particularly in works such as The Art of Happiness, A Philosophy of Solitude, and In Defence of Sensuality, where his philosophy of 'Elementalism', or the cult of nature worship, draws our attention to a partly spiritual rather than simply material identification with nature. If D.H. Lawrence stands out as the leading British exponent of profane naturalism in the first-half of the twentieth century, then John Cowper Powys must surely rank as the leading British exponent of religious naturalism - its spiritual counterpart.
However, contemporaneously with the natural form of classicism we find another form, on the whole a less noble and agreeable form but, nevertheless, one which has also made itself increasingly heard in recent years: what might be termed the classicism of social phenomena, or the love of everyday life. If the most suitable term we could find to define the first form of classicism was naturalism, then this second form of it can only be defined in terms of realism, albeit a realism that accepts rather than rejects the society or life it strives to portray. Indeed, such a classical realism regularly delights in the minutiae of everyday commonplace life, committing itself to a portrayal of even the most seemingly trivial actions and situations. It is not the sublime colours of various kinds of flowers, the beauty of a sunset, the mystery of birth and death, or a spiritual identification with plant life which mostly concerns the authors of this school but, on the contrary, such things as the baseness of certain people, the seductive powers of various women, the financial positions of particular individuals, the nature of so-and-so's clandestine amours, etc., which goad their pens into scathing action.
To some extent one might divide this school of writers into nobles and plebeians, or those who, whatever their social background, grant most of their literary attention to the portrayal of grand-bourgeois and upper-class life and, conversely, those who grant most of it to the portrayal of working-class and petty-bourgeois life. This distinction is, I believe, relatively significant, because it helps us to know whether the realism in question is likely to be clean or dirty, proud or humble, prim or obscene, rich or poor, choice or vulgar, etc. etc., according to the context. The most typical examples of the 'noble' classical-realist tradition are authors such as Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Turgenev, Henry James, and Thomas Mann, while the tradition of 'plebeian' classical realism calls to mind authors like Dickens, Balzac, Zola, Hamsun, Joyce, and Henry Miller. Obviously there are exceptions and borderline cases, and no-one can be classified as wholly one thing or another. But, for purposes of a fairly tenable categorization, such generalizations are not without some merit.
Having briefly dealt with the main classical literary approaches based solely on theme, it is now time for us to examine, in slightly greater detail, their decadent and more prevalent antitheses, which, at least in one of their popular manifestations, correspond to what Havelock Ellis defines as: "The research for the things which seem to lie beyond Nature." As I attempted to describe the classic forms in a given order, I shall do the same with their decadent counterparts, and thereby endeavour to highlight the corresponding antitheses to each classic form.
Firstly we have the decadence which stands in opposition to
profane naturalism, the decadence, namely, of profane antinaturalism
and aestheticism. One finds here a
predominating tone of disgust with natural facts and occurrences, a revolt
against the natural-world-order, against the apparent beauty or utility of
various natural phenomena, against the imposition to eat, drink, sleep,
copulate, urinate, defecate, etc., which invariably characterizes the
lifestyles of human beings. It's as
though man, the eternal slave of nature, wishes to overcome nature, to live, in
a spirit of reckless defiance, outside of and beyond it. A very clear example of this disgust with the
natural-world-order, particularly that aspect of it entailing defecation, is to
be found in Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century. But more recent examples undoubtedly include
Baudelaire, Wilde, Huysmans, Beckett, Genêt, and Sartre, whose various natural bêtes noires confirm their respective claims to the kind of decadence
we are characterizing by disgust with natural phenomena. In the late-nineteenth century this disgust
reached a veritable apogee with Huysmans' Against
the Grain, whose leading character, Des Esseintes,
contrives to live in complete solitude in his specially-designed villa at Fontenay, to pass much of his time there in a
highly-sophisticated aesthetic contemplation of certain choice works, both
literary and plastic, and to avoid, as far as possible, any direct contact with
the outside world. Unfortunately for
him, this life of aesthetic sophistication - with its unbounded admiration for
such hyperdecadent artists and poets as Redon, Luyken, Moreau, Poe,
Baudelaire, and Mallarmé - eventually leads to a
series of nervous crises which, in their final consummation, make it imperative
for him to return to the less-unnatural world of Parisian society from which he
had so earnestly fled. As is well known,
Against the Grain was to have a profound influence on Oscar Wilde, and
his Picture of Dorian Gray, though less decadent than its great French
prototype, nevertheless brought this kind of writing to a head in
However, with the general change of literary approach to one of classicism in the early decades of the next century, profane antinaturalism, though not entirely vanquished, played a much-less pervasive role. But its voice began to reappear from time to time in the 'thirties, and never more unashamedly so than in Sartre's Nausea (1938). Like the protagonist of Huysmans' novel, Antoine Roquentin lives against the grain. But he lives against the grain of life as life rather than as time spoilt by human folly, without even the consolation or raison d'être of the sophisticated aestheticism which Huysmans' tragic character reserves for himself. If human folly is a sufficiently strong motive to drive Des Esseintes into a monk-like isolation from society, in order to lead a life he considers to be of some intrinsic value (the Nietzschean overtones of which are impossible to ignore), the only motive strong enough to isolate Roquentin from humanity is the sheer absurdity of life itself, the apparent pointlessness of an existence which exists for no other reason than its inability not to exist, and the contemplation of which engenders that disgust and revolt epitomized by the word 'nausea'. When, trapped in a moment of such nausea in the local park at Bouville, Roquentin shouts: "What filth! What filth!", it is with all the poignant anguish of one who realizes that existence is eternal and inescapable, and that it's therefore impossible for anything, including the idea of existence, not to exist. The man is virtually suffocating in the oppressive consciousness of existence, which, aggravated by the realization that external phenomena are like masks over the uniform substance of things, is as apparent in the sight of a gnarled tree root as in the rest of the tree itself. Fortunately for him, however, this oppressive consciousness is an intermittent rather than a permanent condition, so Roquentin is enabled to breathe a clearer air, so to speak, once the 'nausea' has passed.
While discussing Sartre's general approach to decadence, which is essentially Protestant in character, it is worth drawing attention to his psychoanalytical biography of Baudelaire, a key work in the understanding of decadent consciousness. For by dwelling on the psychological rather than the purely material or factual aspects of his subject's life, Sartre lays bare the underlining consciousness of profane antinaturalism with a sureness and deftness only to be expected from a profoundly kindred spirit. Speculative though much of the work may be, we are inexorably led towards the conclusion that the dedication and fastidiousness with which Baudelaire applied himself to the regulation of his decadent lifestyle - and thus to the perpetuation of a calculated degree of spiritual sterility (aecidia) - was of such a magnitude as to make even the lifestyle of Huysmans' Des Esseintes appear comparatively naturalistic!
As a spiritual counterpart to the above-mentioned types of decadence and antithesis to the classicism we defined as religious naturalism, we find the decadence of supernaturalism, or religious antinaturalism. Unlike its profane cousin, this is a positive decadence, and one which, since the decline of Christianity (hitherto its chief Western manifestation), has increasingly come to be identified with spiritualism, visionary experience, mysticism, astrology, the occult, etc. With an emphasis on that which seems to lie beyond nature, supernaturalism has been championed by poets and writers such as William Blake, August Strindberg, J.K. Huysmans, Barbey D'Aurevilly, George William Russell (A.E.), W.B. Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Dennis Wheatley, and Colin Wilson, each with his own particular field of investigation. Thus, for example, we find William Blake and George William Russell bringing to their writings the fruits of mystical and visionary experience more usually perceived by artists, that is to say, on a lower plane than the predominantly religious natures. In this context, mysticism is identified with partial experience of the Godhead, or World Soul, through meditation of a less pure and impersonal kind than with the non-artistic and predominantly religious natures, while visionary experience is likewise identified with psychic spectacles of a less pure and impersonal kind: human figures, chimeras, transparent fruit, palaces, sickle moons, etc., which are individually illuminated from the inside by variously- or uniformly-coloured lights that set them off against a dark background. Or, alternatively, with spectacles of magnificent landscapes, seascapes, or airscapes which are embellished with self-luminous objects, like gems. The highest visionary experience tends to involve the contemplation of an intensely pure inner light, but, as a rule, this is not the visionary experience given to artists.
Indeed, it is primarily on account of his knowledge about such psychic phenomena that we are justified in placing Aldous Huxley in the context of the kind of decadence we're now discussing. For although he passed his life devoid of any genuine mystical or visionary experience, his interest in and knowledge about such matters makes him an invaluable source of information to anyone anxious to acquire a general outline of what they entail and whom they concern. (It is interesting to note that the change of visual orientation Huxley experienced through the judicious use of mescaline, as described in The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell, admits him, via the contemplation of a few flowers in a small glass vase, to "The miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence", which, in complete contrast to the naked existence experienced by Antoine Roquentin in Nausea, is "Neither agreeable nor disagreeable. It just is.")
Similarly one might argue that the sceptical Huysmans (not the later Catholic convert) possessed a tendency to investigate and relate that which was fundamentally alien to his fundamental nature, and nowhere more clearly so than in the novel Down Below (Là Bas), where, largely in consequence of his historical research into the life and crimes of the notorious fifteenth-century Satanist, Gilles de Rais, its leading character, Durtal, becomes acquainted with late-nineteenth-century Satanism, though purely as an outsider. Here, too, we find Huysmans confined, as an artist, to a mainly objective knowledge of occult phenomena, since a high degree of subjective knowledge here would inevitably have turned him into a religious propagandist and thereby prevented him from functioning as a genuine writer. Conversely we find that Yeats, who was definitely a genuine writer, laid claim to a certain amount of subjective knowledge in spiritualism, and certainly his experiments in psychical research would seem to make him less of a 'spiritual outsider' than most other spiritually-inclined writers. But, even so, there was much of the sceptic about Yeats and, though spiritualism may have appealed to his curiosity, it is doubtful that he would have become such an important poetic figure in early-twentieth-century literature had he allowed it to play a greater role in his life and writings than it apparently did. And the same, I suspect, may be held true of Strindberg, whose Occult Diary stands as a fairly isolated phenomenon in an otherwise predominantly rational output.
However, let us now progress to the second form of decadence, a decadence which may also be subdivided into a positive and a negative approach, and deal, firstly, with what we shall term positive antirealism - the antithesis of 'noble' classical realism. This type of decadence also has a number of branches at its disposal, but each of them is dedicated to the sole end of transcending, on as imaginative a plane as possible, the usual references to the everyday reality of the classical realist. Thus it is a positive decadence because, like the supernaturalism referred to above, it does not directly attack its antithesis but, on the contrary, seeks to overcome it through the establishment of its own unique world, an imaginary world with a realism peculiar to itself.
The most famous contemporary example of this kind of writing is
undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
- a work of such imaginative scope as to be virtually in a class by
itself. Frankly, there is nothing in the
comparative decadent literature of any age or time that can be placed by the
side of this colossal feat of the imagination, and the human race may have to
wait many years yet, before anything of equal import is produced, assuming
anything like that could ever be produced again. For in this sphere of creativity, Tolkien has no peer.
He is virtually a god, a monster of the imagination whose other works,
including The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham, and The Silmarillion, both confirm and consolidate his
reputation as the foremost imaginative author of the age. (To the extent that
we are categorizing various authors according to their leading creative
tendencies, it should be apparent that, inasmuch as his creative life was
solely dedicated to this particular branch of antirealism, Tolkien
is one of the easiest and most clear-cut authors to categorize.) Other examples of this kind of decadence
include Lewis Carroll's
However, with this highly imaginative branch of positive antirealism, which mostly appeals to children, there exists another and more adult branch, which again comes in various guises and which may be characterized by creations, on the one hand, like Goethe's Faust, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and Lautréamont's Maldoror (whose omnipotent hero is able to do anything from turning himself into a cricket in Paris drains, to swinging Mervyn, a helpless victim of his spleen, around on the end of a rope on the top of the Vendôme Column, with a view to precipitating him, projectile-like, in the general direction of the Panthèon), and by creations, on the other hand, like Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. The first type tends to involve men or beings who have been supernaturally endowed with special powers, usually to the detriment of other men, while the second type, in complete contrast, focuses one's attention on the struggle between men and nonhuman or subhuman aggressors who are stronger and more formidable than their human adversaries. In both cases, an unreal world is created, but unlike that of Tolkien's hobbits, which is pure fantasy, it is one in which human beings are directly involved and, as a consequence, usually in a context not terribly far removed from the bounds of plausibility.
But there exists, in addition to these otherworldly interpretations of positive antirealist decadence, another interpretation which, while providing one with a glimpse into a different world from that usually portrayed in classical realism, nevertheless remains more attached to the real world than to any imaginary one. I refer, of course, to the 'romantic' decadence of authors such as Gerard de Nerval, whose Journey to the Orient unfolds vast worlds of exotic experience not to be encountered between the pages of Stendhal, Flaubert (except in Salammbô), Proust, or Henry James. One could of course argue that works like Journey to the Orient are essentially classic, insofar as they endeavour to portray, objectively and unmaliciously, a society existing abroad rather than the one into which the author was born. But, on deeper reflection, it does seem that the desire to portray a society other than one's own is fundamentally or implicitly a rejection or, at the very least, criticism of that society, and therefore something that can only be interpreted in terms of 'romantic' decadence: the need to turn one's back on familiar reality and, in consequence, explore the relatively unfamiliar reality of a different people.
Another more striking example of this 'romantic' interpretation of positive antirealism, however, can be found in works which either take one back in time to 'the Culture' or to 'the Civilization' (in the Spenglerian sense of those terms as described in The Decline of the West) of a remote society, or forward in time to what the author supposes a future society will be like. Flaubert's Salammbô is an excellent example of this tendency from the historical point-of-view, while Hesse's The Glass Bead Game endeavours to portray an elite society of ultra-refined intellectuals who live, a few centuries hence, completely isolated from the everyday world of commerce in a civilization (Castalia) dedicated to the study, appreciation, assessment, and, where possible, manipulation of what is best in Western culture. The devotees of this cult of the past do not, as a rule, create anything original themselves. For as members of a late 'Civilization' they are obliged to sustain themselves on the accumulated cultural wealth of earlier centuries, rather like the ancient Greeks during the Hellenistic period. To some extent they are future Diderôts, compilers of a vast 'encyclopaedia' of Western culture; an achievement, however, which is destined to be discarded, along with its compilers, the 'Bead Game' players, come the dawn of a subsequent 'Culture'.
It is worth noting that Hesse, the outstanding master of this branch of antirealism, had previously taken us back to the world of Medieval Germany, to the heart of the Western 'Culture', in his novel Narziss and Goldmund, where Goldmund, its principal character, carves a picaresque-like role for himself in blatantly heathenistic opposition to the prevailing Zeitgeist, through his desire for sensual gratification. The ascetic Narziss and the hedonistic Goldmund, representing the contrary claims of spirit and body, are finally reconciled, however, when Goldmund, certain to be executed for crimes appertaining to his former lifestyle, is rescued from prison by Narziss and brought back to the monastic order from which he had sought worldly escape: a sort of Des Esseintes in reverse, from spirit to body and back to spirit again. One might say that whereas the body ultimately triumphs (through Joseph Knecht's resignation from the Castalian order) in 'the Civilization' of The Glass Bead Game, it is the spirit which is compelled to triumph (through Goldmund's reconciliation with the monastic order) in 'the Culture' of Narziss and Goldmund, and so we are made conscious of the profound logic and inevitability of the events underlining its impressive dénouement.
Having dealt with the chief branches of the decadence we have described as positive antirealism, it is now time for us to deal with its spiritual counterpart, which we shall describe as negative antirealism. This type of decadence stands in an antithetical relationship to what we earlier termed 'plebeian' classical realism, and its chief manifestations inevitably take the guise of defeatism, rebellion, and satire. Now whereas the 'plebeian' classical-realist attitude more or less accepts the society it portrays or, at any rate, doesn't unduly attack it, the negative antirealist attitude makes an attack on society its very raison d'être, the lifeblood of its tragic inspiration. Such a book, for example, as Celine's Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au Bout de la Nuit), belongs very much to the class of defeatist literature, a class which has proliferated, this century, with the spread of megalopolitan civilization, and which can be traced, in varying forms, to the works of authors like Kafka, Beckett, and Ionesco. The predominating tone of such literature seems to imply a disgust with megalopolitan society, a world-weariness, a fatalistic feeling of "What's the use?", coupled to an almost apocalyptic pessimism concerning the future course of world events and man's helplessness in the face of the mechanistic hell he has unleashed upon himself. Indeed, there is more than a hint of this tone in various of the writings of Henry Miller, T.S. Eliot, and J.K. Huysmans too, although not to the extent that one generally finds it in the aforementioned authors.
But if disgust with and despair at a society best characterize the defeatist decadents, then it is above all in their contempt for and indifference towards a society that we find what could be called the rebellious decadents most characterized, and nowhere more tellingly so than in George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose mock-hero, Gordon Comstock, turns his back on the money-worshipping commercial society of his day to pursue a career, doomed from the outset, of lyric poet on a meagre salary secured by his humble position as book-shop assistant. The rebellious young Comstock is fundamentally a late-romantic in a society which has long ceased to have any romantic pretensions, to produce, understand, or revere great poets, and, as such, his career goes from bad to worse, losing him one job after another, until, reduced to the meanest of book shops, he is finally brought to his senses by the love of a young woman he has made pregnant and whom, as a last resort, he decides to marry. The materialistic society from which he had tried to flee may not have been conducive to the fostering of his romantic ambitions as a poet, but it was still capable of exhibiting the redeeming power of womanly love, that eternal theme of the generations, and so, thanks in part to the generosity of his previous employer, our mock-hero returns to the money-dominated world of advertising he had earlier rejected. A moral here there may well be, but, realist that he was, Orwell also had a strong streak of the genuine romantic about him, and this is certainly apparent when we consider his horrified reaction, voiced in the essay Inside the Whale, to the social passivity, resignation, and seeming indifference of Henry Miller with regard, for example, to the existence of concentration camps, purges, putsches, totalitarian regimes, weapons of mass destruction, etc., which he was unable to accept or face with the same apparent complacency. But nowhere is this romantic streak more evident than in his practical opposition to Franco which, to the utter bewilderment of Miller, led him to venture out in the name of democracy, to do battle with what he would have considered to be an authoritarian ogre.
There are, of course, other examples of rebellious antirealist decadence to be found in Orwell, and to some extent one also finds this tendency in authors like Hamsun (Hunger), and Hesse (Steppenwolf), though with a very different emphasis in each case. I think, for example, the plight of Harry Haller in Steppenwolf becomes easier to understand once one sees this work in relation to what follows it, that is to say, once one sees the contemporaneousness of its setting in relation, on the one hand, to the past 'Culture' of Narziss and Goldmund and in relation, on the other hand, to the envisaged future 'Civilization' of The Glass Bead Game, and thereby realizes that, as a man caught between two ages in a transitional period from, symbolically speaking, the spirit to the body, Harry Haller had a lot to learn about the body and, as a consequence of the spirit's predominance in the recent past of the Western 'Culture' - not to mention, if one takes Haller for Hesse, in the history of his own deeply religious family - was neither particularly happy nor, despite his previous (failed) marriage, really conditioned to do so. ("Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, between two modes of life and thus loses the feeling for itself, for the self-evident, for all morals, for being safe and innocent." - Here, in his preface to Steppenwolf lies the key to what follows.) I think the fact that the body, symbolized by the world, finally 'wins out', thanks in large measure to the assistance of Hermine, Maria, Pablo, et al., should be seen as a pointer towards The Glass Bead Game where, in strict accordance with the prevalence of an advanced 'Civilization', Joseph Knecht ultimately resigns from his post as 'Magister Ludi', thereby signifying the triumph of the body over the spirit. For the cause of Haller's dilemma centres, it seems to me, on the battle between 'Culture-man' and 'Civilization-man', and, in accordance with the historical change destined for the Western soul, the latter was ultimately fated to gain the ascendancy.
Hesse is unquestionably one of the
Western world's greatest authors and, for no small reason, one of the most
maligned and misunderstood. I do not
think he is likely to be seen in his true stature by anyone not well acquainted
with the works of Spengler and Jung. For the literary surface of
The meaning of satire is, I think, sufficiently appreciated by a majority of people not to warrant any additional explanation here, and very few of us would be ignorant of the satirical qualities to be encountered in authors like Swift and Pope, where the vices and follies of various persons are held up to ridicule in the clearest of critical lights. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that satire is a relatively rare product of the creative imagination, demanding from its exponent a degree of intellectual sophistication of sufficient magnitude to carry weight in an area where attacks on society or individuals can all-too-easily degenerate into or remain mere attacks, without the power to convince one of their moral legitimacy. Thus the great satirist is ever a first-rate critic, but a critic whose criticism could never be confounded with malice for the sake of malice, or vengefulness as a consequence of former hurts, or prejudice against particular people, or propaganda in the interests of personal belief, political allegiance, etc. The essential thing is that we should come to understand and appreciate the fundamental logic underlining a satirist's criticisms. For true satire has nothing to do with that kind of writing, so easily mistaken for it, which merely acquaints one with the personal prejudices, grudges, revolutionary ambitions, or whatever, of its author. Works in that category are almost invariably in the guise of either defeatist or rebellious decadence, both of which we briefly investigated above.
I think one of the best examples of genuine satirical writing can be found in Strindberg's The Red Room, a novel published in 1879 which virtually lampoons everything from the civil service to brotherly love, from art criticism to publishing, from journalism to politics, and from Stockholm society to acting. Indeed, there seems to be little that doesn't fall for a scathing criticism of one sort or another in this daring novel, which must surely rank as one of the greatest satires ever written, and certainly one of the finest creative achievements of a man whose imaginative genius was virtually unparalleled in the entire history of nineteenth-century literature.
Another fine example of modern satire is Wyndham Lewis' The Roaring Queen, the publication of which, scheduled to take place sometime in the 'thirties, was held-up for a number of years on account of the 'libellous nature' of its criticism of Arnold Bennett who, in the 'infamous' role of Shodbutt, is made the chief representative of a species of literary dictatorship which Lewis, seemingly, was unable to stomach. Other works by this outstanding satirist of modern times, including Tarr (which Ezra Pound considered a masterpiece), are also worth noting in the context of negative antirealism, the decadent antithesis, you will recall, to what we earlier described as 'plebeian' classical realism.
We have discovered, then, a perspective relating to the various modes of literary activity which enables us to differentiate between the two kinds of literature, viz. the classic and the decadent, and, further, to divide them into two forms, viz. the naturalist and the realist, which we in turn subdivided, on the one hand, into profane and religious, and, on the other hand, into 'noble' and 'plebeian' types, providing, in each case, the appropriate decadent antithesis. We also discovered that each literary form, whether in terms of the classic or the decadent, could be divided into a positive and a negative approach. Thus we agreed that the type of classical naturalism which dealt with the love of natural phenomena on a religious plane, as pantheism or elementalism, was positive in relation to the purely profane or secular appreciation of nature encountered in its classical counterpart. Likewise we discovered that the decadent antithesis to each classical form could also be divided into a positive and a negative approach. And so we agreed that the type of anti-natural decadence which dealt with a hatred of natural phenomena was negative in relation to supernaturalism, its decadent counterpart, which took a distinctly positive stand in the investigation of or belief in worlds apparently existing beyond the boundaries of the everyday one. With these particular divisions and subdivisions at our disposal, we were able to classify various authors in terms of what we took to be their leading creative tendencies. But in so doing, we were obliged to accept the fact that, in a majority of cases, such classifications could only serve as loose guidelines, as rough approximations to an author's main creative approach rather than as immutable criteria by which to place him in a definitive category. To be sure, we found that certain authors, such as Camus and Tolkien, could be classified more easily in this manner than others, like, for example, Huysmans and Hesse (whose works were divisible into two or more categories), and although we satisfied ourselves that these others have been classified in the most suitable way within the confines of a given form, we are not beyond acknowledging the fact that contrary approaches to literature can also be encountered in various of their writings, albeit to a much lesser extent.
Finally, it is important for us to remember that, thus far, our categorizations have been based solely on thematic material within the sphere of literature, not on syntax, vocabulary, formal structure, etc. Thus we have confined ourselves to the essence of literature. Also, except in passing, we have not presumed to touch upon the relative classic/decadent dichotomy in art, music, architecture, or sculpture, which, were we competent to deal with such subjects in a similar way, would necessitate a considerable extension to the current essay! In this context it must suffice us to realize that a dichotomy between the two main creative norms does indeed exist within all of the other arts, though, needless to say, not in exactly the same way as with literature. Similarly, it must suffice us to realize that a parallel division can be found in philosophy between the, as it were, classical philosophy of the philosopher whose work directly relates to life and can in some way affect the life of its time in a positive manner and, conversely, the decadent philosophy of the philosopher whose work exists in a kind of ivory tower of thought-for-thought's sake, without any real or positive applicability to the life of its time.
But let us now briefly turn our attention to the question of
vocabulary, syntax, phraseology, etc., in literature, so as to differentiate
between the classic and the decadent approaches to style. You will recall that I cited
I think this fact is made amply clear when we contrast the predominantly classic prose of a novel like Madame Bovary with the predominantly decadent prose of Against the Grain, the extremely well-chosen, expansive, tortured and tortuous vocabulary, complex syntax, methodical phraseology, and unusual, not to say unique, formal structure of which signify the veritable apotheosis of the decadent style. It appears, from a general survey of decadent literature, that the chief hallmarks of its style can usually be found in the use of rhetorical effusions, highly technical expressions, exotic references, carefully-selected adjectives and adverbs, esoteric foreign words-and-phrases, elongated sentences, and a structure which has been subordinated to the interests of the parts; whilst a similar scrutiny of classic literature will indicate, by contrast, that the chief hallmarks of its style are usually to be found in the use of short, simple sentences, exact rather than hyperbolic utterances, relatively simple adjectives and adverbs, parts that are subordinated to the interests of the overall structure, an appropriately formal or conventional syntax - in short, by the use of moderate as opposed to extreme techniques. One might contend, furthermore, that the authors of a classical subject-matter tend to employ a classic technique, those of a decadent subject-matter a decadent technique, though this is by no means invariably the case, as can be seen, for example, by the predominance of decadent prose in James Joyce's Ulysses, which, thematically considered, is essentially a classic work, and, conversely, by the mainly classic prose of J.R.R.Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which fundamentally belongs to the realm of the decadent.
However, whatever the technique and subject-matter of any given work may happen to be, there inevitably arises a serious question relating to the comparative merits of the two kinds of literature: the question, namely, as to whether the classic and the decadent are of equal importance or whether, artistically speaking, the former is superior to the latter? Havelock Ellis was of the opinion that they were of equal value in the stream of Western literature, but I incline to the view that the classic is generally artistically superior to the decadent. There are, I fully admit, examples of decadent literature which, like The Lord of the Rings and The Glass Bead Game tower above many shorter and lesser classic works. But, on the whole, it seems to me that the subject-matter and technical treatment of classic literature must inevitably grant it precedence over the corresponding attributes of the decadent. Naturally, one's taste or temperament may predispose one to prefer the decadent, even to loathe the classic. But I do not seriously believe that it would entitle one to consider the decadent of equal artistic value to that which, by dint of its intrinsic proportion, beauty, wholesomeness, pertinence, and relative positivity, must always remain the perfect art!