A few of our great thinkers have gone out, out — out beyond good and evil. When it, comes to definitions and specific, cases, the rest of us may differ sharply but with reference to the ab-stract principle we are still within shouting distance of one another. We have preserved our 'illusions.' We have not yet learned to look upon words as merely pasterns made in a child's game of letters. We still believe that there are important values represented by such symbols as 'good taste' and 'decency.' We may quarrel about standards of decency; but we agree — I hope that I do not generalize from insufficient data — we agree that persons who have 'lost all sense of decency' are undesirable, unfragrant, and perhaps imbecile and unsafe to be abroad in the community.
Our common sense accordingly takes measures to provide against destruction of the sense of decency by perverts who subsist on the propagation of vice, or who, as mere amateurs of depravity, find their delight in corrupting the minds of the young. Our common sense does not attempt to legislate with reference to highly disputable points of taste, but only with reference to the elements of common decency. For this reason our regulations are not devised by aesthetic experts or professors of ethics or Galahads, but by fairly worldly all-around men, equally competent with respect to railroads, boxing, and tariffs. These representatives whom we have elected to care for our public welfare have declared by law that a certain class of literature is unprintable. In this class falls, according to various Federal and State enactments, every book and picture which is 'obscene,' 'lewd,' 'lascivious,' 'filthy,' 'indecent,' or 'disgusting.'
Under authority of these acts, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and similar agencies have confiscated, destroyed, and excluded from the mails a great mass of 'demoralizing' matter concerning which our common sense is not in doubt -matter which comes to respectable noses only when some brief newspaper paragraph reminds us that there are monsters among us engaged in the business intimated with shuddering horror in Henry James's 'Turn of the Screw.'
But these moral agencies have also obtained in recent years the temporary suppression of several novels, which 'everyone' has read, written by English and American authors whose other works are 'in every library.' In the circumstances, common sense naturally raises the question whether there has not been a failure of justice. I doubt whether any man versed in letters can read the records of a celebrated literary trial without coming to the conclusion that judges and lawyers are, so far as their professional training is concerned, unequipped for the task undertaken and really as much at sea as they have frequently shown themselves when they have employed their grave wisdoms in settling the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Their self-confidence in such affairs is supported by their certified expertness in handling evidence &mdash of a sort. They think that they understand the law. They have explained it to the jury in just about this fashion and in nearly these words:
'The question before you, gentlemen, is very simple.' (That is their first error: the question before the gentlemen is one of abysmal complexities. But let us not interrupt the Court.) 'The question is not to say how this book affects you, or persons of your seasoned experience and virtue. The question is whether this book tends to deprave the minds of those open to such influences, and into whose hands a publication of this character might come. It is within the law if it would suggest impure and libidinous thoughts in the young and inexperienced. A book to be obscene, need not be obscene throughout the whole of its contents; but if the book is obscene in part, it is an obscene book.'
A schoolboy far below Macaulay's conception of the type can perceive at a glance that any jury which honestly obeyed these instructions could bar from the mails the Bible, Shakespeare, or even an unabridged English Dictionary, which, as there is testimony to prove, is quite capable of suggesting. impure and libidinous thoughts in minds 'open to such influences.' In the celebrated, but now remote, case of Madame Bovary, the prosecution, indeed, like a prurient schoolboy, selected from that grim and repellent history of illicit relations all the passages descriptive of sensual passion, wove them into a suggestive little narrative of its own, and thus presented its case to the jury. The defense, on the other hand, argued with a good deal of piquancy and cogency that Flaubert had dealt with sensual passion in the temper of Bossuet, with excerpts from whom the notebooks of the novelist were full; and that to judge a serious work of art without reference to its total intention and effect is not merely unjust but grossly absurd.
Each attempt to apply the law in such cases results inevitably in an extension of the legal prosecution and defense into an acrimonious, yet not uninstructive and often diverting, public debate between authors in general and the officers and friends of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Whatever the result of the legal proceedings may be, the cause of 'outraged virtue' is lost the moment that it is carried into the newspapers, where, as Mark Twain might have said, it is as much out of place 'as a Presbyterian in hell-fire.' The cause is lost through the manifested ineptitude, ignorance, and incompetency of those who espouse it. In these cases — if I may be pardoned for employing a vulgar and violent expression — in these cases, a good man, whenever he opens his mouth, puts his foot into it. A country clergyman writes in that he has not read the book in question, but he knows that our modern authors are a 'bad lot,' and he wishes the prosecutor 'more power to his elbow.' An irate judge declares that he and his daughter have read the book, and he only wishes that he could 'get it before the public'! An Outraged Parent says that he would like to read it; and in this wish he is joined by the association of Y. M. C. A. secretaries, the Associated Mothers' Club, the Boy Scouts, and the Camp Fire Girls. Members of any or all of these associations are prepared to affirm, after a careful perusal of the objectionable book, that it is not fit for them to read.
By this time, what began as a serious matter of public morals would degenerate into farce, and the case would be lost in the court of common sense, even if the defense did not utter a word. But the defense never lets the prosecution off so easily. The defense is endowed with tongues which it knows how to use effectively, if not always scrupulously. The persuasively articulate part of the public, all the wits of the press, editors and authors of every shade of merit and respectability, habitually unite in condemnation of the law and in derision of those who have attempted to enforce it. It is to be noted that they also, for the most part, think it unnecessary to have read the book in order to protest against the prosecution of its author. They protest 'on general principles' — on a considerable variety of general principles, which I shall summarize.
They protest from a general belief in the 'freedom of the press,' and from a feeling that a free press is on the whole more vital to the public than any law curbing it can be. They protest from a general belief in the 'freedom of art.' A few of them argue that art should be free because all true art is moral. More of them argue that art should be free because it is neither moral nor immoral but unmoral, and its influence aesthetic and, therefore, no concern of the legislator or moralist. They contend that the suppressive statutes were framed against pornography, not against art; and they assert that it is easy to distinguish art from pornography. In conclusion, they characterize the prosecution as illiterate, blackmailing, filthy-minded, impertinent, and meddlesome.
After such an encounter, Militant Morality retires from the scene like a badly punished game-cock, with all the young cockerels of the press bursting forth into derisive crowing. If the legal prosecution also has failed, the book receives an almost official certificate of innocence; and it may be cried up as a pure, decent, beautiful, and significant work of art. If the prosecution has been successful, the book may be suppressed till every schoolboy's curiosity has been whetted to know why; then it may be released and devoured by thousands of readers enlisted mainly by the publicity work of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The law as applied to books issued by regular publishers through the regular channels is, I think, futile and mischievous.
In spite of this belief, the case against the law and against the Society is usually presented so unfairly and with such malice and with such defective arguments that there is little satisfaction in joining the popular demonstration against them. I remember hearing not long ago a conservative Russian nobleman lecturing on the present situation in his native country with a sobriety of speech and a balance of judgment to which, in this matter, our American newspapers have not accustomed us. At the outset of his discussion of the Bolshevist régime, he told us that, in his study of public affairs, he invariably proceeded upon the principle that every movement which commands the enthusiastic adhesion of great numbers of people must have something in it which deserves respect-ful attention.
If this principle appeals to us, we shall join the wits of the press in dismissing with derisive laughter the Outraged Parents, the Associated Mothers' Club, the Y. M. C. A., the Catholic Club, the bishops and lesser clergumen, the Lord's Day Alliance, the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the various religious organizations which have rallied behind the execrated banner of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. We shall strenuously object to the characterization of a cause which such organizations espouse as a blackmailing and filthy-minded enterprise. We shall even admit the possibility that they have a genuine grievance. And, having made that admission, we shall be less concerned to minimize it than to suggest a wiser method of getting it redressed. If we approach the subject in this temper, without recrimination and indiscriminate mud-slinging, we may conceivably persuade them, as well as our own side.
I, for one, believe that they have a grievance. But like most enthusiastic crusading masses, the reformers injure their cause and expose themselves to bitter disappointment and to retarding reactionary movements by asking and expecting too much — by asking and expecting the impossible. They have created the impression that they are actuated by a desire 'to make the world safe for children and adolescents.' It can't be done. It is what an enthusiastic reformer would call a beautiful and inspiring thought; and there is something attractive to the best that is in us even in the most extravagant aspirations toward an ideal good. Yet it is as hopeless to make a morally safe world by wiping out all the germs of moral infection as it is to make a physically safe world by wiping out all the germs of smallpox, typhoid, and influenza.
Since it can't be done, the hope of doing it is, to sober consideration, not really beautiful and truly inspiring, but fantastic and dangerous. It deflects and absorbs to no purpose attention which might and should be directed toward that which can be done. We may stamp out centres of infection here and there; but operating on the world with a view to making it safe is a task beyond human instrumentalities (and the Dean of St. Paul's believes that God himself has given it up). The world is an old rake, a hoary incurable, and will always be breaking out in one place or another. That which experience proves can be done with some effect toward protecting the young from moral as well as physical diseases is to vaccinate against them — to put inside children and adolescents something capable of resisting and combating the morbid elements which, though the influence of the 'world' be avoided and excluded, still malignly germinate in the cloister, in the cell, in the dusky isolation of the heart.
The law which the reformers seek to enforce against authors is an attempt to make the world safe by exterminating one out of billions of possible sources of infection. If it could be enforced, it would be as effective as 'swatting' a fly in an African jungle, except that a well-swatted fly does 'stay dead.' Those who defend it, I suspect, conceive that this law is the same sort of law as the Volstead Act; and that, they are convinced, is going to be in the interest of public welfare. Those who oppose the law designed to suppress indecent literature are also, I think, generally under the impression that it is the same sort of law as the Volstead Act, and that it should, for essentially the same reason, be abolished. In a vital respect it is not of the same sort. It differs from the Volstead Act in a fashion which may permit a man of sense to applaud the one and yet to condemn the other.
The point is this: the legal definition of 'intoxicating liquor' is, though perhaps unscientific and absurd, perfectly fixed and objective. Whether a variety of liquor is intoxicating under the law can be accurately determined by scientific methods. Since this is true, there is nothing essentially impractica-ble in the task given to officers when they are ordered to confiscate and destroy 'intoxicating liquor.' But the legal definition of indecent literature is not fixed and objective; it is fluent and highly subjective. It differs from decade to decade, from year to year, from nation to nation, from town to town, from class to class, from age to age, from one person to the next. And there is this salient difference in the application of the two definitions: the presence of alcohol is sought in the liquor, but the presence of indecency is not sought in the book. It is sought in the mind of the reader of the book.
That is, indeed, the ultimate place in which to seek it, for there is nothing decent or indecent but thinking makes it so. It is notorious that even a renowned piece of sculptured marble which produces in one person a kind of religious tranquility and philosophic contemplation, with a sense of the eternity of form and the transience of passion, may at the same instant excite in another beholder such shamefastness that he will cry out for fig leaves, or such unruly emotions as, unchecked, may disrupt society.
Or, to take another case: I myself recently pictured, with what I thought were chaste strokes and in what I thought was a pure aesthetic mood, our jeune fille. But I could not conjecture the effect that it was destined to produce in the minds of the young, the innocent, the inexperienced: I find that Mr. H. L. Mencken speaks of this picture as 'lascivious.' What responsibility such facts impose upon the artist!
It is, furthermore, a puzzling paradox in the moral world that, as one progresses toward decency, one discovers that the number of objects which the sense of decency has to operate upon diminishes rather than multiplies, while to a person who has lost his sense of decency the universe bristles with indecent suggestion. In recognition of these facts, jurymen who are to determine the quality of a disputable book are instructed in no scientific method, not even in a rule of thumb. No: they are instructed to conjecture whether a book is indecent by first conjecturing how it will affect young minds which are, conjecturally, open to the conjecturable influences of such a book. But jurymen and officers of the law, bold and enterprising as some of the latter are, cannot penetrate into minds to collect the evidence requisite for conviction under the law; and it is merely absurd to send them there.
Yet it is entirely possible to condemn the law in its application to authors without for a moment denying the reality of the problem with which it is intended to cope. It is also quite possible to condemn the law without accepting more than a fraction of the case which the guild of authors have at-tempted to establish in their own behalf. In my opinion, the authors have taken up positions quite as untenable as those occupied by the reformers — positions from which, in the interest both of literature and of public morals, it is important that they be dislodged.
It has perhaps never been true in Europe, it is no longer true in America, that it is 'easy to distinguish art from pornography.' It was true in America as long as our literature was mainly written by scholars and gentlemen with an adequate sense of the powers of their profession and of their responsibility to society for the exercise of it. It was true in America as long as our literature was written by members of a class to whom the life of the senses was an interest quite inferior and sub-ordinate to the life of the mind and the imagination. It was true as long as artists did not concern themselves with pornography. And till this present generation, pornographic writing would have appeared to our chief American authors, with hardly an exception; as an interest perhaps of other lands, other times, other types of culture, but as an interest from them and their land and their type of culture inconceivably remote.
Pornography is defined as a 'treatise on prostitutes,' or as 'obscene or licentious writing.'
When our literature passed from the hands of scholars and gentlemen into the hands of our barbarian artists of what Emerson called the 'Jacksonian rabble,' it lost much of the high seriousness, the decorum, and the impeccable decency characteristic of the New England school. It eventually enlisted the pens of numerous writers who repudiate responsibility to society, and who are far more interested in the life of the senses than in the life of the mind and the imagination. Among these have appeared several authors to whom the sexual life is the all--absorbing centre of interest, and who have devoted no inconsiderable skill to familiarizing us with the life of the prostitute, and to domesticating her, with her amateur sisters, in our literature.
Now, the life of these interesting creatures who are beginning, as it were, to swarm about our firesides and to 'homestead' the vacant territory of our imaginations may or may not be written in an obscene or licentious fashion. If these words are ever applicable to literature, they are plainly, in my opinion, applicable to some of the most praised and prosecuted books of recent years. But the question whether they are applicable does not depend in the least upon the artistic skill with which the books are written. It depends upon the effect which they are designed to produce. Art, strictly speaking, is nothing but the means employed to produce a desired effect, and is not to be confused with beauty, which is the effect upon fine minds of fine art employed by fine artists. The difference between a filthy story told by a coal-heaver and a filthy story told by an artist is only the difference between expert pornography and inexpert pornography, when, as is often the case, the effect sought is the same. There is undeniably a streak of salacity in human nature, and some very eminent men of letters have from time to time, in the intervals of more noble occupation, permitted themselves to express it.
Certain critics and authors who are quite willing to have the coal-heaver's filthy story debarred from the mails, because it can be understood by coal-heavers, protest against debarring the filthy story of the artist, because only the highly sophisticated can understand it. I object to the discrimination, on democratic principles! I avow that it affects me, an 'equalitarian' of a sort, like a proposal to forbid the coal-heaver beer, because he can get drunk on it, but to allow the comfortable bond-holder champagne — not because he cannot get drunk on it, but because the coal-heaver cannot afford to get drunk on it. The 'morality' implicit in the discrimination reminds one of Falstaff's penitent resolution never to get drunk again except among gentlemen and such as fear God, and not among drunken knaves. In the presence of such moral subtleties, I become an old-fashioned angry upholder of the 'rights of man.' I declare that, if the sophisticated possess a right to have their delight in the salacious gratified by a piece of expert pornography, then my poor coal--heaver has a right to have his delight in the salacious gratified by a piece of inexpert pornography.
But the warier critics avoid this ticklish position. They prefer a quicksand of a more plausible surface. Those who argue for the 'freedom of art' on high aesthetic grounds contend that the moral influence of works of art is vastly exaggerated. The influence of works of art, they declare, is artistic. Aesthetic experience, they assert, is unique in kind.
When one discusses the matter in this fashion, one is soon lost in a metaphysical mist; so let us return to our coal-heaver. What they contend is that the effect of the coal-heaver's inartistic filthy story may be degrading, because it operates in the moral consciousness and may have practical consequences; but that the effect of the author's artistic filthy story may be disregarded, because it operates in the aesthetic consciousness and has no practical consequences.
Has anyone remarked how at variance this aesthetic theory is with the theory upon which a great part of the French, Russian, and English fiction of the last seventy-five years has been constructed? 'What is man?' ask the novelists from Flaubert and Zola and Bourget to Thomas Hardy and Gissing and George Moore. 'A hoop rolled by a whimsical boy,' 'clay on the potter's wheel,' 'a figure of wax under the modeler's thumb.' With such images, they have expressed their constant sense that he is the 'victim of circumstances,' the 'product of environment'; and more than one of them for examples, Flaubert in Madame Bovary and Bourget in Le Disciple have tellingly expressed their belief that literature is a decisive element of the environment, a potent factor in the circumstances.
The distinction between the moral and the aesthetic consciousness, so vehemently insisted upon by many contemporary critics,—with a suspicion that the 'freedom of art' depends upon maintaining it,—has, so far as I can discover, but slender support from modern psychology, and it is constantly belied by common experience. We find no independent bureaus in man for dealing separately with moral and with aesthetic facts. The entire psychophysical organism receives them as a unit. Every image presented to the mind makes its record in the nerves, and tends to produce an appropriate 'motor response.'
We are all by inheritance mimetic monkeys; we tend, like the untutored members of the A.E.F. in France, to imitate everything that we see and hear. There is tension of the vocal organs, even in silent reading; and our chests vibrate to the sounds of a symphony. The face of an impressionable coach involuntarily mirrors the actor speaking his lines at a rehearsal. Children, after reading the Gospels, play at crucifying their playmates.
As we grow older, we learn to check the overt expression of these spontaneous responses of the nervous organism; but what we call an 'aesthetic response' appears to be only a practical response checked at a certain, or rather at a quite uncertain, point. The spontaneous response is still frequently recorded in dreams. A man to whom every kind of cruelty is abhorrent, having speculated in a waking hour with a kind of curious horror upon the kind of person who could have obeyed that injunction: 'Let him that is with sin among you cast the first stone,' dreams in the following night that he and another are engaged in casting stones upon some person in a pit; and wakes himself by the intensity of his aversion from the spontaneous and merely mimetic cruelty of his imagination.
In our waking hours, the check on the imagination, which prevents it from stimulating the nerves to a visible 'motor response,' is sometimes in this form: 'This is not real — I am in a theatre.' Often it takes the form of a moral consideration: 'I shall make a fool of myself.' 'What would people think of me?' The indeterminate moving line between practical conduct and so--called aesthetic experience depends upon moral and kindred 'inhibitions'; so that we may almost assert that our esthetic experience is determined and, in a sense, created by our moral discipline.
But common experience proves that, in impressionable persons, the activity of nerves and imagination stimulated by works of art has the possessive and unopposable force of a dream, and controls the physical organism, sometimes with quite inaesthetic consequences. Samuel Pepys records that the ravishing music, at a performance of 'The Virgin Martyr,' 'did wrap up my soul, in pure aesthetic delight, and 'made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife.' The following passage from Wordsworth's Excursion is pure enough art, and should therefore be 'without consequences,' as the Croceans would say, 'in the practical sphere': —
Jehovah,—with his thunder and the choir
Of shouting angels, and the empyreal thrones,—
I pass them unalarmed.
But Crabb Robinson tells us that reading this passage brought on a fit of illness in William Blake — a 'stomach complaint which nearly killed him.' Wordsworth was a contemporary of Blake's; and I myself have been similarly affected by the works of some of my own contemporaries. One of the works of art which has most excited the suppressive agents puts me to sleep; but all the others which have come to my notice affect me somewhat like a glass of warm water and mustard. These violent effects may, however, also be produced by pieces of 'fossil literature' taken out of what Mr. Untermeyer calls 'the lifeless and literary storehouse' of the past. I have seen a sufficiently unemotional man, of fifty and upwards, driven from the theatre in blinding tears by the presentation of a dramatic work nearly twenty-five hundred years old — The Trojan Women. And Professor Hatfield has recently argued, in the Publications of the Modern Language Association, that Scott's novel, Anne of Geieretein, had practical consequences in certain features of that very practical body, the Ku Klux Klan.
The Greek dramatists let their audience know that much rough and lustful business goes on in this world. The reason why they did not actually present on the stage Clytemnestra with her axe braining Agamemnon in his bath was, I suppose, that with their customary clearness of insight into human nature they perceived that aesthetic experience is seldom or never pure. The effect of that violent stimulus to the nerves and imagination would be incalculable. Some spectator with the image working in his brain might mimic that dreadful action in a waking dream. There is little reason for assuming that the moral check which prevents aesthetic experience from overflowing into practical conduct is more highly developed in us than it was in the Athenians. Our reading public is not so free from Barbarians and Helots that we can afford wholly to disregard the psychological facts which appear to have convinced the most 'aesthetic' of peoples that the publishers of works of art are among the chief makers of public morals.
On the contrary, we have still, and are likely to have for a long lime to come, an immense reading public of extraordinary naiveté. I think it is a fact at the present time that the average American of considerable general intelligence and education still, in the simplicity of his heart, looks upon authors as a superior class, with a quasi-priestly function and responsibility. By the average man I mean, in this connection, the man or woman who habitually reads the 'best sellers' and the periodicals with a circulation of a million or so.
Incredible as it may seem to the 'blasé literati,' this average man ordinarily reads a book or magazine with the idea that it will shed some light on the problems of his inner or outer life, that it will instruct his emotions, and show him what to approve, and how to act. If the author's apparent likes and dislikes with reference to things in general harmonize pretty well with his own, he feels fortified and encouraged, and declares that it is a 'good book.'
He makes little distinction between an expository article and a work of fiction. He is so direct and simple in his responses that, if he praises a novel, he usually means that he likes the sort of people and the sort of society that the author has pictured. Ironical and satirical implications, unless they are terribly obvious, escape him. When in these pages, not long ago, I mentioned 'Mr. Hergesheimer's admirable Cytherea,' — thinking of the mordant expression he had given to the feverish boredom which now affects a certain stratum of our 'citizenry,' — a really very well-read lady, nourished on 'good old English fiction,' flew at me in wrath, exclaiming: 'How dared you call that sort of society "admirable"?' It is astonishing how general such reactions are. On another occasion, when I permitted myself in public to praise Mr. Bennett's picture of The Five Towns, it was one of our distinguished women writers of fiction who, wishing to destroy me, asked the public to consider what my judgment was worth after praise of such disgusting towns.
In these circumstances, — and these are the circumstances of American authorship, — literature is a part and a tremendously impressive part of the environment of the mind. Its influence, though incalculable, is not in the slightest danger of being exaggerated. Its influence is immense. It is daily increasing. It is rapidly becoming 'the effective voice of the social government.' Just in proportion to its effectiveness as art, it takes possession of the emotions and the imagination of men, and thus controls the dynamic part f the public mind.
Now, to modify the controllable part of environment in the interest of public welfare is one of the noblest enterprises of statecraft. To attempt it is not an 'impertinence,' when it is attempted by men who understand the materials they are working with: it is a duty. Speculative writers, from Plato to Tolstoy, clearly perceiving the intimate connection between literature and public welfare, have, in jest or in earnest, proposed it as the duty of statecraft to control with a rigor far beyond the wildest dreams of the late Mr. Comstock the publication and circulation of books.
I have argued that they, and our Platos and Tolstoys, propose the impossible. They have resorted to an improper and an ineffective instrument.
Must we then wholly abandon the attempt to modify this potent element of our environment, as quite uncon-trollable? Other instruments of control have been suggested. Mr. Bennett thinks that if suppressive societies were surpressed, and if prosecutions were left to the police, then — authors would be reasonably safe! But what about the Public? A revival of the informal censorship once managed by publishers themselves might be proposed; possibly that informal censorship is still faintly in operation; yet the old-style publishers are giving way before authors of the new style; in the last analysis, few publishers are 'in business for the fun of it'; and the supreme question asked of the average submitted manuscript must be: 'Will it sell?' A body which exists for 'the furtherance of literature and the Fine Arts,' the American Academy, might be asked to designate a committee of men of letters to pass official judgment upon questionable books; and if that body desired to diminish its popularity, this would perhaps be an effective step in that direction.
I am sure that I shall be charged with coming to a very feeble conclusion, perhaps to an impotent and hopeless conclusion, when I express my belief that the only proper instrument for undertaking the modification of the temper and character of our literature is an independent and dispassionate criticism. But if anyone declares that this instrument is more inadequate than the law, I shall retort, as Mr. Chesterton retorts to those who declare that Christianity has failed: 'It has never been tried.' Of course, the statement is not quite true, yet it is true enough to bear consideration. It is true that independent and dispassionate criticism of the so-called 'unprintable' books, criticism in the common interest of publishers, authors, and readers, is now almost nonexistent. Instead, we have violent partisan combats between champions of literature who express their contempt for public morals, and champions of public morals who express their contempt for literature. The confusion of these conflicts, in which no principle is established, will never end until a conception of public welfare that includes the interests of both literature and morality is restored and reintroduced as a mediative and conciliatory agency between the contending parties. Criticism's need of fixing that conception is as elementary as navigation's need of the North Star.
The next elementary step is to establish on firm grounds the intricate interrelationship of so--called aesthetic and so-called moral experience — to establish what one is tempted to call the essential unity of experience in the psychophysical organism. This is not a task for the police. It is not a task for suppressive societies.
After that difficulty has been disposed of, criticism, thinking of public morals, may propose to itself some such questions as these: Granting that literature has a profound influence upon conduct, are you prepared to say, with reference to any considerable number of definite cases, precisely what the nature of that influence is? Have you made, for example, any accurate discrimination between the effects produced in the psychophysical organism by the various sorts of literature in which the sex life and sexual emotion are more or less freely displayed? Are you sure that 'shocking' books are always harmful to public morals, or do public morals occasionally require to be shocked? Is it conceivable that candor, so 'brutal' that it employs words which are 'obscene,' and relates facts which are' disgusting,' maybe prophylactic — may provide, indeed, that vaccine against moral infection which reformers are seeking? Is it clear, for example, that it is less evilly inciting to young minds to refer to a prostitute as a 'daughter of joy,' as delicate euphemists refer to her, than to speak of her as a 'whore,' as Shakespeare speaks of her?
After endeavoring for a: time in these matters to see 'the thing as in itself it really is,' criticism, thinking directly of the interests of literature, and only indirectly of public morals, may propose to itself some such questions as these: Assuming that the exhibition of sex and the treatment of illicit passion are innocuous to public morals, is it in the interest of literature for authors to enter into rivalry with one another for honors in the field of pornographic art? Is it wise to create a situation in which no novel will sell which does not pungently depict illicit passion? Is there not a danger that American authors who now specialize in this subject will, as they grow older, find themselves obliged, like certain of their European colleagues, to present a 'salacious' scene at the end of every chapter, in order to hold the attention of over-stimulated and jaded readers? Is it not true that, if you turn too high a light upon passages of this sort, you kill the interest of everything else in your book, so that readers will pass over your beautiful writing with such blurred and dull vision as men turn on the loveliest landscape, after staring with naked eyes at the sun? If you habitually present what you call 'sex' as sensual passion or as disgusting animalism, are you not imprisoning yourself in an hallucination and speaking infamously of that power, which Spenser, contemplating it from another point of view, spoke of as
lord of truth and loyalty,
Lifting himself out of the lowly dust
On golden plumes up to the purest sky.
All these questions, I suspect, are a little over the head of the New York policeman. They are problems for an independent and dispassionate criticism. Unless we are prepared to answer them, we are not yet properly prepared to say what books are 'unprintable.'