Literary Equivalents

 

MARK: I used to believe, like Oscar Wilde and a fair number of nineteenth-century intellectuals, that man was at bottom good.But these days I'm not so sure.

COLIN: To me, the idea that man is naturally good is one of the worst illusions of the nineteenth century!For the more natural a man is, the more correspondingly evil is he.At bottom, man is anything but good.Rather, he is sensual, lazy, mean, vindictive, mendacious, lecherous, violent, and quite a number of other disagreeable things to boot!No, if you want to discover what is good in man, you must consider what progress he has made towards a more artificial state-of-affairs.You must look at the extent to which civilization is manifest in him, consider what he has done to overcome and transcend nature.The pernicious idea that man is naturally good stems, in large measure, from Rousseau and his cult of the 'noble savage'.Sheer nonsense, of course!Nonetheless, a fair number of people have seen fit to believe it.

MARK: Well, you and I evidently know better.We needn't make any rash attempts to return to nature in order to purge ourselves, as it were, of civilized values, like D.H. Lawrence.

COLIN: No, we must look to the progress of civilization as a means to making us better, to gradually overcoming our baser self.Everything that is good has to be struggled after, it doesn't come naturally.

MARK: So, presumably, all religious, political, aesthetic, social, and scientific progress presupposes a struggle?

COLIN: Indeed it does!And a very difficult one at times, too!Like those fish that swim against the current, we have to struggle against nature if we are to progress upstream, so to speak.For that is the only way to get beyond nature and thus embrace the supernatural, which is commensurate with salvation.

MARK: A statement that doubtless applies as much to literary progress as to any other?

COLIN: Certainly!Literature is only meaningful to the extent that it reflects contemporary progress away from earlier values and norms.Once literature was a matter of illusion, with imaginary characters, settings, plots, et cetera, in an unashamedly narrative unfolding.Now, on the other hand, it is increasingly becoming, in the hands of the better writers, a matter of truth, with autobiographical, philosophical, propagandist, and factually descriptive content.It hasn't ceased to be literature just because it now takes quite the opposite form it used to - any more, for that matter, than art has ceased to be art with the development of non-representational tendencies.Rather, it is the highest kind of literature that has ever been written, because factual rather than fictitious, subjective rather than objective.These days I dislike the term 'fiction' immensely, since it connotes with something outmoded, anachronistic, bourgeois, commercial.Naturally it is still being written and read, but not by the more enlightened or evolved people!If the latter read literature at all, it's more likely to be of the factually subjective variety, whereas the less enlightened require objective fictions, since they are accustomed to being phenomenally selfless rather than noumenally selfish, and only really relate to the objective.

MARK: No doubt, women figure prominently in the latter category?

COLIN: They do, which isn't altogether surprising since the majority of women live a century or two behind men intellectually.For whereas men were into fiction in a big way during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these days women are the main readers and writers of fiction, men having, in the meantime, evolved to more strictly intellectual, philosophical, factual works.That is basically as it should be.For there is ever a gap between men and women, a gap which only the most mendacious or stupid of people would attempt to deny!However, instead of being a straight sexually dualistic gap, these days, it is one formed on the positive, masculine side of the dualistic divide, so that the balance of the sexes has tipped over, as it were, in favour of the male, and women are increasingly being regarded as 'lesser men', actual men having effectively become, through a corresponding evolutionary progression, 'greater men'.

MARK: And these 'greater men' are more likely to read novels by, say, Henry Miller or Arthur Koestler than by Agatha Christie or Barbara Cartland, and her cartload of books, are they?

COLIN: Oh yes, that has to be admitted!I, myself, waded through the bulk of Henry Miller's literary oeuvre some years ago, and very fond of it I was too!As an artist, Miller undoubtedly ranks with the most subjective writers of the century.

MARK: And do you really consider him an artist, not just, as some people would contend, a writer?

COLIN: Most definitely!As already remarked, the criteria of literature may undergo radical change with the demands of contemporary life, but that doesn't prevent the result from being literature in any higher sense, nor its creator from being an artist.To be sure, Henry Miller may have scorned the traditional criteria of novel-writing more consistently and thoroughly than a majority of his contemporaries.But that is simply a reflection of his greatness as a modern author, and shouldn't lead us to regard his work as bogus literature - as autobiography rather than novel-writing.Autobiography there is certainly no shortage of in Miller's work, but it tends to take the place of fictional narrations, becoming their factual replacement.So, of course, does the philosophical content, which becomes an intellectual accompaniment to the autobiography, preventing the monotony that would otherwise arise.Perhaps there has always been a philosophical content in the best literature, which, if so, is to be commended, since it testifies to a straining towards supernatural subjectivity and, hence, the Holy Ghost.With the twentieth century, however, it has gradually expanded, and to the point, in novels like Huxley's Island, of playing the leading role and becoming the novel's raison d'Ítre.Reactionaries may have expressed disapproval of this trend, but it is perfectly legitimate, and nothing they say can put the clocks back, so to speak.All they are doing, in the last analysis, is expressing their own backwardness, leaving a record, on the minds of the more evolved, of their traditional position, which is akin to that of representational as opposed to abstract art.

MARK: Yes, I entirely agree!But literature continues to progress and presumably the more autobiographical and/or philosophical it becomes, the higher it stands in relation to the past.

COLIN:Yes, that is my view at any rate!Henry Miller's novels continued to develop in subjective terms, showing little or no interest in traditional criteria.Curiously it is often the way with Americans that they latch-on to new trends with an eagerness and thoroughness which Europeans rarely if ever experience, or only come around to gradually ... after the Americans have paved the way.Miller's novels stand head-and-shoulders above those of the majority of his contemporaries and are scarcely bettered even now, some decades after his last important work.In England, there was Huxley who, though less radical than Miller, showed a willingness, with time, to expand his novels philosophically, so that his late-period works, written, interestingly enough, in America, rank as his best.France had Sartre, whose first novel Nausea broke with traditional literary criteria more radically than any of his subsequent ones ever did.In Germany and later Switzerland, Hesse forged new paths both autobiographically and philosophically, his work inevitably culminating in The Glass Bead Game, one of the most philosophical novels of all time.Other progressive authors, including Arthur Koestler, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, and Colin Wilson, have likewise expanded the autobiographical and philosophical elements in their writings, producing work which rank with the best.We have not yet, of course, witnessed the culmination of literature, though, when we do, the results will be even less like traditional narrative novels than is currently the case.The progress of what, for want of a better term, we may call avant-garde writing isn't unaccompanied, however, by the continuation, on higher and more complex terms, of fictitious writing, such as one finds in the novels of Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, and Kingsley Amis.In this transitional age the two kinds of writings, roughly corresponding to proletarian and bourgeois alternatives, tend to co-exist and even overlap, so that traditional elements sometimes enter the writings of the progressives and, conversely, revolutionary elements those of the traditionalists.

MARK: Though, in England, we don't seem to have an equivalent of Henry Miller, do we?I mean, we haven't yet produced an artist with such a radically autobiographical and philosophical style.

COLIN: I disagree!As the British equivalent to Henry Miller I would suggest the late Malcolm Muggeridge, who, curiously enough, was Miller's exact contemporary.Now, as an artist, he is underrated by the literary conservatives, which isn't altogether surprising, since they cannot conceive of literary excellence in factually subjective terms but are all the time measuring artists according to the fictional yardstick of the past.And yet, from the contemporary autobiographical and philosophical standpoint, there can be few writers, in Britain or elsewhere, who are more deserving of comparison with Henry Miller.His two-volume Chronicles of Wasted Time would not look out-of-place beside the latter's Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy as an example of modern autobiographical literature at its best.Neither would Like it Was, the selection of writings from his diaries, clash violently with Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, or, for that matter, Quiet Days in Clichy, the diary-like records Miller left of his Paris years.To be sure, there is something about Muggeridge's preoccupation with autobiography which suggests a disdain for more traditional or conventional modes of composition, including the strictly fictional.Furthermore, the literary analogy we have drawn between the two men can be extended to include their temperaments, their intellectual casts, their attitudes to and experiences in life, which resulted in the development of a religious bias, a striving for deeper meaning to the riddle of life than could be gleaned from acquiescence in the world, and particularly the work-a-day world, at its objective face-value.Both men passionately threw themselves into everyday life, working at a number of jobs in a variety of contexts, but each grew to regard their duties and experiences there with an ironic detachment, if not downright repugnance, and proceeded to seek ways of extricating themselves from the humdrum in pursuance of lasting ideals.In Miller's case, oriental mysticism came to take the place of sex as a solution to his discontent and promise of personal fulfilment, while Muggeridge, always too English at heart to try anything so radical, turned away from his earlier interest in Communism towards Christianity and the attainment of a personal faith in the Christian Way.He was, of course, too much of an individualist and possibly too intelligent to ever be an orthodox Christian, though he converted to Catholicism in later life.But his striving after spiritual values marks him out as a man, like Miller, for whom religious belief came to signify a more important acquisition, in the world, than any allegiance to materialist values.There is, in consequence, about both men a staunch bourgeois cast, a final settling of accounts with life in middle-class terms: the American rounding off his life, through oriental mysticism, in the more radical and possibly eccentric spirit of his people; the Englishman rounding off his, through Roman Catholicism, in conformity with bourgeois criteria.

MARK: And yet there is also about Muggeridge something of the enfant terrible, the rebel, the outsider, the guilty conscience of his class which, even now, prevents him from being entirely respectable from a middle-class point of view.It is as though his public reputation largely rested on notoriety in controversy, and had to be sustained on that basis, so that, as you implied, his Christianity was rather unorthodox and he remained something of a rebel even in old age.

COLIN: An opinion which may also be said to apply to Henry Miller who, as an American, represented a still more radical deviation from the norms of bourgeois propriety.Yet even though neither of them could be wholly tamed and forced into the fold of complacent bourgeois respectability, nonetheless they remain firmly anchored to their class and are now regarded as honourable, distinguished members of it.No doubt, every class requires internal critics and guilty consciences to keep it in check or, at the very least, remind it of what it's doing to itself by rejecting spiritual values, and the middle class are clearly no exception!How long it will be before the working class acquire their Millers or Muggeridges remains to be seen.Though, if Solzhenitsyn is anything to judge by, it won't be for some time yet - not, anyway, until they are wholly triumphant.

MARK: Assuming they ever will be!

COLIN: Frankly, I have no confidence in the presumed permanence of bourgeois civilization!And neither, may I add, did Malcolm Muggeridge, whose controversial reputation enabled him to suggest possibilities for the future transformation of Western society which no orthodox, right-thinking bourgeois would even have countenanced, let alone uttered!The notion, for instance, that Western civilization is destined to be superseded by some experiment in collective living ... is far from alien to Malcolm Muggeridge's mind, which was well furnished not only with Marxist scholarship, but with Spenglerian scholarship moreover.He was certainly no stranger to The Decline of the West.

MARK: Neither, incidentally, am I, though I disagree with Spengler on a number of counts, and am more inclined, in light of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, to identify experiments in collective living or other significant social changes which may be in store for Western civilization with closer European integration and the development of a federal Europe.However, the real trouble with the West, and particularly England these days, is that it is too negative, shying away from progress and change as from a nightmare or fearsome obstacle.A man like you, who in many respects is too intellectually lucid to be content with the usual welter of platitudinous beliefs and opinions, is virtually doomed to a living death here.

COLIN: I take your point with regard to myself, but I don't entirely agree with your assessment of England, widespread though it tends to be among the more adventurous spirits.This country is by no means the negative place it is often regarded as being.On the contrary, it is precisely the opposite quality which makes it objectionable to you - namely, the fact of its positivity.For it is now resting on its laurels, so to speak, and availing itself of what it has achieved in the past, making the most of its particular stage of civilization.You see, positivity is aligned with passivity, not, as may at first and more naturally appear the case, with activity or doing.It is precisely the latter which is always negative.For it stems from the infernal roots of life in the Cosmos, which constantly seethes with external activity, and there is nothing more negative than stellar energy.Now whereas positivity tends to make for a passive or conservative society, in which revolutionary change is frowned upon as an unwarranted interruption of the experience of being ... compatible with the degree of civilization manifest there, negativity, by contrast, presupposes an active or revolutionary society bent on effecting widespread change, both internally and abroad.Of all the major countries in the world at this juncture in time, Russia is undoubtedly the most negative, the most active, while the Western nations, and Britain and America in particular, remain the most positive, America doubtless more positive than Britain, given its penchant for extremes - a penchant which led Henry Miller to embrace Buddhism, the most being-orientated of all religions, whereas Malcolm Muggeridge was content to avail himself of the blessings of Christianity, which has usually emphasized doing at the expense of being, phenomenal selflessness at the expense of noumenal self.Paradoxically, however, the extremism of America can also mean that, in certain other contexts, there is always more negativity prevailing there than is generally the case in Western Europe, since it is more fiercely Jekyll and Hyde than the latter on account of its 'communistic' culture, of which film is the epitome and effective nature of the 'American dream'.But this fact doesn't detract anything from my contention.For, despite its negativity, America remains committed, through its puritan roots, to dualistic civilization, and can thus be counted among the ever-dwindling number of positive states.It wasn't America that invaded Afghanistan, and the chances are that it won't be America that invades any other country in the near future [This was written some years prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq - author's note].America can only react to invasion, as in relation to Communism in South-East Asia, and it will doubtless continue to do so wherever Western interests are perceived to be under threat, as was the case in the Gulf.

MARK: Curiously, I was reading a book by the American journalist Janet Flanner the other day, in which she remarks how, just prior to the Second World War, Europe was fundamentally divided into two camps of conviction - the active Nazi/Fascist camp on the one hand, and the passive Democracies of France and Britain on the other, the former regarding war as a summon bonum, the latter, by contrast, as a summon malum.The Nazi/Fascist camp still had something to achieve, namely the conquest of Europe, whereas the Democracies, having long since passed the belligerent or expansionist phase of their evolution, were content to rest on their laurels, to use your cute phrase.

COLIN: Yes, which simply confirms what I have been saying about the respective natures of positivity and negativity - the former having passive associations, compatible with expiring civilization, and the latter ... active associations, compatible with neo-barbarism.Hitler gambled on overthrowing Western civilization and lost, largely because he made the fatal mistake of taking on a stronger barbaric country in the process.Had he not been so greedy in regard to Nazi ambitions, he might have succeeded in destroying the Democracies, Britain included.But he wanted to destroy the Soviet Union as well, ostensibly because Germans needed more living space but largely, I suspect, because that country harboured an ideology directly alien to his own, a sort of proletarian autocracy no less militarist, in its own fashion, than was the bourgeois autocracy which Hitler forged in reaction to Communism, with himself cast in the role of a sort of Western saviour with Cromwellian, Napoleonic, and Bismarckian ancestry.

MARK: So you don't agree with Malcolm Muggeridge, to bring him back into the picture, that Soviet Communism and National Socialism were but two aspects of the same thing - the Slavonic and Teutonic versions, respectively, of dictatorial socialism.

COLIN: Not quite, though I concede that Muggeridge had a point if we substitute autocratic neo-barbarism for dictatorial socialism, in that both regimes did represent such a phenomenon in relation to democratic civilization.Yet although there were superficial analogies between Stalin's 'Socialism in One Country' and Hitler's National Socialism, we shouldn't be led to overlook or underestimate the profound differences that existed between the two movements - differences, we may infer, which would have become very apparent had either country succeeded in overrunning the world.For whereas Soviet Communism, even under Stalin, would have led to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and to the gradual restructuring of capitalist economies in the proletarian interest, German Nazism would simply have resulted in the subjugation of defeated peoples in the German interest.There, if anywhere, lies the essential difference between Soviet Communism and Nazism - the one revolutionary in its social aspirations on behalf of the proletariat, the other reactionary where Marxism was concerned and therefore harking back to the age-old policy of conquerors to subjugate the conquered in their own interests.Thus Nazi hegemony of Europe would have resulted - and to a certain extend did result for a limited period of time - in the transformation of the vanquished into so many slaves of the 'Master Race'.Soviet hegemony, on the other hand, was designed to free the masses from bourgeois oppression and, consequently, to further the cause of a brotherhood of man.That is no small distinction!

MARK: Though one may perhaps be forgiven certain doubts as to the authenticity of whatever claims Stalin might have made as regards the latter ambition.His was by no means orthodox Marxism!

COLIN: To some extent that is perfectly true.Though it is easy, these days, to exaggerate Stalin's discrepancies at the expense of his achievements, which, from an historical viewpoint, were quite considerable.The concept of 'Socialism in One Country' isn't as irrational or counter-revolutionary as some people, more usually Trotskyite, have imagined.On the contrary, it is the most realistic of attitudes to the development of socialism, given the firm entrenchment of bourgeois power in traditionally democratic countries like Britain and France, where private ownership tends to be the prevailing norm.Lenin, himself, was initially too idealistic with regard to the simultaneous spread of Communism to various industrial countries in the West, as if industrial advancement alone were sufficient to guarantee proletarian revolution!Trotsky shared the same misguided idealism, though it was tempered, in his case, by the possibility of Soviet intervention in foreign countries to assist the worker's struggle on the basis of 'Permanent Revolution'.But the fledgling Soviet Union was in no position to militarily involve itself in other countries' affairs, following the traumatic experiences of both the First World War and the Civil War, and so Stalin's concern for consolidating Soviet power at home inevitably won the day over Trotskyite idealism.Internationalism is all very well as an idealistic ambition, but it cannot be made the basis of world revolution.

MARK: No doubt, that is something Hitler must have realized when he opted for nationalism as the means not only of effecting Germany's economic recovery, but also of avenging Germany on France and the Democracies in general for the humiliating consequences of the Versailles Treaty.

COLIN: Yes, one can only conclude that Hitler was first and foremost a German patriot bent on securing German interests at the expense of Germany's enemies, with scant regard, in consequence, for international ideals.Internationalism would have seemed to him somehow beside-the-point in the context of Germany's humiliating treatment at the hands of its Western opponents, the willingness of German communists to identify with their French or British counterparts being an obstacle in the path of German vengeance on the Democracies.So, from Hitler's patriotic viewpoint, they had to be got out of the way, as, on a similar though by no means identical account, did the Jews.The fall of the largest communist party in Western Europe, during the 1920s and early '30s, can only be properly understood in light of Germany's Versailles humiliations and the widespread sympathy with nationalism that duly followed.Vengeance rather than reconciliation would have struck a deeper chord in the average German psyche, particularly when acquainted, like Hitler or Goering, with the First World War.And, doubtless, the rout of Trotskyism in the Soviet Union had an influence on the course of political events in Germany, making the Nazi/Soviet Pact of 1939 virtually inevitable.The fact that Hitler was opposed to Marxism, however, needn't surprise us, since Marx was a Jew and no Jew could have served as Hitler's mentor!This was undoubtedly another contributory element in the development of Hitler's politics, and one of the reasons why he wanted to crush the Soviet Union as a matter of course.That he ultimately failed in his objective is no great cause for regret, in view of what a long-term Nazi domination of Europe would have entailed.But he did succeed in liquidating the majority of European Jews and thus, as Sabastian Haffner points out in his penetrating little book The Meaning of Hitler, in fulfilling, or almost fulfilling, one of his major objectives - a fact we may well regret!The negativity of Nazi Germany certainly had its diabolical consequences.

MARK: And so, too, I suspect would the negativity of Russia in any future war.

COLIN: Possibly, though we mustn't assume that negativity in a nation inevitably leads to Hitlerian consequences.It can be a factor in world progress if used in the service of a liberating, revolutionary ideology.Hitler's negativity, as we've seen, was put to the service of an enslaving, reactionary one, the unfortunate consequences of which are still, to a certain extent, with us.We must hope that, now that Stalinism seems to have died from old age in Eastern Europe, the components of the former Soviet Union won't degenerate into ethnic bumptiousness and chauvinism, like a fascist state.Fidelity to the ideal of a brotherhood of man will be the touchstone by which to evaluate the authenticity of their democratic claims.If proletarian autocracy is truly dead in Europe, then we shall have real grounds for optimism concerning the future!

MARK: And presumably that applies to the future of literature as well, which should continue to evolve to greater heights of truthfulness.

COLIN: I sincerely hope so!After all, we can't leave the last words with Henry Miller and Malcolm Muggeridge, much as we may admire them.Life must continue, and men grow better.Which is to say, ever more civilized and, hence, artificial!